Civil War Marines

Prologue

There are few completely spontaneous events in human history.  There are usually several causes of events, and potentially a wide range of consequences.  There can even be consequences to inaction —such as in realizing that something bad is about to happen, and then doing nothing to avoid it.  It saddens me to say that for well over two-hundred years, the American people have proven time and again that they are incapable of learning history’s lessons, or worse, lack the ability to predict the likely consequences of their behavior.

The outbreak of the American Civil War was not a spontaneous event.   The discord and virulent hatred that evolved into civil war began at a much earlier time — even, perhaps, in the formative years of the nation, during and after the Constitutional Convention (5 May – 17 September 1787) when Americans began organizing themselves into political parties.  This conflict continues to exist today.

Regional Radicalization

Owen Brown and Ruth Mills, of Torrington, Connecticut, sired eight children.  They named one of these children John, who was born on 9 May 1800.  John was named after his grandfather, Captain John Brown [Note 1].  Owen Brown was a tanner who later moved to Hudson, Ohio, which over time became an important center of anti-slavery activity and debate [Note 2].  Thinking of it as his Christian duty, Owen offered safe housing and passage to fugitive slaves.  It is likely that Owen brought his children up to abhor human slavery.  Owen Brown was also one of the founders of the so-called Hudson School, a preparatory school consumed with the issue of slavery.

From early age, John Brown believed that his calling in life was to serve God as a minister of Christian gospel.  Following prep-school in Massachusetts, Brown enrolled the Morris Academy (Litchfield, Connecticut) in preparation for becoming a Congregational Minister [Note 3].  Illness and lack of money, however, forced him to give up this ambition and he returned to Ohio where, like his father, he became a tanner.  When Owen moved his family to Pennsylvania in 1825, John (with wife and children) accompanied him.  The family settled in New Richmond where they operated a tannery and secretly provided aid to runaway slaves.  It was part of a network called the Underground Railroad.  Historians estimate that the number of runaway slaves that passed through Brown’s Pennsylvania farm was around 2,500.

Life was hard in the 1830s.  In the Brown family, John lost his wife and an infant son to disease.  In fact, of John’s six remaining children, only three survived to adulthood, but life goes on and John remarried a young woman from New York.  They produced thirteen children, and of these, only three survived to adulthood.  Due to economic depression in the late 1820s and early 1830s, John (as nearly everyone else in the country) suffered financially from a lack of business and increasing debt.

Economic depression caused thousands of people to uproot and relocate to new areas for a “fresh start.”  Some people “skipped out” owing other folks money; some of these ended up migrating to Texas.  John Brown moved his family to Franklin Mills (present-day Kent), Ohio.  To achieve his “new start,” John borrowed money to begin a business partnership with Zanas Kent.  Another economic crisis developed in 1839 and John Brown lost his farm.  When the farm was sold to another family, John Brown refused to vacate the property and he ended up in prison.  By then, John Brown had become a radical abolitionist.

In 1846, Brown moved again to Springfield, Massachusetts where he discovered people of means who emotionally and financially supported the abolition movement.  At about the same time John Brown left Massachusetts in 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act [Note 4].  Brown responded by organizing armed resistance to “slavers.”  He called his group the League of Gileadites [Note 5]; they were men and women who sought to protect runaways and prevent the law from returning them to bondage.  Brown was successful in doing this over several years.

In 1855, John Brown moved to Kansas, where his adult children and their families lived, and where they were experiencing threats of violence from local pro-slavery radicals.  John apparently believed that it was his duty to protect his family from the effects of popular sovereignty, which after 1854, took on an increasingly violent tone [Note 6].  In 1856, pro-slavery activists began a campaign to seize Kansas on their own terms, which led to the term “Bloody Kansas.”  By this time, John Brown was receiving substantial financial support from wealthy abolitionists in Massachusetts and New York, among whom, John Brown had become a hero.

Radical Politics to Terrorism

John Brown’s notoriety among northeastern abolitionists prompted him to shift his tactics from that of defending and protecting runaways to planning and implementing raids against “slavers.”  To achieve his more militaristic strategies, Brown used the money donated to him by abolitionists to purchase firearms and ammunition.  In 1858, Brown initiated the Battle of the Spurs [Note 7].  After Brown met with Frederick Douglass and George de Baptiste in Detroit, Brown’s activities became even more aggressive.  De Baptiste came up with the idea of getting everyone’s attention by blowing up southern churches.

Brown’s new strategy included actively recruiting abolitionist raiders to assault southern slave owners.  Joining Brown were such notables as Harriet Tubman.  Frederick Douglass understood and sympathized with Brown’s overall goal of establishing a new state for freed slaves, but while Brown insisted on the use of force of arms, Douglass disapproved of any resort to violent action.

Brown’s radical aggressiveness led to his plan for the raid on Harper’s Ferry (then in Virginia).  Brown reasoned that if he could free slaves in Virginia, arm them, and train them, then he could instigate armed rebellion against their oppressors.  He imagined that a slave uprising would engulf the southern states.  Why Harper’s Ferry?  It was the location of a federal arsenal [Note 8].

John Brown rented a farm house with adjacent smaller cabins near the community of Dargan in Washington County, Maryland, four miles north of Harper’s Ferry.  Along with 18 men (13 white, 5 black), he took up residence there under the name Issac Smith.  Abolitionist groups shipped him 198 breech-loading .52 caliber Sharps Carbines and 950 pikes.  Brown told curious neighbors that these shipments were mining tools, which aroused no suspicion among them.  Brown would launch his raid from this property, known as the Kennedy Farm.

The armory at Harper’s Ferry was a large complex of buildings that manufactured small arms for the United States Army (1801-1861), with an arsenal (storehouse for weapons) thought to contain 100,000 muskets and rifles.  Brown imagined he needed these weapons to arm southern slaves.  

Initially, Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry was successful.  His men cut telegraph wires, captured he armory (defended by a single watchman), and rounded up hostages from nearby farms.  One of these hostages was Colonel Lewis Washington, a great grandnephew of President Washington.  Although Brown controlled the railroad line that passed through Harper’s Ferry, he allowed an early morning train to pass through the town.  When the train arrived at the next station, telegrams were dispatched alerting authorities about Brown’s seizure of Harper’s Ferry.  Brown was not a stupid man; he wanted a confrontation with the federal government — but this is what Frederick Douglass warned him about.  Attacking the federal government would bring down the wrath of the government upon him.

At the moment Brown commenced his raid, Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, U. S. Army, was on leave at his plantation home in Arlington, Virginia.  After Secretary of War John Floyd learned of the raid, he summoned Lee to Washington and placed him in charge of recapturing Harper’s Ferry and bringing John Brown to justice.  Colonel Lee would command all militia forces available in the area of northwest Virginia and all “available” regular forces.

The only regular force readily available at the time was a detachment of Marines from the Washington Navy Yard, and the only line officer available to command them was First Lieutenant Israel Greene, U. S. Marine Corps [Note 9].  At 23:00 on 17 October 1859, Lee ordered all militia forces gathered at Harper’s Ferry to withdraw.  The next morning, he sent First Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart to John Brown under a white flag with his order to surrender.  Brown promptly refused.  A few moments later, Lee ordered Lieutenant Greene to attack the engine house held by Brown.

Within three minutes of Lieutenant Greene’s order to advance, Marines captured John Brown and seven of his men; ten of Brown’s men lay dead, including his sons Watson and Oliver.  Five other men managed to escape (including Brown’s son Owen).  Of Brown’s captives, four men died (including Colonel Lewis) and nine received serious wounds.

The Nation Goes to War

The Raid at Harpers Ferry was the first pre-Civil War conflict involving federal troops, but one that involved US Marines in a significant role.  In 1861, the entire Marine Corps numbered 63 officers and 1,712 enlisted men [Note 10].  It was the smallest of all services (and still is).  As the smallest armed force, the Marines had an understandably limited involvement in civil war battles.  None of America’s armed forces were prepared for war in 1861.  When war broke out, the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy scrambled to organize a fighting force.  Secretary of War Simon Cameron asked Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells for a battalion of Marines for service in the field.

Secretary Wells subsequently ordered Colonel Commandant John Harris to form a battalion of “disposable” Marines for field duty.  Harris, in turn, ordered Major John G. Reynolds to assume command of a battalion consisting of four companies, each containing eighty men.  Reynolds was instructed to report to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, U. S. Army [Note 11].  At the same time, Secretary Cameron ordered McDowell to provision the Marine battalion, which had no field service equipment.

Not every Marine was happy about the prospect of service in the field.  Second Lieutenant Robert E. Hitchcock [Note 12], who served as post Adjutant in the Washington Navy Yard, wrote a letter to his parents on 14 July 1861 informing them, “Tomorrow morning will see me and five other lieutenants and 300 Marines on our way to the Fairfax Courthouse to take part in a great battle.  This is unexpected to us because the Marines are not fit to go to the field …”

Major Reynolds was a good choice to command the battalion.  A veteran of the Mexican American War with 35 years of military service, Reynolds knew what to expect from the upcoming battle.  His troops, however, were untrained, inexperienced, and had no idea what awaited them.  All four of Reynold’s companies were commanded by noncommissioned officers.  More than a few of these 328 Marines had been in the Marine Corps for less than a week.  On average, the average length of service for the Marines of this battalion was two months.  Of the total number, only seven privates had ever smelled the stench of gunpowder.

Reynold’s executive officer was Major Jacob Zeilin and his few officers were young lieutenants assigned as staff officers, none of whom were available for line assignments.  As the battalion made its way through Washington DC, excited citizens clapped and cheered.  Once in Virginia, however, Reynold’s Marines became just another group in a long line of march behind the West Point Battery of Artillery.  Eventually, the Marines linked up with the Army of Northeast Virginia — the largest field army ever gathered in North America.

General McDowell intended to move westward in three columns.  Two of these would make a diversionary attack on the Confederate line at Bull Run; his third column would maneuver around the Confederate right flank to the South.  He believed this strategy would serve to deny reinforcements from Richmond and threaten the Confederate rear.  His assumption was that when faced with an attack from the rear, the rebels would abandon Manassas and fall back to the Rappahannock River, thus reducing the likelihood of a Confederate march on the US capital.  That was the plan [Note 13].

McDowell attached Major Reynold’s battalion to the 16th US Infantry, which was part of the brigade of Colonel Andrew Porter.  Of the Marines, Porter observed, “The Marines were recruits, but through the constant exertions of their officers had been brought to present a fine military appearance, but without being able to render much active service.”  As the Marines were not, at the time, US infantry (their duties and training being more focused on naval service), Reynold’s battalion was attached to Porter’s artillery where they could be utilized as its permanent support (ammo carriers).  With this decision, Porter seemed to have reduced the possibility that the Marines would see much fighting.

McDowell led his unseasoned army across Bull run against Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard.  His plan depended on speed and surprise, but his southward march took twice as long as expected, there were problems with issuing supplies, his columns became disorganized, and several regiments lost their way after darkness set in.  According to a diary kept by Major Reynolds, the artillery unit to which he was assigned contained six horse-drawn cannons.  These elements kept racing ahead of the Marines at every opportunity.  “The battery’s accelerated march was such as to keep my command more or less in double-quick time; consequently, the men became fatigued or exhausted in strength.”  Northern Virginia’s July temperature added to the Marine’s fatigue.

Union Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside’s brigade fell upon the Confederate left, which was held by Colonel Nathan Evans’ under-strength brigade.  Captain Charles Griffin’s battery, followed closely by Marines, crossed the creek and opened fire from a range of about 1,000 yards.  Their rifles had an effective range of 500 yards.  Evans was initially at a disadvantage, but the inexperienced union troops soon buckled under intense Confederate fire and began to fall back.  Porter’s brigade held firm, but the arrival by train of Confederate reinforcements under Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnson changed the dynamic of the battle.  A brigade of Virginians under a recently promoted Brigadier General by the name of Thomas J. Jackson rallied at Henry House Hill.

Griffin’s artillery was augmented by the artillery battery of Captain J. B. Ricketts.  With this artillery support, the US infantry was ordered to take Henry House Hill.  Major Reynold’s battalion lined up with the 16th US Infantry.  The fighting was intense, but indecisive until the unexpected arrival of an unknown regiment.  Griffin wanted to fire on the dark-clad soldiers, but McDowell’s artillery chief, Major William F. Barry, ordered Griffin to withhold his fire.  Barry thought the mysterious regiment was Union reinforcements.  They weren’t.  Colonel Arthur Cummings’ 33rd Virginia Regiment unleashed murderous fire on Griffin’s gunners and the Marines.  Brigadier General Bernard Bee, CSA was so impressed by Jackson and his men that he shouted, “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.  Let us rally behind the Virginians!”  This is how Brigadier General Jackson became known as “Stonewall Jackson.”

The overwhelming fire delivered upon the Union force caused them to break and run.  It was the sensible thing to do, but their rapid withdrawal permitted the Virginians to overrun Griffin’s artillery.  “That was the last of us,” Griffin reported.  “We were all cut down.”  [Note 14].

Major Reynolds feverishly attempted to rally his Marines, but another confederate charge drove Reynolds from Henry House Hill.  In his after-action report, Brigadier General Porter commended the Marines: “Major Reynolds’ Marines, whose zealous efforts were well sustained by his subordinates, two of whom, Brevet Major Zeilin and Lieutenant Hale, were wounded, and one officer, Lieutenant Hitchcock, lost his life.”  In addition to Lieutenant Hitchcock, nine enlisted Marines were killed in action, sixteen received serious wounds, and twenty Marines were taken prisoner.  Nevertheless, the Commandant of the Marine Corps was not pleased.  “The first instance recorded in its history where any portion of the Corps turned their backs to the enemy,” he said.

The Commandant was unnecessarily harsh on these men.  They were untrained recruits and therefore unqualified for duty in the field.  They were the least trained troops in McDowell’s army, and yet … they gave a good account of themselves at the First Battle of Manassas.  Their 13% casualty rate was equal to every other regular army battalion, including the most experienced unit in the Union army at Bull Run.  The only people pleased with the result of the Battle of Bull Run were the Confederates — and their spy in Washington, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, of course.

With the Union army receiving priority for funding, Congress only slightly enlarged the Marine Corps … and only then because in doubling the size of the Navy, the Navy demanded an increase in the number of ships detachments.  After staffing ship’s detachments, the Marines could only man a single polyglot battalion at any given time.  Because the Marines of shipboard detachments performed most of the amphibious assaults in capturing enemy bases, there was scant need for a standing Marine battalion.  Still, capturing enemy bases was no easy task as it required more manpower that was available within a small Marine Detachment aboard ship.  More to the point, throwing Marines together under officers and NCOs they did not know hardly made them into a lethal landing force.  Fort Sumter at Charleston, S. C. in 1863 is a case in point.

Through the summer of 1863, the city of Charleston had withstood every Union offensive.  After Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren replaced Admiral Samuel DuPont as commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, he proposed a joint Navy-Army assault to seize outlying Morris Island and then move on Fort Sumter itself.  He asked Secretary Welles for an extra battalion of Marines to be combined with another battalion assembled from several ship’s detachments.  Colonel Commandant Harris assembled a disparate group of Marines — from recruiters to walking wounded — designated them a Marine battalion, and placed them under the command of Major Zeilin, who was still recovering from his wounds.

Admiral Dahlgren and Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore, U. S. Army (an engineer) agreed to begin their campaign with the seizure of Fort Wagner on Morris Island.  Gillmore made good use of a new artillery piece called the Billinghurst Requa Battery Gun; it consisted of 25 rifled barrels mounted on a field carriage and was capable of rapid fire.

On 10 July 1863, Gillmore’s troops landed safely on the far side of the island, but the next day encountered stiff resistance and were repulsed.  The following week, Colonel Robert G. Shaw led a doomed assault on Fort Wagner, spearheaded by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a black regiment.  Shaw and 54 of his men were killed, and another 48 men were never accounted for.  Other regiments from New York, Connecticut, and New Hampshire were equally decimated by unwavering defenders.  After these overwhelming failures, Gillmore called off his planned-for all-out attack and instead ordered his engineer to dig a number of  snaking approach trenches.  As the engineers dug, Gillmore directed calcium floodlights at the defenders (another innovation), which blinded the defenders enough to disrupt accurate rifle fire.  The soil on Morris Island had a sandy top layer with a muddy base, so the engineers began uncovering the decomposing remains of soldiers killed in earlier attempts to seize Fort Wagner.  Disease, bad water, and decomposing bodies demoralized the Union engineers.

Admiral Dahlgren planned for Zeilin’s Marines to make a landing and support Army troops already ashore, but Zeilin objected.  He argued that his force was “ … incompetent to the duty assigned, that sufficient sacrifice of life had already been made during this war in unsuccessful storming parties.”  Major Zeilin also complained that too many of his Marines were raw recruits and that the climate was unsuitable to properly train them.  Admiral Dahlgren was not at all pleased by Zeilin’s objections, but he cancelled the landing.

When Major Zeilin fell ill, Captain Edward M. Reynolds (son of then Lieutenant Colonel George Reynolds) assumed command of the battalion.  After the surprising Confederate withdrawal of Fort Wagner, Admiral Dahlgren moved swiftly to attack Fort Sumter.  On the evening of 8 September, five-hundred Marines and sailors in 25 small boats, under the direction of Commander Thomas H. Stevens, prepared to assault the fort.  That very night, Dahlgren learned that Gillmore was planning a separate boat attack.  Attempts to coordinate the attack faltered over the question of whether the Army or Navy would exercise overall command.

Meanwhile, the Confederates, having captured a Union code book, deciphered Dahlgren’s signals and knew when and where to expect the attack.  Confederate fort and batteries surrounding Fort Sumter trained their guns on Sumter’s seaward approaches.  CSS Chicora (an ironclad) waited in the shadows behind the fort.  Captain Charles G. McCawley (future Commandant) was the senior Marine officer in the night assault.  He later recalled a lengthy delay before the landing boats were launched, great confusion within the landing force once they boarded the landing craft, and a strong tide that separated the landing craft once ordered ashore.

When the landing force came within range, Confederate sentries fired a signal rocket to alert harbor batteries to commence firing.  Of the 25 boats assigned to Marines and sailors of the assault force, only eleven made it to shore.  The amphibious assault collapsed within twenty minutes.  Only 105 Marines survived the assault, and they surrendered to Confederate forces because they had no other choice.  Twenty to thirty captured Marines died at the Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

In the fall of 1864, General William T. Sherman had taken Atlanta and headed east toward the sea.  Sherman requested that Major General John Foster seize the Charleston-Savannah Railroad line at Pocotaligo by 1 December.  Doing so would protect Sherman’s flank as he approached Savannah.  Foster failed to win the fight at Honey Hill (Boyd’s Neck) and the rail line remained in Confederate hands.  Sherman then turned to the Navy, who assembled 157 Marines under First Lieutenant George G. Stoddard.  According to Stoddard, “Soon after dark on the 5th, I received orders from the Admiral to form my battalion and proceed on board the Flag Steamer Philadelphia for an expedition up the Tulifinny River.  Embarked about midnight under orders to land the next morning, cover the land of artillery, and advance on the enemy.”

At dawn the next day, a combined force of Marines, sailors, and soldiers landed at Gregorie Point, South Carolina, advanced on the right of the naval battery, and came under fire at about 11:00.  Stoddard deployed his battalion as skirmishers on the right and advanced into the wood beyond Tulifinny crossroads, pushing the enemy back.  With the Gregorie Plantation house in Union possession, the force moved quickly toward the Charleston-Savannah line and surprised the 5th Georgia Infantry.  A corps of 343 cadets from the Citadel bivouacked four miles away heard the gunfire and quick marched to Gregorie Point.

Early on the morning of 7 December, the cadets and three companies of Georgia infantry mounted a surprise attack at the center of the Union position.  Marines were at the center of the line, supporting army and navy field artillery batteries.  As the cadets inched toward the Marine position, they came under withering fire.  Undaunted, the cadets fixed their bayonets and mounted a charge against the Marine perimeter but were repulsed and forced to withdraw.  Stoddard ordered a counterattack through the dense swamp.  The fog was so thick that the Marines could not see a man three feet ahead.  Citadel cadets filled the air with Mini bullets and after suffering many casualties, the Union troops withdrew to their line.

Union forces made a final assault against the Confederate line on 9 December.  The Marine battalion formed on the right of a 600-man skirmish line.  To the Marine’s right was the Tulifinny River; just ahead was the bivouac area of the cadets.  Stoddard’s men came within fifty yards of the rail line before the 127th New York volunteers, to the Marine’s left, began a retreat.  The Marines continued forward, but Stoddard soon found himself in great danger of being cut off.  Without a concerted effort, the Union attack failed with Marine losses numbering 23 killed, wounded, or missing.

Fort Fisher is located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina.  It protected the Confederacy’s last operational Atlantic port with 39 large guns and an assortment of smaller caliber weapons.  Its earthen walls were 9 feet high and around 25 feet thick.  On the morning of 14 December 1864, 75 Union warships and transports under the command of Admiral David Porter steamed south from Hampton Roads, Virginia toward Fort Fisher [Note 15].  The transports contained 6,500 soldiers under Major General Benjamin Butler.  Delayed in transit by a storm, Porter began his bombardment of Fort Fisher (an estimated 20,000 shells) on 24 December.  A landing party of 2,500 soldiers went ashore on 25 December, but withering Confederate defensive fires denied their advance.  Butler called off the attack and Porter withdrew his fleet beyond the range of the fort’s guns.

A second attempt was scheduled for 6 January, but meanwhile Butler was fired and replaced by Brigadier General Alfred Terry.  Another storm delayed the Union assault until the 13th when Porter’s ships bombarded the fort for two additional days.  Terry landed 8,000 soldiers.  Detachments of Marines and sailors assembled for an amphibious assault, numbering around 1,600 sailors and 400 Marines armed with cutlasses and revolvers.  This force was divided into four companies under Captain Lucien L. Dawson with Navy Commander Randolph Breeze appointed as landing force commander.

There is nothing simple about an amphibious assault.  In this instance, the assault boats ran aground in the rough surf leaving the Marines and sailors with no other option than to abandon the landing boats for the crashing waves and endure grapeshot and shrapnel killing them in droves.  A few hundred yards from the fort, the landing party occupied previously dug rifle trenches and waited for the order to mount a frontal assault —the deadliest of all engagements.  The signal to attack came at around 15:00, prompting sailors and Marines to approach the fort’s palisades in single file.  Observing from aboard ship, a young Navy lieutenant named George Dewey wrote of the bloody fiasco, “ … It was sheer madness.”

It was supposed to be a coordinated attack, but Brigadier General Terry held back his troops on the Confederate left.  Instead, sailors and Marines fought hand-to-hand engagements with Confederate defenders for the next six hours.  Dawson had no time to reorganize his companies after such engagements as he was constantly on the move responding to Commander Breeze’s orders to “move up.”  When the attack began to fail, Dawson rallied two companies of Marines to provide covering fires for the withdrawing sailors and Marines.  Several Marines spontaneously joined the Army’s assault on the main parapet early in the evening, thus helping to overrun Fort Fisher.  Confederate losses were 400 killed in action and 2,000 taken as prisoners of war.  Terry’s force lost 900 men, the Sailors and Marines lost an additional 200 men killed with 46 more wounded or missing.  Of the total of Marines, six were later awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in the Battle of Fort Fisher.

Conclusion

Despite these “land battles,” which yielded mixed results, the main contribution of Marines during the Civil War was their service aboard ship on blockade duty and inland river flotillas.  At Mobile Bay in August 1864, Marines blocked an attempt by Confederates to ram USS Hartford, Admiral Farragut’s flagship.  Corporal Miles M. Oviatt, aboard USS Brooklyn, and seven other Marines, received the Medal of Honor for their role in that engagement.  Admiral Samuel DuPont once stated, “A ship without Marines is not a ship of war at all.”

Considering the enormity of the American Civil War, the role of the United States Marine Corps was small — but then, the Marine Corps was small.  Yet in the context of the missions assigned to the Marines, they excelled in every task assigned to them.  They didn’t win every engagement — for all kinds of reasons, but they gave their all.  Equally important, however, was the fact that the Marines, as an institution, learned important lessons that would prepare them for future conflicts.

Marines learned, for example, that there is no substitute for quality training, rehearsed landing operations, mastering the art and science of embarkation, the importance of unity of command, and meticulously coordinated landings with naval gunfire support.  Within 33 years, the First Marine Battalion was the first infantry force to land during the Spanish-American War; 19 years after that, they acquitted themselves with aplomb and lethality as part of the American Expeditionary Force.  In the decade following the Great War, they developed amphibious warfare doctrine, published the Landing Party Manual (which incorporated lessons learned from the failure at Fort Fisher), developed the Small Wars Manual, established the foundation of the Marine Air Wing, developed specialized equipment for advanced base defense, amphibious operations, and organized themselves for the crucible for an even greater war and dozens of unexpected crises.  Our political leaders may lack foresight, but this is not a failure of Marine Corps’ leadership.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, H. D.  The Battle History of the U. S.Marines: A Fellowship of Valor.  Harper-Collins, 1999.
  2. Heinl, R. D.  Soldiers of the Sea: The U. S. Marine Corps.  Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1962.
  3. Jones, J. P. And Edward F. Keuchel.  Civil War Marine: A Diary of the Red River Expeditions, 1864.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.
  4. Krivdo, M. E.  What are Marines For?  The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War Era.  College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011.
  5. Nalty, B. C.  United States Marines at Harper’s Ferry and in the Civil War.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1983.

Endnotes:

[1] Captain Brown’s ancestors were Puritans in New England.

[2] One of the people apprenticed to Owen Brown to learn the tanning trade was a man named Jesse Grant, the father of Ulysses S. Grant.

[3] Congregationalists were reformed protestant assemblies that distanced themselves from centrally proscribed traditions in order to govern themselves through democratically minded parishioners.

[4] The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required “free states” to aid “slave states” in the return of runaway slaves and imposed severe penalties on those who aided and abetted in the escape of slaves.

[5] This name is biblical in origin.  Mount Gilead is remembered as the place where only the bravest of Israelis gathered to confront an invading enemy.

[6] The Kansas-Nebraska Act mandated popular sovereignty, where territorial settlers decided for themselves whether to allow slavery within a new state’s borders.  Following secession of eight southern states in 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.  This was one of John Brown’s goals.

[7] The so-called Battle of the Spurs took place while John Brown and twenty-one of his followers (including women and children) escorted twelve escaped slaves from Missouri to Iowa, a free state.  Near Straight Creek, Brown encountered a posse of around 45 lawmen and bounty hunters hoping to earn the $3,000 bounty placed on John Brown.  Undaunted, Brown led his party ahead.  Brown was an imposing figure and — to be perfectly honest, he appeared deranged.  Terrorized, the posse turned their horses and fled.  The term “Battle of the Spurs” euphemistically refers to the posse “giving their horses the spur” in distancing themselves from John Brown.

[8] It wasn’t as if Brown’s intended raid at Harpers Ferry was a closely held secret.  Brown had recruited British mercenary Hugh Forbes to train his men in warfare, and Forbes held nothing back about what he was doing.  When Brown refused to pay Forbes more money for his services, Forbes traveled to Washington to meet with senators William H. Seward and Henry Wilson, informing them that Brown was a vicious man who needed restraint.  Wilson, in turn, wrote to his abolitionist friends advising them to get Brown’s weapons back.  A Quaker named David Gue sent an anonymous letter to War Secretary Floyd on 20 August 1859 warning him of a pending insurrection.

[9] Although born in New York and raised in Wisconsin, Israel Green resigned his commission in the US Marine Corps and joined the Confederacy.  What may have prompted this decision was the Greene had married a woman from Virginia.  In 1873, Greene migrated from Clarke County, Virginia to Mitchell, Dakota Territory where he worked as a civil engineer and surveyor.  He passed away in 1909, aged 85 years.

[10] Only 16 officers resigned their Marine Corps commission to join the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War.

[11] McDowell graduated from the USMA with initial service in the 1st Artillery.  He later served as a tactics instructor before becoming aide-de-camp to General John E. Wool during the Mexican-American War.  Between 1848-1861, McDowell served as a staff officer with no foundation in command of troops when he was appointed to serve as a brigadier general in May 1861, a product of the efforts of a close family friend, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.  To McDowell’s credit, he protested his assignment to command the Army of Northeast Virginia, arguing that he was unqualified to serve as a field commander.  His field of expertise was logistics.  Moreover, he realized that his troops were poorly trained and not ready for combat service.  Succumbing to political pressure, however, McDowell initiated a premature offensive against the Confederate forces in Northern Virginia and was soundly defeated on every occasion.  It did not help matters that high ranking Union civilian and military officials funneled McDowell’s battle plan to Rose O’Neale Greenhow, who sent them to Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard.  See also, Little Known Legends.  In any case, McDowell’s plan was ambitious, imaginative, and overly complex.  None of McDowell’s subordinate commanders could execute them, nor their men execute them.

[12] Hitchcock also participated at Harpers Ferry; he was killed during the Battle of Bull Run.

[13] No battle plan survives the first shot fired.

[14] Civil War officers, if they were not friends, knew one another.  Whether serving the Union or Confederacy, they all had the same instruction at the USMA, they fought together in the Mexican-American War, served together at various posts and stations after 1848.  Field generals could, therefore, anticipate what his opponent would (or would not) do.

[15] David Dixon Porter (1813-1891) was a member of one of the most distinguished families affiliated with the United States Navy.  He was the second Navy officer to achieve the rank of admiral, after his adopted brother David Farragut, and is credited with improving the Navy as a Superintendent of the U. S. Naval Academy.  He was a cousin to Major General Fitz John Porter of the Union Army.

First Marine Battalion, 1898

John Davis Long served as Secretary of the Navy during the presidency of William McKinley.  Long’s appointment was not without controversy.  Apparently, President McKinley made the appointment without a wink or a nod from Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.  The situation involved some political infighting, which is always the case in national politics.  However, to appease Lodge, McKinley appointed Theodore Roosevelt to the Navy Department’s number-two position.  Roosevelt’s appointment satisfied Lodge because, given Long’s reputation as a hands-off manager, he could count on Roosevelt to “run the show.”

Theodore Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1898

Regarding increasing tensions with Spain, Secretary Long (and others) were doubtful these disagreements were likely to end in an armed conflict, but if it did, Secretary Long was confident that the United States would win it in short order.  Accordingly, Long took no actions to prepare for a state of war with Spain.  Long’s nonchalance was a source of irritation to Roosevelt.  In January 1898, out of concern for the safety of Americans in Cuba, Long ordered the USS Maine to Havana as a show of force.  Within a month, tensions between the US and Spain had reached the crisis stage; with Roosevelt’s insistence, Long finally began to prepare for war.  On 15 February 1898, the USS Maine exploded while at anchor, causing massive casualties.  Of the 26 officers, 290 sailors, and 39 Marines aboard the Maine, 260 men lost their lives, including 28 Marines.

The sinking of the Maine produced a public demand for satisfaction, sentiments echoed by Roosevelt.  Ten days later, Secretary Long took a day off from work.  His absence enabled Roosevelt to issue a series of directives designed to increase the Navy’s readiness for war, including an order to Commodore George Dewey to assume an aggressive posture in the Spanish Philippines.  When Long returned to work, he countermanded some of Roosevelt’s directives, but he did increase his interest in naval preparations for war.

On 16 April, five days before the war began, Secretary Long ordered the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Charles Heywood, to organize one battalion of Marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron.  Heywood’s battalion was named the First Marine Battalion.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, USMC, was appointed to command it.

Robert W. Huntington LtCol USMC Commanding Officer

The US Congress declared war on Spain on 25 April, effective retroactively from 21 April 1898.  Colonel Huntington had nearly 40 years of active duty service when he assumed command of the First Marine Battalion; he was a veteran of the American Civil War.  On 17 April, Huntington organized his battalion into four companies.  The Commandant’s earlier proposal for a second battalion was never implemented because, at the time, the Marine Corps did not have enough enlisted men to form another battalion while at the same time fulfilling its usual task guarding naval installations.  The First Marine Battalion was instead expanded to six companies: five rifle companies and one artillery company.  Each company had an authorized strength of 103 enlisted Marines, 1 First Sergeant, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals, 1 drummer, 1 fifer, and 92 privates.  The battalion command element included the Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer (XO), Adjutant, Quartermaster, and a Navy surgeon.  The battalion color guard included one sergeant and two corporals.

The battalion quartermaster, Major Crawley, excelled in provisioning the Marines for combat duty, and the battalion was ready to deploy on 22 April.  On that date, the Marines marched down to the pier and boarded USS Panther.  Citizens observing the movement from the sidelines cheered their Marines; there was no lack of enthusiasm for a war with Spain.  Panther was underway by 20:00 that very night.  The battalion, numbering 650 officers and men, produced over-crowded conditions aboard a ship designed to carry 400 combatants.  Each meal required three separate servings.

Panther pulled into port at Hampton Roads, Virginia, to await its naval escort[1].  While in port, Major Percival C. Pope and First Lieutenant James E. Mahoney reported to LtCol Huntington for duty at sea and on foreign shore.  The ship continued her journey on 26 April with USS Montgomery as her escort.

The ship’s overcrowded conditions caused some tension and conflict between the ship’s captain and the Battalion commander.  At issue was the duties of Marines while embarked and the right of the navy to discipline Marines.  When Panther arrived in Key West, Florida, Commander George C. Reiter[2], Commanding Officer of Panther, ordered Huntington to disembark his Marines and set up a camp ashore.  Major General Commandant Heywood demanded to know why Reiter ordered the Marines ashore, particularly since Panther was the only troop carrier available to transport the Marines.  Reiter explained that sending the Marines ashore relieved the crowded conditions aboard ship.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion remained ashore for two weeks.  During that time, they exchanged their heavy winter uniforms for summer weight clothing.  Marines with too much leisure time always find ways of getting into mischief, so Huntington ordered a training program involving rifle marksmanship, field sanitation, and company, platoon, and squad tactics.  Marines who were not engaged in one form of training or another were assigned shore patrol duty to ensure that the Marines behaved themselves while on liberty.

With the receipt of new Colt model machine guns, Huntington ordered his machine gunners to attend instruction on crew-serve weapons’ care, maintenance, and employment.  He also provided instruction in fighting in the tropics, the importance of boiling water, and mess cooks learned how to create healthy menus and prepare nutritionally sound meals to help prevent dysentery and diarrhea.  Navy Assistant Surgeon John Blair Gibbs[3] joined the battalion on 1 June 1898.

On 7 June 1898, the Navy Secretary ordered, “Send the Marine Battalion at once to Sampson without waiting for the Army.  Send Yosemite as a convoy escort.”  Huntington’s battalion re-embarked aboard ship and sailed for Cuba.  Major Pope, hospitalized with an illness, remained behind.

During the night of 9 June, Panther and Scorpion collided while at sea.  Scorpion suffered some damage to her fantail, but nothing critical.  Panther arrived at Santiago, Cuba, on the morning of 10 June, and Colonel Huntington reported to Admiral William T. Sampson, who, as Commander-in-Chief of the North Atlantic Squadron, served as the overall naval force commander.  Sampson directed Huntington to report to Commander Bowman H. McCalla, USN[4] aboard USS Marblehead, who would serve as landing force commander.

Commander McCalla entered Guantanamo Bay on 7 June to clear the outer harbor.  A Spanish artillery battery near the telegraph station at Cayo de Toro (on the western side of the bay) fired on the Marblehead and Yankee.  The Spanish gunboat Sandoval soon arrived down the channel from Caimanera to challenge the US presence there, but when Marblehead and Yankee opened fire, Sandoval withdrew.

The importance of Guantanamo Bay was its geography.  Guantanamo has an inner and outer bay, the latter offering good anchorage because of its depth.  The outer bay was an ideal location for coaling operations.  Because of its utility to the Navy, Admiral Sampson sent the Marines to protect ships at anchorage by denying Spanish troops the opportunity to fire at the ships from shore locations.

On 10 June, Commander McCalla ordered Marines from several ship’s detachments ashore to conduct reconnaissance missions inside Guantanamo Bay.  Captain M. D. Goodrell led forty Marines from USS Oregon and twenty additional Marines from USS Marblehead ashore.  Having completed his reconnaissance mission, Goodrell selected a bivouac site for the First Marine Battalion and afterward briefed Colonel Huntington on his designated position ashore.

By the end of the day on 10 June, U.S. Navy ships, including three cruisers (Marblehead, Yankee, Yosemite), the battleship Oregon, torpedo boat Porter, gunboat Dolphin, the collier Abarendo, transports Vixen and Panther and several privately-owned vessels containing journalists dominated Guantanamo’s outer bay.

Colonel Huntington’s battalion began its movement ashore at 1400 with four companies; two companies remained aboard ship to help with unloading supplies.  Company “C” was the first element ashore and assumed responsibility for area security as skirmishers at the top of a hill overlooking the bay.  Sergeant Richard Silvey planted the American flag on the hill, marking the first time the American flag ever flew over Cuba.  Two hundred feet below Company “C” was a small fishing village, which McCalla had ordered fired for health reasons.  The Commander prohibited everyone from entering these buildings.  The remainder of Huntington’s battalion went ashore on 11 June.

Colonel Huntington was not pleased with the bivouac site because it was vulnerable to attack from a ridgeline 1,200 yards to the rear of his position.  McCalla politely listened to Huntington’s complaint and then informed the colonel that he would remain where sited.  The navy needed the Marines to protect ships at anchor from enemy shore bombardment.

Spanish forces first attacked a Marine outpost late that night, killing Privates Dumphy and McColgan of Company “D.”  Due to nasty post-mortem injuries, their remains were difficult to identify.  Contrary to reports in the press, the Marine’s remains were not mutilated, per se, but McColgan did suffer 21 shots to the head, and Dumphy fifteen.  Later in the night, Spanish troops initiated five separate attacks on Marine position, all repulsed.  At about 0100, a Spanish force launched a concerted attack against the Marine perimeter.  During the assault, Spanish riflemen killed Assistant Surgeon Gibbs.  Well-camouflaged Spaniards continued to direct sporadic fire into the Marine perimeter.  Spain’s use of smokeless gunpowder made it difficult for Marines to detect firing positions.

On the morning of 12 June, after the death of Sergeant Charles H. Smith, Huntington moved the camp further down the hill, closer to the beach, to a place known as Playa de Este.  The Marines prepared fighting holes on the hill’s crest and designed earthworks in the shape of a square with a blockhouse in the center, and artillery pieces placed at each corner of the square and mutually supporting machine guns were positioned along the sides.  The earthworks stood chest-high; on the outside of the dirt walls, the Marines dug trenches, measuring five feet deep and ten feet wide.  That afternoon, another Spanish assault killed Private Goode Taurman.

Navy Chaplain Harry Jones, serving aboard USS Texas, having heard of the Marine deaths, volunteered to go ashore and conduct funeral services.  Throughout the services, Spanish sharpshooters targeted Chaplain Jones and harassed the Marines by firing into the makeshift church.  The undaunted Jones nevertheless performed the funeral rites with dignity and aplomb.

Aboard Panther, Commander Reiter’s obstinance continued as he balked at having to unload Marine ammunition and stores.  This problem was solved when Commander McCalla directed that Panther unload 50,000 rounds of ammo with the further admonition, “Do not require Huntington to break out and land his stores or ammo.  Use your own officers and crew.”

Ashore, Sergeant Major Henry Good was killed in a Spanish attack on the night of 12 June.  When the Spanish re-initiated their attack on the morning of 13 June, Colonel Huntington decided he’d had enough harassment by Spanish troops and ordered the destruction of a water-well in frequent use by the Spanish at Cuzco.  It was the only source of freshwater within twelve miles.  With two companies of Marines and fifty Cuban rebels, Captain George F. Elliott[5] proceeded to Cuzco with USS Dolphin providing naval gunfire support from the sea.  Journalist Stephen Crane[6] volunteered to act as Elliott’s adjutant if allowed to accompany the Marines; Huntington granted his request[7].

Sgt Quick in Cuba 1898 USMC Recruiting Poster

Approaching the Spanish defenses at Cuzco, the Marines encountered stiff enemy resistance.  Lieutenant Magill led fifty additional Marines and ten Cubans to reinforce Elliott.  Magill’s mission was to cut off the enemy’s line of retreat, but Dolphin’s naval artillery prevented his advance.  To redirect the ship’s fire, Sergeant John Quick volunteered to signal the ship and did so while exposing himself to intense enemy fire.  In recognition of his selfless devotion, Congress awarded Quick the Medal of Honor.

Ultimately, Spanish troops did escape the Marine assault, but not without incurring significant losses.  Elliott’s force suffered few casualties; two Cubans killed, and three Marines wounded.  Lieutenant Wendell C. Neville[8] was injured while descending the mountain during the engagement.  Twenty-three Marines suffered heat exhaustion and required medical evacuation.  Commander McCalla opined, “…the expedition was most successful, and I cannot say too much in praise of the officers and men who took part in it.”  Subsequently, Spanish probes and sniper attacks on Marine positions were rare.  On 15 June, naval gunfire destroyed the Spanish fort at Caimanera on the bay’s eastern side.

USS Resolute[9], loaded with stores for the Marines, arrived late in the day on 20 June.  Admiral Sampson ordered all stores located on the Panther transferred to Resolute.  On the 24th of June, McCalla ordered a reconnaissance in force to determine if Spanish forces still occupied the extremities of Punta del Jicacal, on the eastern side of Guantanamo Bay.  Early on the morning of 25 June, Huntington assembled 240 men and led them by boat across the bay.  Following the Marines were sixty Cubans under Colonel Thomas.  When the Marines went ashore, they discovered that the Spanish had already withdrawn.

On 3 July, during the naval battle of Santiago, the US Navy destroyed the Spanish navy.  With hundreds of Spanish seamen in the water, the American navy assumed responsibility for rescuing and caring for Spanish survivors.  Over the next several days, the Navy organized Marine guards to escort these prisoners to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Huntington was forced to give up sixty Marines for this duty, and additional Marines augmented them from ship’s detachments.

On 12 July, Commander McCalla ordered Huntington to quarantine the harbor at Guantanamo Bay.  It was more on the order of peacetime duty, which with time on their hands, the Marines began to create their own diversions.  Two Marines decided to raid stores aboard a privately-owned schooner in the harbor, and another was discovered buying liquor from a local source, which was prohibited.  Private Robert Burns, while on guard duty, shot and killed an enormous black pig.

USS Resolute

The First Marine Battalion broke camp on 5 August and boarded USS Resolute for operations at Manzanillo.  The Spanish commander was offered the opportunity to surrender but declined to do so as a point of honor.  Advised to evacuate the town of all civilians, the commander of USS Alvarado signaled that he intended to commence a bombardment at 1530 hours.  The shelling began in 1540 and lasted until 1615 when it appeared that flags of peace were flying over some of the town’s buildings.  Captain Goodrich, commanding Alvarado, sent a boat ashore flying a truce flag, but when the boat received enemy fire, the bombardments continued.  Gunfire terminated at 1730 for the night but resumed at 0520 the next morning.  After daylight, a boat from Manzanillo approached the fleet bringing word that officials had proclaimed a truce and the war was over.  Disappointment among the Marines was evident.

On 18 August, after taking aboard 275 men from an artillery battalion, Resolute embarked for Long Island, dropped off the soldiers, and then continued onward to New Hampshire … chosen by Commandant Heywood to provide the Marines some respite from the tropical heat.  General Heywood greeted his Marines as they came ashore, promoted six of the battalion’s officers for gallantry, and praised the men for their exceptional conduct.  On 19 September, Colonel Huntington received orders to disband the First Marine Battalion.

One remarkable aspect of the battalion’s experience in Cuba was the excellent health of the Marines.  There had not been a single case of yellow fever, dysentery, or diarrhea, which stood in contrast to other US troops’ experience, who were seriously affected by these illnesses.  Major Crowley reported that the use of distilled water for drinking and cooking, good field sanitation, and sufficient food and clothing enabled the Marines to return to the United States “fit for duty.”  Crawley was also insightful in purchasing empty wine casks for use as water containers, which increased the amount of water that could be kept on hand while encamped.

At a parade attended by President McKinley, Sergeant Quick received the medal of honor, and the president announced that a hospital in Kentucky would be named in his honor.

One aspect of the war that surprised Colonel Huntington and his Marines was the amount of favorable press coverage they had received during the conflict.  They were not only the first combat troops ashore, but they were also facing superior[10] numbers of the enemy in their engagements.  As a result of these press reports, the American public learned for the first time about the usefulness of the U. S. Marine Corps as a fighting force.  The press also praised the Marines for their general healthfulness and contrasted this result with the debilitating disease experienced by army units in the same conflict.

The Spanish-American War also demonstrated that the Marine Corps could play an essential role in future Naval operations and this was important because, as a result of the war with Spain, the United States had acquired Pacific bases that would require a military defense of the Philippines, Guam, and additional Pacific Ocean area advanced bases.  The war also illustrated how quickly a Marine Corps combat unit could be assembled and dispatched to foreign shore[11].  Subsequently, “combat readiness” became the hallmark of the United States Marines —and continues to this very day.

Sources:

  1. Clifford, J. H. History of the First Battalion of Marines.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1930.
  2. Collection of private papers, Colonel Robert Watkinson Huntington, USMC (Retired), Marine Corps University archives, and Gray Research Center, Quantico, Virginia.
  3. Documented histories, Spanish-American War, Naval History and Heritage Command, online.
  4. Feuer, A. B. The Spanish American War at Sea.  Greenwood Publishing, 1995.
  5. Stewart, R. W. The U. S. Army and the Forging of a Nation, 1775-1917.  Washington: Center of Military History, 2005.
  6. Sullivan, D. M. The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War, Volume 1, 1997

Endnotes:

[1] Panther required an escort because the ship was unable to defend herself at sea.

[2] Reiter was promoted to Rear Admiral (Lower Half) in 1905 and was detailed to Chair the Lighthouse Board until his retirement in 1907.

[3] The 40-year old Dr. John Gibbs was among the first medical doctors to receive an appointment as a surgeon in the US Navy Medical Corps.  He was instrumental in helping Colonel Huntington train his Marines in field sanitation, nutrition, and healthy cooking.  Within a few days, a Cuban sniper would kill Gibbs while he carried out his duties as a field surgeon.

[4] McCalla (1844-1910) was a Civil War veteran of the US Navy whose courage under fire and leadership earned him the respect and admiration of Navy and Marine Corps officers alike.  McCalla participated in the blockade of Cuba and was responsible for cutting submarine cables linking Cienfuegos with the outside world, thus isolating the Spanish garrison there, and led the invasion of Guantanamo Bay.  Advanced to Rear Admiral in 1903, McCalla retired from active duty service in 1906.

[5] Served as the tenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1903-1910).

[6] Authored the Red Badge of Courage in 1895.

[7] On 18 June, Colonel Huntington received an order from McCalla not to allow any reporters near his camp or enter his lines without a pass from McCalla.  Any reporter attempting to do so was to be arrested as a POW and taken to the Marblehead.

[8] Awarded the Medal of Honor, served as fourteenth Commandant of the Marine Corps (1929-1930), died in office.

[9] Formerly, SS Yorktown, she was purchased by the US Navy on 21 April 1898 for service as an auxiliary cruiser/troop transport.

[10] Spanish forces outnumbered Americans 7 to 1.

[11] At the beginning of the war, the United States Armed Forces were unprepared for foreign conflict.  The Navy was barely adequate to its task, the Army was understaffed, underequipped, and under-trained.  The army’s only recent combat experience was the Indian wars in the American west.  What may have “saved” the Americans during this war was the fact that the Spanish were even less ready for war.  Thanks to the urgings of Theodore Roosevelt, Dewey’s Pacific Fleet was well positioned to strike the Spanish in Manilla Bay.  Operationally, it may have been one of the Navy’s greatest successes, although the Navy’s destruction of the Spanish fleet won the war in Cuba.

245th Anniversary of the U. S. Marine Corps

10 November 1775 — 10 November 2020

Who are these people who claim the title, U.S. Marine?

They are men and women who come from every part of the United States of America.  They are all high school graduates with many having college credits or degrees.  Many left their homes as teenagers seeking adventure; with an average age of 25-years, Marines are the youngest overall of all the uniformed services.  They are patriots—men and women who love their country enough to be willing to place themselves in harm’s way defending the American way of life.  When they left home, they left all the comforts of home to discover the unknown.

At recruit training or officer’s candidate school, they learned the basics of what it takes to become a Marine.  They learned that in the Marine Corps, learning is a lifetime endeavor.  Upon graduating from Bootcamp or OCS, every Marine receives his or her first Marine Corps Emblem, signifying that they have passed the test for becoming a United States Marine.  They then proceed to infantry training because every Marine is a rifleman.

There are dozens of occupational fields in the Marine Corps, many of these are highly technical areas that demand further training.  After their initial period of training, Marines are scattered to the four winds and the corners of the earth.  In the process of becoming a United States Marine, they discovered a new family —one composed of men and women who believe as they do, whose values and devotions equal their own.  They inherited a unique tradition of devotion to duty that exceeds those of any other service organization; it has been passed to them by every previous generation dating back to 1775.  In time, they will pass this tradition on to those who follow them.  Part of this tradition demands that they keep faith with their God, their Country, and their Corps.  In the Marines, no one cares what color skin you have; they only care about the content of your character.  There is no place in the Marine Corps for people of low character.

Marines seldom get enough sleep, yet their energy levels remain high.  They take great pride in their uniforms and work constantly to present the best possible military appearance.  No one ever wants to become a “raggedy assed Marine.”  They are professionals who work hard to develop, maintain, and enhance their unique skills.  They are scholars who constantly read about the art and science of warfare.  The more they learn, the more they want to know.

Marines are also known to play hard.  Some smoke and drink too much, but they are absolutely devoted to maintaining their personal and professional integrity, their honor, their commitment.  They are courageous in the face of great danger.  They do not behave bravely on the battlefield for the Corps; they do it for each other, but this is what makes the Marine Corps unique.  Tragically, Marines sometimes lose a brother or sister; when this happens, they honor them publicly and mourn them privately.

We don’t pay Marines enough money, but most never joined for money —they joined to serve.  All they ask in return for their many sacrifices is the gratitude of the American people, and the respect they have earned and deserve.  Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter most: letters from back home matter because there are occasions when Marines aren’t sure they’ll ever see home again.

Young Marines grow up fast, because serving as a leader is a weighty responsibility.  Most Marine corporals have more responsibility than do most corporate executives.  They learn to make hard decisions; they learn how to live with the consequences of those decisions.  Yet, in some other ways, Marines never grow up at all … almost every Marine has a wicked sense of humor.

Marines fight for freedom; that is, the freedom of people whom they’ve never met.  Some Marines experience the crucible of war and must learn how to deal with its physical and psychological effects.  No matter whether Marines served in combat or not, every Marine stands the chance of going into a war zone; Marines are known to volunteer for combat service.  Every Marine knows that tough training pays off.  They sweat in tough training, so they won’t have to bleed in combat.  All Marines give something of themselves in the service of their country —some Marines give all.

Never ask a Marine what it’s like to serve in combat —it is an experience that defies explanation.

Marines love their time-honored rites and ceremonies, for these are the things that strengthen their bond with fellow Marines.  When the going gets tough, it is this bond that nurtures them.  The future may be uncertain, but one thing is constant: a Marine can always count on a fellow-Marine.  It’s what Marines do.  Together, Marines learn how to deal with victory and tragedy.

At the end of their Marine Corps adventures, some Marines go back home and take up their lives where they left off … but none of these men and women are ever the same as when they left for boot camp because being a Marine is a lifelong endeavor.  There are no ex-Marines.

One-third of all Marines remain in the Corps because they have fallen in love with the uniqueness of the Marine Corps lifestyle.  They crave the challenges of adventurous service.  Some Marines remain in the Marines because the Corps has become their home.

You should know that Marines are great story-tellers.  Most of these stories contain embellishments; the more often they are told, the greater the embellishments become.  Eventually, their stories become legend —and in some cases, myth.  Elite forces tell such tales.  Some are hilarious, some are true, and some are both.  No matter what the tale, Marines always speak highly of their Corps.

The title Marine is earned the hard way and remains effective throughout a Marine’s lifetime.  It has no monetary value, but it is a priceless gift.  When Marines meet one another, in uniform or civilian attire, there is also the exchange of a nod, or perhaps a tight smile.  There is but one exception to the Marine for Life Rule: it is that no one can remain part of the Marine family who dishonors themselves or our Corps.

To those who are serving as Marines presently, to those who have gone before, I thank you for your sacrifices.  Remember the good times, and if you haven’t done so, I urge you to seek your peace for the unhappy moments.  Stand tall, always, because future generations will one day stand upon your shoulders.

I know this because I am a United States Marine.

The Gun Maker

There are many positive things to say about the American Republic —along with a few deserved criticisms.  One of my criticisms is that we Americans seem never to learn important lessons from history —so we are continually forced to relearn them.  This relearning process is too often painful for our nation —for its complex society.  Maybe one day we’ll smarten up, but I’m not holding my breath.

Speaking of lessons unlearned, given their experience with the British Army the founding fathers were distrustful of standing armies.  I find this odd because the British Army’s presence within the thirteen colonies prevented hostile attacks against British settlements.  Years later, at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812, observing how the American militia cut and run when confronted with a well-trained British Army, President James Madison remarked, “I could never have believed so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.”

Our reliance on state or federal militia to defend our homeland was one of those unlearned lessons.  War is not for amateurs.  Federalized state militias during the American Civil War were not much of an improvement over the Revolutionary War minute men.  History shows us, too, that finding enough resources to fight a war against Spain in Cuba was very close to becoming an unmitigated disaster.  There was only one combat force ready for war in 1898; the U. S. Marine Corps was able to field a single (reinforced) battalion —one that was engaged with the enemy before the Army figured out which of its senior officers was in charge.  Who knows how many horses drowned because the Army couldn’t figure out how to unload them from transport ships and get them to shore.

The United States was still unprepared for combat service at the beginning of the First World War.  Politicians —those geniuses in Washington— had little interest in creating and maintaining a standing armed force.  Worse, our military leaders were incompetent and complacent, and as a result of this, the US military lacked modern weapons.  When Congress declared war against Imperial Germany, the American army was forced to rely on weapons provided by Great Britain and France.  It wasn’t that the United States had no weapons, only that our arsenal was a mishmash of firearms requiring an assortment of munitions that were both inadequate and inefficient for the demands of general war.  In particular, the United States arsenal included ten different revolvers of varying calibers, 12 rifles of foreign and domestic manufacture, and six variants of automatic weapons/machine guns.

Some Background

The Puckle Gun

The world’s first rapid-fire weapon was the brainchild of James Puckle (1667-1724), a British inventor, a lawyer, and a writer, who in 1718 invented a multi-shot gun mounted on a wheeled stand capable of firing nine rounds per minute.  The Puckle Gun consisted of six flintlock barrels, operated manually by a crew.  The barrel was roughly three feet long with a bore measuring 1.25 inches (32mm).  The weapon was hand loaded with powder and shot while detached from its base.  To my knowledge, this device was never used in combat.

Today, we classify machine guns as either light, medium, or heavy weapons.  The light machine gun (with bipod for stability) is usually operated by a single soldier.  It has a box-like magazine and is chambered for small caliber, intermediate power ammunition.  Medium machine guns are general purpose weapons that are belt-fed, mounted on bi-or tripods, and fired using full power ammunition.  The term “heavy machine gun” may refer to water-cooled, belt-fed weapons, operated by a machine gun team, and mounted on a tripod (classified as heavy due to its weight), or machine guns chambered for high-powered ammunition.  Heavy machine gun ammunition is of larger caliber than that used by light and medium guns, usually .50 caliber or 12.7mm.

Gatling Gun

One example of America’s use of rapid-fire weapons was the weapon designed by Richard J. Gatling in 1861, which seems to follow the Puckle design.  Called the Gatling Gun, it was the forerunner of the modern machine gun (and of modern electric motor-driven rotary guns and cannons).  It saw only occasional use during the American Civil War, and only sporadic use through 1911.  It was not an easily transportable weapon.

Wide use of rapid-fire (machine) guns changed the tactics and strategies of warfare.  Magazine or belt fed ammunition gave opposing armies substantial increases in fire power.  No longer could soldiers advance in a frontal assault without incurring massive casualties, which then led to trench warfare.  Machine guns would never have been possible without advances in ammunition —a shift away from muzzle loading single-shot weapons to cartridges that contain the round, propellant, and means of ignition.

The first recoil-operated rapid-fire weapon was the creation of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim in 1884, a British-American inventor.  The Maxim gun was used by the British in several colonial wars between 1886-1914.  Maxim’s work led to research and development by Hotchkiss[1], Lewis, Browning, Rasmussen[2], Mauser, and others.

First World War 

The only machine guns available to the United States at the beginning of World War I were the Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié, the Chauchat M1915, M1918 (pronounced Show-sha), which was a light machine gun made in France, Belgium, and Poland, the Colt-Vickers (called the potato digger) was a British water-cooled .303 caliber gun, the Hotchkiss 1914, and the Lewis gun[3].  While the Lewis gun was designed in the United States in 1911, no one in the Army’s Ordnance Department was much interested in it, which caused inventor Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis to seek license for its production in the United Kingdom in 1914.

Some of these machine guns were more dependable than others; they are, after all, only machines.  But one consequence of faulty weapons was the needless combat-related deaths of many young men, whose weapons failed to work at critical moments.  Whenever combat troops lose confidence in their weapons, they become less aggressive in combat; they lose their determination to win —they lose battles.

America’s War Department in 1914 was inept.  Not only were the Army’s senior leader’s incompetent, the entire organization was ill-prepared to carry out the will of Congress.  Of course, the Congress might have taken note of these conditions before declaring war on Germany in 1917, but it didn’t.  Before America could go to war, it was necessary to increase the size of the Army through conscription, complete re-armament was necessary, and massive amounts of spending was required to satisfy the needs of general war.  Until that could happen, until war technology could be developed, the American soldier and Marine would have to make do with French and British armaments.

In 1917, John Browning personally delivered to the War Department two types of automatic weapons, complete with plans and detailed manufacturing specifications.  One of these weapons was a water-cooled machine gun; the other a shoulder fired automatic rifle known then as the Browning Machine Rifle (BMR).  Both weapons were chambered for the US standard 30.06 cartridge.  After an initial demonstration of the weapons capabilities with the US Army Ordnance Department, a second public demonstration was scheduled in south Washington DC, at a place called Congress Heights.

On 27 February 1917, the Army staged a live-fire demonstration that so impressed senior military officers, members of Congress, and the press, that Browning was immediately awarded a contract for the production of the BMR and was favored with the Army’s willingness to conduct additional tests on the Browning machine gun.

In May 1917, the US Army Ordnance Department began this additional testing of the machine gun at the Springfield Armory.  At the conclusion of these tests, the Army recommended immediate adoption of Browning’s weapon.  To avoid confusing the two Browning automatic weapons, the rifle became known as the M1917 Rifle, Caliber .30, Automatic, Browning.  Over time, the weapon was referred to as simply the Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR.

What was needed then was a company capable of producing the weapons in the quantities needed to arm a field army —which is to say, three infantry corps, each consisting of three infantry divisions, each of those having three regiments, and each regiment consisting of three infantry battalions.  It would be a massive undertaking.  Since the Colt Firearms Company was already under contract to produce the Vickers machine gun for the British Army, Winchester Repeating Arms Company was designated the project’s primary manufacturer.  Winchester, after providing invaluable service to Browning and the Army in refining the final design to the BAR, re-tooled its factory for mass production.  One example of Winchester’s contribution was the redesign of the ejection port, which was changed to expel casings to the left rather than straight up.

The BAR began arriving in France in July 1918; the first to receive them was the US 79th Infantry Division.  The weapon first went into combat against German troops in mid-September.  The weapon had a devastating impact on the Germans —so much so that France and Great Britain ordered more than 20,000 BARs.

B. A. R.

The Marines, always considered the red-headed stepchildren of the U. S. Armed Forces, now serving alongside US Army infantry units, were never slated to receive these new weapons.  Undaunted, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment developed a bartering system with co-located units of the 36th Infantry Division.  The Marines traded their Chauchats to the soldiers in exchange for the new BAR.  Given what I know of the average Marine’s ability to scavenge needed or desired resources, I have no doubt that the Marines were able to convince the doggies that one day, the soldiers would be able to retain the French guns as war souvenirs[4], whereas the BARs would have to be surrendered after the war.  Unhappily for the Marines, senior Army officers learned of this arrangement and the Marines were ordered to surrender the BARs and take back their Chauchats.

The BAR was retained in continual use by the US Armed Forces (less the Air Force, of course) from 1918 to the mid-1970s.  The BAR’s service history includes World War I, Spanish Civil War, World War II, Second Sino-Japanese War, Chinese Civil War[5], Indonesian Revolution, Korean War, Palestinian Civil War, First Indochina War, Algerian War, and in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cyprus, and the Thai-Laotian Border War.

The Man

The BMG and BAR were not Browning’s only accomplishments.

John Moses Browning was born into a Mormon family on 23 January 1855.  His father, Jonathan, was among literally thousands of Mormon pioneers that made their exodus from Illinois to Utah.  The elder Browning established a gun shop in Ogden in1852.  As a Mormon in good standing, Jonathan had three wives and fathered 22 children.

John Browning began working in his father’s gun shop at around the age of seven where he learned basic engineering and manufacturing principles, and where his father encouraged him to experiment with new concepts.  He developed his first rifle in 1878 and soon after founded the company that would become the Browning Arms Company.  In partnership with Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Browning developed rifles and shotguns, from the falling block single shot 1885 to the Winchester Model 1886, Model 1895, the Model 1897 pump shotgun, and Remington Model 8.  He also developed cartridges that were superior to other firearm company designs.

John Moses Browning

Browning Arms Company is responsible for the M1899/1900 .32 ACP pistol, M1900 .38 ACP, M1902 .38 ACP, M1903 Pocket Hammer .38 ACP, M1903 9mm Browning Long, M1903 Pocket Hammerless .32 ACP, M1906/08 Vest Pocket .25 ACP, M1908 Pocket Hammerless .380 ACP, the US M1911A1 .45 ACP, Browning Hi-Power 9mm Parabellum, the Colt Woodsman .22 long rifle, and BDA handguns in .38 and .45 ACP.  He developed ten variants of shotgun, eleven rifles, six machine guns, and was awarded 128 patents. 

The Legacy

What it takes to win battles is reliable weapons expertly employed against the enemy.  John Browning gave us expertly designed, quality manufactured weapons to win battles.

We no longer rely on state militias to fight our wars, but we have taken a turn toward including more reserve organizations in our poorly chosen fights.  The US also has, today, a robust weapons development program to give our Armed Forces a battlefield advantage.  Despite past failures in providing our frontline troops quality weapons, the US Marines have always succeeded against our enemies with the weapons at their disposal.  Occasionally, even entrenching tools were used with telling effect against the enemy.

If American Marines have learned anything at all about warfare since 1775, it is that success in battle depends on never taking a knife to a gunfight.

Sources:

  1. Borth, C. Masters of Mass Production.  Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945.
  2. Browning, J. and Curt Gentry. John M. Browning: American Gunmaker.  New York: Doubleday, 1964.
  3. Gilman, D. C., and H. T. Peck (et.al.), eds. New International Encyclopedia.  New York: Dodd-Mead.
  4. Miller, D. The History of Browning Firearms.  Globe-Pequot, 2008.
  5. Willbanks, J. H.  Machine guns: An Illustrated History of their Impact.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Endnotes:

[1] Benjamin B. Hotchkiss (1826-1885) was an American who, after the American Civil War, with the US government little interested in funding new weapons, moved to France and set up a munitions factory he named Hotchkiss et Cie.

[2] Julius A. Rasmussen and Theodor Schouboe designed a machine gun that was adopted by the Danish Minister of War, whose name was Colonel Wilhelm Herman Oluf Madsen.  They called it the Madsen Machine Gun.

[3] The invention of Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis in 1911 that was based on the initial work of Samuel Maclean.  The US Army’s ordnance department was not interested in the Lewis Gun because of differences between the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General William Crozier and Colonel Lewis.

[4] Larceny has been a Marine Corps tradition since the 1890s.  During World War II, Marines were known to steal hospital sheets from adjacent Navy hospitals, make “captured Japanese flags” out of them, and sell them to sailors and soldiers as war souvenirs.  During the Vietnam War, anything belonging to the Army or Navy that was not tied down and guarded 24-hours a day was liable to end up on a Marine Corps compound.  In 1976, three Marines were court-martialed for stealing two (2) Army 6×6 trucks, attempting to conceal the thefts by repainting the trucks and assigning them fraudulent vehicle ID numbers.  In 1976, our Marines were still driving trucks from the Korean and Vietnam War periods.  Despite overwhelming evidence that these three Marines were guilty as hell, a court-martial board consisting of five Marine officers and a Navy lieutenant, acquitted them.  Apparently, no one sitting as a member of the court thought it was wrong to steal from the Army.

[5] Franklin Roosevelt’s “lend-lease” program provided thousands of US made weapons to the Communist Chinese Army during World War II.  The Communists under Mao Zedong hid these weapons away until after Japan’s defeat, and then used them to good advantage against the Chinese Nationalists.  Some of these weapons were used against American soldiers and Marines during the brief “occupation” of China following World War II.  The United States  government continues to arm potential enemies of the United States, which in my view is a criminal act.

244th Anniversary of the U. S. Marine Corps

November 10th is the 244th anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps. If you’ve never served as a Marine, then you will never know what being a Marine is all about. If you’re interested, though, here’s a short glimpse of our history.

 

If you are a Marine (there are only two types: those still living (and have maintained their faith with us), and those who aren’t), then you are my brother or sister. To you, I wish the happiest (and safest) of all Marine Corps birthday celebrations.

Semper Fidelis, Marines

Mustang sends …

Merry Christmas, My Friend

By James M. Schmidt, USMC

Follow this link to the poem.  I attempted to reprint it in this post but encountered so many formatting issues that I just gave up on it.

Lance Corporal Jim Schmidt wrote this poem in 1986 while serving as a Battalion Counter-sniper at Marine Barracks, 8th & I Streets, Washington, D. C.  According to Schmidt’s own account, after he penned the poem he placed it on the door to the gymnasium.  At some point later, the battalion commander, Colonel D. J. Meyers borrowed it from its placement, made copies, and distributed them to each department at the barrack.  Then he dismissed the battalion early for Christmas liberty.

Initially, the poem was distributed anonymously.  However, after the poem was identified with Corporal Schmidt, it appeared in the Marine Corps Gazette and Leatherneck Magazine, giving it worldwide distribution.  Today, Jim Schmidt practices law in Los Angeles, California.  Once a Marine, always a Marine.

To all my readers, their loved-ones, and to my ever-decreasing number of active duty Marine Corps friends, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  May God bless and keep all of you throughout the upcoming year.

Semper Fidelis,