November 10th, 1775
Congress Establishes U. S. Marine Corps
The First Recruits, December 1775, by Col. Charles Waterhouse, USMCR, shows Capt. Samuel Nicholas, 1st Lt. Matthew Parke, and a scowling sergeant with prospective Leathernecks on the Philadelphia waterfront. (USMC Art Collection)
236 years ago, the Continental Congress first established the Marine Corps to assist the Continental Navy in the American Revolution. At the time, Marines were already serving in various State Navies, and their exemplary service conviced the Congress that a Marine Corps would be of great value in winning the Revolution. An article in the June 1923 issue of Proceedings, by Major Edwin N. McClellan, USMC, documents vividly the first years of the U. S. Marine Corps. McClellan’s article gives a detailed account of the founding of the Marine Corps, as well as its recruiting methods, the many services perfomed by Marines, and even the uniform and salary given to the Continental Marines. Noting the great role played by the Marine Corps in the American revolution, the article begins with a quote from the American writer, James Fenimore Cooper:
“At no period of the naval history of the world, is it probable that Marines were more important than during the War of the Revolution,” wrote J. Fenimore Cooper, and “the history of the Navy, even at that early day, as well as in these later times, abounds with instances of the gallantry and self-devotion of this body of soldiers.”
The first blood of the American Revolution was shed at Lexington on April 19, 1775. After Ticonderoga had been captured, on May 10, there was difficulty in holding it, and men and money were asked for. It is in connection with the resulting relief expedition that American Marines are first mentioned in our history. In the expedition, so goes the account, were sent “500£ of money, escorted with eight Marines, well spirited and equipped.” Arriving at Albany, additional troops joined the expedition, which soon arrived at Ticonderoga, after passing through territory infested by hostile Indians and treacherous renegades.
The earliest Marines, as also the earliest ships, belonged to the State Navies; before there were any ships in the Continental Navy, thousands of Marines served on the State vessels. Some were attached to the Katy and Washington, of the Rhode Island Navy, when, on June 15, 1775, those warships chased ashore and destroyed an armed tender of the British Frigate Rose—the first enemy vessel captured by a public armed vessel during this war. The Experiment, launched on July 19, 1775, was the first vessel of the Pennsylvania Navy; South Carolina had vessels in commission by July, 1775; Connecticut and Massachusetts by August, 1775; and Virginia by December, 1775. The other States (except New Jersey and Delaware which had no Navies) acquired vessels on later dates.
Then on June 17 came Bunker Hill, and on July 3, George Washington assumed command of the Army around Boston. In addition, under orders of Congress he had “direction of the Naval Department” and well might be called the “Father of the American Navy.”
On October 5, Congress directed General Washington to secure two armed vessels from Massachusetts, place them “on the Continental risque and pay” and use them to capture two unescorted brigs loaded with munitions that had sailed from England. He was also instructed to give orders for the “proper encouragement to the Marines and Seamen” that served on the vessels. This was the first time the Continental Congress ever mentioned “Marines.” Washington soon gathered together a fleet from the Navies of the New England States. The vessels were manned by crews, including Marines, taken from his Army. Once on board, however, they belonged to the naval service, and in many instances there are references to the Marines serving on the Hannah, Hancock, Lee, Lynch, Warren, Franklin, Harrison, and Washington. The duty performed by these vessels had considerable effect in forcing the British to evacuate Boston on March 17, 1776, and thus the Marines shared in that success.
And so the American Marines of the State Navies and of Washington’s Fleet, by their own acts, gradually established themselves in public favor. Congress became impressed with the fact that a corps of these Marines for the Continental Navy would be a fine thing.
There is a date that is celebrated every year by American Marines, wherever they are stationed throughout the world. It is November 10—the birthday of the Marine Corps. On that date, in 1775, Congress 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 persons be appointed to office, or enlisted 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 enlisted 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.” At first the enlistment period was for the war; later this was changed to include the period up to January 1, 1777, and after that the enlistment was for a stated term.
Washington received with dismay the orders to supply the personnel for this corps of Marines, and informed Congress that to supply them would “break through the whole system” in his Army which had “cost us so much time, anxiety, and pains, to bring into any tolerable form.” This was because the Marines “must be acquainted with maritime affairs,” wrote Washington, and because he would have to pick the Marines “out of the whole Army, one from this corps, one from another.” He recommended that the Marines be raised in New York and Philadelphia. At last Washington stated that an “insuperable obstruction” consisted in the impossibility of getting the men to enlist for the “continuance of the war.” On December 14, General Washington wrote Congress, “I am at a loss to know whether I am to raise the two battalions of Marines here or not.” Again, on January 4, 1776, he wrote: “Congress will think me a little remiss, I fear, when I inform them that I have done nothing yet toward raising the battalion of Marines.” Washington had ample excuse for this reluctance and procrastination; for he had twenty-six incomplete regiments at this time in his Army. His views evidently prevailed, for Congress soon directed that the Marines be raised from a source other than from his Army.
All this time, however, the Continental Marines had been in existence, and were working out their own salvation. The reluctance of George Washington to give up sufficient personnel from his Army for the organization of the two battalions had no retarding effect upon the appointment of officers or the enlisting of Marines.
As events turned out the colonel, the two lieutenant-colonels, one of the Majors, and the staff were not appointed. The highest ranking officer of Marines serving during the Revolution was Major Samuel Nicholas, who after active service with Hopkins’ Fleet, and in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, performed duties at the Capital that corresponded more or less to those of the commandant today; and in addition acted, at one time, as muster master for the Navy.
The “First and Second Battalions of American Marines” were never actually organized and named as such. When the emergency or demand for the use of Marines arose, provisional units, from a squad to a battalion, were organized. When a vessel of the Navy went into commission a Marine Guard was formed and marched on board. When the object for which the provisional unit was organized had been accomplished, or a vessel no longer required a Marine Guard, the unit was disbanded and the officers and men used for other purposes.
These, however, were not the only Continental Marines. There were those who were appointed and enlisted in Europe, for the vessels of John Paul Jones’ squadron, and other ships such as the Boston. Many of these Marines were French, and of other nationalities. In addition to these Continental or Federal Marines, there were the thousands serving on the privateers, who were sometimes called “Gentlemen Sailors” or “Gentlemen Volunteers.” There were also those who were attached to vessels of the State Navies. And there were those who were detailed, from the Army, to act as Marines on particular occasions.
Marine officers received the same character of commissions as did the Army and Navy officers. Samuel Nicholas was the “oldest officer of Marines.” He “entered into the service in the capacity of a Captain of Marines” (being commissioned as such on November 28, 1775) and probably received the first commission in the Continental naval service, known of today.
The methods and plans of recruiting Marines were very little different from those used today. Offers of prize-money, advance money, expense money, bounty money, pensions, and promises of ample grog rations, were the lures presented to those who were in a “recruiting mood.” Handbills were used extensively to make public the recruiting propaganda. Attractively uniformed recruiting parties, preceded by drum, fife, and colors, noised their way up and down the streets of the cities and large towns and ended up at a rendezvous with a queue of patriots who thus early obeyed the command to “Join the Marines.”
Benjamin Franklin wrote that in 1775 he had observed in Philadelphia on one of the drums belonging to the Marines—whose recruiters were raising two battalions—”there was painted the rattlesnake with this motto under it, ‘Don’t tread on me!’” He said, knowing it was the custom to have some device on the Arms of every country, that he supposed this design was intended for the Arms of North America. It is claimed by many that this device of the Marines was on the first flag that flew from the mastheads of our first ships of war.
Philadelphia was the leading Marine Corps recruiting city of the United States, and probably the most famous of all recruiting rendezvous established during the Revolution was that located in the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. This was a once prominent hostelry on the east side of King (Water) Street, at the corner of a small thoroughfare known as Wilcox’s (later as Tun) Alley, that led down to the Delaware River. Captain Robert Mullen, proprietor of the tavern, was captain of a company of Marines.
Marine officers were also used extensively for recruiting personnel for the Navy. For example, Captains Matthew Parke, Edward Arrowsmith and Second Lieutenant Samuel Wallingford of the Marines, under the direction of John Paul Jones, assisted in recruiting the crew of the Ranger in the late summer of 1777; and the crew of the Providence at Plymouth, Mass., in 1776, was another instance.
Marines performed all sorts of duty. With necessary officers they were detached for service on board the armed vessels of the United States, and thus engaged in every important battle afloat; participated in important landing parties from naval vessels, such as the one at New Providence (Bahamas) in 1776; at Whitehaven (England); at St. Mary’s Isle (Kirkcudbright, Scotland); and again at New Providence in 1778; were ordered to do duty in forts, such as Fort Montgomery in New York; performed expeditionary duty, such as the Penobscot Expedition in 1779, and the expedition down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico on the Rattletrap at an earlier date; were detached for service with the Army during the period when they fought at Trenton and Princeton; performed artillery duty with the Army; guarded enemy prisoners; acted as guards at naval stations ashore; went to the Indian-infested forests of Pennsylvania, and brought out masts for the frigates of the Navy; and acted as officer-couriers and Continental Express Riders in America and Europe.
The principal duty, of course, was service on board the ships of the Navy. The strength of the Marine Guards varied considerably. The thumb rule which determined the strength was that there should be one Marine for each gun on the ship, but this rule had many exceptions. The frigates carried about sixty Marines but the duties expected of the various ships frequently caused a considerable increase in the strength of the Marine Guard. Boarding and repelling boarders and the close range at which naval battles were fought made the musketry fire of the Marines an important element of combat.
On board the Privateers, the Marine was a very high type of man and fighting was his only duty. When the United States Schooner Revenge was captured and later laid up at Portsmouth Prison in England, one of the “Gentlemen Sailors” of that vessel was discovered to be a woman.
The duties of the Marines on board ship consisted of sentry duty at important posts throughout the ship, and during action, they were often stationed in the tops, where the expert shots were of great assistance. Cooper wrote that the Marines were “strictly infantry soldiers” who were “trained to serve afloat; and their discipline, equipments, spirit, character, and esprit de corps, are altogether those of an Army. The Marines impart to a ship of war, in a great degree, its high military character. They furnish all the guards and sentinels; in battle they repel, or cover the assaults of boarders; and at all times they sustain and protect the stern and necessary discipline of a ship by their organization, distinctive character, training, and we might add, nature.” While the Marines at times manned the great guns, “their proper weapons” were “the musket and bayonet.”
Green was the dominant color of the Continental Marines’ uniform during the Revolution. An officer wore a green coat with white facings and skirts turned back. The coat had slashed sleeves and pockets and had buttons around the cuffs. A silver epaulette was worn on the right shoulder. The waistcoat was of white material. The breeches were white, edged with green. Black gaiters and garters were part of the uniform. The buttons were of silver and carried a foul anchor. A sword and other necessary equipment were carried.
The “regimentals” of the enlisted man consisted of a green coat faced with red, a green shirt, a white woolen jacket, light colored cloth breeches, woolen stockings, and a round hat with white binding. His buttons were of pewter and carried a foul anchor. While in European waters, John Paul Jones dressed his Marines in the English uniform—red and white, instead of the green as prescribed by the Marine Committee. The Marines of each State Navy also wore distinctive uniforms.
Congress prescribed the rates of pay for the officers while the pay of the enlisted men was the same as the Army. A captain of Marines received thirty dollars a month; a lieutenant twenty dollars; sergeants eight dollars; the corporals, drummers and fifers, seven dollars and one-third; and the privates six dollars and two-thirds.
Congress carefully prescribed that the Marines would share equally in all prize money and accorded them the same rights with regard to pensions as provided for the Army and Navy. The Marines of the State Navies were also treated generously in regard to pay, prize-money, and pensions.
At the termination of the struggle the Marine Corps, like the Army and Navy, was disbanded, “literally leaving nothing behind it,” as J. Fenimore Cooper most appropriately stated, “but the recollections of its services and sufferings.”