The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.

—George Washington,
Farewell Address

The Marines have landed in Haiti—again. They’ve been there many times before, not in the aftermath of an earthquake, but in the chaos caused by warring factions and rulers destroying infrastructure and terrorizing the population. These interventions cost American taxpayers millions and the Marines blood and lives. In the long run, they proved entirely futile, though they did add to the heroic lore of the Corps. The three most decorated Marines in history all served tours in Haiti, with two of them earning the Medal of Honor there.

Born in revolutionary fervor, Haiti has traditionally called itself a republic, but its history has been marked by strongmen annointing themselves Emperor for Life or ruling like one while observing the title of president. Coups and assassinations have been the surest path to power. From 1908 to 1915, the Haitian government changed hands seven times, with four presidents dying violently and the other three fleeing the country. Men were tortured and mutilated and women raped. Voodoo incantations guided the masses. The country resembled nothing else in the Western Hemisphere.


During this period, American companies doing business in Haiti suffered losses, and their claims against the government mounted. Roger Farnham, a principal of the National Railway, tangled with the government over its refusal to pay for several sections of badly constructed track. Farnham was also vice president of the National City Bank of New York City and of the Banque Nationale in Haiti. Moreover, he was chief adviser to the Wilson administration on Haiti and influenced, if not determined, State Department policy toward the country.

The result: a graphic demonstration of gunboat diplomacy. In December 1914, the USS Machias steamed into the harbor at Port-au-Prince and landed a party of U.S. Marines. With 1903 Springfields slung over their shoulders and Colt .45 semi-automatic pistols on their hips, they removed $500,000 in Haitian government funds from the vault of the Banque Nationale and carried the cash to the Machias. The money was then transported to NYC and deposited at the National City Bank. Back in Haiti, the Banque Nationale lowered the French flag that had flown over its headquarters and raised the Stars and Stripes.

Early in 1915, the State Department sent two special commissions to Haiti in an attempt to negotiate an American receivership, which would include U.S. control of customs. Such an arrangement might have brought some measure of stability, but the Haitian government, which had a typically tenuous hold on power, knew it would be inviting a coup d’etat if it compromised national sovereignty. By the spring of 1915, the State Department ruled the situation in Haiti hopeless, deeming the Haitians incapable of governing themselves. President Wilson agreed. His advisers began laying the groundwork for military intervention.

Meanwhile, the Haitians lived down to the State Department and President Wilson’s low opinion of them. Late in February, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam ascended the presidency in a coup. He suppressed other aspirants to office, jailing and torturing hundreds of them. On July 27, he had nearly 200 political enemies executed, including former president Oreste Zamor.

As news of the executions spread, riots erupted. Sam fled to the French embassy and was given asylum. Undeterred by diplomatic niceties, a mob stormed the embassy, found Sam hiding in a bathroom, and beat him to death. His body was dragged into the street and dismembered and disemboweled. The various body parts were then paraded through the streets of Port-au-Prince while onlookers hooted and looted.

The next day, the Marines landed. The Wilson administration said they were needed to protect American lives in the wake of Sam’s death and the collapse of his government. But the Marines had been dispatched long before the assassination and had been waiting on board the USS Washington in the bay at Port-au-Prince. They were there to protect American business interests whether or not Sam remained in office. With World War I raging in Europe, there were also worries about possible German threats to the Panama Canal should a future revolutionary Haitian government open its ports to the Kaiser’s ships and submarines.

By midmorning on July 28, some 300 Leathernecks and several dozen sailors had come ashore. They were soon reinforced by more Marines from Guantanamo Bay and later from Philadelphia, until their numbers reached 2,000. “The force being sent to Haiti,” declared the New York Times, “is much larger than is necessary for mere protection of foreign interests.” This would be an occupation.

A U.S. Marine base of operations in the wilds of Haiti.

From shipboard, the Marines thought Haiti looked like a tropical paradise and believed the Haitians would welcome them as guarantors of safety and security. Once on land, they were disabused of such notions. “It hurt,” remarked Private Faustin Wirkus. “It stunk. Fairyland had turned into a pigsty. More than that, we were not welcome. We could feel it as distinctly as we could smell the rot along the gutters. … In the street were piles of evil-smelling offal. The stench hung over everything.” Marines patrolling the streets of Port-au-Prince at night avoided walking under second-story windows for risk of having a chamber pot emptied on them.

Military personnel took control of all the coastal cities and ports and attempted to regularize the collection of customs. Looking through government records they found that graft was simply standard operating procedure. To change such practices, they would have to take control away from the Haitians and rule, as one Marine put it, like “the Great White Father.”

A Marine patrol in Haiti being led by a native guide into bandit country.

But there was trouble brewing in the hills, where thousands of bandits and guerrillas had fled. The Marines, led by Maj. Smedley Butler and Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly, gave chase. Fighting these cacos was not nearly as difficult as tracking them down. If they didn’t have great numerical superiority, they would rarely fight. Battles usually only occurred when Marine patrols surprised large encampments or stumbled into an ambush.

On Oct. 24, 1915, Major Butler and Gunny Daly led a mounted patrol of three dozen Marines across a river in a deep ravine en route to the old French outpost Fort Dipitie, reputed to be a cacos stronghold. Some 400 cacos opened fire, killing a dozen of the Marine horses and a mule carrying the patrol’s machine gun. Butler and Daly led their men to high ground, established a tight defensive perimeter, and kept the cacos at bay with accurate rifle fire.

When the night turned pitch black, Daly went back for the machine gun, which had sunk into the river along with the dead mule. He slipped by most of the cacos, but had to silently knife three. Then he repeatedly dove into the water in the darkness until he located the mule. Unstrapping the machine gun and its ammunition, Daly hoisted the 100-pound load on his 5’6”, 42-year-old frame and crept back through the cacos. At dawn, Butler and Daly led the Marine attack on Fort Dipitie, driving several hundred cacos from the fort and killing 75 of them. Daly would be awarded his second Medal of Honor.

A month later, it was Butler’s turn. He led some 90 Marines to Fort Riviere, situated on the top of 4,000-foot-high Montagne Noire. Protected by cliffs on three sides, the one-time French fort was approachable only from the front. Along the west wall, Butler discovered a small drainage culvert just big enough for a man to get through. He decided that he and two others would go first and create a diversion, allowing his main body of troops to follow.

Crawling stealthily, Butler, a sergeant, and a private emerged from the culvert inside the fort, ran to another position, and began a withering fire that cut down confused cacos by the twos and threes. They engaged some of the guerrillas hand-to-hand, bludgeoning them with rifle butts and eviscerating them with bayonets. With the cacos diverted, the rest of Butler’s men were able to exit the culvert without being immediately gunned down. The battle lasted only 10 minutes and left 51 cacos dead. Butler and the two enlisted men who had accompanied him were awarded the Medal of Honor. He joined Daly as only the second Marine to receive our nation’s highest decoration twice.

Captured Cacos rebel

The Haitian-American Treaty, negotiated during the fall of 1915, stipulated that the U.S. would organize and provide officers for a security force, the Gendarmerie. In December, Major Butler became the force’s first commander and was given the rank of major general. Marine privates became second lieutenants in the Gendarmerie, corporals first lieutenants, and so forth. The Marines were paid by the U.S. according to their rank in the Corps and by the Haitian government according to their rank in the Gendarmerie. The double pay helped compensate for dangerous and malaria-wracked duty, including months in the mountains chasing bandits. One of those Marines, a private become lieutenant in the Gendarmerie, would, like Butler and Daly, become a Marine legend—Lewis “Chesty” Puller.

Haitian Gendarmes
A Haitian Gendarme unit is inspected by its officer, a U.S. Marine.

The United States and the Marines would stay in Haiti until 1934, pouring millions of dollars into the country—building harbors, bridges, roads, schools, and hospitals, suppressing insurrections, and protecting American business. But within a few years of the Marines leaving, factions and strongmen were at it again. Moreover, a border war erupted with the Dominican Republic. Smedley Butler, who retired from the Corps in 1931 as a major general and the Marines’ most decorated warrior, remarked with disgust that ultimately the Marines’ mission resulted in not much more than making Haiti “a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues.”


Roger D. McGrath is a historian in California and the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes.

Photographs courtesy of the Marine Corps Legacy Museum, Harrison, AR.

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