6 American Wars You Didn't Learn About in School


We all remember learning about America’s major military engagements in our high school history class. But sometimes U.S. troops found themselves fighting much tinier “wars” all over the world, ones that you’ve probably never heard of ... until now.


In 1856, a drunken American visitor to Panama decided he was hungry, so he reached over and took a slice of watermelon off a market stall. Then he refused to pay for it. The vendor was obviously upset and demanded the 10 cents owed to him. The situation escalated into an argument, and the American pulled out a gun—which, after a short scuffle, accidentally went off, wounding an innocent bystander. Suddenly, what had been a minor theft became a full-scale riot. Americans in the area were beaten and robbed as they fled for the nearest safe place—the train station. Buildings were destroyed. A policeman was shot. In the end, 17 people were killed and 29 were wounded, all because of a snack.

When the U.S. government heard about the attacks on its citizens, it was less than thrilled. But it was also politically convenient for them; the year before, the Panama Railway had been completed, and the then-region of Colombia was quickly being positioned as key to quick transoceanic transit. So the American commissioner, Amos Corwine, called for “the immediate occupation of the isthmus.” While the residents of Panama City were sure American troops would soon burn the place to the ground, in reality, six months later, a mere 160 sailors ended up occupying the town for three days. During that time, not a single shot was fired.

Despite this, the U.S. used the Watermelon War, as it came to be called, as an excuse to try to get a lot of things it wanted, including land for naval bases, rights to the country’s railroad, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for the damage caused to American-owned businesses. But after lengthy negotiations, the U.S. only got a little over $400,000.


America first took an interest in Korea (then spelled “Corea”) in 1840 when Congress considered trying to establish a commercial relationship with the country. But the resolution went nowhere and within a few years it was basically forgotten.

But then in 1866 a ship called the General Sherman sailed towards Pyongyang, hoping to trade the goods they had on board as well as preach the Gospel. The Koreans, who were perfectly happy being an isolationist kingdom and had been known to execute Catholics, told them to turn around repeatedly. But the captain refused to leave until he had seen the “man in charge.”

Then the boat got stranded on a sandbank and the Koreans burned it and killed everyone on board. When rumors reached the U.S., they sent a warship to find out what really happened. Arriving in 1867, the expedition couldn’t get an answer out of a local official, and threatened to return with a bigger fleet. The next year, another ship arrived and learned there were no survivors. Upon hearing the news, the State Department decided to offer a treaty—but the Koreans turned it down, saying, “We have been living 4000 years without any treaty with you, and we can't see why we shouldn't continue to live as we do.”

So in 1871, 1230 American soldiers landed on Kanghwa-do and took the fortress there, killing 350 Koreans and losing only three men themselves. The Korean government refused to bargain for the POWs captured, calling them “cowards.” Faced with the realization that nothing short of a full-on attack on the capital would result in a treaty, and with the Koreans sending in reinforcements, the Americans withdrew.

Korea would not sign a treaty with the U.S. until 1882, only after the Japanese had forced Korea to open up six years earlier. It promised “everlasting amity and friendship between the two peoples,” which history would prove to be a bit optimistic.


In the 1870s, the border between Texas and Mexico was a dangerous place to be. People at the time called the amount of crime “unprecedented” and robbery in particular was an “epidemic.” One of the most common—and most hated—types of theft was cattle rustling, and common citizens often took to hanging thieves themselves. So when a herd of cattle from Texas was stolen and taken across the border to the Las Cuevas Ranch in Mexico in 1875, Captain Leander McNelly of the Texas Rangers decided he was going to get them back.

He asked the U.S. Army for assistance, but they refused to cross the Rio Grande with him, basically saying they would stay on the other side in case he needed help retreating. So the Rangers crossed the river, where they were met by about 300 Mexican militiamen. Despite being outnumbered, they mowed them down using Gatling guns, and in the excitement, some of the American military decided to join the fight.

The Secretary of War had heard what was planned and knew it was completely illegal to invade another country like that, so he sent a telegram demanding McNelly and his men return to American soil. The captain refused. Then another message arrived, and this time the answer was even clearer: “I shall remain in Mexico with my rangers and cross back at my discretion. Give my compliments to the Secretary of War and tell him and his United States soldiers to go to hell. Signed, Lee H. McNelly, commanding.”

Despite the fact that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place, McNelly, the Rangers, and the U.S. troops did get the Mexicans to surrender, and the cattle were returned to their owners in Texas.


There was a time when Mormons were distrusted and hated. After being chased from state to state—and enduring the murder of their leader Joseph Smith—they were hesitant to deal with the U.S. government in any way by the time they got to what was then Utah Territory.

This fear provoked the year-long Utah War or Mormon War in 1857. When President James Buchanan sent troops into the territory, the leaders of the Latter Day Saints church panicked. Buchanan had decided to replace Brigham Young as governor of the Utah Territory, and the military was coming to escort the new governor in and ensure the transition of power. But it’s believed that no one ever told the Mormon settlers, who were sure they were about to be driven out of their homes again and prepared to fight.

Despite arming themselves, they initially tried to avoid bloodshed. Instead, the Mormons used guerrilla warfare tactics to “annoy” the federal troops. They felled trees to block roads and destroyed bridges. They stampeded their cows and horses. They would pretend to attack at night, so the soldiers got no sleep. They burned the grasslands and cut off the troops' reinforcements, leaving them without food. It seemed like this might be a bloodless war.

But then a wagon train of settlers appeared in Utah, and, for reasons that still remain unclear, the Mormon leaders ordered the unarmed men, women, and children to be killed. It became known as the Mountain Meadows massacre. The next month, another six people were killed in the Aiken massacre on suspicion of spying for the U.S. government.

Finally, negotiation ended the bloodshed—but not until an estimated 150 people had died, despite no real battles between the two sides.


John Williams should have been enjoying his time in Fiji, but things kept going wrong. During Independence Day celebrations in 1849, a cannon blast caused Williams’s house to catch fire, and it was promptly looted by the native Fijians. Williams, who was the equivalent of the American consul in Fiji, attempted to get compensation for what he lost. In 1851, when an American warship arrived, Williams demanded $5000 for himself and the owners of a ship that had run aground and was looted in 1846, but he wasn’t paid. By 1855, the demands from several Americans against various Fijian chiefs rose to almost $50,000, including over $18,000 from Williams.

That same year, Edward Boutwell, commander of the U.S. Navy ship John Adams, came ashore and demanded King Cakobau reimburse all the Americans who had claims against Fiji. The King was unable to pay, and so the ship returned a month later. In the ensuing skirmish, one American was killed and three were wounded. To pay the debt, Cakobau first tried to sell Fiji to the British—but Cakobau didn’t rule over the entire country, so he wasn’t in a position to offer it and was rejected. In 1867, he sold 200,000 acres of land to an Australian company and was finally able to pay off the debt.

In 1859, as Cakobau was attempting to pay back the Americans, stories emerged from the island of Waya that two Americans had been killed and eaten by one of the tribes. Lieutenant Charles Caldwell was ordered to get revenge. On their way to the island, they passed through other parts of Fiji and heard horrible stories about the Waya. They even received a message from the chief himself: “Do you suppose we have killed the two white men for nothing? No, we killed them and we have eaten them. We are great warriors, and we delight in war.”

Once the Americans got there, they had to drag themselves, their guns, and a huge cannon up a mountain. At the top, the cannon slipped and fell right back down. Despite their diminished firepower, the sailors still took on the Waya, many of whom were dressed in white robes, making them obvious targets. Eventually, the Americans retreated (taking their three wounded with them, since the captain didn’t want anyone left behind for the Waya to snack on), having killed at least a dozen of the Fijians and burning the town.


We know that there have been dozens of wars and skirmishes involving the indigenous peoples of North America ever since the first Europeans set foot here. But there also had to be a time when the fighting finally stopped. The Posey War is also known as the Last Indian Uprising because it is considered the final military clash between a native people and the U.S. government.

In 1923, two boys from the Ute tribe stole some sheep. They voluntarily turned themselves in and were convicted by a jury, but then escaped. There had been tensions between the Ute/Paiute Native Americans and the state of Utah for decades. The leader of the tribes, Posey, was particularly considered a threat. Now the newspapers used this latest incident to try and get rid of the perceived problem forever.

Headlines screamed that the “Piute [sic] Band Declares War on Whites,” and journalists were sure that the Utah governor had been asked to send a scout plane armed with machine guns and bombs to retaliate. In reality, when a posse came to the reservation looking for Posey, he and the other inhabitants ran for the mountains, only fighting in order to avoid being captured.

But they could only hold out for so long, and many people were taken to a kind of makeshift prison camp. Posey, who was wounded in the leg, died from his wounds a month later, and everyone else was let go, since he was the famous “troublemaker” the white locals were really worried about. Despite burying him in an unmarked grave, Posey's body was dug up at least twice by people who wanted their picture taken with it.

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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