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.

Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

Scott Barbour/Getty Images
7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.


The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).


In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.


Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.


A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.


Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.


Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.


Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.


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