But what most people do not know …
On 18 December 1903, Secretary of the Navy William Moody directed the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Brigadier General George F. Elliott , to personally report to the President of the United States. His orders from President Roosevelt were to proceed in person, taking passage aboard USS Dixie, from League Island to Colón, Panama. Take command of the entire force of United States Marines and seamen that is or may be landed for service in the State of Panama.
The president’s order was significant because no Commandant had been ordered into the field since Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson was sent to Florida to deal with the Indians in 1836. No Commandant has been ordered to the field since.
General Elliott was ordered to Panama because of Roosevelt’s reliance on the US Navy and Marine Corps in numerous diplomatic crises during his administration . Faced with the possibility of conflict in Panama in late 1903, Roosevelt instinctively reached out for sea power. This time, however, he needed the land element of the Navy-Marine Corps team. When, on 3 November, Panamanian revolutionaries declared their country’s independence, Colombia threatened the use of force to recover its lost province. General Elliott’s presidential mission was one of the most strategically audacious gambits of the early 20th century because when he sailed south to assume command of the rapidly growing force of U.S. Marines on the isthmus, he carried with him plans for the invasion of Colombia and the occupation of one of its major cities.
Based on Colombia’s behavior in early to mid-1903, President Roosevelt anticipated that Colombia would likely attempt to retake its lost province. In mid-November, Washington began forwarding intelligence reports to US military and naval commanders concerning Colombian troop movements —reports that estimated that up to 15,000 soldiers were on the move toward Panama.
Rear Admiral Henry Glass (Commander, Pacific Squadron) at Panama City and Rear Admiral Joseph Coghlan (Commander, Caribbean Squadron) at Colón believed that Panamanian weather would be their allies. Both officers remained confident of the fighting spirit and strength of the U. S. Marines in Panama. Both admirals reported to Washington that there was no chance that a Colombian force would advance upon them until after the dry season. Admiral Glass must have developed a case of indigestion a few days later after learning that a Colombian expedition of 1,100 men had already tested an overland route into Panama.
President Roosevelt had himself received that same report from a separate source in Colombia. The President was told that the Colombians intended to establish a forward base at the mouth of the Atrato River, near the Panamanian border. Moreover, American diplomats were reporting deep-seeded anger toward Americans in the capital city, Bogota.
The new government of Panama was still in the process of organization. It did not have a force able to defend against a significant assault by Colombian forces —and it was clear to all concerned that Colombia intended to reclaim its province. It was up to the Americans to defend Panama, which meant that it was up to the Marines.
As reports of a likely invasion started flowing in to his headquarters, Admiral Glass wired Washington for instructions on the extent of his authority to defend the new republic. On 10 December, Secretary Moody drafted a reply that would order Glass to establish camps of fully equipped Marine battalions at inland points to forcibly prevent hostile entry by land into the State of Panama. The draft also directed that he maintain good communication between these camps and Navy vessels, cut trails, buy or hire pack animals as necessary to support overland expeditions. Moody’s order was never sent, however. When Moody presented his draft to the President, Roosevelt ordered him to hold off until the matter could be considered in greater depth.
The next day the Secretary of the Navy, presumably acting on Roosevelt’s further consideration, transmitted an order that marked a dramatic shift in the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Panama: “Establish strong posts, men and Marines with artillery in the direction of the Yavisa or other better positions for observation only and rapid transmission of information but do not forcibly interfere with Colombian forces advancing by land.”
Moody changed the rules of engagement further a week later. He directed Glass to assume an almost completely defensive role. In doing so, he retreated from previous instructions from Washington, which ordered Glass to defend all territory within 50 miles of the Panama Railroad, which carried a vast amount of commercial goods across the narrow isthmus and thus represented the most commercially and strategically important Panamanian national asset. According to this clarification, telegrammed in cipher, Moody’s instructions to Glass on 11 December were to maintain posts in the vicinity of Yavisa for observation only. Do not have post beyond support from ships or launches. Withdraw your posts if liable to be attacked. It is the intention of the Government to continue active defense against hostile operations to the vicinity of the railroad line on the Isthmus and for its protection. Disregard all previous instructions that may appear to conflict with these.
Roosevelt’s earlier threats may have been bluster, but it is also possible that Colombia’s military expedition caused Roosevelt to reconsider America’s long-term interests in the region. There’s also a third possibility: Roosevelt decided to shift his strategy for dealing with Colombia. His new strategy? A Marine assault in Colombia.
General Elliott assumed his duties as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps on 3 October 1903 —one month before the revolution in Panama. Elliott was the only Marine Corps Commandant educated at the US Military Academy at West Point. Elliott made the unusual decision to accept a commission in the Marines late in 1870. Subsequently, his exemplary performance of duty in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and in the Philippines during the insurgency against the American occupation resulted in his rapid promotion. Then, in mid-December 1903, the president called upon his knowledge of tropical warfare in dispatching him to Panama. After meeting with Secretary Moody on 18th December, General Elliott proceeded to assemble his force. Elliott made it clear to his officers that the men needed to be prepared for service in “heavy marching order” as well as for rapid movement and sustained combat.
On 11 December, the auxiliary cruiser USS Prairie departed Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a battalion of Marines under the command of Major Louis C. Lucas. Arriving at Colón on the 13th, Lucas took his battalion into camp at Bas Obispo. At League Island, the auxiliary cruiser USS Dixie, recently returned from delivering Major John A. Lejeune’s nearly 400 Marines to Panama, embarked Elliott’s two additional Marine battalions, the first under the command of Major James E. Mahoney, the second led by Major Eli K. Cole. With a combined force of 635 Marines and his staff of seven officers and 11 enlisted men, Elliott departed Philadelphia on 28 December and arrived at Colón on 3 January 1904. The Provisional Marine Brigade was formed.
General Elliott’s priorities included establishing his Marines in the field and realigning the command structure to match the size of his force. Elliott ordered Major Cole’s battalion to proceed to Empire, a town along the railroad approximately 30 miles from Colón; there they would take quarters alongside Lejeune’s battalion. It had come ashore on 4 November to coerce a Colombian battalion into leaving the newly declared republic. Lejeune’s men then spent the intervening month providing light security and communications relay before receiving orders to move into base camp at Empire. Major Lejeune’s professionalism and attention to detail (as well as the welfare of his Marines) led him to order an extensive reworking of the existing facilities of the former French Canal Company’s buildings at Empire. New freshwater and sewage systems were installed, jungle growth cleared, and the houses for the Marines cleaned and disinfected with healthy doses of carbolic acid. Only then did Lejeune allow his Marines to move into the quarters they would occupy for most of the next year. Lejeune’s and Cole’s battalions were designated 1st and 2nd Battalions, respectively, 1st Marine Regiment, Colonel W. P. Biddle, Commanding.
Major James Mahoney’s battalion proceeded to Bas Obispo, where it quartered alongside Major Lucas’ Marines. These two units comprised the 2nd Marine Regiment, Colonel L. W. T. Waller , Commanding. Both regiments, together counting approximately 1,100 men, formed the Marines’ 1st Provisional Brigade, Panama, Brigadier General George F. Elliott, Commanding.
General Elliott’s priorities also included reporting to the senior Navy officers in country to present his orders. He first called on Admiral Coghlan at Colón. Shortly thereafter he rode a train across the isthmus to meet with Admiral Glass. To each he presented a letter from the Secretary of the Navy, part of which read: “The Department forwards herewith, in the charge of Brigadier General Elliott, USMC a plan for the occupation of Cartagena, Colombia. As will be seen, the plan contemplates occupation against a naval enemy, but the information it contains, and the strategy involved may be readily applied to the present situation.”
The plan General Elliott presented was almost certainly a regional modification to several operational plans formulated during the late 1890s. The plan was a bold military and diplomatic strategy that reflected well on the sophistication of American military planning that had been noticeably lacking throughout most of the nineteenth century. After nearly five years of frustrating American involvement against jungle-based Filipino insurrectionists, and two months of armed reconnaissance in Panama, Roosevelt recognized the utter futility of defending Panama’s numerous bays, ill-defined borders, and porous mountain passes. He therefore chose to forgo a defensive strategy in favor of offensive action on a battlefield of his own choosing.
Rather than defend Panama in the event of a Colombian attempt to regain its lost province, the president instead planned to embark his Marine Brigade on waiting ships for an amphibious assault on the Colombian port city of Cartagena —the country’s chief source of tariff revenues. The naval force would then capture the port and its defense installations before subduing the city itself. The plan, if successfully executed, would have placed Roosevelt in position to dictate the terms of a subsequent peace settlement with the Colombian government.
In the meantime, General Elliott instituted a training program to maintain his Marines at a high level of combat readiness. Simultaneously, he dispatched his forces on quick “out-‘n-back” expeditions that fulfilled the dual purposes of maintaining security while building the Marine’s understanding of the surrounding countryside.
On 21 January, General Elliott reported that he had constructed rifle ranges in the two camps and directed the regiments to practice their marksmanship with rifles and automatic weapons. The Marines also practiced assault tactics, entrenching procedures, and the construction of obstacles to slow and confuse a counter-attacking enemy force. In short, General Elliott knew that these were the skills his Marines would need to capture and defend Cartagena. Marine commanders dispatched reconnaissance parties throughout the small country to map roads and trails. This effort resulted in the first comprehensive survey of the isthmus of Panama. The Leathernecks’ morale and discipline, meanwhile, remained high—with a few minor exceptions, of course.
Word soon came to the Marines —a rumor— that a group of Colombian insurgents planned to poison their water supply. General Elliott acted immediately: he ordered that any individual attempting to tamper with the water supply would be shot on sight. Admiral Glass quickly reminded the General that “a state of war does not exist on the Isthmus of Panama,” and perhaps Elliott should simply take additional precautions to guard his water barrels. General Elliott no doubt appreciated the Admiral’s advice, but he let his order stand.
Meanwhile, Secretary Moody wrote to update Elliott on the situation at hand. After expressing his pleasure with the professionalism displayed by the Commandant and his staff throughout their deployment to Panama, the Navy secretary informed him that “If Colombia actually begins hostilities against us, a Brigade of the Army will proceed to the Isthmus.” This force, Moody cryptically explained, would allow Elliott to disengage his force in Panama and turn his attention to another duty that would “be important.”
If Colombia decided to accept the new status quo in Panama, the secretary suggested Elliott’s force might take part “in some operations connected with the winter maneuvers.” Moody also enjoined Elliott to communicate frequently with Washington and made clear who the intended recipient of the communiqués would be: Let the Department know through the proper channels of your daily operations. Remember the Department is always annoyed by long silence, and please also remember that the Army, which has only a couple of officers down there, is furnishing the President every day with pages of cipher cable, much of which, though dealing with small matters, is of considerable interest. Let your scouting be thorough and extending a long distance and give us daily accounts of it.
On 12 January 1904, following a cabinet meeting, Secretary of War Elihu Root issued a statement denying any plan on the part of the United States to dispatch troops to Panama to fight Colombian forces. This appears to have been classic disinformation. While Army troops would be dispatched to Panama in the event of a Colombian invasion of the new republic, the real strategic response would come from the Marines on the ground in Panama. But they were not intended to battle Colombians in Panama; they would fight Colombians —in Colombia.
By the end of January 1904, General Elliott’s brigade of Marines, backed by ships of the Pacific and Caribbean squadrons, were ready to assault Cartagena to ensure the continued independence of Panama. The invasion, of course, never took place. Colombia protested, probed, and negotiated, but never made a serious attempt to reoccupy its former province and, hence, never triggered Roosevelt’s audacious plan.
A treaty between Panama and the United States, the Isthmian Canal Convention, was ratified by the U.S. Senate on 23 February 1904 and signed by President Roosevelt two days later. According to its terms, the United States guaranteed the independence of the Republic of Panama.
General Rafael Reyes-Prieto, commander-in-chief of the Colombian Army and presumptive political heir to the country’s presidency, had traveled to Panama shortly after the revolution in an attempt to lure the nascent republic back into the Colombian fold, but on realizing he would be unsuccessful, he continued on to the United States. There, he was treated with every courtesy, but when the question of Panama’s independence was raised, it was understood, in the words of a contemporary observer, “that what has been done could not be undone.” Reyes came to understand that American public opinion was behind Roosevelt’s policy of upholding the revolution in Panama.
Finally, Reyes held out hope that the $10 million promised to Colombia under the rejected Hay-Herrán Treaty might still find its way into the country’s treasury. And by the end of January 1904, rumors that Colombia would “sooner or later receive a certain financial consolation for her loss of territory provided she abstains from violent proceedings” were circulating throughout Washington. That’s what happened. By the middle of March, Colombian troops operating along the Panamanian frontier were withdrawn and the government declared that it did not intend to invade its former territory. In 1921, the U.S. Senate ratified the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty that provided Colombia $25 million for the loss of Panama.
A large portion of the 2d Marine Regiment was withdrawn from Panama on 14 February 1904 and redeployed to Guantanamo Bay to take part, as Secretary Moody had previously suggested, in annual winter maneuvers. General Elliott and his staff departed two days later, leaving Colonel Waller in command of the 800 remaining Marines. That arrangement lasted until 7 March, when Waller took a battalion back to League Island, leaving Major Lejeune behind with his original battalion of 400 men to provide security and reconnaissance on the isthmus. Lejeune’s command remained for another nine months. But U.S. Marines would remain a presence in Panama until 1912, when Captain John F. Hughes finally departed with his force of 389 men —except that I was there with BLT 2/8 in 1964 and again as part of an advance party in 1990.
- Wicks, D. H. “Dress Rehearsal: United States Intervention on the Isthmus of Panama, 1886. Pacific Historical Review, 1990
- Collin, R. H. Theodore Roosevelt’s Caribbean: The Panama Canal, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Latin American Context (1990)
- Graham, T. The Interests of Civilization: Reaction in the United States Against the Seizure of the Panama Canal Zone, 1903-1904. Lund Studies in International Relations, 1985.
- Nikol, J. and Francis X. Holbrook, “Naval Operations in the Panama Revolution, 1903.” American Neptune, 1977.
- Turk, R. “The United States Navy and the Taking of Panama, 1901-1903.” Military Affairs, 1974.
 George Frank Elliott (30 Nov 1846-4 Nov 1931) was promoted to Colonel in March 1903, and advanced to Brigadier General on 3 October 1903 when he assumed the post of Commandant of the Marine Corps.