Gurkha

Introduction

The Gurkha (also Gorkhas) are soldiers native to the Indian sub-continent residing in Nepal and some areas of Northeast India.  As a combatant, they are a tremendous force.  They are small in stature, but the reader will not discover a body of men possessing more tenacity and esprit de corps or less regard for their safety.  It is such that these small men appear as giants on the battlefield — or, if not that, their ferocity is enough to cause the blood of their enemies to run cold, drop their weapons, and run like hell.  The Gurkha signal to attack has caused heart attacks in twenty-year-old men.

Most military historians rate Gurkhas among the finest combat soldiers in the world.  They believe that the only way to defeat a Gurkha combat is by killing every man in his unit and then shooting them again just to make sure.

Some Background

John Watts and George White were two very enterprising Englishmen who, sometime between 1598-1600, came up with the idea of forming a joint-stock company that would focus on trade with India.  The company came into being on 31st December 1600 as the East India Company (EIC) — but over many years had several names.  Eventually, people began calling it the John Company.  In 1712, Dr. John Arbuthnot created a satirical character named John Bull, which became a national personification of the United Kingdom, generally, and England in particular.

But in 1600, no one imagined that EIC would acquire vast tracts of the Indian subcontinent.  By 1740, the English competed with the French and Spanish for supremacy inside the Indian Ocean area.  The competition was keen — there was no prize for second place.  To gain (and retain) trade advantages, EIC relied heavily on the British Army to pacify the Indian population and the Royal Navy to protect trade routes and valuable cargoes.

Since it was economically impractical to permanently assign English regiments to India, EIC created its own army — one composed of native riflemen led by British officers and NCOs. EIC used this army to subdue uncooperative Indian states and principalities and to protect its economic interests. By 1800, the East India Company employed over 200,000 native soldiers, making it twice as large as the British Army.

In the early years, company management was both efficient and economical — but over time, incompetence, mismanagement, and other circumstances far beyond the company’s control (such as widespread famine in India) led the nearly bankrupt company to request financial aid from the British Parliament.  After much debate, the government reasoned that such a commitment would benefit the nation’s long-term interests and approved EIC’s request — but not without having something to say about the company’s management.  Parliamentary regulation and oversight of EIC began in 1773.  In 1784, Parliament seized control of all Indian political policies through The India Act.

The John Company ceased to exist in 1858 when the Parliament forced it to cede all of its territories and holdings in India to the British Crown, which included massive parts of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and mid-Eastern Gulf colonies.  Before incorporation, however, the EIC managed to recruit Nepalese to serve the company as part of its private army.  They became known as Gurkhas.  It was a relationship that began after the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-1816).

The Gurkha War

The Malla Dynasty was the ruling dynasty of the Kathmandu Valley (1201 – 1779) and one of the most sophisticated urban civilizations in the Himalayan foothills and a key destination in the India-Tibet trade route. 

In 1766, when the Gurkha King invaded Kathmandu (which at the time belonged to the Malla Confederacy), the Malla appealed to the EIC for help and armaments.  The company responded by sending an ill-equipped, poorly trained force of 2,500 men under a very young Captain, George Kinloch.  By any measure, the expedition was an unmitigated disaster.  Out of his depth as a military commander, Captain Kinloch had the additional misfortune of a malaria pandemic in the ranks.  The Gurkhas quickly overpowered Kinloch’s demoralized troops, and since dead men did not need British-manufactured firearms, the Gurkhas collected the weapons and put them to good use against their other enemies.

Gurkha aggression toward Tibet over long-standing trade eventually involved Imperial Chinese troops between 1789-1792.  It was then that the Gurkha (by then calling themselves Nepalese), in recognizing a common interest in territorial expansion, appealed to the British Governor-General for his assistance against the Chinese.  Governor-General Lord Warren Hastings had no desire to engage Imperial China, but he was never averse to exploiting regional commercial opportunities.[1]  Moreover, the company was at the center of a cash-flow problem — an issue that Hastings could resolve by selling rare wools to English markets.  Tibet was the only place on earth where Kashmir existed, and the only way to obtain it was through the mountain passes in Nepal — and this was only possible through the strategy of “political safety,” or territorial control and military pacification.

The Anglo-Gurkha War (1812-1816) involved two separate British military campaigns with seven major engagements and an extraordinary expenditure of money.  Despite Nepal’s initial interest in involving the British in their dispute with China, which was not forthcoming, certain elements of the Gurkha hierarchy distrusted the British (with good reason), particularly after the British gained control of a neighboring principality.  This event prompted the Nepalese to annex buffer territories of their own, which they were fully prepared to defend.  In preparing for war with the British, the Nepalese suffered no illusions about the stakes of such a confrontation.  One tribal chieftain advised his Nepalese lord, “They will not rest without establishing their own power and will unite with the hill rajas, whom we have dispossessed.  We have hitherto hunted deer; if we engage in this war, we must prepare to fight tigers.”

The Anglo-Gurkha war ended with the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816.  It required Nepal to relinquish all buffer territories west and east of its formal border and accept a permanent British representative in Kathmandu.  Initially, the Nepalese objected to the treaty until General David Ochterlony offered the Nepalese a deal they could not refuse, which was that they could either agree to the treaty or Ochterlony would destroy them.[2]  It was thus that Nepal became a British-protected state.

Incorporating the Gurkhas

General Ochterlony and political agent William Fraser (1784-1835) were the first to recognize the potential of Gurkha soldiers in British service.  During the war, Ochterlony employed Gurkha defectors as irregular forces.  He and Fraser were impressed with these fighters and had no qualms about their devotion to the British cause.  Fraser proposed that Ochterlony form the Gurkhas into a battalion under a British officer and key noncommissioned officers.  This battalion later became the 1st King George’s Own Gurkha Rifles.  About 5,000 Nepalese men entered British service after 1815, most of whom were Himalayans from three ethnic groups: Kumaonis, Garhwalis, and Gorkhalis — all of which quickly assimilated into a unique Gurkha identity.

Over time, the Gurkhas became the backbone of the British Army, forming ten regiments of two battalions each.  The British called them the Brigade of Gurkhas or, more simply, The Gurkha Rifles.  Between 1857-1918, the British employed Gurkha units to address conflicts in Burma, Afghanistan, the Indian frontiers, Malta, Cyprus, Malaya, China, and Tibet — with the Gurkhas serving with great distinction in each of them.

Eventually, the British raised twenty Gurkha battalions and formed them into ten regiments.  During the First World War, the number of Gurkha battalions increased to 33, totaling approximately 100,000 men.  Of these, 20,000 were either killed or wounded.  More than 2,000 Gurkhas received combat decorations for their exceptional courage and gallantry.[3]  So steady were these men that they were among the first to arrive during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign — and they were the last to withdraw.

The Gurkha fought in the Third Afghan War (1919) and numerous campaigns in the Northwest regions, notably in Waziristan. At the end of the world war, the British returned its Gurkha regiments to India, keeping them away from the internal strife of urban areas and placing them instead on the Indian frontier, where fiercely independent tribesmen were a constant source of unrest. The mission of the Gurkha along the frontier was more on the order of a constabulary: keeping the peace by confronting lawlessness among the Pathan tribes.

In 1939, there were ten Gurkha regiments (twenty pre-war battalions).  After the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, the Nepalese government offered to increase the number of Gurkha battalions to 35.  Eventually, that number rose to 43 battalions, adding two battalions to each regiment and a fifth battalion to the 1st, 2nd, and 9th Gurkha Rifles (also, 1 GR, 2 GR, and 9 GR).  To accomplish this expansion, Gurkha training battalions increased to five.  The Nepalese raised two additional battalions for peace-keeping duty in India.  In total, a quarter-million Nepalese men served in 40 Gurkha battalions, 8 Nepalese Army battalions, as well as in parachute, training, garrison, and logistical units against German/Italian forces in Syria, North Africa, Italy, and Greece, and Japanese forces in Burma, northeast India, and Singapore.  Of all Imperial combat forces, Gurkhas earned 2,734 medals for bravery at the cost of 32,000 casualties in all theaters.

The pattern of Gurkha military ranks followed those of the Indian Army.  Three levels included privates, noncommissioned officers, and commissioned officers.  Commissioned officers within the Gurkha regiments held Viceroy’s commissions (while British officers held King’s or Queen’s commissions).  Thus, any Gurkha holding a Viceroy’s commission (VCO) was subordinate to any British officer, regardless of rank.[4]  After Indian Independence in 1947, Gurkha officers reassigned to the British Army received King’s or Queen’s Gurkha Commissions (also known as KGO or QGO).  The Crown abolished KGO/QGO in 2007.  One notable difference between Gurkha officers and British officers is that no Gurkha can achieve a direct commission; Gurkha officers may only receive commissions through the enlisted ranks — they are all “mustangs.”

Today, Gurkhas serve in two separate armies: British and Indian.  There is one Gurkha Regiment in the British Army and 12 battalions (6 regiments) in the Indian Army.

Ferocity in Combat

The Indian Rebellion of 1857

The problem of rebellion began as early as 1772 when Lord Hastings started to recruit for the British East India Company.[5]  Because many Bengalis opposed the BEIC in combat, Hastings avoided them during his recruitment efforts.  He instead recruited higher castes, such as the Rajput and Bhumihar, from outlying regions.[6]  Ostensibly, the Madras and Bombay armies’ recruits were caste-neutral, but high-cast men were avoided below the surface. These caste-centered recruiting limitations continued through 1855.

The domination of higher castes in the Bengal army was one of the problems that led to the rebellion.  For example, to avoid being polluted by the unclean lower caste, high-caste soldiers in the Bengal army dined separately — a situation that works against the concept of military teamwork.  Hindu culture consumed the Bengal army, and higher-caste men were accorded privileges not extended to those of the lower-caste Bengali or the other company armies.  For example, the company exempted Bengal soldiers from any service that took them beyond marching distance from their homes.  The exemption excused Bengali soldiers from overseas service.

The final spark of discontent within the armies involved the ammunition used in the Enfield 1853 rifle/musket.  The weapons fired mini-balls, and because the bore was smaller in diameter (tighter) than earlier muskets, pre-greased paper cartridges were needed to facilitate ramming the ball down the bore.  In loading the weapon, sepoys (Indian soldiers serving in the British Army) had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder.  Rumors began circulating that the grease on these cartridges came from beef.  Biting into beef grease would be offensive to devout Hindus, and if the lubricant came from pork lard, another rumor, biting into the cartridge would offend Muslims.[7]  Added to these rumors was the claim that British/Company officers intended to convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity.  To quell the first rumor, Colonel Richard Birch ordered the manufacture of greaseless cartridges; the sepoys could grease the cartridges themselves using whatever substance they preferred.  Colonel Birch’s common sense solution only caused many simple-minded soldiers to conclude that the rumors were true.

Unhappiness among civilians was more complicated.  Three groups of rebels were feudal nobility, rural landlords, and peasants.  The nobility was unhappy because they had lost titles and domains under company regulations that denied adopted children as legal heirs.  Landlords had lost their lands to peasant farmers due to company land reforms.  At the outset of the rebellion, landlords quickly re-occupied lost lands — without much complaint from the peasants, who oddly enough also joined the rebellion.  There was also the issue of forced indebtedness.  When peasant landowners could not pay their taxes, they borrowed money from loan sharks at high-interest rates.  Peasants lost their land to these money lenders when they could not repay borrowed money.

In the spring and summer of 1857, Indian soldiers refused to obey the orders of company officers, and native officers declined to arrest or discipline them.  Initially, it was more a matter of silent contempt than open mutiny.  However, when all but five 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry soldiers refused to accept cartridges, their British commander, Lieutenant Colonel George Carmichael-Smyth, ordered courts-martial.  Most of these men received sentences of ten years imprisonment with hard labor.  Before marching the convicted men to jail, Smythe ordered them publicly stripped of their uniforms and shackled.

The opening of the rebellion occurred the next morning when rebels attacked and ransacked officers’ quarters.  Several British officers were killed, along with four civilian men, eight women, and eight children.  Crowds in the bazaar rebelled by attacking off-duty soldiers, beating to death fifty Indian civilians who served British officers, and attacked the post-jail, releasing the recently court-martialed soldiers.  News of this uprising fostered other rebellions across India at Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, and Lucknow.

Not everyone opposed the British East India Company, and neither were the Gurkhas alone in suppressing the mutiny.  Sikh princes supported the British, along with the princes of Hyderabad, Mysore, Travancore, Kashmir, and Rajputana.[8]  But the mutiny was unexpected and spread rapidly.  When the British began to deploy Gurkha forces, rebels panicked — as well as they should have.

The Gurkhas could not understand such disloyalty, and it angered them.  The last thing any reasonable person wants is an angry Gurkha standing before him.  The Gurkhas were unrelentingly ruthless toward the rebellious.  In one instance, a single Gurkha soldier chased down a dozen or more Wahhabi extremists; when the Gurkha was done with them, the Muslims lay dismantled in the gutter.

But the Gurkhas did not escape the 18-month-long insurrection unscathed.  They suffered terrible casualties.  The difference was, and what set them apart, is that no Gurkha, no matter how badly wounded, would leave his post.  Not even when offered safe conduct for medical attention would they leave the side of their battling comrades.  All other “loyal” units paled in comparison to the Gurkhas.  No one had the “jolly recklessness” of the Gurkha private.

The rebels of Lucknow paled when they learned that the Gurkhas would oppose them.  The fighting lasted for several months, but even from the first day, the rebels knew they were dead men walking.  Again — as always — the Gurkha was both relentless and unmerciful.

The Malayan Emergency

Gurkha battalions operated continuously throughout the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).  During this time, the Gurkha soldier proved again, as he had done in Burma, that the Gurkhas are superb jungle fighters.  The Gurkhas were among 40,000 regular British Commonwealth troops participating in the Malayan Emergency.  250,000 Malayan Home Guard troops augmented these men.

The Malayan Emergency was part of the post-World War II nationalist movements.  These were conflicts initiated by communist insurgents against pre-war colonial powers.  The initiating event in June 1948 was the murder of three Europeans during a communist assault on rubber plantations and the colonial government’s subsequent declaration of an emergency.

As in French Indochina, many of Malaya’s fighters were previously engaged as anti-Japanese nationalists, men trained and supplied by the British government during World War II.  Most communist rebels were ethnic Malayan or Chinese poorly treated by British colonial administrators over several decades.  The insurgents, when organized, began a series of assaults against British colonial police, military installations, tin mines, rubber plantations, and terrorist acts upon small, isolated villages.  At such time as the British had had enough of the murder and mayhem created by communist rebels, they sent in commonwealth forces, including the Gurkhas, to end it.

Organized as the 48th Gurkha Brigade (later, the 17th Gurkha Division), the British sent fighters from all four (then) existing Gurkha regiments (2nd, 6th, 7th, and 10th) and expanded (modernized) Gurkha fighting units by creating such combat support forces as engineers, signals, and transportation regiments. 

The Gurkha’s arrival in Malaya was a seminal event because it marked the beginning of the end of the communist insurgency there.  Unlike the US military in their later engagement in Vietnam, Gurkhas did not waste valuable time or effort trying to win the hearts and minds of the Malayan people.  They weren’t there for that … they were there to locate communists and kill them.  It was a mission-centered enterprise.  If there were going to be a contest for the hearts and minds of civilians, it would have to be won by the government’s civil administration.  Throughout their involvement in Malaya, the Gurkhas had few interactions with the civilian population.  At no time were Gurkhas deployed to protect villages.  They were after the “killer gangs” who behaved less as nationalist patriots than the armed thugs of jungle warlords.[9]

For the Gurkhas, jungle time was slow time.  Long-range patrols typically lasted two or three weeks (a few exceeded 100 days).  Soldiers carried a pack weighing around 90 pounds; it was all he needed for the duration of the patrol.  The Gurkhas dumped these heavy packs in a cache, mounting patrols in light order to sneak and peek.  The basic patrol unit often consisted of three men but sometimes involved as many as twelve.  The largest reconnaissance in force involved company-sized teams.

There was never any micro-management from a higher authority.  Unit commanders simply told their patrol leaders to “get on with it,” which gave these seasoned fighters maximum leeway in deciding how to proceed.  One of the favored Gurkha tactics was the ambuscade; some of these lasted from ten days to two weeks.  Such operations demand an unparalleled degree of self-discipline because an ambush is only successful when there are no unnecessary movements to reveal the ambusher’s position.  In truth, most ambushes yielded nothing at all.  Gurkhas killed most insurgents through chance encounters while patrolling.

Gurkhas relentlessly pursued their enemy for as long as it took until they rounded up or killed the communists.  Psychologically, such tenacity and commitment destroyed the communist’s self-confidence.  He could run, but he could not hide from the Gurkha combat patrol.  This was part of the strategy adopted by the British forces … keep the communists on the run.  Some of these forays lasted for twenty or more days, the limiting factor being the amount of ammunition carried by each soldier (sixty rounds).

What the Gurkhas accomplished in twelve years was extraordinary within the context of the overall strategy.  There was only limited use of artillery, and although the British employed light observation aircraft to support ground movements, there were no overwhelming air bombardment campaigns.  What fighting the Gurkha did, they did with their standard issue firearm, kukri knives, and their fighting spirit.  At the end of the day, Gurkha units didn’t need B-52s, artillery, or tanks.  They were in Malaya for one essential purpose: locate the enemy and kill him — and the way to do that most effectively was to terrorize the terrorists.  This is how the Gurkha won the Malayan Emergency.

Conclusion

Presently, the Gurkha contingent of the British Army includes the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, the King’s Gurkha Signals (five squadrons), King’s Gurkha Engineers (two squadrons), the 10th King’s Own Gurkha Logistics Regiment, the Band of the Brigade of Gurkhas, the Gurkha Company, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, a company at the Infantry Battle School, and one company at the Land Warfare Center.

In 1945, Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung was stationed in a trench with only two other men when over 200 Japanese soldiers opened fire. Gurung’s comrades were severely wounded in the opening fusillade.  As hand grenades fell on the Gurkhas, Gurung tried to throw each one back one after another.  He was successful with the first two, but the third exploded in his right hand. His fingers were blown off, and his face, body, and right arm and leg were severely wounded.  As the Japanese stormed the trench, Gurung used his left hand to wield his rifle, defeating 31 enemies and preventing the Japanese from advancing. Gurung survived his wounds and was awarded the Victoria Cross.

In 1949, the British selected former Gurkha soldiers for service in the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force, which replaced the Sikh unit that existed before Japan’s occupation of Singapore.  These police are well-trained and highly disciplined.  They mainly perform as riot police and as an emergency reaction force.  In Brunei, a Gurkha Reserve Unit serves as a special guard and elite shock force of around 500 men.

In 2008, Taliban insurgents ambushed a squad of Gurkhas, hitting Private Yubraj Rai.  Captain Gajendera Angdembe and Riflemen Dhan Gurung and Manju Gurung carried Rai across 325 yards of open ground under heavy fire.  The Gurkha leave no soldier behind – ever.  In 2010, Acting Sergeant Dipprasad Pun single-handedly fought off thirty Taliban soldiers.  It took him an hour, but all the enemy lay dead in the end.  Pun received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross.

The highest and most prestigious decoration in the British honors system is the Victoria Cross.  The qualification for this decoration is exceptionally valorous conduct “in the presence of the enemy,” with posthumous awards authorized when appropriate.  At one time, all member states of the British Empire participated in the British honors system, but since the beginning of the British Commonwealth of Nations, many such countries have devised their own honors system.  The Australians, for example, created The Victoria Cross for Australia —which looks similar to the British Victoria Cross.

So far, British authorities have awarded 1,358 Victoria Crosses to 1,355 men.  The greatest number of Victoria Crosses awarded for valorous conduct on a single day was 24 for individual actions on 16 November 1857 at Lucknow and Narnoul.  The most medals awarded in a single conflict was 658 during World War I.  There are five living holders of the VC: one RAF (World War II), three British Army (Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, Iraq War, and Afghanistan War), and one Australian Army (Vietnam War).  Of the total awarded, 26 went to men serving with Gurkha regiments, 13 of whom were native Nepalese enlisted men.  Britain’s second highest award “for acts of the greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger, not in the presence of the enemy” is the George Cross.  Gurkha enlisted men have earned two such medals.

Sources:

  1. Barber, N.  War of the Running Dogs.  London: Collins Press, 1971.
  2. Barthorp, M.  Afghan Wars, and the North-West Frontier, 1839-1947.  Cassell Publishing, 2002.
  3. Chauhan, S. V.  The Way of Sacrifice: The Rajput.  University of Toronto, 1996.
  4. Cross, J. P. and Buddhiman Gurung.  Gurkhas at War: Eyewitness Accounts from World War II to Iraq.  Greenhill Books, 2002.
  5. Masters, J.  Bugles and a Tiger: Autobiography of the life and times of a British officer serving with the Gurkha Regiment in India in the run-up to World War II.  Handley, 1956.
  6. Parker, J.  The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers.  Headline Books, 2005.
  7. Thompson, R.  Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam.  London, Praeger Publishing, 1966.

Endnotes:

[1] Warren Hastings (1732-1818) served as governor of Bengal, head of the Supreme Council of Bengal, and along with Robert Clive, was responsible for the foundation of the British Empire in India.  Hastings achieved this by siding with one ethnic group against another and then conquering both — which eventually expanded British influence over the entire subcontinent.

[2] Major General Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) was a Massachusetts-born EIC officer who eventually served as Ambassador in Residence in Delhi, India.

[3] The number of combat decorations issued to Gurkhas is significant because traditionally, the British military is niggardly in awarding them. 

[4] A VCO lieutenant colonel was subordinate to a KCO second lieutenant. 

[5] The company recruited on behalf of three separate “presidential armies”: Bombay, Madras, and Bengal.

[6] A social stratification characterized by heredity, occupation, ritual status, and customary social interactions and exclusions based on such cultural notions as purity and pollution.  Although not confined to India, most people think of India when they think of caste systems.  Dating back 3,000 years, the caste system divides Hindus into four main categories, and this is determined by what they were in their past life.  These beliefs persist to the present day because they are deeply rooted in the Hindu religion. 

[7] More recently, it was claimed that American PsyOps programs floated rumors among Muslims that American soldiers dipped their small-arms ammunition in pork fat before loading their magazines — thus guaranteeing that the shot Muslim would go to hell.

[8] Sikhism is a hybrid between Hindu and Islamic belief systems.

[9] Malayan communists based their strategy on the fanciful assumption that communist victory in China would in some way presage Mao Zedong’s liberation of the much-maligned Chinese ethnics in Southeast Asia.  When the communists understood that a communist China gobbling up huge chunks of Southeast Asia was little more than madcap fantasy, the morale of Malayan killer gangs and jungle fighters collapsed.  This stands in stark contrast to the Vietnam War, where the communists were ethnic Vietnamese whose singular purpose was the reunification of the nation under a communist flag.


Marine Corps Artillery — Part 1

The Early Years

Mission

— Furnish close and continuous fire support by neutralizing, destroying, or suppressing targets that threaten the success of supported units.  To accomplish this mission, Marine Corps artillery (a) provides timely, close, accurate, and continuous fire support.  (b) Provides depth to combat by attacking hostile reserves, restricting movement, providing long-range support for reconnaissance forces, and disrupting enemy command and control systems and logistics installations.[1]  (c) Delivers counter-fire within the range of the weapon systems to ensure freedom of action by the ground forces.

Historical Note

For half of its 245-years, the U.S. Marine Corps has operated as a task-organized, mission-centered expeditionary force capable of quickly responding to any national emergency when so directed by the national military command authority.  The term “task organized” simply means that the size of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) depends entirely on the mission assigned to it.  A Marine Corps combat team could range from a rifle company to a reinforced brigade.

Before the Spanish-American War, when the mission of the Marine Corps was limited to providing sea-going detachments of qualified riflemen, the size of the Corps depended on the number of ships that required Marine Detachments.[2]  The mission of the Marine Corps has changed considerably since the Spanish-American War.  The U.S. Navy’s evolving role is one factor in the changing Marine Corps mission, but so too is advancing technological development and a greater demand for the Corps’ unique mission capabilities.  One thing hasn’t changed: The Marine Corps has always been —and remains today— essentially a task-organized service.  Today, we refer to all forward-deployed Marine Corps combat forces as Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs).

The Basics

Artillery lends dignity to what would otherwise be an ugly brawl.

—Frederick the Great

Artillery is a weapons platform used for launching munitions beyond the range of infantry weapons.  Modern artillery evolved from much-simpler weapons in ancient times — used to breach fortifications and by defensive forces to withstand an enemy assault.  Although not referred to as artillery, siege engines such as the catapult have been around since around 400 BC.  Until the development of gunpowder, the effectiveness of artillery depended on mechanical energy.  If one wanted to increase the effectiveness of such weapons, then one would have to construct larger engines.  Gunpowder changed all that.  For instance, first-century Roman catapults launching a 14-pound stone could achieve kinetic energy of 16,000 joules.[3]  A 12-pound gun in the mid-19th century reached kinetic energy of 240,000 joules.

In the Middle Ages, artillerists adapted their weapons to support land armies.  They accomplished this by constructing horse-drawn wagons to provide mobility to heavy weapons.  Before the 20th century, when artillerists (gun crews) marched along beside the horse-drawn wagons, field artillery was commonly referred to as “foot artillery.”  There was also a distinction between field artillery and horse artillery; the latter was used to support cavalry units, employing lighter guns and, eventually, horse-mounted gun crews.  During World War I, technology changed horse-drawn artillery to wheeled or tracked vehicles.

Marine Corps Artillery: The Early Years

In addition to serving as shipboard riflemen, early Marines also manned naval guns.  This may be the Corps’ earliest connection to the use of artillery.  There are differences between the employment of naval vs. land artillery, but the fundamentals are similar.  Nevertheless, the evolution of Marine artillery is linked to the growth of the Corps, and the modern development of the Corps began at the outset of the Spanish-American War.  Marines have performed amphibious raids and assaults from its very beginning, but only as small detachments, often augmented by members of the ship’s crew (ship’s company).  The Marine Corps formed its first (task-organized) amphibious battalion in the Spanish-American War.  In that episode, the Corps distinguished itself as a naval assault force and proved its usefulness in projecting naval power ashore.  See also: The First Marine Battalion.

As the U.S. Navy grew into a global force, the Marine Corps grew with it.[4]  Within a few decades, the Marine Corps evolved from shipboard detachments and providing security for naval yards and stations to a force capable of seizing and defending advanced bases and forming and employing expeditionary assault forces.  Artillery played a vital role in this evolution. From that time on, innovative thinkers helped make the Marine Corps relevant to the ever-evolving nature of war and its usefulness to our national defense.

The Marine Corps developed tables of organization and equipment (TO/E) to standardize requirements for combat and combat support personnel and their equipment.  For example, all infantry, artillery, and combat support battalions are uniformly organized.  Artillery regiments (generally) have the same number of battalions, battalions have the same number of batteries, and all headquarters/firing batteries are likewise similar in composition.[5]  Organizational standardization remains a key element used by headquarters staff in determining whether or the extent to which Marine Corps units are combat-ready.

Infantry is the mission of the Marine Corps — projecting naval power ashore.  The mission for anyone who is not an infantryman is to support the infantryman.  The mission of Marine Corps artillery reflects this reality.

Following the Spanish-American War (1898), the Marine Corps developed the Advanced Base Force.  This was essentially a coastal and naval base defense battalion designed to establish mobile and fixed bases in the event of major landing operations outside the territorial limits of the United States.  The Advanced Base Force was a significant shift away from the Marine Corps’ mission up to that time.  It marked the beginning of Marine expeditionary forces.

The Advanced Base Force was useful because it enabled the Navy to meet the demands of maritime operations independent of the nation’s land force, the U.S. Army.  This decision was far more than an example of service rivalry; it was practical.  In many cases, troops, and supplies (as the Army might have provided) were simply unavailable at the time and place the Navy needed them.  The General Board of the Navy determined, at least initially, that no more than two regiments of Advance Base Forces would be required from the Marine Corps.[6]  In those days, Advanced Base Battalions had one artillery battery (to provide direct fire support to the battalion) and naval shore batteries to defend against hostile naval forces.

In July 1900, a typical Marine artillery unit was equipped with 3-inch guns and colt automatic weapons.  The Marine Corps organized its first artillery battalion in April 1914 at Vera Cruz, Mexico.  This battalion would become the foundation of the 10th Marine Regiment, which distinguished itself in combat in the Dominican Republic in 1916.

First World War

Global war didn’t just suddenly appear at America’s doorstep in 1917; it had as its beginnings the Congress of Vienna in 1814.  By the time the United States entered World War I,  the war to end all wars was already into its third year of bloody mayhem.  During those three years, the American press continually reported on such incidents as German submarine attacks on U.S. commercial shipping and a German proposal to Mexico for an invasion of states in the U.S. Southwest.  There is no evidence that Mexico ever gave serious consideration to Germany’s proposal.

To prepare for America’s “possible” involvement, Congress authorized an expansion of the Marine Corps to include two infantry brigades, two air squadrons, and three regiments of artillery.  The three artillery regiments and their initial date of activation were: the 11th Marines (3 January 1918), the 10th Marines (15 January 1918), and the 14th Marines (26 November 1918).

Major General Commandant George Barnett wanted to form a Marine infantry division for duty in France; General John J. Pershing, U.S. Army, commanding the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) not only opposed the formation of a Marine infantry division, but he also wasn’t fond of the idea of Marine Corps artillery regiments.[7], [8]

When the Commanding Officer of the 11th Marines became aware of Pershing’s objection to Marine artillery, he petitioned the Commandant to re-train his regiment as an infantry organization.  Thus, in September 1918, the 11th Marines deployed to France as an infantry regiment of the 5th Marine Brigade.  However, once the 5th Brigade arrived in France, General Pershing exercised his prerogative as overall American commander to break up the brigade and use these men as he saw fit.  Pershing assigned most of these Marines to non-combat or combat support duties.  Upon returning to the United States in August 1919, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) deactivated the 11th Marines.

The Commanding Officer of the 10th Marines also pushed for service in France.  The regiment was equipped with 3-inch guns.  Since there were no 3-inch guns in France, the War Department (Army) barred the 10th Marines from European service.  When the Navy offered to convert 14-inch naval rifles for use as rail guns (mounted on train cars), the War Department conditionally approved the suggestion (along with a 7-inch weapon) — but only so long as the Navy used sailors to man the guns, not Marines.[9]  Eventually, the Navy negotiated a compromise with the Army: sailors would handle the 14-inch guns, and the 10th Marines would service the 7-inch guns.  The 10th Marines began training with the 7-inch guns in early October 1918.  The war ended on 11 November 1918.  On 1 April 1920, the 10th Marine regiment was re-designated as the 1st Separate Field Artillery Battalion, which had, by then, incorporated French 75-mm and 155-mm howitzers.

The 14th Marines, having been trained as both infantry and artillery, never deployed to Europe.  The result of political/in-service rivalry was that no Marine Corps artillery units participated in World War I.

(Continued next week)

Sources:

  1. Brown, R. J.  A Brief History of the 14th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1990
  2. Buckner, D. N.  A Brief History of the 10th Marines.  Washington: US Marine Corps History Division, 1981
  3. Butler, M. D.  Evolution of Marine Artillery: A History of Versatility and Relevance.  Quantico: Command and Staff College, 2012.
  4. Emmet, R.  A Brief History of the 11th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1968
  5. Kummer, D. W.  U. S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001-2009.  Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014.
  6. Russ, M.  Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.
  7. Shulimson, J., and C. M. Johnson.  U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup, 1965.  Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1978.
  8. Smith, C. R.  A Brief History of the 12th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1972.
  9. Strobridge, T. R.  History of the 9th Marines.  Quantico: Gray Research Center, 1961, 1967.

Endnotes:

[1] Also, shaping the battle space.

[2] The size of the detachment depended on the size of the ship.

[3] A measure of energy equal to the work done by a force of one newton when its point of application moves one meter in the direction of action of the force, equivalent to one 3600th of a watt hour.  A newton is equal to the force that would give a mass of one kilogram an acceleration of one meter per second – per second.

[4] If there is a “father of the modern navy,” then it must be Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), whom historian John Keegan believes is the most important strategist of the 19th Century and, perhaps, the most influential American author of his time (1890).  Mahan’s writing so influenced Theodore Roosevelt that it led him to pursue modernization of the US Navy as the key to achieving America’s full potential as an actor on the world stage.

[5] Currently, infantry battalions consist of “lettered” rifle companies.  Artillery battalions consist of “lettered” firing batteries.  In the past, when the primary mission of a combat organization was infantry, subordinate units were generally referred to as companies, even when one of those subordinate units was an artillery unit.

[6] Established in 1900, the General Board of the Navy was tasked to anticipate and plan for future tasks,  missions, and strategic challenges and make recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy on matters of naval policy, including the task organization of naval expeditionary forces.

[7] Senior army officers had legitimate concerns with regard to the incorporation of Marines into field armies during World War I.  Beyond the fact that army officers did not see a need for a Corps of Marines, and regarded them as a “waste of manpower” that could be better utilized in the army, the naval forces operated under a different system of laws and regulations.  Perhaps the question in the minds of some senior army officers was whether the Marines would obey the orders of their army commanders.

[8] Prior to World War I, it was common practice for shipboard Marine Detachments to form provisional (temporary) organizations for specific purposes.  In most instances, such organizations involved provisional battalions, but occasionally the Marines also formed provisional regiments and brigades.  When the mission assigned to these provisional organizations was completed, brigades, regiments, and battalions would deactivate, and the Marines assigned to such organizations would return to their regular assignments.  Marine regiments did not have formally structured battalions until after World War I.  Instead, regiments were composed of numbered companies (e.g., 24th Company).  One of the army’s concerns was that the use of Marine formations within Army units would only confuse ground commanders and further complicate the battlefront.  It was during World War I that the Marine Corps adopted the Army’s regimental system.  Rifle companies were formed under battalions, and battalion commanders answered to their respective regimental commanders.

[9] Before 1947, the Secretary of War (Army) and Secretary of the Navy operated as co-equal cabinet posts.  After the creation of the Department of Defense, all military secretaries, service chiefs, and combat forces operated under the auspices of the Secretary of Defense (except the Coast Guard, which at first operated under the Treasury Department and now operates under the Department of Homeland Security).


No Excuses — Fight or Die

Introduction

Archaeologists and historians will say that maritime history dates back “thousands” of years, citing evidence of sea trade between ancient civilizations and the discovery of pre-historic boats, such as dugout canoes developed somewhat independently by various stone age populations.  Of course, fashioning out a handmade canoe and using it to cross a river may not exactly qualify as “maritime.”  Nor should we conclude that Austronesian explorers qualified as a naval force, per se, but it was a start.

Egyptians had well-developed trade routes over the Red Sea to Arabia.  Navigation was known to the Sumerians between 4,000-3,000 B.C., and it was the search for trade routes that led the world into the Age of Exploration and Discovery.

Minoan traders from Crete were active in the Mediterranean by 2,000 B.C., and the Phoenicians (ancient Lebanese) became a somewhat substantial maritime culture from around 2,500 to 64 B.C.  What the ancient Syrians, Greeks, and Romans knew of sailing vessels, they learned from the Phoenicians.  At least, that’s what we believe.

Ancient Rome

The Romans were an agricultural/land-based culture.  There is evidence of a “warship” that carried a Roman ambassador to Delphi in 394 BC, but history’s first mention of a Roman navy didn’t occur until 311 B.C.  In that year, citizens of Rome elected two men to serve as “naval officers,” charging them with creating and maintaining a fleet of ships.  They were called Duumviri Navales (literally, “two men for dealing with naval matters).  Each officer controlled twenty ships.  There is some confusion, however, whether these officers exercised command over Roman ships or those of Roman allies. The ships were very likely triremes — a type of galley with three banks of oars (one man per oar).

Because Rome was a land-based culture, its primary defense and expansionist element was its land army.  Maritime trade did become an important element of the Roman economy, but this trade involved privately owned ships who assumed the risk of losses at sea due to storms and pirates rather than “Roman flagged” vessels.  When Rome did incorporate naval warships, they always served in a support role and as part of the Roman Army.  Any career soldier today will tell you that’s the way it should be — but then this would be the same kind of soldier who thought it would be a good idea to use camels in the U.S. Cavalry.

Artist’s rendition of a Roman Galley

Ships capable of survival at sea were always an expensive proposition, and comparatively speaking, there were never large numbers of people standing in line to go to sea.  Men of the ancient world were always fearful of the sea (as they should be even now).  To avoid the expense of building and maintaining ships, a Roman legate generally called upon Greeks to provide ships and crews whenever necessary to impose blockades.

It wasn’t until the Romans set their sights on Sicily in 265 BC that they realized that their land-based army needed the support of a fleet of ships to maintain a flow of supplies and communicate with the Roman Senate.  This realization prompted the senate to approve the construction of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes in 261 B.C.[1] [2]  Note also that quinqueremes were referred to as “the fives” because the rowers were arranged in groups of five. The Romans arranged their ships’ company as centuries (100 men per ship).  Contrary to Hollywood films, Roman crews, particularly the rowers, were seldom slaves.  Roman crewmen were free-born citizens or provincials who signed on as rowers, artisans, riggers, or Marinus (Marines).

To the Marines (naval infantry) fell the task of defending their ship or assaulting an enemy vessel.  This was accomplished by archers, followed by boarders armed with the Roman gladii (short sword).  Thus, the primary tactical objective at sea was to board and seize enemy ships.  What a fantastic experience that must have been.  Boarding activities remained prevalent long after the advent of sailing ships, gunpowder, and massive cannon.

Naval Forces in the Middle Ages

Beginning sometime after 1300 rowed A.D. galleys were replaced by sailing ships armed with broadside-mounted cannons. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this innovation because combining the striking power of massed artillery with shipboard Marines firing from the topsail rigging was an enormous leap forward in naval warfare.  Equally significant, naval power became the means by which Europeans created and maintained their overseas empires.

However, early in the Elizabethan era, ships were thought of as little more than transport vehicles for troops. The goal then was to corral an enemy ship, storm it, and capture it.  There was no value to sinking an enemy ship.[3]  A sea captain could sell a captured ship, its cargo, and occasionally, he could ransom passengers and crew or sell them into slavery.[4]

Beginning in medieval times, the design of ships emphasized resistance to boarders.  A ship’s aft and forecastle, for example, closely resembled towering fortresses bristling with archery and gun slits.  Necessity being the mother of invention, maritime tactics evolved further when it became apparent that defeating the enemy would require “other means.”

The Royal Navy’s Articles of War

What the United States Navy knew about operations at sea it learned from the British Royal Navy, and if we are to understand how the Royal Navy became the world’s most formidable sea power, then we must look to the British Navy’s Articles of War.  The Articles of War governed how men in uniform conducted themselves under almost every set of circumstances, including during combat.

To begin with, a British navy commander’s defeat at sea was never acceptable to either the sovereign, the admiralty, or to the Parliament.  The commanding officer of a British warship must engage the enemy and defeat him, or he must die in the attempt — even if the British ship was “outclassed.”  The standard applied to naval warfare in the 1700s and 1800s was that a British naval commander entrusted with the control of a warship should defeat an enemy ship twice as large as his own.  Fighting the vessel was the British commander’s first critical mission; winning the fight was the second.

Article XII, Articles of War, 1749: 

Every person in the Fleet, who through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall in time of action withdraw or keep, or not come into the fight or engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty’s Ships, or those of his allies, which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve, every such person so offending, and being convicted thereof the sentence of a court-martial, shall suffer death.”

Before 1749, British naval officers had demonstrated a tendency to refuse to engage the enemy if there was any possibility that the British ship would be lost.  This behavior was, perhaps, caused in part by common sense and the fact that naval courts refused to inflict severe punishments on such officers.  The Articles of War of 1661 allowed that losses at sea could result from the ill fortunes of nature, but Article XII ruled out all such excuses. 

Nor was there, after 1749, a great deal of “special trust and confidence” in the fidelity and ability of British naval commanders.  We know this because it was the duty of the ship’s First Lieutenant to maintain a log of his captain’s actions — he was the ship’s watchdog.  If the First Lieutenant had formed a too-personal relationship with his captain, other lieutenants were encouraged to watch and record the actions of the First Lieutenant.  The ship’s master also maintained a journal.[5]  The Royal Navy’s intent was clear: there would be no lying or “fudging” journals in His or Her Majesty’s navy.[6]

Nothing was more motivational, however than case law.

The island of Minorca had been a British possession since 1708, captured during the War of Spanish Succession.  In 1748, government cost-cutting measures reduced the Royal Navy to three ships of the line in the Mediterranean Sea.  As the British sought to expand their territory in North America in 1754, hostilities broke out between the British and French (and their Indian allies), quickly spreading to British and French allies in Europe.

In 1755, France began the process of constructing twelve new warships.  British diplomats warned the Home Office that France would soon be in a position to attack Minorca.  Lord High Admiral George Anson, out of his concern of a possible French invasion of England, recalled the Mediterranean squadron and assigned them to patrol duties along England’s long coastline.  The Royal Navy could not afford to lose three ships of the line.

On 11 March 1756, the British Admiralty ordered Admiral John Byng to raise a fleet of ten ships, proceed to Toulon to protect the British garrison at Port Mahon.  However, only six ships were present in Portsmouth, and all of them were in a state of disrepair (not ready for sea).  Moreover, none of those ships were fully manned.  Admiral Byng, realizing that there was no money to repair the vessels or construct four additional ships and because no one in England was willing to enlist in the Royal Navy, struggled to find a solution to the problem.  There were no solutions.  Admiral Byng promptly protested his orders.  What the Admiralty demanded of him was impossible to achieve.

The Admiralty eventually provided funds for ship repairs and instructed Byng to carry out his orders.  When shipwrights informed Byng that repairs would take longer than expected, the Admiralty ordered Byng to outfit channel ships and proceed to Port Mahon in advance of his somewhat diminished fleet.[7]

On 6 April, still short of men, the British army loaned the navy Colonel Robert Bertie’s fusilier regiment, enabling Admiral Byng to set sail from Portsmouth.[8]  While Byng was en route to Toulon, a fleet of French naval vessels escorted 1,000 tartanes and other transports carrying 15,000 French troops to the far western side of Minorca.[9]

Upon his arrival at Gibraltar, Admiral Byng reported to the senior officer, Lieutenant General Thomas Fowke.  In their meeting, Byng presented Fowke with a letter from the British Home Office instructing him to provide Admiral Byng with such troops as he may require toward completing his mission.

When Byng realized that the French had landed a large force of soldiers at Minorca, he requested a regiment of Royal Marines to bolster his forces.  General Fowke refused.  His refusal may have had some justification if, for example, providing the Marines would have reduced Fowke’s ability to defend the British garrison as Gibraltar.  In any case, Admiral Byng’s problem was further complicated because the ship repair facility at Gibraltar was inadequate to the task of repairing his ships.  Frustrated, Byng dispatched a terse note to the Admiralty explaining his situation and then, despite his dire circumstances, sailed toward Minorca to assess the situation first hand.

The Battle of Minorca was fought on 20 May 1756.  Byng had gained the weather gauge[10] and ordered a lasking maneuver[11] but his lead ship, HMS Defiance, rather than steering directly toward the enemy’s front, took a course parallel to that of the French fleet — with HMS Portland, Buckingham, and Lancaster, following in trace.  The delay in getting his ships back into the proper formation allowed the French to make the rest of the battle a running fight.

After a battle of around four hours in duration, the French successfully withdrew from Minorca with 38 dead seamen and 168 wounded.  Admiral Byng suffered extensive damage to one ship and the loss of 43 sailors killed and 173 wounded.  Still, Byng took up station near Minorca for four days.  After holding a council of war with his captains, Admiral Byng decided to return to Gibraltar for repairs, arriving on 19 June.

Before Byng could return to sea, a ship arrived from England with dispatches.  The Admiralty relieved Byng of his command, the Home Office relieved General Fowke of his command, and both men were ordered back to England to face court-martial charges. 

Upon arrival in England, authorities took Byng and Fowke into custody; both men received courts-martial.  The Home Office charged General Fowke with disobeying an order to support Byng with troops.[12]  The Admiralty charged Byng with violating Article XII, failing to do his duty against the enemy.

Admiral Byng’s court-martial resulted in an acquittal on the charge of cowardice, but he was found guilty of failing to exercise command of his fleet and failing to engage the enemy.  He was sentenced to death by firing squad.

Admiral of the Fleet John Forbes, Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, was the officer who defeated the French at the Battle of Toulon in 1744.  It fell upon Forbes to sign Byng’s death warrant.  Forbes refused to sign the warrant because he believed Byng’s sentence was excessive and illegal.  King George II refused to grant clemency to Byng and further declined to approve Prime Minister William Pitt’s recommendation for commutation.  Thus, on 14 March 1757, Admiral Byng was escorted to the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch and shot dead by a squad of Royal Marines.

Article XII established the standard for command responsibility, but Byng’s court-martial set the legal precedent: a commanding officer is responsible for the actions of his subordinates.  If a junior officer runs the ship aground, the captain is responsible.  If a ship’s commander fails to maneuver his vessel properly, his senior officer is responsible.  If a captain fails to fight his ship, his admiral is responsible.

The American Navy

The power of Congress to regulate the Army and Navy was first established during the Second Continental Congress, which on 30 June 1775, legislated 69 Articles of War to govern the conduct of the Continental Army (which, at the time, also included the Navy).  The Articles of War, 1775, were not identical to the Articles of War promulgated by Great Britain but quite similar.  Congress retained this power in the U.S. Constitution, promulgated within Article I, section 8, stating, “It shall be the power of the Congress to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”

On 10 April 1806, Congress enacted 101 Articles of War.  These were not significantly revised until 1912 and remained in effect until 31 May 1951, when Congress developed and implemented the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

Notably, Article 52 of the Articles of War (1806) stated:

 “Any officer or soldier, who shall misbehave himself before the enemy, run away, or shamefully abandon any fort, post, or guard, which he or they may be commanded to defend, or speak words inducing others to do the like, or shall cast away his arms and ammunition, or who shall quit his post or colours [sic] to plunder and pillage, every such offender, being duly convicted thereof, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall be ordered by the sentence of a general court-martial.”

About navy fighting formations

There were only a few fighting formations of a naval fleet under sail.  Responsibility for selecting which formation (or variation) employed during a sea battle fell to the fleet admiral (or commodore): line ahead,[13] line abreast, and line of bearing.  The admiral also determined sailing order — first ship in line, second, and so forth.  In establishing his combat formation, the fleet admiral would attempt to gain the weather gauge and signal his intent to subordinate commanders through signal flags.

The line ahead formation did not allow for concentration of fire because, for naval guns to be effective on a rolling platform, combatants had to close to 300 — 500 yards of the enemy.  The most devastating assault came from raking fire, initiated either from the bow or stern where cannon shot would do the most damage by traveling the length of the enemy ship.

Admiral Horatio Nelson was the first British officer to break the line in 1797 and again in 1805.  His instruction to his captains was, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of his enemy.”  Breaking the enemy’s line disrupted the enemy’s cohesion and made it possible to overwhelm individual ships and seize them.  Again, the primary aim of the battle formation was to board and capture the enemy’s ships.

Boarding Operations

Boarding Operations may be the world’s oldest example of naval warfare.  The boarding of an enemy vessel, or a friendly one to capture it from pirates and other low vermin, is an example of up close and personal extremism — which more or less defines all close combat.  To achieve cross-ship boarding, the offending vessel needed to sail alongside the enemy vessel and direct an assault onto the enemy vessel.  The individuals performing this operation were sailors and Marines who were (and are) trained for such missions.  In the days of sail, sailors performed the task when the attacking ship was too small for a detachment of Marines.

Armed with swords, cutlasses, pistols, muskets, boarding axes, pikes, and grenades, the boarding party attacked the enemy crew, beginning with the helmsman and officer of the watch, or the ship’s captain if present on the bridge, all gun crews, and any other crewman left alive.  Again, the purpose of boarding operations was to seize the ship, which was always the intent of privateers and pirates — even today.

Captain John Paul Jones conducted a classic example of boarding operations during the American Revolution.  Jones’ Marines assaulted HMS Serapis from the sinking USS Bonhomme Richard in 1779.  Captain Jones’s boarding operation is exemplary because it was the only known fight during the Age of Sail when a ship’s captain captured an enemy ship while losing his own.  In 1813, the British returned the compliment by boarding and seizing USS Chesapeake from HMS Shannon.

Boarding enemy ships was also the purpose of the “cutting out” operations during the Age of Sail.  To “cut out” is to seize and carry off an enemy vessel while at anchor in a harbor or at sea.  The operation would typically target a small warship (a brig, sloop, or a two-masted ship of fewer than 20 guns).  Cutting out operations avoided larger ships because of the crew size (300 or so men).

A cutting-out party would generally include sailors and Marines who began the assault in the dark of night.  For an example of a cutting-out operation, see also At the Heart of the Corps and the capture of the Sandwich during the Quasi-War with France.

Boarding operations are rare in modern times.  U. S. Marines conducted their last boarding operation during the Mayaguez Incident in 1975, which involved a vertical assault from helicopters. Current operations may also involve small submarines and inflatable boats.  The U.S. Coast Guard routinely incorporates boarding operations as part of its maritime drug interdiction operations.

A Final Note

While the Uniform Code of Military Justice is a massive improvement over the articles of war, severe penalties are still prescribed for certain crimes.  The Manual for Courts-martial, Article 99 (Misbehavior Before the Enemy) includes, as offenses: (a) running away from a fight, (b) shamefully abandoning, surrendering, or delivering up any command, unit, place, or military property, which it is a duty to defend, (c) through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct, endanger the safety of any command, unit, place, or military property, (d) casting away arms (weapons) or ammunition, (e) displaying cowardly conduct, (f) quitting one’s place of duty to plunder or pillage, (g) causing false alarms, (h) willfully failing to do one’s utmost to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy enemy troops, combatants, vessels, aircraft, or any other thing, which it is a serviceman’s duty to do, and/or (i) failing to afford all practicable relief and assistance to troops, combatants, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces of the United States or their allies when engaged in battle.  Any person found guilty of these offenses shall face a maximum punishment of death.

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: U.S. Naval War College, 2020
  5. The Library of Congress, Military Legal Resources, online.
  6. Warming, R.  An Introduction to Hand-to-Hand Combat at Sea: General Characteristics and Shipborne Tactics from 1210 BCE to 1600 CE.  Academia College, 2019.
  7. Winthorpe, W.  Military Law and Precedents.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920.
  8. United States Constitution, Article I, section 8.

Endnotes:

[1] The quinquereme was the more common Hellenistic-era warship, and the heaviest at that particular time.  The Romans seized a Carthaginian ship, took it back to Rome, reverse-engineered it, and used it as a blueprint for Roman-made ships.  The quinquereme had three to five banks of oars.  The trireme had only three banks of oars but was much lighter and faster. 

[2] Roman commanders of these ships were “Magistrates,” who knew nothing of sailing ships, but they were supported by lower-ranking officers who were seasoned sailors (most likely Greek seamen). 

[3] Sinking ships as a naval strategy didn’t evolve until the mid-1800s when nations began building ironclad ships.

[4] In time, a ship’s captain would share the prize money with his crew as a reward for their victory at sea.

[5] The term “ship’s captain” is the traditional title of the person who serves in overall command of a ship.  The naval rank of that person could be Lieutenant, Commander, or Captain — but no matter what his rank, he is called “Captain.”  A ship’s master is the person who runs the ship (rather than commanding it).  He is the most experienced seaman, and what he doesn’t know about running a ship isn’t worth knowing.    

[6] One could understand this mindset in the British Army, where aristocrats bought and sold commissions.  Under those conditions, there was never a guarantee that a colonel knew what the hell he was doing.  The Royal Navy never sold commissions.  All navy officers were promoted on merit.

[7] Channel ships (or Packet Ships) were medium-sized vessels designed to carry mail, passengers, and cargo.  They were not suitable for sea battles with regular ships of the line. 

[8] A fusil is a flintlock musket; a fusilier is someone who shoots a fusil.  Also, musketeer or in modern parlance, a rifleman.

[9] A tartane was a small coastal trader/fishing vessel.

[10] Position of advantage in sea battles.

[11] A maneuver in which all ships turn into the enemy at once.

[12] King George II dismissed Fowke from the Army.  King George III later reinstated him.

[13] Line-ahead battle formation (also, Ship of the line warfare) was a columnar formation developed in the mid-17th Century whereby each ship followed in the wake of the ship ahead at regular intervals.  This formation maximized the firing power of the broadside and allowed for rapid “melee formation” or, if necessary, disengagement.  Note that a ship of the line was of the largest (most formidable) fighting ship used in the line of battle (formation). 


That Splendid Little War

The seeds of the Spanish-American War

Background to the Modern Navy

There are naval historians who will tell you that the United States Navy never shined so brightly as it did during the American Civil War.  There may not be a better example of Navy innovation than its advancements in ship design, technology, medicine, and expeditionary (brown water) operations.  These innovations convince some that the Civil War must be regarded as the world’s first modern conflict.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, the U.S. Navy had 6,700 officers, and around 52,000 enlisted men serving aboard 670 ships.  The Navy Department consisted of 89 individuals, including the Secretary of the Navy.  But for the twenty following years, the U.S. Navy entered a period of steady decline.  The Navy’s decline was not due to the inattention of any naval officer or senior official; it was simply the result of a Congress that did not believe the nation could afford a standing navy.  Within a decade following the Civil war, all but a few navy ships had been sold off, scrapped, or mothballed for some future crisis.

In February 1880, the U.S. Navy had 65 operating steam vessels, 22 ships under sail, and 26 old ironclad vessels.  Five years later Admiral David D. Porter noted, “It would be much better to have no navy at all than one like the present, half-armed with only half-speed unless we inform the world that our establishment is only intended for times of peace, and to protect missionaries against the South Sea savages and eastern fanatics.  One such ship as the British ironclad Invincible could put our fleet ‘hor de combat’ in a short time.”

The concept of a peacetime navy was finally embraced with Congressional approval for new battleships in 1890.  Within four years, the United States Navy ranked sixth in naval power behind Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and Germany.  Both political parties may claim credit for restoring the U.S. Navy, but in reality, it was all due to the attention and diligence of one man: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.

Background to Cuba and the Spanish Empire

Cuba, derived from the native Taino word Coabaña (Great Land), had been part of the Spanish Empire since 1494 when Columbus landed to carry out the Papal Bull of 1493, to conquer and convert West Indies pagans to Catholicism.

Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, the early 19th century witnessed three movements in Cuba: reformation, annexation, and independence.  After the removal of Ferdinand VII from the Spanish throne in 1808, Cuban creoles rebelled against Spanish authority and declared Cuba a sovereign state.  It was a brief period of independence because everyone involved was either executed or sent to prison in Spain.  The effects of Spanish authoritarianism were the development of several secret societies, all of which sought independence from Spain and all of whom became the focus of brutal suppression by Spain’s executive military commission.

 In 1868, Cuba was one of the few remaining locations of legalized slavery in the Western Hemisphere.  Cuban intellectuals felt terrible about that, of course.  Still, slavery was how Cubans achieved and maintained their vast wealth from sugar production, which explains slavery in Cuba.

The Plot to Aid Cubans

On 10 October 1868, certain landowners rallied the Cuban people to demand their independence from Spain; it later began the Ten Year’s War.  True to form, Spain employed its military to suppress the movement.  In the United States, President Ulysses S. Grant wondered if the United States should intervene; Secretary of State Hamilton Fish urged Grant to pursue a hands-off policy with Cuba.

As the insurrection continued, however, there developed an international sympathy for the Cuban people — including the empathy of the American press.  The American people responded to these press reports by actively supporting the Cuban people by purchasing bonds to help raise money for Cuban insurgents.  One patron of the Cuban insurgency was John F. Patterson, who was acting on behalf of the rebels when he purchased the former Confederate ship Virgin, lying idle in the Washington Navy Yard.  The ship was a side-wheeler designed as a blockade runner.  Patterson registered the ship in New York and renamed her Virginius.

At the same time, the United States had a vibrant business arrangement with Cuba, the consequence of which was the presence of U.S. Navy vessels charged with ensuring the protection of American citizens (and their business interests).  While in Cuban waters, the USS Kansas and USS Canandaigua protected Virginius, an American-flagged ship, from Spanish seizure. The ship operated for three years, funneling weapons, munitions, and men into Cuba.

In 1873, Patterson hired Joseph Fry as Master of Virginius.[1] Fry was an experienced seaman with fifteen years of service in the U.S. Navy before resigning in 1861 to join the Confederate States Navy.  After the war, Commodore Fry struggled to find worthwhile employment, so he understandably jumped at the opportunity to serve as the ships’ captain.

At the time Fry accepted his appointment, Virginius was moored in Kingston, Jamaica undergoing repairs.  Virginius was a tired ship in need of substantial rework, but Patterson and his Cuban allies could only afford to maintain essential seaworthiness.  The boilers were shot, but those repairs were far too expensive.  Fry discovered that most of the crew had deserted upon arriving in Jamaica, so he initiated a recruiting effort.

Of the 52 men hired, most were either American or British.  Many of these men were inexperienced seamen; most did not realize that the ship supported the Cuban rebellion.  Some of the crew were still boys, aged 13 and 14.  In those days, child labor was not an issue, and no one gave a second thought to youngsters taking on dangerous work.  While in Jamaica, the U.S. Consul met with Fry and warned him that if Spanish authorities ever captured him,  they would very likely have him executed.  Captain Fry did not believe the Spanish would execute a mere blockade runner and dismissed the warning out of hand.

The Executions

In mid-October 1873, Captain Fry and four mercenaries took the ship to Haiti, where Fry loaded ammunition and around 100 Cuban nationals.  A spy informed the Spanish when Virginius left port, and Spanish authorities dispatched the warship Tornado to capture her.  On 30 October, Tornado spotted Virginius approximately six miles off the Cuban coast and gave chase.  Virginius was heavily laden; the stress applied to barely adequate boilers made the vessel sluggish, and the ship began taking on water.  Tornado was a much faster ship — and heavily armed.  After sustaining some damage from Tornado’s guns, Fry surrendered the ship.  Spanish officers apprehended Fry, his crew, and all other passengers and transported them to Santiago de Cuba, where the Spanish military governor ordered them court-martialed for piracy.  The four mercenaries were put to death immediately, without trial.

The Executions

The Spanish court-martial found Fry and his crewmen guilty as charged.  Every man received a death sentence. U.S. Consul to Cuba, Henry C. Hall, protested the court-martial and imposed sentence, but the Spanish military authority ignored him.  As it happened, one of these condemned men claimed British citizenship.  Upon learning this, the British Consul to Cuba wired Jamaica and asked for the assistance of the Royal Navy to intervene in the scheduled executions.

The execution of Captain Fry and 37 of his crewman took place on 7 November.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the Spanish mutilated their remains and decapitated them to warn others.  An additional eight men were executed on 8 November.  However, the executions came to a halt when HMS Noble arrived and threatened to bombard Santiago — by this time, the Spanish had executed 53 men.

Until this time, the American press was reasonably conservative in reporting the Virginius incident, but when news of the executions became common knowledge, the press became aggressive in promoting the Cuban rebel’s position.  The New York Times, and other newspapers, urged war and demanded an end to Spanish colonies in the Americas.  Protests broke out all across the United States, with people demanding vengeance on Spain.  The British Ambassador to the United States even publicly opined that the American public was ready for war with Spain (which is by itself thought-provoking) and may suggest a British interest in such a confrontation.

The United States’ Response

After Consul Hall notified the State Department of Captain Fry’s arrest and court-martial on 4 November, Secretary Fish believed that it was simply another ship captured while aiding the Cuban rebellion, but at a cabinet meeting with the President on 7 November, the execution of the four mercenaries headed the agenda.  Present Grant determined that the United States would regard these executions as “an inhuman act not in accordance with the spirit of civilization of the nineteenth century.”  On the following day, Secretary Fish met with Spanish Ambassador Don José Polo de Barnabé to discuss the legality of Spain’s capture of a US-flagged ship.

At the next cabinet meeting on 11 November, President Grant (with the advice of his cabinet) determined that war with Spain was not desirable, but Cuban intervention was possible.  Then, on the following day, Secretary Fish learned that Spanish officials executed Captain Fry and 37 of his crew.  He cabled U.S. Minister Daniel Sickles in Spain, directing that he protest the executions and demand reparations for any American citizen killed.  On 13 November, Fish informed Spanish minister Polo that the United States would exercise a “freehand” in Cuba vis-à-vis the Virginius affair.  On 14 November, Grant’s cabinet agreed to close the Spanish legation unless Spain met U.S. demands for reparations.  Reports of other executions found their way into the White House.

On 15 November, Minister Polo visited Secretary Fish to inform him that Virginius was a pirate ship, that the crew posed a threat to the security of Spanish territory, and assured him that Spain would continue to act in its own national interests in this manner.  On that same day, Fish cabled Sickles again and instructed him as follows: (1) demand the return of Virginius to the United States, (2) release surviving crewmen, (3) offer a salute to the Flag of the United States, (4) punish the perpetrators of the inhuman crimes, and (5) pay an indemnity to the survivors of those killed.

The conversation between Sickles and Spanish Minister of State José Carvajal became testy, and Sickles concluded that an amicable settlement was not likely.  The Spanish press attacked the United States, Mr. Sickles, the British government and urged war with the United States.  Spanish President Emilio Castelar maintained a more relaxed attitude and resolved to settle the matter reasonably.

On 27 November, Minister Polo visited with Secretary Fish and proposed that Spain would relinquish Virginius and the remaining crew if the United States would agree to investigate the legal status of the ship’s ownership.  President Grant directed Fish to accept Spain’s proposals.  Grant suggested that the United States dispense with its demand that Spain render honors to the American flag if investigators determined that Virginius had no legal U.S. ownership.  A formal agreement to this effect was signed on 28 November — both governments would investigate the proprietorship of Virginius and any crimes perpetrated by any Spanish volunteers.

On 5 December, Fish and Polo signed an agreement that Spanish authorities would turn Virginius over to the U.S. Navy, with U.S. flag aloft, effective on 16 December at the port of Bahiá Honda.  Upon learning of this arrangement, Daniel Sickles resigned his post in protest.[2], [3]

Virginius

Virginius was returned to U.S. control as agreed on 17 December.  Spanish vessels towed Virginius to sea and turned her over to the U.S. Navy.  The ship was in complete disrepair and taking on water.  On the same day, U.S. Attorney George H. Williams determined that ownership of Virginius was fraudulent and that she was not entitled to fly the U.S. flag.  He also decided that Spain had every right to capture the ship on the open sea.

In January 1874, Spanish President Castelar was voted out of office and replaced by Francisco Serrano.  Sickle’s replacement was Caleb Cushing, a well-known attorney and Spanish scholar known for his calm demeanor.  Cushing opined that the U.S. was fortunate that Castelar had been Spain’s president up to that time because otherwise, Serrano’s temperament would have led to war between the U.S. and Spain.  Cushing’s primary duty involved obtaining reparations for the families of murdered crewmen and punishment for the official who ordered their executions.  By May 1874, Cushing had established himself with Spanish authorities as a reasonable and respectable man.

In June, Cushing notified Fish that the Spanish had agreed to proceed with negotiations for reparations.  In October, Cushing learned that President Castelar had secretly agreed to pay the British £7,700.  When President Grant learned of this agreement, he demanded $2,500 for each crewman executed. Each crewman not already identified as a British citizen would be regarded as an American.  Minister Polo’s replacement, Antonio Mantilla, agreed to the demand.  However, the actual payment was placed “on hold” when, in December, Spain reverted to a monarchy, and Alfonso XII became King of Spain.

Under an agreement on 7 February 1875, signed on 5 March, Spain paid the United States $80,000.00 for the killing of the American crewmen.  Spain’s case against General Don Juan Burriel, the officer who ordered the executions, which the Spanish government judged illegal, was taken up by the Spanish Tribunal of the Navy in June 1876, but Burriel died in December 1877 before any trial convened.

At the time of the Virginius Affair, the Spanish ironclad Arapiles anchored at New York Harbor for repairs.  During this visitation, the U.S. Navy realized that it had no ship that could defeat Arapiles; it was an awareness that prompted Secretary of War George M. Robeson to urge the modernization of the American fleet.  Congress subsequently authorized the construction of five new ironclad ships — all five of these ships participated in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

War with Spain (1898)

In 1898, the Spanish Empire was in decline.  It had experienced the Peninsular War (1807-1814), the loss of most of its colonies during the independence movements of the early 1800s, and three civil wars between 1832-1876.  Liberal Spanish elites, including Emilio Castelar, undertook efforts to bring the Old Empire into the age of New Nationalism.  Spanish conservatives, on the other hand, a prideful lot, sought to maintain their traditional sense of Spanish Imperial superiority.

In 1823, President James Monroe published his doctrine, which served as notice to European powers that the United States would not tolerate the expansion of European interests in the Western Hemisphere, nor their interference in newly independent states.  The U.S. would, however, respect the status of existing European colonies.  Before the Civil War, certain southern interests encouraged the U.S. government to purchase Cuba from Spain; they envisioned, of course, a slave state.  Known as the Ostend Manifesto, proposed in 1854, anti-slavery interests vigorously opposed it.

After the Civil War, U.S. business interests began monopolizing sugar markets in Cuba.  In 1894, 90% of Cuba’s total exports went to the United States, approximately 12 times its exports to Spain.  Thus, Spain may have exercised suzerainty over Cuba, but economic power fell within the realm of the United States.

Meanwhile, before he died in 1894, Jose Marti established “Cuba Libre” movement offices in Florida to help influence U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.  The face of Cuban nationalism was vested in Tomas Estrada Palma.  His junta organized fund-raising events in the United States established relationships with the American press and helped organize the smuggling of weapons and munitions into Cuba.  Palma’s propaganda campaign generated enormous support for Cuba’s resistance to Spanish authoritarianism.  No one in the U.S. at the time had any interest in Spain’s other colonies in the Philippines, Guam, or Puerto Rico.  There was also no demand for an American overseas empire.

In 1895, Marti organized an invasion of Cuba from three locations — Costa Rica, Santo Domingo, and the United States.  The latter effort was stopped by U.S. authorities when they became aware of it.  The plan was sound, but its execution failed to deliver the victory promised by Marti.  Revolutionaries settled into another protracted insurrection.

In the minds of Spanish officials, the Cuban insurrection was an assault on Spain because Cuba was an off-shore province of Spain (not a colony), which was why Spanish officials resisted the insurrection with every drop of blood needed to accomplish it.  Spanish General Valeriano Weyler was both clever and ruthless in his efforts to contain the rebellion.  President McKinley regarded Weyler’s efforts as a campaign of human extermination.

No one was more effective in promoting Cuban nationalism than Joseph Pulitzer (New York Post) and William Randolph Hearts (New York Journal).  They became the face of America’s “yellow journalism.”[4]  Both papers regularly denounced Spain but had little influence outside New York.  As Cuban insurrection and suppression continued, American business interests suffered to such an extent that they petitioned President McKinley to end the revolt.  Concurrently, European businessmen petitioned Spain to restore order.

The American people overwhelmingly supported Cuban rebels.  For his part, McKinley wanted to end the insurrection peacefully — and opened negotiations with the Spanish government to accomplish it.  Initially, Spanish authorities dismissed McKinley’s efforts but offered the possibility of negotiation at some unspecified future date.

As a demonstration of the United States’ guarantee for the safety of Americans living in Cuba, President McKinley ordered the USS Maine to Havana Harbor.  Less visible to the American people, McKinley also directed additional ships of the Atlantic Squadron to take up station in Key West, Florida.  Other U.S. Navy ships quietly moved to Lisbon, Portugal, and Hong Kong.

At around 21:40 on 15 February 1898, USS Maine blew up and sank.  Two hundred fifty sailors and Marines lost their lives.  Yellow journalists told the American people that the Spanish destroyed Maine while at anchor — an overt act of war.  All Spain could do was deny the allegation, but the more they denied any involvement, the less anyone in the United States believed them.  Somewhat panicked, the Spanish government turned to other European powers to intercede with the United States.  Most of these European powers advised the Spanish government to accept U.S. conditions for Cuba.  Only Germany urged a united European confrontation with the United States.

The U. S. Navy’s investigation of the sinking of the Maine concluded that the ship’s powder magazines ignited under the ship’s hull.  No one was interested in this finding, however, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.

So, America went to war.

Sources:

  1. Allin, L. C.  The First Cubic War: The Virginius Affair.  American Neptune, 1978.
  2. Auxier, G. W.  The Propaganda Activities of the Cuban Junta in Precipitating the Spanish American War 1895-1898.  Hispanic American Historical Review, 1939.
  3. Bradford, R. H.  The Virginius Affair.  Colorado Associate University Press, 1980.
  4. Calhoun, C. W.  The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace.  University Press of Kansas, 2017.
  5. Campbell, W. J.  Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.  Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
  6. Carr, R.  Spain: 1808-1975.  Clarendon Press, 1982.
  7. Hudson, R. A.  Cuba: A Country Study.  Library of Congress, 2001.
  8. Karnow, St.  In our Image.  Century Publishing, 1990.
  9. Nofi, A. A.  The Spanish-American War, 1898.  Combined Books, 1998.
  10. Soodalter, R.  To the Brink in Cuba, 1873.  Military History Press, 2009.

Endnotes:

[1] While we do not hear much about Joseph Fry (1826-1873) in history, this Florida-born lad graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1846.  In 1841, the 15-year old Fry traveled to Washington, made a call on the President of the United States (John Tyler), and asked for his patronage for admission to the US Naval Academy.  Tyler granted the appointment and Fry entered the Academy on 15 September 1841.  Fry had a distinguished career in the Navy, attaining the rank of Captain before 1861.  He resigned from the Navy to serve the state of Florida.  During the Civil War, while serving as a Commodore, Fry earned an exceptional reputation for his fighting spirit and combat seamanship.

[2] Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819-1914) was a member of the US House of Representatives, served as a New York State Senator, a Civil War major general, and was the recipient of the Medal of Honor.  He served as US Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874.  While serving in the New York Assembly, Sickles received a reprimand for escorting a prostitute, one Miss Fanny White, into its chambers.  He also reportedly took her to England in 1853 while serving as a secretary to the US Legation in London and upon introducing her to Queen Victoria, used the name of one of his New York political opponents.

[3] In February 1859, when Sickles discovered that his wife, Teresa Bagioli (aged 21, half her husband’s age) was having an affair with Washington DC district attorney Philip Barton Key III, Sickles shot Key dead in the street across from the White House.  Philip Key was the son of Francis Scott Key.  Authorities charged Sickles with premeditated murder.  His attorney, Edwin M. Stanton (later, Secretary of War Stanton) won an acquittal on the basis of Sickles’ “temporary insanity.”  The plea was the first time it was used in an American courtroom.

[4] Journalism that was based on sensationalism and crude exaggeration, which continues to characterize the American media today.



Edward Marcus Despard

Colonel, British Army, Executed

Edward Despard (1751-1803) was an Anglo-Irish British officer — the brother of General John Despard.  He was an “acquired” gentleman and soldier through his service as a squire in the household of Lord Hertford.  Edward entered the British Army as an Ensign with subsequent service with the 50th Regiment of Foot in Jamaica.  He initially served as an engineer; his construction duties required that he supervise the so-called motley crews, including free blacks and mixed-race “Miskitos.”  He employed these people and worked them hard, but he also sympathized with them.

Colonel Despard

Despard served with distinction in operations against Spanish Guatemala during the American Revolution.  He fought under Admiral Horatio Nelson during the San Juan expedition (1780), and in 1782, while serving as a captain, Despard commanded the British force at the Battle of Black River.  In recognition of Despard’s courage in the heat of battle, the Army promoted him to Colonel. He continued to lead reconnaissance missions, relying on people of color to help him defeat his Spanish foe; it was through this experience that he developed an affinity for those whom, he felt, lived together in “perfect equality.”

After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Colonel Despard supervised the British logwood concession in the Bay of Honduras, then known as British Honduras (now as Belize).  Working under the British Foreign Ministry, Colonel Despard sought to accommodate displaced British subjects along the Miskito Coast. Despard’s problem was that in attempting to distribute land equally without regard for color, he ran afoul of British slave traders and landowners. His lottery system afforded people of color equal opportunity for land acquisition, which placed them in competition with white landowners seeking to make their fortune in the harvesting of mahogany timber.

Unfortunately, the British Home Secretary found agreement with white landowners that it was impolitic to afford people of color an equal footing with wealthy businessmen, who also happened to be white. Colonel Despard replied to Lord Sydney[1] that the laws of England made no such distinction.  In 1790, Lord Grenville,[2] who replaced Thomas Townshend, recalled Despard to London to answer questions relative to certain “irregularities” in his governorship.

When Colonel Despard arrived in London, he traveled with his wife Catherine and son James.  Catherine, a black woman, was the daughter of a protestant minister.  Since mixed marriages were almost unheard of in England, the union created a stir, but mainstream society never challenged it.

After Colonel Despard’s arrest, Catherine worked to bring attention to the unfair (malicious) manner of the government’s accusations of alleged irregularities.  Seeking to discredit her, the British government referred to her efforts as the “fair sex” intercession, with no mention of her race.  In the minds of Despard’s enemies, it was enough to suggest that this weak-minded woman was being used to further the goals of political subversives.  As it happened, Despard’s descendants later repudiated Edward and Catherine’s marriage by referring to Catherine as Edward’s black housekeeper and “the poor woman who called herself his wife.”  Despard’s son James was described as the offspring of a previous lover, and both Catherine and James were quietly removed from the family tree.

While the government investigated Colonel Despard’s irregularities, he was confined in debtor’s prison for two years on trumped-up charges.  While confined to his dank cell, Despard read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.  Paine’s argument vindicated Despard’s view of universal equality, which is how he conducted himself as governor of British Honduras.  At the time the British released Despard from prison in 1794, Thomas Paine was living in France and Paine’s writings were popular among people who shared Despard’s view, particularly the Irish.

Between 1792 and 1797, the United Kingdom was a member of a loosely constructed European coalition against the French First Republic — known as the Wars of the First Coalition.  In 1791, European monarchies viewed developments in the French Revolution with considerable concern for the welfare of Louis XVI and his family and other matters.  Although the coalition was uncoordinated, the first act of violence occurred when France declared war on Austria in April 1792, Prussia declared war on France in June 1792, and both Austria and Prussia invaded France in September 1792.  It did not help matters when the French executed Louis XVI on 21 January 1793.  The British kept their distance from the mainland battles but did manage to irritate the French by supporting French loyalists against the Republic.

At the time of its war with France, high-ranking members of Parliament made a connection between Thomas Paine, Edward Despard, other Irish malcontents, and certain seditious efforts to undermine the authority of King George III.  Indeed, some among these men were voicing suggestions of armed rebellion.  Unrelated to this movement, one fellow attempted to assassinate King George.  He was acquitted based on insanity but institutionalized, nevertheless.  Earlier, in 1793, authorities arrested three prominent citizens, members of “corresponding” societies, charged them with sedition and sentenced them to fourteen years of penal transportation.[3]

In the summer of 1795, crowds shouting “No War, No Pitt, Cheap Bread” attacked the residence of British Prime Minister William Pitt (The Younger)[4] and consequently surrounded King George III in procession to Parliament.  There was also a riot at Charing Cross, at which location authorities detained Edward Despard and questioned him about his involvement in those riots if any.  A magistrate later suggested to Despard that he may have brought the matter upon himself by his flippant answers to initial questions.  In October 1795, Parliament passed the Seditious Meetings Act, which made it a crime to attend meetings that were even remotely suggestive of treasonous activity.

Notwithstanding the Gag Act, Colonel Despard joined the London Corresponding Society and was quickly elevated to its central committee.  When the Irish movement turned toward the prospect of a French-assisted insurrection, Despard took the “United Irish” pledge to obtain complete and adequate representation for all the people of Ireland.  In the summer of 1797, a Catholic priest named James Coigly traveled to Manchester where he demanded Englishmen to join Ireland in removing the king, to “…exalt him that is low and abuse him that is high.”  In furtherance of this goal, Coigly met in London with groups calling themselves United Bretons, and with Irish leaders of the London Corresponding Society, which in addition to Alexander Galloway, included Despard, and Benjamin and John Binns, members who “committed themselves” to overthrowing the present government and joining the French as soon as they made a landing in Ireland.  Only poor weather prevented a French landing from taking place.

Historians believe Despard held a liaison position between British republicans and the French Republic at this junction.  In June 1797, a government informer reported that a United Irish delegation intending to travel to France via London applied to the British government for their departure clearance.  In March 1798, while attempting to cross the English Channel to France, British agents arrested Coigly and Arthur O’Connor.  O’Connor, highly placed and vouched for, was acquitted of the charge of sedition.  Coigly, on the other hand, with French documents in his possession, was charged and convicted of treason and then hanged.  There may not have been a mass movement to overthrow King George III, but there was undoubtedly an attempt to invite and encourage a French invasion of Ireland.

Soon after, British authorities arrested Despard and thirty others and confined them to the Clerkenwell prison.  Despard was retained for three years while British agents infiltrated committees of correspondence and began a system of suppression of those and workman’s unions, which the government outlawed.

Although retained for three years behind bars, government prosecutors never charged Despard with an offense.  Despard was set free in 1802, and he returned to Ireland, where he rejoined the anti-British movement in his home county.  Whether Despard realized it or not, British informers riddled the county.  Meanwhile, in England, a large influx of unhappy Irish refugees restarted a republican movement.

Despard c. 1803

On 16 November 1802, British agents arrested Colonel Despard for attending and meeting with forty or so workers.  The next day, the Privy Council officially charged him with High Treason.[5]  Admiral Lord Nelson appeared as a defense witness, but the fact that Nelson had not seen Despard for twenty years diminished his glowing report.  In the end, Despard was found guilty of only one overt act — his oath to Ireland republicanism.  Nevertheless, Colonel Despard, Private John Wood, Private John Francis, carpenter Thomas Boughton, shoemaker James Wratten, slater Arthur Graham, and laborer John McNamara were all sentenced to hang and be drawn and quartered.

British executioners carried out Colonel Despard’s sentence on 21 February 1803.  It is entirely possible that Colonel Despard, having great sympathy for the Miskito people and the common man, may have become a useful idiot to Irish and British republicans.  Nevertheless, 20,000 British citizens attended his final farewell, the largest ever gathering in London until the death of Lord Nelson.

Catherine and James Despard vanished into history.  Three months later, the United Kingdom went to war with France, remembered in history as the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).

Sources:

  1. Carroll, D.  The Usual Suspects: Twelve Radical Clergy.  Columbia Press, 1998.
  2. Conner, Clifford D.  Colonel Despard: The Life and Times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel.  Combined Publishing, 2000.
  3. Madden, R. R.  The United Irishmen: Their lives and times.  Madden & Company Press, 1846.

Endnotes:

[1] Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney served in British politics from 1754-1783 and as Home Secretary from 1783-1789.  He was a cousin of Charles Townshend, the man responsible for the Townshend Acts, which were one cause of the American War of Independence.

[2] William Grenville later served as British Prime Minister (1806-1807).

[3] The forced relocation of persons convicted of crimes, or judged undesirable, to distant places (penal colonies).  Most of such persons did not have the money to return to their homes once released from confinement.

[4] Pitt The Younger was the son of William Pitt, 1st Earl Chatham, who also served as Prime Minister (1766-1768).  Fort Pitt was named in honor of William the Elder, present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

[5] In the United Kingdom, high treason equates to disloyalty to the Crown, which includes plotting the murder of the sovereign, or sexual dalliances with members of the royal family, levying war against the sovereign, consorting with the sovereign’s enemies, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and attempting to undermine lawful authority.



Symbol of Command

The Marine Leader’s Sword

Introduction

One thing that stands out about the American republic is that it was born in war.  As statesmen declared the independence of the United States in a somewhat eloquent indictment of King George III, tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors converged on the American colonies to subdue the rebellion by force.  The war would last eight years.  The revolutionaries armed themselves with weapons that primarily served as hunting weapons; the British military was better armed.

The critical task of supplying colonial troops with the weapons needed to defeat their British enemy fell upon the Congress.  In 1775, few factories in America were capable of producing firearms, swords, and other weapons, but none were capable of producing them in the quantities needed to sustain an army for several years.

At the height of the war, more than fifty-thousand men were under arms: another thirty-thousand troop served in state guard and militia units.  To arm these men against the well-supplied British regulars, Congressional agents gathered weapons from various sources on two continents.  Patriots had begun to store weapons in anticipation of hostilities between themselves and British regulars, some of which came from British armories and storehouses, provisional magazines, and supply ships.

At the beginning of the Revolution, Continental military officers relied on soldiers to bring their weapons from home — their hunting weapons, which included fowling pieces, smooth-bore Brown Bess muskets (suitable for use with ball or shot), and after 1776, the shotgun.  These weapons also included outdated or barely serviceable firearms from the French and Indian Wars and weapons captured from enemies.  It wasn’t a sufficient number of weapons.

It wasn’t long before congressional agents began issuing contracts to produce weapons.  The domestic arms industry struggled to expand to meet demand, but they simply could not meet the need to sustain American troops through a protracted conflict.  Congressional agents turned to France and Spain, who were too happy to supply arms to the Americans.  Shipments from France began in 1776and continued through 1783.

The Edged Weapons

Edged weapons played a critical role in the Revolutionary War.  Battles such as the Guilford Courthouse (North Carolina) were decided in bloody hand-to-hand combat where bayonets, swords, axes, and tomahawks were used with lethal effectiveness.  The battle was a victory for the British, but they marched off with far fewer men than before the battle began.

Infantrymen in close combat, no longer able to load and fire their long guns, relied on hanger (hunting) swords or bayonets.  Hunting swords were short, cut-and-thrust weapons used by German Jaegers and  American riflemen.  The bayonet was the most widely used edged weapon throughout the ages because it transformed muskets/rifles into a spear — which terrified inexperienced/poorly trained troops.  The officer’s small sword was a pervasive civilian pattern worn as part of a gentleman’s formal attire and the most common sword carried by officers during the Revolution.  Officer’s swords were light, straight, and slender in design; Cavalry swords were heavier, longer, and curved.[1]  Shown right, pre-Revolutionary gentleman’s sword owned by Richard Varick, Aide-de-Camp to General Washington.

The Marines

Marine Corps officers and noncommissioned officers have carried swords since the American Revolutionary War.  Presumably, the swords carried by officers ashore were gentleman’s swords, while officers and enlisted men serving aboard ship used cutlasses.[2]  What made cutlasses appropriate aboard ships was that they did not hinder or trip fighting men as they boarded enemy ships, climbed the rigging, or battled an enemy in close-in fighting.  The broad, heavy blade of the cutlass was sufficient for crushing skulls or decapitating heads.

The Continental Navy cutlass was the cousin of the cavalry saber but designed and constructed for fighting at sea, on crowded decks, in rolling seas.  Unlike the cavalry saber, the cutlass did not have the advantage of a galloping horse behind it, so its weight and the muscled arm of an experienced sailor or Marine had to be sufficient to kill the enemy, and the shorter time it took to do that, the better for whoever wielded it.  A large, enclosed handguard shielded the swordsman’s hand.

The cutlass was a highly specialized weapon that evolved from the falchion (shown right).  Between 1740-1780, the cutlass was a sturdy but straightforward instrument with an imported blade and a crude wooden cylinder for a hilt.  The single-edged blade was curved so slightly that it might appear straight at first.  One of the first Americans to make this weapon was Richard Gridley.  Even after 1775, the American cutlass was a crude affair, so whenever possible, rebels captured and used the superior British cutlass, the hilt of which was made of blackened iron.  The grip was hollow for a better balance.

The NCO’s

When serving ashore, starting in the 1820s, Marine NCOs began wearing distinctive short sabers with a cast brass eagle head hilt and curved blades.  In 1859, a completely new sword pattern emerged, originally patterned on the U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword (model 1850).  The Marine NCO sword may be patterned after the foot officer’s sword, but with significant differences.  The Army sword had heavy wide blades, while the early Marine NCO swords had highly polished blades.  These swords were finally incorporated into Marine Corps regulations in 1875 even though they were in use since 1859, and in fact, with slight modifications, remain in service today.  The M1859 Marine Corps NCO Sword is the oldest weapon in continued (unbroken) service in the U.S. weapons inventory.

Today’s NCO Sword features a cast-brass hilt with a half-basket handguard.  It has a leather-wrapped grip bound with twisted brass wire, a slightly curved, single-edged blade, beautifully etched, with a wide central fuller and short false edge.  The NCO sword comes with a black leather scabbard with two brass mounts.

Marine Officer’s Sword

The current Marine Corps Officer’s Sword is patterned on the Mameluke Sword allegedly presented to First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon by the Ottoman Empire, Viceroy Prince Hamet, on 8 December 1805, as a gesture of respect and praise for the Marine’s performance in combat at the Battle of Derna.  Subsequently, in 1825, the Commandant of the Marine Corps adopted the Mameluke Sword for wear by officers.[3] 

In 1859, the Marine Corps prescribed a completely new sword pattern for Marine Corps officers; it was the same sword prescribed for NCOs with differences in brass hilts, scabbard mounts, and hand grips.  The grips of NCO swords were wrapped in leather, while the officer’s grips were covered by sharkskin.  In 1875, Marine Corps regulations again prescribed the Mameluke Sword for wear by commissioned officers; it has been an item of a Marine Corps Officer’s seabag ever since.

The Mystery of O’Bannon’s Sword

Almost everyone, Marine or otherwise, knows about “Chesty” Puller.  My guess is that hardly anyone outside the Marine Corps knows about Presley O’Bannon, who has become a Marine Corps legend.  It has become a tradition in the Marine Corps to name its buildings in honor of those who distinguished themselves as Marines.  One such building at Quantico, Virginia, is O’Bannon Hall.  Literally, every Marine Corps second lieutenant wants to grow up and become like First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.  He is, to Marines, a man from history who embodies what a Marine should be: Courageous, daring, and resourceful.  I know something of Lieutenant O’Bannon, primarily from my research on the Barbary Wars.  What I know of his sword, however, I picked up from the writings of Brigadier General E. H. Simmons, USMC (deceased).[4]

Presley Neville O’Bannon

As indicated previously, the popular story is that O’Bannon received the Mameluke Sword from Prince Hamet in recognition for his daring exploits during the Battle of Derna.  It may be accurate, but in the absence of written records, we aren’t entirely sure.  But there is a more plausible story, which is just as interesting.

To recap the event, First Lieutenant O’Bannon, a Navy midshipman, and six privates provided the backbone to a force of mercenaries raised and hired by U.S. Naval Agent William Eaton, himself a former U.S. Army officer.  Eaton hired these mercenaries in Egypt and, with O’Bannon as his second in command, marched 600 miles across the Libyan desert, intending to reinstate Hamet Qaramanli to his rightful throne.  Hamet had been forced out of Tripoli by his brother, Yusef, who seized the throne for himself.  Normally, this family matter would not have peeked the interests of the U.S. government, except that in May 1801, Yusef cut down the flagpole in front of the U.S. Consulate and declared war on the United States of America — an insult to the United States that could not be left unanswered.[5]

President Jefferson reciprocated by sending a naval squadron to the Mediterranean (the forerunner of today’s Sixth Fleet), but not much was accomplished in “demanding satisfaction” until Commodore Samuel Barron assumed command of the squadron in September 1804.  Serving under Barron was Mr. Eaton, a scholar of Arabic language and somewhat of an eccentric.

On 27 April 1805, Eaton assaulted the walled city of Derna under cover of smoothbore naval gunfire from the 18-gun brig USS Argus (captained by one of the navy’s greatest commanders, Master Commandant Isaac Hull), the sloop USS Hornet, and the schooner USS Nautilus.  Observing the action ashore, Master Commandant Hull reported: “At about half after three we had the satisfaction to see Lieutenant O’Bannon and Mr. Mann, midshipman of the Argus, with a few brave fellows with them, enter the fort, haul down the Enemy’s flag, and plant the American ensign on the walls of the battery.  And on turning the guns of the battery on the town, they found that the enemy had left them in great haste, as they [the guns] were found primed and loaded.  In two hours, the city was taken.”

So impressed was Hamet with O’Bannon’s courage that he presented him with a jeweled Mameluke scimitar.  This operation was later quite favorably noted by British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, calling it “The most daring act of the age.”  The problem is not with the operation, which is well-documented.  The problem, for Marines, is whether O’Bannon actually received a Mameluke sword from Hamet Bashaw.  If he did, where is it?

According to General Simmons, there are several claims (and possible answers) to the question, noting that senior European officers popularly wore the Mameluke (style) sword.  Napoleon had one.  The Duke of Wellington had one.  Senior flag officers in Great Britain continue to wear the Mameluke sword during ceremonies while in evening dress.  In other words, there were no shortages of Mameluke Swords from the early to mid-1800s.

There is a Mameluke Sword at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis that has “a claim” for being the genuine O’Bannon sword.  According to the curators, after receiving the sword from Hamet, Lieutenant O’Bannon passed it to his executive officer, Midshipman George Washington Mann — and it has remained in possession of the Mann family until it was loaned to the museum.

Midshipman Mann was the son of Colonel George Mann, born in Annapolis in 1783.  Colonel Mann owned an Inn on Conduit Street, which claims to be one of many places where General George Washington rested his weary head — and might account for Colonel Mann naming his son after the nation’s first Commander-in-Chief.

Mann entered naval service in 1801 and was posted to the Mediterranean Squadron.  In 1804, Midshipman Mann served aboard USS Argus, whose Marine Detachment Commander was First Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon.  O’Bannon himself received his commission as a second lieutenant of Marines in 1801 and served in the Mediterranean in 1802.  Argus was the ship that transported William Eaton to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1804.  To assist Eaton in his mission, Master Commandant Isaac Hull detached O’Bannon, Mann, and six privates to accompany him ashore.  Eaton’s mission was to locate Hamet Qaramanli in Egypt and, if possible, restore him to his rightful throne.  This particular story ends with the Battle of Derna (1805).

Afterward, Midshipman Mann returned home due to an injury to his eye, presumably received during the fight, but returned to active service in 1807.  The Navy advanced him to Lieutenant in 1809, and he served until 1811 when he resigned his commission and returned home.  The Mann family continues to live in the Annapolis area.

There is no question that the Mann family’s Mameluke sword is genuine.  However, the question remains whether it is the sword presented to Lieutenant O’Bannon.  The question arises from the fact that there is a near-identical Mameluke scimitar in the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts, presented to Master Commandant Isaac Hull by William Eaton, accompanied by a letter written to Hull by Eaton on 14 January 1805.  In this letter, Eaton stated, “Kourshek Ahmet Pasha has given you a present of a superb saber which he intends for you, worth $200, all the gentlemen with me received the same compliment.”[6]

Presley Neville O’Bannon was one of the gentlemen present with Eaton when the swords were presented (i.e., more than one).  Midshipman Mann was also present.  The swords were given to “the gentlemen” in advance of the Battle of Derna, not as a reward for deeds accomplished but in anticipation of an event yet to come.  The Battle of Derna was fought between 27 April – 13 May 1805.  This brings us back to the question, “Where is Lieutenant O’Bannon’s sword?”

William Eaton returned to the United States in November 1805 through Norfolk, Virginia.  At a dinner in his honor held in Richmond, both Lieutenant O’Bannon and Midshipman Mann received toasts in absentia as “… the heroes who first planted the American banner on the walls of Derna.”  The following month, Mr. John Love, a delegate to the Virginia Assembly representing Fauquier County, where O’Bannon was born, proposed that Virginia honor O’Bannon with “… a handsome sword with such appropriate devices thereon as they may think proper.”  Mr. Love’s proposal sailed through both houses of the state legislature.  In January 1806, the governor presented the measure to the Council of State, which named a committee to select an appropriate design for the sword.

Six months later, the committee submitted its proposal to Major John Clarke, Superintendent of the Virginia Manufactory of Arms, Richmond.  The sword design was elaborate with, among other things, the head of a bearded and turbaned Moslem for a pommel and an engraving on the hilt of O’Bannon raising the flag over Derna.  Major Clarke had only just finished the blade in 1809 when he was replaced as superintendent by Mr. John Carter of Richmond.  Carter completed the sword in July 1810.

Meanwhile, Captain O’Bannon had resigned his commission, married Matilda Heard in Frederick County, Virginia, in 1809, and relocated to Kentucky in the same year.  O’Bannon didn’t receive the Virginia sword until the fall of 1812.[7]

At the time of Captain O’Bannon’s death, he was living in the home of his cousin John O’Bannon, in Henry County, Kentucky.  He also died without a will.  It wasn’t until an article about Captain O’Bannon appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1917, written by John Presley Cain (a collateral descendant of O’Bannon), that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) began looking into the O’Bannon story.  Mr. Cain, having revealed O’Bannon’s burial place on a farm just outside Pleasureville, Kentucky, prompted the DAR to seek the permission of his descendants to move his remains to the Frankfort Cemetery.  O’Bannon was reinterred there on 14 June 1920.

At the ceremony, Miss Margaret Mosely (Kansas City), a third-great niece of O’Bannon, brought the Virginia Sword and had it displayed unsheathed and crossed with its scabbard on top of the gravestone.  In 1941, Mrs. Margaret Mosley-Culver donated the Virginia Sword to the U.S. Marine Corps Museum.  To add to the confusion, the Virginia Sword has been variously described as a Mameluke Sword, which it is not.  It more closely resembles a U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword.

There is also some myth associated with Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson’s decision to prescribe the Mameluke Sword for wear by Marine Corps officers.  After the U.S. Congress disbanded the Continental Navy and Marine Corps at the end of the Revolutionary War, the only military secretary was the Secretary of War until 1798, when Congress re-established the Navy Department.  During those “in-between” years, uniform regulations fell under the purview of the Secretary of War.  It wasn’t until 1804 that the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Robert Smith, authorized “yellow-mounted sabers with gilt scabbards” for Marine Corps officers.  The wording of the regulation allowed Marine officers to wear just about any sword that met that vague description.

Why Henderson prescribed the Mameluke Sword remains a mystery.  Part of the legend is that O’Bannon and Henderson had (at some point) served together and that Henderson so admired O’Bannon that he prescribed the Mameluke Sword for all Marine Corps officers.  It is an interesting story, but according to General Simmons, unlikely.  If the two men ever met, it was probably a brief encounter.  Henderson did not enter Marine Corps service until 1806; O’Bannon resigned in 1807.

In any case, Henderson’s uniform regulations of 26 April 1825 prescribed the officer’s sword as follows: “All officers when on duty either in full or undress uniform, shall wear a plain brass scabbard sword or saber, with a Mameluke hilt of white ivory and a gold tassel; extreme length of the sword three-feet, one-inch only to serve as a cut and thrust — the hilt in length four-inches and three-quarters, width of scabbard one-inch and seven-eighths, width of blade one-inch.”  This, according to General Simmons, describes Henderson’s own sword exactly.

Between 900-1250 A.D., Egyptian dynasties included several ethnic/cultural groups, such as the Ikhshidids, Fatimids, and Ayyubids.  They were primarily served and guarded by Mamelukes, individuals of Turkic, Caucasian, Eastern, and Southeastern European origin.  The Mameluke was both free-born warriors and indentured fighters — a class of Egyptian knights whose influence increased within the Moslem hierarchy.  The increase in political influence was worrisome to the Ayyubids, as it should have been.  One Moslem historian describes the origin of the Mameluke as “enslaved Christians.”  Accordingly, Moslems looked upon the Mameluke as “infidels,” or unbelievers who refused to surrender to the will of Allah.

In 1250, a Mameluke became Sultan of Egypt, and his heirs ruled Egypt through 1517.  But even when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Mamelukes maintained a considerable hold over the sultanate.  The word Mameluke in Arabic, by the way, means “one who is owned.”  It refers to non-Arab people “enslaved” to Moslem rulers.  Their reputation as fighters (and their uniforms) impressed Napoleon and his marshals.[8]  The French recruited Mamelukes as personal guards and adopted their swords, which, as we can see today, are displayed in numerous paintings of high French officers — such as Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Antoine Marcelin Marbot.

The sword’s earliest form was a light horseman’s weapon intended for slashing.  When the British manufacturer Wilkinson Swords straightened the blade, they ruined the sword as a weapon, which may no longer matter to anyone since the sword is no longer the first choice in offensive or defensive weapons.

In 1859, Marine First Lieutenant Israel Green commanded a Marine Detachment with service under Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, who was ordered to put down an insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  As it turned out, Colonel Lee was quite pleased with the Marines’ performance at Harper’s Ferry, but Lieutenant Green was considerably less satisfied with his Mameluke Sword.  On cue from a young cavalry lieutenant named James Ewell Brown Stuart, Green rushed John Brown and his men in the firehouse.  Green burst through the door and cut down on the older man’s neck as hard as possible, which bent the sword almost double and did little more than irritate Mr. Brown.  That would not have happened with an M1911A1 at 10 yards.

The Marine Corps prescribed a different sword for officers and NCOs in that same year — one that would cut something more resistant than a birthday cake.

Endnotes:

[1] The difference between swords and sabers is that swords are straight blade weapons, while sabers are (generally) shorter in blade length and curved. 

[2] The cutlass was a relatively short-bladed slashing sword — the shorter length most suitable for shipboard action.

[3] The Mameluke Sword (style) is also worn by flag rank officers in the British Army, and for officers of major general rank in the Australian Army.

[4] Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons (1921-2007) served with distinction in three wars, later serving as the Director, Marine Corps History and Museums, both on active duty and into retirement.  He authored numerous books about the History of the Marine Corps; whatever General Simmons didn’t know about the Marine Corps probably isn’t worth knowing.

[5] Yusef no doubt felt confident that this insult would go unanswered because the U.S. Congress had been paying the Qaramanli family bribes for fifteen or so years; anyone who pays bribes deserves no respect — or so he thought.

[6] At the time, Egypt was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.  Kourshek Ahmet Pasha was the Viceroy of Egypt.

[7] Presley and Matilda’s union was, according to sketchy accounts, not a very happy one.  The O’Bannon’s were divorced in 1826, remarried in 1832, and then in 1843, Matilda was committed to an insane asylum in Lexington.  Captain O’Bannon passed away in 1850.  Their only child died of cholera in 1835.  My guess is that if O’Bannon left the Marine Corps to marry Matilda, he later in life regretted doing so. 

[8] There is evidence of Mameluke Swords in use by Europeans during the Crusades, likely taken from dead Islamists.  General Simmons believed that the Mameluke Sword may have existed before the time of Christ, notably in Damascus.


246th United States Marine Corps Birthday

In Celebration

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.”

Third stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn

A bit of Marine Corps history:

As my regular readers should know by now, the United States Marine Corps celebrates its birthday on 10 November.  The Marine Corps Birthday is a unique celebration honoring all Marines and their families, past, present, and future.  It rekindles the connection of Marines since 1775.  My readers should also know that the Marine Corps has defended the United States and the American people in every one of those years.  On this day, we Marines honor our traditions with reverence and respect; we pay homage to the distinguished service of the Corps and of those who have worn our uniform.

The Second Continental Congress created the Marine Corps on 10 November 1775, eight months before America’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.  Congress created the Marines to serve alongside the Continental Navy — and have done so ever since.  The first Marine Corps Commandant was Major Samuel Nicholas.  During the 7-years of the Revolutionary War, the Marine Corps increased from its original two battalions to just over 2,100 Marines.  It was then, and remains, the nation’s smallest armed force.  Despite its small size, however, the battle history of the United States Marine Corps is second to none.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, Congress disbanded the Navy and Marine Corps.  Our founding fathers, having experienced the tyranny of the British Army, had no interest in maintaining “standing armies.”  In 1794, however, circumstances changed.  Beginning around 1785, Islamist pirates operating off the North African coastline seized American ships and held them, their crews, passengers, and their cargoes for ransom.

Initially, Congress thought that it might be cheaper to pay these brigands their money, but each year ransom demands increased until the United States was paying out about twenty-percent of its annual budget to Barbary Pirates.  President George Washington asked Congress to bring back the Navy and Marine Corps to deal with the pirates and guarantee America’s sovereignty at sea.  In 1794, the Navy (and Marine Corps) were placed under the Secretary of War.  However, in 1798, legislation was enacted to establish the Navy as a separate department, and the Navy and Marine Corps as separate branches of the armed forces.

Pursuant to Marine Corps General Order No. 47 (1921), the Commandant of the Marine Corps directed that the following be read aloud to all Marines on 10 November of each year:

(1) On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”. In memory of them it is fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the glories of its long and illustrious history.

(2) The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

(3) In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

(4) This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received from those who preceded us in the corps. With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of the Marines in every age. So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.

John A. Lejeune,
Major General Commandant

During the Marine Corps Birthday Ceremony, a traditional birthday cake is presented to those in attendance.  After the cake is cut, the first slice is first presented to the oldest Marine present, who then passes it to the youngest Marine.  It is a symbolic transfer of wisdom and understanding from the older brother to the younger.  This is a hallmark of Marine Corps training that begins at boot camp or officer’s candidate school and is repeated throughout a Marine’s entire service.  Understanding Marine Corps history and living up to the high standards of those who went before is an integral part of Marine Corps service.

Our Motto

The motto of the U. S. Marine Corps is Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful).  It reflects a Marine’s unwavering patriotism, tenacity, and their commitment to God, Country, Corps, and their brothers in arms.  The official march of the U. S. Marine Corps is titled The Semper Fidelis March by John Phillip Sousa.  Enjoy the following presentation by the United States Marine Corps Band.

The Marines are known by several nicknames, but some of these aren’t suitable for print and are largely a result of vile lies, misrepresentations, and Army-Navy jealousy.  But two of these nicknames are Leatherneck, which comes from the thick leather collar worn by Marines during the age of sail to prevent decapitation, and Devil Dog [Teufelhunden] which is what the German soldiers named Marines during World War I.

Our Hymn

The Marine Corps Hymn, is one of the most readily recognized songs in the world today and is the oldest of our country’s service songs.  The history of our hymn has been clouded by the passage of time and sometimes confused by inaccurate oral traditions, but there is never any confusion on the part of listeners of the Marine’s hymn.  It is as easily identified with the Marine Corps as the Star Spangled Banner is with the United States of America.

The Marine Corps Hymn has become a sacred symbol of the pride and professionalism of a Marine; when played or sung, all Marines rise to their feet and stand at attention for its duration.  The music to the hymn originated with the opera Geneviève de Brabant composed by the French composer Jacques Offenbach.  One listening to Couplets des Deux Hommes d’Armes will immediately recognize the tune.

We do not know who penned the words to the Marine’s Hymn — but tradition claims that it was an unidentified Marine sometime after 1867.  The first two lines of the verse were taken from the words inscribed on the Battle Colors of the Marine Corps: “To the Shores of Tripoli.”

The Battle Colors were so inscribed after the Barbary War of 1805.  Later, after the Marines participated in the capture of Mexico City and the Castle of Chapultepec (also known as the Halls of Montezuma) in 1847, the inscription on the Colors was changed to read, “From the Shores of Tripoli to the Halls of Montezuma.”  Whoever wrote the words to the Marine Corps Hymn reversed this order.

To all Marines and Friends of the Corps

Semper Fi

Naval Intelligence — Agents of Change

The early days

By 1861, America’s military traditions were already well established.  When America needed an armed force, it recruited one.  When the United States no longer needed an armed force, they disbanded it.  In the minds of our founding fathers, there was no reason to maintain a standing military force.  Why?  Because in the experience of American colonists, the British used its standing army to enforce tyrannical edicts from the Parliament.[1]

By 1875, a decade after the end of the American Civil War, the United States Navy had deteriorated due to the neglect of Congress and the Navy’s senior leadership.  The Navy’s ships were rusting away, its officers had grown apathetic and unprofessional, and (when compared to the other significant navies of the world — Britain, France, Russia, Japan) the US Navy appeared in last place.  It took the United States government another five years to realize that the condition of the Navy demanded a national discussion.  One of the young officers to lead this discussion was Lieutenant Theodorus B. M. Mason.  He was one of the Navy’s early agents of change.

Born in New York in 1848, Theodorus came from a distinguished family.  His father was a prominent attorney and a former colonel in the U. S. Army during the Civil War.  His uncle was Rear Admiral Theodorus Baily.  He adopted Mason’s surname in deference to his maternal grandfather Sidney, who had no male heirs to carry on the family name.

Mason graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1868.  He was known for his intellect, his linguistic ability, and his foresight.  After serving with the Navy’s hydrographic office, he traveled extensively in Europe and South America as a naval observer charged with collecting information about foreign navies.[2]  Mason knew what information was available and how to obtain it. He recognized that for the U. S. Navy to compete with foreign navies, the United States would have to develop capacities in naval science and technology.  Mason became convinced that the U. S. Navy would require a unified intelligence agency to gather, analyze, catalog, and disseminate foreign naval developments to achieve modernization.

From the report, Mason wrote of his travels and discoveries, William H. Hunt, the Secretary of the Navy, on 23 March 1882, directed the establishment of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) with the Bureau of Navigation.[3]  Hunt appointed Mason as its first director.  Mason assumed his new post, Chief Intelligence Officer, in June 1882.  The Navy assigned him to a small office in what was once known as the State, War, and Navy Building, which is now the Old Executive Office Building.

Initially, the heads of the various sections of the Bureau of Navigation paid Mason little mind.  He was a comparatively junior officer, a lieutenant, and the ONI was a fledgling undertaking.  However, Mason began providing information that the various bureaus could use to justify the funds needed to expand and modernize the Navy.

His primary work, however, may not seem like much of an accomplishment today.  Titled Information from Abroad: The War on the Pacific Coast of South America Between Chile and the Allied Republics of Peru and Bolivia, 1879-81, Mason’s work in 1883 was little more than a chronology of events incorporating his and the observations of other naval officers on a singular event.  After 77 pages, Mason concluded, “Since the fall of Lima, there has been no battle of importance; many skirmishes have taken place between portions of the army of occupation and small bodies of Peruvians.  There has also been a large amount of diplomatic maneuvering, which, although belonging to history, conveys no lesson of value to the naval or military student.”

The Navy transferred Lieutenant Mason to other duties three years later, replacing him with Lieutenant Raymond P. Rodgers in April 1885.  In January 1894, the Navy promoted Mason to lieutenant commander and retired him due to ill-health in December.

The War Years

It wasn’t until 1916 when Congress authorized the first significant expansion of ONI, an increase in funding to support domestic security operations in advance of World War I.  Two years into the war, Congress was finally convinced that someone should be looking after America’s ports, harbors, and defense plants.  Germany, by then, had embarked on a significant spying operation in the United States, and subversion and sabotage had become a valid concern.  ONI worked closely with the Departments of State,  War, Justice, Commerce, and Labor to help prevent unauthorized disclosure of sensitive defense information.  The number of ONI agents employed to accomplish such a feat was undoubtedly substantial.

ONI agents continued their counter-intelligence investigations throughout World War II — a mission assigned to its Special Activities Branch.  ONI also expanded its efforts to discover critical intelligence on German submarine operations, tactics, and technologies.  Most of this information came from interrogations of captured German submariners.  Within this period, ONI produced thousands of ship and aircraft recognition manuals for front-line forces.  Also initiated during this period was a sophisticated photo-interpretation effort and a related topographical model section that aided in the planning for combat operations by amphibious planners of the Navy, Army, and Marine Corps.  ONI also established two schools for the training of fleet intelligence officers.

In 1945, the Navy began hiring civilian scientists and technologists to guide advancements in a wide range of fields.  The Sound Surveillance System, acoustic intelligence, the Navy Scientific and Technical Intelligence Center, and the Navy Reconnaissance and Technical Support Center came from this effort.

In 1946, ONI established the Office of Operational Intelligence.  This particular office inherited the mission of the Navy’s Combat Intelligence Division, created by Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King during World War II.  Its “Special Section,” known as Y1, evolved from the Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean area (JICPOA) that successfully operated against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific War.

After World War II (faced with ongoing budget cuts), the ONI returned to its somewhat abbreviated peacetime mission.  This changed with the beginning of the Korean War in 1950.  ONI began a significant buildup of special agents whose principal mission was the security of Naval facilities and personnel and criminal investigations involving Navy and Marine Corps personnel.

In 1957, ONI incorporated a signals intelligence effort under the Navy’s Field Operational Intelligence section.  This group provided real-time information about the disposition of foreign naval and military forces during the Cold War.

In 1966, a special investigative unit was formed and named the Naval Investigative Service (NIS).  NIS became the primary investigative agency of the Department of the Navy for counter-intelligence and criminal activities.  In 1982, NIS assumed responsibility for the Navy’s Law Enforcement and Physical Security mission.  Following the Beirut bombing in 1983, NIS established the Navy Anti-terrorist Alert Center.  One notable employee of ATAC was a civilian analyst named Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel in 1987.  Pollard was released from prison in 2015 and now lives in Israel.

Following the so-called “Tailhook Scandal” in 1991 (with pressure from the Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee (Senator Sam Nunn)), the Naval Investigative Service was re-named Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).  It concurrently became a federal law enforcement agency under civilian leadership within the Department of the Navy.

Post-Cold War

Between 1988-93, ONI joined the U. S. Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center and the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity supporting domestic maritime and expeditionary and littoral intelligence collection missions.  This newest facility is called the National Maritime Intelligence Center.  In 2009, the Chief of Naval Operations directed the transformation of ONI into a major naval command which included four subordinate components: scientific and technical intelligence, operational intelligence, information services technology, and expeditionary/special warfare intelligence support.

The Navy’s intelligence mission is evolving, providing critical support to national and global governments and industrial partners.  In 2016, the “Information Warfare Community,” which operates under the supervision of the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, became the Navy’s primary conduit for global information systems.  Its primary function is command and control systems, battlespace and adversary management, and power projection.  It is an effort that employs around 52,000 military, civilian, and civilian contract employees in warfare, cryptographic, meteorological, and oceanographic disciplines.  Today, there are five separate organizations within the Office of Naval Intelligence: The Nimitz Operation Intelligence Center, Farragut Technical Analysis Center, Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center, Hopper Information Services Center, and the Brooks Center for Maritime Engagement.

The Office of Naval Intelligence is not without its critics, however.  Those who suspect the existence of a “deep state” within the U. S. government point to former ONI officer Robert Woodward and his journalistic sidekick Carl Bernstein as willing participants of a deep-state plot organized to bring down President Richard Nixon in the so-called Watergate Affair.  If true, it may have been the first time that manufactured materials targeted high-ranking US officials.  Such accusations are easier made than proved, which goes to the secrecy of official intelligence operations and ONI’s long involvement in domestic spying operations.

Giving some credence to the concerns of “deep state” theorists, in the aftermath of President Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Director of Naval Intelligence recently warned active duty and retired military personnel that any criticism made by them toward the President of the United States, Vice President, cabinet officials, and members of congress may subject them to court-martial proceedings for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and a warning to civilian employees that they may be censored pursuant to Department of Defense Instruction 1344.10.  It is enough to cause one to wonder how far the role of ONI now extends into matters of America’s Constitutional guarantee of expressing personal opinions.

I have no answers.

Sources:

  1. O’Brien, P. P.  British, and American Naval Power: Politics and Policy, 1900-1936.  Greenwood, 1998. 
  2. “Our Heritage,” The Office of Naval Intelligence online.

Endnotes:


[1] After the revolutionary war, Congress disbanded America’s land and naval forces.  At the end of World War I, the United States demobilized the US armed forces.  President Truman ordered the demobilization of the armed forces in 1946.  Truman saw the error of his ways in late June 1950 when the United States came within a hair’s width of being physically thrown off the Korean Peninsula.

[2] Hydrographic is the study and process of measuring the physical characteristics of waters and marginal land

[3] Secretary Hunt served only briefly as Secretary of the Navy, under President James Garfield.  His one enduring achievement, beyond creating the ONI, was a Naval Advisory Board, which he tasked with reviewing and evaluating suggestions for rebuilding the U. S. Navy.  It wasn’t until 1915 that Secretary Josephus Daniels established a permanent advisory board — a suggestion by famed inventor Thomas A. Edison.  

At Penobscot

The first colonial resolution for creating a naval force came from Rhode Island on 12 June 1775.  One old saying is that “necessity is the mother of invention.”  Not that a navy was a new idea, but rather the realization that if the colonies intended to make good on their declaration of independence, they would need freedom of navigation and stout defense of the colony’s long coastline to do it.  Rhode Island took this initiative because the Royal Navy’s harassment costs to that colony’s shipping were high.  Two months later, Rhode Island proposed a single Continental Fleet (funded by all thirteen colonies, of course).

In October 1775, Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy.  It would take something more than a piece of paper to build an adequate navy, of course, and the fact is that the Continental Navy had a somewhat rough beginning.  But by the early part of 1779, America’s naval effort against British shipping had a favorable impact.  Privateers, particularly those working the Atlantic between New York and Nova Scotia, had become exceptionally proficient in intercepting and assaulting British cargo vessels — so well, in fact, that by the spring, the Royal Navy began escorting convoys of cargo ships to North America.

The downside of the British convoy system was that it siphoned off Royal Navy ships from other tasks.  Moreover, the activities of American privateers forced the British to develop the strategy of taking shelter in protected anchorages near active sea lanes — places from which they could dispatch patrols against American raiders.  The coast of Maine was especially useful in this regard because of its many estuaries, because the region contained a large number of British loyalists, and because the forested areas in Maine were a primary source of timber for American shipbuilding.[1]

General Sir Henry Clinton, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the colonies, instructed the commander of British forces in Nova Scotia, Brigadier General Francis McLean, to establish a fortification on the Penobscot River — one capable of housing 400-500 men, with a magazine.  Beyond the construction of a fortification, Clinton also instructed McLean to offer land grants to local inhabitants in exchange for their oath of loyalty to the British Crown.  McLean’s regiment would consist of 400 men from the 74th Regiment of Foot (Argyle Highlanders) and another 100 men from the King’s Orange Rangers (a loyalist regiment in New Jersey).[2]

In May 1779, General McLean decided to enlarge his force to 640 men.  Four-hundred forty of these would come from the 74th Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell, and, since the King’s Orange Rangers could not provide an additional 100 men, McLean decided to excuse the rangers from service and replace them with 200 men from his own regiment, the 82nd.

General McLean’s convoy departed Halifax on 30 May escorted by HMS Blonde, HMS North, HMS Nautilus, HMS Albany, and HMS Hope.  Pathfinders reconnoitered the banks of the Penobscot River in mid-June to find a suitable site for the fort.  McLean decided on a peninsula that extends into the bay from the eastern shore known as Bagaduce.  At the time of McLean’s arrival at Bagaduce, the land was covered by an evergreen forest of fir and pine.  A protected bay opened to the South.  For his building site, the General chose an elevated plateau near the middle of the peninsula.  From that position, McLean’s cannon could command access to the bay.  A thick forest obscured the river (western side) of the arm.

Once General McLean’s force and supplies had been off-loaded, he anticipated that Captain Andrew Barkley, commanding the flotilla, would leave several ships at anchor in the bay.  Barkley, however, intended to withdraw all his ships except HMS Albany (under Captain Henry Mowat).  An argument ensued between Barkley and McLean, which was only resolved when Barkley became aware that several American frigates operated off the coast of Halifax.  Without Barkley’s flotilla, Halifax was virtually at the mercy of the American navy.  Eventually, Captain Barkley permitted HMS Albany, HMS North, and HMS Nautilus to remain behind at Bagaduce along with McLean’s transport ships.

American rebels quickly learned of McLean’s landing.  One rumor warned that General McLean commanded 1,500 men.  Brigadier General Charles Cushing of the Massachusetts militia suggested that several county militias might be required to disengage McLean.  Rebel spies kept the Council of Massachusetts regularly informed of McLean’s activities.[3]  With so much reliance upon the sea for its economic welfare, it would only be a matter of time before the Americans challenged the British in Nova Scotia.

The alarmed Council of Massachusetts wasted no time in making an appeal to the Congressional Navy Board for their assistance in removing the British threat.  The Navy Board advised its Marine Committee of these circumstances and tendered its recommendation that Congress order its ships to address this new British threat.

Money was tight in 1779.  Even before the Marine Committee could formulate its reply, the Navy Board sent a letter back to the Massachusetts Council informing them that the Navy Board concurred with any “proper measures” Massachusetts may undertake to dislodge the enemy from Penobscot.  Apparently, without saying as much, the Continental Congress thought it would be great if Massachusetts paid for the operation.  Congress did offer them the services of Captain Dudley Saltonstall and four Continental Navy ships to achieve the ouster of the British garrison at Penobscot, however.

As a senior Continental Navy officer, Saltonstall would serve as commodore of Continental and Massachusetts ships.[4]   Preparation for the sea began aboard the sloops Warren, Providence, and Brige.  Taking a ship to sea in 1779 was difficult because recruiting experienced crews was nearly impossible.  Experienced sailors preferred to serve aboard privateers where the pay was better and sea passages much safer.

On 29 June 1779, the Council of Massachusetts formed a small committee whose task was to direct the province of New Hampshire to raise a militia.  The Council of New Hampshire agreed to send a 20-gun privateer, the HampdenHampden was armed with six and 9-pound cannon and carried a complement of 130 men.  In addition to Hampden and the four Continental ships, the American flotilla would include three vessels of the Massachusetts Navy, twelve privateers paid for by Massachusetts, and several merchant ships hired to carry supplies from Boston and militia from York Lincoln, and Cumberland counties.

In addition to Continental Marines serving aboard Captain Saltonstall’s ships, the plan for the Penobscot Expedition included 1,500 militia recruited from Maine’s three southern-most counties.  Unfortunately, it was no easier to recruit soldiers than it was sailors and Maine recruiters fell short of their quota by around six hundred men.

The solution to Maine’s shortage of volunteers was conscription, which netted mostly young boys, invalids, and elderly men.  Without waiting for a second draft effort, Maine’s Adjutant General marched his 433 men to a rendezvous at Townsend (present-day Boothbay Harbor).  The number of men drafted from York and Lincoln was also disappointing.  At Townsend, militia Brigadier General Solomon Lovell, the designated commander of land forces, could only muster 873 men.

There was no time to train these men.  The Council of Massachusetts wanted to assault Bagaduce before the British could complete the construction of their fort.  General Lovell opted to take his small force ahead to Bagaduce while a call for more men went out to adjacent colonies.  If mustered, these additional men would proceed to Bagaduce as soon as possible; if not, then Lovell would have to make do with what he had.

Small groups of transport ships and privateers rendezvoused in Nantasket Roads during mid-July.  Given the primitive communications of the day, one wonders how long a ship’s captain would wait around for something to happen before losing interest. Still, by 23 July, all naval units were anchored off Townsend, and militia began boarding their transports.

Captain Saltonstall’s flotilla set sail on 24 July.  He had earlier sent Tyrannicide and Hazard ahead to scout for British ships.  A short distance into the Bay, Captain Williams of the Hazard dispatched Marine Second Lieutenant William Cunningham ashore to find local inhabitants who might provide valuable intelligence about enemy activities.  We do not know the details of Cunningham’s scouting party; we only know that he returned with three men.

After Saltonstall arrived in Penobscot Bay on 25 July, Captain Williams dispatched Cunningham and his men to the flagship Warren to brief Commodore Saltonstall on what they’d learned.  Meanwhile, through other sources, Saltonstall learned of the presence in nearby Camden of Mr. James Mills Mitchell, a man reputedly familiar with the area where the British fort was under construction.  We know Saltonstall conferred with Mitchell; we simply do not know what they discussed.

After that, Captain Saltonstall ordered Lieutenant Brown, commanding Diligent, to reconnoiter the riverbank near Bagaduce.  While performing this mission, Brown observed three men waving from shore to gain his attention.  One of the three men reported that he had observed British activities and estimated the number of soldiers between 450-500.  He said that the fort was not quite half-completed.  Brown sent these men along to Warren, where they made their report to Captain Saltonstall.  Lieutenant Brown had no personal knowledge of McLean’s dispositions or activities, but that didn’t prevent him from advising Saltonstall to prepare for an immediate attack.  In Brown’s opinion, the fort could be “easily taken.”

Commodore Saltonstall was not easily persuaded.  He remarked to Brown, “Only a madman would go in before they had reconnoitered, and it would be the height of madness even to attempt it.”  Saltonstall was wisely prudent because nothing of what had been reported to him had any basis in fact.  Saltonstall, for example, was told that the fort’s walls were barely three feet high when the fortification was much further along.

General McLean had either co-opted local inhabitants or pressed them into labor parties to strengthen the fort. He had mounted his cannon to support his infantry, the defensive lines had been closed, and his construction included chevaux-de-frise defensive works.[5]  His shore battery firing positions had been raised to allow for firing in barbette. McLean had also stripped the cannon from the starboard side of British vessels (they were arranged in line with the port side outward), placing these cannons at various sites ashore.

In preparation for the American assault, General Lovell directed Marines and militia to probe the British line. Undercover of naval artillery from Hazard, Tyrannicide, and Sally, Lovell ordered the landing force ashore on Sunday, 25 July (the first day of hostilities).  Seven American boats were able to approach the shore, but strong winds produced a severe chop in bay waters, preventing most boats from reaching shore.  Seven boats did approach the beach, but intense British fire turned them back. Irregular cannonades were exchanged with minor damage to either side. Lovell canceled the attack.

The sporadic naval fire was again exchanged throughout the day on 26 July, with minor damage to either side. Still, the action did cause the British to re-position their ships further up into the harbor to tighten their defensive line.

At 18:00 on Monday, Captain Saltonstall dispatched Marine Captain John Walsh to Banks Island, where the British had established several cannon positions.  Walsh secured his objective, but with no further orders, he set up defensive positions on the island and ordered his Marines to begin constructing field cannon positions from which the Americans might fire on British ships and land positions.  Walsh’s landing forced the British ships to once again re-position themselves.

While Walsh led his Marines to Banks Island, Major Daniel Littlefield, commanding militia, led an assault force to seize a British position near the entrance to the Bagaduce River.  While approaching the shore, a shot from British cannon landed in Littlefield’s boat, killing him and three others.  General Lovell detailed a third force of men to go ashore and begin constructing a siege position.  The Americans were under constant British fire throughout their effort to develop a foothold.

On Tuesday evening, a substantial disagreement developed between General Lovell, his deputy, Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth,[6] Captain Saltonstall, and a few more senior naval commanders.  Militia officers favored a vigorous naval assault against the British vessels in the harbor.  If these ships could be destroyed, they argued, the land campaign would be more easily started and more likely of success on the harbor side of the peninsula.  Navy officers, including Saltonstall, argued that the army and Marines should first land and overrun the fort; this would allow the American fleet to “safely destroy the British vessels.”  Overrunning the fort would be easier said than done given the precipitous cliffs fronting the fort.  Further complicating the discord between the naval and land commanders, several privateer captains grew impatient and circulated a petition urging Saltonstall to proceed with this operation without further delay.[7]

At this council of war, which was held aboard Warren, the Americans decided to proceed with their assault on Bagaduce.  The landing force consisted of around 850 militia and 227 Marines.  Eighty cannoneers served under Lieutenant Colonel Paul Revere.

Saltonstall directed that preparations for the assault begin at midnight, which achieved little more than deprive the men of sleep.  His plan divided the landing force into three sections.  As the senior Marine officer, Captain John Walsh would lead his men ashore on the American right.  Colonel McCobb’s Lincoln County militia and LtCol Revere’s artillerists would serve in reserve.  Colonel Jonathon Mitchell’s Cumberland County militia would go ashore on the American left.  Once ashore, Brigadier General Wadsworth would exercise overall command of the land forces.

Loading flat bottomed boats with so many armed men was a time-consuming effort, and the men were left standing in the boats for most of the night.  American naval fire began at 03:00.  At first light, the landing boats began their movement to shore under the cover of a dense fog, which made the movement to shore dangerously confusing.  Marines and militia began their landing at around 05:00; they were met by heavy British musket fire.  Moving in small groups, the men started their climb up the precipice essentially one-handed while holding their weapons on their non-dominant hand.

Mitchell’s force encountered McLean’s 82nd Regiment.  For the most part, the 82nd was composed of inexperienced soldiers, which allowed the militia to overrun them without much difficulty.  On the right, Walsh confronted McLean’s more experienced men, then serving under Lieutenant John Moore.[8]  While the Marines advanced with deadly resolve, Lieutenant Moore, with only twenty soldiers remaining alive, was equally tenacious in holding the line.  Captain Walsh was killed, his second in command, First Lieutenant William Hamilton was severely wounded, yet the Marines continued their assault.  Moore, in danger of being encircled, finally withdrew to the fort.

As the Marines regrouped, they counted their losses of 34 men, including Welsh and Hamilton.  Marine First Lieutenant William Downe assumed command on the right and continued his assault.  According to Downe, it looked as if General McLean was ready to concede the fort — and might have done so were it not for the fact that the Marines did not receive the naval artillery support they expected from Saltonstall.  Saltonstall’s failure to support the Marines and murderous fire from the British forced Downe to assume defensive positions.

By the end of the day, the Americans had established a 180° defense and proceeded to move their artillery ashore.  McLean, however, was firmly in control of Fort George.  Concentrated artillery fire forced the Americans to entrench.  Sleep-deprived, the militia were becoming unruly and not simply a little displeased with the navy’s lack of artillery support.

Sometime during the morning of 29 July, Commodore Saltonstall decided that it might be a good idea to construct a fortification facing the British.  Captain Salter of Hampden and Captain Thomas of Vengeance would supervise the work of sixteen engineers to build the American fort.  Now, if Saltonstall believed the militiamen were rowdy on 29th July, the attitude of the troops on 5 August was positively murderous.  They were tired of “dicking around.”

General Lovell, commanding ground forces, sent a note to Saltonstall asking whether his ships would enter the harbor to support the land force.  Everyone ashore wanted to know the answer, but Saltonstall felt it necessary to convene another series of war councils before answering.  Saltonstall decided, finally, that Lovell would receive no naval support until after he had taken Fort George.  At a subsequent meeting of militia officers, it was unanimously decided that if those were Saltonstall’s terms, he could bloody well take the fort himself.

For his part, General Lovell was steadfast in keeping the Massachusetts Council apprised of the progress of the Penobscot Expedition; the Council had heard nothing at all from Saltonstall.  When the Council finally understood how dire the situation was at Penobscot, they requested immediate reinforcements from General Horatio Gates, who was then at Providence.  Gates had no opportunity to respond to this emergency — it would have taken him far too long to recruit adequate reinforcements.  In any case, by that time, the Penobscot Expedition had already fallen apart.

By 13 August, General McLean had nearly completed his fort and a British fleet, having heard of the assault on 28 July, was en route to Penobscot under the command of Admiral Sir George Collier.  Lovell and his officers, no longer participating in expedition planning with the naval force, developed their own plan for assaulting the British fort.  Before the operation could be implemented, however, a heavy fog set in.  When it lifted, Collier’s flotilla was observed entering the lower bay with ten warships.  Although fewer in number than the Americans, the British fleet was experienced, proven in warfare, and more heavily armed.  Saltonstall was lucky that a rain squall appeared, followed by more fog and then darkness — but the American’s luck didn’t hold.

At first light, the British began their approach.  The American ships broke and ran from the fight and headed upstream, hoping to find small inlets where they could hide.  By nightfall, most American ships, including transports, had either been captured by the British or destroyed by their own crews.  Most of the landing force fled through the Maine wilderness, leaving behind them on the shores of the Penobscot River the smoldering remains of the American fleet.  The expedition’s survivors began filtering into Boston during the first week in September.

News of the Penobscot disaster shocked and demoralized the colony of Massachusetts.   Except for the three Continental ships and one ship from New Hampshire, the Massachusetts colony agreed to indemnify the owners of its ships for any damages or losses.  Including the cost of the expedition, Massachusetts added more than £4-million to its debt.  Worse, Massachusetts had lost its entire navy.  Someone would have to account.

Courts-martial exonerated Generals Lovell and Wadsworth of ineptitude.  Commodore Saltonstall, on the other hand, was tried and found guilty of gross incompetence.  A navy board determined that Saltonstall was wholly unfit to command a navy ship and stripped him of his commission.

As for the Continental Marines, their numbers being relatively small, they were never able to influence the events of the Penobscot River Expedition.  They performed admirably when called upon, as evidenced by the seizure of Banks Island, and seizing the heights at Bagaduce. Still, this valor was insufficient to compensate for the navy’s failed leadership.

There are as many lessons in failure as there are from success.  Despite achieving a near-victory, the Americans guaranteed their own defeat — first by failing to maintain unity of command, second by failing to develop a communications plan, third by poor operational planning, the employment of an untrained militia, and worst of all, timid senior commanders.

The cost of Penobscot was high.  From a strength of around 700 soldiers and ten warships, McLean held off an American force of 3,000 (navy and militia), 19 warships, and 25 support vessels.  McLean lost 86 men, killed, wounded, captured, or missing.  The Americans gave up 474 killed, wounded, captured, or missing, 19 warships destroyed, and 25 support ships sunk, destroyed, or captured.  General McLean retained his small settlement in Maine until the British force was withdrawn of their own accord.[9]  General McLean passed away from an illness in 1781. 

The United States did not seriously consider another large-scale amphibious operation until the Mexican-American War (1846-48).

Sources:

  1. Bicheno, H.  Redcoats, and Rebels: The American Revolutionary War.  London: Harper Collins, 2003.
  2. Buker, G. E.  The Penobscot Expedition: Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002.
  3. Smith, C. R.  Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.

Endnotes:

[1] Maine was then known as the Eastern Provinces of Massachusetts Bay.  Some historians believe that Maine might have been looked upon as a location for a new British colony — one set aside for British loyalists in American.  It would be called New Ireland, and it would be located between the Penobscot and St. Croix rivers.

[2] Roughly one-third of the residents of New Jersey remained loyal to the British crown.

[3] Boston had become a center for privateering activities; McLean’s presence in Maine threatened the privateers, who were heavily invested in ships and crews. 

[4] Saltonstall (1738-1796) was a descendant of Sir Richard Saltonstall and John Winthrop, who governed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century.  Politically well-connected in the colonies, Dudley received his commission in the Continental Navy upon the recommendations of his brother-in-law, Silas Deane, who served  on Connecticut’s Naval Committee.  He first commanded the flag ship of Commodore Esek Hopkins, Alfred and was responsible for hiring John Paul Jones as First Lieutenant.  In 1779, Saltonstall was the senior Continental Navy officer based in Boston.

[5] The chevaux-de-frise was an anti-cavalry defense work consisting of a portable frame covered with several to many long-iron projections, spikes, or spears.

[6] Brigadier General Peleg Wadsworth (1748-1829) served as a general officer in the Massachusetts militia, district of Maine, as Adjutant General of Massachusetts, and as second in command to Brigadier Solomon Lovell during the Penobscot Expedition.  He later served as a congressman from Massachusetts.  He was the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

[7] Thirty-two naval officers from 11 ships signed the petition.

[8] Later, Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore (1761-1809), also known as Moore of Corunna, was known for his tenacity in combat.  During the Peninsular War, Moore repulsed the army of Marshal Soult at Corunna, giving up his life in a valiant contest of martial will.

[9] A fictionalized account of the Penobscot Expedition was the subject of Bernard Cornwall’s book entitled The Fort (published 2010).


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.”