The American Occupation Of Haiti
By Robert Debs Heinl & Nancy Gordon Heinl - Originally Published Nov 1978
This account of the U.S. Marine pacification of Haiti is the first of a three-part series condensed from a chapter dealing with the American occupation of Haiti from the book, WRITTEN IN BLOOD: The Story of the Haitian People-1492-1971, by Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Copyright © 1978 by Robert Debs Heinl Jr. and Nancy Gordon Heinl.
I - Pacification, 1915-1921
Late in the afternoon of 28 July 1915, 330 U.S. Marines and sailors - ship's landing force of the cruiser Washington - went ashore in steam launches at Port-au-Prince and swiftly secured the Haitian capital before nightfall.
With headquarters in the picturesque, filthy old Iron Market - "pervaded with a heavy odor, worse than a stable and more like a privy," reported the cruiser's surgeon - the men of the landing force could not know that the 19-year U.S. occupation of Haiti had just commenced.
The day before, infuriated mobs had dragged President Guillaume Sam from the sanctuary of the French legation and dismembered him in the street. Similar treatment had been meted out to one of his chief lieutenants, Gen Charles-Oscar Etienne, found hiding in the Dominican legation. What had stirred public fury throughout Port-au-Prince was one of the bloodiest savageries in the history of the Americas: On orders from the president, Gen Etienne had butchered 169 political hostages chosen from the elite of the city and crammed into the grim National Penitentiary downtown. The weapons employed had not been chosen for finesse or delicacy. They were rusty .50 caliber muskets, machetes, daggers and clubbed cocomacacs, the Haitian shillelagh which can beat a person to a pulp.
In the words of the British minister who first reached the scene that day, "They were found shot, hacked, mutilated, and disembowelled -the walls and floors of the prison were spattered with their blood, their brains, and their entrails."
The horrifying massacre accompanied by total disintegration of government and followed by simultaneous mob violation of two diplomatic missions provided ample justification for the U.S. landing at Port-au-Prince. But there was more to it than that.
Imperial Germany, toward which the United States was slowly edging into war, had over at least a decade been angling for naval base rights and a protectorate in Haiti, not only for economic reasons but to provide a Western Hemisphere base for Germany's powerful High Seas Fleet. Such a base, beside the Windward Passage at Mole St. Nicolas on Haiti's northwest tip and astride the main Atlantic approach to the new canal at Panama, was strategically unthinkable to the United States.
So American intervention in Haiti was no simple explainable act of the dollar diplomacy which characterized much of U.S. policies and actions in the Caribbean of those days. In fact, there were hardly any U.S. investments to protect in Haiti. In 1914, American investments throughout Latin America totaled $1.7 billion. Of that sum, only $4 million was in Haiti.
American political and strategic concern so disproportionate to investment can be explained in one further statistic: The day the Marines landed, Haiti, located at the oceanic gate to what Mahan called "the American Mediterranean," had just experienced its eighth violent overthrow of government in less than seven years.
If Woodrow Wilson (who personally ordered Washington 's landing) had had the time or accumulated data ready in hand in July 1915, he would have learned that, of 22 rulers of Haiti between 1843 and 1915, only one had served out his term of office. Four had died in office. One had been blown sky-high in his palace. One had been overthrown and executed. One had been torn to crow's meat by his subjects. Thirteen had been ousted by coup or revolution.
During these same 72 years, Haiti had been wracked by at least 102 civil wars, revolutions, revolts and coups. Amid these tumults - not counting repeated acts of European gunboat diplomacy - the U.S. Navy had been compelled to send warships into Haitian waters to protect the lives and property of American citizens in 26 of those years and, during 1914 and 1915, had maintained ships there almost without interruption.
The integration of events that finally put U.S. Marines ashore that steaming July afternoon in 1915 was not simple - few adequate explanations of human events are - yet a minute by Alvey A. Adee, for many years the wise, old practically permanent Assistant Secretary of State, goes far to say why. Commenting in 1888 on a diplomatic dispatch from Haiti, Adee wrote: "Hayti is a public nuisance at our doors."
Nuisance could be tolerated, but when combined with utter disintegration and fearful bloodshed (in a place and time where perceived American strategic interests could not allow collapse or vacuum) the hour for the Marines had come.
While the Marines disarmed and neutralized Port-au-Prince and reinforcements (2d Regiment) steamed at forced draft from the Advance Base Force in Philadelphia (forerunner of the FMF), the political situation that confronted the American forces, under RAdm W. B. Caperton, was in simplest terms as follows.
The Haitian politician who most expected to benefit from the murder of Guillaume Sam and the succeeding collapse of government was the erratic and flamboyant Dr. Rosalvo Bobo of Cap Haitien, who had at his command the Cacos1 of the north and the great Artibonite Valley. The Americans saw Dr. Bobo as a herald of further inevitable disorder and plunder. Bobo, already viscerally anti-American, saw the U.S. intervention as directly thwarting his life's ambition.
A more suitable presidential candidate, Adm Caperton (and the U.S. State Department) thought, was Senator Sudre Dartiguenave, from Anse-a-Veau at the other end of Haiti. In a memorable confrontation, Adm Caperton brought the two men face to face.
When asked whether there were other men qualified to be president, Dartiguenave modestly said, "There are many better qualified."
To the same question, Dr. Bobo shot back, "No! I alone have sufficient honor and patriotism. There is no other!"
Then Caperton's perceptive chief of staff, Capt E. L. Beach, USN, demanded of Dartiguenave whether, if Bobo was chosen, he would help and support him. Yes, unreservedly, answered the senator.
Bobo's reply was explosive: "Never! By rights I am already President of Haiti. If Dartiguenave is elected, I will not help him. I will abandon Haiti to its fate!"
On 10 August, Dr. Bobo played his final card by touching off street riots throughout Port-au-Prince. His card was not high enough. The Marines promptly intervened, halted the riots and shut down Bobo's headquarters.
Next day the National Assembly convened with the American charge d'affaires Beale Davis, at the rostrum. Davis's message was simple. The United States would gladly permit Haiti to hold a free election subject to the one condition that the election and the president to be elected would then by treaty pledge as security to Washington the freedom of Haiti.
It was Dartiguenave on the first ballot, 94 votes; Bobo, 16. But one-third of the members present, 47, felt free to vote for others than the U.S.-sponsored Dartiguenave.
A few days later, Dr. Bobo slipped aboard a French steamer and was gone. But he would be heard from again.
On 17 August, charge Davis paid his first official call on the new president. In his attache case was the draft of a new treaty the United States expected to be accepted "without reservation."
The draft Dartiguenave was expected to swallow represented a high-water mark of its kind among U.S. treaties ever proposed or concluded with neighbors in the Caribbean. The United States would nominate (no nonsense as to consultation) a customs receiver and staff and a financial adviser with extensive powers; would organize and officer a native gendarmerie; would designate American sanitary engineers to clean up Haiti; and would aid in development of Haiti's resources. All points involving discretion would be decided by the United States.
Yet even so inclusive a bill of fare still had gaps: the presence and status of U.S. forces of occupation were not expressly recognized; public education was left beyond American advice or control; so were courts and judiciary. What was fundamentally wrong with the draft was that it left the United States embarrassingly restricted by treaty niceties, but was actually based on force.
While the Haitians sparred and then gagged, at accepting a treaty so bluntly offensive to national pride, the United States moved. On 21 August, Adm Caperton deployed Navy paymasters with Marine Security detachments to take over the custom houses (the principal source of national revenue - and of enormous graft) of Haiti.
The logic of customs control was irrefutable. Customs revenues would be applied by the Americans to restart government, for public works, famine relief, and other urgent needs. It also brought home to the elite upper classes (which is to say all politicians) some hard practicalities of foreign intervention. For that entire class, whose livelihood had been the public treasury, the blow, square in the pocketbook, was disastrous.
Adding injury, Caperton promptly stabilized the Haitian currency at a fixed rate for the dollar, thus putting out of business the currency speculation, Haitian and foreign, that had so often gutted the treasury. Dartiguenave's finance minister pled in vain that all his friends were making their living from a floating currency and "it would be an economic crime to ruin their business."
Not surprisingly, while the Americans pressed ever harder for their treaty, a gust of national animosity broke and gathered force with each new custom house seizure.
After first imposing martial law and press censorship - neither unfamiliar in past days to any Haitian politician or journalist, to be sure - Adm Caperton proceeded to twist Dartiguenave's arm, even stopping his salary and that of every senator and deputy involved in treaty ratification. On 11 November, the admiral went to the president with a final message: the United States intended to stay in Haiti, would pacify the country as necessary and would mete out to those offering opposition, senators included, the treatment their conduct warranted. The velvet glove was off.
That afternoon, in a thundersquall of impassioned oratory, the senate ratified, 27-6. Now the United States was in Haiti to stay, and the Haitians knew it.
From the sidelines, French Minister Girard reported from Port-du-Prince to Paris: "In order to realize its programs the United States may well have to undertake a campaign throughout the interior which will exceed anticipations and present difficulties."
Even as Minister Girard wrote, reports coming from the north depicted armed and unsubdued bands of Cacos throughout their forbidding mountains. At the mouth of the Artibonite, from Gonaives to St. Marc, other bands of irreconcilable noirs (blacks) were coalescing to oppose the blancs (whites) and their mulatre (mulatto) president from the south.2
The military force which had been swiftly built up in Haiti comprised a Marine brigade composed of the 1st and 2d Regiments, both from the Advance Base Force, and the new field artillery battalion. Totaling 88 officers and 1,941 enlisted Marines, it was backed by several armored cruisers and gunboats. The commander was Col Littleton W. T. Waller, "the personification of those qualities," wrote Capt Beach of the Navy, "that have made the Marine Corps famous."
Waller - a dynamic Virginian with 33 years' service including Egypt, Boxer Rebellion, Samar and as brigade-commander in the Cuban Pacification and at Veracruz - probably had no peer among American officers in the tactics of pacification and what was then called "colonial infantry." Like the Lord in Exodus 15:3, he was eminently a man of war, but in no way a stereotype blockhead colonel. Energetic, quick-minded, practical and extremely firm, Waller was soon to be running Haiti in a style elite politicians came to detest.
To safeguard Cap Haitien, Haiti's second city, Adm Caperton sent the cruiser Connecticut in mid-August with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, under Waller's second-in-command, Col E. K. Cole. Cole was to secure the Cap and pacify the hinterland as his forces permitted.
The American plan was to demobilize Cacos willing to be brought in, and to subdue whatever Cacos remained in the field. Neither objective could be attained until the Dominican frontier was sealed off to deny sanctuary and arms from over the border.
The Cacos's initial tactic, both in the north and around Gonaives, was to prevent food from coming in to the towns. Gonaives was the first trouble spot. Beginning his blockade in September, the local Caco leader, Rameau, cut the water supply and laid siege with 400 men.
A Marine company led by Maj Smedley D. Butler, one of Waller's most capable officers, was thereupon moved to Gonaives by gunboat with orders to lift the siege and get trains running down the rickety railroad going inland, to insure delivery of food.
The first clash occurred at dusk on 20 September when Rameau tried to burn a railroad bridge. As "Call to Arms" sounded, Marines who had been sweltering in billets piled out as they were with weapons, field hats, shoes, skivvies and nothing else. They scattered the Cacos far and wide. Next day, this time with trousers on, Butler's people caught up with Rameau and 500 Cacos inland at Poteaux, where, after a brief fire-fight, Rameau was glad enough to parley. On promise of future good behavior, he was turned loose.
Alas, Rameau's promises were written in water. Five days later he led his Cacos in another foray, which proved to be his last. Butler and "Sunny Jim" Vandegrift, his blue-eyed lieutenant, caught him up the railroad and, when the Cacos again surrendered, Rameau ("a sour-looking vicious little devil, "Butler later said) was sent south for a sojourn in the newly scrubbed-out Penitentiary.
Taking note, Adm Caperton wrote Washington, "We need to give the Cacos around Cap Haitien a little of the same medicine."
That same day when Butler yanked Rameau off his horse and thus ended Caco depredations in the lower Artibonite was a bad one in the north. The Cap, like Gonaives, had been invested by the Cacos, cutting off food and water, and even levying taxes in the hinterland.
To break this siege, Col Cole promptly pushed out patrols. On 26 September, Cacos led by Morancy and Petion Jn.-Baptiste ambushed a patrol at the Haut-du-Cap outside town. When a second patrol came to the rescue, it was jumped on the way in. Col Cole then marched the rest of his battalion to the scene.
Wearing the red scarves of Ogoun, Voodoo god of war, the Cacos banged away as if the French were coming back to restore slavery. The Marines lost two killed and eight wounded, but 40 Haitian dead were sprawled behind when the Cacos gave way and ran for their base at Quartier Morin.
Next day, when Cole hiked a column from the Cap to Quartier Morin, the Cacos melted away, leaving behind only a Dr. Fouche, claiming to be their surgeon. Fouche "said the war was over; they wanted to be good... that the day had been a severe lesson to them, and they realized it would not pay to attack Marines again."
Morancy and Petion had indeed learned their lesson, but other lessons remained to be taught. Caco bands were still operating from sanctuaries deep in the mountains, word of which gradually reached Col Waller, who now determined to give the north his personal attention.
To close the border gateway, Ouanaminthe, Waller paid off and demobilized the ragged Haitian garrison and installed a Marine company. This sealed the frontier. Next, Waller stationed a company at Grande Riviere du Nord and one at Ft. Liberty, comprising, with Ouanaminthe, a triangle of key towns garrisoned between the Cap and Santo Domingo. Each was a base for intensive patrolling. "My idea," Waller said:
...was to round up these people if possible in the mountains of the north and find out exactly where their headquarters were. There were certain forts that were used as points of incubation for these revolutions... It was very difficult to find the exact location of these, so I ordered a reconnaissance made, which covered between 300 and 500 miles around.
Maj Butler, experienced in such work from China, the Philippines and Nicaragua, was put in charge of a 40-man patrol with the mission of finding the Caco strongholds.3
Butler's route was a traverse from Ft. Liberty through some of the most forbidding terrain in Haiti, much of it unvisited by any foreigner since the expulsion of the French in 1803. In describing the country, Butler later, and accurately, used the 18th century simile, "Haiti looks like a crumpled-up piece of paper."
On the afternoon of 24 October, Butler at last came in sight of Ft. Capois, seven miles south of St. Suzanne, reputedly the main Caco base. It was, Butler said:
...a mountain-peak about a mile away, towering 1,000 feet above us. The cone-shaped peak was circled with rough stone walls and trenches. Every detail was outlined distinctly in the afternoon sunlight. Through my field glasses I saw men crawling over the ramparts.
This was a lot more than 40 men could handle, and Butler commenced what he hoped would be an unopposed withdrawal. It was not to be. After dark, while the patrol was negotiating a mountain stream, a blast of rifle fire ripped out from the bush. Some 400 Cacos from Ft. Capois and nearby Ft. Dipitie, three miles east, had closed in. All night the Marines were surrounded and under steady fire. Worse still, the bourrique (burro) carrying the one machine gun had been killed while fording the stream. To retrieve the weapon, GySgt Daniel Daly made his way through the Caco lines, located the dead animal, cut loose gun and ammunition and struggled back with them to the perimeter. For this feat, Daly received his second Medal of Honor.
When day broke, rather than let the Cacos close the trap, Butler attacked with everything he had. The Cacos broke and ran. One Marine platoon, led by Capt W. P. Upshur and 1stLt E. A. Osterman, despite a painful wound, chased one band all the way back to Ft. Dipitie, storming it without stopping for breath, and then demolishing the fort after killing or wounding 18 defenders. Butler then returned to Grande Riviere and reported his adventures and findings to Col Waller, who then prepared to execute his general plan.
Starting 1 November, the Marines, reinforced by two seaman companies from the Connecticut, began a westward sweep away from the Dominican border and toward the gorges of the Grande Riviere in small columns knifing systematically through Caco country. The main strongholds, virtually all ancient French forts, were reduced one by one. And so, by midNovember, the final remaining Caco citadel was Ft. Riviere.
"It was an old bastion fort," Butler said: ...with thick walls of brick and stone, built in the latter part ofthe 18th century... on the peak of Montagne Noire, 4,000 feet above the sea, midway between Grande Riviere, Dondon, San Raphael and Bahon. On three sides the masonry of the wall joined the rock of the mountain, thus forming a steep precipice into the valley. On the fourth side, a gentle slope led to the sally port.
Ft. Riviere had already been located by a reconnaissance sent out by Col Cole, who entrusted the job to Maj Butler. During the night of 17 November, three Marine companies, the Marines from Connecticut and a seaman company converged on Ft. Riviere over three trails and began the all-night climb to the crest of Montagne Noire (part of a chain that defines the watershed between Bahon and St. Raphael). At daybreak the attackers had pushed in Caco outposts and were in position. On a whistle signal from Butler, the assault commenced.
While one company maintained a steady fire on the south face, another company worked its way across the bare, fire-swept west slope leading around to the sally port. To their consternation, on reaching the dead space under the walls, the 24 men in the storming party, led by Maj Butler, found the sally port bricked up. The Caco entrance was a slippery masonry drain four feet high, three feet wide, and fifteen feet long. From inside, a Caco sentry was taking pot shots at all and sundry.
For an interminable moment all hands waited. Then Sgt Ross L. lams spat out, "Oh hell, I'm going through," and rushed the tunnel mouth. On his heels came Pvt Samuel Gross and Maj Butler. As the Caco pumped wild shots down the tunnel, the three scrambled up, miraculously unhit. Sgt Iams caught the Caco unloading and shot him down. Gross and Butler tumbled out as some 70 bandits rushed them. Covered by the three Marines fighting hand-to-hand at the tunnel mouth, the rest of the storming party scrambled into Ft. Riviere. In panic, the Haitians threw away rifles and fought with machetes, sticks and stones. Gen Josephette, the Caco leader, perhaps a devotee of Baron Samedi (Voodoo god of the grave) was killed in his (and Baron's) habitual garb black frock coat, plug hat and brass watch chain. Within a quarter hour, 50 Cacos lay dead in Ft. Riviere. For the time, the Caco movement in the north was dead with them. A ton of dynamite demolished the fort. Iams and Gross each received the Medal of Honor. Butler, like GySgt Daly, was awarded his second.
One by-product of these operations was a nervous message from Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, the preachy North Carolina politician who in 1914 clamped prohibition on the Fleet, telling Adm Caperton "a severe lesson has been taught the Cacos" and halting further operations.
But the hard fighting was over anyway. So Daniel's order, an early example of Washington interference with the details of distant operations, was moot. Trying nevertheless to explain the need for what had been done, Adm Caperton wrote the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm W. S. Benson, that the Cacos were:
...bandits alike against the Haitian peasantry and Haitian government, simple ignorant people led by vicious chiefs... They do not pretend they are fighting for their country. They are fighting for revenue only. The Cacos chiefs, assembled and individually, have made extensive demands on me for large sums of money, agreeing to give up fighting if they are paid large amounts. Any money they might be given would be to the Chiefs not to the poor Cacos. The peasantry are beginning to till their fields and begging us for protection against the Cacos and are plucking up spirit on their own account.
That Caperton was not entirely off the mark was confirmed by one of the bitterest opponents of the Americans, Antoine Pierre-Paul, who wrote:
The Cacos made a veritable industry out of guerrilla war, creating and demolishing governments; governments of nine months, of five months, and even of three months. The vandalism they made reign throughout our towns and countryside provided the pretext for the Yankee imperialists of 1915.
Pierre-Paul, the elite politician, disapproved of Caco insurrections but entertained no such qualms about uprisings by or on behalf of the elite against President Dartiguenave, whom one of their number rudely characterized as "cet gros cochon d'Anse-a-Veau" (that fat pig from Anse-a-Veau).
The U.S. occupation, wrote Minister de la Batie, was by now bitterly opposed
...by a hundred or so influential families who have lived on graft and for whom every revolution has presented a golden opportunity to fish in troubled waters.
While these people (many of whom remained closet supporters of Dr. Bobo, even in exile) had returned to authority through the installation of Dartiguenave, an elite President, they had, as they saw it, derived little or no power and none of the monetary gain to have been expected from such a change. Now they arranged to do something about all this.
On the night of 4-5 January 1916, the darkness of Port-au-Prince was shattered by what the French minister described as a "vive fusillade" directed against the Marines' barracks, the provost marshal's headquarters and the National Palace. Men dashed through the streets calling, "Vivent les Cacos!" Marine sentries returned fire sparingly when they could make out targets, killing or wounding five men at various points before the uproar ceased and the assailants scattered.
What had taken place (later known among Haitians as "the Pierre-Paul Revolution") was a typically ineffectual elite uprising of a kind well known in Haiti's past. Probably financed by German merchants, who invested in revolutions as Chicago plays grain futures, Pierre-Paul had gathered together a stock of arms, hired some Cacos and town riffraff and launched a night attack. The Caco leaders were pursued and quickly caught and locked up. Pierre-Paul got away on a head start and lived to profit by an eventual amnesty after which he drank champagne in the National Palace with Dartiguenave. His Caco hirelings, dead or in prison, were not so lucky.
Pierre-Paul later wrote that his force had numbered 800, and he personally had "routed" 150 American Marines leaving the streets blocked with U.S. corpses. Nothing remotely resembling this took place. There were no American casualties.
Soon after, Minister de la Batie, again reporting elite discontent added, "The peasants, the pure noirs, are, like the tradesmen in the towns, delighted with the American occupation."
In 1916, soon after the occupation had established the native Haitian Gendarmerie, officered by Marine officers and NCO's (with Navy doctors and corpsmen as Gendarmerie medical and dental personnel), the American authorities began to think about roads, of which Haiti had virtually none. At this juncture, a Haitian cabinet minister showed the Americans a copy of the 1863 Code Rural, one section of which read:
Public highways and communications will be maintained and repaired by the inhabitants, in rotation, in each section through which roads pass, and each time repairs are needed.
Enforcement of this law was specifically assigned by the code to the police. Here, obviously, was one preoccupation statute Smedley Butler (breveted as a Haitian brigadier general and commandant of the new Gendarmerie) was prepared to enforce. The practice, derived from old French law, was called, "corvee. " Commencing in July 1916, a nationwide corvee went into effect. Peasants nominated by local authorities were notified by gendarmes to pay a tax or report for three days' work. "Nobody had any money, so they worked," Butler later testified. Going on, Butler said, "I was well aware that this thing was capable of tremendous abuse, and had been abused by Haitians previously."
To offset the possibility of just such abuse, peasants on corvee were to be fed, sheltered and, as work progressed, diverted by bamboches (parties described naively by the American as "Voodoo dances"). Moreover, to get President Dartiguenave out of the National Palace and into those numerous regions where no president had before set foot, Butler did his best to rattle the Model T presidential touring car out every week to some corvee.
On location, so to speak, and sharing the rations of good poix-et-riz (rice and red beans) and taffia (high-octane rum), Dartiguenave would remind the peasants they were doing this for Haiti and their own good and not as forced labor for blanc masters.
And so, for a time, it went.
By March 1918, the Gendarmerie-run corvee had built or rebuilt 407 miles of key roads at a cost of $205 a mile, mostly for cement for the culverts and food for the workers. So popular were some corvee camps that workers stayed on as long as a month and finally had to be herded home by gendarmes. Unfortunately, this was not the only herding that went on.
The weak link in the system was that Haitian officials and gendarmes, both imbued with the old traditions of the press-gang and military highhandedness, had a hand in it. Magistrates and gendarmes soon found they could fill their pockets by exempting those who could pay while impressing those who could not. When the Marines gave each peasant an exemption card after his annual stint, the local headman would tear it up and send him back to work with a thwack of his cocmacac. By late 1918 (after Butler's departure for France), it was not unusual to see peasants roped up for corvee in some distant place like conscripts for the old army.
Thus it came about that the corvee, despite its benefits, however firm its legality, whatever its indisputably Haitian origin, became a source of widespread resentment. Worse still, it formed the basis of rumors known as telediol: The blancs are come hither to restore slavery; the corvee is only the beginning.
Butler's successor as Gendarmerie commandant, Maj A. S. Williams (who caught much blame for subsequent events) put the matter concisely:
The results of this exploitation were two: First it created in the minds of the peasants a dislike for the American occupation and its two instruments, the Marines and Gendarmerie, and, second, imbued the native enlisted man with an entirely false conception of his relations with the civil population. As the corvee became more unpopular, more difficulty was experienced in obtaining men; and this difficulty caused the gendarmes to resort to methods which were often brutal but quite consistent with their training under Haitian officials. I soon realized that the one of the great causes of American unpopularity among the Haitians was the corvee.
On 1 October 1918, Williams acted on his misgivings and abolished the corvee.. It was too late.
Charlemagne Massena Peralte of Hinche, by color (noir), region, and family a sworn foe of the mulatre Dartiguenave, was a man large in spirit, pride, intelligence and ambition - in short, a gros negre.4 In early 1918 he had been convicted of a midnight raid on Gendarmerie headquarters at Hinche, and, caught at Ouanaminthe before he could skip into Santo Domingo, was sentenced to five years' hard labor at the Cap.
To borrow one of Dr. Bobo's self-descriptions, Peralte was no "improvised person." Educated (a graduate of St. Louis de Gonzague, one Haiti's two ultraelite prep schools), intimate of elite politicians, a general in his own right in the olden time, Charlemagne was soon to describe himself as "a young man of family belonging to the high society of Haiti, a devotee of progress and of civilization."
Charlemagne was, therefore, no mere Caco nor was he the charismatic primitive that legend has depicted, but rather, as we now know, an adherent of Dr. Bobo, who from exile in Kingston, Jamaica, was watching affairs closely and keeping in regular touch with opponents of the regime and of the Americans.5
For such a man to be sweeping the gutters of the Cap under guard was too much. On 3 September 1918, just 27 days before Williams ended the corvee, Charlemagne induced his gendarme "chaser" to join him in flight into the mountains. Here he quickly rallied Dr. Bobo's old Cacos. Soon joined by bands from his home in Hinche and exploiting the general grievance of the corvee, he proclaimed war "to drive the invaders into the sea and free Haiti."
What Charlemagne did not proclaim but Haitians understood and the Americans did not, was that he was also mounting a traditional rebellion of the noirs of the north and the Artibonite to topple southern Dartiguenave and make way for Rosalvo Bobo.
Charlemagne's initial moves, as predicted, were against outlying posts manned by small Gendarmerie detachments. As the gendarmes were the visible symbols of the regime and also of the corvee, these attacks served the common purposes of discrediting the occupation and acquiring modern weapons.
On the night of 17 October 1918, a hundred Cacos stole down on Hinche to capture Charlemagne's home town and there raise his banner. At 2200 they attacked. But the Gendarmerie commander had been warned. As the Cacos swarmed in, each wearing the red badge of Ogoun, the defenders opened fire. In a half hour, the bandits were routed, leaving 35 dead. Two gendarmes were killed.
Charlemagne's next strike had more success. Before dawn on 10 November, 60 Cacos hit Maissade, next garrison northwest of Hinche, routed the 10-man Gendarmerie detachments (no Marines were present), burned the barracks and sacked the town.
For the next four months the pot boiled higher. More than 20 contacts with large Caco bands were made by the hard-pressed Gendarmerie. In some instances, odds were 20 or 30 to 1, as at Ranquitte, where a Marine sergeant and two gendarmes held their post against 70 Cacos. On 21 March at Dufailly, 100 Cacos ambushed a patrol of five gendarmes led by Marine Sgt N. B. Moskoff. Moskoff fell mortally wounded at the first volley, but the gendarmes stood fast, lashed their blanc leader to a burro, and began a two-hour retirement on Mirebalais. When the senior gendarme was decapitated by a machete stroke, the remaining four nevertheless protected Moskoff, already past help, and finally reached town.
Ten days later, another detachment, this time at Dessalines (three gendarmes against 200 Cacos) held the village. Twice driven from their little barracks, they finally repulsed the attackers, who left nine dead. Evidently the new Gendarmerie would fight.
Col John H. Russell, the Marine brigade commander, of whom we shall hear more, estimated that by now Charlemagne had some 5,000 active adherents. Himself controlling operations in the north, he had given his brevet to Benoit Batraville, who was keeping things hot in the upper Artibonite.
Batraville had once been chef de police at Mirebalais, where he sullenly surrendered office to the new Gendarmerie. Benoit, moreover, (though the Americans would not know it until next year) was also an adherent of Dr. Bobo from whom he, too, heard regularly.
On 16 March, Williams admitted what should have been recognized much earlier, that he had a full-scale rebellion on his hands and that the Gendarmerie was out of its depth. He therefore requested that the Marine brigade be committed to the campaign.6
Col Russell responded with what he had. Six small Marine companies were deployed to the hot spots: two to Hinche, two to Lascahobas, one to Mirebalais and one to St. Michel. Twenty-five per cent of the brigade was required to be on the trail, patrolling around the clock. Col F. M. (Dopey) Wise, an officer of extreme energy and combat experience, was ordered from the States in mid-1919 to supersede Williams. Besides help from the Marines in Cuba, came a more portentous reinforcement, Haiti's first airplanes (seven HS-2 seaplanes based at Bizoton, and six World War I Jennies), which debarked at Port-au-Prince and were soon flying.7
During April through September 1919 Marines and gendarmes fought 131 actions ranging from skirmishes to pitched battles. Once Charlemagne's camp was overrun. Three weeks later, Batraville's horse was captured. But Charlemagne and Benoit rode higher than ever.
How high Charlemagne was riding comes through in a letter he wrote BGen A. W. Catlin, who had assumed command of the brigade. After flaying the Dartiguenave government, Charlemagne went on in high style to the Gendarmerie:
It is vain to hope for progress without an organization to insure law and order... Unhappily the Gendarmerie is made up of ex-convicts, jitney-drivers, former houseboys, and men of no account. It is commanded not by American (sic) officers... but by Marines dubbed officers for this purpose, having no capacity to discipline that evil creature called the Gendarmerie.
Were only Dartiguenave brought low, Charlemagne continued, "Haitians would then unite with avid enthusiasm to support the better American element which has already won its laurels in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Isle of Hawaii."
Thus aligning himself on the side of law and order, as protector of property and as firm supporter of imperialism and Manifest Destiny, Charlemagne got around to Dr. Bobo, "a man who affirms himself the greatest and most sincere admirer in Haiti of the Americans...."
There were other letters as well, not from Charlemagne but to him from Port-au-Prince where a brother, Saint-Remy, and his sister, Marie-Louise, acted as agents. These letters, addressed under the code names "Mais Goilte," provided a flow of intelligence spiced wth gossip, transmitted funds and advice and, rather oddly, recounted contacts with the British legation together with puzzling references to "an Englishman," never identified, who was or purported to be a foreign agent of the cause.
It was all so grandiose and at times mad. "The Englishman" would buy ammunition and have an interview with King George V, then "go to Japan, France, and Russia." (Marie-Louise had mortgaged a house to give him $2,000 expense money.)
Nor must Voodoo be overlooked. For $500 Mme. de Thebes, a mambo, would hold a service to cause the gendarmes to become "paralyzed and confused." But Charlemagne must first send by urgent messenger (he did) a pinch of earth from each commune in the north and upper Artibonite, else the ouanga (sorcery) would fail.
On 6 October 1919 Charlemagne had a band of Cacos in the hills 15 miles north of the capital. There he wrote a manifesto to the British charge d'affaires:
Monsieur le Ministre,
I have the honor to inform you that I am at the gates of the Capital with the Divisions that compose my guard.
Without deploying troops who now garrison Ft. Liberte, Valliere, Grande Riviere, Le Trou, the Cap, St. Michel, Gonaives, Petite Riviere, Lascahobas, and Mirebalais, my effective strength including my general staff, is great. I would already have stormed the Capital save that I do not wish to expose the householders, foreign residents, and the Capital itself to such harsh calamity.
I now address you, M. le Ministre, as the protector of society and the family, that you may concert action with your colleagues and the Papal Nuncio, to settle the situation before I am forced to change my mind....
Receiving no reply by nightfall, Charlemagne launched his "divisions" (300 Cacos) toward the city. At 0400 they reached the outskirts and were joined by sympathizers in the town.
The Marines and gendarmes were ready. Within minutes after the Cacos spilled into Port-au-Prince, they came under sharp counterattack. Next day, in their turn, the Gendarmerie found and attacked the Caco camp, killing 30 bandits and capturing Charlemagne's prized field gun. But Charlemagne was nowhere to be found. He had stayed prudently to the rear during the melee at Port-au-Princ and in the Cul-de-Sac.
Suppression of Caco Rebellion was getting nowhere, nor would it until Charlemagne Peralte could be laid by the heels.
None knew this better than the new Gendarmerie commandant, Col Wise. Within days after assuming command in anticipation of PHOENIX operations in Vietnam, he sent word to Maj J. J. Meade, commanding the Department of the North: "Get Charlemagne." To get Charlemagne, thereupon, became the highly secret mission of Gendarmerie Capt H. H. Hanneken, a Marine sergeant in command of that Caco hotbed, Grande Riviere. As Wise later wrote,
It was a pretty big order. It meant running down one Haitian out of several million in a country as big as the State of New York (sic). And that one Haitian was surrounded by his friends, in a country almost entirely sympathetic to him, was protected by a fanatical bodyguard, never slept two nights in the same place, and must be run down in a tangled maze of mountains and valleys of which there were no accurate maps.
In August 1919, Jn-Baptiste Conze, one-time Caco general and habitant of Grande Riviere, left town by night after letting it be known he had enough of the blancs and would henceforth be found with the Cacos. With Conze were Cherubin Blot, and, as secretaire (as the chief staff officer and secretary of a Caco band was always called), a Gendarmerie deserter, late Pvt Jn.-Edmond Francois. Conze's intended base of operations was Ft. Capois, that same stronghold - five hours east of Grande Riviere - Maj Butler had cleaned out in 1915. Since Conze was well-heeled with rum, rations and money, Cacos quickly rallied to his standard. He soon became a leader of standing.
What none knew save Hanneken, Maj Meade and Col Wise was that Conze and his confederates had been bribed by the authorities and were being supported with Hanneken's funds. Each week, Pvt Francois - on occasion even Conze himself - would steal into Grande Riviere for a secret meeting with Hanneken.
Like many Haitians, Charlemagne was suspicious, a trait to which he owed much success and continued survival. He was, therefore, slow to accept Conze. However, after the carefully staged, purposely conspicuous failure of a Gendarmerie attack on Ft. Capois, led by Hanneken, Charlemagne sent Conze warm congratulations and a commission as general de division.
Conze now urged Charlemagne to join him in capturing Grande Riviere itself. Charlemagne assented. After his rebuff at Port-auPrince, to take a town would be a great thing. On 26 October, with his brother, St.-Remy and 1,200 Cacos, Charlemagne arrived at Ft. Capois. The plan was to attack Grande Riviere in the night of 31 October. Charlemagne would wait at Masere, a half hour south of town in the river gorge, for the result.
While Conze and Charlemagne concerted plans for the 31st, so did Meade and Hanneken.
From the Cap on 29 October went a secret radio message:
CHARLEMAGNE AT FT CAPOIS AND ALL PLANS MADE TO CAPTURE OR KILL HIM AND BREAK UP HIS FORCES. UNLESS VERY UNEXPECTED HAPPENS THIS WILL BE DONE....8
Then, insuring against the very unexpected, the Marine commander directed establishment of a chain of blocking positions on all trails across Charlemagne's possible lines of retreat, from St. Raphael to Valliere. The frag order concluded:
ABSOLUTE SECRECY AND QUIET MUST PREVAIL. CHARLEMAGNE WEARING BLUE SUIT, PANAMA HAT, RIDES MULE. SET UP FIELD RADIO STATION AT RANQUITTE.
On 30 October, while Grande Riviere slept, Maj Meade brought up strong gendarme reinforcements with a Marine machine gun section to lie close inside the barracks next day.
Meanwhile, Hanneken briefed and disguised 18 picked gendarmes and his own executive officer, 2dLt (corporal, USMC) William R. Button, who, like Hanneken, spoke fluent Creole. Garbed as Cacos in worn denim (the two blancs blacked with burnt cork), the party slipped south after night fell to lay an ambush at Masere.
Some 700 Cacos filed by along the riverbed, but no Charlemagne. Then came Pvt Francois with news: Charlemagne had decided not to come down but would wait and see what happened. Once Conze had the town, he was to send a detachment to notify Charlemagne and lead him in.
Hanneken and his men thereupon became that detachment, toiling up pitch-black mountain trails toward the leader's camp. From below soon came the distant sputter of musketry interspersed with the hammer of Meade's heavy Brownings; the firing slackened and ceased.9
Six Caco outposts lay in their path, but Pvt Francois had the password, "General Jean," in compliment to Conze. At the last outpost, Hanneken reported, "the leader was on the job" and tried to examine Button's "nice rifle" (a BAR). In Creole, Button snapped, "Let go! Don't you see my chief is getting out of sight!" and broke free.
By the light of a fire, Francois pointed out Charlemagne, dressed just as intelligence had reported, in a blue shirt. Hanneken drew his pistol, disengaged the safety, approached within 15 feet and put two .45 caliber slugs through Charlemagne's torso. The aim was true. Hanneken had never missed a bobber on record day. "Two bullet wounds on left chest," said the autopsy report, "both bullets having penetrated the heart." Button emptied his weapon in the bodyguard before a woman kicked out the fire. Hanneken grappled the sticky, bloodsoaked shirt and stayed beside his quarry during the counterattacks and shooting that continued until dawn.
By morning light the patrol ransacked the bivouac and found Charlemagne's correspondence, which betrayed numerous secret supporters. Trussed across a captured bourrique, all that remained of Charlemagne was brought down to Grande Riviere, then immediately to the Cap. Abbe Pocreau, who had been his friend and confessor, identified the corpse and performed the last rites.
During the week after Charlemagne's death, Meade's cordon of trail blocks and ambushes prevented most of the Bobo-ist bands from making their way south over the mountains to rally on Benoit Batraville to whom, as ministre en chef, Charlemagne's mantle had passed. More than 300 Cacos were netted, most on promises of good behavior, and in the role of bons habitants, returned to their huts and truck gardens. Both Hanneken and Button received thoroughly earned Medals of Honor. Conze got $2,000, and Pvt Francois (by then Sgt Francois) was well rewarded. The north of Haiti now entered a time of peace and quiet.
Charlemagne's downfall brought peace to the north, but the upper Artibonite was far from quiet. Benoit Batraville was the cause.
Benoit had some 2,500 Cacos in mountain fastnesses southeast of Mirebalais, which 150 years before had been a stronghold of runaway slaves from Santo Domingo. More specifically, a triangle in the Montagnes Trou d'Eau, roughly defined by Savanette, Cornillon and Mirebalais, was alive with Caco camps in terrain as rough and inaccessible as any in Haiti.
Again in command after a brief interval at home, Col Russell, with a reinforced brigade (up to 1,346 officers and men) and a battleworthy Gendarmerie of 2,700, prepared all forces including the aviation squadron for an all-out campaign against Benoit in January 1920.
Russell bore down hard on improved intelligence and divided the Caco country into tactical areas of operation with troops assigned to each. Aided by his able chief of staff, LtCol Louis McC. Little, who spoke fluent French, Russell planned to harry without letup every Caco band once located. "Little really drove us," recounted Gen G. C. Thomas, then a lieutenant. "We would come in from a 15-day patrol at daybreak, exchange our enlisted men and be off by dark."
Batraville's reaction was characteristic of a leader Russell was soon to describe as "a much more aggressive man than Charlemagne, but lacking in intelligence and leadership." Prompted by Dr. Bobo,10 before dawn on 15 January 1920, Benoit marshaled some 300 Cacos north of Port-au-Prince, some disguised in stolen Gendarmeie uniforms. This time, there was no high-flown ultimatum to the diplomatic corps. Benoit could not write.
Russell's intelligence had not failed him. Marines and Gendarmerie reacted with speed and sharpness. Patrols fanned forward through Port-au-Prince. One such (12 men with two BAR's, under 1stLt Thomas) collided head-on with one of Benoit's three columns making for the Banque Nationale. Gen Thomas recalled, "Near the Iron Market we saw a large number of Cacos coming down the street. We detrucked and opened fire. I had one man killed and six wounded in five minutes, but we mowed the Cacos down."
Other combat patrols ranged the Cul-de-Sac, which the retreating Cacos had to cross to reach their mountain sanctuaries. By daybreak, 66 Cacos were found dead and many more had been cut off, captured and wounded, including the leader of the attack, one Solomon Janvier. Surviving Cacos ever after referred to this night as "la debacle. "
Following la debacle, it became increasingly clear that Benoit's days were numbered. Various chiefs began to surrender. As they did, Russell sent them into the field with patrols in the fashion of Vietnamese Chieu-Hoi, to manifest their well-being and change of heart to fellow paysans. Alive and well-treated, these exgenerals proved to be powerful persuaders.
But Benoit fought on, while Mme. Benoit, his handsome wife, posing as a market woman, pistol tucked up under her dress, would freely ride her bay mule into Port-au-Prince or Mirebalais with other Caco wives and pick up supplies and gossip.
At dawn, 4 April 1920, Benoit scored his last victory. A small patrol, three Marines led by 2dLt Lawrence Muth, breasted the slope of Morne Bourogue near Lascahobas. Sighting a few Cacos ahead, they opened fire. Seconds later the whole hillside blazed with muzzle flashes from a powerful ambush laid by Benoit himself. "It was a very good position," recounted one of Benoit's lieutenants under later interrogation, "the white officer was mortally wounded by our first volley."
Shooting their way out while aiding a wounded comrade, the two remaining riflemen left Muth for dead. Then Benoit's men closed in and dragged him into the bush. That afternoon, a patrol led by Col Little himself made contact with Benoit and, after a hot fight, recovered all that was left of 2dLt Muth.
According to a prisoner, Muth had momentarily revived. Too weak to stand, shot in head and stomach, he was propped up while Benoit made a speech. Then with his great war machete and with certain ceremonies, Benoit (who was a bocor, Voodoo wizard) cut off his head. What next follows was described on oath by LtCol R. S. Hooker: "They cut off his private parts, took out his heart and liver, opened up his stomach, and took out his intestines, and took two large strips of flesh from his thighs... His heart and liver were eaten...."
Confirming Hooker, Methieus Richard, the captured general, said that bits of brain from Muth's cleft skull were smeared on each Caco's cartridges "so that," he said, "when we fire at Marines we do not miss."
Only 45 days remained to Benoit. On 19 May, on a peasant's trip, patrols closed in on him in the huge rocks atop Morne 'ti Bois Pin, five miles southwest of Lascahobas. When the Cacos opened fire, Benoit still wearing Muth's binoculas, was cut down by a Marine BAR. As he struggled to rise, Sgt A. A. Taubert finished him with a pistol shot.
Thus ended the career of Benoit Batraville, and with it not only the last hopes of the Caco Rebellion, but also of the mulatre doctor for whose ambitions so many Cacos unknowingly had paid.
The best evidence, not very satisfactory for either side, suggests that, in putting down the Cacos, Marines and Gendarmerie sustained 98 killed and wounded. From 1915 to 1920, some 2,250 Cacos may have been killed. This wide disparity, over 20 to 1, between Caco dead and opposing casualties, is usually attributed to superior firepower and weapons training of Marines and gendarmes (but both in fact were lightly armed only with rifles and pistols and a few automatic rifles and machine guns) or to unnecesssary killing by forces of the occupation. Examination of reports on which Caco casualties seem to have been based, however, suggests that many such may have been inflated, particularly if measured by the rigorous if grisly methodology of the Vietnam body count. It would be surprising if the original count of 2,250 Caco dead would withstand reexamination by today's more searching criteria.
The Caco Rebellion at most involved no more than one-quarter of Haiti and a fifth of its population. Although never so recognized by the blancs, it was in most ways a traditional revolt of noirs of the north and Artibonite against a mulatre regime of the south and west, typically abetted by that regime's opponents in Port-au-Prince and in exile. Unquestionably fueled and perhaps ignited by the corvee and related abuses in the central regions, the revolt was never national -- not a shot was fired south of the Cul-de-Sac -- nor, as revisionists have since painted it, nationalistic.
The revolt's anti-blanc doctrinaire nationalist coloration comes almost entirely from the literature of elite resistance groups in Port-au-Prince, who were indeed animated by such sentiments, sentiments nonetheless beyond the compass of peasant Cacos unlikely to be motivated to fight and die by Port-au-Prince handbills and pamphlets they could not read.
The Cacos were mercenary noir bands who dominated and oppressed the north of Haiti and the Ajtibonite Valley. They had played a controlling role in Haitian politics for a half century by successively making and unmaking presidents of their choice who paid them as long as the public treasury allowed. When the money ran out, they found a new candidate and installed him by revolution.
The gaping fault-lines that divide Haitian society and politics are those of race - between pure blacks (noirs) and mulattoes (mulatres) and those of region (between the people of the north and Artibonite Valley and mountains, and the southern part below and including Port-au-Prince). The north is politically dominated by noirs, the south by mulatres.
As events were soon to prove, Smedley Butler was superbly equipped for the operations in the north. Later on, when as Commandant of the Haitian Gendarmerie, he tried to play politics with the Haitians, he was far out of his depth. Dejean de la Batie, the astute French Minister in 1917, was to report to Paris: "This officer, who without doubt has splendid military qualities... has blundered by involving himself in politics... Naive, self-assured, exceedingly optimistic, not speaking French, he has been readily duped by the politicians... In the present situation, because of his amateurishness, Maj Butler is a veritable menace!"
In the way forceful men sometimes convey an impression of bigness, Charlemagne has been mythologized as a man of powerful physique. His autopsy report and prison medical record, however, show that at 5' 9" and 140 pounds, he was barely of middle height and spare in weight. He was born in 1886.
An intelligence report of 25 May 1918 shows agents systematically combing the north to tabulate the location and strength of each Gendarmerie detachment on behalf of Dr. Bobo and another leader, Charles Zamor. This report also accurately predicted subsequent Caco tactics of picking off small posts first and then working up to larger efforts.
By today's standards the designation of brigade would be a misnomer. The entire Marine forces in Haiti numbered but 948 officers and men.
Haiti's first airfield, a dusty grass strip just north of Port-au-Prince later bore the name of 2dLt James G. Bowen, killed in 1920 in the country's first air crash when the ancient Liberty engine of his Jenny cut out just after take-off.
Throughout the Charlemagne operations, the Marines communicated only by primitive field radio or courier. Use of insecure Haitian telegraph or telephone systems was expressly forbidden.
The area traversed by Hanneken, though familiar to him and even more to his gendarmes, was still unmapped. Thus the exact location of Charlemagne's camp (and of his death) remains something of a mystery. Hanneken's report simply placed Charlemagne "in the mountains between Grande Riviere and Ft. Capois on the top of a high hill." To get there, he wrote, "required three hours' hard mountain climbing." These clues suggest the camp may have been on Morne Celestin or Morne Dulonay, about four miles southeast of Grande Riviere. But Haitian tradition locates the site near Morne Pompee, seven miles south of town, where to this day a steep ravine bears Charlemagne's name.
Methieus Richard, one of Batraville's generals who was captured by the Gendarmerie, stated under interrogation, "Benoit often told us he was fighting for a man named Bobo. Benoit attacked Port-au-Prince after receiving a letter from Bobo."