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The First Leathernecks
By Don Burzynski
Warriors Publishing Group Copyright © 2011 Don Burzynski
All rights reserved.
The New Praetorian Guard
Under British rule, the first four regiments of American Marines were raised by Governor William Gooch of Virginia. Known as "Gooch's Marines," they were 3,000 strong and were mostly impressed men from the dregs of Virginia waterfronts. Due to severe conditions and the low strength of the men, only ten percent survived the Cartagena expedition against Spain in 1771.
During the American Revolution, the Marines' mission was five-fold: (1) to pick off British officers and cannon crews with their muskets; (2) to serve as substitutes on cannon crews; (3) to repel boarders; (4) to lead amphibious assaults and; (5) to act as a police force enforcing fire rules, rules on thievery, and proper conduct of sailors aboard ship. These Marines slept between the ship's officers and the crew to deter mutiny.
In Benedict Arnold's Lake Champlain flotilla, a distinction was drawn for the first time between sailors and Marines. In May, 1775, the sloop Interprise had 18 Marines drawn from Massachusetts militia-men.
Congress on November 10, 1775, decided to raise two battalions of Marines to "fight as sea" and mount offensive operations on shore. According to the personal notes of Major Edwin McClellan, these Marines would be available to assist other Continental forces in the invasion of the important British naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. It read:
Resolved, That two Battalions of Marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no person appointed to office, or inlisted into said but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required; that they be inlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the Colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress; that they be distinguished by the names of the First and Second battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the Continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of."
The first commission as Captain of Marines went to Samuel Nicholas of Philadelphia on Nov. 28, 1775. In Lieutenant Isaac Craig's company (the only one where a muster roll exists) only eight of the 41 recruits were native-born Americans. None of them had sea experience. Like the officers, the first Continental Marines had no knowledge of sea life and naval warfare.
Eventually, the Marines received muskets and a combination of uniforms for five small companies. It wasn't until September of 1776 that the Naval Committee ordered an official uniform for the Continental Marines.
This first uniform was a short green coat with white trim, along with a white waistcoat, buff breeches, woolen stockings and black half-gaiters. Enlisted men wore round black hats with the brim pinned on one side—the musket side.
By March, 1776, four new Marine officers were appointed to captain new ships. The brig Lexington was one of the first two ships, with Capt. John Barry selected for command.
On April 7, 1776, Barry's Lexington achieved the new American Navy's first victory against a British warship, defeating the sloop HMS Edward in a daring battle. Capt. John Barry commended his Marines for fighting "with much courage." Fortitudine—Latin for "courage"—became the Marines' new motto and was later inscribed on their Shako plates in 1805.
On April 6, Commodore Hopkins' squadron took on a British frigate, the HMS Glasgow. The British ship withstood repeated broadsides due to superior gunnery and seamanship. After an hour and a half of close combat, the Glasgow escaped and cost the Americans nine dead, including two Marine lieutenants.
As the Continental squadron struggled to replenish crews, Marine detachments shifted from vessel to vessel.
In March of 1777, the Marine Committee ordered the construction of 13 new frigates. A new Marine officer was assigned to each frigate. Each lieutenant or captain was required to enlist from 27 to 40 enlisted men per ship, and each Marine detachment also had a drummer and a fifer for commands in battle.
The late 1770s marked a low point in American naval history and, indeed, nearly brought the demise of the Marines itself. In 1777, the frigate Delaware was captured in action by the British. Her Continental Marines joined their sailor comrades in incarceration aboard the notorious prison ship Jersey in New York harbor—a hell ship where American Marine P.O.W.s died daily of disease and starvation.
Also in 1777, Benjamin Franklin purchased three vessels in France to attack British merchant vessels near England. He sent the Continental brig Reprisal on cruises from Bordeaux and L'Orient. The Reprisal carried a full detachment of Continental Marines. Later, caught in an Atlantic storm while heading to the U.S., the Reprisal foundered, drowning most of its crew and all its Marines.
In 1778, the frigate Randolph was blown out of the water off South Carolina in a desperate battle with the British ship-of-the-line (three decks of cannon) Yarmouth. The Randolph's Marine detachment, commanded by Nicholas Biddle, perished along with her sailors. Another Marine detachment was lost—this time to prison—when a British squadron captured the Alfred during the same year.
Middle states were forming their own coast defense navies. At the new American base at Bordertown, New Jersey, Continental Marines raided British supply vessels on the Delaware River during the winter of 1777. Retaliating, the British launched a payback raid against Bordertown in May of 1778. They dispersed the American Marines and destroyed or captured nearly 40 vessels. With the exception of one American warship commissioned in 1779, the Pennsylvania Navy and Marines ceased to exist.
At the battle of Charleston, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln surrendered the American garrison of 3,400 Continentals and militiamen. Also marching into captivity went 200 South Carolina state Marines of Abraham Whipple's squadron.
In June 1780, the frigate Trumbull fought one of the war's severest battles. The fighting was at close range with cannon fire and musketry sweeping both decks. The Trumbull's Marine detachment expended 1,200 rounds during the battle and three Marine lieutenants and a sergeant were killed.
In all, by mid-1780, seven Marine detachments had left the Continental service either by death or capture, leaving only ten detachments at sea aboard Continental vessels.
Generally recruited from state militias, the Marines played an important part in keeping state naval crews from abandoning their warships in favor of joining the privateers. With over 2,000 privateers in service, these vessels were more attractive to sailors—and no wonder. Discipline was far more relaxed aboard privateers—and the potential for prize money was much greater. On the other hand, Marines themselves saw service aboard privateers in every part of the Atlantic and fought in some of the war's fiercest sea battles. They often served as crew for taking prize ships back to the U.S. This proved that warships couldn't fight without some sort of sea soldiers for support.
One exceptional privateer was the Snapdragon captained by Otaway Burns along with ten seamen. With Marine Capt. Tom Barker and his 14 Marines aboard, she captured 42 English merchant vessels in three cruises, along with 300 prisoners. Her acquired cargoes sold for $4,000,000. The prize money was divided by the 26 Americans on board—the Captain getting a larger share—that came to $145,846 for each of the Marines and crew—a king's ransom at the time. The Snapdragon was a lucky ship that could make a man's fortune.
While it may have seemed otherwise, not everything went badly for the Marines during this period.
John Paul Jones, in the Ranger, cruised the Irish Sea and landed his Marines at Whitehaven and St. Mary's Isle in western England. Commanded by Marine Lieutenant Samuel Wallingford, they pillaged some forts and stole the silver service of Lord Selkirk.
On another ship of John Paul Jones, the Bonhomme Richard in January, 1779, the Marine detachment was reinforced by a detachment of Irish infantry from the Regiment de Walsh-Serrant of the French army. In the war's most celebrated battle, against the Serapis, Marines had proved indispensable. Once more, Marine musketry contributed to an American victory.
The Frigate Boston's Marine detachment also deserves note as one of the few Marine units that performed its duties—sentry watch and musketry in battle—according to ship's regulations.
Though the Continental Marines had initially been formed in 1775, for the aforementioned attack on Halifax, that mission never materialized and they were disbanded after the Revolutionary War. The rebirth of the now named United States Marine Corps was signed into being on July 11, 1798 by President Adams to fight the quasi-war with France.
The U.S., caught in the middle of the war between England and France, saw hundreds of American ships seized by the French Directory who claimed that the Americans were trading illegally with Britain.
The Frigate Act of 1794 called for the building of six vessels to include a Marine detachment of one officer and between 44 and 54 enlisted men, or roughly one Marine guard for each cannon. The idea came from British gun crews having one Marine posted to each cannon to deter sailors from abandoning their gun in horrific battle. They were to be the police onboard at sea. The Marines were now under the newly created Department of the Navy instead of the War Department.
The newly established Marine Corps enlisted men to be true volunteers. They were to be native Americans between the ages of 18 and 40, and at least five feet, six inches tall, of "robust health and sound in ...Limbs and Body," and to serve for one year.
The act provided a kind of new Praetorian Guard in that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, could utilize the Marines on shore as needed or as he saw fit.
Section 6 of the July, 11 Act stated: "And, be it further enacted that the marine corps, established by this act, shall, at any time, be liable to do duty in the forts and garrisons of the U.S., on the sea coasts, or any other duty on shore, as the President, at his discretion, shall direct."
The Corps of Marines was to provide 32 detachments of ships' guards: one Major Commandant to run the Corps, 32 captains and lieutenants, 48 sergeants and corporals, 720 privates, 32 fifers and 32 drummers. Once again, a drummer and fifer were needed on board to signal battle commands.
The pay was set at $50 and four rations for the Commandant; for a captain, $40 and three rations; a 1st lieutenant, $30 and three rations; a 2nd lieutenant, $25 and two rations. Enlisted men's pay ranged from $9 for sergeants to $6 for privates. Musicians received $7. The Commandant was allowed a staff consisting of an adjutant, a paymaster, a quartermaster, a sergeant-major, a quartermaster sergeant, and a fife and drum major on shore.
The act also stipulated that when the Marines were ashore they followed the Articles of War (ergo Army regulations) and when at sea were to follow Navy regulations! This double concept was to plague the Marines for centuries as one service would covet them for duty over the other. It wasn't resolved until 1944, when the Marines were returned to the Navy. In truth, the Marines functioned under neither the Army nor the Navy—and this ambiguity resulted in their Presidential duty in Washington. The American citizens were distrustful of standing armies so the Marines by default became the only "soldiers" suitable for the Capital.
Until the end of World War II, the Marines always had a hard time maintaining their existence. They were constantly at ends with either the Navy or the Army over petty differences. The Army disliked the fact that they had to pay for lodging Marine guards at the shipyards. The Navy sea captains resented the Marine officers acting as police officers and objected to their "easier" duties on board. At other times, various Congressmen tried to abolish the Corps but were defeated by vote of Congress.
President Jefferson, in March of 1801, wanted a Marine location within marching distance of the Capital so that a few companies of Marines could defend the Capital and the Navy Yard. They were to be "troops in residence." The President used them to quell riots in the city, especially during elections. They were also needed during Shay's Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Indian troubles, against the Barbary pirates, and against Great Britain and France. Before the Civil War these Marines—being the closest troops available—were sent to Harper's Ferry, Maryland, to quell John Brown's raiders who were attacking the Federal arsenal there. The Marines were led by then U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee along with his aide, Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart.
Later in the nineteenth century, the "Guard's" role was expanded to include enforcing distillery laws, guarding National expositions, protecting American interests and businesses world-wide, avenging American citizens killed in foreign countries and guarding U.S. embassies abroad. The twentieth century brought the Foreign Service Act of 1947, formally assigning Marines to embassy duty, and the guarding of Presidential aircraft.
Although John Adams was the father of the Corps in the Revolution, and today Captain Samuel Nicholas is considered the first official Commandant, the first Commandant with the rank of Major was William Burrows, a staunch Federalist. He was the biggest contributor to the esprit de corps and set the Marines' high standards. He laid the splendid foundation for the new Corps that continues to present day. His first HQ was in a tent in Philadelphia, but later his HQ was moved, to avoid the perils of that city, to Washington in July of 1800. He, along with the President, picked the site for the Marine barracks at 8th and I Street which remains there to this day. (Legend has it that the British refrained from torching these barracks during the burning of Washington in honor of the Marines' heroic stand at Bladensburg, but actually they approached nowhere near that part of town.)
Burrows' immediate problem was to find soldiers fit enough for this future elite military unit. Most recruits came from Northern port cities or the Mid-Atlantic and Southern tide-water areas where recruiting stations were set up in ten cities. Finding men of "sobriety and fidelity" was not easy. He prohibited blacks, Indians, and mulattoes from enlistment. They had to be "smart, handsome and young" to fit with his epitome of military decorum. A physical exam was required with a bounty of ten dollars given upon favorable completion. Wives were allowed to accompany their husbands on land in exchange for laundry work.
Recruiting officers were expected to do everything—provide housing, rations, laundry, uniforms, arms, interviews by surgeon, measures, registration, muster rolls, size rolls, pay rolls, clothing returns, drilling and discipline and "Marining" a ship.
The complexion of each recruit was well observed. The color of his eyes and hair and any marks on his body were noted on the muster roll. He also had to give up his civilian clothing. All this was done in case of desertion—so they would have a thorough description with which to hunt him down.
Discipline was strict. Most infractions handed out a dozen lashes with the "cat of nine tails." (The term "the cat is out of the bag" stems from this punishment.) A court martial merited a maximum of 100 lashes. Desertion was punishable by death. A heroic sergeant, James Bird who fought on the Lawrence, was executed by firing squad after the battle of Lake Erie because he deserted from the Niagara—he actually missed that boat because of his girlfriend and had in fact caught the next ship out with the squadron.
A red hot branding iron with a "D" for desertion was branded on the forehead of a deserter. A "T" for thief was for a soldier caught pilfering his mess mates' possessions.
In 1801, the budget for the Corps was set at $166,903.78 and the rules on prize money were changed to give a larger share to the Marine officer who was more exposed in action. After the battle of Lake Erie, the captured British squadron sold for $242,250 in prize money. The money was divided by 596 officers, seamen and Marines who took part in the battle in proportion to their rank. Commodore Perry received $7,140—a fortune at that time—and a Marine received $214.59. Slain Marines' shares were given to their parents. Pensions were the same as given to Army and Navy personnel.
Excerpted from The First Leathernecks by Don Burzynski. Copyright © 2011 Don Burzynski. Excerpted by permission of Warriors Publishing Group.
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