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A Brief Biography of

2nd Lieutenant Smedley Darlington Butler, U.S.M.C.

(July 30, 1881 - June 21, 1940)

Contributed by Robert Pendleton

Marine Legend Smedley Darlington Butler, 1910

Smedley Butler, circa 1910
(Library of Congress)

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Smedley Darlington Butler served as a platoon leader of Company B of the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced). Later in his career, he was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor for service with the U.S. Marine Corps in other actions.

The Biography:

Smedley Darlington Butler was born at West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania, on July 30, 1881. He was the son of Pennsylvania Congressman Thomas Stalker Butler (1855-1928) who served on various committees including as chairman, Committee on Naval Affairs (Sixty-sixth through Seventieth Congresses).

On May 20, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, 2nd Lieutenant Smedley Darlington Butler was selected, trained and earned a temporary commission at Marine Corps Headquarters, Navy Yard, Washington, District of Columbia. Upon commissioning he was transferred to the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced) of the North Atlantic Squadron and reported to Lt. Colonel Robert W. Huntington, battalion commander, at Camp McCalla, Playa del Este, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on July 10, 1898. There he was assigned as a platoon leader of Company B then under the command of Captain Mancil C. Goodrell, U.S.M.C.  At the time of his commissioning he was 16 years, 10 months old and would celebrate his 17th birthday, on the 30th of July, at Guantanamo Bay.

Butler's arrival in Cuba at the camp of the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced) was notable for a somewhat comic incident that ocurred. Brigadier General Edwin Howard Simmons gave an account of the his arrival as follows:

"In early July the battalion received some 'reinforcements' in the form of three newly minted second lieutenants, fresh from the hasty weeks-long indoctrination at Marine Barracks, 'Eighth and I,' in Washington, D.C. The three were some of the new officers that Commandant Heywood had been able to enlist from civilian life for the duration of the war. One of these earnest young officers was Second Lieutenant Smedley Darlington Butler [Co. B], not yet 17 years old and son of a Pennsylvania congressman. The other two were Second Lieutenants George (C.) Reid [Co. E] and Peter (Robert F.) Wynne [Co.F (artillery)]. Dressed in their hot, heavy, black braided uniforms, Butler and his two compatriots struggled up the hill at Camp McCalla looking for the commanding officer of the Marines. They came upon a group of grizzled, dusty and dirty old timers sitting on some boxes, and demanded that these 'old salts' address them with the proper respect due to officers. When they asked the unkempt men where Lieutenant Colonel Huntington was, one of the old men responded that Butler was talking to the Colonel at that moment! The young officers were quickly put to work learning how to perform nightly inspections of the picket outposts."
Butler arrived too late to participate in any of the First Marine Battalion (Reinforced) famous actions at Guantanamo Bay. His chance for action came when he was with the battalion on board U.S.S. RESOLUTE which was under orders capture Manzanillo. While some of the ships did open fire on the Spanish positions in the city, the battalion did not go ashore because the force commander received word that the armistiuce had been agreed to between the U.S. and Spain, ending the fighting. Butler did not see action.

During the Spanish-American War, 2nd Lieutenant Butler served with Huntington’s First Marine Battalion's Company B until the unit’s disbandment at New York Navy Yard, New York City, September  23, 1898. He returned to Marine Corps Headquarters, Navy Yard, Washington, District of Columbia, and on February 16, 1899, was honorably discharged.

He reapplied to the Marine Corps and was commissioned 1st Lieutenant of Marines on 8 April 1899. He was immediately reassigned to the reconstituted 1st Marine Battalion, commanded by Colonel Percival Clarence Pope, of the First Marine Regiment at Manila, Philippine Islands from June 14, 1899 to October 1900. Assigned to the 6th Marines during China’s Boxer Rebellion, he was wounded in battle near Tientsin on July 13, 1900. For distinguished conduct and public service in the presence of the enemy in that action he was promoted to brevet captain on July 23, 1900.

Returning to the United States in January of 1900, he served at various posts within the continental United States and commanded Marine Guards of several U.S. Naval ships. On June 30, 1905, Captain Butler married Ethel C. Peters of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On May 13, 1908 he was promoted to major. He served ashore in Puerto Rico and in December 1909, he commanded the 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment at Camp Elliott, Isthmus of Panama.

On August 11, 1912 he was temporarily detached to the First Marine Battalion of the First Provisional Regiment under the command of Colonel Joseph Henry Pendleton . Major Butler participated in the bombardment, assault, and capture of Coyotepe hill fortress near Masaya Lagoon, Nicaragua, October 12 to 31, 1912. He remained on duty in Nicaragua until November 1912, after which he rejoined the Marine regiment at Camp Elliot, Isthmus of Panama.

Promoted to major, Butler was awarded his first Congressional Medal of Honor while commanding a Marine battalion that landed and aided in occupying the city of Vera Cruz, Mexico, 21-22 April 1914. Major Butler “was eminent and conspicuous in command of his Battalion. He exhibited courage and skill in leading his men through the action of the 22nd and in the final occupation of the city.”

A second Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded to Major Butler while commanding the detachments from the 5th, 13th, 3d Marine companies, and of the Marine Guard and Seamen Company detached from the U.S.S. CONNECTICUT, in repulsing Caco Bandit resistance at Fort Riviere, Haiti, November 17, 1915. Through the perilous hand-to-hand combat, Major Butler was conspicuous for his bravery and forceful leadership.

On August 1, 1916, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

On 1 July 1918 he was promoted to temporary colonel and during World War I commanded the 13th Marine Regiment in France. However, the regiment did not participate in combat operations.

For exceptional meritorious service during World War I, he was awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, and the French Order of the Black Star.  On October 7, 1918 he was promoted to temporary brigadier general.

When he returned to the United States in 1919, he became Commanding General of Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. On March 9, 1919 he was promoted to permanent colonel. On June 4, 1920 he was promoted to permanent brigadier general and commanded Marine Corps Base Quantico until January 1924 after which, he accepted a leave of absence to the post of Director of Public Safety of the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In February of 1926, he assumed command of the dual use Marine Corps Base/Naval Operating Base at San Diego, California. In March of 1927, the 3d Marine Expeditionary Brigade was activated at Marine Corps Base Quantico under his command. In May, the brigade deployed to Shanghai, China, where it took control of the 4th and 6th Marine Regiments. On its return to the United States the brigade was deactivated in January of 1929.

During his command of Marine Base Quantico, Virginia, from April 1929 to October 1, 1931, he was promoted to the rank of major general on July 5, 1929. He was retired upon his own application after completing 33 years of service effective October 1, 1931.

On 21 June 1940, General Smedley Darlington Butler, age 59, died at Philadelphia Naval Hospital, League Island, Pennsylvania (hospital conveyed to the City of Philadelphia on 20 April 2000) following a four-week illness which was presumably cancer of the upper abdominal tract.

He was interred at Oakland Cemetery, West Chester, Pennsylvania.


Butler, Thomas Stalker, (1855-1928), Bibliographical information, “Laying the Legislative Foundation: The House Naval Affairs Committee and the Construction of the Treaty Navy, 1926-1934,” Michael Allen West, Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1980.

Kelly, Lieutenant Colonel David E., U.S.M.C.,  Marines in the Spanish-American War: A Brief History, by ., p. 21, published in Marines in the Spanish-American War 1895-1899 Anthology and Annotated Bibliography, History and Museum Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, D.C., 1998.

Muster Rolls, 1-31 July 1898, Camp McCalla, Playa del Este, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, First Marine Battalion (Reinforced), Company B. Compiled by Robert M. Pendleton, unpublished manuscript, 2005.

Muster Rolls, 1-31 August 1898, Camp Heywood, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Seavey Island, Kittery, Maine, First Marine Battalion (Reinforced), Company B. Compiled by Robert M. Pendleton, unpublished manuscript, 2005.

United States Marine Corps, History and Museum Division, Who’s Who in Marine Corps History, Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC, (Deceased).

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