The American Revolution, in all its glory, intrigue, and drama has indeed spawned legends and heroic truths about many famous people, places, and military units. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment has gone down in history as a valiant unit composed entirely of black soldiers who valiantly fought for America’s independence. Our history books talk about how the fledgling Continental Army was drilled and cleaned up at Valley Forge. We read of John Paul Jones of The Continental Navy who was a mastermind of naval warfare.
Yet, throughout all those history books and narratives, one group is left out. One group who, in the more modern day, has been known for its heroics and bravery and its extreme spirit. This group is of course the United States Marine Corps, which at the time was appropriately called: The Continental Marines. It is the intention of this article to introduce the reader to the true heroics demonstrated by The Continental Marines during the revolution and to show the contribution they made to American Liberty. It is this article's intention to tell the story of the birth of the leathernecks!
The famous early American author James Fenimore Cooper was once quoted as saying: "At no period of the naval history of the world, is it probable that Marines were more important than during the war of the Revolution."1 He was very much correct in his statement. When war broke out in 1775 and 1776, the new nation had no real Navy to speak of. Their total national fleet consisted of 8 small ships against 270 British men of war. The Continental Congress realized that they needed some sort of sea force. So, when they commissioned a Navy they also, on November 10, 1775 to be exact, commissioned a Continental Marine Corps.
The reader may ask why a Marine Corps was necessary. What exactly did they do? Whatever was required of them is the short answer. In more precise terms they had a few main goals. First, they acted as the Captain's defender. They made sure that the Captain's orders were obeyed by the sailors and they also enforced discipline should one sailor get out of hand. In addition they were also trained as infantry. If the Captain needed men to go ashore, the marines would be the first to go. These landings would usually consist of raids and reconnaissance. Finally, the marines defended the ship when attacked. They protected the Captain, aided in the loading and firing of the guns, and also went to the top of the ship to lay down suppressing musket fire on the enemy ship. They could also be called to serve exclusively on land if need be. This was essentially what the marines did. Due to their role aboard ship they can be credited with the ability to do a wide arrange of tasks. A trait not many other units had.
Let us now delve into the history of this great organization to find out just why this organization was so important. As was said above, on November 10, 1775 a committee of Congress gave this resolution: “Resolved, That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one colonel, two lieutenant-colonels, two majors, and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to office, or enlisted into said battalions but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve with advantage by sea when required; that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present War with Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress; that they be distinguished by names of First and Second Battalions of American Marines, and that they be considered as part of the number which the Continental Army before Boston is ordered to consist of.” 2.
After this initial resolution the recruiting process began. Although the marines were a continental unit and thus open to men from any of the 13 colonies the recruiting was done almost exclusively in the colonial capitol of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The most famous recruiting area was Tun’s Tavern. It was a local inn run by a man named Robert Mullan who was named a Marine Captain. The overall commander of the Marines was another Philadelphia tavern owner named Samuel Nicholas. The following recruiting poster was hung in Tun’s tavern:
While recruiting was slow, two battalions were eventually recruited. For the remaining summer and fall months the Marines were mainly involved in guarding ships and barracks life. In February and March of 1776 that would soon change.
Lord Dunmore, the former Royal Governor of Virginia had at that time gathered a very large store of arms and ammunition at New Providence Island in the Bahamas. He was also creating much mischief along the Virginia shoreline. Commodore Esek Hopkins of The Continental Navy had been ordered to process to Avaco in the Bahamas. From there he was to counter the actions of Lord Dunmore. After setting sale with Nicholas’ Marines Commodore Hopkins saw an opportunity that would greatly help the cause. He realized that New Providence Island was lightly defended. There were only two forts on the island: Fort Montagu and Fort Nassau, and both were lightly guarded with only a few regulars and some local militia. The later fort was named after the island’s seat of government. So, on March 3rd approximately 250 marines and some sailors landed on New Providence Island and marched on Fort Montague.
Meanwhile, the governor of the island had called up the militia upon seeing the continental ships. The turnout was not very good. Only a few dozen men turned out with muskets in questionable repair. Although originally gathering up the militia near Fort Montague in order to make a stand there the governor soon decided that he stood a better chance at the government house in the middle of Nassau. As the marines approached Fort Montague three cannons in the fort were fired as a purely ceremonial gesture of honor toward the marines. After these ineffective shots the fort was surrendered. Upon taking the fort Captain Nicholas decided to stay there for the night.
While the marines slept, the governor at Nassau debated with the city fathers as to what to do. It was eventually decided that the island could not be defended due to the fact that they had been taken by such surprise and since they were so outnumbered. So, the next morning the marines literally walked into Nassau and captured it without firing a shot.
This first landing and first victory for The Continental Marines was indeed a cause for celebration. Upon gathering all of their captured booty the marines and sailors headed home to the colonies. On April 6th the squadron encountered the British ship Glasgow. A naval engagement began. Both sides fell back and the battle was really a draw. The Marines however had taken their first casualties.
After reaching the colonies the marines were relegated for awhile to barracks life in Philadelphia. Captain Nicholas raised a few more companies of Marines and tried to keep his force in good shape. This precaution would soon pay off when the marines were called to New Jersey in order to assist General Washington who had been pushed out of New York by the British and who was in serious trouble.
Upon arriving north the Marines were attached under the command of General Cadwalder who was a militia General. The Marines were scheduled to join Washington in his famous crossing of the Delaware but the area in which they were to cross was too choked with ice. The Marines arrived in the captured city of Trenton a few days later and participated in defending the Assunpink Bridge which ran through Trenton from attacking British forces. This battle has come to be known as the second battle of Trenton. Finally, a few days later the Marines helped win the battle of Princeton when they reinforced the retreating army and charged headlong into the British line, eventually forcing them to retreat.
After these heroic deeds the two marine battalions were ordered to undertake the role of artillery. They did this and were soon incorporated into the army. When winter came the Marines joined Washington’s camp and they disappeared as a distinct unit. Most of the men still served but in other units. While in the later years of the revolution new Continental and State marine battalions would be formed, the true glory days of the Continental Marines had gone by. Who would think that this one small organization of American patriots would grow into the world’s most effective fighting force? Who knew that out of this small group of men would come a great birth, the birth of The Leathernecks!
1. The Continental and State Marines: 1775-1783. Retrieved June 15, 2006, from http://www.geocities.com/est1775/ContinentalMarines.html
2. Scuttlebutt and Small Chow’s History and Lore of The Old Corps. The Birth of The Continental Marines. Retrieved June 15, 2006, from http://www.scuttlebuttsmallchow.com/resolved.html
3. Scuttlebutt and Small Chow’s History and Lore of The Old Corps. Continental Marines’ Recruiting Poster Tun Tavern, January 1776. Retrieved from http://www.scuttlebuttsmallchow.com/poster.html
General Reference: Smith, C.R. (2005). Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.