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6 American Wars You Didn't Learn About in School

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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.

1. THE WATERMELON WAR

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.

2. THE KOREAN WAR (OF 1871)

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.

3. LAS CUEVAS WAR

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.

4. THE UTAH WAR

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.

5. FIRST AND SECOND FIJI EXPEDITION

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.

6. POSEY WAR

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.

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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