Colonel Commandant John Harris

In 1798, there were only 83 U. S. Marines serving in uniform.  On 12 July of that year, President John Adams appointed William Ward Burrows to the post of Major Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.  Burrows was the second man to serve in this post, tradition giving Samuel Nicholas the title Commandant of Continental Marines (serving 1775—1783).  Burrows was the first to serve as Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, serving from 1798 to 1804; during this time, the strength of the Marine Corps increased to 389 officers and enlisted men.[1]

Both the Navy and Marine Corps were born out of necessity, for once Congress realized that the United States must emerge as a maritime power, men were needed in both services to man American ships of war.  In 1798, the threat of war came from France; a few years later, from Islamist pirates operating in the Mediterranean Sea and along the west coast of Africa.

In these early days, Marines were needed to man the Navy’s frigates; it initially fell to Burrows to supply these Marines with uniforms and equipment, whereas Marine officers serving aboard ship had responsibility for training their own men.  Initially encamped at Philadelphia, Barrows relocated his headquarters to the new city of Washington in 1800.  Its present location occupies that initial site at Eighth & I Streets, Washington DC.

Within twelve years, the United States and Great Britain once more went to war.  From the American perspective, there were several reasons for war in 1812: (a) trade restrictions imposed on the United States by England’s war with France, (b) the illegal impressment of (several thousand) American merchant seaman into the Royal Navy, (c) British instigation of violence against the American frontier by natives, (d) outrage in the United States over the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair[2] (inset drawing by Fred Cozzens, 1897), and British objections to America’s westward expansion.  Commenting on the British perspective, historian William Kingsford once observed, “The events of the war of 1812 have not been forgotten in England, for they have never been known there.”

What we know about the performance of early Marine Corps commandants comes to us in the bits and pieces from the works of several authors producing other works; some of these are first-hand accounts that are tinted by individual biases or relevant politics.  The writings of Brigadier General Henry Clay Cochrane (service from 1861 to 1903), suggest that in many instances, early commandants were somewhat orthodox in their thinking —happy to maintain the status quo because in the doing of it required little effort or political risk.  In these early times, officers harbored the view that the commandancy was an entitlement of the most senior officer.  While generally true, there were occasions when the Secretary of the Navy selected someone junior to the most senior officer.  Whenever this occurred, the more-senior officer(s) would be forced into retirement.  By forcing the most senior officers into retirement, junior officers developed the hope of future promotion —and perhaps themselves, one day, being elevated to the commandancy.

In the early days, the relationship between the navy and Marine Corps was at best strained.  In the first place, few navy officers even believed that the Marine Corps belonged to the naval establishment; others opined that if there was a legitimate role for the Marine Corps in the naval service, such service should be part of the ships company.  Marine officers, they believed, should serve the ship’s captain as heads of divisions: gunnery officers or officers in charge of munitions and ordnance.  Marines saw it differently; they were naval infantry whose task was to provide naval artillery (manning ship’s guns), maintain law and order aboard ship (prevent mutinies), and project naval power ashore as part of a landing force.  Some of the early commandants (the better ones) insisted that the navy respect these roles; others were easily swayed into the lethargy of politics: they sought to maintain the favor of senior naval officers and the Secretary of the Navy at the expense of an appropriate role and mission for his Marines.  In short, if ever there was a marriage between the navy and Marine Corps, it was one of convenience.

Prior to the commencement of the Civil War, Lieutenant Colonel John Harris was elevated to the office of Commandant.  Harris (20 May 1793—12 May 1864) served as the sixth Commandant, serving on active duty for more than fifty years.  The Harris family lived in Whiteland Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania and produced several career military officers.  John’s father William served as an officer during the Revolutionary War.  An elder brother served as a naval surgeon who ultimately led the Navy’s bureau of medicine and surgery.  A younger brother Stephen married the granddaughter of Persifor Frazer, a prominent citizen during the Revolutionary period.

John Harris received his commission as a Second Lieutenant on 23 April 1814; in two months, he had already been promoted to First Lieutenant.  Harris served with the Marine force opposing the British at the battle of Brandywine, Maryland.  It was the distinction of these Marines in combat that may have prompted the British Army to spare the Marine Barracks in the city of Washington during the War of 1812.  All other government buildings were destroyed by fire.

In 1815, Harris assumed command of the Marine Detachment aboard USS Macedonian, flagship of the squadron of Commodore Stephen Decatur.  It was this squadron that sailed from New York to punish the Barbary Pirates.  After several periods of shore duty, Harris commanded Marines aboard USS Franklin, which included a South Pacific tour from 1821—1824.  Harris was brevetted to Captain on 3 March 1825, followed by tours of duty in Boston, aboard the USS Java, USS Delaware, and USS Philadelphia.  In 1836, Harris joined the Marine Detachment at Fort Monroe, Virginia where he served with the Army during the Florida Indian Wars.  He served with distinction in the Creek campaign in Alabama, and the Seminole conflicts in Florida.  Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson gave a good report on Captain Harris, stating, “Captain Harris while in Florida commanded mounted Marines and did good service in that capacity.”

In 1837, Harris was advanced to brevet major, “for gallantry and good conduct in the affair of Hatchee Lustee”.  He was received a regular commission to major on 6 October 1841, serving in Philadelphia, Washington, and Norfolk until the outbreak of war with Mexico.

In March 1848, Major Harris sailed with a battalion of Marines to Veracruz, Mexico but since the armistice had already been concluded, he was ordered to garrison Alvarado.  He was ordered to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington in late summer of that year, subsequently serving as the Commanding Officer of the Marine Barracks in Philadelphia and New York.  In 1855, Harris was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and placed in command of the Marine Barracks, Brooklyn where he remained until 7 January 1859.  On that date, he assumed the office of Commandant in grade of Colonel, U. S. Marine Corps.

There is little doubt that Colonel Harris was embarrassed on the eve of the American Civil War as half of his officers resigned their commissions to serve in the armed forces of the Confederate States; he labored to reconstitute a much-weakened Marine Corps.  Added to this, Harris was tasked to send Marines to serve as United States Secret Service agents in Maryland to stem the flow of contraband: this mission depleted the ranks of the Marine Corps by a full battalion.

Following a brief illness, Colonel Harris died while serving in office at the age of 70 years.  His death left Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells in a dilemma: there were few Marine Corps officers qualified to assume the post of Commandant.  Secretary Wells delayed selecting a replacement for a full month; his final selection forced several senior Marine Corps officers into retirement.  This delay, and the Secretary’s final choice, was probably a good thing for the Marine Corps as it was about to embark on a much-needed period of reform.  Some say that this reform movement continues in the Marine Corps today; I am one of those.  You see, in the Marines, nothing is ever good enough; I think this attitude benefits the United States of America —and her people.


[1] Department of Defense, Selected Manpower Statistics, FY-1997, Table 2-11.

[2] HMS Leopard gave chase to the American frigate USS Chesapeake, which ended when the American captain surrendered his ship having fired only one shot.  The British tried and executed four members of the Chesapeake’s crew for desertion.  The balance of the crew was released and sent back to port in disgrace.

Published by


Retired Marine, historian, writer.

3 thoughts on “Colonel Commandant John Harris”

  1. As always, an educational essay.
    I do differ with Mustang on one point: I do not believe the British did not burn Marine Barracks out of respect. I think they ran out time. Perhaps my view is a simple difference of references.
    That aside, how super to see your hat in the ring again!


Comments are closed.