Contemporaries gave President Woodrow Wilson high marks for having the courage of his convictions. They differed over the wisdom of those convictions. Among the most controversial was Wilson’s certainty that he possessed the moral authority to evict General Victoriano Huerta from the presidency of Mexico. A tough, hard-drinking old soldier, Huerta had seized power in February 1913 through a bloody coup d’état. His predecessor, Francesco I. Madero, Mexico’s first democratically elected president, was arrested and shortly thereafter shot, ostensibly while attempting to escape. When Wilson was inaugurated as president of the United States a month later, his agenda included a firm resolve to force Huerta out of office. The new president did not intend to employ military means, as he felt sure that “the steady pressure of moral force” would suffice. The result was the largest landing operation conducted by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps between the Spanish-American War and World War II.1
Mexico was plunged into civil war a few days after Madero’s murder when groups calling themselves Constitutionalists rebelled against Huerta. Wilson volunteered to mediate the conflict, providing that Huerta pledge not to enter the presidential election to be held after a cease-fire was arranged. Predictably, Huerta rejected this overture. Wilson then adopted a policy of “watchful waiting,” the salient feature of which was an embargo on American arms shipments to Mexico. The fighting continued as fiercely as ever, and U.S. investors grew increasingly concerned about the safety of their immense Mexican holdings. In October 1913 Wilson responded to their appeals by stationing a squadron of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet under Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher off the Mexican gulf coast.
Six months later, an unforeseen consequence of the U.S. naval presence brought the Mexican imbroglio to a boil. On 9 April 1914, Assistant Paymaster Charles W. Copp and eight bluejackets from the scout cruiser Chester (CL-1) were detained by Huertista troops while loading gasoline cans from a warehouse on the Pánuco River near Tampico. There had been a skirmish in the area two days earlier and, although Copp’s whaleboat flew American flags fore and aft, the defenders were spooked by the sight of men in uniform. Strangely, the discovery that those men were unarmed American sailors did not dispel suspicions, and Copp’s party was marched to the nearest headquarters. Once there, Colonel Ramòn H. Hinojosa recognized the error and ordered the Americans to be released. The incident was over in an hour, and General Ignacios Morelos Zaragoza, the federal commander at Tampico, conveyed his regrets to the senior U.S. officer on the scene, Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo, commander of the Atlantic Fleet’s 4th Division.
Zaragoza’s regrets failed to allay Mayo’s indignation. Two of Copp’s men had been forced to leave the whaleboat, a vessel displaying the American flag. Under international law such an action was equivalent to abducting them from American soil, and Mayo was not disposed to treat it lightly. Acting on his own initiative, he immediately dispatched an ultimatum to Zaragoza demanding that he issue a formal disavowal of and apology for the detention of the paymaster’s party, severely punish the officer responsible, and publicly hoist the American flag and fire a 21-gun salute, which would be duly returned.
This robust communication had far-reaching repercussions. Zaragoza advised Mayo that he lacked the authority to address his demands and forwarded the ultimatum to Mexico City. Huerta brushed it off, declaring that Zaragoza had already apologized, Colonel Hinojosa had been arrested, and that to fire the salute would be demeaning. Wilson, who supported Mayo from the start, did not propose to let the matter end there. On 13 April he promised reporters, “The salute will be fired.” Later that day he directed Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to concentrate the Atlantic Fleet off the east coast of Mexico. A review of his remarks during this period leaves no doubt that in the Tampico incident Wilson saw a golden opportunity to teach Huerta who was boss. He remained convinced that this aim could be achieved without the use of force.
Rear Admiral Charles J. Badger, commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet, flying his flag in the new dreadnought battleship Arkansas (BB-33), led the predreadnoughts Vermont (BB-20), New Jersey (BB-16), and New Hampshire (BB-25) to sea from Hampton Roads late on 14 April. That same day, the dreadnought South Carolina (BB-26) steamed from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to join the squadron as it passed Key West. The Michigan (BB-27), another dreadnought, sailed from Philadelphia a day later and the predreadnought Louisiana (BB-19) from New York on the 16th. Four battleships were already present in Mexican waters: the predreadnoughts Connecticut (BB-18) and Minnesota (BB-22) at Tampico and the dreadnoughts Florida (BB-30) and Utah (BB-31) at Veracruz.2
The Question of Force
Even as this deployment was under way, the reason for it threatened to unravel. On 15 April, Huerta agreed to fire the salute on the condition that it be returned simultaneously. That might have satisfied Admiral Mayo, but it was not good enough for President Wilson, who insisted that compliance must be unconditional. Declaring that he had abandoned the “generous attitude” he believed had characterized his dealings with the Huerta regime, Wilson set a deadline of 1800 Sunday, 19 April for its capitulation.
Nothing more was heard from Mexico City, and on Monday afternoon Wilson appeared before a joint session of Congress to request approval to use such force as might be necessary to ensure that “General Huerta and his adherents” respect the rights and dignity of the United States. The House approved the resolution by a vote of 337 to 37. Senate Republicans proposed an amendment authorizing the use of force against any Mexican party that threatened American interests. The ensuing debate continued past midnight, when the Senate adjourned without taking action. The resolution was placed at the head of its agenda for Tuesday, 21 April.
By the time Congress reconvened, the question of authorizing the president to employ force in Mexico had become moot. Force had already been employed. On 18 April, the State Department had received a dispatch from William W. Canada, the U.S. consul at Veracruz, reporting that the SS Ypiranga, a Hamburg-America Line steamer, was due to dock on the 21st with the largest cargo of arms and ammunition ever consigned to a Mexican port: 17,899 cases in all.3 These munitions must not be allowed to reach Huerta, but how could they be stopped?
The Ypiranga was a German vessel, and to interfere with her activities would undoubtedly precipitate a crisis with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s prickly empire. Secretary Daniels seemed to think the German captain might be persuaded not to land his cargo. That was a long chance, but no matter; if the arms were put ashore the Navy could keep them out of Huerta’s hands by intercepting them in Mexican customs. Of course, that meant naval personnel would have to take control of the Mexican customs, which might create difficulties with the general. Wilson was prepared to run that risk. Accordingly, Daniels instructed Fletcher to be prepared to seize the Customs House at Veracruz on short notice.
‘No Alternative but to Land’
There matters rested until slightly past 0200 Washington time on 21 April when the State Department received another radiogram from Veracruz. Canada had discovered that the Ypiranga was due to enter port about 1030 that morning and three trains were waiting to carry her cargo into the interior. The department notified Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who telephoned Daniels. They agreed that if the Ypiranga’s arms were to be intercepted it would not be possible to wait for Congress; the president must be informed.
The White House operator arranged a conference call. Bryan apprised a sleepy-voiced Wilson of Canada’s report and recommended that the Navy be directed to seize the Ypiranga’s munitions as they came ashore. Daniels concurred. After a brief discussion Wilson said: “There is no alternative but to land. . . . Daniels, send this message: ‘Take Veracruz at once.’” Daniels’ radiogam reached Admiral Fletcher at 0800 Veracruz time. It was nothing if not succinct: “Seize Customs House. Do not permit war supplies to reach Huerta or any other party.”
Fletcher was reviewing plans for a landing when the order arrived. A week earlier the force he could put ashore had been organized—on paper—into a naval brigade of two regiments with a total strength of l,269 officers and men commanded by the Florida’s captain, William R. “Wild Bill” Rush. The 1st Seaman Regiment, under Lieutenant Commander Allan Buchanan, would consist of the bluejacket battalions from the Florida and Utah, each composed of three rifle companies and an artillery company equipped with a 3-inch gun; the 1st Marine Regiment would comprise six rifle companies led by Lieutenant Colonel Wendell C. Neville from the transport Prairie. Both bluejackets and Marines were armed with bolt-action Springfield ’03 rifles and a number of bipod-mounted Benet-Mercie light machine guns.
Today there seems something quaint about terms such as naval brigade and bluejacket battalion. That was not true in 1914. The Marine Corps had yet to develop the amphibious expertise for which it became famous during World War II. Landing parties were traditionally composed mostly of seamen; Marine components were limited to the guard detachments of the ships involved. At Veracruz the anomaly was not that half of the members of the naval brigade were bluejackets, but that half were Marines.
The availability of Marine formations for Mexican service was fundamentally fortuitous. In 1913 Headquarters Marine Corps had stripped East Coast Marine barracks to form a 1,600-man brigade to participate in the Fleet’s annual winter maneuvers in the Caribbean. Ordinarily, at the end of the exercise the brigade would have been disbanded, but in view of the unsettled relations with Mexico it had merely been divided: One regiment was sent to Pensacola, the other to New Orleans. Early in March 1914, Neville, commanding the regiment at Pensacola, had been ordered to embark four rifle companies on the Prairie and proceed to Veracruz. There his unit absorbed a small battalion that had joined Fletcher in January on the withdrawal of the Marine garrison from Panama.4
Customs House Seized
Aware from earlier messages that Washington wished him to defer action until Congress voted, Fletcher did not immediately set the landing in motion. Around 0900 threatening weather forced his hand. The Utah, which had been sent to look for the Ypiranga, was recalled, and Neville was ordered to ready his Marines to disembark. Captain Henry M. Huse, Fletcher’s chief of staff, went ashore to inform Consul Canada of the role he was to play as the senior American official ashore. Huse told Canada that the landing would take place around 1100. As soon as Canada saw the Prairie’s boats shove off—the consulate overlooked the inner harbor—he was to telephone General Gustavo Maas, the military commandant of Veracruz, and inform him of what was to come. Canada would convey that U.S. forces were about to “take charge” of the Customs House, that to reduce the risk of a collision with Maas’ troops the landing parties would be restricted to the waterfront, and that Fletcher trusted no resistance would be offered and hoped Maas would assist him in maintaining order. Similar messages were to be given to the collector of customs and the chief of police.
A city of 40,000 inhabitants in 1914, Veracruz’s Spanish colonial heritage was still evident. The Parochial Church steeple crowned its skyline, and most buildings were two or three stories high with flat, parapet roofs that seemed made for snipers. The plans for the landing had divided the waterfront into two sectors. In the northern sector the Marines would occupy the railroad yard and roundhouse, the Terminal Station and Terminal Hotel, the cable office, and the power plant. In the southern sector bluejackets would occupy the Customs House, post office, and telegraph station.
At 1112 exactly Canada saw the first boatload of Marines leave the Prairie and placed his call to General Maas. The general became agitated, hung up without stating his intentions, and radioed the War Ministry for instructions. While awaiting a reply, he sent a scratch force of 100 men toward the inner harbor with orders to repel the invasion and directed that the rayados, or “stripers,” in the military prison should be freed, reminded of the duty of all good Mexicans to defend the country, and issued arms. When Maas received orders to evacuate the city, these actions could not be undone. Members of the Society of Defenders of Veracruz, a volunteer home guard of some 800 men, and the cadets of the Mexican Naval Academy would join the soldiers and freed prisoners in opposing the invaders. So, too, would some policemen and many ordinary Veracruzanos.
Soon steam launches towing strings of whaleboats could be seen converging on Pier Four. Fletcher had decided to hold the Utah battalion in reserve, which reduced the strength of the landing party to 787 men. The landing itself was unopposed. Moving inland, the Marines and the Florida’s 2nd Company secured their objectives without incident. The seizure of the Customs House, the focal point of the landing, was entrusted to the Florida’s 1st Company: 57 men commanded by 24-year-old Ensign George M. Lowry. Lowry’s small company was only a block from the customs buildings when a policeman made it the target of the first shot fired in the landing at Veracruz. The report of his revolver was followed by a general fusillade.
While his men took cover and returned fire, Lowry considered his options. Pressing down the street promised to be a bloody business. “My job was to capture the Customs House,” he related, “but I did not wish to lose my entire company doing it.” Calling for volunteers, he led five men into an alley between the Customs House and Warehouse. There they came under a crossfire from both the Customs House and a machine gun in a second-story window of the Hotel Oriente. Lowry decided it would be necessary to silence the machine gun before advancing and directed his men to concentrate their fire on the hotel. At first the exchange went in the machine gunner’s favor. Two seamen were wounded, one mortally, and Lowry had a close call when a bullet clipped one of the buttons off his cap. Then a policeman toppled out the window, the machine gun ceased firing, and Lowry’s men proceeded down the alley to the south end of the Customs House. Climbing the balustrades, they broke a window and dropped inside, where they found the customs workers throwing down their guns.
Reinforcements and Negotiations
With the seizure of the Customs House complete, the naval brigade had occupied all of its original objectives. Now it had to deal with the persistent sniping that the occupation had provoked. Around 1230 Captain Rush requested the Utah battalion, which Fletcher duly released. Soon thereafter the Ypiranga anchored in the inner harbor, much to the admiral’s pleasure as he had worried that she might make a dash for another port.
The Utah battalion landed at 1340. The first company ashore, led by Ensign Paul F. Foster, was sent to relieve Lowry’s men at the Customs House. Shots were still coming from the nearby warehouse, but the defenders departed upon the seamen’s approach. Inside the building the bluejackets found bales of cotton and sacks of sugar, rum, molasses, and rice. Foster had them load these stores on the warehouse hand trucks, forming movable barricades that they pushed into the streets. Within an hour the bluejackets had trundled their hand trucks to within a block of the Mexican strongpoints on the Plaza Constitución.
By midafternoon Fletcher had grounds to be reasonably satisfied. The naval brigade was well established ashore, and the Ypiranga’s munitions remained in her hold. Fletcher felt certain that the garrison had withdrawn from Veracruz; still, there was scattered firing from the roofs of buildings on the Plaza Constitución, the New Market, the Parochial Church steeple, the Naval Academy, and small craft along the waterfront east of Pier Four. To force the fighting through the city would lead to heavy loss of life. In hopes of avoiding just that, Fletcher sent Captain Huse to ask Consul Canada to try to negotiate an armistice.
Huse returned about at 1700 to report that the attempt had failed. Canada had sent two Mexican envoys into the city under white flags. The first had not returned, and later it was learned he had been shot. The second succeeded in locating the mayor, who had barricaded himself in his bathroom. From this redoubt he had referred Canada’s envoy to the chief of police, who could not be found.
Taking everything into account, Fletcher concluded that his best course was to stay put. “Any further advance at this time of day,” he wrote, “would have brought the fighting into the most densely populated section of the city after nightfall,” certainly not a desirable situation. Moreover, substantial reinforcements were on the way. When all the ships converging on Veracruz landed their sailors and Marines there would be more than 4,000 men ashore.
The first vessels to arrive were two that Fletcher had instructed Mayo to send him earlier in the day: at 2005 the “mine-planter” San Francisco and at 1205 on the 22nd the Chester. Both anchored in the inner harbor, and their bluejacket battalions, plus a Marine company the Chester had ferried from Tampico, were plugged into the American lines ashore.
The Arkansas led the battleships from Hampton Roads into the outer harbor about an hour later. Fletcher and Huse boarded her around 0200 to brief Admiral Badger. Fletcher volunteered to relinquish the conduct of operations to Badger, who replied that in view of Fletcher’s familiarity with the situation he would prefer for him to remain in command. The discussion then turned to plans for the morning. The Arkansas battalion would be assigned to the 1st Seaman Regiment. The New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont, and New Jersey battalions would form a 2nd Seaman Regiment, 1,200 men with 4 guns, under the New Hampshire’s Captain E. A. Anderson. The 300 fleet Marines would be added to Neville’s regiment.
Consul Canada would be asked to make a third attempt at arranging a cease-fire. If he was not successful by 0745, the naval brigade would push into the city, the Marines on the right, the 1st Seaman Regiment in the center, and the 2nd Seaman Regiment on the left. Each regiment was to secure an area defined by the streets that bounded it. The city as a whole was divided into sectors of several square blocks, each of which was to be occupied by a specified battalion.
The battleship battalions and fleet Marines had landed by 0730. Fifteen minutes later Canada reported that his efforts had proved unavailing, and Fletcher signaled Captain Rush to advance at his discretion.
The 2nd Seaman Regiment set out in parade formation, a column of sections, with Captain Anderson and his staff at its head. Rush had told his regimental commanders to throw out “strong advance guards to develop the situation.” Anderson chose to disregard this instruction. Lieutenant (junior grade) T. Gordon Ellyson, commanding the South Carolina artillery, implored Anderson to let him scout ahead, but the captain did not see the need. Ellyson next boldly suggested that the regiment should advance in open order, with skirmishers well in advance. Anderson did not see the need of that either; he had been assured that its route was clear of snipers.
From its assembly point near the New Lighthouse, the regiment marched to the mouth of Calle Francisco Canal, through which it was to enter the city. Anderson gave a column right and the regiment—his own New Hampshire battalion in the lead—began to wheel into the street. Moments later, the bluejackets’ close-ordered ranks recoiled from a burst of machine-gun, rifle, and one-pounder fire from the Naval Academy and neighboring buildings. “I was at the head of the column talking to Captain Anderson,” Lieutenant Ellyson wrote his wife, “and as he didn’t run I couldn’t, but I sure did want to. . . . The worst of it was that we could see nothing to shoot at.” If any orders were given they were drowned out by the commotion. The author’s father, then an 18-year-old petty officer in the New Hampshire battalion, recalled that “No one said halt or take cover or defend yourselves, or anything.” For a few seconds the bluejackets stood their ground, then they went streaming away to the rear, carrying the rest of the regiment along in their flight. Admiral Fletcher saw it all. “The situation looked critical,” he wrote.
But the setback was only temporary. Gunners at the ready in the Chester and San Francisco quickly silenced the Mexican fire with well-aimed 5- and 3-inch shells. The routed bluejackets halted at the seawall, and Anderson soon restored order. Within minutes the regiment was ready to resume the advance. This time it entered Calle Francisco Canal in two columns, each hugging the buildings on its side of the street and keeping a wary eye on the windows and rooftops on the other side. It did not undergo any more surprises.
In the 1st Seaman Regiment’s sector things went smoothly from the start. By 0930 the Utah battalion had occupied the buildings on the Plaza Constitución. The Marines also made rapid progress, stationing machine-gunners at intersections to sweep the streets and sending marksmen to the rooftops to deal with snipers. By noon the naval brigade had completed the occupation of Veracruz.
Including a few men hit by subsequent sniping, American casualties totaled 17 dead and 65 wounded. A census of the city’s hospitals showed Mexican losses of 126 dead and 195 wounded, for an aggregate of 321, but as a number of bodies were buried or burned without passing through a medical facility that figure is certainly too low.
Thanks to a law dating from the French intervention of the 1860s making it a criminal offense for Mexican citizens to serve in office under a foreign occupation, the Navy found that it had a city to administer, but it did not need do so for long. Late on the 22nd, Badger requested that his sailors be relieved by soldiers as soon as possible. A reinforced brigade sailed from Galveston, Texas, on the 24th. On that same date the prospect of a U.S.–Mexican war many observers had expected paled when President Wilson, horrified by the bloodshed at Veracruz, accepted an offer by the ABC Powers—Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—to mediate the differences between the two countries. Three days later the American flag was raised over Veracruz and saluted with 21 guns. The U.S. Army transports appeared that evening. The ceremony marking the transfer of the city was held on 30 April.
Ironically, the Ypiranga’s arms reached Huerta after all. When her captain stated that rather than land her cargo at Veracruz he would prefer to carry it back to Germany, American authorities gladly accepted his proposal, and on 3 May the Ypiranga sailed—but not for Germany. After calling at Tampico and Mobile and revisiting Veracruz, she shaped course for Puerto México (present-day Coatzacoalcas), and on 27 May she proceeded to land her arms there. Then, with incredible effrontery, she returned to Veracruz where the outraged Americans invoked a Mexican law prohibiting a vessel from discharging goods at any port other than that to which they were consigned and fined the Hamburg-America Line nearly 900,000 pesos. Apprehensive of provoking an incident with Germany, Wilson revoked the assessment.
The Ypiranga’s arms could not save Huerta. The tide of war turned against him, and on 15 July he resigned the provisional presidency of Mexico. The immediate objective of Wilson’s Mexican policy had been attained. Sadly, the peaceful progress he had hoped Huerta’s departure would herald did not ensue. Constitutionalist leaders began to fight among themselves, and the war dragged on for years.
U.S. forces held Veracruz for seven months. The conference convened by the ABC Powers accomplished nothing, but Huerta’s fall removed Washington’s justification for retaining the city. On 23 November 1914 Veracruz reverted to Mexican control. Diplomatically, its seizure was a disaster that soured Mexican-American relations for decades. Operationally, the concentration of nearly half the Marine Corps and practically the entire Atlantic Fleet at Veracruz and Tampico was a masterpiece of rapid deployment.5 Tactically, the landing was marred only by the temporary panic from which the 2nd Seaman Regiment quickly recovered. Admiral Fletcher’s command decisions were well reasoned, and the humanity evident in his attempts to avert or curtail hostilities and his restraint in never using his battleships’ big guns present a refreshing contrast to the decisions other senior officers would make in the Great War that began in Europe that August.
1. Sources include: Andrea Martinez, La intervención norteamericana: Veracruz, 1914 (Mexico City: M. Casillas/Cultura SEP, 1982). Justino Palomares, La Invasión Yanqui en 1914 (Mexico City: the author, 1940). Robert E. Quirk, An Affair of Honor: Woodrow Wilson and the Occupation of Veracruz (Lexington. KY: Mississippi Valley Historical Association/ University of Kentucky, Press, 1962). Jack Sweetman, The Landing at Veracruz: 1914 (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1968). John S. D. Eisenhower, Intervention! The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913–1917 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993). Unless noted below, sources for the statements and quotations in this article may be found in Jack Sweetman’s The Landing at Veracruz: 1914.
2. Colonel J. H. Alexander, “Roots of Deployment–Vera Cruz, 1914,” The Marine Corps Gazette, November 1982.
3. Michael C. Meyer, “The Arms of the Ypiranga,” The Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 30. no.5, (August 1970), 551.
4. Alexander, “Roots of Deployment.” Merrill L. Bartlett and Jack Sweetman, Leathernecks: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Marine Corps (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 169–70.
5. Alexander, “Roots of Deployment.”