5 Forgotten United States Military Conflicts

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When most people think of the military conflicts the United States has been involved in they tend to think of the big wars such as World War I, WWII and Vietnam. Yet the U.S. has been involved in dozens of smaller interventions and conflicts around the world in the course of its 235-year history. These operations have helped shape U.S. domestic politics as well as its foreign policy. While not an imperial power in the tradition of its European cousins, from its inception the U.S. has sometimes found it necessary to insert itself into the affairs of sovereign governments to protect its economic, diplomatic and security interests.

5. The Sumatran Expeditions

The U.S. twice attacked Sumatra in the 1830s.

The United States attacks Sumatra, 1832.

Sumatra is the largest of thousands of islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago. Home of the Spice Islands that provided valuable commodities like nutmeg, Indonesia played an integral role in 18th and 19th century trade. The United States launched what became known as the First Sumatran Expedition in 1831 in retaliation after Sumatran villagers murdered the crew of the American merchant ship Friendship. The frigate USS Potomac easily defeated the local raja’s, or king’s, forces at the 1832 Battle of Quallah Battoo. American merchant crews enjoyed six years of safe passage in the area until an American trading ship, the Eclipse, visited Sumatra in 1838. After pirates there massacred the crew, word reached two U.S. Navy ships that already happened to be on a voyage in Asia. The two heavily armed frigates reached Sumatra a few weeks later, and caused such destruction and mayhem in two engagements that the Malays promised to never again touch another American ship.


4. Korean Expedition

The U.S. invaded Korea in 1871 in retaliation for an attack on a U.S. ship.

Americans celebrate their victory over the Deokjin Garrison in Korea in 1871.

Almost 80 years before the Korean War, the United States engaged in another skirmish in the area. The Korean peninsula had been ruled by China for centuries, its isolationist ways earning it the nickname the “Hermit Kingdom.” Yet Korea occupied a strategic location along east-west trade routes and that led the U.S. Ambassador to China, Frederick Low, to seek a treaty with Korea calling for access to ports and better treatment of shipwrecked sailors. As Low’s ship sailed along the Korean coast in May 1871, several Korean forts attacked it. Ten days later, after the Koreans failed to apologize, the U.S. dispatched five warships to retaliate. More than 600 Americans stormed ashore and occupied several forts on the island of Ganghwa, losing only three men in the process, while some 240 Koreans were killed. In the aftermath, 15 servicemen were awarded the United States’ top military award, the Medal of Honor, the first servicemen to be so honored for actions on foreign soil.


3. Russian Civil War

The U.S. sent 13,000 troops to try to defeat the Russian Communists from 1918 to 1920.

American troops march in Russia, August 1918.

During World War I, Russia suffered tremendous defeats on the Eastern front at the hands of the German army. Czar Nicholas II abdicated his throne and in the ensuing chaos a weak interim democratic government was set up. In October 1917, Bolsheviks, or communists, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky overthrew the government. You probably remember that much from your high school history class. What you probably don’t recall or never read in the first place is that the United States took an active role in trying to defeat the Communists. With the Great War winding down in 1918 the Allies began to worry about all the weapons and equipment they had provided to Czarist Russia that was now in the hands of Communist Russia. The U.S. and 10 other countries including Great Britain, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia, sent more than 150,000 troops to help the anti-Communist forces known as the White Army battle the Red Army in the Russian Civil War. Some 13,000 U.S. forces operated near the northern cities of Vladivostok and Arkhangelsk for three years before President Woodrow Wilson decided to withdraw them in 1920. The Red Army eventually defeated the White Army, setting the stage for the 70-year reign of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


2. The Quasi-War

The Quasi-War pitted the U.S. against its former ally, France.

The USS Constellation played a key role in the Quasi-War against France.

A decade after the end of American Revolution, the consequences of the French Revolution were being felt not only by the French, but by Americans as well. By 1794, the U.S. no longer felt obligated to repay some of the debts it had incurred with the French monarchy in the 1780s. As a result, French ships began intercepting and boarding American merchant vessels at will, seizing hundreds of vessels. In 1798, Congress authorized the U.S. Navy — which had been founded only five years earlier — to conduct operations against French ships off the U.S. coast and on the high seas. The conflict raged the length of the U.S. East Coast, all the way into the Caribbean, with the U.S. seizing numerous French privateering ships. The British Royal Navy assisted in the efforts. By 1800, the French backed off, signing a treaty with the U.S. in September. The short-term legacy of the Quasi-War was a U.S. victory, but the long-term impact was even greater, as the conflict convinced the young nation it needed to build a more powerful naval fleet.


1. Invasion of Canada

The United States first two invasions of Canada failed.

Battle of Queenston, Canada, 1812

Although the fledgling U.S. Navy was growing by 1812, it was still no match for the power and reach of the Royal Navy. So when the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain erupted in June of that year, the U.S. knew it could not compete with the Brits for control of the seas. So the U.S. planned to invade British-controlled Canada, then hold the land to force concessions and negotiations. Military leaders assumed this would be relatively easy. Unprepared and under-equipped American forces invaded Canada in 1812 and 1813 with their sights set on Montreal. Both operations were dismal failures. U.S. fortunes in the region changed near the end of 1813 when general and future president William Henry Harrison led a defeat of the British at the battle of Moraviantown in upper Ontario. The legendary Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who had for several years been stirring unrest among Native American tribes opposed to the advance of white settlers into their homelands, was also killed in the battle.


Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.