6 American Wars You Didn't Learn About in School
We all remember learning about America’s major military engagements in our high school history class. But sometimes U.S. troops found themselves fighting much tinier “wars” all over the world, ones that you’ve probably never heard of ... until now.
1. THE WATERMELON WAR
In 1856, a drunken American visitor to Panama decided he was hungry, so he reached over and took a slice of watermelon off a market stall. Then he refused to pay for it. The vendor was obviously upset and demanded the 10 cents owed to him. The situation escalated into an argument, and the American pulled out a gun—which, after a short scuffle, accidentally went off, wounding an innocent bystander. Suddenly, what had been a minor theft became a full-scale riot. Americans in the area were beaten and robbed as they fled for the nearest safe place—the train station. Buildings were destroyed. A policeman was shot. In the end, 17 people were killed and 29 were wounded, all because of a snack.
When the U.S. government heard about the attacks on its citizens, it was less than thrilled. But it was also politically convenient for them; the year before, the Panama Railway had been completed, and the then-region of Colombia was quickly being positioned as key to quick transoceanic transit. So the American commissioner, Amos Corwine, called for “the immediate occupation of the isthmus.” While the residents of Panama City were sure American troops would soon burn the place to the ground, in reality, six months later, a mere 160 sailors ended up occupying the town for three days. During that time, not a single shot was fired.
Despite this, the U.S. used the Watermelon War, as it came to be called, as an excuse to try to get a lot of things it wanted, including land for naval bases, rights to the country’s railroad, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for the damage caused to American-owned businesses. But after lengthy negotiations, the U.S. only got a little over $400,000.
2. THE KOREAN WAR (OF 1871)
America first took an interest in Korea (then spelled “Corea”) in 1840 when Congress considered trying to establish a commercial relationship with the country. But the resolution went nowhere and within a few years it was basically forgotten.
But then in 1866 a ship called the General Sherman sailed towards Pyongyang, hoping to trade the goods they had on board as well as preach the Gospel. The Koreans, who were perfectly happy being an isolationist kingdom and had been known to execute Catholics, told them to turn around repeatedly. But the captain refused to leave until he had seen the “man in charge.”
Then the boat got stranded on a sandbank and the Koreans burned it and killed everyone on board. When rumors reached the U.S., they sent a warship to find out what really happened. Arriving in 1867, the expedition couldn’t get an answer out of a local official, and threatened to return with a bigger fleet. The next year, another ship arrived and learned there were no survivors. Upon hearing the news, the State Department decided to offer a treaty—but the Koreans turned it down, saying, “We have been living 4000 years without any treaty with you, and we can't see why we shouldn't continue to live as we do.”
So in 1871, 1230 American soldiers landed on Kanghwa-do and took the fortress there, killing 350 Koreans and losing only three men themselves. The Korean government refused to bargain for the POWs captured, calling them “cowards.” Faced with the realization that nothing short of a full-on attack on the capital would result in a treaty, and with the Koreans sending in reinforcements, the Americans withdrew.
Korea would not sign a treaty with the U.S. until 1882, only after the Japanese had forced Korea to open up six years earlier. It promised “everlasting amity and friendship between the two peoples,” which history would prove to be a bit optimistic.
3. LAS CUEVAS WAR
In the 1870s, the border between Texas and Mexico was a dangerous place to be. People at the time called the amount of crime “unprecedented” and robbery in particular was an “epidemic.” One of the most common—and most hated—types of theft was cattle rustling, and common citizens often took to hanging thieves themselves. So when a herd of cattle from Texas was stolen and taken across the border to the Las Cuevas Ranch in Mexico in 1875, Captain Leander McNelly of the Texas Rangers decided he was going to get them back.
He asked the U.S. Army for assistance, but they refused to cross the Rio Grande with him, basically saying they would stay on the other side in case he needed help retreating. So the Rangers crossed the river, where they were met by about 300 Mexican militiamen. Despite being outnumbered, they mowed them down using Gatling guns, and in the excitement, some of the American military decided to join the fight.
The Secretary of War had heard what was planned and knew it was completely illegal to invade another country like that, so he sent a telegram demanding McNelly and his men return to American soil. The captain refused. Then another message arrived, and this time the answer was even clearer: “I shall remain in Mexico with my rangers and cross back at my discretion. Give my compliments to the Secretary of War and tell him and his United States soldiers to go to hell. Signed, Lee H. McNelly, commanding.”
Despite the fact that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place, McNelly, the Rangers, and the U.S. troops did get the Mexicans to surrender, and the cattle were returned to their owners in Texas.
4. THE UTAH WAR
There was a time when Mormons were distrusted and hated. After being chased from state to state—and enduring the murder of their leader Joseph Smith—they were hesitant to deal with the U.S. government in any way by the time they got to what was then Utah Territory.
This fear provoked the year-long Utah War or Mormon War in 1857. When President James Buchanan sent troops into the territory, the leaders of the Latter Day Saints church panicked. Buchanan had decided to replace Brigham Young as governor of the Utah Territory, and the military was coming to escort the new governor in and ensure the transition of power. But it’s believed that no one ever told the Mormon settlers, who were sure they were about to be driven out of their homes again and prepared to fight.
Despite arming themselves, they initially tried to avoid bloodshed. Instead, the Mormons used guerrilla warfare tactics to “annoy” the federal troops. They felled trees to block roads and destroyed bridges. They stampeded their cows and horses. They would pretend to attack at night, so the soldiers got no sleep. They burned the grasslands and cut off the troops' reinforcements, leaving them without food. It seemed like this might be a bloodless war.
But then a wagon train of settlers appeared in Utah, and, for reasons that still remain unclear, the Mormon leaders ordered the unarmed men, women, and children to be killed. It became known as the Mountain Meadows massacre. The next month, another six people were killed in the Aiken massacre on suspicion of spying for the U.S. government.
Finally, negotiation ended the bloodshed—but not until an estimated 150 people had died, despite no real battles between the two sides.
5. FIRST AND SECOND FIJI EXPEDITION
John Williams should have been enjoying his time in Fiji, but things kept going wrong. During Independence Day celebrations in 1849, a cannon blast caused Williams’s house to catch fire, and it was promptly looted by the native Fijians. Williams, who was the equivalent of the American consul in Fiji, attempted to get compensation for what he lost. In 1851, when an American warship arrived, Williams demanded $5000 for himself and the owners of a ship that had run aground and was looted in 1846, but he wasn’t paid. By 1855, the demands from several Americans against various Fijian chiefs rose to almost $50,000, including over $18,000 from Williams.
That same year, Edward Boutwell, commander of the U.S. Navy ship John Adams, came ashore and demanded King Cakobau reimburse all the Americans who had claims against Fiji. The King was unable to pay, and so the ship returned a month later. In the ensuing skirmish, one American was killed and three were wounded. To pay the debt, Cakobau first tried to sell Fiji to the British—but Cakobau didn’t rule over the entire country, so he wasn’t in a position to offer it and was rejected. In 1867, he sold 200,000 acres of land to an Australian company and was finally able to pay off the debt.
In 1859, as Cakobau was attempting to pay back the Americans, stories emerged from the island of Waya that two Americans had been killed and eaten by one of the tribes. Lieutenant Charles Caldwell was ordered to get revenge. On their way to the island, they passed through other parts of Fiji and heard horrible stories about the Waya. They even received a message from the chief himself: “Do you suppose we have killed the two white men for nothing? No, we killed them and we have eaten them. We are great warriors, and we delight in war.”
Once the Americans got there, they had to drag themselves, their guns, and a huge cannon up a mountain. At the top, the cannon slipped and fell right back down. Despite their diminished firepower, the sailors still took on the Waya, many of whom were dressed in white robes, making them obvious targets. Eventually, the Americans retreated (taking their three wounded with them, since the captain didn’t want anyone left behind for the Waya to snack on), having killed at least a dozen of the Fijians and burning the town.
6. POSEY WAR
We know that there have been dozens of wars and skirmishes involving the indigenous peoples of North America ever since the first Europeans set foot here. But there also had to be a time when the fighting finally stopped. The Posey War is also known as the Last Indian Uprising because it is considered the final military clash between a native people and the U.S. government.
In 1923, two boys from the Ute tribe stole some sheep. They voluntarily turned themselves in and were convicted by a jury, but then escaped. There had been tensions between the Ute/Paiute Native Americans and the state of Utah for decades. The leader of the tribes, Posey, was particularly considered a threat. Now the newspapers used this latest incident to try and get rid of the perceived problem forever.
Headlines screamed that the “Piute [sic] Band Declares War on Whites,” and journalists were sure that the Utah governor had been asked to send a scout plane armed with machine guns and bombs to retaliate. In reality, when a posse came to the reservation looking for Posey, he and the other inhabitants ran for the mountains, only fighting in order to avoid being captured.
But they could only hold out for so long, and many people were taken to a kind of makeshift prison camp. Posey, who was wounded in the leg, died from his wounds a month later, and everyone else was let go, since he was the famous “troublemaker” the white locals were really worried about. Despite burying him in an unmarked grave, Posey's body was dug up at least twice by people who wanted their picture taken with it.