A European tradition of naval infantry extends back to Spain’s Infanteria de Marina (formed in 1537). A British formation of naval infantry was formed as the Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot, also called the Admiral’s Regiment, on 28 October 1664. The regiment consisted of six 200-man companies, initially commanded by Colonel Sir William Killigrew, with Sir Charles Lyttleton serving as lieutenant colonel.
As we revel in the history of our American Marines, let us begin with an understanding of world events between 1720 and 1750. Suffice to say that diplomatically, nothing is ever simple in Europe, not then or now. The Treaty of Seville, for example, may have settled the Anglo-Spanish War between Great Britain, France, and Spain, but it also led its participants down the road of renewed conflict within a few short years. One aspect of this treaty was that it acknowledged British control over Port Mahon and Gibraltar, but in a typically tit-for-tat arrangement, demanded that the British support Queen of Spain’s claim to the Duchy of Parma.
There was more to this treaty, however. Spain agreed to open its South American colonies to trade with Great Britain, insofar as trading ships were limited each year, while granting to the British a monopoly in providing 5,000 slaves annually to the Spanish colonies. The contract for providing slaves went to the South Sea Company, which history can only describe as an economic disaster lasting through the First World War.
As British bankers and merchants demanded expanded access to markets within Spain’s colonies, the Spanish colonists themselves increased their demands for British made goods, and what ultimately evolved from this was an ever-burgeoning black market of smuggled goods.
To address the problem of smuggling, Spain established a system of coastal guards and customs officials. One of these officials boarded a British vessel in 1731 and, after some disagreement with Captain Robert Jenkins, the ship’s master, the Spanish official drew his sword and sliced off Captain Jenkins’ ear. Except for the testimony before Parliament of Captain Jenkins some years later, we cannot say with any certainty that this incident occurred; what we do know is that managing directors of the South Sea Company actively sought to incite British sentiments against Spain, believing that a victorious war would improve British trading opportunities in the Caribbean. Given the corrupt history of the South Seas Company, it is entirely possible that Captain Jenkins was paid for his testimony.
Following Captain Jenkins’ testimony in 1738, Parliament sent an address to the King asking for a redress against Spain. Another year passed without any diplomatic successes so King George II authorized the British Admiralty to implement maritime reprisals against Spain. Vice Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) was given command of the British fleet. Vernon realized that to properly chastise the Spanish, he would require military as well as naval assets —and then someone within the Admiralty thought it might be a good idea to augment a standing British Army contingent with an American maritime regiment.
Admiral Vernon began to plan an assault upon the Spanish colony of Cartagena, New Granada (now Colombia) and then turning to the American colonies, Vernon urged governors to raise a regiment of Marines for his undertaking. Vernon supposed that the number of Marines required should be around 3,000.
Of the responding colonies, only Virginia pressed its citizens into service. Eight companies were raised from Pennsylvania; five from Massachusetts and New York; four companies from Virginia and North Carolina, three companies from Maryland and New Jersey, and two companies each from Rhode Island and Connecticut. These 36 companies would be organized into four battalions.
Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Spotswood (a former lieutenant governor of Virginia) was appointed colonel of the regiment, but before he could assume command, Spotswood, aged 64 years, suddenly passed away. Command of the regiment passed to Sir William Gooch (shown right). Officially, Gooch served as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, but since the appointed governor never once set foot in Virginia, Gooch was the de facto Governor of Virginia.
Beneath Gooch, field officers came from the British Army; company officers originated from the so-called colonial elite. Marine Captain Lawrence Washington commanded one of these companies; he was the older half-brother of George Washington. Organizationally, the regiment consisted of one colonel, four lieutenant colonels, four majors, 36 captains, 72 lieutenants, four adjutants, four quartermasters, one surgeon, and four surgeon’s mates. There were also 144 sergeants, 144 corporals, 72 drummers, and 3,240 privates.
After a delay of four months, the British contingent of the expedition sailed from England in early November 1740. They eventually joined Admiral Vernon at Jamaica in January 1741, but by then sickness and scurvy were rampant among the troops. The army commander, Lord Cathcart, himself lay dead of disease, and the American regiment was already ashore —but none of these men were adequately trained for sea service. Moreover, there was no effort from the British government to feed or care for any of the Americans, so the colonials became what was later described as an undisciplined mob.
Ashore at Jamaica, sickness among the Americans was even more rampant than it was aboard ship. Despite these unhappy circumstances, Vernon’s fleet sailed for Cartagena around mid-March. To reach its destination, the fleet had to force entry through Boca Chica, a small passage defended by three forts. British troops were landed to demolish the forts, but only 300 of the American regiment were considered sufficiently trustworthy to leave the ship and participate alongside the British contingent. Then, having opened the passage, Vernon’s fleet continued to Cartagena.
On 20 April, a new British commander arrived to take charge of the landing forces; Lieutenant General Thomas Wentworth directed the attack against the outworks of Cartagena but by this time, the fighting force had been rendered ineffective due to an epidemic of yellow fever. General Wentworth could muster no more than half of his entire landing force, so when the general realized that the Spanish were about to cut off and surround his enfeebled force, he ordered a withdrawal. Returning to Jamaica, the scene was pathetic as literally hundreds of men lay dying in their hammocks without anyone to care for them. By this time, the entire landing force had been reduced to 2,700 British Army and American Marines.
In August, Admiral Vernon decided to invade Cuba. His fleet anchored at Cumberland Bay, some 90 nautical miles from Santiago de Cuba, and he immediately began to land his men and supplies. The troops remained encamped through the end of November, however, with no attempt to engage Spanish forces. Vernon re-embarked the troops and returned to Jamaica in early December; the sickness continued. In February 1742, three-thousand fresh troops arrived from England, but they too began to fall sick and die.
According to Fortescue, the officers and men of the American regiment were untrustworthy. I presume by this he refers to the fact that the Americans, unaccustomed as they were to the British bended knee tradition, did not hesitate to register their complaints to British leaders —and there were plenty of reasons for complaints. Beyond the issue of rampant disease, which attached itself to men regardless of their service or their rank, the Americans felt betrayed by the fact that the British lacked adequate surgeons and medical stores and effectively left the sick men to die unattended in their hammocks. Moreover, the lack of nourishment at Jamaica forced the regiment’s officers to take out personal loans (at exorbitant rates of interest) to feed their men. Last, but not least among these complaints, the American Marines strenuously objected to being assigned to labor gangs alongside African slaves, a disrespectful gesture reflecting British disdain for the value of their American Marines, as well as the harassment they received from navy crewmen.
In October 1742, all that remained of the American regiment were discharged; of the 4,163 officers and men formed, 1,463 survived. Surviving officers received half-pay for the rest of their lives, but only after they pled their case before a Board of Generals in London. Surviving enlisted men received no more than their memories of a horrifying deployment.
Thus, the first American Marines were not the Continental Marines of 1775; they were Gooch’s Marines, formed in 1739.
The War of Jenkins’ Ear metamorphosed into the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) … because at that time, the British simply could not resist their urge to control the world around them.
 The Treaty of Seville (1729) opened the door in 1731 to the Treaty of Vienna, which dissolved the Anglo-French Alliance and replaced it with the Anglo-Austrian Alliance.
 Under the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain was prohibited from engaging in the slave trade: this was left to every other European maritime country, who profited by transporting slaves from Africa into the Spanish colonies.
 There is no hard evidence of this incident because the severed ear was never heard from again.
 Lawrence Washington was the original title holder of a Virginia plantation he named in Admiral Vernon’s honor: Mount Vernon.
 Noted British historian Sir John William Fortescue.
4 thoughts on “American Marines”
Violence has been a common denominator for mankind and it always will be. Or put another way, the struggle of good vs evil defines our species from Adam and Eve to the last of us that will take a breath.
So true … and this leads us to those very few who have what it takes to stand up to the darkest evil. The fewer men, the greater share of honor. Your Marines remain vigilant and have done so for a very long time. I suspect that such stellar service will continue for as long as the American people are able to maintain a moral society–and this is precisely why all of us must remain ever watchful; why we must maintain a willingness to speak out against political and social corruption.
Man, I liked reading that.
And the part about Mt. Vernon. Wow.
Where did Gooch’s marines retire to and what antics did they get up to in the intervening years?
Thanks, Ed … In answer to your questions, we have no history accounting for whatever happened to these men. I assume the survivors went on to live their lives. Perhaps some of them went to sea, or back to their farms … raised their kids, or fell victim to the turbulent times leading up to the French and Indian Wars. I appreciate that you stopped by and hope to see you here again.
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