Cap-Haïtien: Lincoln’s Forgotten Forward Operating Naval Base

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s navy shifted from a small force undertaking global patrols to show the flag to one of the world’s largest naval forces with a dual goal of enforcing a blockade of Confederate ports and supporting military operations along that coastline and the continent’s inland waters. Through this shift Lincoln’s warships focused on local affairs, and European governments saw opportunities for re-intervention across the Americas, a direct violation of the Monroe Doctrine issued by the United States demanding no new European intervention in the Americas. By the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln’s stance stabilized, and ships deployed to the Caribbean Sea. These ships of what became the West India Squadron concentrated at Cap-Haïtien, which became Abraham Lincoln’s localized Caribbean headquarters to hunt Confederate commerce raiders and bolster the Monroe Doctrine.

Cap-Haïtien, the major port on Haiti’s northern coast, supported the US Navy West India Squadron. (95680500, Library of Congress)

With Lincoln’s government, military, and naval forces concentrated on defeating the Confederacy and reuniting the United States, European governments took significant action to reestablish or enhance their positions in the Americas. British businesses traded with the Confederacy via blockade running to bolster capital lost from limited cotton imports. British, French, and Spanish expeditionary forces invaded a destabilized Mexico seeking repayment of debts. French troops remained, installing the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as the new Mexican emperor. In 1861, Spain reclaimed Santo Domingo and in 1864 started wars against Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia to reclaim the guano-rich Chincha Islands and potentially Spain’s lost Latin American empire. Confederate activity facilitated European ambitions.

After the blockade solidified, and as threats of Confederate commerce raiders grew, Lincoln’s navy took measures to reassert its position in Latin America. The West India Squadron, a flotilla of men-of-war led by Acting Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, organized in September 1862. Haiti, just recognized as a sovereign nation the year before by Abraham Lincoln, became the squadron’s focal point.

Acting Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes commanded the US navy’s West India Squadron. (NH 119637, Naval History and Heritage Command)

Wilkes’s selection as squadron commander was deliberate. Formerly commanding the U.S. Exploring Expedition and precipitating the Trent affair against Great Britain, Wilkes was a man who would not be intimidated by European diplomats. Reaching the Caribbean, the admiral first made calls to Haitian leaders at the strategic port of Cap-Haïtien, on the country’s northern coast. Through cordial discussions, Wilkes received “the freedom of the Port” for his ships.[1]

Detail of a chart of the port of Cap-Haïtien. (G4940 s50 .U5, Library of Congress)

Cap-Haïtien quickly became the headquarters of West India Squadron activity, and U.S. warships docking there did so with full pomp and circumstance, exchanging salutes and honors with local leadership.[2] In mid-1863, the small sail-powered USS National Guard docked there, becoming a staging base for distribution of food, repair parts, ammunition, and coal to squadron vessels, and anticipating Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of “stations along the road,” as well as the modern concept of the expeditionary staging base currently used by the United States Navy.[3] A nearby warehouse was rented to store still more material. When National Guard was sent north in 1864 after fever broke out onboard, civilian steamers ferried coal and supplies to the warehouses to keep U.S. warships operating.[4]

The remaining West India Squadron ships divided, with part scouring the Caribbean for the Confederate raiders Alabama and Florida, as well as tenders keeping them supplied, while three steamers were kept in a rotation escorting Atlantic and Pacific Mail Company steamers through the Windward Passage as they conveyed millions of dollars in California gold from Colón, on the Panamá isthmus, to New York City. Throughout the war, Cap-Haïtien’s supply base supported 151 convoys helping transport $170,749,030.60 in gold from California to New York, expanding influence in Haiti, Colombia, and the Panamá isthmus while stabilizing the U.S. economy.

Wilkes’s remaining warships patrolled the Caribbean, often stopping at British, Dutch, and Spanish colonies, physically representing that the United States remained intent on maintaining the Monroe Doctrine; U.S. military activity in Texas from 1863-1865 likewise demonstrated this. Their captains also integrated intelligence with local U.S. diplomats to hunt Confederate raiders and anticipate European intentions.[5] When Santo Domingo revolted in 1863, Spanish leaders speculated the West India Squadron might intervene.[6] Even after Wilkes was replaced in mid-1863 with Acting Rear Admiral James Lardner, the convoys, raider hunting, and diplomatic pressure continued unabated. As needed, squadron warships docked at Cap-Haïtien for both periodic and emergency repairs.[7]

View of Cap-Haïtien. (Photo by Rémi Kaupp, Creative Commons BY-SA)

The Cap-Haïtien naval facilities provided a “marked change” in relations between the United States and European powers with a fostered and renewed emphasis on the Monroe Doctrine after the Confederacy’s collapse.[8] After the nation was reunited, US diplomats pressured Spain to depart Santo Domingo, Great Britain was sued in international proceedings over outfitting Confederate raiders, Canada pressed for more autonomy, a large army garrisoned the Texas border to protest French intervention in Mexico, and naval forces patrolled near the Chincha Islands in protest of Spanish activity. In May 1865, after revolts began across Haiti, Marines went ashore into Cap-Haïtien “for the protection of the American consulate.”[9] It would not be the last time such were to occur. Thanks in part to the Cap-Haïtien naval activity, Confederate warships were swept from the sea and the Monroe Doctrine survived the Civil War, paving the way for greater United States interventions in Latin America as the 19th century closed.



[1] William James Morgan, David B. Tyler, Joye L. Leonhart, and Mary F. Loughlin. eds. Autobiography of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, U. S. Navy 1798-1877, (Washington DC: Naval History Division, 1978), 817.

[2] For other naval officers meeting Haiti leadership see Edgar Stanton Maclay, ed. Reminiscences of the Old Navy: From the Journals and Private Papers of Captain Edward Trenchard and Rear-Admiral Trenchard, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898), 237.

[3] A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, (Boston, MA: Middleton, Brown, and Company, 1890), 27; For National Guard in Haiti see Charles Wilkes to Gideon Welles, April 2, 1863, Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Commanding Officers of Squadrons, 1841-1886, M89, RG 45, US National Archives. (hereafter Squadron Letters); Gideon Welles to Charles Wilkes, May 6, 1863, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (hereafter ORN), Series 1, Volume 2, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1895), 180-181.

[4] James Lardner to Gideon Welles, July 14 and September 28, 1864, West India Squadron, Squadron Letters; Mayo, Gale, and Johnson to James Lardner, July 13, 1864, West India Squadron, Squadron Letters; James Lardner to John Clitz, September 13, 1864, West India Squadron, Squadron Letters; Maclay, Reminiscences of the Old Navy, 336.

[5] Regarding naval and State Department intelligence activity see Charles Wilkes to Gideon Welles, May 13, 1863, West India Squadron, Squadron Letters; James Lardner to Gideon Welles, September 21, October 2, and November 12, 1863, and June 11, 1864, West India Squadron, Squadron Letters; Gideon Welles, Commodore Charles Wilkes’s Court Martial (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1864), 93.

[6] James Lardner to Gideon Welles, November 6, 1863, West India Squadron, Squadron Letters.

[7] For examples of ships being repaired at Cap-Haïtien see James Lardner to Gideon Welles, September 28, 1863, West India Squadron, Squadron Letters; J.P. Sanford to Gideon Welles, December 15, 1864, ORN, Series 1, Volume 3, 394-395.

[8] Maclay, Reminiscences of the Old Navy, 336.

[9] Ibid, 337.

3 Responses to Cap-Haïtien: Lincoln’s Forgotten Forward Operating Naval Base

  1. Thanks for another interesting and informative article! It helped me understand more clearly how Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian ended up as the Mexican emperor – I’d been curious about that but had not yet had time to dig deeper. He comes up briefly in my book as, later in the war, some of the Confederate troops and guerrillas in Texas were looking for ways to immigrate and reestablish themselves (or hide) in Mexico.

  2. thanks Neil — what a great article … i thought our first military “intervention” Haiti was with the Marines in 1915 … now i know better!!! And it’s nice to see RADM Wilkes pulling off this little bit of diplomacy without causing an international incident — gotta love good old RADM Wilkes … anyway, thanks again for bringing this little known chapter of naval history to light … BZ and good on you.

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