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1: The Leathernecks
We have compelled every landand every sea to open a path for our valor, and have everywhere planted eternal memorials of our friendship and our enmity.
Pericles, Funeral Oration over the Athenian Dead, 431 b.c.
In times of peace the Marines have always represented an imperfect fit--rough-hewn square pegs in round organizational holes, neither soldiers nor sailors, but a special breed, amphibians, Soldiers of the Sea. Fortunately for the nation and its Corps, the Marines established a distinctive pattern of combat usefulness from the onset in 1776. Always few in number and of necessity lightly armed, America's Marines rather quickly built a tradition on the cornerstones of readiness, discipline, marksmanship, and esprit--topped by the brash swagger of those who have leapt onto an enemy quarterdeck in a boarding party brawl and lived to boast of it.
The Revolutionary War (1775-1783)
On a blustery February morning in 1776, during the tenth month of the American Revolution, Commodore Esek Hopkins led a squadron of eight extemporized warships out of the ice-clogged Delaware River below Philadelphia. In this, the first deployment of the Continental Navy, Hopkins's force included 236 newly recruited Continental Marines, commanded by Captain Samuel Nicholas, a thirty-two-year-old former Philadelphia innkeeper. They were the vanguard of two battalions of Marines authorized by the Second Continental Congress on November 10, 1775 (traditionally celebrated as the birthdate of the Corps).
Nicholas's group differed from other so-called "marines" already serving in state navies and on boardYankee privateers. The new contingent, patterned after the British Marines, was a separate adjunct of the regular American Navy, recruited for service as sharpshooters and boarding-party fighters during close combat at sea. Congress also expected the Continental Marines to conduct seaborne landing operations and help maintain discipline among the polyglot Navy crews.
On March 3, 1776, in the company of fifty sailors, Samuel Nicholas and his men conducted the first amphibious landing in Marine history when their surfboats touched shore at New Providence Island in the Bahamas. The Marines and sailors seized undefended Fort Montague and, the next morning, advanced on nearby Fort Nassau.
The undermanned garrison fired a few cannon shots in defiance, then surrendered. To Captain Nicholas went the honor of raising the Grand Union flag over the captured fort. The American Revolution had for the first time spread beyond its borders.
This unimpressive force of seagoing musketeers had executed one of the most difficult maneuvers in all military science--an amphibious assault launched from Naval ships at sea against a hostile shore.
Primitive and obscure, the seizure of Fort Nassau in 1776 served as the progenitor of epic amphibious landings to come.
In late 1776, however, the British Army launched a series of attacks that sent the Continental Army reeling across New Jersey.
Responding to General Washington's call for assistance, Samuel Nicholas, now a major, organized and trained a new battalion of Marines, then adjoined them with Colonel John Cadwalader's Pennsylvania militia.
Washington led his patchwork forces back across the Delaware River to strike a surprise blow against Lord Cornwallis's overconfident veterans at Princeton. This was a desperate battle for the Americans. At the height of the confused fighting, Washington personally rallied the Marines and Pennsylvanians for yet another charge against the Redcoats. It turned the tide. Cornwallis had to modify his otherwise promising campaign.
For all their pains, the Marines were assimilated into the regular Army, most serving as artillerymen.
Thereafter, the Marines would do their fighting afloat, or storming ashore, with the Navy. But Nicholas had set a valuable precedent. His "sea soldiers" had fought inland admirably with the Army.
As the Revolution raged on, Continental Marines saw Naval action as far east as the British Isles.
There they served with distinction with Captain John Paul Jones, executing the first amphibious landings in European waters at Whitehaven and St. Mary's Isle in the Irish Sea.
In September 1779, Jones's Marines manned the fighting tops of his flagship, the Bonhomme Richard, when she squared off against the fifty-gun British frigate HMS Serapis in the North Sea. As the thundering, burning ships grappled together, the Marines aloft responded magnificently, first shooting their counterparts out of their towering crow's nests, now just yards away, then raining a deadly fusillade against every British attempt to launch a storming party below. The British soon struck their flag.
The year 1779 saw the fortunes of the Marines swing to extremes, including the disaster at Penobscot Bay.
The British established an advanced Naval base in Penobscot Bay in current-day Maine. To uproot the base, Commodore Dudley Saltonstall led forth an amphibious force of ships, privateers, and Marines, reinforced by several thousand militia.
The Marines stormed ashore under fire, scrambled up a steep cliff at the water's edge--a hell of a landing place--and overcame the stouthearted British Marines and Highlanders defending the rocky crags at the top. Then, re-forming their battle line, they prepared to charge the unfinished fort just inland. The British commander had the halyards to his colors in his hands, prepared to haul them down in surrender.