9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You

Larry Holzwarth - November 9, 2017

The United States has participated in only five wars in its history in which the Congress of the United States has formally declared war, the last being the Second World War. Yet the United States has been at war somewhere on the globe more or less continuously since its Constitution was ratified. Many of these wars were against the indigenous peoples of the continent. Many others have been to either protect American commercial interests or those of its allies. Still, others have been to establish overseas possessions for the deployment and support of military forces, in particular, forward bases for the United States Navy.

US forces have fought, often without Congressional action supporting their use, on most of the world’s continents, on Pacific Islands, in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, against native peoples, revolutionaries, foreign governments, and pirates. Through the successful prosecution of many of these actions, the prestige of the nation and respect for its armed forces was enhanced among the world’s powers.

As a trading nation, American ships plied the globe and its Navy grew from the fledgling force which dared to defy the fleets of revolutionary France to the most powerful presence in the Pacific Ocean, rivaling even that of Great Britain by the end of the 19th century.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
America’s status as a sea-going nation has long meant its interest is tied up with affairs overseas. Mystic Seaport

Some of these actions were called wars, some expeditions, and some interventions, but all involved American soldiers, sailors, and marines engaging in combat for the purpose of achieving American political or commercial goals. Here are 9 little-known American wars in history.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
USS Constellation engages the French frigate L’Insurgente in February 1799, the first successful sea action by the United States Navy. Naval History and Heritage Command

Quasi-War with France 1798-1800

French financial and material aid to the Americans during the War of Independence had been provided by the government of King Louis XVI, and Americans’ viewed the debts owed to France to be owed directly to the Royal Treasury. When the French Revolution deposed the King in 1792 and later beheaded him, the American government declined to continue payments on the debt, arguing that the new regime had not lent the money and was not entitled to receive payment.

The Revolutionary government in France found this reasoning faulty and after demands for payment were ignored, authorized French naval vessels and privateers to seize American ships on the high seas. This was particularly bothersome to the lucrative trade between Americans and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.

In the course of one year, 1796, more than 100 American ships were seized by the French, mostly by privateers. The United States Navy was soon re-authorized (it had been abolished when the Revolution ended) and American warships were deployed to protect the merchantmen. The French Navy meanwhile authorized its ships to protect the privateers. In 1797 Congress canceled the treaties with France which had existed since 1778 and authorized the Navy to take action against the French. The ensuing conflict was carried out almost entirely at sea, with land actions on some islands by the United States Marine Corps. American revenue cutters operated by what later became the US Coast Guard also took part.

The American frigate USS Constellation captured a French frigate of similar size – L’Insurgente – in what was the first victory of the new United States Navy. Constellation later heavily damaged another French frigate and smaller American ships captured dozens of French merchant ships and privateers. Only one United States warship was lost during the Naval War – Retaliation, which was a former privateer previously captured by the Americans – but the Americans managed to capture the ship a second time a short time later.

The Quasi-War, which was soon to be followed by the American Wars against the Barbary Pirates, did much to establish the professional reputation of the US Navy. Nonetheless, nearly 2,000 American merchant ships were taken by the French during the war before it ended when Napoleon seized power in France.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
Merchantmen approaching Sumatra. The island was highly valued by traders for the quality of its pepper. Wikimedia

First Sumatran Expedition 1832

The island of Sumatra in what is now Indonesia has long been held in the highest esteem for the quality of its pepper, and in the early part of the nineteenth century ships from many nations including the United States voyaged to the island to trade for cargoes of the prized spice. In 1831 the American merchant vessel Friendship journeyed to the island only to be attacked while part of its crew, including its Captain, were ashore.

Three members of the crew were murdered and the cargo intended to be exchanged for pepper was plundered by the attackers, natives from the Kingdom of Kuala Batu, a rival chiefdom on the island. Those crewmen ashore at the time of the attack escaped and eventually managed to retake their ship, with which they returned to Salem, Massachusetts.

After telling their tale a public outcry arose which compelled President Andrew Jackson to dispatch the USS Potomac, with an extra contingent of Marines on board, to punish the transgressors. Jackson was motivated in part by similar expeditions being dispatched by the Dutch and his desire to demonstrate American ability to care for its own.

When Potomac arrived at Sumatra its commander enlisted the aid of local chieftains friendly to American traders and launched an attack against the natives of Kuala Batu, destroying their watercraft, fortifications, and eventually their village. More than 500 villagers and warriors were killed in American retaliation, with only two Americans losing their lives.

The demonstration convinced other rival chiefs on the island to beg for American mercy, and offer trading terms highly favorable to American merchants. Potomac journeyed home by visiting Hawaii on the voyage, completing a circumnavigation of the globe. Once American guns no longer threatened the Sumatrans, attacks on American merchant ships resumed, and a second expedition was launched in 1838, with similar results. The American public viewed the expeditions favorably, especially the highly satisfying demonstration of American determination to protect its commercial interests.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
Dead Chinese troops in their captured fortress during the Second Opium War, one of the earliest to be extensively photographed. Imperial War Museum

Second Opium War 1856-1860

The end of the First Opium War ceded the Chinese port of Hong Kong to Great Britain and provided the British Empire with trade advantages which the Chinese quickly found to be unsatisfactory. Following the treaty, both the French and the Americans negotiated trade agreements with China disadvantageous to the Chinese and prompting Britain to demand even more favorable terms than those already agreed.

The result was the eruption of a second war between the British Empire and China, called an Opium War as was the first, in part because Great Britain wanted to legalize and monopolize the Opium trade. The United States officially declared itself neutral in the war, offering to send diplomatic envoys to assist the British and Chinese attempting to negotiate a settlement of all differences.

When France actively joined the British in military action against the Chinese – hoping to prevent British monopolization of the Opium Trade by forcing Chinese concessions – The United States sent naval forces to protect American interests in the area. The Americans did not coordinate their actions with either England or France, thus retaining its claim to neutrality, but soon actively bombarded Chinese possessions.

The American attacks led the Chinese to step up negotiations with the Americans and led to a renewed commitment of neutrality, but not to the withdrawal of American ships. The Second Opium War led to extensive intertwining treaties between varying Chinese states and warlords and their common European opponents, as well as American trade and military interests.

As in earlier overseas actions undertaken by the United States, its primary interest was the defense of its own trading needs and the requirement to obtain overseas bases for the maintenance of its expanding fleets. It largely succeeded.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
US Sailors and Marines fighting in the Formosa jungle during the failed Formosa Expedition. Wikipedia

Formosa Expedition of 1867

Until the end of the Vietnam War, it was commonly believed by Americans that the nation had never lost an armed conflict with a foreign power. That may explain why the 1867 Formosa Expedition is so little known since it was a crushing defeat by a modern and veteran United States military by an indigenous people.

It began when a US ship, a merchant vessel named Rover, ran aground on a reef near Formosa. Its crew escaped and made it ashore where they were attacked by island natives called Paiwanans. When a British vessel learned of the massacre and reported it to the American East India Naval Station, a retaliatory expedition was launched in the form of the USS Ashuelot and a US Marine contingent.

Soon two more American warships were sent to Formosa to support the expedition, which Formosan authorities blamed on rogue natives. Nearly 200 American sailors and marines were eventually landed to seek out and destroy the Paiwanans, who used guerrilla tactics in the island’s jungles to offer stiff resistance. Casualties on both sides were light, but progress through the thick jungle by the Americans was nearly non-existent. One American officer was killed towards the end of the fighting.

The Americans withdrew to their ships and soon returned to their base in China, having failed completely to achieve any of their objectives established when the mission was undertaken. Rather than re-commit American ships and troops to a second attempt, the American commander recommended that the United States help pay for attempts led by local chieftains and manned with their own warriors – a sort of precursor for what would in a later day be called Vietnamization.

Formosan attacks on American merchant ships wrecked in the treacherous waters of the area continued for many years, with American diplomacy shifting focus to establishing friendly relations with Japan. In 1874 the Japanese, with American encouragement and support, successfully suppressed the Paiwanans during the Taiwan Expedition.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
Samoan natives near Apia photographed in 1902. The lushness of the Samoan jungle is apparent. Wikipedia

Second Samoan Civil War 1898-1899

In the late 19th century, the European Empires and the United States were particularly concerned over the fates of various Pacific Island nations, in large part because of the need to maintain coaling stations at intervals to fuel their growing fleets. Samoa was engaged in a Civil war between competing chiefdoms, with one side supported by the United States and the British Empire, and the other supported by the rising naval power of the Kaiser’s Germany.

American and British ships and marines took an active part in the fighting to destroy the enemies supported by the Kaiser. When an early battle involving a naval bombardment by British and American ships proved to be inconclusive, both powers dispatched troops into the island’s interior to continue the fighting.

These troops suffered a severe setback at the hands of the German-supported rebels at the Second Battle of Vailele, and subsequent attempts to subdue the island were frustrated by the enemy and the harsh climate. By 1899 the war was largely a stalemate.

The three European powers decided to settle the fate of the Samoans at the negotiating table, and the resulting Tripartite Convention divided the island nation into two separate islands – German Samoa and American Samoa. The British were awarded base use rights on the American island in return for similar support for the Americans at the British base in Hong Kong.

German Samoa was taken by New Zealand troops in the early days of World War I and finally achieved independence from New Zealand colonial rule in 1962. American Samoa remains under the control of the United States as an unincorporated territory, where today it holds the highest rate of military enlistment of any US territory, possession, or state.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
John J. Pershing, as he appeared in 1903. Pershing was a leading figure of the Philippine-American War. Wikimedia

Philippine – American War 1899 – 1902

The natives of the Philippines were involved in a war for independence from Spain when the United States took the Philippines from the Spanish as prize following the Spanish – American War. Finding subjugation by the Americans to be as distasteful as subjugation by the Spanish, the troops of the First Philippine Republic (recognized by neither the US nor Spain) engaged the new American occupiers of the islands in bloody combat for several months after the Spanish had departed.

The war saw atrocities committed by both sides, civilians confined to concentration camps by the Americans, summary executions, and severe criticism in the American press. The Philippine-American War was noted for its savagery on both sides, reflected in the casualty figures. The Americans had up to 6,000 killed and another 3,000 wounded in combat, with the Filipino casualties exceeding 18,000 dead. Another quarter of a million Filipinos are believed to have died from disease, the vast majority of those from cholera.

American commanders regarded the insurrectionists as criminals rather than as an opposing army and refused to follow standard military conventions regarding treatment of the enemy. The press was heavily censored by the US military, and the International Red Cross was prevented from making independent observations of the behavior of American troops.

As the war degenerated into seemingly unconnected guerrilla actions the atrocities committed by troops of both sides increased, even as the First Philippine Republic deteriorated into anarchy. In 1902 Congress passed the Philippine Organic Act which established the form of a new Philippine government, followed in July by the establishment of amnesty for insurrectionists and the end of the American office of Military Governor of the Philippines.

American military presence in the islands would continue, and further civil war was already brewing when the United States essentially declared the Philippine-American War to be over in 1902.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
US troops pose with Moro casualties in 1906, during the Moro Rebellion. Wikimedia

Moro Rebellion 1899-1913

The Moro are a Muslin people who reside in many of the islands which make up the archipelago of the Philippines, mostly in the southern part of the chain. After the forced withdrawal of the Spanish in 1899 American troops occupied many of the southern islands and began colonizing territory which had formerly been lands occupied by the Moro.

American diplomacy included enlisting the support of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to convince the Moro not to resist the new American occupation (by appealing to them as Muslims), which while forthcoming was ineffective. Once the Americans had largely pacified the Northern Philippines in the Philippine-American War it shifted its attention to the southern islands around Sulu and Mindanao, occupied by the Moro.

American military governors, including Major Leonard Wood and General John Pershing, used a variety of methods to suppress the Moro, including military actions against the tribes and edicts to suppress the Muslim religion, which Pershing referred to as “Mohammadism”. In the 21st centur, Pershing has been frequently accused of using anti-Muslim tactics against captured insurrectionists during this conflict.

In his autobiography, Pershing later wrote of the practice of burying the bodies of slain Moro tribesmen in mass graves accompanied with dead pigs. Another American officer, who would later rise to the rank of Rear Admiral, wrote than Americans buried dead Moro tribesmen wrapped in pig hides “…stuffing their mouths with pork.”

Because of American side-arms often failing to knock down charging Moro tribesmen – the standard US pistol was a .38 caliber – the US Army shifted to the Colt Model 1911 .45 caliber automatic, which would remain its standard side-arm well into the 1970s. The Moro Rebellion was costly to the United States in money and materials, although military casualties were light given the length and nature of the conflict. The Americans suffered about 400 killed or wounded in combat, and lost about another 500 to disease throughout the rebellion. Moro casualties were significantly higher and have never been accurately estimated. Another Moro insurgency has been ongoing on the island of Mindanao since 1969, more than 48 years, with more than 6,000 dead.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
Fort Ocotal was used by United States Marines during the Occupation of Nicaragua. US Marine Corps

Occupation of Nicaragua 1912 – 1933

From 1898 through 1934 the United States intervened in numerous nations throughout Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, a series of actions known as the Banana Wars. Because of the strategic importance of trade across Central America, the United States used the century old Monroe Doctrine to occupy Nicaragua with a military force to prevent any European nation from completing a canal across the country.

American occupation began when a rebellion broke out in Nicaragua, and American troops and warships were dispatched to both ensure there were no actions taken against American citizens and businesses and to prevent intervention from Europeans. As several different attempts at establishing a stable Nicaraguan government were tried and failed, American troop levels within the country increased. By 1912, the Nicaraguan government in power had requested American military support containing rebellion within the country and American warships and troops were engaging Nicaraguan rebels.

The United States also assumed most of the control of the Nicaraguan economy, and after suppressing most of the rebellions within the country it retained troops in place to ensure fair elections. American troops were eventually withdrawn to a level of around 100 in 1916, although US warships maintained a watchful presence.

In 1927 American troops again occupied the country in response to another erupting civil war, and by the following spring over 2,000 US troops were deployed there. American troops participated yet again in military operations and in protecting financial assets such as gold mines while ensuring legitimate elections. Americans also trained government troops to assume a larger role in defending and protecting their country.

By the early 1930s, the cost of maintaining an American presence was deemed to be too high in the face of the great depression, the existence of the Panama Canal meant no nation would assume the cost of building another in Nicaragua, and other strategic concerns were arising from Japan and Germany. Other than a token force, by 1932 the United States had withdrawn from Nicaragua.

9 Forgotten American Wars Your History Teacher Never Taught You
Juan Cortina was a Mexican rancher, military leader, and bandit who several times invaded the state of Texas. Wikipedia

First and Second Cortina Wars 1859-1861

During the late 1950s, the United States was primarily concerned over the rising threat of secession from Southern states over the issue of slavery. During this period the United States maintained a fairly large – for its time – military presence in the State of Texas, both to protect citizens and property from the attacks of the Cheyenne and other tribes, and to protect the southern border from incursions by Mexican bandits and the troops pursuing them, often indistinguishable from each other by those with the misfortune to encounter them.

Juan Cortina was a rancher and border bandit who raided towns on both sides of the nearly invisible border between Mexico and Texas. When he raided Brownsville in 1859 he set off a conflict with the militia of that town and the Texas Rangers, later supported by United States Cavalry.

This led to several pitched battles, culminating in the Battle of Rio Grande City. After the United States applied diplomatic pressure on Mexico to take action to prevent its citizens and troops from crossing the border, Cortina retreated to the Burgos, and the First Cortina War drew to an uneasy end. In 1861 Cortina returned to his raiding.

By that time Texas had seceded from the United States and the only military units along the border were those of the Confederate States Army, a situation which no doubt encouraged Cortina’s return. Cortina had an eye for opportunity and had agreed to a local alliance with the United States Army to harass the southern border, keeping any booty which he managed to pillage on his raids. After invading Zapata Cortina found himself confronted by Confederate troops and he was roundly defeated, withdrawing back to Mexico. It was his only military action of the Civil War.

The First and Second Cortina Wars are the only known instance of Confederate and Union troops engaging a common foreign enemy, despite it being at different times and circumstances. Cortina was eventually arrested and confined by Mexican authorities, dying imprisoned in Mexico City in 1894.