Events and People

Poinsett and Smith and the 1914 Occupation of Veracruz

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With photographs of quiet neighborhood streets, busy commercial districts, schools, stores, trolleys, parks, and dozens of other aspects of daily urban life, the images on provide a beautiful visual history of change and development in the communities throughout Philadelphia.

Often, though, there are photos on that not only tell the story of Philadelphia’s past but also demonstrate the role that Philadelphians have played in events throughout the country and around the world. A series of photographs of the 1914 funeral of two sailors, George Poinsett and Charles Allen Smith, provides just one example of the internationally significant events depicted on PhillyHistory.

By 1914, the United States government had spent several years cautiously watching the Mexican Revolution and judging its possible impact on American citizens and business interests both in Mexico and along the border between the two countries. To protect these interests, the United States stationed U.S. Navy warships at the Mexican ports of Tampico and Vera Cruz in early 1914.[1] At the same time, President Woodrow Wilson rescinded an arms embargo that had prevented the sale of arms to either General Victorio Huerta, who had seized power from the Mexican president in February 1913, or Governor Venustiano Carranza and Pancho Villa, supporters of the previous president who were attempting to wrest control of Mexico from Huerta. President Wilson offered to provide help to Carranza. When the US forces at Vera Cruz learned that German weapons would be arriving at Vera Cruz for Huerta, President Wilson ordered them to seize the town’s customhouse and capture the weapons.[2]

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On April 21, 1914, 787 marines and sailors went ashore to seize the customhouse and were fired upon by Mexican forces. By April 22, the American troops had occupied the town. In two days of fighting, 17 Americans were killed and 61 wounded. An estimated 152-172 Mexicans were killed and 195-240 wounded. American forces would continue to occupy Vera Cruz until November 1914.[3]

Among the seventeen Americans killed during the initial occupation of Vera Cruz were Seaman George Poinsett and Ordinary Seaman Charles Allen Smith, both of Philadelphia. Eyewitnesses to the events stated that Poinsett was the first man killed during the occupation and “was shot by a Mexican sharpshooter while raising the flag on the Plaza following the first landing of marines.”[4] After the battle, the bodies of the seventeen men arrived in New York City on May 11, 1914 aboard the battleship Montana. The coffins were placed on caissons and then traveled from the Montana at Pier A past City Hall to the Navy Yard. At the Navy Yard, President Woodrow Wilson delivered a funeral oration during a ceremony that was attended by the Governor of New York, the Secretary of the Navy, and various other officials and citizens.[5]

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After the ceremony, the bodies of the men were shipped to their relatives. As shown in the photographs on, Poinsett and Smith were given a funeral in Philadelphia with a procession beginning at Independence Square. Unfortunately, there are few additional details available about the ceremony.

The American occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914 may not be as well known as other military events in United States history. At the time of its occurrence, however, it signaled America’s increased involvement in political and military affairs in Mexico. These photographs on show Philadelphia’s connection to one international event that significantly impacted relations between Mexico and the United States and influenced future actions between the countries.

[1] Yockelson, Mitchell. “The United States Armed Forces and the Mexican Punitive Expedition: Part 1.” Prologue 29:3, Fall 1997.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Russel, Thomas Herbert. Mexico in Peace and War. Sumner C. Britton: Chicago, 1914, p. 22.

[5] New York Times. “Vera Cruz Dead Here on Warship.” May 11, 1914.