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US Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934

There are few places in the world where the US naval services have been involved for as long as Haiti. As far back as 1800 the Navy provided assistance to Haitian patriot Toussaint Louverture during the country’s struggle for autonomy from France. Establishment of a naval base at Môle Saint-Nicolas was contemplated at various times during the nineteenth century. The headquarters of the Civil War West India Squadron was at Cap Haïtien. Recently, the Atlantic Fleet enforced an embargo during 1993-94 and Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard forces occupied the country in 1994. In February 2004, Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorist Security Teams deployed to Port au Prince to protect the US Embassy. They were followed quickly by an augmented marine force centered around the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines.

By far the most intense period of US naval involvement in Haiti occurred between late July 1915 to mid-August 1934 during the United States occupation. Initial landings were conducted to protect US and foreign lives and property during a period of civil disorder. Following restoration of order, a treaty providing for United States control over Haitian finances, customs, police, public works, sanitation, and medical services was concluded with the client Haitian government. Navy and Marine Corps personnel helped discharge these duties. A marine brigade provided security throughout the period.

Initial landings and occupation. - On July 28, 1915 Rear Admiral William B. Caperton, the commander of the Cruiser Squadron of the Atlantic Fleet, landed sailors and marines from USS Washington at Port au Prince following earlier landings at Cap Haïtien. Port au Prince was in anarchy following the overthrow of the government of President Vibrun Guillaume Sam who had been torn apart by a mob. Initially, 340 sailors and marines were landed - the Washington’s marine detachment, the 12th Expeditionary Marine company, and three companies of seamen. Caperton’s Chief of Staff, Captain Edward L. Beach, went ashore to coordinate military activity and ensure civil services.

Meanwhile fighting between contenders for power continued, especially in the north. Landing parties from USS Nashville reinforced those of USS Eagle at Cap Haïtien, already ashore on Caperton’s order. These naval forces prevented capture of the city by rebels. The Second Marine Regiment arrived 4 August on board the battleship USS Connecticut. Further reinforcement, the First Brigade Headquarters and the First Marine Regiment, arrived later in the month on board USS Tennessee. The marines, along with bluejacket landing parties from ships in Haitian waters, achieved a stability of a sort country-wide.

Admiral Caperton’s first order of business was to facilitate election of a new government. With the assistance of the Catholic Church hierarchy and independent Haitian politicians, he induced the various contenders for the presidency to meet in Port au Prince. Marines then provided security for election of a president by the Haitian Congress. The preferred US candidate, Sudre Dartigurnave, was elected August 12th. A little over a month later, September 15th, a treaty laying our US occupation responsibilities was concluded. This treaty ensured US domination of Haiti.

Civil government services. - In Haiti, the US operated through a client government. Occupation of Haiti is thus somewhat different from occupation of the neighboring Dominican Republic (1916-1924) where a direct US military government was established. From the beginning of the occupation, naval personnel played an important part in civil government. During the initial year of the occupation Navy and Marine Corps personnel were stationed throughout the country. Outside the larger cities, they were the only government representatives. Navy Pay Corps officers took over operation of the customs houses and acted as captains of the port. Caperton effectively governed the country through martial law.

During 1916, provisions of the Treaty with Haiti became more regularized. A US citizen civilian was appointed as Financial Advisor and General Receiver of Customs, and Navy officers surrendered these duties. On the other hand, Navy personnel filled treaty civil positions. In January 1917 Navy Civil Engineer Captain Ernest R. Gayler assumed the position of Engineer of Haiti, responsible for all public works. Navy Surgeon Norman T. McLean assumed duties as Sanitary Engineer of Haiti at the same time. He was responsible for all matters pertaining to public health. Naval officers held these supervisory posts, as well as posts as assistant engineers in both departments, up until the end of the occupation. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed to be the author of the 1918 Haitian constitution.

Occupation administration during the first seven years of the occupation was organized with military and civilian administrators reporting to their sponsoring organizations in Washington. This changed in 1922 when Brigadier General John H. Russell, USMC, was appointed American High Commissioner and Personal Representative of the President with the rank of Ambassador Extraordinary. Russell held this position until November 1930. In this position he directed all US activities of the occupation both civil and military. 

Gendarmerie d’Haiti. - Organized in 1916, the Gendarmerie d’Haiti (which changed its name in 1928 to the Garde d’Haiti) initially consisted of 250 officers and 2,500 men. The Gendarmerie was officered by Marine Corps personnel most of who were sergeants with officer rank in Haitian service. Navy doctors and corpsmen supported the Gendarmerie. The Gendarmeire was organized to provided police services throughout the country. Its marine officers, in fact, were the occupation government in the back-country of Haiti. The Gendarmerie fought alongside marine occupying forces during the Caco wars.

The Caco wars. - The Cacos were loosely knit bandit organizations who hired out to the highest bidder. Transfer of power in Haiti traditionally occurred when a political contender raised a Caco army and marched on the capital. Transfer of power was completed when the incumbent fled the country with part of the treasury.

The fall of President Sam followed this tradition. A Caco army in the employ of Rosalvo Bobo was on the outskirts of the capital when Sam was assassinated. Caperton’s occupying forces quickly disarmed and forced the Cacos out of Port au Prince, but Cacos still threatened stability in the north and center of the country. A campaign conducted by the First Brigade, supported by bluejacket detachments from Navy ships, followed. By the end of 1915 armed rebellion was largely over. The last major event of this campaign is the capture of the Caco stronghold at Fort Rivière by a force of marines and a detachment from the USS Connecticut, under command of Major Smedley Butler. Sergeant Ross Iams, Private Samuel Gross, and Butler himself were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor in this action. It was Butler’s second award.

A second Caco insurrection began late in 1918. This Caco rebellion occurred in response to brutality by some Gendarmerie detachments and the use of the corvée system in road building. This insurrection quickly outran the ability of the Gendarmerie to contain it. Consequently, a large part of the counter-guerrilla war was conducted by the First Marine Brigade, reinforced by additional marines from outside the country. Although most of the fighting was in the hinterland, Port au Prince was attacked by Cacos during October 1919. That same month Caco leader Charlemagne Peralte was killed by a marine patrol. Peralte’s death and a focused campaign of attacks on strongholds and Caco leadership, coupled with offers of amnesty, ended the insurrection by mid-1920. Isolated instances of atrocities during the second Caco campaign led to Congressional investigations culminating in Senate hearings during 1921-22. The Senate committee recommended that the marines remain in Haiti and that an American High Commissioner be appointed to supervise all US activities. Marine First Brigade commander Brigadier General Russell was appointed High Commissioner.

End of the Occupation. - Following the Caco wars, occupation duties became more or less routine. The country was stable, both politically and financially. A constitutional change in government occurred peaceably in 1922. Except for personnel assigned to the Gendarmerie, US Marines returned to barracks. Small numbers of US Navy personnel continued to supervise public works and public health as part of the Treaty Services. The US occupying administration, however, never fully understood Haitian societal strains. These strains, along with reduction in services brought on by lessened government revenues, led to widespread strikes and disturbance late in 1929. Twelve Haitians were killed when Marines opened fire on rioters in the southern Haitian city of Cayes. President Herbert Hoover, never a supporter of occupation, used this “Cayes Massacre” as justification to appoint a commission to determine ”when and how to withdraw from Haiti.” The Commission, led by former US governor of the Philippines W. Cameron Forbes, formally recommended the US withdraw as soon as possible in conjunction with a “Haitianizing” of treaty services, including command in the Gendarmerie. On August 14, 1934 the occupation ended.


Published: Wed Jul 29 12:40:48 EDT 2020