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To Serve to Advantage by Sea
Congress Passes a Resolution
In the fall of 1775 the Second Continental Congress, then sitting in Philadelphia, blew hot and cold on the debated proposition to create a Continental navy. On 30 October the Congress named a Naval Committee (also called, in those confused and imprecise times, the Marine Committee) with John Adams of Massachusetts as one of its seven members. Tradition has it that the committee met in Peg Mullan's Beef-Steak House. The tavern, at the corner of King Street and Tun Alley, once the best in the city, was now of declining reputation but it was conveniently close to the State House.
If there were to be a Continental navy, then there would have to be Continental marines. In those days no one argued against the shipboard uses of marines. They were as much a part of a man-of-war's furniture as its spars, or sails, or guns. Marines preserved internal order and discipline. Marines gave national character to the ship. Marines were uniformed, sailors were not. Marines were usually berthed between the officers and the remainder of the ship's company, a large percentage of which was often foreign born and not always reliable. In sea battles some marines took their muskets and grenades into the fighting tops while others stood by on the gun decks to see to it that the sometimes dubious ship's crew stayed at its guns.
Marines, being half soldier, half sailor, were useful in amphibious expeditions. Britain's colonial wars had given ample evidence of their usefulness, not only of English marines (who were now annoyingly present at Boston) but also of the several regiments of American marines which in earlier wars had been raised to help fight England's New World battles.
So must have gone the committee's discussion in Peg Mullan's second-floor rooms. Gen. George Washington, the Virginian who commanded the Continental army then besieging Boston (and whose half brother Lawrence had served as a captain in Gooch's Regiment of Marines at Cartagena in 1740, and who had later named his plantation after the English admiral, Edward ("Old Grog") Vernon, had already raised a small navy of his own, complete with marines. Besides Washington's navy-armed fishing schooners manned for the most part by Marblehead fishermen-eleven of the colonies had organized navies and most of these had marines; so did many of the privateers and letters of marque. Accordingly, the committee put together a resolution and on 10 November 1775 it was passed by the Congress:
Resolved, that two Battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two lieutenant Colonels, two Majors & Officers as usual in other regiments, that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken that no person be appointed to office or inlisted into said Battalions, 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 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 & second battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered a part of the number, which the continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.
A petition had been received a week earlier from the citizens of Passamaquoddy, Nova Scotia, asking for admission into, as they called it, "the association of the North Americans." Congress appointed a committee to consider the matter. The work of the Nova Scotia Committee overlapped that of the Naval Committee. John Adams, a member of both committees, saw a chance not only to bring the blessings of liberty to the Nova Scotians, but also to secure sorely needed military and naval supplies from the depots in Halifax.
The original scheme was that the two Marine battalions would be drawn from Washington's army, then outside Boston. The marines would march from there to ports in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, embark for Nova Scotia, land, and march on Halifax. Washington was not enthusiastic about the plan, objecting particularly to stripping two battalions from his forces. He got out from under the requirement by suggesting that the marines be raised in New York or Philadelphia, where, said Washington, "there must be number of Sailors unemployed."
John Hancock, president of the Congress, on 28 November 1775 signed a captain's commission (with the same bold signature that on 4 July 1776 would appear on a better-known document-the Declaration of Independence) for thirty-one-year-old Samuel Nicholas, better known for his fishing and fox-hunting skills than for his maritime prowess. Fifers and drummers were sent out to gather up recruits for the new corps. The drums, as Benjamin Franklin noticed, were painted with a coiled rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me."
According to legend, the recruiting rendezvous was Tun Tavern, but it is more likely that it was the Conestoga Waggon, a tavern owned by the Nicholas family on Market Street, between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Five companies, or a total of about three hundred Continental marines, were raised by early December. Pennsylvania's resourceful Committee on Public Safety provided them with muskets and necessary accouterments, but there was hardly time for uniforms.
They would not go to Nova Scotia, however, but to the Caribbean. While Nicholas was assembling his marines, the Continental navy was putting together its first squadron. During November a number of merchant ships had been purchased for conversion. At a Philadelphia wharf, under the critical eye of a demanding young Scot named John Paul Jones, the 450-ton Black Prince had her sides pierced for twenty guns and became the flagship Alfred. Profane old Commo. Esek Hopkins, forty years a sailor and a privateer in the French and Indian Wars, came hell-roaring down from Rhode Island and on 3 December took command of the squadron on the deck of the Alfred while Marine fifers and drummers whistled and banged away. Three weeks later Dudley Saltonstall of Connecticut arrived to be captain of the Alfred. John Paul Jones, reverting to first lieutenant, disliked the new flag captain on sight, calling him the "sleepy gentleman"
The New Providence Raid
Commodore Hopkins took his makeshift squadron down the Delaware into the Bay on 7 January 1776. Here he waited for a month, hampered by ice and a fractious crew, until he had collected eight ships, all conversions, ranging from the 20-gun Alfred to the 6-gun Fly. The squadron put to sea on 17 February. Altogether there were about fifteen hundred men in the eight ships, including the three hundred Continental marines. Captain Nicholas was in the Alfred as senior Marine officer.
The sailing orders given Hopkins were hopelessly ambitious. He was to clear the British navy from the Chesapeake, make himself master of the North and South Carolina coasts, and then "attack, take, and destroy all the Enemy's Naval force you may find" in Rhode Island. However, in the event of bad winds, stormy weather, or any other unforeseen accident or disaster, he was permitted "to follow such Courses as your best Judgement shall suggest."
"The Wind after we came out came on to blow hard," as Hopkins reported later to the Congress, giving him an excuse to pursue his own more modest plan, a raid into the Bahamas to get gunpowder for Washington's army. Nassau Town, a sunburnt little colonial port set down on the flat and scrubby island of New Providence, was protected by two stone forts, Nassau and Montagu, both fairly formidable, but the garrison of British regulars had been taken off and the sloop-of-war, HMS Savage, usually on station, was also gone. The defense of the island rested in the hands of some half-pay officers and two hundred of what Hopkins called the "Inhabitants."
His original plan was to put two hundred marines under Captain Nicholas, along with fifty seamen, into two captured sloops and try for a surprise attack against the town. But they were seen, there was no surprise, and Fort Nassau warned them off with a couple of cannon shots. The two sloops now proceeded to the eastern end of the island, and on 3 March 1776, covered by the 12-gun Providence, the landing party went ashore, was unopposed, and marched against Fort Montagu.
The British governor, Montford Browne, sent out an emissary who cautiously inquired of their intentions. Nicholas replied that he was to take "possession of all warlike stores belonging to the crown, but had no desire of touching the property of any of the inhabitants." The defenders of the fort let fly with three rounds of twelve-pound shot. That was the only resistance; then, honor served, they spiked their cannon and withdrew. Nicholas ran up the Grand Union flag (not yet the Stars and Stripes) and spent an undisturbed night in the fort. Then, as he reports it:
The next morning by daylight we marched forward to take possession of the Governor's house ... and demanded the keys to the fort, which were given to me immediately and then took possession of Fort Nassau. In it were 40 cannon mounted and well loaded for our reception with round, langridge, and canister shot. All this was accomplished without firing a single shot from our side. We found in this fort a great quantity of shot and shells, with 15 brass mortars, but the grand article, powder, the Governor sent off the night before, viz. 150 casks.
Governor Browne had used the night well. The powder had gone out in a merchant vessel through the unguarded eastern channel. Hopkins's squadron now came into the harbor and the next two weeks were spent in loading the spoils. The squadron headed for home on 17 March; Rhode Island was the destination.
On 4 and 5 April, south of Block Island, they took four small prizes. At one in the morning on the sixth, with a full moon and a north wind, Glasgow, a 20-gun English corvette, crossed the squadron's bows. Not recognizing the squadron as hostile, Glasgow came alongside Cabot, 14, to hail and in answer got a hand grenade on her deck from a marine in the maintop. Cabot then touched off a broadside and got back two in return, which put her out of action. A cannon ball carried away the Alfred's wheel block and tiller lines. Andrew Doria, 16, closed on Glasgow's port quarters, but her guns were too light and too few. Columbus, 28, came up next. Glasgow, much cut up and expecting to be boarded, broke off and ran for Newport. At dawn, Hopkins collected his scattered squadron and his prizes, and on 8 April took them into New London, Connecticut. Marine Lt. John Fitzpatrick was dead. So were six other marines, with four more wounded.
At first there were congratulations. Then there were second thoughts. The showing against the Glasgow had been poor and, if Hopkins were to be excused for taking liberties with his orders, where was the powder? There were investigations in Philadelphia. Hopkins, who deserved better, was censured and eventually dismissed from the service. Nicholas emerged not only with his reputation intact but on 25 June was promoted to major, with pay increased to thirty-two dollars a month and orders to raise four companies of marines, one each for the four new frigates-Randolph, 32; Washington, 32; Effingham, 28; and Delaware, 24-then being built either in Philadelphia or close by. Peg's son, Robert Mullan, got one of the new captain's commissions and probably used Tun Tavern (another name for the Beef-Steak House) as his recruiting rendezvous.
On 5 September the Naval Committee came out with uniform regulations for the Continental marines: green coats with white facings, a round hat with the left brim pushed up and pinned to the crown with a cockade. Marine drill instructors have been telling Marine recruits for a hundred years that the color green was chosen because it was the traditional color of riflemen. But the Continental marines were armed with muskets, not rifles-English Tower muskets in the beginning of the war, French Charleville muskets later on. Even if rifles had been available in quantity, which they were not, they would not have been a good weapon for marines. They were too slow to load. A good musketeer could get off five rounds while a rifleman was getting off one, and a rifle had no place to put a bayonet.
Green seems to have been chosen simply because green cloth was plentiful in Philadelphia. A group of militia, called the "Associators" wore a similar uniform. Also prescribed was a leather stock, borrowed from the British, regarded by some as a vestigial bit of body armor to protect a man's throat from a cutlass slash and by others as simply a device to keep a man's head erect. Whatever its use, the stock, praised by the officers and damned by the men, would persist until after the Civil War, its memory still preserved by the best known of Marine nicknames: "Leatherneck."
As the fall of 1776 deepened into winter, only one of the frigates, the Randolph, was ready to go to sea. Marine Capt. Samuel Shaw, with two lieutenants, took one of Nicholas's four companies on board her in November. The situation for the newly-declared-independent United States was increasingly precarious. Howe's move to New York had dislodged Washington, who withdrew across New Jersey, his small army fraying away with desertions and the expirations of short-term enlistments.
In December 1776, "the Enemy having overrun the Jerseys, & our Army being greatly reduced," Nicholas was ordered to join Washington's army at Trenton. On the night of 2 December 1776, he loaded his remaining three companies into flat-bottomed galleys and rowed upriver to Trenton. Washington, with a great number of things on his mind, was not immediately certain what to do with the marines. The next day, 3 December, a brigade of three battalions of Philadelphia militia (including the Associators in their green uniforms) was organized under command of Col. John Cadwalader. Perhaps because of their green uniforms, Washington added Nicholas's "battalion" to Cadwalader's brigade. Washington then withdrew his army to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware and, on 8 December, the British occupied Trenton.
Cadwalader's brigade was posted at Bristol to watch for any British move to cross the river. Nicholas billeted his marines in the town's Quaker meeting hall. Capts. Benjamin Dean, Andrew Porter, and Robert Mullan commanded his three companies. Strength returns for 20 December show Dean as having fifty-five officers and men present and fit for duty, Porter forty-two, and Mullan forty-four, giving Nicholas an effective strength of 141.
Excerpted from THE UNITED STATES MARINES by Edwin Howard Simmons
Copyright © 2003 by Edwin Howard Simmons
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||1775-1785: To Serve to Advantage by Sea||1|
|2||1785-1811: To Be Called the Marine Corps||20|
|3||1812-1815: Shall I Board Her, Sir?||25|
|4||1816-1844: Insult to the Flag Reveng'd||35|
|5||1845-1859: To the Halls of the Montezumas||40|
|6||1859-1865: This Negro Question||50|
|7||1865-1898: As a Separate Corps Be Preserved||59|
|8||1898-1902: Civilize 'Em with a Krag||68|
|9||1899-1916: A Pacific Effect upon the Oriental Mind||79|
|10||1917-1918: The Whole Nation Has Reason to Be Proud||95|
|11||1917-1941: If Attacked, Shoot and Shoot to Kill||107|
|12||1941-1944: From Shipboard to Small Islands||124|
|13||1943-1945: All Organized Resistance Has Ceased||146|
|14||1945-1950: A Very Serious and Urgent Matter||183|
|15||1950-1953: If I Only Had the 1st Marine Division||195|
|16||1952-1965: A Separate Service, Distinct and Apart||211|
|17||1965-1972: Battles Would Be Fought and Refought||221|
|18||1972-1975: Getting Back in the Amphibious Business||248|
|19||1975-1989: As Tough and Ready as Marines Have Ever Been||259|
|20||1990-1991: Breaching the So-Called Impenetrable Barrier||285|
|21||1991-1998: A Maritime Nation - Always Was, Always Will Be||311|
|App. 1||The Marines' Hymn||331|
|App. 2||Battle Honors||332|
|App. 3||Lejeune's 1921 Birthday Message||335|
|Acknowledgments and Bibliography||337|