Secret Agent 711

Some Background

In August 1775, following hostilities between the colonists and British troops in Massachusetts, King George III declared the American colonies in rebellion.  The declaration prompted Congress to assemble a Continental Army under General George Washington.  Ten months later, in June 1776, Richard Henry Lee proposed a Congressional resolution calling for independence from Great Britain.

As the independence movement gained momentum, Congress convened a five-member committee to write a formal public statement to justify its declaration of independence.  Committee members included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson authored the first draft, and after making a few suggested changes, a second draft was submitted to Congress on 28 June 1776.[1]  Congress debated the proposed resolution on 1 July.  Two states opposed the resolution, two more signaled indecision, and New York abstained.  Delaware broke the tie vote the next day, and the two states that opposed the resolution shifted to favor it.  The final vote on 2 July was 12 to 0 in favor.

After the vote, a few members of Congress wanted yet another look at the resolution, which resulted in further modifications.  Congress approved the final draft on 4 July 1776.  The Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America went to press on 5 July.  Congress ordered 200 copies.  On 8 July, the declaration was read aloud in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia.  New York agreed to support the statement on 9 July.  The official “original” was signed on 19 July, except that some members were absent, so the signing continued as the remaining members became available until 2 August.

No one in Congress celebrated the Declaration of Independence.  The mood was subdued; everyone understood that they had performed an act of high treason, and everyone realized the punishment for high treason was death.  Benjamin Rush later recalled that as congressional representatives signed the document, everyone believed they were signing their own death warrant. 

We celebrate our Independence Day on 4 July.  One day prior, British General Sir William Howe led the British Army ashore on Staten Island, New York; the hostilities that had begun in Massachusetts continued as part of the New York and New Jersey Campaign (July 1776-March 1777).  Howe drove Washington’s Continentals out of New York but erred by over-extending his reach into New Jersey.  General Howe could not exert complete control over both.  The best he could do and did do was maintain control of New York harbor.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

General Washington

General Washington was unable to hold New York, but neither was he finished with Howe.  Throughout his failed campaign, Washington received unsolicited intelligence reports from individual patriots.  After evacuating the Continental Army from Brooklyn Heights, General Washington asked William Heath and George Clinton to set up “a channel of information” on Long Island. 

Heath and Clinton began looking for volunteers for clandestine operations.  One of these volunteers was Captain Nathan Hale.[2]  Soon after signing on for secret service, the somewhat full of himself Hale traveled to New York City under an assumed name.  Unfortunately, not everyone is well-suited for espionage; Nathan Hale was one of these.  The British quickly unmasked Hale and almost as speedily executed him for high treason.

General Washington learned a valuable lesson from Hale’s execution, not the least of which was that for a secret mission to succeed — well, it must remain secret.  He also learned that volunteer spies simply wouldn’t do.  What he needed was a well-organized, discreet, professionally managed “secret service.”

After Hale’s execution, which historians claim deeply affected Washington, he decided that civilian spies would be less likely to attract attention than military officers.  Washington turned to William Duer to recommend someone to lead this effort in New York City.  Duer recommended Nathaniel Sackett.  However, Sackett was hesitant to take risks, and his intelligence (though worthy in some instances) took too long to produce.  Washington soon replaced Sackett with Captain Benjamin Tallmadge, Hale’s classmate at Yale.

In early 1777, Colonel Elias Dayton of the New Jersey Militia established a spy network on Staten Island.[3]  Colonel Dayton’s system eventually tied in with another, known as the Mersereau Ring.[4]

Following their victory at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September 1777, the British occupied the city of Philadelphia on 26th September.  General Washington thereafter focused much of his espionage efforts within the city of Philadelphia.  Washington recruited Major John Clark, a wounded/recovering veteran of the Battle of Brandywine, to accomplish this.

In August 1778, Lieutenant Caleb Brewster of Norwalk, Connecticut, volunteered to provide General Washington with intelligence.  Washington found Brewster’s initial report quite helpful, so to expand Brewster’s usefulness, Washington appointed General Charles Scott as Brewster’s handler and tasked him to find additional spies, if possible.  Captain Tallmadge became General Scott’s principal assistant.  As it happened, both Tallmadge and Brewster were acquainted with Abraham Woodhull of Setauket (Long Island); Tallmadge suggested that Brewster recruit Woodhull to help channel information through the network.

Abe Woodhull was probably an ideal spy because he was a convicted smuggler.  Tallmadge may have reasoned that if the British suspected Woodhull of smuggling, it was unlikely that they would also suspect him of espionage.  Woodhull was in prison when Tallmadge made him the offer: his freedom in exchange for working for Tallmadge.  Once Woodhull agreed to the arrangement, Washington arranged his release from prison with Governor Jonathan Trumbull.  To protect Woodhull’s identity, Tallmadge gave him an alias: Samuel Culper, Sr.

Tallmadge and Scott had differing views about the best way to run an espionage ring.  Scott preferred single-mission agents — men he could send out on a mission, afterward returning to Scott with a full report, and whom he could then assign to subsequent missions.  Captain Tallmadge had a different idea: he wanted stabilized agents to collect information and pass it along (via courier) to Scott’s headquarters.  Both methods were effective, and both ways were hazardous.

After Scott lost sixty percent of his “single mission” agents, whom the British captured and executed, General Washington reasoned that since Tallmadge had not lost a single agent, his method of collecting and transmitting secret information was “best.”  When General Scott resigned his post, Washington replaced him with Tallmadge.

Woodhull/Culper proved his ability in October 1778 by providing Washington with valuable information about British activities in Philadelphia.  To assist him, Woodhull recruited his brother-in-law, Amos Underhill.  Underhill and his wife Mary (Woodhull’s sister) ran a boarding house and pub catering to British soldiers.  British soldiers do two things very well: they drink a lot, and they talk a lot.  Underhill’s initial problem was that Washington thought his initial reports were too vague.  It wasn’t enough to listen to what the British soldiers had to say; Washington expected Underhill to validate what they said, as well.

The process of conveying information to Brewster was dangerous, complex, and time-consuming.  When Brewster had information for Tallmadge, it was hand-carried from Staten Island to Setauket and then from Setauket to Tallmadge’s headquarters at Fairfield, Connecticut — a distance of 188 miles, 30 of it across Long Island Sound.  To accomplish this feat, Woodhull recruited two couriers: Jonas Hawkins and Austin Roe.  Their task was to carry messages between Woodhull and Brewster.  It was up to Brewster to deliver messages to Tallmadge.  Crossing the Long Island Sound in a small boat was no easy task.  Brewster had six “drop” sites.

Mary Underhill (who some claim was actually Anna Strong) assisted her husband by posting pre-arranged signals to indicate which spies had information to submit.  For example, if Mary hung a black petticoat on her wash line, Brewster had arrived in town.  If she hung up some quantity of handkerchiefs on her clothesline, it told the courier which of Brewster’s six drops the information was to go.  Is this true?  We aren’t sure, but it does indicate how intricate the spy network was (and had to be).

The British were many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them.  The British knew about Washington’s spying campaign.  They suspected Abraham Woodhull, Amos, and Mary Underhill, and they were keen to capture General Scott.  The British knew; the Americans knew that the British knew, and this made American spycraft all the more difficult because the British didn’t need indisputable proof of high treason.  Reasonable suspicion would be enough to send a spy to the gallows.

Everyone in Setauket with a role in Washington’s spy network became nervous when the British arrested John Wolsey, a known smuggler, and a master of self-preservation.  Sure enough, John Wolsey made a deal with the British.  In exchange for his liberty, he agreed to tell what he knew about Abraham Woodhull.  As it turned out, however, all Wolsey knew about Woodhull was something he’d overheard a lobsterback say … which was that Woodhull was suspected of being involved in a spying ring.

John Graves Simcoe

Wisely, Abe Woodhull was a cautious man who realized that he was operating on borrowed time.  With men like Wolsey running his gob, Woodhull was prudent to worry about his safety.  British Colonel John Graves Simcoe led his Queen’s Rangers to Setauket to look for Woodhull, who at the time was in New York.[5]  In the process of looking for Woodhull, Simcoe arrested his father, Judge Richard Woodhull, and had him tortured, inflicting him with grievous injuries to obtain information about his son.  A loyalist militia officer, Benjamin Floyd, who was married to a member of the Woodhull family, vouched for Abraham, which gave Simcoe pause in his investigation.  Subsequently, Woodhull conveyed to Tallmadge that he was not able to continue operating as a Continental spy.

In a letter to Tallmadge in late June, General Washington suggested considering Mr. George Higday as a possible replacement for Woodhull.  Unhappily for Higday, the British intercepted Washington’s letter, which prompted Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s raid into Tallmadge’s camp.[6]  Tarleton captured several documents, all confirming what the British already knew: Washington had spies.   Mr. Higday’s espionage career was over before it began.

Tarleton’s raid also convinced Abraham Woodhull that his early decision to retire was a wise and prudent course of action.  However, before his retirement, Woodhull did manage to recruit a new spy, a man named Robert Townsend.  Mr. Townsend’s alias was Samuel Culper, Jr.

Robert Townsend had several reasons for joining Washington’s spy network.  He was first of all motivated by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense.[7]  He was also put off by British harassment of his family (because of their religious affiliation) — and because Abraham Woodhull was an excellent salesman.  As a devoted Quaker, Townsend could not participate as a soldier. Ordinarily, this belief system might have also prevented him from joining the spy network. Still, a schism between religious and political Quakers (aided by Paine) pushed Townsend into the “political camp.”[8]  There was one more provocation: Colonel Simcoe of the Queen’s Rangers seized the Townsend home and converted it into his headquarters.

Mr. Townsend was a businessman.  He owned a trade goods store and a coffee shop in partnership with Mr. James Rivington.  Mr. Rivington was the publisher of a loyalist newspaper, and Mr. Townsend was one of his regular journalists.  As a merchant, coffee shop owner, and reporter, Townsend had access to numerous British officers and NCOs and their places of patronage.  As a contributor to a loyalist newspaper, Townsend had credibility within loyalist society — such that British loyalists were happy to talk to him.  Both Townsend and Rivington formed the core elements of the Culper Ring in New York City.

Despite the stress of espionage, which produced strained relations within the Culper Ring, the effort produced more information than any other American or British intelligence network during the war.  American espionage focused on British troop movements, fortifications, and operational plans.  For example, the Culper Ring foiled British plans to ambush the French in Rhode Island.  Arguably, this information saved the Franco-American alliance.  Culper also uncovered the correspondence between Benedict Arnold and British Major John Andre, General Clinton’s chief intelligence officer.

To clarify what General Washington wanted from the Culper Ring, he provided them with specific instructions (see a special note below).

Townsend wasted little time energizing his spy activity.  Nine days after accepting Woodhull’s “offer of employment,” Townsend reported that two divisions of British infantry were preparing for an expedition to Connecticut.  In 1780, Townsend discovered a plot by British officials to ruin the American economy by circulating counterfeit currency.  He reported that the British hierarchy was optimistic about an imminent end to the war.  Townsend’s timely reporting permitted Congress to recall all of its money then in circulation.

Throughout his employment, Townsend remained suspicious of everyone and every circumstance.  To safeguard the identity of his spies, Tallmadge utilized several protective measures.  In addition to pseudonyms, Tallmadge also developed a system consisting of seven-hundred sixty-three numbers.  The number 745 represented England; 727 for New York; Robert Townsend was 723, and so forth.

Robert Townsend’s conduct of spycraft was both astute and sensible.  How sensible?  How good was Townsend at keeping secrets?  Townsend died on 7 March 1838.  He was 84 years old.  When he died, he took everything he knew about the Culper Ring with him.  What we know of Robert Townsend was only revealed in 1930 by American historian Morton Pennypacker.  Not even General Washington knew the identities of his spies.

And none of his spies knew that General Washington was Agent 711.

Sources:

  1. Rose, A.  Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.  Penguin Books/Random House, 2014.

Special Note:

General Washington’s Instructions:

  1. Culper Junior, to remain in the City, to collect all the useful information he can — to do this, he should mix as much as possible among the officers and refugees, visit the coffee houses, and all public places. He is to pay particular attention to the movements by land and water in and about the city especially.  How their transports are secured against an attempt to destroy them — whether by armed vessels upon the flanks, or by chains, booms, or any contrivances to keep off fire rafts.
  2. The number of men destined for the defense of the City and environs, endeavoring to designate the particular corps, and where each is posted.
  3. To be particular in describing the place where the works cross the island in the rear of the City-and how many redoubts are upon the line from the river to river, how many Cannon in each, and of what weight and whether the redoubts are closed or open next the city.
  4. Whether there are any works upon the Island of New York between those near the City and the works at Fort Knyphausen or Washington, and if any, whereabouts and of what kind.
  5. To be very particular to find out whether any works are thrown up on Harlem River, near Harlem Town, and whether Horn’s Hook is fortified. If so, how many men are kept at each place, and what number and what sized cannon are in those works.
  6. To enquire whether they have dug pits within and in front of the lines and works in general, three or four feet deep, in which sharp pointed stakes are pointed. These are intended to receive and wound men who attempt a surprise at night.
  7. The state of the provisions, forage and fuel to be attended to, as also the health and spirits of the Army, Navy and City.
  8. These are the principal matters to be observed within the Island and about the City of New York. Many more may occur to a person of C. Junr’s penetration which he will note and communicate.
  9. Culper Senior’s station to be upon Long Island to receive and transmit the intelligence of Culper Junior …
  10. There can be scarcely any need of recommending the greatest caution and secrecy in a business so critical and dangerous. The following seem to be the best general rules: To entrust none but the persons fixed upon to transmit the business. To deliver the dispatches to none upon our side but those who shall be pitched upon for the purpose of receiving them and to transmit them and any intelligence that may be obtained to no one but the Commander-in-Chief.

Endnotes:

[1] The declaration took the form of a grand jury indictment — allegations not proven, and many that history proves were not even true.  In modern times, one popular axiom is that it’s possible to indict a ham sandwich and such was the case of America’s “indictment” of King George II.  The colonist’s real problem, aside from King George insisting on his prerogatives as Great Britain’s king, was the British Parliament, but since a government legislative body cannot be indicted, Jefferson and other members of Congress decided to make their point by indicting the King.

[2] Hale came from a prominent Connecticut family.  He began his education at Yale at the age of 14, attended classes with Benjamin Tallmadge, and figured rather prominently in the college’s debating society.  He graduated with honors in 1773 at the age of 18 years.  When the British executed Hale, he was 21 years old.

[3] Later, Revolutionary War brigadier general, mayor of Elizabethtown, and member of the New Jersey General Assembly.  He was the father of Jonathan, a signer of the U.S. Constitution.

[4] Started in December 1776, this operation focused on intelligence gathering in New Brunswick and New York.  John Mersereau was the primary supervisor of this effort.

[5] Simcoe, from Cornwall, was the only child in his family to survive into adulthood.  He entered British military service in 1770, participating in the Siege of Boston, New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia campaigns.  Tradition holds that Simcoe, in ordering his men not to fire on three withdrawing Continental officers, saved George Washington’s life.  He later served as Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor and was responsible for founding Toronto and for establishing Canada’s judicial system (1791-96).

[6] Contrary to how Mel Gibson portrayed him in the fictional film The Patriot, Tarleton was not so much of a scoundrel as he was a fighter.  He never burned down a South Carolina church filled with parishioners, but he did threaten to torch the home of General Charles Lee of New Jersey unless he surrendered to Tarleton’s authority.  At the Battle of Waxhaw, the 22-year-old captain, commanding provincial cavalry, assaulted a superior force of Continentals under Colonel Abraham Buford.  Buford refused to surrender despite the fact that Tarleton gave him that opportunity on two occasions.  With Buford’s refusal, Tarleton’s force of 149 troops attacked Buford incessantly, killing 113 Americans, wounding 203, and taking prisoners of those left alive when Buford finally agreed to surrender.  The Americans called it a massacre; it was no such thing.  It was war.  Tarleton was not the butcher revisionists have claimed.

[7] Paine argued that any Quaker who believed in pacifism at any price was not a true Quaker.

[8] Religious Quakers were among the strongest supporters of the British during the revolutionary war period. 


That Splendid Little War

The seeds of the Spanish-American War

Background to the Modern Navy

There are naval historians who will tell you that the United States Navy never shined so brightly as it did during the American Civil War.  There may not be a better example of Navy innovation than its advancements in ship design, technology, medicine, and expeditionary (brown water) operations.  These innovations convince some that the Civil War must be regarded as the world’s first modern conflict.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy had 6,700 officers, and around 52,000 enlisted men serving aboard 670 ships.  The Navy Department consisted of 89 individuals, including the Secretary of the Navy.  But for the twenty following years, the U.S. Navy entered a period of steady decline.  The Navy’s decline was not due to the inattention of any naval officer or senior official; it was simply the result of a Congress that did not believe the nation could afford a standing navy.  Within a decade following the Civil war, all but a few navy ships had been sold off, scrapped, or mothballed for some future crisis.

In February 1880, the U.S. Navy had 65 operating steam vessels, 22 ships under sail, and 26 old ironclad vessels.  Five years later Admiral David D. Porter noted, “It would be much better to have no navy at all than one like the present, half-armed with only half-speed unless we inform the world that our establishment is only intended for times of peace, and to protect missionaries against the South Sea savages and eastern fanatics.  One such ship as the British ironclad Invincible could put our fleet ‘hor de combat’ in a short time.”

The concept of a peacetime navy was finally embraced with Congressional approval for new battleships in 1890.  Within four years, the United States Navy ranked sixth in naval power behind Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and Germany.  Both political parties may claim credit for restoring the U.S. Navy, but in reality, it was all due to the attention and diligence of one man: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.

Background to Cuba and the Spanish Empire

Cuba, derived from the native Taino word Coabaña (Great Land), had been part of the Spanish Empire since 1494 when Columbus landed to carry out the Papal Bull of 1493, to conquer and convert West Indies pagans to Catholicism.

Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, the early 19th century witnessed three movements in Cuba: reformation, annexation, and independence.  After the removal of Ferdinand VII from the Spanish throne in 1808, Cuban creoles rebelled against Spanish authority and declared Cuba a sovereign state.  It was a brief period of independence because everyone involved was either executed or sent to prison in Spain.  The effects of Spanish authoritarianism were the development of several secret societies, all of which sought independence from Spain and all of whom became the focus of brutal suppression by Spain’s executive military commission.

 In 1868, Cuba was one of the few remaining locations of legalized slavery in the Western Hemisphere.  Cuban intellectuals felt terrible about that, of course.  Still, slavery was how Cubans achieved and maintained their vast wealth from sugar production, which explains slavery in Cuba.

The Plot to Aid Cubans

On 10 October 1868, certain landowners rallied the Cuban people to demand their independence from Spain; it later began the Ten Year’s War.  True to form, Spain employed its military to suppress the movement.  In the United States, President Ulysses S. Grant wondered if the United States should intervene; Secretary of State Hamilton Fish urged Grant to pursue a hands-off policy with Cuba.

As the insurrection continued, however, there developed an international sympathy for the Cuban people — including the empathy of the American press.  The American people responded to these press reports by actively supporting the Cuban people by purchasing bonds to help raise money for Cuban insurgents.  One patron of the Cuban insurgency was John F. Patterson, who was acting on behalf of the rebels when he purchased the former Confederate ship Virgin, lying idle in the Washington Navy Yard.  The ship was a side-wheeler designed as a blockade runner.  Patterson registered the ship in New York and renamed her Virginius.

At the same time, the United States had a vibrant business arrangement with Cuba, the consequence of which was the presence of U.S. Navy vessels charged with ensuring the protection of American citizens (and their business interests).  While in Cuban waters, the USS Kansas and USS Canandaigua protected Virginius, an American-flagged ship, from Spanish seizure. The ship operated for three years, funneling weapons, munitions, and men into Cuba.

In 1873, Patterson hired Joseph Fry as Master of Virginius.[1] Fry was an experienced seaman with fifteen years of service in the U.S. Navy before resigning in 1861 to join the Confederate States Navy.  After the war, Commodore Fry struggled to find worthwhile employment, so he understandably jumped at the opportunity to serve as the ships’ captain.

At the time Fry accepted his appointment, Virginius was moored in Kingston, Jamaica undergoing repairs.  Virginius was a tired ship in need of substantial rework, but Patterson and his Cuban allies could only afford to maintain essential seaworthiness.  The boilers were shot, but those repairs were far too expensive.  Fry discovered that most of the crew had deserted upon arriving in Jamaica, so he initiated a recruiting effort.

Of the 52 men hired, most were either American or British.  Many of these men were inexperienced seamen; most did not realize that the ship supported the Cuban rebellion.  Some of the crew were still boys, aged 13 and 14.  In those days, child labor was not an issue, and no one gave a second thought to youngsters taking on dangerous work.  While in Jamaica, the U.S. Consul met with Fry and warned him that if Spanish authorities ever captured him,  they would very likely have him executed.  Captain Fry did not believe the Spanish would execute a mere blockade runner and dismissed the warning out of hand.

The Executions

In mid-October 1873, Captain Fry and four mercenaries took the ship to Haiti, where Fry loaded ammunition and around 100 Cuban nationals.  A spy informed the Spanish when Virginius left port, and Spanish authorities dispatched the warship Tornado to capture her.  On 30 October, Tornado spotted Virginius approximately six miles off the Cuban coast and gave chase.  Virginius was heavily laden; the stress applied to barely adequate boilers made the vessel sluggish, and the ship began taking on water.  Tornado was a much faster ship — and heavily armed.  After sustaining some damage from Tornado’s guns, Fry surrendered the ship.  Spanish officers apprehended Fry, his crew, and all other passengers and transported them to Santiago de Cuba, where the Spanish military governor ordered them court-martialed for piracy.  The four mercenaries were put to death immediately, without trial.

The Executions

The Spanish court-martial found Fry and his crewmen guilty as charged.  Every man received a death sentence. U.S. Consul to Cuba, Henry C. Hall, protested the court-martial and imposed sentence, but the Spanish military authority ignored him.  As it happened, one of these condemned men claimed British citizenship.  Upon learning this, the British Consul to Cuba wired Jamaica and asked for the assistance of the Royal Navy to intervene in the scheduled executions.

The execution of Captain Fry and 37 of his crewman took place on 7 November.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the Spanish mutilated their remains and decapitated them to warn others.  An additional eight men were executed on 8 November.  However, the executions came to a halt when HMS Noble arrived and threatened to bombard Santiago — by this time, the Spanish had executed 53 men.

Until this time, the American press was reasonably conservative in reporting the Virginius incident, but when news of the executions became common knowledge, the press became aggressive in promoting the Cuban rebel’s position.  The New York Times, and other newspapers, urged war and demanded an end to Spanish colonies in the Americas.  Protests broke out all across the United States, with people demanding vengeance on Spain.  The British Ambassador to the United States even publicly opined that the American public was ready for war with Spain (which is by itself thought-provoking) and may suggest a British interest in such a confrontation.

The United States’ Response

After Consul Hall notified the State Department of Captain Fry’s arrest and court-martial on 4 November, Secretary Fish believed that it was simply another ship captured while aiding the Cuban rebellion, but at a cabinet meeting with the President on 7 November, the execution of the four mercenaries headed the agenda.  Present Grant determined that the United States would regard these executions as “an inhuman act not in accordance with the spirit of civilization of the nineteenth century.”  On the following day, Secretary Fish met with Spanish Ambassador Don José Polo de Barnabé to discuss the legality of Spain’s capture of a US-flagged ship.

At the next cabinet meeting on 11 November, President Grant (with the advice of his cabinet) determined that war with Spain was not desirable, but Cuban intervention was possible.  Then, on the following day, Secretary Fish learned that Spanish officials executed Captain Fry and 37 of his crew.  He cabled U.S. Minister Daniel Sickles in Spain, directing that he protest the executions and demand reparations for any American citizen killed.  On 13 November, Fish informed Spanish minister Polo that the United States would exercise a “freehand” in Cuba vis-à-vis the Virginius affair.  On 14 November, Grant’s cabinet agreed to close the Spanish legation unless Spain met U.S. demands for reparations.  Reports of other executions found their way into the White House.

On 15 November, Minister Polo visited Secretary Fish to inform him that Virginius was a pirate ship, that the crew posed a threat to the security of Spanish territory, and assured him that Spain would continue to act in its own national interests in this manner.  On that same day, Fish cabled Sickles again and instructed him as follows: (1) demand the return of Virginius to the United States, (2) release surviving crewmen, (3) offer a salute to the Flag of the United States, (4) punish the perpetrators of the inhuman crimes, and (5) pay an indemnity to the survivors of those killed.

The conversation between Sickles and Spanish Minister of State José Carvajal became testy, and Sickles concluded that an amicable settlement was not likely.  The Spanish press attacked the United States, Mr. Sickles, the British government and urged war with the United States.  Spanish President Emilio Castelar maintained a more relaxed attitude and resolved to settle the matter reasonably.

On 27 November, Minister Polo visited with Secretary Fish and proposed that Spain would relinquish Virginius and the remaining crew if the United States would agree to investigate the legal status of the ship’s ownership.  President Grant directed Fish to accept Spain’s proposals.  Grant suggested that the United States dispense with its demand that Spain render honors to the American flag if investigators determined that Virginius had no legal U.S. ownership.  A formal agreement to this effect was signed on 28 November — both governments would investigate the proprietorship of Virginius and any crimes perpetrated by any Spanish volunteers.

On 5 December, Fish and Polo signed an agreement that Spanish authorities would turn Virginius over to the U.S. Navy, with U.S. flag aloft, effective on 16 December at the port of Bahiá Honda.  Upon learning of this arrangement, Daniel Sickles resigned his post in protest.[2], [3]

Virginius

Virginius was returned to U.S. control as agreed on 17 December.  Spanish vessels towed Virginius to sea and turned her over to the U.S. Navy.  The ship was in complete disrepair and taking on water.  On the same day, U.S. Attorney George H. Williams determined that ownership of Virginius was fraudulent and that she was not entitled to fly the U.S. flag.  He also decided that Spain had every right to capture the ship on the open sea.

In January 1874, Spanish President Castelar was voted out of office and replaced by Francisco Serrano.  Sickle’s replacement was Caleb Cushing, a well-known attorney and Spanish scholar known for his calm demeanor.  Cushing opined that the U.S. was fortunate that Castelar had been Spain’s president up to that time because otherwise, Serrano’s temperament would have led to war between the U.S. and Spain.  Cushing’s primary duty involved obtaining reparations for the families of murdered crewmen and punishment for the official who ordered their executions.  By May 1874, Cushing had established himself with Spanish authorities as a reasonable and respectable man.

In June, Cushing notified Fish that the Spanish had agreed to proceed with negotiations for reparations.  In October, Cushing learned that President Castelar had secretly agreed to pay the British £7,700.  When President Grant learned of this agreement, he demanded $2,500 for each crewman executed. Each crewman not already identified as a British citizen would be regarded as an American.  Minister Polo’s replacement, Antonio Mantilla, agreed to the demand.  However, the actual payment was placed “on hold” when, in December, Spain reverted to a monarchy, and Alfonso XII became King of Spain.

Under an agreement on 7 February 1875, signed on 5 March, Spain paid the United States $80,000.00 for the killing of the American crewmen.  Spain’s case against General Don Juan Burriel, the officer who ordered the executions, which the Spanish government judged illegal, was taken up by the Spanish Tribunal of the Navy in June 1876, but Burriel died in December 1877 before any trial convened.

At the time of the Virginius Affair, the Spanish ironclad Arapiles anchored at New York Harbor for repairs.  During this visitation, the U.S. Navy realized that it had no ship that could defeat Arapiles; it was an awareness that prompted Secretary of War George M. Robeson to urge the modernization of the American fleet.  Congress subsequently authorized the construction of five new ironclad ships — all five of these ships participated in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

War with Spain (1898)

In 1898, the Spanish Empire was in decline.  It had experienced the Peninsular War (1807-1814), the loss of most of its colonies during the independence movements of the early 1800s, and three civil wars between 1832-1876.  Liberal Spanish elites, including Emilio Castelar, undertook efforts to bring the Old Empire into the age of New Nationalism.  Spanish conservatives, on the other hand, a prideful lot, sought to maintain their traditional sense of Spanish Imperial superiority.

In 1823, President James Monroe published his doctrine, which served as notice to European powers that the United States would not tolerate the expansion of European interests in the Western Hemisphere, nor their interference in newly independent states.  The U.S. would, however, respect the status of existing European colonies.  Before the Civil War, certain southern interests encouraged the U.S. government to purchase Cuba from Spain; they envisioned, of course, a slave state.  Known as the Ostend Manifesto, proposed in 1854, anti-slavery interests vigorously opposed it.

After the Civil War, U.S. business interests began monopolizing sugar markets in Cuba.  In 1894, 90% of Cuba’s total exports went to the United States, approximately 12 times its exports to Spain.  Thus, Spain may have exercised suzerainty over Cuba, but economic power fell within the realm of the United States.

Meanwhile, before he died in 1894, Jose Marti established “Cuba Libre” movement offices in Florida to help influence U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.  The face of Cuban nationalism was vested in Tomas Estrada Palma.  His junta organized fund-raising events in the United States established relationships with the American press and helped organize the smuggling of weapons and munitions into Cuba.  Palma’s propaganda campaign generated enormous support for Cuba’s resistance to Spanish authoritarianism.  No one in the U.S. at the time had any interest in Spain’s other colonies in the Philippines, Guam, or Puerto Rico.  There was also no demand for an American overseas empire.

In 1895, Marti organized an invasion of Cuba from three locations — Costa Rica, Santo Domingo, and the United States.  The latter effort was stopped by U.S. authorities when they became aware of it.  The plan was sound, but its execution failed to deliver the victory promised by Marti.  Revolutionaries settled into another protracted insurrection.

In the minds of Spanish officials, the Cuban insurrection was an assault on Spain because Cuba was an off-shore province of Spain (not a colony), which was why Spanish officials resisted the insurrection with every drop of blood needed to accomplish it.  Spanish General Valeriano Weyler was both clever and ruthless in his efforts to contain the rebellion.  President McKinley regarded Weyler’s efforts as a campaign of human extermination.

No one was more effective in promoting Cuban nationalism than Joseph Pulitzer (New York Post) and William Randolph Hearts (New York Journal).  They became the face of America’s “yellow journalism.”[4]  Both papers regularly denounced Spain but had little influence outside New York.  As Cuban insurrection and suppression continued, American business interests suffered to such an extent that they petitioned President McKinley to end the revolt.  Concurrently, European businessmen petitioned Spain to restore order.

The American people overwhelmingly supported Cuban rebels.  For his part, McKinley wanted to end the insurrection peacefully — and opened negotiations with the Spanish government to accomplish it.  Initially, Spanish authorities dismissed McKinley’s efforts but offered the possibility of negotiation at some unspecified future date.

As a demonstration of the United States’ guarantee for the safety of Americans living in Cuba, President McKinley ordered the USS Maine to Havana Harbor.  Less visible to the American people, McKinley also directed additional ships of the Atlantic Squadron to take up station in Key West, Florida.  Other U.S. Navy ships quietly moved to Lisbon, Portugal, and Hong Kong.

At around 21:40 on 15 February 1898, USS Maine blew up and sank.  Two hundred fifty sailors and Marines lost their lives.  Yellow journalists told the American people that the Spanish destroyed Maine while at anchor — an overt act of war.  All Spain could do was deny the allegation, but the more they denied any involvement, the less anyone in the United States believed them.  Somewhat panicked, the Spanish government turned to other European powers to intercede with the United States.  Most of these European powers advised the Spanish government to accept U.S. conditions for Cuba.  Only Germany urged a united European confrontation with the United States.

The U. S. Navy’s investigation of the sinking of the Maine concluded that the ship’s powder magazines ignited under the ship’s hull.  No one was interested in this finding, however, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.

So, America went to war.

Sources:

  1. Allin, L. C.  The First Cubic War: The Virginius Affair.  American Neptune, 1978.
  2. Auxier, G. W.  The Propaganda Activities of the Cuban Junta in Precipitating the Spanish American War 1895-1898.  Hispanic American Historical Review, 1939.
  3. Bradford, R. H.  The Virginius Affair.  Colorado Associate University Press, 1980.
  4. Calhoun, C. W.  The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace.  University Press of Kansas, 2017.
  5. Campbell, W. J.  Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.  Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
  6. Carr, R.  Spain: 1808-1975.  Clarendon Press, 1982.
  7. Hudson, R. A.  Cuba: A Country Study.  Library of Congress, 2001.
  8. Karnow, St.  In our Image.  Century Publishing, 1990.
  9. Nofi, A. A.  The Spanish-American War, 1898.  Combined Books, 1998.
  10. Soodalter, R.  To the Brink in Cuba, 1873.  Military History Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] While we do not hear much about Joseph Fry (1826-1873) in history, this Florida-born lad graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1846.  In 1841, the 15-year old Fry traveled to Washington, made a call on the President of the United States (John Tyler), and asked for his patronage for admission to the US Naval Academy.  Tyler granted the appointment and Fry entered the Academy on 15 September 1841.  Fry had a distinguished career in the Navy, attaining the rank of Captain before 1861.  He resigned from the Navy to serve the state of Florida.  During the Civil War, while serving as a Commodore, Fry earned an exceptional reputation for his fighting spirit and combat seamanship.

[2] Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819-1914) was a member of the US House of Representatives, served as a New York State Senator, a Civil War major general, and was the recipient of the Medal of Honor.  He served as US Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874.  While serving in the New York Assembly, Sickles received a reprimand for escorting a prostitute, one Miss Fanny White, into its chambers.  He also reportedly took her to England in 1853 while serving as a secretary to the US Legation in London and upon introducing her to Queen Victoria, used the name of one of his New York political opponents.

[3] In February 1859, when Sickles discovered that his wife, Teresa Bagioli (aged 21, half her husband’s age) was having an affair with Washington DC district attorney Philip Barton Key III, Sickles shot Key dead in the street across from the White House.  Philip Key was the son of Francis Scott Key.  Authorities charged Sickles with premeditated murder.  His attorney, Edwin M. Stanton (later, Secretary of War Stanton) won an acquittal on the basis of Sickles’ “temporary insanity.”  The plea was the first time it was used in an American courtroom.

[4] Journalism that was based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration, which continues to characterize the American media today.



Edward Marcus Despard

Colonel, British Army, Executed

Edward Despard (1751-1803) was an Anglo-Irish British officer — the brother of General John Despard.  He was an “acquired” gentleman and soldier through his service as a squire in the household of Lord Hertford.  Edward entered the British Army as an Ensign with subsequent service with the 50th Regiment of Foot in Jamaica.  He initially served as an engineer; his construction duties required that he supervise the so-called motley crews, including free blacks and mixed-race “Miskitos.”  He employed these people and worked them hard, but he also sympathized with them.

Colonel Despard

Despard served with distinction in operations against Spanish Guatemala during the American Revolution.  He fought under Admiral Horatio Nelson during the San Juan expedition (1780), and in 1782, while serving as a captain, Despard commanded the British force at the Battle of Black River.  In recognition of Despard’s courage in the heat of battle, the Army promoted him to Colonel. He continued to lead reconnaissance missions, relying on people of color to help him defeat his Spanish foe; it was through this experience that he developed an affinity for those whom, he felt, lived together in “perfect equality.”

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Colonel Despard supervised the British logwood concession in the Bay of Honduras, then known as British Honduras (now as Belize).  Working under the British Foreign Ministry, Colonel Despard sought to accommodate displaced British subjects along the Miskito Coast. Despard’s problem was that in attempting to distribute land equally without regard for color, he ran afoul of British slave traders and landowners. His lottery system afforded people of color equal opportunity for land acquisition, which placed them in competition with white landowners seeking to make their fortune in the harvesting of mahogany timber.

Unfortunately, the British Home Secretary found agreement with white landowners that it was impolitic to afford people of color an equal footing with wealthy businessmen, who also happened to be white. Colonel Despard replied to Lord Sydney[1] that the laws of England made no such distinction.  In 1790, Lord Grenville,[2] who replaced Thomas Townshend, recalled Despard to London to answer questions relative to certain “irregularities” in his governorship.

When Colonel Despard arrived in London, he traveled with his wife Catherine and son James.  Catherine, a black woman, was the daughter of a protestant minister.  Since mixed marriages were almost unheard of in England, the union created a stir, but mainstream society never challenged it.

After Colonel Despard’s arrest, Catherine worked to bring attention to the unfair (malicious) manner of the government’s accusations of alleged irregularities.  Seeking to discredit her, the British government referred to her efforts as the “fair sex” intercession, with no mention of her race.  In the minds of Despard’s enemies, it was enough to suggest that this weak-minded woman was being used to further the goals of political subversives.  As it happened, Despard’s descendants later repudiated Edward and Catherine’s marriage by referring to Catherine as Edward’s black housekeeper and “the poor woman who called herself his wife.”  Despard’s son James was described as the offspring of a previous lover, and both Catherine and James were quietly removed from the family tree.

While the government investigated Colonel Despard’s irregularities, he was confined in debtor’s prison for two years on trumped-up charges.  While confined to his dank cell, Despard read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.  Paine’s argument vindicated Despard’s view of universal equality, which is how he conducted himself as governor of British Honduras.  At the time the British released Despard from prison in 1794, Thomas Paine was living in France and Paine’s writings were popular among people who shared Despard’s view, particularly the Irish.

Between 1792 and 1797, the United Kingdom was a member of a loosely constructed European coalition against the French First Republic — known as the Wars of the First Coalition.  In 1791, European monarchies viewed developments in the French Revolution with considerable concern for the welfare of Louis XVI and his family and other matters.  Although the coalition was uncoordinated, the first act of violence occurred when France declared war on Austria in April 1792, Prussia declared war on France in June 1792, and both Austria and Prussia invaded France in September 1792.  It did not help matters when the French executed Louis XVI on 21 January 1793.  The British kept their distance from the mainland battles but did manage to irritate the French by supporting French loyalists against the Republic.

At the time of its war with France, high-ranking members of Parliament made a connection between Thomas Paine, Edward Despard, other Irish malcontents, and certain seditious efforts to undermine the authority of King George III.  Indeed, some among these men were voicing suggestions of armed rebellion.  Unrelated to this movement, one fellow attempted to assassinate King George.  He was acquitted based on insanity but institutionalized, nevertheless.  Earlier, in 1793, authorities arrested three prominent citizens, members of “corresponding” societies, charged them with sedition and sentenced them to fourteen years of penal transportation.[3]

In the summer of 1795, crowds shouting “No War, No Pitt, Cheap Bread” attacked the residence of British Prime Minister William Pitt (The Younger)[4] and consequently surrounded King George III in procession to Parliament.  There was also a riot at Charing Cross, at which location authorities detained Edward Despard and questioned him about his involvement in those riots if any.  A magistrate later suggested to Despard that he may have brought the matter upon himself by his flippant answers to initial questions.  In October 1795, Parliament passed the Seditious Meetings Act, which made it a crime to attend meetings that were even remotely suggestive of treasonous activity.

Notwithstanding the Gag Act, Colonel Despard joined the London Corresponding Society and was quickly elevated to its central committee.  When the Irish movement turned toward the prospect of a French-assisted insurrection, Despard took the “United Irish” pledge to obtain complete and adequate representation for all the people of Ireland.  In the summer of 1797, a Catholic priest named James Coigly traveled to Manchester where he demanded Englishmen to join Ireland in removing the king, to “…exalt him that is low and abuse him that is high.”  In furtherance of this goal, Coigly met in London with groups calling themselves United Bretons, and with Irish leaders of the London Corresponding Society, which in addition to Alexander Galloway, included Despard, and Benjamin and John Binns, members who “committed themselves” to overthrowing the present government and joining the French as soon as they made a landing in Ireland.  Only poor weather prevented a French landing from taking place.

Historians believe Despard held a liaison position between British republicans and the French Republic at this junction.  In June 1797, a government informer reported that a United Irish delegation intending to travel to France via London applied to the British government for their departure clearance.  In March 1798, while attempting to cross the English Channel to France, British agents arrested Coigly and Arthur O’Connor.  O’Connor, highly placed and vouched for, was acquitted of the charge of sedition.  Coigly, on the other hand, with French documents in his possession, was charged and convicted of treason and then hanged.  There may not have been a mass movement to overthrow King George III, but there was undoubtedly an attempt to invite and encourage a French invasion of Ireland.

Soon after, British authorities arrested Despard and thirty others and confined them to the Clerkenwell prison.  Despard was retained for three years while British agents infiltrated committees of correspondence and began a system of suppression of those and workman’s unions, which the government outlawed.

Although retained for three years behind bars, government prosecutors never charged Despard with an offense.  Despard was set free in 1802, and he returned to Ireland, where he rejoined the anti-British movement in his home county.  Whether Despard realized it or not, British informers riddled the county.  Meanwhile, in England, a large influx of unhappy Irish refugees restarted a republican movement.

Despard c. 1803

On 16 November 1802, British agents arrested Colonel Despard for attending and meeting with forty or so workers.  The next day, the Privy Council officially charged him with High Treason.[5]  Admiral Lord Nelson appeared as a defense witness, but the fact that Nelson had not seen Despard for twenty years diminished his glowing report.  In the end, Despard was found guilty of only one overt act — his oath to Ireland republicanism.  Nevertheless, Colonel Despard, Private John Wood, Private John Francis, carpenter Thomas Boughton, shoemaker James Wratten, slater Arthur Graham, and laborer John McNamara were all sentenced to hang and be drawn and quartered.

British executioners carried out Colonel Despard’s sentence on 21 February 1803.  It is entirely possible that Colonel Despard, having great sympathy for the Miskito people and the common man, may have become a useful idiot to Irish and British republicans.  Nevertheless, 20,000 British citizens attended his final farewell, the largest ever gathering in London until the death of Lord Nelson.

Catherine and James Despard vanished into history.  Three months later, the United Kingdom went to war with France, remembered in history as the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).

Sources:

  1. Carroll, D.  The Usual Suspects: Twelve Radical Clergy.  Columbia Press, 1998.
  2. Conner, Clifford D.  Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel.  Combined Publishing, 2000.
  3. Madden, R. R.  The United Irishmen: Their lives and times.  Madden & Company Press, 1846.

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney served in British politics from 1754-1783 and as Home Secretary from 1783-1789.  He was a cousin of Charles Townshend, the man responsible for the Townshend Acts, which were one cause of the American War of Independence.

[2] William Grenville later served as British Prime Minister (1806-1807).

[3] The forced relocation of persons convicted of crimes, or judged undesirable, to distant places (penal colonies).  Most of such persons did not have the money to return to their homes once released from confinement.

[4] Pitt The Younger was the son of William Pitt, 1st Earl Chatham, who also served as Prime Minister (1766-1768).  Fort Pitt was named in honor of William the Elder, present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

[5] In the United Kingdom, high treason equates to disloyalty to the Crown, which includes plotting the murder of the sovereign, or sexual dalliances with members of the royal family, levying war against the sovereign, consorting with the sovereign’s enemies, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and attempting to undermine lawful authority.



Operation Al-Fajar

The Enemy

In April 2004, coalition forces in Iraq estimated around 500 hardcore non-state actors living in the city of Fallujah.  Within seven months, however, that number increased to around 3,500 armed insurgents representing just about every extremist group in Iraq, including al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI), the Islamic Army of Iraq (IQI), Ansar al-Sunna, the Army of Mohammed (AOM), the Army of the Mujahedeen, the Secret Army of Iraq, and the National Islamic Army (1920 Revolutionary Brigade). Assisting these committed extremists were an additional 1,000 part-time insurgents.

Within that seven months, the insurgents prepared fortified positions in anticipation of another coalition forces assault.  They dug tunnels, trenches, spider-holes and set into place numerous IEDs. They also set in the so-called Jersey Barriers, creating strong points behind which they could fire on approaching enemy. In some areas, they filled empty homes with bottles of propane gas, drums of gasoline, ordinance, and wired these materials for remote detonation should coalition forces enter those buildings during clearing operations.

Thanks to the liberal proliferation of U.S. manufactured arms, the insurgents were heavily armed with M-14s, M-16s, body armor, western-style uniforms and helmets, and handguns.  The insurgents also booby-trapped vehicles parked alongside roadways, streets, and alleys.  They bricked up stairwells to prevent coalition troops from getting to the roofs of buildings and established avenues of approach to deadly fields of fire.

According to coalition intelligence reports, in addition to the Iraqis, the insurgents included fighters from Chechnya, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria — and perhaps a few from the U.K. and U.S.  As is true in almost every armed conflict, civilian residents began fleeing the city.  By late October, around 80% of the citizenry had vacated their homes and businesses.

The Coalition

In October, the U.S. and Iraqi military forces began establishing checkpoints around the entire city to prevent anyone from entering and to intercept insurgents attempting to flee — many of whom disguised themselves as members of fleeing families.  Mapping specialists began to capture aerial imagery to prepare maps of the city.  Iraqi interpreters joined coalition ground units.  While these tasks were underway, coalition forces began to deliver airstrikes and artillery fire on areas known to contain insurgents.

American, British, and Iraqi forces totaled around 14,000 men.  Of these, 6,500 U.S. Marines, 1,500 U.S. soldiers, and 2,500 U.S. Navy personnel.  Coalitions forces formed two regimental combat teams.  RCT-1 included the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines (3/1), 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 4 (NMCB-4), Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 23 (NMCB-23), and the 2nd Battalion, U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment (2/7CAV).[1]

RCT-7 included 1st Battalion, 8th Marines (1/8), 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (1/3), Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines (Charlie 1/12), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 2nd Infantry (2/2INF), 2nd Battalion, U.S. 12th Cavalry (2/12CAV) and the 1st Battalion, U.S. 6th Field Artillery (1/6thFLD).  Around 2,000 Iraqi troops integrated with the RCTs during the assault.  The forward elements received air support from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rdMAW) and other available Navy and Air Force fixed-wing air units.  Additional Army battalions provided artillery support, and the U.S. Special Operations Command provided snipers.

The 1st Battalion of the Black Watch Regiment (1/BWR) assisted coalition forces with the encirclement of Fallujah, designated Task Force Black.  D Squadron, SAS prepared to take part in the assault and would have, were it not for British politicians who reneged at the last minute before the assault.

The Fight

Ground operations kicked off during the night of 7 November 2004 when Marine reconnaissance teams and Navy Special Warfare teams (SEALS), moved into the city’s outer perimeter. 

With U.S. Army Special Forces Advisors, the Iraqi 6th Commando Battalion, supported by two platoons of mechanized infantry from the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, breached the city perimeter from the west and south.  Additional support elements included a platoon of Army tanks, Marine light armored vehicles, and elements of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines (1/23).  Initial successes included capturing the general hospital, Blackwater Bridge, and several villages on the western edge of the city next to the Euphrates River.  In the south, Marines from 1/3 entered the western approach securing the Jurf Kas Sukr Bridge.  Coalition commanders intended these early movements as a diversion to confuse the insurgent command element.[2]

Once Seabees disabled electrical power at two sub-stations at the northeast and northwest sections of Fallujah, RCT-1, and RCT-7, each supported by SEAL and Recon teams and augmented by 2/7CAV, 2/2INF, and Joint Tactical Aircraft Control (JTAC) elements assaulted the northern edge of the city.  Four additional infantry battalions followed the assault element as the second wave. Their mission focused on clearing operations and the seizure of significant buildings and intersections.

Augmented by the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion and Alpha Company 1/5, the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team infiltrated the city, searching for and destroying fleeing enemies wherever they could find them.  1/BWR set up patrolling operations in the eastern sector.  Overwatch aircraft included USAF F-15s, F-16s, A-10s, B-52s, and AC-130 gunships.  Air Force assets included MQ-1 Predator aircraft for air surveillance and precision airstrikes.

By the early morning hours of 8 November, six U.S. and Iraqi battalions began a full assault behind massive artillery and aerial bombardments.  The coalition’s initial objectives included the central train station, which was used as a staging point for follow-on assaults.  Marines entered the Hay Nib al-Dubat and al-Naziza city districts by early afternoon.  As the Marines advanced, Seabees bulldozed buildings and cleared streets of battle debris to clear the way for other coalition movements and support mechanisms.  Before dusk, the Marines had reached the city center.

Most of the heavy fighting ended by 13 November, but a series of determined enemy strongholds continued to resist coalition forces.  Marines and special operations had to flush these isolated teams, described as “mopping up” operations, which lasted until the 23rd of December 2004.  Once the city was “mostly” clear of insurgents, coalition forces shifted their efforts toward assisting residents returning to their homes — many of whom could not believe the damage inflicted on their city.

Military historians claim that the Battle of Fallujah was the bloodiest of the Iraq War and the worst battle involving American troops since the Vietnam War.  Coalition forces suffered 99 killed and 570 wounded.  Iraqi units lost eight dead and 43 wounded.  Enemy casualties are only estimates because of the lack of official records.  Coalition and Iraqi forces captured 1,500 prisoners and killed an estimated 2,000 insurgents.[3]  Considering the number of explosives deployed inside the city, a high casualty rate is understandable.  The 1st Marine Division fired 5,685 high explosive artillery rounds.  The 3rdMAW dropped 318 precision bombs, fired 391 rockets and missiles, and unleashed over 93,000 machine gun and cannon rounds.

The damage to Fallujah’s residences, mosques, city services, and businesses was extensive.  Once known as the “City of Mosques,” coalition forces destroyed 66 of 133 mosques — those primarily defended by insurgents and those used to store arms and munitions.  Of the roughly 50,000 buildings in Fallujah, between 7,000 and 10,000 were destroyed in the offensive; half to two-thirds of all remaining buildings had notable damage.  Before the attack, somewhere around 350,000 people lived in Fallujah.  Of those, approximately 200,000 were permanently displaced.

Despite the success of the battle, it proved to be less than a decisive engagement.  Important (non-local) insurgent leaders escaped from the city before the action commenced leaving mostly local militants behind to face the coalition forces.  This was a well-established trend among Islamist leaders: stir the pot and then run for it.  At the beginning of 2005, insurgent attacks gradually increased within and around Fallujah, including IED attacks.  Notable among these was a suicide car bomb attack that killed 6 Marines.  Thirteen other Marines were injured in the attack.  Fourteen months later, insurgents were once more operating in large numbers and in the open. By September 2006, the situation in al-Anbar Province deteriorated to such an extent that only the pacified city of Fallujah remained outside the control of Islamic extremists.

A third push was mounted from September 2006 until mid-January 2007.  After four years of bitter fighting, Fallujah finally came under the control of the Iraqi military — that is until ISIS pushed the Iraqis out in 2014.  This began a new round of fighting between the Iraqi army and Islamic militants.  Iraqi military forces reclaimed Fallujah and parts of Ramadi in 2016.

Courage Under Fire

The U.S. government cited the following individuals for bravery above and beyond the call of duty during the operation:

  • Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, U.S. Army — Medal of Honor
  • Sergeant Rafael Peralta, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • First Sergeant Bradley Kasal, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • Staff Sergeant Aubrey McDade, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross
  • Corporal Dominic Esquibel, U.S. Marine Corps — Navy Cross (award declined)[4]

Sources:

  1. Bellavia, D. C.  House to House: An Epic Memoir of War.  Free Press, 2007.
  2. Kasal, B.  My Men Are My Heroes: The Brad Kasal Story.  Meredith Books, 2007.
  3. West, B.  No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle of Fallujah.  Bantam Books, 2005
  4. O’Donnell, P.  We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah.  Da Capo Press, 2006
  5. Livingston, G.  Fallujah With Honor: First Battalion, Eighth Marines Role in Operation Phantom Fury.  Caisson Press, 2006

Endnotes:

[1] NMCB = Seabees

[2] Two Marine engineers died when their bulldozer collapsed into the Euphrates River.  Forty-two insurgents died in fighting along the river.

[3] Some of the dead may have been innocent civilians trapped in the middle of the battle.  The International Red Cross estimated 800 killed civilian deaths. 

[4] Fighting alongside Dominic on the date of the cited action was LCpl David Houck, his closest friend.  Esquibel was cited for carrying two wounded Marines to safety under a hail of gunfire.  On the following day, Houck was killed in action.  Esquibel would not accept the Navy Cross because he felt that those Marines, who lived, would have done the same for him.