Divided Nation – Divided Corps

EGA 1850-002In the first few years following the War of 1812, the United States Marine Corps fell into a period of institutional malaise.  There were two reasons for this: first, the United States government was unwilling to fund a corps of Marines in larger numbers than needed for service aboard ships of the U. S. Navy.  From the outset, the US Marine Corps has always received scant funding, staffing, and equipment.   Second, as was the custom in those days, Marine Corps officers were appointed and commissioned through political patronage.  The sons of wealthy or politically connected families received commissions; it did not matter whether these appointees were good leaders or even skilled in the art and science of armed warfare.  Lacking quality leadership and innovation, the Marine Corps simply “existed.”  Political patronage continues to exist in the selection of candidates for the United States’ military and naval academies; those wishing to attend either of these must be nominated of a member of Congress.

In 1820, Archibald Henderson was appointed as the Marine Corps’ fifth commandant.  He remained in this position for 38 years—so long, in fact, that he became convinced that the Marine Corps belonged to him.  He willed the Marine Corps to his son, but of course, the will didn’t stand up in court.  During Henderson’s tenure, however, the Marine Corps undertook expeditionary missions in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Key West, in West Africa, the Falkland Islands, Sumatra, and against the Seminole Indians as part of the Seminole Indian [1] and Creek Indian Wars [2].

Andrew Jackson was not a fan of the Marine Corps, but Commandant Henderson was able to thwart Jackson’s attempt to disband the Marine Corps and combine it with the U. S. Army.  In 1834, congress passed the Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps.  The Act stipulated that the Marine Corps was an integral part of the Department of the Navy.  Jackson’s attempt was the first of many challenges to the Marine Corps as part of the United States Armed Forces.  In any case, Archibald Henderson personally led two battalions of his Marines (half of the entire Marine Corps back then) in the Seminole War (1835).  In 1846, US Marines participated in the Mexican American War (1846-48) and made their famed assault on the Chapultepec Palace, later celebrated in the Marine Corps Hymn.

Henderson’s tenure as Commandant ended with his death in 1859 (aged 75 years).  In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States and civil war loomed on the near horizon.  After Lincoln’s inauguration, southern states began to secede from the union.  Many officers of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps were from southern states; out of a sense of duty to their home states, officers began to resign their commissions.  About one-third of the Marine Corps’ commissioned officer strength resigned and accepted commissions in the Confederate States of America.  Essentially, this large migration of officers left the US Marine Corps with mediocre officers.  A battalion of Marine recruits, having been thrown into the First Battle of Manassas (Virginia) in 1861 were soundly defeated by rebel forces.

USMC Infantry 1862Union Marines performed blockade duties, some sea-based amphibious operations, and traditional roles while afloat.  US Marines also participated in the assault and occupation of New Orleans and Baton Rouge.  These were signal events that enabled the union to gain control of the lower Mississippi River and denied the CSA a viable base of operations on the Gulf Coast.  In any case, poor leadership had a negative impact on the morale of serving Marines.  Few officers were interested in commanding Marine detachments or battalions; they were content to secure administrative positions.  In total, the USMC strength in 1861 was 93 officers and 3,074 enlisted men.  President Lincoln authorized an additional 1,000 enlisted men, but a shortage of funding hindered the recruiting effort.  Marine recruits were not offered recruitment bonuses (as in the Army and Navy), their length of enlistment was longer, and they earned $3.00 less pay each month.

The U. S. Marine Corps did not enjoy the confidence of the Congress in 1863 and congress proposed transferring the Marines to Army control.  The draft resolution was defeated when Colonel Commandant John Harris [3] died in office, the Secretary of the Navy forced several officers to resign or retire, and Major Jacob Zeilin [4] was named to replace Harris.  Zeilin, although 59-years old at the time, was a combat veteran with a good reputation, whose duties were executed well enough to earn him the first Marine Corps commission to general (flag rank) officer.  Still, neither Harris nor Zeilin considered the employment of Marines as an amphibious assault force.

Despite poor leadership among the officers, seventeen enlisted Marines received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry during the Civil War.  Thirteen of these men served as noncommissioned officers and performed the duties of gun captain or gun-division commander.  By the end of 1864, the recruitment of Marines improved with changes to conscription laws and additional funds to pay a recruiting bounty.  During the war, 148 Marines were killed in action; 312 additional men perished from other causes (illness/accident).

CSMC Uniform 1862The Confederate States Marine Corps (CSMC) was established on 16 March 1861 with an authorized strength of 46 officers and 944 enlisted men.  The actual strength of the CSMC never came close to its authorized strength.  In 1864, the total strength of the CSMC was 539 officers and men.  Heading the CSMC as Colonel Commandant Lloyd J. Beale, who previously served the US Army as its paymaster.  He had no experience as a Marine, which meant that his subordinate officers, who were Marines, had little regard for his leadership ability.  He was simply a bureaucrat, and everyone treated him as such.

The CSMC was modeled after the USMC, but there were important differences.  In the south, Marine companies were structured as permanent organizations.  The fife was replaced by the bugle, and CSMC uniforms were designed somewhat similar to those of the Royal Marines.

Confederate Marines guarded naval stations at Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, Richmond, and Wilmington and manned naval shore batteries at Pensacola, Hilton Head, Fort Fisher, and Drewery’s Bluff.  Sea-going detachments served aboard Confederate ships, including the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) in 1861, and as part of the naval brigade at the Battle of Saylor’s Creek.  The Confederate Marines did perform well-enough, but as with their Union counterpart, the officer corps was plagued with laziness and paltry bickering over such things as seniority, shore duty, and administrative (staff) assignments.  The enlisted men, as has become a Marine Corps tradition, observed this petty behavior, shrugged their shoulders or rolled their eyes, and went on with their duties.

The Confederate States of America ceased to exist with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House.  In the post-war period, U. S. Marines began a period of introspection about the roles and missions suitable for a small corps of Marines.  The Navy’s transition from sail to steam negated the need for Marine sharpshooters aboard ship.  Without masts and rigging, there was no place for Marines to perch.  What evolved was an amphibious role for Marines during interventions and incursions to protect American lives and property.

In 1867, Marines took part in a punitive expedition to Formosa [5] (Taiwan).  A few years later in 1871, Marines participated in a diplomatic expedition to Korea —its purpose to support the American delegation to Korea, ascertain the fate of the merchant ship General Sherman, and to sign a treaty assuring aid to distressed US merchant sailors.  When the Koreans attacked US Navy ships, the diplomatic effort turned into a punitive one.  In the subsequent battle of Ganghwa, which involved 500 sailors and 100 Marines, nine sailors and six Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for their intrepidity in armed conflict.  Neither of these two expeditions were overwhelmingly successful, but the action did manage to start a conversation within the Navy and Marine Corps about amphibious warfare.

USMC Sgt 1890Then, in October 1873, a diplomatic dispute involving the United States, United Kingdom, and Spain caused concern in the United States about its readiness for war with a European power.  It is known as the Virginius Affair.  Virginius was a fast American-made trade ship hired by Cuban insurrectionists to land men and munitions in Cuba, to be used to attack the Spanish regime there.  The ship was captured by Spain, who declared that the men on board were “pirates” and Spain’s intention to execute them.  Many of these freebooters were American and British citizens.  Spain did in fact execute 53 of these men and only halted the process when the British government demanded it.  There was talk inside the US that the American government might declare war on Spain.  Eventually, the matter was resolved without resorting to arms, but the incident did set into motion a new (and henceforth, ongoing) role for the U. S. Marines.

In 1874, the US Navy and Marines conducted brigade sized landing exercises in Key West.  Additional training exercises were conducted on Gardiners Island in 1884, and Newport, Rhode Island in 1887.  Subsequently, in the 35-years between the end of the American Civil War and the end of the 19th century, Marines were engaged in 28 separate interventions.

Sources:

  1. Sullivan, D. M. The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War.  Four volumes, 1997-2000).  White Mane Publishing.
  2. Scharf, J. T. History of the Confederate States Navy from its Organization to the surrender of its last vessel.  Fairfax Press, 1977.
  3. Tyson, C. A. Marine Amphibious Landing in Korea, 1871.  Marine Corps History Division, Naval Historical Foundation, 2007.

Endnotes:

[1] There were three distinct wars: 1816-19, 1835-42, 1855-58.  In total, the Seminole Wars became the longest and most expensive Indian wars in US history.

[2] Also, Red Stick War, and Creek Civil War.

[3] Harris served as a US Marine for 50 years.  As commandant, his tasks were challenging.  He lost one-third of his officers at the beginning of the Civil War, was forced to give up a full battalion to augment the US Secret Service, and came to grips with the fact that with such a small force, there is little the Marine Corps could contribute to the Union effort.  Harris was more or less content to remain “out of sight” and comply with Navy Regulations as best as he was able.  Accordingly, US Marines did not play a major role in expeditions and amphibious operations during the Civil War.

[4] General Zeilin approved the design of the now-famous Eagle, Globe, and Anchor emblem of the U. S. Marine Corps (1868).  He is additionally credited with establishing many Marine Corps customs and traditions that remain with the Corps to this very day, including the Marine Corps Hymn, the officer’s evening dress uniform, and adoption of the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis.”

[5] When the bark Rover was wrecked and its crew came ashore in Formosa, natives attacked and massacred them.  The US Navy landed a company of sailors and Marines to avenge this insult to American soverignty, but the enemy employed guerrilla tactics, which forced the landing force back to their ships.  The lesson learned as a result was that Marines would have to learn how to think outside of the box.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

2 thoughts on “Divided Nation – Divided Corps”

    1. True. Very true. One Marine mechanic once told a member of the press, “We never trust any new equipment that isn’t already leaking hydraulic oil.”

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