Woodrow Wilson justified the invasion of Veracruz by stating that it was necessary to “maintain the dignity and authority of the United States,” but the real reasons had more to do with protecting American interests south of the border.
In the spring of 1914, Mexico found itself torn by armed revolution against its central government and president, General Victoriano Huerta. Huerta was a graduate of the Mexican Military Academy who had risen through the ranks to become general-in-chief of the Mexican federal army. In February 1913, he betrayed Mexico’s elected president, Francisco Madero, by having him arrested and forcing him to resign. A few days later, Madero was conveniently killed.
In the United States, Woodrow Wilson was sworn into his first term as president in March 1913, only a few weeks after General Huerta’s coup d’état. Wilson was outraged by Huerta’s seizure of the Mexican presidency and the murder of Madero. The United States refused to recognize his government, and the U.S. ambassador was recalled from Mexico City.
Armed resistance against Huerta’s presidency flared up throughout Mexico. Federal armies came under attack by rebel forces led by Álvaro Obregón, Venustiano Carranza, and Francisco “Pancho” Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south.
American commercial interests in Mexico, protected during the long regime of former Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, found themselves threatened by these revolutionary armies. American citizens across Mexico became increasingly concerned for their safety.
President Wilson demonstrated his attitude toward Latin America when he declared to a British visitor that he was “going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Nevertheless, he was reluctant to intervene directly in Mexican affairs. Instead, he chose to assume a stance of “watchful waiting,” confident that Huerta would eventually be overthrown and replaced by a stable government.
With the insurrection against Huerta gaining ground, Mexico’s key Gulf Coast ports, Tampico and Veracruz, became the focus of increasing U.S. attention. Growing numbers of U.S. warships concentrated off these ports, both located in areas still under control of the Huerta government.
Tampico lies 300 miles south of Brownsville, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico. The discovery of oil there in the first years of the 20th century transformed the sleepy Mexican port into a boomtown, and the uninterrupted flow of oil from Tampico had become critical to powerful foreign interests. In March 1914, the Mexican federal garrison at Tampico was under intermittent attack by rebel Constitutionalist forces loyal to Carranza, and the situation was becoming unstable.
On April 9, 1914, an unarmed whaleboat from the U.S. gunboat Dolphin proceeded up the Pánuco River at Tampico on a mission to pick up drummed gasoline at the warehouse of a local German merchant. This was an area close to the Mexican fighting, and the federal troops there were under orders to detain anyone without a proper military pass. After mooring their boat, the crew was forced at gunpoint to disembark and was marched a short distance to the Mexican headquarters.
The local commander, Colonel Ramón H. Hinojosa, recognized the error made by his men, and the Americans were promptly escorted back to their boat. The federal military governor of Tampico, General Ignacio Morelos Zaragoza, apologized to the U.S. consul and asked that his regrets be conveyed to Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo, commanding U.S. naval forces at Tampico.
Admiral Mayo presented General Zaragoza with an ultimatum “in view of the publicity of this occurrence.” Within 24 hours the Mexicans were to formally apologize for the “hostile act,” and arrange for the U.S. flag to be raised in a prominent place and saluted with twenty-one guns. Replying that he did not have the authority to respond to these demands, General Zaragoza asked for an extension of the deadline so that he could consult with his superiors in Mexico City. Admiral Mayo agreed to the request.
President Huerta soon issued an apology for the incident at Tampico, but the proud Mexican president balked at the U.S. demand to salute its flag. He pointed out that the United States still refused to recognize his government.
Declaring that “The salute will be fired,” President Wilson used the incident at Tampico to force a showdown with Huerta. He gave the Mexican president until 6 P.M., Sunday, April 19, for the salute and ordered additional units of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet to the Mexican coast.
In addition to his problems with the United States, President Huerta’s domestic situation continued to deteriorate. Two weeks earlier, federal forces had surrendered the northern city of Torreón to Pancho Villa’s Army of the North, and government troops at Tampico were now under siege. Perhaps believing that armed conflict with the United States might unite Mexico’s warring factions behind his government, Huerta chose to let Wilson’s deadline pass without firing the salute.
The next afternoon, April 20, President Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to detail a series of incidents demonstrating what he characterized as the Mexican government’s contempt toward the United States. Wilson asked for approval to “use the armed forces of the United States in such ways and to such an extent as may be necessary to obtain from General Huerta and his adherents the fullest recognition of the rights and dignity of the United States….” He added: “There can in what we do be no thought of aggression or of selfish aggrandizement. We seek to maintain the dignity and authority of the United States only because we wish always to keep our great influence unimpaired for the uses of liberty, both in the United States and wherever else it may be employed for the benefit of mankind.”
Soon afterward, a joint resolution authorizing the use of force against Huerta passed the House of Representatives by a wide margin. Many Republican senators, however, favored a stronger resolution, and debate went on into the early hours of Tuesday morning. Without voting, the Senate adjourned until Wednesday, April 22, when the resolution would receive further consideration.
In an earlier meeting at the White House, President Wilson explained what he had in mind in the event Huerta refused to salute the U.S. flag: the possible seizure of Tampico or Veracruz, or even Pacific ports. Other options included a naval blockade of Mexico’s Gulf coast. In view of the overwhelming forces the United States could bring to bear, Wilson was certain that—whatever measures he chose to take—the Mexicans would offer no resistance.
At Tampico, the transport Hancock had arrived with 800 officers and men of the Marine Corps’ “Panama Brigade.” With these Marines, and with several additional battleships en route, Admiral Mayo anticipated orders from Washington to land and occupy the city. Two hundred fifty miles farther south on the coast, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher understood that he might be called on to take similar action at Veracruz.
Ever since Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez found the harbor in 1519, Veracruz had been Mexico’s primary port city. During the Díaz era, a British firm, S. Pearson and Son, rebuilt and modernized the harbor facilities. In addition to new quays, wharfs, and a floating dry dock, a number of imposing buildings were constructed adjacent to the harbor, including a combined post office/telegraph building, a new railroad station and hotel, a customs house, and a modern lighthouse. Inaugurated in 1902, the renewed Veracruz was firmly established as Mexico’s largest and most modern port city, and— through import duties collected there—a significant source of income to the Mexican government.
In April 1914, U.S. naval forces at Veracruz included the battleships Florida and Utah, and the transport Prairie, with a contingent of 350 Marines on board. The U.S. State Department learned in mid-April that the Hamburg-America liner SS Ypiranga was heading for Veracruz, carrying the largest single munitions shipment ever to be received there. Facing hostilities with Mexico, the U.S. government was determined to prevent Ypiranga’s cargo from reaching Huerta. Attention in Washington quickly shifted from Tampico to Veracruz.
Already steaming toward Tampico with his powerful squadron of battleships, commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet Rear Admiral Charles J. Badger was ordered to alter course for Veracruz. At Tampico, Admiral Mayo was instructed to send warships and marine reinforcements as well.
Unwilling to antagonize the Imperial German government by interfering with a German vessel on the high seas, the Americans planned to seize the customs house at Veracruz after Ypiranga’s cargo had been unloaded, but before it could be moved out of the city. President Wilson hoped to delay a landing at Veracruz until the Senate voted to approve the supportive joint resolution that had already passed the House. Consequently, Admiral Fletcher sent the battleship Utah to intercept Ypiranga at sea, inform its captain of the current state of affairs at Veracruz, and attempt to persuade him to delay the arrival of his vessel in the port until after the Senate vote.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 21, events took an urgent turn. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan received a cable from the U.S. consul at Veracruz, William Canada, informing him that Ypiranga was due to arrive at Veracruz later that morning, and that the ship would begin discharging its cargo of 200 machine guns and 15 million cartridges into waiting freight trains at 10:30.
With Consul Canada’s cable in hand, Bryan awakened the president with a telephone call. Also on the line were Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels and Wilson’s secretary, Joseph Tumulty. Bryan told the president that Ypiranga was now expected to arrive at Veracruz in only a few short hours—well before any hope of a Senate vote. Wilson told Secretary Daniels to order Fletcher to “take Veracruz at once.”
At 8 that morning, Fletcher received orders from Washington: “Seize customs house. Do not permit war supplies to be delivered to Huerta government or to any other party.” With the breeze at Veracruz shifting to the north, Fletcher was concerned that the port was in store for a powerful “norther” whose high winds and choppy seas would preclude a landing in small boats for days. He decided to move forward promptly with the landing without waiting for reinforcements, even though Ypiranga had not yet arrived. First, however, the admiral asked Consul Canada to advise General Gustavo Maass, the local Mexican army commander, that U.S. forces would soon be coming ashore to take charge of the docks, customs house, and railroad station.
Mexican forces in Veracruz that day consisted of about six hundred regular troops of the 18th and 19th Infantry battalions (all that remained after sending repeated reinforcements to the beleaguered federal garrison at Tampico), along with several hundred prisoners who had been released from the old fortress prison of San Juan de Ulúa and armed. There were also the midshipmen at the Mexican Naval Academy (located on the edge of the city near the waterfront), and a number of armed civilians of the “Society of Volunteers of the Port of Veracruz.”
At 10:50 A.M., Admiral Fletcher ordered the operation to commence, and landing parties under the command of Captain William R. Rush, commanding officer of Florida, were soon shoving off from Prairie, Florida, and Utah. Of the initial force of 800 officers and men, 500 were Marines. In addition to small arms, the landing party brought ashore several machine guns and a three-inch fieldpiece.
Shortly after 11, Consul Canada observed Prairie’s landing party taking to its boats, and telephoned General Maass. Canada explained that only the port facilities were to be occupied by the Americans. There would be no entry into the city proper and no shooting unless the landing party was fired upon. To avoid useless bloodshed, he urged Maass to offer no resistance.
Shocked, General Maass replied that his orders from Mexico City would not permit him to surrender. He began preparations to resist the American landing.
After disembarking at Pier Four, a group of Marines advanced and took over the local cable office on Avenida Independencia, the main business street. Other Marines seized the municipal power plant north of the railroad terminal, simultaneously covering the western rail approaches to the city. Captain Rush set up headquarters in the Terminal Hotel, located adjacent to the railroad station and dock area. A navy signal detachment was sent to the roof to establish and maintain semaphore communications with Admiral Fletcher on Florida. Other navy personnel took possession of the customs house and nearby warehouses, the post office and telegraph building, and the railroad terminal.
So far, everything was going to plan.
After his telephone conversation with the American consul, General Maass proceeded to the barracks of the 19th Infantry Regiment, where he ordered Lieutenant Colonel Albino Rodríguez Cerrillo to take a detail of men along Avenida Independencia toward Pier Four to “repel the invasion.” At the nearby headquarters of the 18th Infantry Regiment, Maass ordered General Luis B. Becerril to distribute rifles to civilian volunteers. Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Contreras was instructed to release and arm prisoners from the nearby military prison. These groups were to proceed toward the American landing force along Avenida Cinco de Mayo, paralleling the advance of the 19th Infantry detachment.
Approaching the area of the city occupied by the Americans, the mixed force of Mexican regulars, released prisoners, and armed civilian volunteers began a disorganized deployment behind buildings, on rooftops, in alleys, and in the towers of the Parochial Church and the Benito Juárez lighthouse. As Florida’s 1st Company advanced, the municipal policeman at the corner of Calle Morelos and Calle Miguel Lerdo, Aurelio Monffort, opened fire on the Americans with his service revolver. Killed by return fire, Monffort was the first Veracruzano to fall during the fighting. Shooting quickly intensified on both sides.
The Mexicans immediately targeted the navy signalmen on the roof of the Terminal Hotel. Captain Rush, realizing the danger to these men but unwilling to lose communications with the flagship, sent a Marine rifle squad up to the roof for protection. The first Marine to step into the open, Private Daniel Aloysius Haggerty of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was mortally wounded by a bullet through his stomach, becoming the first U.S. serviceman killed at Veracruz since 1847.
With rumors of a large force of well-armed Mexican regulars in the area, Captain Rush urgently signaled for reinforcements. Utah had been recalled from its search for Ypiranga, and Admiral Fletcher now ordered the battleship to steam closer to shore and disembark its battalion. Ypiranga arrived early in the afternoon. Due to the fighting ashore, Utah directed the liner to anchor in the outer harbor.
In the sprawling Naval Academy building, midshipmen barricaded themselves behind mattresses and furniture. Joined by regulars from the nearby Artillery Barracks, they were soon pouring a hot fire into the Americans from second-story windows.
Three armed U.S. Navy steam launches raced through the harbor, answering the shooting from the Naval Academy and drawing fire on themselves. At this, Prairie opened fire over the U.S. launches with its three-inch guns, temporarily silencing the firing from that part of the city. The American fire killed one of the Mexican midshipmen in the Naval Academy, 17-year-old Virgilio Uribe.
On a street corner near the Naval Academy, 18-year-old Lieutenant of Naval Artillery José Azueta (son of the commandant of the Naval Academy, Commodore Manuel Azueta) led a squad of men in setting up a machine gun and opening fire on the advancing Americans. From a corner near the customs house, seamen from Florida fired back at Lieutenant Azueta’s squad, mortally wounding the young officer. Azueta’s men retreated into the Naval Academy, carrying their unconscious leader with them.
Anxious to prevent additional casualties among his men, Admiral Fletcher sent his chief of staff ashore to find Consul Canada and ask him to attempt to arrange an armistice with the Mexican military authorities in the city. Shortly before 4 P.M., Fletcher cabled his first report of the landing to Washington, including word of U.S. casualties and the arrival of Ypiranga.
President Wilson, stunned by the news. said to his secretary, Joseph Tumulty, “I cannot forget that it was I who had to order those young men to their deaths.”
Unsuccessful in his efforts to locate any Mexican officials, and concerned about the potential for more casualties by pushing his forces farther into the city, Admiral Fletcher decided to hold the landing party in its current positions and remain on the defensive overnight. Unbeknown to the Americans, General Maass, obeying instructions received from Mexico City that evening, ordered his forces to withdraw to Tejería, a village about ten miles west of Veracruz. With no reliable means of communication, not all of the scattered groups of Mexican fighters received—or chose to obey— Maass’ orders to pull back.
At 9 P.M., the cruiser San Francisco arrived from Tampico and anchored in the inner harbor near Prairie, immediately landing two companies of seamen to reinforce Captain Rush. Shortly after midnight, the cruiser Chester also arrived from Tampico and sent a mixed force of Marines and bluejackets ashore.
Five battleships of the Atlantic Fleet under Admiral Badger arrived at 2 A.M. and anchored in the outer harbor. Admiral Fletcher proceeded aboard the flagship Arkansas, where Badger informed him that command of the U.S. operations ashore would remain in Fletcher’s hands. The decision was then made to immediately land Marines and sailors from Arkansas, Vermont, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and New Jersey to strengthen those units already ashore. These fresh reinforcements began arriving at Pier Four shortly after 4 A.M., and continued to disembark for the next three and a half hours, sometimes under scattered sniper fire.
At 8:30 on the morning of Wednesday, April 22, Captain Rush signaled the flagship, “Advance begun. Please shell military positions.” By this time, the American force ashore was approaching 1,400 marines and 2,600 navy personnel.
As the reinforced marines resumed their advance through the streets near Avenida Independencia, they were met by heavy fire from multiple buildings. Sweeping the streets with machine guns, these hardened veterans advanced slowly and methodically, entering every house in every block, clearing the buildings and dispatching any snipers found on the rooftops. There was reluctance to take prisoners; any Mexican possessing a firearm was likely to be killed on the spot. On two occasions, groups of 15 and 30 suspected Mexican snipers were reportedly executed by U.S. forces.
Navy units simultaneously advanced south along the waterfront on the Marines’ left flank. The 2nd Seaman Regiment was led by Spanish-American War veteran Captain E.A. Anderson, commanding officer of the battleship New Hampshire. Captain Anderson had been assured that the area assigned to his regiment had been previously cleared of snipers. Accordingly, he ignored suggestions to send scouts out ahead of his men, and to advance them in open skirmishing order rather than in marching formation. As if on a drill field, the navy units turned west into the city. Marching in the open down the middle of Calle Francisco Canal, they were suddenly and unexpectedly hit by a withering Mexican fire from machine guns, rifles and one-pounder artillery. With men hit and falling, the sailors ran back toward the waterfront and collided with the advancing seaman battalion from South Carolina, adding to the chaos.
From his new command post on Prairie, Admiral Fletcher witnessed the situation ashore and ordered Chester, Prairie, and San Francisco to open fire with their 3-, 4-, and 5- inch guns, over the heads of the navy units. Mexican firing from the Naval Academy, old Fort Santiago, the area around the Artillery Barracks, and other buildings near the waterfront was quickly silenced.
Protected by the fleet’s guns, Captain Anderson re-formed his command, and the advance continued—this time supported by a number of 3-inch fieldpieces, and with the men in skirmishing order. After occupying the badly shot-up Naval Academy and Artillery Barracks, the seamen pushed on into the city.
As the morning wore on, the battleships Minnesota and Michigan, along with the transport Hancock and the hospital ship Solace, joined other U.S. Navy vessels in the harbor. By noon, the main area of the city, the electric power plant, and the local drinking water pumping stations were occupied by American forces and the heaviest fighting was over. Consul Canada reported that the city center “presented a gruesome sight, as many dead Mexicans were still lying on the sidewalks.” Once the fighting died down, the Americans consolidated their positions, fortifying the approaches to Veracruz against any potential counterattack by Mexican federal troops.
When wounded Mexicans were located, they were transported to local hospitals. Learning that Commodore Azueta’s son lay gravely wounded at a makeshift hospital in the home of Dr. Rafael Cuervo, Admiral Fletcher offered the medical services of the Atlantic Fleet’s surgeons, but the young lieutenant refused to be attended to by the “enemies of his homeland.” He died of his wounds on May 10, and his coffin was accompanied to the municipal cemetery by 5,000 mourners.
Initial reports in the United States stressed the fact that it was the Mexicans who had started shooting first in Veracruz, and that no Mexican noncombatants had been killed or injured. In fact, most of the Mexican casualties were civilian. Total Mexican casualties resulting from the U.S. landing at Veracruz were never accurately determined, but included at least 200 killed and another 300 wounded. Because of the heat and humidity, along with the presence of vultures and scavenging dogs, unclaimed Mexican bodies were hastily collected and buried in mass graves, or simply placed on stacks of railroad ties, doused with oil, and burned.
On the American side, 13 sailors and four Marines were killed. Two other wounded sailors later died on board Solace. Another 60 sailors and 12 Marines received injuries ranging from minor flesh wounds to those serious enough to require amputation.
The nineteen U.S. servicemen killed at Veracruz represented a cross section of America. There were boys from big cities like Boston and from small towns like Blakesburg, Iowa. Thirteen of the 19 were 22 or younger.
When the armored cruiser Montana brought the bodies of the dead home in May, entire cities shut down for funeral parades and services attended by politicians and thousands of everyday Americans. An estimated million people lined the parade route in New York. In a eulogy delivered in New York that day, President Wilson stated that “We have gone down to Mexico to serve mankind….A war of aggression is not a war in which it is a proud thing to die, but a war of service is….” He made no mention of Tampico or Ypiranga and her deadly cargo.
On May 27, Ypiranga steamed into Puerto México (today called Coatzacoalcos), just 145 miles south along the Gulf Coast from Veracruz. The ship discharged its once controversial cargo there without incident, and it was loaded onto waiting federal trains bound for Mexico City.
Ironically, two days later The New York Times reported that Ypiranga’s machine gun cargo had been made in the United States. To circumvent the U.S. prohibition against selling arms to Mexico, these Colt machine guns had been shipped first to Germany and re-shipped to Mexico.
After isolated instances of continued sniping on the night of April 24, and when Mexican federal and state officials at Veracruz refused to reassume their duties under an American occupation of the city, Admiral Fletcher formally declared martial law. The U.S. flag was hoisted over American headquarters at the Terminal Hotel during a ceremony on April 27. Troops of the U.S. Army’s 5th Reinforced Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Frederick Funston arrived in transports from Galveston and disembarked on April 30. Although most of the marines remained at Veracruz under temporary control of the army, the naval brigades returned to their ships on the afternoon of April 30, following a formal change-of-command ceremony and a review parade.
The soldiers and Marines remained in occupation of Veracruz for another seven long, monotonous months. During that time war correspondents, including Richard Harding Davis and Jack London, came and went, while the troops—along with many American newspaper editors, politicians, and citizens—complained about the “war that was not a war” and clamored for a “real” invasion of Mexico.
But President Wilson held back. After the fall of Tampico in May, and with Constitutionalist armies closing in on Mexico City, President Huerta resigned in July. Fleeing to Puerto México, he sailed into exile on board the German cruiser Dresden. Just a few weeks earlier the world had learned of the assassination at Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a young Bosnian Serb anarchist. Within another few weeks the world’s attention had shifted to the war in Europe.
At Veracruz, the 6,000 American troops and marines were kept busy cleaning up, maintaining, and administering the city. Ongoing negotiations between the U.S. State Department and the new head of the Mexican government, “First Chief” Venustiano Carranza, eventually resulted in the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Veracruz on November 23, 1914. Later that same day, Constitutionalist forces led by General Cándido Aguilar entered and took possession of the city.
Today the 1914 U.S. seizure and occupation of Veracruz does not even command a footnote in most American history texts, but the same is not true in Mexico. Always considerate and hospitable, most Veracruzanos are reluctant to discuss the events of 1914 with visitors from the United States. But Lieutenant Azueta and Midshipman Uribe occupy honored places in Mexican memory, and each April in Veracruz solemn ceremonies mark the anniversary of the 1914 Invasión Yanqui.
Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.