Operation Ranch Hand

Whoever fights monsters must see to it

that the process does not become a monster. —Nietzsche

Background

The Players

We cannot begin to demonstrate an understanding of history’s great tragedies until we appreciate and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the men who shaped them.  Occasionally, high officials’ statements and behaviors reveal who they were, how they reasoned, and how they arrived at decisions that affected tens of thousands of other human beings.  Of course, people are complex animals, and we are all flawed in some ways.  Knowing that people are flawed should give those of us living in democracies something to think about before choosing our national leaders.

As one example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a man who had no qualms about developing atomic weapons or approving chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, but he was consistently an anti-colonialist and sympathetic to popular independence/nationalist movements. Roosevelt’s compassion, coupled with his moralism, limited his interest in colonialism to work performed by missionaries in far distant places unknown to most Americans.  It was Roosevelt’s anti-colonial sentiments that brought him to loggerheads with other leaders of the allied powers — notably Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

Mr. Roosevelt believed colonialism opened the door to secret diplomacy, which led to bloody conflicts.  These deeply held beliefs created tensions between Roosevelt, Churchill, and de Gaulle.  Both Churchill and de Gaulle intended to re-engage their pre-World War II colonial interests — including those in Southeast Asia and North Africa.

But Roosevelt, the pragmatist, also kept his focus on winning the war against Germany and Japan. To achieve that primary objective, he curbed his anti-colonial sentiments throughout most of the war — with some exceptions.  Roosevelt, for example, did not hesitate to signal his belief that the people of Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) were much better off without French meddling in their internal affairs.  After World War II, Roosevelt intended to “push” France toward an agreement placing its Southeast Asian colonies into an international trusteeship — a first step, Roosevelt believed — toward achieving Indochinese independence.

Unfortunately, Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office on 12 April 1945 — before the end of the Second World War.  Whatever his intentions toward Southeast Asia, it was left unfulfilled.  Upon Roosevelt’s death, Harry S. Truman ascended to the presidency, and Truman was an entirely different man.  Truman did not share Roosevelt’s anti-colonialist sentiments; he was more concerned about maintaining good relations with the United Kingdom and France. As a result, America’s world war allies had little trouble retaining their colonial holdings once the war was over.  When nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh announced Viet Nam’s independence in 1945, Truman ignored him — preferring instead to back De Gaulle.

In fact, Truman developed no distinct policy toward Indochina until around 1947 and only then because of the re-emergence of the Soviet Union and its totalitarian power over most of Eastern Europe and not until Winston Churchill forewarned of a clash between communism and capitalism — his now-famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946[1].  Always “slow on the up-take,” or if not that, then his preoccupation with post-war US domestic policy, the Iron Curtain speech, and George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”[2] nudged Truman’s attention toward the Soviet Union, Europe, and the domino theory of global communism.

Approaching Indochina

The Truman Doctrine led US foreign policy toward two interrelated goals — the first being an ambitious (American taxpayer-funded) program designed to rebuild a massively destroyed Europe as a democratic, capitalist dominated, pro-US collection of nations and a global defense against Soviet-style communism.  The first of these attentions went to Greece and Turkey but soon extended into East and Southeast Asia, as well.  The connection between events in Europe and far-distant Indochina was the re-established colonial empires of Great Britain and France, precisely the clash between French colonialism and the Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, which began in 1945[3].

Chemical Warfare

In 1943, the outcome of the Pacific war was inevitable: Japan would lose.  What remained uncertain was how many allied troops would perish if it became necessary to invade the Japanese home islands.  Encouraged, perhaps, by Italy’s campaign against Abyssinia in 1939, the US Army contracted with the University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign) and a botanist/bioethicist named Arthur Galston to study the effects of chemical compounds (notably, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T)) on cereal grains (including rice) and broadleaf crops.

What Galston discovered was that certain chemicals could be used to defoliate vegetation.  It was from this discovery that the question arose — how best to disperse such chemicals?

Since the beginning of powered flight, highly placed civilian and military officials have debated aeronautics’ utility in conflict.  During the First World War, French, British, and American forces employed airpower to counter enemy aircraft, perform intelligence gathering functions, attack enemy observation balloons, and drop bombs on enemy troop and artillery concentrations.  In the Second World War, the allied powers refrained from using chemical and biological weapons — perhaps out of fear that the enemy would reciprocate its use — and (mostly) confined its lethal air assault to enemy industrial and transportation centers.  There were two exceptions, however.  Fire-bombing destroyed Dresden, Germany[4], Tokyo, Japan[5] — and the civilians who lived in those cities.  It was a travesty surpassed only by the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan[6], in early August 1945 — the point being that aerial delivery of weapons or other means of mass destruction was not a new phenomenon among the world’s first nations.

In early 1945, the US Army tested various chemical mixtures at the Bushnell Army Airfield in Florida.  These tests were so successful that the US began planning to use defoliants against Japan — should it become necessary to invade the home islands.  The people working on the application of chemical warfare did not know about the Manhattan Project.  Because of the use of two atomic bombs in Japan, the allied invasion of the home islands was unnecessary — and neither was the use of herbicides.

Nevertheless, Great Britain and the United States continued their evaluations of defoliants’ use in the years following World War II.  The Americans tested well over 1,100 chemical compounds in various field tests, and the British conducted similar tests in India and Australia.  The first western nation to deploy chemical defoliants in conflict was the United Kingdom during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

By the mid-1950s, events unfolding in Southeast Asia were already leading the United States toward an unmitigated disaster in foreign policy and economic expenditures.  In 1961, given the “success” of the use of defoliants on the Malaysian Peninsula, American and Vietnamese officials began to consider their service in Vietnam, as well.

Ranch Hand

Ta Cu Mountain, Vietnam

Even before President Lyndon Johnson escalated the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, war planners realized that the region’s dense foliage would challenge those involved in ground and air campaigns.  This factor led to Operation Ranch Hand — a U. S. Air Force effort between 1961-1971 to reduce jungle vegetation and deny food sources to North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong insurgents by spraying the dense forests with an estimated 20-million gallons of various herbicides.  The Air Force concoction, code-named Agent Orange, contained the deadly chemical dioxin, later proven to cause cancer, congenital disabilities, rashes, and severe psychological and neurological problems among those exposed to it and their offspring.

Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt accepted an appointment to the US Naval Academy in 1939.  Upon graduation, he was commissioned an Ensign on 10 June 1942.  Upon selection to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), Zumwalt assumed overall command of Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Seven in 1965.  As Rear Admiral (Upper Half), Zumwalt became Commander, US Naval Forces (Vietnam) and Chief, U. S. Naval Advisory Group within the USMACV.  In 1968, he was promoted to Vice Admiral and served as the principal navy advisor to US Army General Creighton Abrams, serving as Commander, MACV.

Model USN Swift Boat

Zumwalt’s command was part of the “brown water” navy, which in his advisory capacity, controlled the Navy’s swift boats that patrolled the coasts, harbors, and river systems of South Vietnam.  Among his subordinate boat commanders was his son, Elmo Russell Zumwalt III (and John F. Kerry).  The brown water navy also included Task Force 115 (Coastal Surveillance Force), Task Force 116 (River Patrol Force), and Task Force 117 (Joint Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force).

In 1968, the United States had been fully engaged in the Vietnam War for three years.  No one wants to fight a never-ending war, not the people who have to fight in it, not the people back home who suffer the loss of loved ones, and not the politicians whose popularity and careers are diminished by unhappy citizens.  American war planners wanted to turn the war over to Vietnamese military officials to decide their fate vis-à-vis the conflict with North Vietnam.  This task of turning the war over to the Vietnamese government was called Vietnamization, first implemented by President Richard M. Nixon.  Nixon, who previously served as Eisenhower’s vice president, wanted the United States out of the Vietnam conflict — but with honor.

To achieve Vietnamization, the “press was on” to move Vietnamese military forces as quickly as possible to the point where they could take over the war, allowing the United States to withdraw their forces.  President Nixon didn’t want to hear any excuses about how or why USMACV could not achieve it.

Admiral Zumwalt related the story of how he attended a briefing with General Abrams in 1968 when the discussion emerged about how soon the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) might assume control of the air war over South Vietnam.  A senior US Air Force officer opined that the VNAF might be ready as early as 1976.  Abrahams threw a fit … Vietnamization was taking too long, and the Air Force didn’t seem to understand that MACV didn’t have eight more years to fool around with the project.  When it was Zumwalt’s turn to speak, he laid out his plan for increasing the pace of Vietnamization among the riverine forces.  This moment was when the Admiral made his fateful decision to increase defoliation along South Vietnam’s inland waterways.  Zumwalt later said that he specifically checked with the Air Force about possible harmful effects of Agent Orange on US personnel; he said, “We were told there were none.”

But in 1988, Dr. James Clary, a USAF researcher associated with Operation Ranch Hand, wrote to Senator Tom Daschle, stating, “When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential damage [to humans] due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide.  However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us was overly concerned.  We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.”

Admiral Zumwalt’s son was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1983; in 1985, doctors also discovered stage three Hodgkins (another form of lymphoma).  Elmo R. Zumwalt III died in 1988, 42-years old.  His son, Elmo R. Zumwalt IV, suffers from congenital dysfunction that confuses his physical senses.  In 1985, Admiral Zumwalt told the press, “I do not have any guilt feelings because I was convinced then, and I am convinced now, that the use of Agent Orange saved literally hundreds and maybe thousands of lives.”

The Admiral could not have been more wrong as to the effects of Agent Orange and “saving lives.” The consequences of using dioxin to defoliate Vietnam’s dense jungle ended up killing up to 40,000 American servicemen[7], causing untold sickness and suffering to their offspring and killing as many as four million Vietnamese civilians.  Agent Orange killed his son — and the effect of this incomprehensible decision continues to manifest itself in 2021.  Admiral Zumwalt passed away in 2000 from mesothelioma.  He was 79 years old – he outlived his son by twelve years.

Sources:

  1. Associated Press (Online).  “Elmo Zumwalt, Son of Admiral, Dies at Age 42.”  13 August 1988.
  2. Clark, C. S. and Levy, A.  Sprectre Orange.  The Guardian.com.  2003.
  3. Mach, J. T.  Before Vietnam: Understanding the Initial Stages of US Involvement in Southeast Asia, 1945-1949.  Centennial Library: Cedarville University, 2018.
  4. Stellman, J. M. and Stellman, S. D., Christian, R., Weber, T., and Tomasallo, C.  The Extent and Patterns of Usage of Agent Orange and other herbicides in Vietnam.  School of Public Health, Columbia University, 2002.
  5. Veterans and Agent Orange.  National Academies, Institute of Medicine, Committee to Review Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides, 2012.
  6. Vietnam Express (online). Due Hoang, Hoang Phuong, Dien Luong.  Out of Sight/Out of Mind: Vietnam’s Forgotten Agent Orange Victims, 2017.
  7. Zumwalt, E. Jr., and Zumwalt, E. III.  Agent Orange and the Anguish of an American Family.  New York: New York Times Magazine, 1986.

Endnotes:

[1] On 5 March 1946, then former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill condemned the Soviet Union’s policies in Europe, declaring that “… an iron curtain has descended across the [European] continent.”  It was the opening volley of the Cold War.

[2] George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was one of the US’ foreign policy wise men.  He was a historian and diplomat who advocated a containment policy toward the Soviet Union and helped Truman formulate the so-called Truman Doctrine.

[3] British forces entered Indochina in rather substantial numbers to accept the surrender of Imperial Japanese forces at the end of World War II.  Free French forces re-entered Vietnam soon after and observing the growing discord between French legionnaires and Vietnamese nationalists, and with no desire to be caught between the two, the British forces soon withdrew.  British colonial forces concentrated on their interests in Malaya (which also became a hotbed for communist inspired nationalism), Singapore, and Hong Kong.

[4] Raids conducted by my than 1,400 allied aircraft between 13-15 February 1945, resulting in 25,000 civilian deaths.

[5] Part of Operation Meeting House conducted on 9-10 March 1945 is the single most destructive bombing raid in human history.  It destroyed 16 square miles of central Tokyo and killed about 100,000 people.

[6] Death toll, a quarter of a million people.

[7] Even though these service men and women died from circumstances of their combat service, none of their names appear on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.

Civil War Marines

Prologue

There are few completely spontaneous events in human history.  There are usually several causes of events, and potentially a wide range of consequences.  There can even be consequences to inaction —such as in realizing that something bad is about to happen, and then doing nothing to avoid it.  It saddens me to say that for well over two-hundred years, the American people have proven time and again that they are incapable of learning history’s lessons, or worse, lack the ability to predict the likely consequences of their behavior.

The outbreak of the American Civil War was not a spontaneous event.   The discord and virulent hatred that evolved into civil war began at a much earlier time — even, perhaps, in the formative years of the nation, during and after the Constitutional Convention (5 May – 17 September 1787) when Americans began organizing themselves into political parties.  This conflict continues to exist today.

Regional Radicalization

Owen Brown and Ruth Mills, of Torrington, Connecticut, sired eight children.  They named one of these children John, who was born on 9 May 1800.  John was named after his grandfather, Captain John Brown [Note 1].  Owen Brown was a tanner who later moved to Hudson, Ohio, which over time became an important center of anti-slavery activity and debate [Note 2].  Thinking of it as his Christian duty, Owen offered safe housing and passage to fugitive slaves.  It is likely that Owen brought his children up to abhor human slavery.  Owen Brown was also one of the founders of the so-called Hudson School, a preparatory school consumed with the issue of slavery.

From early age, John Brown believed that his calling in life was to serve God as a minister of Christian gospel.  Following prep-school in Massachusetts, Brown enrolled the Morris Academy (Litchfield, Connecticut) in preparation for becoming a Congregational Minister [Note 3].  Illness and lack of money, however, forced him to give up this ambition and he returned to Ohio where, like his father, he became a tanner.  When Owen moved his family to Pennsylvania in 1825, John (with wife and children) accompanied him.  The family settled in New Richmond where they operated a tannery and secretly provided aid to runaway slaves.  It was part of a network called the Underground Railroad.  Historians estimate that the number of runaway slaves that passed through Brown’s Pennsylvania farm was around 2,500.

Life was hard in the 1830s.  In the Brown family, John lost his wife and an infant son to disease.  In fact, of John’s six remaining children, only three survived to adulthood, but life goes on and John remarried a young woman from New York.  They produced thirteen children, and of these, only three survived to adulthood.  Due to economic depression in the late 1820s and early 1830s, John (as nearly everyone else in the country) suffered financially from a lack of business and increasing debt.

Economic depression caused thousands of people to uproot and relocate to new areas for a “fresh start.”  Some people “skipped out” owing other folks money; some of these ended up migrating to Texas.  John Brown moved his family to Franklin Mills (present-day Kent), Ohio.  To achieve his “new start,” John borrowed money to begin a business partnership with Zanas Kent.  Another economic crisis developed in 1839 and John Brown lost his farm.  When the farm was sold to another family, John Brown refused to vacate the property and he ended up in prison.  By then, John Brown had become a radical abolitionist.

In 1846, Brown moved again to Springfield, Massachusetts where he discovered people of means who emotionally and financially supported the abolition movement.  At about the same time John Brown left Massachusetts in 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act [Note 4].  Brown responded by organizing armed resistance to “slavers.”  He called his group the League of Gileadites [Note 5]; they were men and women who sought to protect runaways and prevent the law from returning them to bondage.  Brown was successful in doing this over several years.

In 1855, John Brown moved to Kansas, where his adult children and their families lived, and where they were experiencing threats of violence from local pro-slavery radicals.  John apparently believed that it was his duty to protect his family from the effects of popular sovereignty, which after 1854, took on an increasingly violent tone [Note 6].  In 1856, pro-slavery activists began a campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms, which led to the term “Bloody Kansas.”  By this time, John Brown was receiving substantial financial support from wealthy abolitionists in Massachusetts and New York, among whom, John Brown had become a hero.

Radical Politics to Terrorism

John Brown’s notoriety among northeastern abolitionists prompted him to shift his tactics from that of defending and protecting runaways to planning and implementing raids against “slavers.”  To achieve his more militaristic strategies, Brown used the money donated to him by abolitionists to purchase firearms and ammunition.  In 1858, Brown initiated the Battle of the Spurs [Note 7].  After Brown met with Frederick Douglass and George de Baptiste in Detroit, Brown’s activities became even more aggressive.  De Baptiste came up with the idea of getting everyone’s attention by blowing up southern churches.

Brown’s new strategy included actively recruiting abolitionist raiders to assault southern slave owners.  Joining Brown were such notables as Harriet Tubman.  Frederick Douglass understood and sympathized with Brown’s overall goal of establishing a new state for freed slaves, but while Brown insisted on the use of force of arms, Douglass disapproved of any resort to violent action.

Brown’s radical aggressiveness led to his plan for the raid on Harper’s Ferry (then in Virginia).  Brown reasoned that if he could free slaves in Virginia, arm them, and train them, then he could instigate armed rebellion against their oppressors.  He imagined that a slave uprising would engulf the southern states.  Why Harper’s Ferry?  It was the location of a federal arsenal [Note 8].

John Brown rented a farm house with adjacent smaller cabins near the community of Dargan in Washington County, Maryland, four miles north of Harper’s Ferry.  Along with 18 men (13 white, 5 black), he took up residence there under the name Issac Smith.  Abolitionist groups shipped him 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps Carbines and 950 pikes.  Brown told curious neighbors that these shipments were mining tools, which aroused no suspicion among them.  Brown would launch his raid from this property, known as the Kennedy Farm.

The armory at Harper’s Ferry was a large complex of buildings that manufactured small arms for the United States Army (1801-1861), with an arsenal (storehouse for weapons) thought to contain 100,000 muskets and rifles.  Brown imagined he needed these weapons to arm southern slaves.  

Initially, Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry was successful.  His men cut telegraph wires, captured he armory (defended by a single watchman), and rounded up hostages from nearby farms.  One of these hostages was Colonel Lewis Washington, a great grandnephew of President Washington.  Although Brown controlled the railroad line that passed through Harper’s Ferry, he allowed an early morning train to pass through the town.  When the train arrived at the next station, telegrams were dispatched alerting authorities about Brown’s seizure of Harper’s Ferry.  Brown was not a stupid man; he wanted a confrontation with the federal government — but this is what Frederick Douglass warned him about.  Attacking the federal government would bring down the wrath of the government upon him.

At the moment Brown commenced his raid, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, U. S. Army, was on leave at his plantation home in Arlington, Virginia.  After Secretary of War John Floyd learned of the raid, he summoned Lee to Washington and placed him in charge of recapturing Harper’s Ferry and bringing John Brown to justice.  Colonel Lee would command all militia forces available in the area of northwest Virginia and all “available” regular forces.

The only regular force readily available at the time was a detachment of Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, and the only line officer available to command them was First Lieutenant Israel Greene, U. S. Marine Corps [Note 9].  At 23:00 on 17 October 1859, Lee ordered all militia forces gathered at Harper’s Ferry to withdraw.  The next morning, he sent First Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart to John Brown under a white flag with his order to surrender.  Brown promptly refused.  A few moments later, Lee ordered Lieutenant Greene to attack the engine house held by Brown.

Within three minutes of Lieutenant Greene’s order to advance, Marines captured John Brown and seven of his men; ten of Brown’s men lay dead, including his sons Watson and Oliver.  Five other men managed to escape (including Brown’s son Owen).  Of Brown’s captives, four men died (including Colonel Lewis) and nine received serious wounds.

The Nation Goes to War

The Raid at Harpers Ferry was the first pre-Civil War conflict involving federal troops, but one that involved US Marines in a significant role.  In 1861, the entire Marine Corps numbered 63 officers and 1,712 enlisted men [Note 10].  It was the smallest of all services (and still is).  As the smallest armed force, the Marines had an understandably limited involvement in civil war battles.  None of America’s armed forces were prepared for war in 1861.  When war broke out, the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy scrambled to organize a fighting force.  Secretary of War Simon Cameron asked Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells for a battalion of Marines for service in the field.

Secretary Wells subsequently ordered Colonel Commandant John Harris to form a battalion of “disposable” Marines for field duty.  Harris, in turn, ordered Major John G. Reynolds to assume command of a battalion consisting of four companies, each containing eighty men.  Reynolds was instructed to report to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, U. S. Army [Note 11].  At the same time, Secretary Cameron ordered McDowell to provision the Marine battalion, which had no field service equipment.

Not every Marine was happy about the prospect of service in the field.  Second Lieutenant Robert E. Hitchcock [Note 12], who served as post Adjutant in the Washington Navy Yard, wrote a letter to his parents on 14 July 1861 informing them, “Tomorrow morning will see me and five other lieutenants and 300 Marines on our way to the Fairfax Courthouse to take part in a great battle.  This is unexpected to us because the Marines are not fit to go to the field …”

Major Reynolds was a good choice to command the battalion.  A veteran of the Mexican American War with 35 years of military service, Reynolds knew what to expect from the upcoming battle.  His troops, however, were untrained, inexperienced, and had no idea what awaited them.  All four of Reynold’s companies were commanded by noncommissioned officers.  More than a few of these 328 Marines had been in the Marine Corps for less than a week.  On average, the average length of service for the Marines of this battalion was two months.  Of the total number, only seven privates had ever smelled the stench of gunpowder.

Reynold’s executive officer was Major Jacob Zeilin and his few officers were young lieutenants assigned as staff officers, none of whom were available for line assignments.  As the battalion made its way through Washington DC, excited citizens clapped and cheered.  Once in Virginia, however, Reynold’s Marines became just another group in a long line of march behind the West Point Battery of Artillery.  Eventually, the Marines linked up with the Army of Northeast Virginia — the largest field army ever gathered in North America.

General McDowell intended to move westward in three columns.  Two of these would make a diversionary attack on the Confederate line at Bull Run; his third column would maneuver around the Confederate right flank to the South.  He believed this strategy would serve to deny reinforcements from Richmond and threaten the Confederate rear.  His assumption was that when faced with an attack from the rear, the rebels would abandon Manassas and fall back to the Rappahannock River, thus reducing the likelihood of a Confederate march on the US capital.  That was the plan [Note 13].

McDowell attached Major Reynold’s battalion to the 16th US Infantry, which was part of the brigade of Colonel Andrew Porter.  Of the Marines, Porter observed, “The Marines were recruits, but through the constant exertions of their officers had been brought to present a fine military appearance, but without being able to render much active service.”  As the Marines were not, at the time, US infantry (their duties and training being more focused on naval service), Reynold’s battalion was attached to Porter’s artillery where they could be utilized as its permanent support (ammo carriers).  With this decision, Porter seemed to have reduced the possibility that the Marines would see much fighting.

McDowell led his unseasoned army across Bull run against Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard.  His plan depended on speed and surprise, but his southward march took twice as long as expected, there were problems with issuing supplies, his columns became disorganized, and several regiments lost their way after darkness set in.  According to a diary kept by Major Reynolds, the artillery unit to which he was assigned contained six horse-drawn cannons.  These elements kept racing ahead of the Marines at every opportunity.  “The battery’s accelerated march was such as to keep my command more or less in double-quick time; consequently, the men became fatigued or exhausted in strength.”  Northern Virginia’s July temperature added to the Marine’s fatigue.

Union Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside’s brigade fell upon the Confederate left, which was held by Colonel Nathan Evans’ under-strength brigade.  Captain Charles Griffin’s battery, followed closely by Marines, crossed the creek and opened fire from a range of about 1,000 yards.  Their rifles had an effective range of 500 yards.  Evans was initially at a disadvantage, but the inexperienced union troops soon buckled under intense Confederate fire and began to fall back.  Porter’s brigade held firm, but the arrival by train of Confederate reinforcements under Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnson changed the dynamic of the battle.  A brigade of Virginians under a recently promoted Brigadier General by the name of Thomas J. Jackson rallied at Henry House Hill.

Griffin’s artillery was augmented by the artillery battery of Captain J. B. Ricketts.  With this artillery support, the US infantry was ordered to take Henry House Hill.  Major Reynold’s battalion lined up with the 16th US Infantry.  The fighting was intense, but indecisive until the unexpected arrival of an unknown regiment.  Griffin wanted to fire on the dark-clad soldiers, but McDowell’s artillery chief, Major William F. Barry, ordered Griffin to withhold his fire.  Barry thought the mysterious regiment was Union reinforcements.  They weren’t.  Colonel Arthur Cummings’ 33rd Virginia Regiment unleashed murderous fire on Griffin’s gunners and the Marines.  Brigadier General Bernard Bee, CSA was so impressed by Jackson and his men that he shouted, “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.  Let us rally behind the Virginians!”  This is how Brigadier General Jackson became known as “Stonewall Jackson.”

The overwhelming fire delivered upon the Union force caused them to break and run.  It was the sensible thing to do, but their rapid withdrawal permitted the Virginians to overrun Griffin’s artillery.  “That was the last of us,” Griffin reported.  “We were all cut down.”  [Note 14].

Major Reynolds feverishly attempted to rally his Marines, but another confederate charge drove Reynolds from Henry House Hill.  In his after-action report, Brigadier General Porter commended the Marines: “Major Reynolds’ Marines, whose zealous efforts were well sustained by his subordinates, two of whom, Brevet Major Zeilin and Lieutenant Hale, were wounded, and one officer, Lieutenant Hitchcock, lost his life.”  In addition to Lieutenant Hitchcock, nine enlisted Marines were killed in action, sixteen received serious wounds, and twenty Marines were taken prisoner.  Nevertheless, the Commandant of the Marine Corps was not pleased.  “The first instance recorded in its history where any portion of the Corps turned their backs to the enemy,” he said.

The Commandant was unnecessarily harsh on these men.  They were untrained recruits and therefore unqualified for duty in the field.  They were the least trained troops in McDowell’s army, and yet … they gave a good account of themselves at the First Battle of Manassas.  Their 13% casualty rate was equal to every other regular army battalion, including the most experienced unit in the Union army at Bull Run.  The only people pleased with the result of the Battle of Bull Run were the Confederates — and their spy in Washington, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, of course.

With the Union army receiving priority for funding, Congress only slightly enlarged the Marine Corps … and only then because in doubling the size of the Navy, the Navy demanded an increase in the number of ships detachments.  After staffing ship’s detachments, the Marines could only man a single polyglot battalion at any given time.  Because the Marines of shipboard detachments performed most of the amphibious assaults in capturing enemy bases, there was scant need for a standing Marine battalion.  Still, capturing enemy bases was no easy task as it required more manpower that was available within a small Marine Detachment aboard ship.  More to the point, throwing Marines together under officers and NCOs they did not know hardly made them into a lethal landing force.  Fort Sumter at Charleston, S. C. in 1863 is a case in point.

Through the summer of 1863, the city of Charleston had withstood every Union offensive.  After Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren replaced Admiral Samuel DuPont as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, he proposed a joint Navy-Army assault to seize outlying Morris Island and then move on Fort Sumter itself.  He asked Secretary Welles for an extra battalion of Marines to be combined with another battalion assembled from several ship’s detachments.  Colonel Commandant Harris assembled a disparate group of Marines — from recruiters to walking wounded — designated them a Marine battalion, and placed them under the command of Major Zeilin, who was still recovering from his wounds.

Admiral Dahlgren and Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore, U. S. Army (an engineer) agreed to begin their campaign with the seizure of Fort Wagner on Morris Island.  Gillmore made good use of a new artillery piece called the Billinghurst Requa Battery Gun; it consisted of 25 rifled barrels mounted on a field carriage and was capable of rapid fire.

On 10 July 1863, Gillmore’s troops landed safely on the far side of the island, but the next day encountered stiff resistance and were repulsed.  The following week, Colonel Robert G. Shaw led a doomed assault on Fort Wagner, spearheaded by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a black regiment.  Shaw and 54 of his men were killed, and another 48 men were never accounted for.  Other regiments from New York, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were equally decimated by unwavering defenders.  After these overwhelming failures, Gillmore called off his planned-for all-out attack and instead ordered his engineer to dig a number of  snaking approach trenches.  As the engineers dug, Gillmore directed calcium floodlights at the defenders (another innovation), which blinded the defenders enough to disrupt accurate rifle fire.  The soil on Morris Island had a sandy top layer with a muddy base, so the engineers began uncovering the decomposing remains of soldiers killed in earlier attempts to seize Fort Wagner.  Disease, bad water, and decomposing bodies demoralized the Union engineers.

Admiral Dahlgren planned for Zeilin’s Marines to make a landing and support Army troops already ashore, but Zeilin objected.  He argued that his force was “ … incompetent to the duty assigned, that sufficient sacrifice of life had already been made during this war in unsuccessful storming parties.”  Major Zeilin also complained that too many of his Marines were raw recruits and that the climate was unsuitable to properly train them.  Admiral Dahlgren was not at all pleased by Zeilin’s objections, but he cancelled the landing.

When Major Zeilin fell ill, Captain Edward M. Reynolds (son of then Lieutenant Colonel George Reynolds) assumed command of the battalion.  After the surprising Confederate withdrawal of Fort Wagner, Admiral Dahlgren moved swiftly to attack Fort Sumter.  On the evening of 8 September, five-hundred Marines and sailors in 25 small boats, under the direction of Commander Thomas H. Stevens, prepared to assault the fort.  That very night, Dahlgren learned that Gillmore was planning a separate boat attack.  Attempts to coordinate the attack faltered over the question of whether the Army or Navy would exercise overall command.

Meanwhile, the Confederates, having captured a Union code book, deciphered Dahlgren’s signals and knew when and where to expect the attack.  Confederate fort and batteries surrounding Fort Sumter trained their guns on Sumter’s seaward approaches.  CSS Chicora (an ironclad) waited in the shadows behind the fort.  Captain Charles G. McCawley (future Commandant) was the senior Marine officer in the night assault.  He later recalled a lengthy delay before the landing boats were launched, great confusion within the landing force once they boarded the landing craft, and a strong tide that separated the landing craft once ordered ashore.

When the landing force came within range, Confederate sentries fired a signal rocket to alert harbor batteries to commence firing.  Of the 25 boats assigned to Marines and sailors of the assault force, only eleven made it to shore.  The amphibious assault collapsed within twenty minutes.  Only 105 Marines survived the assault, and they surrendered to Confederate forces because they had no other choice.  Twenty to thirty captured Marines died at the Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

In the fall of 1864, General William T. Sherman had taken Atlanta and headed east toward the sea.  Sherman requested that Major General John Foster seize the Charleston-Savannah Railroad line at Pocotaligo by 1 December.  Doing so would protect Sherman’s flank as he approached Savannah.  Foster failed to win the fight at Honey Hill (Boyd’s Neck) and the rail line remained in Confederate hands.  Sherman then turned to the Navy, who assembled 157 Marines under First Lieutenant George G. Stoddard.  According to Stoddard, “Soon after dark on the 5th, I received orders from the Admiral to form my battalion and proceed on board the Flag Steamer Philadelphia for an expedition up the Tulifinny River.  Embarked about midnight under orders to land the next morning, cover the land of artillery, and advance on the enemy.”

At dawn the next day, a combined force of Marines, sailors, and soldiers landed at Gregorie Point, South Carolina, advanced on the right of the naval battery, and came under fire at about 11:00.  Stoddard deployed his battalion as skirmishers on the right and advanced into the wood beyond Tulifinny crossroads, pushing the enemy back.  With the Gregorie Plantation house in Union possession, the force moved quickly toward the Charleston-Savannah line and surprised the 5th Georgia Infantry.  A corps of 343 cadets from the Citadel bivouacked four miles away heard the gunfire and quick marched to Gregorie Point.

Early on the morning of 7 December, the cadets and three companies of Georgia infantry mounted a surprise attack at the center of the Union position.  Marines were at the center of the line, supporting army and navy field artillery batteries.  As the cadets inched toward the Marine position, they came under withering fire.  Undaunted, the cadets fixed their bayonets and mounted a charge against the Marine perimeter but were repulsed and forced to withdraw.  Stoddard ordered a counterattack through the dense swamp.  The fog was so thick that the Marines could not see a man three feet ahead.  Citadel cadets filled the air with Mini bullets and after suffering many casualties, the Union troops withdrew to their line.

Union forces made a final assault against the Confederate line on 9 December.  The Marine battalion formed on the right of a 600-man skirmish line.  To the Marine’s right was the Tulifinny River; just ahead was the bivouac area of the cadets.  Stoddard’s men came within fifty yards of the rail line before the 127th New York volunteers, to the Marine’s left, began a retreat.  The Marines continued forward, but Stoddard soon found himself in great danger of being cut off.  Without a concerted effort, the Union attack failed with Marine losses numbering 23 killed, wounded, or missing.

Fort Fisher is located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina.  It protected the Confederacy’s last operational Atlantic port with 39 large guns and an assortment of smaller caliber weapons.  Its earthen walls were 9 feet high and around 25 feet thick.  On the morning of 14 December 1864, 75 Union warships and transports under the command of Admiral David Porter steamed south from Hampton Roads, Virginia toward Fort Fisher [Note 15].  The transports contained 6,500 soldiers under Major General Benjamin Butler.  Delayed in transit by a storm, Porter began his bombardment of Fort Fisher (an estimated 20,000 shells) on 24 December.  A landing party of 2,500 soldiers went ashore on 25 December, but withering Confederate defensive fires denied their advance.  Butler called off the attack and Porter withdrew his fleet beyond the range of the fort’s guns.

A second attempt was scheduled for 6 January, but meanwhile Butler was fired and replaced by Brigadier General Alfred Terry.  Another storm delayed the Union assault until the 13th when Porter’s ships bombarded the fort for two additional days.  Terry landed 8,000 soldiers.  Detachments of Marines and sailors assembled for an amphibious assault, numbering around 1,600 sailors and 400 Marines armed with cutlasses and revolvers.  This force was divided into four companies under Captain Lucien L. Dawson with Navy Commander Randolph Breeze appointed as landing force commander.

There is nothing simple about an amphibious assault.  In this instance, the assault boats ran aground in the rough surf leaving the Marines and sailors with no other option than to abandon the landing boats for the crashing waves and endure grapeshot and shrapnel killing them in droves.  A few hundred yards from the fort, the landing party occupied previously dug rifle trenches and waited for the order to mount a frontal assault —the deadliest of all engagements.  The signal to attack came at around 15:00, prompting sailors and Marines to approach the fort’s palisades in single file.  Observing from aboard ship, a young Navy lieutenant named George Dewey wrote of the bloody fiasco, “ … It was sheer madness.”

It was supposed to be a coordinated attack, but Brigadier General Terry held back his troops on the Confederate left.  Instead, sailors and Marines fought hand-to-hand engagements with Confederate defenders for the next six hours.  Dawson had no time to reorganize his companies after such engagements as he was constantly on the move responding to Commander Breeze’s orders to “move up.”  When the attack began to fail, Dawson rallied two companies of Marines to provide covering fires for the withdrawing sailors and Marines.  Several Marines spontaneously joined the Army’s assault on the main parapet early in the evening, thus helping to overrun Fort Fisher.  Confederate losses were 400 killed in action and 2,000 taken as prisoners of war.  Terry’s force lost 900 men, the Sailors and Marines lost an additional 200 men killed with 46 more wounded or missing.  Of the total of Marines, six were later awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in the Battle of Fort Fisher.

Conclusion

Despite these “land battles,” which yielded mixed results, the main contribution of Marines during the Civil War was their service aboard ship on blockade duty and inland river flotillas.  At Mobile Bay in August 1864, Marines blocked an attempt by Confederates to ram USS Hartford, Admiral Farragut’s flagship.  Corporal Miles M. Oviatt, aboard USS Brooklyn, and seven other Marines, received the Medal of Honor for their role in that engagement.  Admiral Samuel DuPont once stated, “A ship without Marines is not a ship of war at all.”

Considering the enormity of the American Civil War, the role of the United States Marine Corps was small — but then, the Marine Corps was small.  Yet in the context of the missions assigned to the Marines, they excelled in every task assigned to them.  They didn’t win every engagement — for all kinds of reasons, but they gave their all.  Equally important, however, was the fact that the Marines, as an institution, learned important lessons that would prepare them for future conflicts.

Marines learned, for example, that there is no substitute for quality training, rehearsed landing operations, mastering the art and science of embarkation, the importance of unity of command, and meticulously coordinated landings with naval gunfire support.  Within 33 years, the First Marine Battalion was the first infantry force to land during the Spanish-American War; 19 years after that, they acquitted themselves with aplomb and lethality as part of the American Expeditionary Force.  In the decade following the Great War, they developed amphibious warfare doctrine, published the Landing Party Manual (which incorporated lessons learned from the failure at Fort Fisher), developed the Small Wars Manual, established the foundation of the Marine Air Wing, developed specialized equipment for advanced base defense, amphibious operations, and organized themselves for the crucible for an even greater war and dozens of unexpected crises.  Our political leaders may lack foresight, but this is not a failure of Marine Corps’ leadership.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, H. D.  The Battle History of the U. S.Marines: A Fellowship of Valor.  Harper-Collins, 1999.
  2. Heinl, R. D.  Soldiers of the Sea: The U. S. Marine Corps.  Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1962.
  3. Jones, J. P. And Edward F. Keuchel.  Civil War Marine: A Diary of the Red River Expeditions, 1864.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.
  4. Krivdo, M. E.  What are Marines For?  The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War Era.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011.
  5. Nalty, B. C.  United States Marines at Harper’s Ferry and in the Civil War.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1983.

Endnotes:

[1] Captain Brown’s ancestors were Puritans in New England.

[2] One of the people apprenticed to Owen Brown to learn the tanning trade was a man named Jesse Grant, the father of Ulysses S. Grant.

[3] Congregationalists were reformed protestant assemblies that distanced themselves from centrally proscribed traditions in order to govern themselves through democratically minded parishioners.

[4] The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required “free states” to aid “slave states” in the return of runaway slaves and imposed severe penalties on those who aided and abetted in the escape of slaves.

[5] This name is biblical in origin.  Mount Gilead is remembered as the place where only the bravest of Israelis gathered to confront an invading enemy.

[6] The Kansas-Nebraska Act mandated popular sovereignty, where territorial settlers decided for themselves whether to allow slavery within a new state’s borders.  Following secession of eight southern states in 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.  This was one of John Brown’s goals.

[7] The so-called Battle of the Spurs took place while John Brown and twenty-one of his followers (including women and children) escorted twelve escaped slaves from Missouri to Iowa, a free state.  Near Straight Creek, Brown encountered a posse of around 45 lawmen and bounty hunters hoping to earn the $3,000 bounty placed on John Brown.  Undaunted, Brown led his party ahead.  Brown was an imposing figure and — to be perfectly honest, he appeared deranged.  Terrorized, the posse turned their horses and fled.  The term “Battle of the Spurs” euphemistically refers to the posse “giving their horses the spur” in distancing themselves from John Brown.

[8] It wasn’t as if Brown’s intended raid at Harpers Ferry was a closely held secret.  Brown had recruited British mercenary Hugh Forbes to train his men in warfare, and Forbes held nothing back about what he was doing.  When Brown refused to pay Forbes more money for his services, Forbes traveled to Washington to meet with senators William H. Seward and Henry Wilson, informing them that Brown was a vicious man who needed restraint.  Wilson, in turn, wrote to his abolitionist friends advising them to get Brown’s weapons back.  A Quaker named David Gue sent an anonymous letter to War Secretary Floyd on 20 August 1859 warning him of a pending insurrection.

[9] Although born in New York and raised in Wisconsin, Israel Green resigned his commission in the US Marine Corps and joined the Confederacy.  What may have prompted this decision was the Greene had married a woman from Virginia.  In 1873, Greene migrated from Clarke County, Virginia to Mitchell, Dakota Territory where he worked as a civil engineer and surveyor.  He passed away in 1909, aged 85 years.

[10] Only 16 officers resigned their Marine Corps commission to join the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War.

[11] McDowell graduated from the USMA with initial service in the 1st Artillery.  He later served as a tactics instructor before becoming aide-de-camp to General John E. Wool during the Mexican-American War.  Between 1848-1861, McDowell served as a staff officer with no foundation in command of troops when he was appointed to serve as a brigadier general in May 1861, a product of the efforts of a close family friend, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.  To McDowell’s credit, he protested his assignment to command the Army of Northeast Virginia, arguing that he was unqualified to serve as a field commander.  His field of expertise was logistics.  Moreover, he realized that his troops were poorly trained and not ready for combat service.  Succumbing to political pressure, however, McDowell initiated a premature offensive against the Confederate forces in Northern Virginia and was soundly defeated on every occasion.  It did not help matters that high ranking Union civilian and military officials funneled McDowell’s battle plan to Rose O’Neale Greenhow, who sent them to Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard.  See also, Little Known Legends.  In any case, McDowell’s plan was ambitious, imaginative, and overly complex.  None of McDowell’s subordinate commanders could execute them, nor their men execute them.

[12] Hitchcock also participated at Harpers Ferry; he was killed during the Battle of Bull Run.

[13] No battle plan survives the first shot fired.

[14] Civil War officers, if they were not friends, knew one another.  Whether serving the Union or Confederacy, they all had the same instruction at the USMA, they fought together in the Mexican-American War, served together at various posts and stations after 1848.  Field generals could, therefore, anticipate what his opponent would (or would not) do.

[15] David Dixon Porter (1813-1891) was a member of one of the most distinguished families affiliated with the United States Navy.  He was the second Navy officer to achieve the rank of admiral, after his adopted brother David Farragut, and is credited with improving the Navy as a Superintendent of the U. S. Naval Academy.  He was a cousin to Major General Fitz John Porter of the Union Army.

RIVER FIGHTS: Vietnam War

USNFVSome Background

Following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (Indochina) (USMAAG Indochina) became USMAAG (Vietnam) and with this transition, the United States became even more deeply involved in the affairs and prerogatives of the South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam) regime.  Wisely, President Eisenhower firmly resisted the urgings of some advisors to send in troops, but he did expand the role of military advisors and in time, all US armed services were represented on the USMAAG (Vietnam) staff.

In 1960, newly elected John F. Kennedy approved the USMAAG’s request for increases in the size of the South Vietnamese Army (also, Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN) and an increase in the number of military and civilian advisors.  As Henry Bohn told us in 1855, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  John Kennedy began excavating a hole our government couldn’t stop digging.

Lay of the Land

The Mekong Delta extends from Saigon (now, Ho Chi Minh City) south and west to the Gulf of Thailand and the border with Cambodia.  Its area extends nearly 29,000 square miles and it is home to an estimated 15 million inhabitants.  In all, the Mekong Delta constitutes about a quarter of the total land area and half the population of the former Republic of Vietnam.  The Delta is a flat alluvial plain created by the Mekong River, a land surface covered by rice paddies, which makes this region one of the world’s most productive rice-growing areas.  It is by far the most important agricultural region in Vietnam.

In terms of overland communication, the Mekong Delta was an unmitigated disaster, as the region is intersected by a complex network of waterways and inundated by heavy rain and seasonal floods.  In 1960, there was but one major hard surface road, which extended from Saigon to Ca Mau. Secondary roads were either poorly surfaced or unattended.  While the land facilitated air combat operations, poor road systems, rice paddies, canals, wide ditches, and rivers complicated ground operations.  In contrast, the waterway system was very sophisticated, and the US MAAG realized early on that if the US intended to pacify the Mekong Delta (also, IV Corps Tactical Zone, or IV CTZ), it would have to consider implementing riverine operations.

Most Vietnamese in this area are concentrated along waterways that constitute the principal transportation routes, on average, around 400 people per square mile.  Typically, Vietnamese homes are surrounded by dense trees, shrubs, and bushes —cultivated for fruit, shade, or decoration.  The vegetation was pleasing to look at, but it also gave protection and concealment to communist insurgents.  When planning for operations in the IV CTZ, US military officers wanted to take the war to the enemy but do so without endangering local inhabitants.  With its population density, it was nearly impossible to move friendly forces without their being observed by unfriendly eyes.  The enemy always seemed to know when Uncle Sam was coming for a visit.

Vietnam’s Delta seacoasts have an extensive network of mangrove swamps.  Vegetation on the coastal mudflats is dense, root structure high, and tangled, which makes access difficult and cross-country movements challenging.  Rice paddies are separated by thickets of trees in varied patterns.  Large cultivated plantations are marked by rows of palm trees, many of which border deep ditches or wide canals.  Operational planners for riverine operations had to factor in water, vegetation, terrain, and the influence of sea tides; it also involved guesswork.  There was no way to accurately predict travel or operational times. 

The Enemy

The Mekong Delta (IV CTZ) was rife with communist insurgents … estimated at around 84,000 men in 1966.  Of those, around 20,000 were trained and well-armed combat troops with about 51,000 part-time guerrillas.  In 1966, there were no North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces operating in IV Corps.  Logistically, Viet Cong forces relied on support from local populations and whatever could be provided from North Vietnam.  Cambodia, bordering IV CTZ, was a haven for supplies moving down from the north.

Friendlies

ARVN forces in IV CTZ were subdivided into three divisional tactical zones: in the north, the 7th ARVN Division at My Thơ, in the center, the 9th ARVN Division at Sa Dec, and in the south, the 21st ARVN Division at Bac Lieu.  In total, around 40,000 men, including five ranger battalions and three armored cavalry squadrons.  Regular forces were augmented by Regional, Popular, and Irregular troops, and the National Police[1].  The conventional wisdom (back then) was that anyone joining Regional or Popular Forces organizations was “just asking for it” (VC assassination).  Unsurprisingly, both groups had high desertion rates, and the thing that made irregular troops so irregular was that one could never find them when they were needed.

Vietnamese naval forces in the 4th Naval Zone evolved from the French Dinassauts and included six river assault groups and eleven coastal groups that formed the so-called Junk Fleet.  Assault groups fell under the IV CTZ Commander; their primary mission was supporting ARVN riverine operations.  Each group could lift an ARVN infantry battalion.  In 1966, these units were used in their primary role about 10% of the time.  The reason for this was that the ARVN battalion commanders preferred airmobile operations; they were more fun and had greater visibility for purposes of promotion.

US Forces

United States Navy advisors entered the Mekong Delta in 1957 to replace the withdrawing French.  By 1966, the military advisory effort infused the entire RVN military structure.  In total, around 2,700 officers and enlisted men representing the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force were assigned to corps, division, and provincial organizations, and the IV CTZ Area Logistics Command.  The USN Advisory Group (RVN) provided advisors to the Vietnamese Navy’s six river assault groups and eleven coastal groups.

In 1965, the U. S. Army’s 13th Combat Aviation Battalion was assigned to the Delta to support ARVN operations; by August of that year, the battalion operated four assault helicopter companies and one air reconnaissance company.  By mid-1966, naval forces included TASK FORCE 115 (also, MARKET TIME) and TASK FORCE 116 (also, GAME WARDEN).  The mission assigned to Market Time was interdiction of coastal areas to prevent resupply of VC forces by sea.  Game Warden was tasked with interdicting enemy lines of communications and assisting ARVN forces in repelling enemy attacks on river outposts of Regional and Popular Forces.  Despite the optimism of the American administration, which predicted a communist free Mekong Delta by mid-1965, about one-third of all communist attacks in South Vietnam in 1966 occurred within the IV CTZ; Viet Cong forces controlled about 25% of the population of the Delta.

To the Vietnamese high command in 1966, the question of whether a province was “pacified” was entirely political.  The American reality was that the South Vietnamese government-controlled, in total, only about four percent of the land in IV CTZ.  ARVN commanders bragged that they controlled these areas but if true, it was only during hours of daylight; the Viet Cong controlled the night.

Riverine warfare is an extension of sea power.  The Navy’s control of the sea enables it to project its strength ashore, including inland waterways, into the heart of the enemy territory.  None of the Navy’s resources operate inside a vacuum; the Navy works as a team.  In this example, blue water ships, amphibious forces, and its aviation arm all supported riverine operations.  It was Vietnam’s communist insurgency within a vast inland waterway that led the Navy to reexamine its previous successes in riverine operations.

A key strategy in confronting and then defeating a guerrilla force is isolation and interdiction.  US strategy in Vietnam involved denying guerrilla forces freedom of movement, access to the general population, the ability to withdraw into remote sanctuaries to regroup, and the ability to resupply.  U. S. Naval forces in Vietnam played a key role in achieving all these objectives.  Coastal surveillance programs formed a tight barrier against the infiltration of personnel, arms, and supplies from the sea.  Taking surveillance one step further, the rigid control of fishing areas diminished the insurgent’s ability to feed himself, and river patrols established protocols for the inspection of junks and sampans, which were the primary method of transporting people and goods over hundreds of miles of inland waterways.

No less important in combatting guerrilla forces is gathering intelligence, which is often a slow, painstaking process.  One must first locate the enemy before he can be eliminated.  Finding the enemy was often facilitated by nurturing relationships with local inhabitants, which was also a key element in riverine operations.

Highly mobile and well-armed riverine forces coordinated their activities with ground and air forces to interdict guerrilla activities.  The Navy’s shallow-draft patrol craft seized the initiative in carrying the fight to enemy sanctuaries far up the rivers and into canals —areas that had not been previously penetrated by French or ARVN ground units.  To achieve these goals, the Navy employed a variety of combat and combat-support organizations, each with unique but well-coordinated missions: River Patrol Force, Mobile Riverine Force, Coastal Surveillance Force, Naval Advisory Group, and strike campaigns dubbed OPERATION SEALORDS[2].

An Imposing Environment

As previously explained, riverine operations assume many shapes because inland waterways form unique challenges.  Vietnam’s inland waterways were at least a bewildering maze of interconnecting systems, so the Navy implemented a wide range of strategies to address them —made more difficult after the NVA began infiltrating South Vietnam in 1968.  At that time, the US Navy began looking for more than increasingly dispirited guerillas; they were looking for hard-core NVA regulars, as well.  The Mekong Delta was a paradise for guerrilla operations, which the NVA demonstrated could be just-as-easily implemented by regular forces.  Thick vegetation along the waterways limits visibility and offers excellent opportunities for ambush; floating vegetation and heavily silted waters concealed mines and other explosive devices.  Command detonated mines often signaled the beginning of hellacious firefights —some of these taking places within 50-75 feet of opposing forces.

There are three distinct regions within the Mekong Delta: Plains of Reeds, northwest of Saigon, which during seasonal floods lies beneath six feet of water, the Lower Mekong, which is a vast rice-growing region and the location of the imposing Ca Mau forest, and the mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Mekong adjacent to the Rung Sat (Forest of Assassins) Special Zone (RSSZ), which includes the main shipping channel to Saigon.  In the mangrove swamps, tides are extreme and vegetation so thick that men on the ground lose sight of each other four feet apart.

OPERATION JACKSTAY

On 26 February 1966, Viet Cong forces ambushed the SS Lorinda, a Panamanian-flagged coastal freighter on the Lòng Tàu River, about 18 miles south of Saigon.  The attack wounded six crewmen and caused the ship to veer off course and run aground.  This was not a trend the Americans could allow to develop.  Accordingly, Commander, U. S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) ordered a punitive raid against insurgents operating within the shipping channel approach to Saigon.

Navy and Marine Corps operational planners put together a blue water force off the coast of Vietnam, the first major U. S. Navy riverine operation in the Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ); it marked a major turning point in the unfolding saga of projecting American sea power from the high seas and coastal waterways into the vast waterways of the Mekong Delta.   Before this, the Navy’s participation in the river war was limited to inshore operations conducted by Swift Boats and Coastal Patrol Boats assigned to the Vietnamese Navy and their U. S. Navy advisors.  From this point forward, the Navy became increasingly involved in the river war.  The operation was designated JACKSTAY.

JACKSTAY underscored the versatility made possible by the domination of the wetlands, whether offshore or in-country.  The operation, conducted in two phases, was planned to decimate the Viet Cong in the RSSZ, a 400-square mile area of swamp particularly suited for clandestine operations.  The region of the RSSZ had harbored communist insurgents for well over a generation; it was where the Viet Minh/Cong manufactured weapons, where they treated their wounded, trained recruits, and stocked their supplies from North Vietnam.

1:5 Unit PatchJACKSTAY was a two-phased operation plan[3] that called for an assault on the Long Thanh Peninsula (RSSZ) by the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines (1/5) from ships operating off-shore: the USS Princeton, USS Pickaway, USS Alamo, USS Belle Grove, and USS Merrick.  USS Robison, GAME WARDEN swift boats, and MARKET TIME patrol boats provided naval gunfire support.  Air groups from USS Hancock provided helicopter lift and close air support.

The operation kicked off on the morning of 26 March 1966 with preliminary naval bombardments by Robison and aircraft from Hancock.  Navy Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) swimmers, preparatory airstrikes by Seventh Fleet carrier-based aircraft, and naval gunfire all supported the operation. Throughout, amphibious craft and coastal surveillance craft provided surveillance and blocking operations against Viet Cong escape.  The long inland reach of U. S. Navy sea power quickly adapted to operational complexities.

A Marine rifle company landed via surface craft near Dong Hoa on the western end of the peninsula with two additional companies executing a vertical assault at the center and on the eastern end.  The Marines encountered only scattered small arms resistance and soon established 21 four-man listening posts beyond their night perimeter.  During the night, VC attacked one of these posts initiating a firefight that resulted in two Marine KIAs and three enemies dead.  That same night, VC ambushed PCF-31[4] about one mile from Cần Giờ on the Long Thanh Peninsula, seriously injuring one crewman and severely damaging the patrol boat.

On 28 March, Marines made another unopposed surface assault on the Soài Rạp River, this time targeting an enemy logistics area on the Vam Sat River (linked to the headquarters element on the Soài Rạp River) and destroyed a cache of weapons that included over 1,000 grenades.

Higgins BoatFollowing airstrikes from the Hancock and naval gunfire from USS Henry County, USS Washoe County, and Ontos[5] fire from the deck of Henry County on 31 March, an 18-boat convoy entered the Vam Sat River.  Led by two Vietnamese-manned Higgins Boats[6], the convoy included two Vietnamese LCCPs rigged with chain drags and grapnels for minesweeping, and armored LCM-6 (equipped with mortars and automatic weapons), seven LCMs, a rifle company of Marines in two LCVPs, two LCPLs providing additional gunfire support, two LCM-3 salvage boats.  Helicopter gunships provided air cover.  Commander Derwin T. Lamb, USN commanded the convoy from the open deck of an LCPL positioned directly behind the Vietnamese minesweepers.  Captain John D. Westervelt, USN commanded the overall landing operation from an overhead helicopter.

As Lamb’s convoy approached the first bend of the Vam Sat River, Viet Cong command-detonated a crude electrical mine halfway between Lamb’s command LCP and the minesweepers.  An explosion reminiscent of Confederate torpedoes from a hundred years before reverberated across the water.  The craft escaped damage because they wisely hugged the shallows rather than navigating from the center of the channel.  The explosion signaled the commencement of intense small arms fire from the thick foliage on both banks.  Lamb led the convoy through the withering fire while all boats opened with their firepower.  Helicopter gunships strafed and rocketed VC positions about 100-yards inland, preventing the VC from bringing heavier guns to bear.  A mile further downriver, enemy fire became sporadic.

After landing a Marine rifle company in the heart of the dismal mangrove swamp, Lamb moved his convoy back up-river in the same formation to land two additional companies of Marines, who immediately disappeared into the thick underbrush.  When the Marines had completed their mission, LCMs (also, “Mike” boats) churned their way to shore, crashing their way through the overhanging tree limbs and into the dense undergrowth. Lowering the ramps cut an opening through the rotted vegetation, making it easier for the Marines to re-board.

During recovery operations, the convoy again ran into ineffective small arms fire.  The open LCMs, each carrying 60 Marines, may have been vulnerable targets were it not for the work of the gunships overhead and the fact that the VC riflemen were poor shooters.

JACKSTAY concluded on 6 April with the destruction of arms factories, training camps, a headquarters complex, and a makeshift hospital.  Large amounts of rice and other foods were captured, along with 60,000 rounds of ammunition and 300 pounds of gunpowder.  Sixty-three enemies were killed in the combined assaults, while American Marines lost five men killed in action.  Subsequently, Viet Cong activity decreased in this area of the Delta.

The results of JACKSTAY were far more significant than the 53 confirmed Viet Cong dead or the tons of material destroyed or captured.  Its success was laudable, of course, but so too was the projection of naval power into the heart of an enemy sanctuary.  As the Navy’s initial combined riverine operation, JACKSTAY served as a loud knock on the door to an enemy that had had its way in the RSSZ for far too long.  The message was unmistakable: the VC could run, and the enemy could hide, but they would not be able to elude the powerful arm of the United States Navy-Marine Corps team.  Ultimately, after scurrying around like rats, the communists would only die tired.

In the middle of JACKSTAY, on 1 April 1966, Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward[7], USN assumed duty as Commander, U. S. Navy Forces, Vietnam (COMUSNAVFORV).  The purpose of NAVFORV was to consolidate several U. S. Navy programs under a single component command of the USMACV.  In addition to supervision of the support commands at Saigon and Da Nang, and the Navy Construction (Seabee) battalions, Ward assumed responsibility for missions assigned to the Naval Advisory Group, Coastal Surveillance Forces, and River Patrol Forces.  Mobile Riverine Force (TASK FORCE 117) was added in 1967.

Sources:

  1. Sherwood, J. D.  War in the Shallows: U. S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965-1968.  Washington, D. C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, Department of the Navy, 2015.
  2. Marolda, E. J.  Riverine Warfare: The U. S. Navy’s Operations on Inland Waters.  Washington, D. C.: U. S. Navy Historical Center, 2006
  3. Fulton, W. B.  Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington, D. C.: Department of the Army, 1985.
  4. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  5. U. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  6. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants: PT Boats, Subchasers, and the Brownwater Navy, an Illustrated Design History.  1987.
  7. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  8. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] Referred to as “White Mice” owing to their uniforms.

[2] SEALORDS was an acronym for Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River, and Delta Strategy.  SEALORDS was a joint operational concept involving US and RVN forces conceived by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt who at the time served as Commander, Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV).  Its intention was to disrupt enemy supply lines within and around the Mekong Delta.  The program was turned over to the Republic of Vietnam Navy (RVNN) in 1971.

[3] Operational planners realized that the insurgent force within the RSSZ was too large for a single battalion operation, so the purpose of JACKSTAY was limited to disrupting Viet Cong operations and a demonstration to the enemy that the US was well aware of their presence and that US/RVN forces could penetrate their sanctuary at will.

[4] PCF-31 (Patrol Craft, Fast) (also, Swift Boat) were 50’ aluminum boats used in patrolling Vietnam’s extensive waterways, part of the so-called Brown Water Navy.

[5] Officially, Allis-Chalmers Rifle, Multiple 106mm Self-propelled M50 light armored tracked anti-tank vehicle with service between 1956-1969

[6] Designed by Andrew Higgins based on watercraft used for operating in swamps and marshes in Louisiana.  Higgins produced nearly 24,000 of these boats, designated Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP), during World War II.  Variants of the Higgins Boats were created and designated for special purposes, such as LCU, LCI, LCA, and LCG.

[7] Admiral Ward was assigned to head the Naval Advisory Group, United States Military Assistance Command (Vietnam) on 31 July 1965.  The Naval Advisory Group was dissolved and renamed U. S. Naval Force, Vietnam on 1 April and Admiral Ward became its first commander.  During his assignment in Vietnam, Ward was instrumental in developing riverine and coastal interdiction strategies.  Admiral Ward served in the submarine service for most of his career beginning in 1931.  He retired from active duty in 1973, choosing not to accept a promotion to Vice Admiral to be with his cancer-stricken wife.  Admiral Ward passed away in 2005.

RIVER FIGHTS: The Middle Years

War with Mexico

The US Navy added to its growing experience in inland operations during the Mexican War.  When hostilities began, Commodore David Conner, commanding the Home Squadron, blockaded the Mexican Gulf Coast.  The blockade forced the enemy to use inland waterways and overland routes to move supplies.  San Juan Bautista, 74 miles up the Tabasco River from Frontera, was a distribution center for contraband war materials.  The river had ample depth to accommodate large vessels but there were significant obstacles in planning for an assault.  The river’s current was strong, dense vegetation provided good cover for riflemen and snipers.  The river also took a sharp (and hazardous) “S” bend (called the Devil’s Turn) and there were two strategically placed forts guarding the approaches to San Juan Bautista.   Normally, sailing vessels alone would have little chance of success —but at this time, the US Navy was incorporating steam engines into the fleet.  The Home Squadron had several small steam-powered ships of war.

On 23 October 1846, a naval expeditionary force under Commodore Matthew C. Perry crossed the sand bar at Frontera and seized the town with little to no resistance.  Then, with three steamers and four other vessels, proceeded upriver to San Juan with a 200-man landing party.  The journey took around 33 hours.  Anticipated resistance 9 miles below San Juan never materialized because the Mexican garrisons fled as soon as they could see the American ships closing for action.

Arriving at San Juan before noon on 25 October, Perry demanded the town’s surrender.  When the Alcalde[1] returned an insolent reply, Perry fired on the central flag staff, destroying it.  Perry spared the town but to keep shipping out of the hands of insurgents and gun runners, he seized two Mexican steamers, five schooners, and several smaller craft.  When Mexican riflemen opened fire on Perry’s squadron, Perry had his cannon rake the streets, which effectively ended all interest in firing on the Americanos.  Neither of the two towns was occupied, but Frontera was blockaded for six months.  When the blockade was lifted, Mexican smugglers began their activities anew.

In mid-June 1847, Commodore Perry was ready to ascend the Tabasco River for the second time.  This time, Perry assembled a larger force.  An advocate of naval infantry drill and landing party training, Perry formed a naval brigade of 2,500 officers, seamen, and Marines.  Captain J. Mayo was appointed to command the brigade.  Perry’s squadron included four small steam warships, six schooners, bomb brigs, and numerous ships’ boats.

At the first elbow of the Devil’s Turn, lead ships encountered small arms fire from dense chaparral banks.  Ships’ fire silenced the shooters, but obstructions had been placed in the river around the turn.  Well-manned breastworks on the shore provided a Mexican firing platform.  After reconnoitering the obstructions, Perry landed his brigade for the nine-mile march overland to San Juan.

While Perry led his naval brigade through the swamps and  jungle, Lieutenant David Dixon Porter[2] assumed command of the flotilla and worked his ships through the obstructions.  Perry’s combined force successfully routed 600 Mexican troops at Accachappa and moved on to Fort Iturbide situated just below San Juan.  Fort Iturbide had a battery of six guns and 400 infantry troops.  Porter led the flotilla into Mexican fire and then, under the protective cover of ship’s cannonade, he released a landing party to assault the fort.  The Mexicans broke before the charge.  When Perry and the brigade arrived, the American flag was already flying above the fort.

In two separate instances, Perry demonstrated the value of coordinated tactical inland penetrations.  The operation against San Juan Bautista was a valuable lesson for the US Navy; it would come in handy again in the not-too-distant future.

The Rude War

The U. S. Navy’s main advantage over the Confederate States of America in 1861 was that the south had no navy at the beginning of the Civil War.  Accordingly, the Union navy had, and retained, its control of the sea at all stages of this conflict.  The U. S. Navy implemented three broad strategies: (a) naval blockade of southern coastal regions, (b) amphibious assault and capture of port cities and strong points, (c) splitting the Confederacy along the Mississippi River (and tributaries) and seizing inland waterways to crush Confederate resistance.  The Union navy’s effective 3,000-mile blockade and the imbalance of opposing naval forces resulted in its ability to focus on coastal and inland riverine operations[3].

Commander John D. Rodgers, placed in overall charge of riverine operations for the navy, selected vessels and readied a force under Army control in northwestern waters with its headquarters near Cairo, Illinois (at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers).  From this location, Union vessels could influence river traffic in Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri.  Rodgers purchased and converted river steamers into wooden gunboats: Tyler, Lexington, and Conestoga.  Through the War Department, Rodgers contracted for seven additional gunboats (named for the cities they would defend).  These “city class” vessels became the backbone of the river fleet.  They were 175-feet long, had a 50-foot beam, and the top deck was shielded with heavy armor.  Thirteen guns included old-fashioned 42-pounders (supplied by the Army), and 8-inch and 32-pound navy guns.

While the city class boats were under construction, the wooden gunboats made significant contributions to the Union effort.  These former sidewheelers, unarmored and vulnerable, could not have challenged a seagoing warship or stout fortification but they did achieve good results.  In a nation with few and exceedingly poor roads, they controlled the river highways.  Moreover, they provided mobility and speed of movement of troops and supplies, surprise attack, and flexibility in strategy and tactics, and rapid exchange of information between and among field commanders.

Strong southern sentiment permeated the Ohio and Mississippi river systems.  One effect of the gunboats was that they discouraged secessionists and gave confidence to Unionists.  Fence-sitters stayed out of the way.  Alfred Thayer Mahan[4] was convinced that the riverine force was of inestimable service in keeping alive attachment to the Union and preventing secession by Kentucky and Missouri.

The Battle of Belmont (Missouri) was joined on 7 November 1861, the first combat test in the Civil War for Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant.  On 6 November, Grant moved his 3,000 troops by riverboat from Cairo to assault the Confederate outpost near Belmont, which was across the river from the rebel stronghold at Columbus, Kentucky.  Grant and his men went ashore on the Missouri side and marched overland to Belmont.  Grant succeeded in surprising and over-powering the Confederates[5], but they were quickly reorganized and reinforced by Major General Leonidas Polk.  Grants victory was short lived as Polk endeavored to cut off Grant’s withdrawal.  It was only through the gunboats that Grant and the Union survivors made good their escape[6].

River gunships were effective, but they could not aggress rebel fortifications.  This mission would fall to the semi-ironclad ships ordered by Rodgers, who was replaced by Flag Officer[7] Andrew Hull Foote, U. S. Navy.  Foote is remembered as an aggressive officer who, along with Grant, combined their forces to attack and defeat Fort Henry.  There could be no question among Confederate officers that they had no answer to the Navy’s riverine warfare strategy.

Damn the Torpedoes

As the Mississippi River Flotilla steadily beat the CSA Army and Navy into submission, Flag Officer David Glasgow Farragut[8] prepared for service in the Gulf of Mexico.  During his assault of New Orleans, Farragut moved his entire fleet up the Mississippi River to contest the heavy guns at Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philips.  During the five-day bombardment, Farragut employed a mortar flotilla built especially for riverine operations.  The rebels put up an exceptional defense of New Orleans but were eventually overpowered by Farragut’s relentless assault and the threat of Union guns over New Orleans’ levees convinced the citizens to submit to Union authority.  What made Farragut’s victory sweet was that New Orleans was the only southern city with a chance of matching the Union’s overwhelming riverine forces.

Meanwhile, behind Foote’s gunboats, one catastrophe after another descended upon the Confederates, whose armies could not match the Union advantages in riverine operations, which were expanded into the Tennessee River and down and across the state of Mississippi.  Rather than arteries of life for the Confederacy, they became highways of death.  Advancing behind the gunboats, Grant’s army cut off western Tennessee.  More than any other factor, gunboats were the deciding factor at the Battle of Shiloh.

From New Orleans, Farragut’s heavy ships, while suffering much damage in the restricted and turbulent Mississippi, forged ahead to Vicksburg, a mighty fortress with batteries situated high on the bluff where Farragut’s guns could not effectively reach.  And, with Confederate forces numbering around 33,000, it would take more than Farragut’s 3,500 men to defeat that fortress.  Eventually, after a siege lasting a year, Vicksburg did fall to Grant’s army of  77,000 men.  Confederate casualties numbered 32,687 (3,202 killed, wounded, or missing in action, 29,495 surrendered).

Thus far, the Navy demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of naval warfare on inland waters.  The Navy’s ability to control the sea made riverine warfare possible.  The Navy’s exercise of its control made riverine warfare flexible.  Seagoing ships were adapted to fight in lakes and rivers to oppose shore batteries.  The Navy learned not only how to build riverine vessels, it learned how to fight them through an appreciation for local environments and conditions and devising appropriate circumstantial responses.

In 1898, the U. S. Navy-Marine Corps was ready for the Spanish-American War.  The U. S. Army was not.  A few years later, the Navy dusted off the lessons it learned from previous periods and addressed head-on the challenges associated with the Philippine Insurrection and the Boxer Rebellion.  In the Philippines, riverine warfare facilitated an end to the violence.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, a flotilla of shallow draft gunboats protected American life and property in war-torn China.  Along more than 1,500-miles of the Yangtze River, riverine patrols faced hostile Chinese war lords, snipers, and bandits; landing parties were kept on a moment’s notice for intervention or defense.  Natural dangers, such as swift currents, fast rising tides, and navigational obstacles were as formidable as any encountered by Commodores Barney, Perry, or Farragut.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] Mayor.

[2] Porter was a rather extraordinary naval officer from a prominent American family.  Porter began his naval career at age 10.  In 1824, after receiving a reprimand, Porter’s father resigned from the US Navy and accepted Mexico’s appointment as their navy’s commander-in-chief.  David Dixon Porter became a midshipman in the Mexican navy at age 12.  In 1829, Porter received an appointment to the USNA.  He was then 16 years old and a bit too salty for the culture of the Academy.  Were it not for the intervention of Commodore James Biddle, Porter would not have received his commission in the US Navy.  The second naval officer to achieve the rank of admiral, Porter served with distinction for over  62 years.

[3] There is no intent to suggest that the Confederate navy didn’t offer considerable challenges to the Union navy … only that it lacked the experience and traditions of the US Navy.  The CSA navy made a gallant attempt to offset its disadvantages with technological innovation (iron clads, submarines, torpedo boats, mines) and a stout defense of ports and harbors.  In February 1861, the CSA navy had a total 30 vessels; 14 of these were seaworthy.

[4] Mahan was a Navy captain (advanced to rear admiral after retirement) and historian who is generally regarded as the most influential American strategist of the 19th century.  He served as president of the Naval War College and became a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt.

[5] Grants men were so elated by their victory that they began celebrating and drinking strong beverages.  To regain control over his men, Grant ordered the rebel camp set afire.  Unbeknownst to Grant, wounded rebel soldiers were burned to death inside medical treatment tents.

[6] Grant suffered 607 casualties (120 KIA, 383 WIA, 104 captured or MIA), the Confederates 641 (105 KIA, 419 WIA, 117 captured or MIA).

[7] Flag Officer was an impromptu rank.  Foote was promoted to captain in 1861.  When assigned to command the Mississippi River Squadron, which technically came under the War Department, he was advanced to flag officer (equivalent to Commodore) in recognition of his authority and responsibility.  Foote was a heroic officer with long distinguished service.  In 1862, Foote was promoted to Rear Admiral.  He died unexpectedly while on active service in 1863.

[8] Farragut was the adopted brother of D. D. Porter.  He was the nation’s first rear admiral, first vice admiral, and first full admiral in the U. S. Navy.  In April 1862, Farragut captured New Orleans, which gave the Union control of the lower Mississippi.

RIVER FIGHTS: The Early Days

The purpose of the United States Navy is to defend America’s shores; the best way of doing that is by prosecuting war in the other fellow’s backyard.  American sea power achieves its greatest advantage by keeping an enemy’s main force away from America’s shore.  Our Navy controls the oceans for America’s use; it denies to our every foe access to the oceans and skies.  The enemy’s coastline is America’s naval frontier.  Our history over the past few hundred years tells us that our Navy’s strategy has worked out quite well for the American people.

The U. S. Navy is no one-trick pony and naval warfare isn’t confined to vast oceans or hostile coastlines.  Whether projecting naval power at sea, in the air, or ashore, the Navy is prepared to employ the full spectrum of its arsenal: surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, naval guns, sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and shallow draft watercraft.  And then, whenever our enemies need a real ass­-kicking, the Navy asks for a handful of Marines.

Our understanding of the past helps us to better serve the future.  Naval technology in our early days was somewhat limited to ships of the line, cutters, barges, experimental submarines, and small boats (craft suited to rivers and estuaries).  Today we refer to combat operations on rivers as “Riverine Warfare,” and the US Navy has been doing this since the Revolutionary War.  In the modern day, watercraft intended for this purpose is designed and constructed for a specific operational environment.  In earlier times, watercraft used for riverine operations involved whatever was readily available at the time. 

Revolutionary War

The first significant example of riverine operations occurred on Lake Champlain in 1775-76.  Lake Champlain is a 136-mile long lake with connecting waterways north into Canada and southward toward New York City.  They were waterways that offered a prime invasion route to early settlements and colonies and involved a bitter struggle through the end of the War of 1812.  Our revolutionary-period leaders understood that the British would attempt to separate New England from other colonies by controlling Lake Champlain waterways.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seized Ticonderoga on 19 May 1775 and Crown Point a few days later.  These were audacious operations that provided American patriots with badly needed cannon and munitions.

Arnold made a bold move to control Lake Champlain.  He hastily armed a captured schooner, pressed north to St. John’s on the Richelieu River, and in a pre-dawn riverine raid, surprised the British garrison.  He captured a 70-ton British sloop, seized numerous small boats, and helped himself to military stores, provisions, and arms before returning to Lake Champlain.  In one  stroke, the Americans had gained control of Lake Champlain, which thwarted British plans for their upcoming campaign season.

Arnold’s success at St. John’s was followed up with failure at Quebec, which precipitated the American evacuation of that city.  British and American interests initiated a vigorous ship/boat-building effort on Lake Champlain.  In the British mind, control of Lake Champlain had not been finally settled, but they did look upon Arnold as someone who needed their close attention.  For the British to utilize the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River highway to split the colonies, they had to first dispose of Arnold’s naval force.

From their base at St. John’s, the British rapidly constructed 29 vessels (some had been built in England and assembled in St. John’s).  The British squadron included Inflexible, Maria, Carleton, Thunderer, Loyal Convert, twenty gunboats, and four long boats.  Under Captain Thomas Pringle, the squadron commander, were 670 well-trained sailors and Marines.  In total, Pringle commanded 89 6-24-pound cannon.

The arms race of 1776 was on.  Spurred by the restless driving force of Benedict Arnold, the Americans sought to keep pace with the British at their Skenesborough shipyard, near the southern end of Lake Champlain.  They worked with scant resources, green timber, and a hastily assembled force of carpenters.  Drawing on his own experience as a sailor and his newly acquired knowledge of the waters in which he would fight, Arnold prepared specifications for a new type of gondola particularly suited to his task.  He wanted a small vessel of light construction that would be fast and agile under sail and oar. He hoped to offset the disadvantages of restricted waters with greater maneuverability against the slow moving, deeper draft British ships whose strength he could not match.

In all, Arnold fought fifteen American vessels, including the sloop Enterprise, the schooners Royal Savage, Revenge, and Liberty, eight of his newly designed gondolas, and three galleys.  He manned his squadron with 500 men from troops made available to him by General Philip Schuyler and from whatever was available from along waterfront taverns. With pitch still oozing out from the planking in his ships, Arnold, now a brigadier general, set a northward course.  On 10 October, Arnold stationed his flotilla west of Valcour Island where the water was deep enough for passage yet narrow enough to limit British access.  Pringle’s main failure was in conducting a proper reconnaissance of the area, so his fleet sailed past Valcour Island under a strong north wind, which required that he return direction from a leeward position.  The battle raged for most of the afternoon.  Arnold expended 75% of his munitions and his ships were badly cut up.  Taking advantage of the north wind and a foggy night, Arnold slipped through the anchored British ships and escaped.  By the 13th, British ships began to overhaul Arnolds fleet, or ran them aground.  Arnold managed to escape to Ticonderoga with six ships and the loss of (an estimated) 80 men.

Having regained control of Lake Champlain, the British quickly seized Crown Point.  General Horatio Gates and Arnold prepared to defend Ticonderoga but the British instead returned to Canada and went into winter quarters.  Circumstantially, Arnold had been thoroughly beaten on the “inland sea” but had scored a strategic victory.  A British advance southward was delayed for another year and the Continental Army had additional time to build its strength.

During the War of 1812, restricted naval warfare was again seen on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.  This strategy also focused on inland waterways.  Initially, the British controlled the Great Lakes, which facilitated their capture of Detroit and the invasion of Ohio.  In September 1812, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, USN took command of the lakes along the Erie-Ontario frontier in order to thwart a British invasion from that direction.  Both sides strengthened their positions.  Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, USN assumed command of all naval activity on Lake Erie, under the direction of Commodore Chauncey from Lake Ontario.  Commanding British naval forces was Commodore R. H. Barclay, RN operating on Lake Erie.  Barclay and Perry both began vigorous ship-building programs; neither side could well afford men or supplies, so corners were cut whenever possible.  Barclay had an advantage over Perry in ships, but through remarkable leadership and effort, Perry closed that gap.

On 10 September 1813, Perry joined Barclay in a desperate battle.  Perry had nine ships to Barclay’s six and an advantage in weight of broadside.  Barclay’s guns had a greater range, however, and Perry was always in danger of being destroyed.  In fact, Perry’s star came very close to setting on Lake Erie.  One of his two heavy ships failed to close with the British, rendering Perry’s flagship Lawrence a shamble.  Decks ran red with blood; 80% of his crew became casualties; defeat seemed inevitable—but not to Master Commandant Perry.  Embarking with a courageous boat crew, he rowed across the shot-splashed water, boarded the uninjured Niagara issued his orders, and steered the ship to victory.  Within a few short months, Perry had assembled a fleet, gave the United States control of Lake Erie, the upper lakes, all adjacent territory, and guaranteed to the United States its freedom of movement on these vital waterways.  Through Perry’s efforts, the United States also laid claim to the Northwest Territory.

Commodore Joshua Barney distinguished himself during the War of 1812, as well.  See also: The Intrepid Commodore.

In the defense of New Orleans, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson demonstrated keen insight and raw courage against attacking British ships.  Patterson correctly predicted that the British would assault New Orleans rather than Mobile and further, that their advance would be along the shortest route, through Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchartrain.  He deployed a riverine force of five gunboats, two tenders, and his two largest ships as a means of forcing the British to delay their arrival in New Orleans.  In doing so, he gave General Andrew Jackson time to complete his defensive works in Chalmette.  See also: At Chalmette, 1815.

The shoreline of the modern United States is 12,383 miles.  Even in America’s early days, the US shoreline was a considerable distance to protect and control.  Before and after the War of 1812, buccaneers, filibusters, and other intruders plagued the United States.  Using longboats, the Navy hunted down pirates through coastal estuaries, Caribbean inlets and lagoons, or waging guerrilla war against hostile Indians.  Their mission took sailors and Marines into the dank and dangerous swamps and bayous of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Whether employing large ships, ironclads, tin cans, rafts, or canoes, the Navy proved time and again that it had flexibility and adaptability in riverine operations, which has become part of the Navy’s proud heritage. 

The Pirates

Pirates had long infested the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, fueled in no small measure by the rapid growth of American commerce.  In the early 1820s, pirates attacked merchant ships nearly 3,000 times.  The associated financial losses were staggering; murder, arson, and torture were commonly inflicted upon American seamen.  Commodore James Biddle, USN, took on the pirates, filibusters, and free-booters.  In command of the West Indies Squadron, Biddle mounted raids in open longboats, manned by sailors for days at a time in burning sun or raging storm.  He reached into uncharted bays, inlets, and small but treacherous rivers—to locate, close with, and destroy the buccaneer menace.

Biddle utilized his heavy ships as the backbone of his riverine force and as sea-going bases for smaller craft.  This strategy steadily reduced piracy through such stellar efforts of Lieutenant James Ramage, USN and Lieutenant McKeever, who commanded the Navy’s first steamship to see combat action on the high seas, USS Sea Gull.  McKeever levelled the pirate base at Matanzas, Cuba in April 1825.  When buccaneers realized that their occupation was becoming less profitable and increasingly hazardous, they started looking around for other work.

Swamp Wars

Between 1836-42, Seminole and Creek Indian wars in the Florida Everglades produced a conflict uncannily like that waged in Southeast Asia 125 years later.  In 1830[1], the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to remove Florida tribes to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River.  Shockingly, many of these Indians refused to cooperate with the Congress.  Unsurprisingly, a band of Seminoles attacked and massacred a US Army detachment under the command of Major Francis Dade.  The event occurred in Tampa in December 1835.  Almost immediately, the US government moved more soldiers into Florida and Commodore A. J. Dallas’ West Indies Squadron landed parties of Marines and seamen to add weight to the military presence there.

The frustration of fighting a shadowy enemy who was completely at home in the swampy wilderness and rivers in West Florida prompted the Army to ask for naval assistance delivering supplies, establishing communications, and mounting operations along the Chattahoochee River.  One of the first naval units assigned was led by Passed Midshipman[2] J. T. McLaughlin.  In addition to his duties, McLaughlin served as Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant Colonel A. C. W. Fanning.  McLaughlin was seriously wounded by Indians at Fort Mellon in February 1837.

As the pace of war quickened, the Navy’s riverine force grew.  The Navy purchased three small schooners in 1839, which operated in the coastal inlets to chart the water, harass the Indians, and protect civilian settlements.  In addition, McLaughlin, then a lieutenant, commanded many flat-bottomed boats, plantation canoes, and sharp-ended bateaux which he used to penetrate the Everglade Swamps.  In effect, McLaughlin commanded the “mosquito fleet,” a mixture of vessels manned by around 600 sailors, soldiers, and Marines.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] In 1830, Democrats controlled the US House of Representatives.  Another shocker.

[2] In the 19th century, this term was used to describe a midshipman who had passed the examination for appointment to ensign but was waiting for a vacancy in that grade.  A passed midshipman was also occasionally referred to as a “sub-lieutenant,” but neither of these were ever official naval ranks.