Revolutionary War Marines

“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.”

—James Fenimore Cooper

Given the factual history of this period, Mr. Cooper may have overstated the role or significance of our Revolutionary Marines. What is undeniably true is that Continental Marines served aboard ship to enforce the captain’s orders, to attack the enemy with musket ball and shot from high in the ship’s rigging, and conduct operations ashore as their officers may direct.

I think it is fair to say that the formation of a new country and any of its constituent parts, including the Naval Services, was a difficult task. Hardly anything was working as a well-oiled machine. There was much to do in organizing a new country, and so little time within which to see it done.  Resources were scarce in terms of men, material, and money.  There was a dearth of anyone who could boast military experience; colonial populations were farmers, booksellers, tinkers, and lawyers.  To complicate matters further, not everyone was convinced that we should have a separation from the mother country.

The Second Continental Congress convened on 10 May 1775; it was mainly composed of the same delegates that participated in the first congress. On 13 October 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed a Naval Committee, which consisted of John Adams, John Landon, and Silas Deane. These individuals exercised congressional oversight of the Continental Navy and Marines.

In accordance with the Continental Marine Act on 10 November 1775, Congress ordered:

“That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two lieutenant-colonels, two majors and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of privates as with other battalions, that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to offices, or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve for and during the present war with Great Britain and the Colonies; unless dismissed by Congress; that they be distinguished by the names of the First and Second Battalions of Marines.”

It was initially supposed that these two battalions of men would come from George Washington’s army and that they would participate in the planned invasion of Halifax, Nova Scotia —the main British supply base. In reality, only one battalion of 300 men was formed by December 1775. It was a woefully inadequate number of troops to launch an amphibious assault against a garrison of Hessian soldiers numbering close to 3,000. In any case, General Washington was hesitant to support the Navy; he was having trouble raising his own army and suggested that recruitment for Marines take place in Pennsylvania and New York.

Tun Tavern PhiladelphiaAt this time, the senior Marine officer was a Captain by the name of Samuel Nicholas, whose commission was dated 28 November 1775. By his date of rank, Nicholas became the ranking Marine officer and is regarded as the Marine Corps’ first commandant. He established a barracks at Philadelphia and implemented a rigorous recruiting effort centered at Tun Tavern, Philadelphia.

The time between 10 November 1775 and the date upon which the Continental Marines embarked on their first amphibious assault mission on 4 January 1776 was hardly enough time to train men in this specialized form of warfare —and yet, this is precisely what happened.

On 4 January 1776, Commodore Esek Hopkins took command of the first American naval fleet, which consisted of seven small vessels: Andrew Doria, Alfred (commanded by John Paul Jones), Hornet, Columbia, Cabot, Providence, and Fly. A colonial newspaper reported, “The first American fleet that ever swelled their sails on the western ocean … sailed from Philadelphia amidst acclamation of many thousands assembled on the joyful occasion.[1]

In addition to normal stores and provisions, six of the ships embarked Continental Marines. Aboard the Alfred, Captain Sam Nicholas commanded two lieutenants and a company numbering 60 Marines. On Columbus Captain Joseph Shoemaker commanded two lieutenants and an additional company of 60 Marines. Andrew Doria accommodated Lieutenant Isaac Craig and 44 Marines. Captain John Walsh commanded Lieutenant John Hood Wilson and 40 Marines embarked on Cabot. Aboard Providence, Lieutenant Henry Dayton commanded 20 Marines.

The Naval Committee prepared two letters of instruction, which were delivered to Commodore Hopkins on the January 6th. The first letter was general in nature, directing him to ensure the good order and discipline of the fleet, that peace be preserved among ships company and Marines, that he feed and cloth all of those placed under his command, and that their health be properly administered should they become sick or wounded. He was ordered to provide sufficient instructions to his ships’ captains in the event of separation while at sea, appoint officers to command captured British ships, and accord special attention to the proper care of arms and munitions to ensure that they were always ready for action.

A second letter was marked “most secret.” In it, the Naval Committee sought to impress Commodore Hopkins with the need for successful operations, emphasizing the belief among some in the Congress that a Continental Navy was an inane scheme. Naturally, when a British fleet began operating in southern waters, Southern Delegates began to form more favorable ideas about an American Navy.

Congressional optimism was the genesis of Commodore Hopkins’ further orders: to visit upon the unnatural enemies of the colonies all possible distress upon the sea. Hopkins was first ordered to proceed to the Chesapeake Bay, there to “seek out and attack, take, or destroy all of the Naval forces that you might find there.” In part, the operation was directed in retaliation for John Murray, Earl of Dunmore’s destruction of Norfolk, Virginia.  Sadly for Hopkins, he did not obey these orders.

In spite of the best hopes of the Naval Committee, Commodore Hopkins, and all of his Navy and Marine Corps officers, nature interfered: the fleet’s seven ships were locked in ice and stood frustratingly idle until mid-day on 17 January 1776. The ships finally left their moorings in Philadelphia and headed south —directly into a raging gale, within which, Hornet and Fly collided. The Hornet was required to return to port, and the Fly remained behind the rest of the fleet in order to make minor repairs.

In spite of every attempt at secrecy, the British were well aware of Hopkins’ departure from Philadelphia —they just weren’t quite sure where the ships were heading. As early as the previous August, British General Thomas Gage began to suspect that a rebel naval force might engage British possessions and property in the Bahamas Islands. His warnings, along with those of British Captain Andrew Law that American ships may be moving against the Bahamas, were dismissed by Governor Montfort Browne as “another” in a series of false rumors. Governor Browne was not a prudent man.

Then, as now, Nassau was the administrative center of the Bahamas Islands. On 3 March 1776, Commodore Hopkins landed the first-ever amphibious assault by American naval infantry. The force consisted of 234 Marines and 50 sailors of ships’ company. Under covering fire of Providence and Wasp the Marines overwhelmed Fort Montague[2], from which the British retreated to Fort Nassau and then surrendered. While Commodore Hopkins did manage to secure some military hardware, the much-desired gunpowder consisting of 162 barrels escaped his attention and was safely evacuated to the Fort at St. Augustine, and this was attributed entirely to Hopkins’ lack of tactical experience.

Nichols 001On the morning of 4 March, Captain Nicholas led an assault into Nassau. An emissary of the governor met the Marines at the entrance to the town and demanded to know their intentions. Captain Nicholas informed them it was to seize all military equipment and to have a short visit with the governor. Nicholas learned that the town had been abandoned, the governor was in his residence, and members of the provincial council were hiding in the rocks. Captain Nicholas promptly moved his men into the town and took possession of the now-abandoned fort, and when in his judgment the town was secure, Nicholas sent word to Commodore Hopkins that it was then safe to bring the fleet into Nassau harbor.

Soon after Commodore Hopkins came ashore, he met with Governor Browne who, by every account, was an ill-mannered host. In fact, Browne’s insolence ultimately landed him and two other officials in the Alfred’s brig. Apparently, Governor Browne might have been able to forgive the American Marines for many of their transgressions, but drinking all of his liquor was not one of them.

Now came the task of loading captured weapons and munitions, which included 88-cannon, 15 mortars, 4,780 shot and shell, and 38 casks of gunpowder. Meanwhile, Captain John Trevett led a second landing in the Bahamas, a night raid that successfully captured several ships along with naval stores. Hopkins fleet returned to Rhode Island on 8 April 1776. Of the battalion of Marines, 7 were killed in action and four were seriously wounded.

In recognition of his intrepidity in action, Captain Nicholas was promoted to major on 25 June and tasked with raising four additional companies of Marines to man four new frigates then under construction.  Commodore Hopkins, on the other hand, was chastised for his failure to carry out his orders.

Continental Marine CaptainIn December 1776, the Marines were tasked to join General Washington’s army at Trenton to help slow the progress of British troops southward through New Jersey. Unsure of what to do with these Marines, Washington assigned them to a brigade of Philadelphia militia, who were similarly attired in green uniforms with white piping. Although the Marines arrived too late to have a meaningful impact at the Battle of Trenton, they did assist in the decisive victory at Princeton.

Continental Marines landed and captured Nautilus Island and the Majabagaduce peninsula —an effort to reclaim Maine (which the British had seized and renamed New Ireland). The Marines were forced to withdraw with heavy losses, however, when Commodore Saltonstall’s force failed to capture a nearby fort. Later, a group of Marines under Navy Captain James Willing departed from Pittsburg, traveled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, captured a ship from the Gulf of Mexico, and conducted successful raids against British loyalists on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain, Louisiana. The last official act of the Continental Marines was to provide escort security for a stash of silver crowns, on loan from Louis XVI of France, from Boston to Philadelphia. These funds were used to open the Bank of North America.

What we can say about American Marines is that they have been in the fight to create and defend the United States of America even before the official Declaration of Independence, on 4 July 1776. At the end of the Revolution, both the Continental Navy and Marine Corps were disbanded in April 1793. In all, 131 Marine officers and roughly 2,000 enlisted men served in the Revolutionary War. Congress reestablished the Naval services as the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps in 1798.







[1] I have always found it curious that the only people who appear dockside to send our sailors and Marines off to war are the mothers, fathers, wives, and sweethearts of those soon-to-be combatants, and a far larger number of our citizens who would never place them selves in harms way, for any reason, much less the defense of their nation.

[2] Neither Fort Montague nor Fort Nassau was in good state of repair and readiness for action. At the appearance of the American ships, Governor Browne sounded an alarm of three guns, the discharge of which caused two of the three carriages to collapse. Browne was also unable to muster more than 70-armed militia to defend Nassau.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

6 thoughts on “Revolutionary War Marines”

  1. I appreciated your observation about immediate family seeing their loved ones off. As you noted earlier, the whole country is not “aware” of hostilities. They do become aware when a Marine on the battlefield does something that a news reporter feels to be “not PC” or when an illegal joins to become a citizen.

    I reflected on your second paragraph. How the heck they got anything together back then is beyond me. Communication by talking or being penned then taken by horseback.

    I gave learned quite a bit from reading this bit of hidden history. The Marine Corps goes back a bit further that I would have thought. And to have only seven killed is a miracle considering the everyday conditions back then… especially on board or in the Bahamas.

    I suppose our Common Core history books won’t touch on that since it only involved Caucasians and the Christian way of life then.

    By the way, have I ever thanked you directly for choosing to become one of the few to step on those yellow foot prints?


    1. Koji … thank you for your kind words. You know, I have a friend who distinguished himself on more than one occasion in combat. He recently said that if he had his life to live over again, he would never have joined the Marine Corps … he said, “The American people aren’t worth the sacrifices.”

      Personally, I don’t feel that way. If I could live my life over again, I would join the Marines and I would strive to be the best Marine I could possibly be. What is my point? It was my deepest held honor to have been able to serve my country as a United States Marine. If I could make that decision again … I’d make it in a heartbeat.


    2. Most Marines feel the same way near as I can see. One Marine in near 70 who live three doors down from me has his USMC flag out each day. I’ll send a short clip…


  2. Watching about the revolutionary war on the military channel, I was surprised to find that the firt engagement between the revolutionaries and the British, the revolutionaries fled. The interesting part was that the revolutionary force was about 1500 men, and that represented over 50% of the entire revolutionary force. True? What a fragile birthing our country had.

    Obviously, it got better in terms of force strength by 1812, but man.

    Again, I love reading these stories.


  3. Mustang, I’ll bet your friend wouldn’t have said that 10 or 15 years ago…do you? Things have really become that bad…nearly not worth dying for, amazingly enough. Who would have thought it? But, patriotism is taught out of our kids in schools, and they can’t play with guns….what kind of Marines will the next generation have?
    STill, a student I know just left for Annapolis…another wants badly to serve. So, there are still kids like that. Thank GOD.
    I think you should do a book of these fine observations and facts you’ve put into your posts about the armed services and not-so-famous but extremely interesting men you talk about here..


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