The Birth of the United States Marine Corps: Semper Fi
by David Schwalbe
Today November 10th, 2008 we honor the few, the proud, the Marines. "From the Halls of Montezuma, To the Shores of Tripoli...", the Marines have participated in every war the United States has been in (and then some), and have taken part in more than 300 landings on foreign shores.
The First Usage of Marines in America
Indeed, American Marines have been involved in wars before the formation of our own country. During England's war with Spain (the War of Jenkins' Ear,1738-41), the British Government asked the American Colonists to form 4 regiments to fight with Admiral Vernon's fleet. These 3000 Marines under the command of the Virginia Governor William Gooch, (known as Gooch's Marines), fought against the French in the West Indies. Thinned by disease, only 10% of them survived.
At the outbreak of war against England in 1775, many colonies raised units of Marines. General Washington, who had formed a fleet of 4 warships in the Boston area, recruited a regiment of the Massachusetts militia, known as the Marblehead Regiment, comprised of New England Mariners, who provided crews for Washington's navy. A detachment from Connecticut (known as the Original Eight), helped Benedict Arnold to hold the Finger Lakes, making it able for Fort Ticonderoga to be taken.
Although not always divided between sailors and Marines, when they were differentiated, it was as they were as far back as the Phoenicians, Romans and Greeks: the Marines were aboard for the express purpose of fighting, as opposed to those who actually sail the ships, or navigate them. This difference was delineated when Pennsylvania formed a state navy to protect the Delaware.
Upon a request for assistance from Rhode Island, the Continental Congress came to realize the viability to form a national force. The Congress had technically already been in control of a Marine force. On June 10, 1775, the Continental Congress took control of all military forces on Lake Champlain, which included 17 Massachusetts Marines under Lieutenant Watson, part of the ship Enterprise. But at this point they were hoping to get by with just Washington's and Arnold's forces. Furthermore, they were intimidated by the massive British force, as well as their own financial limitations. However, the plan to invade Canada made it viable, if not necessary, to form a national force for the Nova Scotia expedition, but as long as the effort was being made, to form one with a permanence.
The Marines Are Created
Towards that end, Congress decided on November 10, 1775 to raise two battalions at Congressional expense:
Resolved: That two Battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors & other 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.
Ironically, although this is the celebrated birthday of the Marine Corps, the two Battalions resolved to be formed never were. There is also no evidence to suggest that any Marine ever rose above a rank of major. However, Marine guard detachments were quite quickly recruited and assigned aboard ships. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, appointed Captain Samuel Nicholas, the son of pacifist Quakers, the first commandant of the corps. Nichols set up headquarters at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, and began to recruit Marines with the help of the tavern's proprietor, who received a commission as a captain.
Marines in the Revolution
The Marines proved vital to the Revolutionary cause. On March 3, 1776, Marines headed up a raid on a British store at Nassau in the Bahamas. Although it was not much of a military challenge, it was the first amphibious landing made by American Marines. There were several other encounters during the Revolutionary War, including the participation by Marines from the Hancock in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.
The Penobscot Expedition in July 1779 however, where the Marines stormed the beaches at Banks Island two days earlier, proved to be a military and financial disaster. In Charleston S.C. in 1780, British overrunning of the Charleston fort caused General Benjamin Lincoln to surrender 3400 men, including 200 Marines under the command of Abraham Whipple. This led to the rest of the war being one of short supplies and limited opportunity for the Navy and Marines. In 1785, the Continental Army and Marines were disbanded for economic reasons.
War in Europe in 1793 caused danger for American merchant ships. Seizure of American ships began to number in the hundreds, and allowed the Barbary pirates to make demands of extortion, protection money, and even ransoms for British seamen. As a result, the British Royal Navy began to impress men from American merchant vessels. Not powerful enough to stop the British or French in these matters (see The Constitution Vs. The Guerrière: The Birth of American Naval Power), they could put up a battle against the Barbary pirates, and in 1794, voted to build a protection fleet of 6 frigates, and ordered Marines aboard each vessel.
The Marines Established For Good
The United States, looking to stop the bullying of France on the seas (not ready for England yet), stepped up their production of warships to go along with the frigates. This fleet would be under the authority not of the Department of War, but under the newly-created Department of the Navy. There was great worry as to the possible high costs of maintaining Marines on these ships (not to mention various possible administrative problems). In response to this, Congress (presented by Congressmen Sewell's committee drafting naval legislation), passed "An Act for Establishing a Marine Corps", on July 11, 1798. It lengthened the enlistment to three years, and also provided for the internal governing of the Corps. When ashore, they would follow the Articles of War (like the Army), but when at sea would follow the Naval Regulations (as yet not written, and shaped by individual sea captains). This would cause problems for the Marines until modified in 1834.
As mentioned above, the Marines have been involved in every United States hostility abroad (and the Civil War), and have made more than 300 landings on foreign soil (that we know of). Their exploits in each war, and Latin America fill many books, and perhaps will be discussed in more length in future columns. Their shining moments at Bellau Wood in World War I, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima in World War II, have caused many movies made that are quite worthwhile to watch (Does John Wayne star in every one?), such as Guadalcanal Diary and The Sands of Iwo Jima.
Celebrating the Birth of the Marine Corps
Prior to 1921, The birthday celebrations were held on various days, including July 11th. Beginning in 1921, November 10th has been officially celebrated by the Marine Corps as their birthday. Although the various local units may have some celebratory variations, generally a passage form the Marine Corps Manual and a special message from the commandant are read aloud. When possible, a birthday cake is cut, and the oldest and youngest Marines present receive the first and second piece of the cake. The United States Marine Corps War Memorial is located a few hundred yards north of Arlington National Cemetery, and commemorates the Battle of Iwo Jima.