At the Heart of the Corps

On Land and Sea

An Overview

Before the American Revolution, the thirteen British Colonies experienced few difficulties in matters of commercial navigation because all commercial shipping was protected by the Royal Navy, at the time the strongest navy in the world.  This invaluable protection came to an end when the colonies rebelled.  After the Revolution, the United States (having achieved its independence), would have to fend for itself.  That, of course, was easier said than done.  It would take the newly created country several decades to sort it all out.

The revolution threw the United States deeply into debt.  Complicating those matters was the fact that the United States was operating under the Articles of Confederation.[1]  In 1783, the cash-strapped congress disbanded the Continental Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.

Three hundred years before the United States won its independence, the Barbary Coast states (Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis) began preying upon European ships.  The method used by the Mohammedan pirates was simple enough.  Cruising the Mediterranean in small but fast ships, pirates overtook merchant ships, boarded them, overpowered the crew, captured crew and passengers, and held them as prisoners until either their home country paid a ransom demand, or until the captives were sold into slavery.  To avoid these difficulties, most European states reasoned that in the long-term, it would be cheaper to pay the Barbary states an annual tribute, guaranteeing free passage through the Mediterranean Sea.

Barbary pirates seized their first American-flagged ship, the merchantman Betsey, in 1785.  The crew of that ship languished in irons for eight years.  The Maria, home ported in Boston, was taken a few months later.  Dauphin, from Philadelphia was next.  Ship owners complained, of course, but there being no money for a naval force, there was nothing congress or the states could do about the Barbary Pirates.  Between 1785 and 1793, 13 American ships were lost to the Mediterranean pirates.  In 1793 alone, the Mohammedans seized eleven ships.  To America’s shame, Congress agreed to pay the pirates tribute, and, at that point, the camel’s nose was under the tent.  The amount of tribute increased with each passing year.  In 1792, the United States paid ransoms totaling $40,000.00, and paid a tribute of $25,000.

Historians estimate that between the early-to-mid 1500s through 1800, Moslem pirates captured over one million white Christians from France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Great Britain, Iceland, and the Americas.  Released crew and passengers recounted horrifying tales of their inhumane treatment, but even if some of these stories were exaggerated, they weren’t very far off the mark.  The Berbers made no distinction between passengers or crew, or whether they were male or female.  All captives were stripped of their clothing, robbed of all their possessions, and imprisoned awaiting ransom or enslavement.  Women were repeatedly raped — which under Islamic law, was permitted and encouraged.  Most captives languished in prison filth for years; many died in captivity.  The only possible respite available to those luckless captives was to convert to Islam.  Many of the converted sailors joined the corsairs as raiders.

In modern parlance, Barbary pirates carried out state-sponsored terrorism.  It was an extortion racket, pure and simple, and every North African state was complicit.  How the extortionists made their living was not entirely unusual and European heads of state well-understood the game.  British, French, and Spanish privateers pursued a similar (albeit, more civilized) course of action.  Insofar as the Europeans were concerned, paying tribute was merely the cost of doing business in the Mediterranean.  Tribute costs increased as a matter of course whenever a new ruler assumed power.  What made this a complication is that the voyage from Philadelphia to Tripoli took around six weeks.  An increase in tribute between the time a ship left the United States and its arrival in North Africa would involve an additional twelve (or more) weeks sailing time.

Global Conflict and American Diplomacy

Barbary Pirates were not the United States’ only concern.  The outbreak of war between France and Great Britain (and other countries) in 1793 ended the ten years of peace that enabled the United States to develop a system of national finance and trade.  Ship building and commercial shipping were America’s largest industries in 1793.

From the British perspective, improved relations with the United States was most desirable, particularly in terms of the UK’s attempt to deny France access to American goods.  From the American point of view, it would be most beneficial to normalize relations with the British because in doing so, the US would be in a better position to resolve unsettled issues from the 1783 Treaty of Paris.  This is not how things worked out, however.

President Washington

In mid-1793, Britain announced its intention to seize any ships trading with the French, including those flying the American flag.  In protest, widespread civil disorder erupted in several American cities and by the end of the following year, tensions with Britain were so high that President Washington ordered the suspension of trade to European ports.  But, at the same time, Washington sent an envoy to England in an attempt to reconcile differences with the United Kingdom.  Britain’s behavior, meanwhile, particularly given its earlier preference for good relations with the United States, was perplexing.  The British began the construction of a fortress in Ohio, sold guns and ammunition to the Indians, and urged them to attack American western settlements.

President Washington’s strongest inclination, as a response to British provocations, was to seek a diplomatic solution.  Unhappily, Washington’s envoy to England, John Jay, negotiated a weak treaty that undermined America’s preference for free trade on the high seas and, moreover, the treaty failed to compensate American shippers for loss of cargo seized by the Royal Navy during the revolution.  Worse than that, however, the Jay Treaty did not address the British practice of impressment.  Given the fact that there were several favorable aspects to the Jay Treaty, the US Senate approved it with one caveat: trade barriers imposed by the UK must be rescinded.

Mr. Washington, while dissatisfied with the Jay Treaty, nevertheless signed it.  Doing so brought the President his first public criticism and helped set into motion political partisanship within the Congress, toward the administration, and popularly directed at both.[2]  It was also in 1794 that the President and Congress had finally reached the limits of their patience with the Islamic barbarians.

President Washington asked Congress to reestablish a naval force and for authorization to construct six new warships.  Clearly, there was no reason to build six warships if the United States didn’t intend to use them.  Mr. Washington’s message to Congress was unambiguous: “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it.  If we desire to secure peace, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.”

The Naval Act of 1794 authorized the construction of six warships at a total cost of just under $700,000.  It was not a unanimous decision; some members of Congress believed that the money could be better spent elsewhere — such as in westward expansion.  The navy hawks won that argument.  Along with six new ships, the navy began to appoint offers to command those ships and recruit the men who would crew them.  And one more thing — the Navy would require United States Marines as well.

It took time to build the ships, reform the naval service, and hire the right men as captains.  Meanwhile, in 1796, the United States concluded a peace treaty with Algiers.  The United States paid $642,500 cash, up front, and agreed to a healthy annual tribute and assorted naval stores.  The total cost to the United States for this one treaty was $992,463.  In modern value, this would amount of well over $14-million.  By way of comparison, the entire federal budget for 1796 was $5.7 million.

The Jay Treaty was not well received in France because in 1778, the United States signed an agreement with King Louis XVI of France — termed the Franco-American treaty of Alliance — where, in exchange for French support for the American Revolution, the United States agreed to protect French colonial interests in the Caribbean.  The Alliance had no expiry date.

The French Revolution began in 1789.  By 1791, the crowned heads of Europe watched developments in France with deep concerns.  Several crowned heads proposed military intervention as a means of putting an end to the chaos and the terror.  The War of the First Coalition (1792-1797) involved several European powers against the Constitutional Kingdom of France (later the French Republic) — a loose coalition, to be sure, and a conflict fought without much coordination or agreement.  The one commonality in the coalition was that everyone had an eye on a different part of France should they eventually divide the country among them.

France looked upon the United States as its ally, pursuant to the Alliance of 1778, but there were several contentious issues:

  • First, the Americans strenuously objected to the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793.
  • Second, the Senate ratified the Jay Treaty (Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation).
  • Third, the United States passed the Neutrality Act of 1794.  The Act forbid any American to engage in war with any nation at peace with the United States.  Hence, no American could side with France against the British.
  • Fourth, the Neutrality Act cancelled the United States’ war debt to France.  Members of Congress reasoned that since America’s debt agreement existed between the United States and the King of France, the king’s execution cancelled America’s debt  Adding insult to injury, the Act also ended the Alliance of 1778.
  • Fifth, in retribution for reneging on the Alliance of 1778, the French Navy began seizing American ships engaged in trade with the UK — both as part of its war with the First Coalition, and as a means of collecting America’s revolutionary war debt.
  • Sixth, there was the so-called XYZ affair.[3]  With Diplomatic relations already at an all-time low between these two countries and owing to the fact that the United States had no naval defense, the French expanded their aggressive policy of attacking US commercial ships in American waters.

Re-birth of the United States Navy and Marine Corps

Without an American Navy, there could be no American response to French or Barbary depredations on the high seas.  Driven by Thomas Jefferson’s objections to federal institutions, Congress sold the last Continental warship in 1785.  All the United States had remaining afloat was a small flotilla belonging to the US Revenue Cutter Service; its only coastal defense was a few small and much neglected forts.  As a result, French privateers roamed American coastal waters virtually unchecked.  Between 1796-97, French privateers captured 316 American ships — roughly 6% of the entire US merchant fleet.  The cost to the United States was between $12-15 million.

USS Constitution

What the French accomplished through their program of retribution was to convince Federalists that the United States needed a Navy.  In total, Congress authorized the construction of eight ships, including USS United States, USS Constellation, USS Constitution, USS Congress, USS Chesapeake, USS President, USS General Greene, and USS Adams.  Congress additionally authorized “subscription ships.”  These were ships supported (paid for) by American cities.  The ships included five frigates[4] and four sloops[5], which were converted from commercial ships. Two noteworthy of these was USS Philadelphia and USS Boston.

In finally realizing that national honor demanded action, Congress re-established the U. S. Navy and along with it, the United States Marine Corps — as before, during the Revolutionary War, providing seagoing detachments became the Corps’ primary mission.  Serving aboard ship as naval infantry is the Marine Corps’ oldest duty.[6]  Americans didn’t invent this duty; it’s been around for about 2,500 years — all the way back to when the Greeks placed archers aboard ship to raise hell with the crews of enemy ships. 

The Marines had several missions while at sea.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, ship’s crews were often surly and undisciplined, and mutiny was always a possibility.  With armed Marines aboard, the chance of mutiny dropped to near zero.  Marines not only enforced navy regulations and the captain’s orders, but they also meted out punishments awarded to the crew when required.  In those days, there were no close-knit feelings between sailors and Marines — which has become an abiding naval tradition.

Marines led naval boarding parties … a tactic employed to invade and overrun enemy officers and crews in order to capture, sabotage, or destroy the enemy ship.  They were also used to perform cutting out operations, which involved boarding anchored enemy ships from small boats, often executed as ship-to-ship boarding operations after nightfall.  Marine detachments provided expert riflemen to serve aloft in their ship’s rigging, their duty was targeting enemy officers, helms men, and gunners.  When the ship’s captain ordered landing operations or raiding parties, Marines were always “first to fight.”  Marines also served as gunners aboard ship.  Naval artillery was always a Marine Corps skill set, one that later transitioned to field artillery operations — as noted during the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland.

The Quasi-War with France

Ships of the Royal Navy blockaded most of France’s capital ships in their home ports.  The U. S. Navy’s mission was twofold: first, to locate and seize or destroy smaller French ships operating along the US seacoast and in the Caribbean, and to protect convoys of cargo ships across the Atlantic.  There was no formal agreement between the US and UK — it simply worked out as an informal cooperative arrangements between British and American sea captains.

The largest threat to American shipping came from small, but well-armed French privateers.  These ships were constructed with shallow drafts, which enabled them to operate close to shore and within shallow estuaries.  French privateers used French and Spanish ports to launch surprise attacks on passing ships before running back to port.  To counter this tactic, the US Navy employed similarly sized vessels from the Revenue Cutter Service.

The first US victory over the French was capture of La Croyable, a privateer, by USS DelawareLa Croyable was captured after a lengthy pursuit along the southern New Jersey coast.  After the ship’s capture, she was renamed USS Retribution.  There were several other sea battles, but it may be sufficient to say that the U. S. Navy shined in its confrontation with a major European naval power.

U. S. Navy Captain Silas Talbot previously served during the Revolutionary War as an officer in the Continental Army.  On 28th June 1777, Talbot received a commission to serve as a captain of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment.  After the siege of Boston, Talbot marched with his regiment to New York.  En route, the regiment rested at New London, Connecticut where he learned of Navy Captain Esek Hopkins’ request for 200 volunteers to assist in operations in the Bahamas.  Silas Talbot was one of Hopkins’ volunteers, but he retained his status as an officer of the Continental Army.

After having been recognized for his exceptional performance of duty and promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army (while serving at sea), the Congress commissioned Silas Talbot to captain, U. S. Navy, and gave him command of the American privateer General Washington on 17th September 1779.  In his final Revolutionary War engagement, the feisty Talbot tangled with the British fleet off the coast of New York.  He attempted to withdraw but was forced to strike his colors to HMS Culloden.  Talbot remained a prisoner of war until December 1781.

Following the Revolutionary War, Talbot served in the New York state assembly and as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives.  In early June 1794, President Washington selected Talbot to become the third of six newly commissioned captains of the United States Navy.  His first assignment was supervision of the USS President then under construction in New York.  On 20th April 1796, Congress suspended work on President  and Talbot was discharged.  Two years later, with the outbreak of the Quasi War, Talbot was recommissioned and assigned command of USS Constitution.

Captain Talbot’s mission was to protect American commercial ships, and to seek out and capture or destroy French Privateers.  In addition to commanding Constitution, Talbot was assigned overall command of the Santo Domingo Station.  In early May 1800, Constitution noted the presence of an armed French vessel anchored in Puerto Plata.  Talbot planned a “cutting out” expedition to either capture this vessel or fire it.  The ship’s identification was Sandwich, formerly a Royal Navy ship that had been captured by the French and operated as a privateer.

Sandwich, in addition to being well-armed, was anchored under the protection of heavy guns of Fortaleza San Felipe.  Talbot’s problem was that Constitution was too large to enter the harbor at Puerto Plata.  On 9th May, Talbot detained a small American sloop christened Sally, a 58-ton ship based out of Providence, Rhode Island, under the command of Thomas Sanford.  Since Sally frequented the waters off Puerto Plata, her presence was not likely to raise the alarm of French and Spanish forces protecting Sandwich.

Commodore Talbot’s plan called for the detachment of one-hundred sailors and Marines from Constitution to serve under the command of Lieutenant Isaac Hull, USN with Marines under the command of Captain Daniel Carmick, USMC.[7]  The American sailors and Marines would hide inside Sally as the ship sailed into the harbor and then execute the capture of Sandwich.  Overall command of the cutting out operation would fall to Captain Carmick.  According to Carmick’s journal, “By this means it was easy to take the vessel by surprise [sic]; it put me in mind of the wooden horse at Troy.”

As Sally made her way into port, she was fired on by a British frigate and subsequently boarded.  The British officer commanding found not a small vessel engaged in trade, but one filled below decks with US sailors and Marines.  Lieutenant Hull provided the British officer with an overview of the intended operation.  As it happened, the British were also watching Sandwich with interest.  After some discussion, the Americans were allowed to continue their mission with the Royal Navy’s best wishes for success.

On 11th May, with Sally maintaining her cover, the ship sailed into Puerto Plata.  Hull ordered the sailors and Marines to remain below decks until his order to board Sandwich.  Sally laid alongside the French privateer and, when Hull ordered it, Carmick led his Marines over the side of Sandwich in “handsome style, carrying all before them and taking possession” of the enemy ship without any loss to themselves.  Following Captain Talbot’s plan, Captain Carmick and First Lieutenant Amory led their Marines toward the fort.  Their assault was stealthy and quick.  Before the Spanish Army commander had time to react, the Marines were already in control of the fort, had spiked its guns, and withdrew to board Sandwich, which they promptly attempted to sail out of the harbor.  Unfavorable winds delayed their departure until the middle of the night.

The action at Puerto Plata was significant because it marked the first time United States Marines conducted combat operations on foreign soil.  The operation was boldly executed and lauded by Commodore Talbot.  He wrote, “Perhaps no enterprize [sic] of the same moment has ever better executed and I feel myself under great obligation to Lieutenant Hull, Captain Carmick, and Lieutenant Armory, for their avidity in taking the scheme that I had planned, and for the handsome manner and great address with which they performed this dashing adventure.”

Commodore Talbot was criticized, however, because it was the decision of the admiralty court that seizure of Sandwich whilst anchored in a neutral port, was an illegal act.[8]  Not only was Sandwich returned to France, the officers and crew forfeited their bounty.  Not even the official history of the Marine Corps remembers this FIRST action on foreign shore.  Rather, the official history of the Corps skips over the Quasi-War and addresses the Barbary Wars as if the former never happened.[9]

The United States Navy and Royal Navy reduced the activities of French privateers and capital warships.  The Convention of 1800, signed on 30 September 1800, which ended the Quasi-War, affirmed the rights of Americans as neutrals upon the sea and reiterated the abrogation of the Alliance of 1778.  It did not compensate the United States for its claims against France.

Addressing the Barbary Menace to Navigation

Lt. Presley O’Bannon USMC

For a summary account of how the United States responded to the Barbary pirates, see At Tripoli (Part I) and At Tripoli (Part II ).

The courage and intrepidity of the naval force at Tripoli was without peer in the age of sail, heralded at the time by British Admiral Horatio Nelson as “The most-bold and daring act of the age.”  Pope Pius VII added, “The United States, though in their infancy, have done more to humble the anti-Christian barbarians on the African coast than all the European states have done.”  But politically, all we can say is that the United States government is consistent in its perfidy.

While Thomas Jefferson proclaimed victory, his ambassadors were working behind the scenes cutting deals with barbarian pirates.  Consul-General Tobias Lear negotiated a less-than-honorable peace treaty with Tripoli.  Jefferson agreed to pay $60,000 for all American prisoners, agreed to withdraw all naval forces, granted a secret stipulation allowing the Pasha to retain Ahmad’s family as hostages, and without a single blink, betrayed Ahmad Qaramanli.  The Senate ratified this treaty in 1806 over the objection of Federalists and it did not seem to matter, to either Jefferson or James Madison, that they lost the respect of the American people.  Of course, Madison added to this in 1812 by starting a war with the United Kingdom that ultimately ended up with the destruction of the nation’s capital — except for the US Marine Barracks and Eighth and I Streets.

Nor did the Barbary pirates end their misdeeds; the United States simply decided to ignore them (even at the expense to American-flagged merchant ships).  After the end of the War of 1812, it was again necessary to address Mohammedan piracy.  On 2nd March 1815, Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against the pirates.  Madison dispatched two naval squadrons to deal with the miscreant Moslems.  Commodore William Bainbridge commanded one of these, Commodore Stephen Decatur commanded the other.

Decatur reached the Barbary Coast first, quickly defeated the blighters, and forced a new arrangement favorable to the United States.  Decatur would not negotiate, but he didn’t mind dictating terms and in doing so, marked the first time in over 300 years that any nation had successfully stood up to the barbarian horde.  Commodore Decatur’s success ignited the imaginations of the European powers to — finally — stand up for themselves.  In late August 1816, a combined British and Dutch fleet under Lord Exmouth visited hell upon Algiers, which ended piracy against almost everyone except France.  Mohammedan depredations against France continued until 1830 when France invaded the city of Algiers — remaining there until 1962.

Sources:

  1. Abbot, W. J.  The Naval History of the United States.  Collier Press, 1896.
  2. Bradford, J. C.  Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two centuries of American Naval Leaders.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1955.
  3. McKee, C.  A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U. S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991
  4. Rak, M. J., Captain, USN.  The Quasi-War and the Origins of the Modern Navy and Marine Corps.  Newport: US Naval War College, 2020

Endnotes:

[1] The Articles served as a letter of instruction to the central government, giving it only those powers which the former colonies recognized as those belonging to king and parliament.  Although referred to as the Congress of the Confederation, the organization of Congress remained unchanged from that of the Continental Congress.  Congress looked to the Articles for guidance in directing all business … including the war effort, statesmanship, territorial issues, and relations with native Indians.  Since each state retained its independence and sovereignty, all congressional decisions required state approval.  Congress lacked enforcement power, the power to raise revenues, or the power to regulate trade.  Under the Confederation, government had no chief executive beyond “president of the congress assembled,” nor were there any federal courts.

[2] There was a single casualty from all this.  Washington’s advisers presented him with evidence that Edmund Randolph, Jefferson’s successor as secretary of state, had allegedly solicited a bribe from a French envoy to oppose the treaty with England.  Although Randolph denied the charges, an angry Washington forced his old friend to resign.  With this action, another important precedent was set.  The Constitution empowers the President to nominate his principal officers with the advice and consent of the Senate; it says nothing, however, about the chief executive’s authority to dismiss appointees.  With Washington’s dismissal of Randolph, the administrative system of the federal government was firmly tied to the President.  In total, Washington dismissed three foreign ministers, two consuls, eight collectors, and four surveyors of internal revenue — all without seeking the advice or approval of Congress.

[3] An American diplomatic mission was sent to France in July 1797 to negotiate a solution to problems that were threatening to escalate into war.  American diplomats included Charles Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry.  These diplomats were approached through informal channels by agents of French foreign minister Charles Talleyrand, who demanded bribes and a loan before formal negotiations could begin.  Talleyrand had made similar demands of other nation’s diplomats and collected from them.  The Americans, however, were offended by these demands and returned to the US without engaging in any diplomatic resolution to the problems.

[4] A frigate was any warship built for speed and maneuverability.  They could be warships carrying their principal batteries of carriage-mounted guns on a single deck (with smaller carriage-mounted guns on the fo’c’sle and quarterdeck.  Frigates were too small to stand in the line of battle, but they were full rigged vessels (square rigged on all three masts).

[5] A sloop of war had a single gun deck that carried up to 18 guns, an un-rated ship, a sloop could be a gun brig or a cutter, a bomb vessel or a fireship.

[6] See also: Marine Detachments

[7] In 1800 (as today) a navy lieutenant was equivalent in rank to Marine Corps captain.  In the navy, however, there were but three ranks: lieutenant, master commandant, and captain.  In the Marine Corps, there were five ranks: lieutenant colonel commandant, major, captain, first lieutenant, and second lieutenant.  Navy command has always taken precedence for seaborne operations, including of the landing force until the Marines first set foot ashore.  At that time, if a Marine officer is present, he would assume command of land operations.  Daniel Carmick also served with distinction in the Mediterranean and commanded US Marines in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 (See also: At Chalmette, 1815).  He passed away in 1816 from wounds sustained in December 1814.

[8] Captain Silas Talbot resigned from the Navy following the Quasi War.  He passed away at the age of 67-years in New York on 30th June 1813.  In two wars, Captain Talbot was wounded in action thirteen times.  He carried with him to the grave the fragments of five bullets. 

[9] Captain H. A. Ellsworth published this history in 1934 (reprints in 1964, 1974) in a work titled One Hundred Eighty Landings of United States Marines, 1800-1934.  Captain Ellsworth stated, “Every United States Marine should have indelibly impressed upon his mind a picture of the island which now contains the Dominican Republic, because the city of Puerta Plata (Port Au Platte), in this republic is the birthplace of the history of the landings, other than in time of war, of his Corps.”


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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

2 thoughts on “At the Heart of the Corps”

  1. One note,
    Spiking a gun means literally driving a barbed spike into the “touch hole” of a cannon tendering it unable to fire.
    Thank you Mustang, your history lessons are a refreshing break from the political BS that seems to have taken over the Internet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Warren. I made the edits for you. 🙂

      Like you, I am so weary of the political BS … researching and writing history is so much more fun and relaxing.

      Like

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