February 1931

The Taking of Fort Riviere

Volume 15, Issue 4
Category: 

In telling of the battle at Fort Riviere, I must warn you of two things: First, I am telling it solely from memory and doubtless have forgotten many of the details, and second, this account is not for the purpose of exposing either correct or erroneous methods of procedure in small wars. I took part in this battle, and it was small enough so that I saw the entire battlefield; but a few years have passed since it happened, so some of the sad, amusing or instructive incidents of the episode will be lacking.

Fort Riviere was built by the French, sometime before 1800, probably by that part of Napoleon's army commanded by Captain-General LeClerc. who married Pauline, Napoleon's sister, and who maintained his headquarters in Cap Francois. It is southeast of the Citadel of La Ferriere and some ten or twelve miles further inland. After the Haitiens declared their independence and "King" Henry Christophe built the Citadel, the Haitiens must have used old Ft. Riviere, along with Ft. Capois and Camp Berthol, in their chain of communications between Ft. Liberty and Cape Haitien. If an enemy approached by sea. a smoke signal on the mountain guarding the entrance to Cape Haitien Bay could be seen by Christophe's troops on the Citadel, who could in turn signal Ft. Riviere, and so on around the circle to Ft. Liberty, and thus summon the forces to meet the invader. On a clear day the small old fort on the outskirts of the town of Grand Riviere, about eight miles north of Ft. Riviere, may also be seen, but the peaks of the BlackMountains, just east of Ft. Riviere, mask the view of Bahon, five miles away. Clouds and fogs often fill the valleys so that on looking out from this mountain stronghold there appears nothing more than the tops of the surrounding mountains, giving the impression of islands in a foamy sea. The marines who landed in Cape Haitien in 1915 could plainly see that vast fortress, the Citadel, which cost Christophe 30,000 lives to build, away to the south, but they never suspected the existence of Ft. Riviere; for that old French fort, deeper south in the mountains, had stood overgrown and unused for over a century, until it became a Caco stronghold.

Fort Riviere is built of rock with loop-holed masonry walls, several feet thick. There is no roof overhead, or if there ever was one, it has long since disappeared. It is about square with each side wall over one hundred feet long. Thick brush, vines and trees almost hide the north wall from view, and the original arched entrance, near the northeast corner, was blocked up with dirt years ago. Old trees, taller than the archway, are growing in the trail. From the top of the north wall it is thirty or forty feet to the ground below. The east and south Avails are from fifteen to twenty-five feet higher than the ground outside. The west wall, near its center, is but little higher than a man's head, but the ground slopes away toward each end where the Avails reach a height of over fifteen feet. Because it was less work, I suppose, to break through the west wall at its lowest point, the Cacos had knocked out the masonry there and thus made the only entrance to the fort. The gap is too narrow for two men to go through abreast, and its edges are sharp rocks. Partition walls, some as high as the outside walls, divide the interior into rooms; these walls are stone and in many places have tumbled down. The floors are all earth covered with high grass and bushes; perhaps in the days when the fort was new it had a paved rock floor and may have had underground chambers and magazines; a deep, completely overgrown hole toward the northwest corner, and numerous loose stones, bear out this suspicion. The sketch, photographs, and map, which accompany this article, will give a clearer picture of Ft. Riviere than my description.

In 1915 the Marines had chased the Cacos all over Northern Haiti; they had carried fire and gun and "Canned Bill" through the enemy's country. Our 13th Company had forsaken Cape Haitien after the scrap at Haut-de-Cap on Sunday, the 26th of September, and had gone on to occupy Grand Riviere. In October, 1915, we fought up and down the railroad from Grand Riviere to Bahon, and at Bahon on the night of the 22nd. On the 28th we located the Caco main body, if such it could be called, at Ft. Riviere. We found out, quite by accident, that there was an old fort up in those Black Mountains. Our guide was a captured Caco, who having guided us was afraid to return to his gang and hung to us for protection. He had heard of Ft. Riviere, but even he did not know its exact location. While chasing bandits we stumbled on the fort. The Cacos did not stay in Ft. Riviere, and at that time were in scattered bands everywhere in the mountains; their conch shell horns and Voodoo drums sounded off down in the direction of the Horseshoe Bend of the railroad, between Bahon and Grand Riviere. We fought some more up and down the railroad and then got word of the gang at Ft. Capois. Our company was then based on South Mountain, cast of Bahon, and eventually took part in the attack on Capois, the 5th of November. The battle of Ft. Capois was a separate operation, as was the capture of Camp Berthol on the 8th and the skirmish at Caracol on the 12th. Our company was in all those engagements, but they will not be described here, for our subject is the capture of Ft. Riviere, which took place the 17th of November, 1915. Ever since discovering old Ft. Riviere we had been busy tracking Cacos when word came to us that the place was again occupied, this time by the "Gros Chefs" and the main body.

In describing the plan to capture Ft. Riviere and how this plan was actually carried out, I am certain to omit some items and may perhaps make some errors. I have had access to few notes. However, this is, in the main, the story: Captain Chandler Campbell's company, with Lieut. Emory, Dr. Boone and myself attached, was to take position, during the night of the 16th of November, under cover on the reverse slope of the ridge, about one thousand yards southeast of the fort. We were to be prepared to attack the southeastern corner of the fort at about 8 a. m. Our machine guns (Benet's) were to stay up on the ridge and cover our approach by firing over our heads while we went down the mountain side, through the brush in a small dry stream. Half-way between the dry run and the fort wall, they were to cease firing over us, but fire north at any Cacos who jumped off the cast wall and tried to escape to the cast. Our machine gunners were informed as. to the location of the other attacking groups so that they would not fire on them. Captain Barker, with Lieut. Stack and the Marine Detachment, U. S. S. Connecticut, had exactly the same plan as ours except their attack was to be made against the south wall of the fort, just on our left, and their machine guns were to fire west at any escaping enemy who left the fort over the south wall. Lieut. McCaughey, U. S. N., with a ship's division of sailors from the Connecticut was to come up from Grande Riviere during the night, or early morning, and reach a point on the trail north of the fort, and about five hundred yards therefrom, by 8 a. m., the 17th. He was to deploy astride the trail and prevent the enemy's escape to the north. Major Smedley D. Butler was in command and he brought Captain W. W. Low. Lient George Stowell, and their company of marines over from San Rafael during the night of the 16th. They remained concealed in the woods about eight hundred yards west of the fort. Captain Low's company had orders to attack the west wall of the fort, at about 8 a. m. on the 17th. Major Butler came over to our bivouac during the night of the 16th and explained his plan. It was about as I have already described. He said that the time was set at about 8 a. m., since that should give McCaughey's column time to get into position, and further, that he would give three blasts on his whistle to get the attack under way. If the enemy discovered our movements and started to escape he would give the whistle signal and start the attack whether McCaughe was ready or not. Of course we were not to attack before daylight under any conditions as the danger of our own cross fire was too great. The accompanying sketch shows (but not to scale) the relative positions of the attacking groups and the directions of attack. We had seen our position and the fort before dark on the 16th. we knew the old fort to be occupied; we could see the Cacos inside, but we did not know their strength.

The three blasts on the whistle were sounded about 7:30 a. m.-why before 8 a. m. I don't know. Perhaps some enemy that I could not see had started out the break in the west wall. In any event our columns advanced on the fort all according to plan. We could see Captain Low's line of skirmishers advancing over their rolling plain as we rushed down the hillside. The Cacos were completely surprised and our line got up to the wall without firing a shot; the only firing I heard was our own machine guns. Perhaps the Cacos fired at us, but I doubt it. They did fire a few shots at Captain Low's line, but there were no casualties among the attackers. Cacos tried to escape by jumping off the south wall and were killed by our machine gun fire; some tried to escape to the west, but they were stopped by Captain Low's men. They say that a few of the Cacos jumped off that high north wall, but some took time to climb down the trees. All must have been surprised a few minutes later when they bumped into McCaughey's column down the trail. Captain Low's route to the fort was much the shortest and was practically level going. Most of his men used the break in the wall to get inside. Major Butler was one of the first to go through the gap. Lient. Stowell, who is not of the thin wiry type, wedged himself through, but not before the Cacos had taken several shots at him while his shirt was caught on the sharp edges. With the gap open again, men from Captain Low's company were soon swarming into all the interior compartments. They were up oh the walls; hey were rushing through the high grass and brush ; there was yelling and shouting by Marines and Cacos. Hand to hand fighting, even with rocks, was going on. It was Sergeant Grimm, I believe, who exchanged rock for rock with some unknown Caco; the two of them pitching big stones at each other over a wall gave a comical twist to the otherwise confused melee of bayonets and machetes. As our company arrived at the foot of the south wall, we saw marines on top and heard the cursing of the mixup inside, so most of us went around to the gap and entered just as the battle was over. The entire fracas took less than twenty minutes; not a marine was killed and only a few were bruised and scratched. Over thirty Cacos, including two or three of their "Gros Chefs," were killed. This battle of Ft. Riviere broke the backbone of the bandit activities in Northern Haiti.

Major Butler took a squad of our men that night, tramped down to the railroad, got a push car, and went into Cape Haitien for a dozen or more cases of dynamite. They pushed it back up the railroad, passed the Horseshoe Bend, loaded it onto burros, climbed the mountain and got it safely to the fort before daylight. just before dawn three Haitien women carrying food, evidently the Caco Commissary Department, came shuffling up the trail to the gap. They had not heard that we had taken the fort the day before, and when they saw a marine sentry in the gap in the walls, they uttered one scream, dropped their rice and beans and fled. The dynamite was used to blow many gaps in the walls of Ft. Riviere. What was left of the old fort was abandoned and was never again used either by Caco or Marine.