Happy Birthday, America

Your Marines have been with you every step of the way.

Marines—defined as soldiers, who serve at sea, are as old as naval warfare. When Themistocles mobilized Athenian sea power against invading Persians in 480 BCE, one of his first decrees was to order the enlistment of Marines for the fleet. He called these enlistees Epibatae; heavily armed sea soldiers. He assigned them to triremes at Salamis and they fought successfully against Xerxes and saved Athens. Much later, the Romans employed what Polybius described as Milites Classiarii (soldiers of the fleet), a category of legionnaire organized and specially armed for duty on Roman warships. One of the earliest of these was a young officer named Julius Caesar. However, it was not until much later that the British and Dutch almost simultaneously rediscovered a distinct role for Marines. They raised the first two modern corps of Marines in 1664 and 1665, respectively.

Revolution Marines 001Americans of the 17th and 18th centuries were notably a maritime people. The British colonies were close to the sea, but scattered along 1,000 miles of coastline. In the absence of good roads, communication took the form of ships at sea; ships that required protection from raiding adversaries. Maritime training took place in the northeastern colonies where men learned how to handle small vessels along the Newfoundland banks, in all seasons of the year, in all kinds of seas. This was how large numbers of colonists evolved into a maritime society. They learned the art and science of naval warfare while serving on British ships, who frequently warred with the European powers of the time. Americans were first employed as Marines by Admiral Edward Vernon who commanded the British fleet against the Spaniards in the War of the Austrian Succession.

There being no further use for Marines after the Peace of Utrecht in 1712, the British government disbanded all but four small companies. However, with the outbreak of hostilities with Spain in 1739, King George II once more ordered Marines to serve aboard ships of the line. Subsequently, the government authorized six regiments of Marines, each consisting of 1,100 officers and men. Soon after, however, the British crown authorized three additional regiments for duty in the colonies. The British Crown seized upon a notion put forward by Alexander Spotswood to recruit Marines for service in the colonies from the colonies. Men for war were somewhat scarce in England.

Gooches Marines 1740It was argued that no one was better suited for service as Marines than men in the colonies who, by 1739, had established a strong maritime tradition. An order went out to the ten colonial governors to raise 30 companies of 100 men each. Each company would consist of one captain, two lieutenants, one ensign, four sergeants, and four corporals. Colonel Spotswood would command these Marines in the colonies. Not all colonies responded to the demand for Marine companies, but eventually the companies combined into a single regiment. With Spotswood’s death, command of the regiment passed to the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Colonel William Gooch. Gooch’s Marines joined Admiral Vernon’s fleet in October 1740 and served as an attacking force at Cartagena, New Granada (Colombia). The general attack began on 9 March. In one month, English and American Marines were fighting side-by-side at Fort Lazar —but it was a poor effort. Forced back by overwhelming musket fire, the American Marines left stranded their English counterparts and the battle turned into a disaster for the English. No more than one in ten American Marine returned home after this war with Spain.

American Marines again served the British Fleet during the Seven Years’ War. It was thus that American colonists gained the necessary training and experience, which made them the best material for an efficient Marine force. There did remain significant limitations on the Americans, however: there was no tradition of naval leadership in the colonies at the outbreak of the American Revolution, the Americans faced an overwhelming force, and the colonies, individually and collectively, could ill-afford a strong military force. What the colonists did have, however, was patriotism toward the cause for liberty.

The Gentlemen delegates of the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on the morning of 10 November 1775. They discussed the unhappy facts that confronted them. First, a course of action regarding a petition from the inhabitants of Passamaquoddy, Nova Scotia whose citizens asked for admittance to the association of North Americans, and for preservation of their rights and liberties.

Second, delegates knew that Colonel Benedict Arnold was somewhere near the St. Lawrence River and prevented from mounting an attack against the city of Quebec because of the horrible weather. Time was of the essence because British reinforcements were on the way to protect the city. Arnold had barely 350 men.

At the same moment, General Washington camped with 17,000 troops outside the city of Boston, short of everything needed to command an efficient field operation in what appeared to be an endless siege.

Revolutionary Marines 003The Committee of Five soon arrived to offer their recommendations respecting the petition from Nova Scotia. The committee, consisting of John Jay of New York, Silas Deane of Connecticut, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, John Langdon of New Hampshire, and John Adams of Massachusetts, presented its proposal in simple, straightforward language: first, create two battalions of Marines from the forces then under the command of General Washington. The Marine force would require one colonel, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, with the remaining commissioned and non-commissioned structured to mirror the organization of an Army regiment. At the conclusion of their presentation, the Continental Congress resolved:

That two battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one colonel, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and other officers as usual to other regiments, and 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 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.

G Washington 1774Delegates passed another resolution later in the day: it left the fate of Nova Scotia in the hands of General Washington. President Hancock transmitted the adopted resolutions to Cambridge for Washington’s information and comment. Alas, General Washington was not at all pleased.