Continental Marines

JOURNAL OF THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS
(Philadelphia) Friday, November 10, 1775

Resolved, That two Battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons 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.

Ordered: That a copy of the above be transmitted to the General.

The General

George Washington was an army man — with considerable experience gained in militia service beginning in 1752. Through his older brother Lawrence, serving as Virginia’s Adjutant General, George received an appointment as major and commander of one of the colony’s four military districts. It was a time when the British and French competed for control of the Ohio Valley. In those days, the Virginia colony extended all the way to present-day southern Ohio.

In 1753, Virginia governor Dinwiddie appointed Washington as his special envoy and sent him into the French territories to demand that French forces withdraw from British territory, and to forge an alliance with the Iroquois nation.  Major Washington completed his mission in record time: 77 days.

In 1754, Gov. Dinwiddie promoted Washington to lieutenant colonel and assigned him to serve as the executive officer (deputy commander) of the Virginia Regiment.  Dinwiddie ordered the regiment to confront the French at the fork of the Ohio River.  Washington set off in compliance with those orders, leading around 150 men.  Washington’s information was that the French had around 1,000 troops involved in the construction of Fort Duquesne.  Typically, Washington’s information was wrong.  The French had around 50 men.  We remember this engagement as the Battle of Jumonville.  It was the event that started the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

A year later, Lieutenant Colonel Washington served as a volunteer militia aide to Major General Edward Braddock, commander of a British expedition sent to deal with the French and their Indian allies.  The confrontation became known as the Battle of the Monongahela, the Battle of Braddock’s Field, and the Battle of the Wilderness.  It was a disaster for the British; but General Braddock wasn’t too pleased, either.

The Captain

Samuel Nicholas was born in Philadelphia in 1744.  He was the youngest of three children of Anthony and Mary Nicholas.  Mary died in 1750; Anthony was a blacksmith with a drinking problem.  He died the next year when Samuel was seven years old.  The children were turned over to their uncle, Attwood Shute, who was then serving as the mayor of Philadelphia.  In 1752, Shute enrolled Samuel in the Academy and College of Philadelphia.

There is not much known about Captain Nicholas between his graduation from school in 1759 and his appointment in 1775.  We suspect that he was an educated gentleman of good reputation — otherwise, he would not have received a commission for service as an officer of Marines.

The Marine Battalions

The Congress formed a naval committee in mid-October 1775.  The naval committee would have the responsibility for managing naval assets, including purchasing ships, appointing officers, directing recruitment, purchasing stores, and issuing orders for naval operations.

A marine committee replaced the naval committee in December 1775.  This committee consisted of one member from each of the thirteen colonies.  It took over responsibility for directing the naval affairs of the Continental Congress.

The naval committee intended that General Washington form two battalions of marines from his existing army.  The marines became necessary when the naval committee developed a plan for an assault on Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Halifax was the primary supply point for Britain’s North American forces.  Only one battalion formed from the Congressional resolution, rather than two.  The battalion allowed for five companies of 300 men.

Congress suspended its plan for the American assault when the Americans learned that the British had landed several infantry regiments and 3,000 Hessian mercenaries.  Canceling the operation gave General Washington some breathing room.  He was struggling to recruit and train men for his land army; he had no interest in drawing forces away from his land regiments to build a force of marines for the navy.  The general preferred that if recruitment must be done for marines, he suggested that this activity take place in New York or in Philadelphia.

That duty, of course, fell upon Captain Samuel Nicholas.

One will note that during the colonial period, America’s soldiers were farmers with some affiliation with a local militia.  They knew about fighting Indians and farming, but they knew far less about fighting in a land army.  And less about fighting from ships.  General Washington’s first priority was recruitment, and his second was training.

Captain Nicholas faced the same challenges, except that his task was to train young men as soldiers of the sea.  His recruits had to be able seamen who were deadly riflemen, who could deliver deadly fire from the riggings from the mainsails.  Sure footing 30 to 50 feet in the air, on a pitching ship, armed with a muzzle-loading musket demanded a certain kind of man.  But what soldiers of the sea knew about fighting on land was next to nil.

As Nicholas’ recruits began to form, he and his deputy, Lieutenant Matthew Parke, stood off to the side resplendent in their green coats,  off-white waistcoats, breeches, and facings.  The sergeant brought the men to order, no doubt snarling at them and using colorful words.  Neither the sergeant nor his recruits were in uniform.  They were dressed as they might have first appeared at the recruitment office.  The sergeant, no doubt a veteran of previous wars with the British Army, may have dressed in native attire, a sword hanging from his waist, a powder horn, and a musket.  Behind these privates was the ship Alfred, Commodore Esek Hopkins, commanding.  There was a mission for the Marines — it would involve the Marine’s First Amphibious Raid.

The fight at Sea

On 6 April 1776, the ship’s voyage northward following the raid on New Providence was in every way routine — which meant that the crew was kept busy with their shipboard duties.  An hour into midnight, the ship’s watch observed two unidentified sails southeast of Alfred’s position.  The officer of the deck ordered beat to quarters, and all hands mustered for action.  One of those ships was a monster, HMS Glasgow, rigged with twenty guns accompanied by her tender.  Captain Nichols deployed his Marines with his able executive officer, 1stLt Matthew Parke, at his side.  Also standing to was 2ndLt John Fitzpatrick, whose station was the quarterdeck. 

HMS Cabot veered off under the weight of Glasgow’s cannon — Hopkins brought Alfred to action.  In one of the first exchanges, Lieutenant Fitzpatrick fell by the weight of a musket ball, killing him instantly.  Of this officer, Nicholas later wrote, “In him I have lost a worthy officer, sincere friend, and companion, that was beloved by all the ship’s company.”

In this engagement, a lucky shot from Glasgow carried off Alfred’s wheel block, making the ship unmanageable.  Hopkins’s other ships joined the fight, sending Glasgow off to Newport, her stern guns firing until out of range.

Joining Washington

At the end of December 1776, General Washington was greatly encouraged by his successful assault against the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey.  On 30 December, Washington crossed the Delaware and re-occupied the city.  At the time, British General Charles Cornwallis commanded a large infantry force at Princeton.  He at once responded by marching toward Trenton.  After an indecisive skirmish at Assanpink Creek, Washington withdrew a short distance eastward to establish his bivouac.

Full of confidence, General Cornwallis made camp believing he had caught the elusive  American.  His plan was to assault Washington at dawn the next day.  General Washington, however, had other ideas.  Once night had fallen, Washington assembled his force and, leaving guards to keep the fires burning throughout the night, set out through rough country to Princeton Road.

At sunrise, the British 17th and 35th Regiments just outside Princeton, setting out to reinforce Cornwallis, spotted an American army rapidly moving toward the city.  Quickly ordering up the 40th Regiment, British Colonel Charles Mawhood opened fire with his field cannon and ordered the 17th forward with fixed bayonets.  Mawhood’s charge hurled the Americans under General Hugh Mercer back in disorder.  Pennsylvania troops under General John Cadwalader, and Marines under Captain Samuel Nicholas, quickly took over the fight.  As the Marines weighed into the line, the Pennsylvanians were repulsed.  Washington, seeing the disorder, rushed to the line, personally reformed the Virginians and Pennsylvanians, and then appealing to the soldier’s patriotic fervor, led these men to extend their line within 30 yards of the 40th and ordered, “Fire!”

The American volley and a British response shrouded the field in thick gun smoke.  As the pall slowly lifted, the Red Coats saw that they had suffered the worst of it and broke their ranks in retreat.  Washington ordered his men to pursue them.  Nichols Marines needed no such encouragement.