The Continental Marines: The Birth of the Leathernecks
by Geoff Zokal
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:
What a Brilliant Prospect does this Event Present to every Lad of Spirit who is inclined to try his Fortune in this highly renowned Corps.
The Continental Marines
When every thing that swims the Seas must be a
Thousands are at this moment endeavoring to get on Board Privateers where they will serve without pay or reward of any kind whatsoever, so certain does their chance appear of enriching themselves by PRIZE MONEY! What an enviable Station then must the CONTINENTAL MARINE hold,--- who with far superior advantages to these, has the additional benefit of liberal Pay, and plenty of the best Provisions, with a good and well appointed Ship under him, the Pride and Glory of the Continental Navy; surely every Man of Spirit must blush to remain at Home in Inactivity and Indolence when his Country needs his Assistance.
Where then can he have such a fair opportunity, reaping Glory and Riches in the Continental Marines, a Corps daily acquiring new Honors, and here, once embarked in American Fleet, he finds himself in the midst of Honor and Glory, surrounded by a set of fine fellows, Strangers to Fear, and who strike Terror through the Hearts of their Enemies wherever they go!
He has likewise the inspiring idea to know, that while he sails the Ocean to protect the Liberty of these states, that the Thanks and good Wishes of the whole American people shall send him forth on his mission and participate in his Glory. Lose no Time, then, my Fine Fellows, in embracing the glorious Opportunity that awaits you: YOU WILL RECEIVE
Seventeen Dollars Bounty.
And on your Arrival at Head Quarters be comfortably and genteely CLOTHED. And spirited young BOYS, of a promissing Appearance, who are Five Feet Six Inches High, will receive TEN DOLLARS, and equal Advantage of PROVISIONS and CLOTHING with the Men. And those who wish only to enlist for a limited Service, shall receive a Bounty of SEVEN DOLLARS, and Boys FIVE. In fact, the Advantages which the MARINE receives are too numerous to mention here, but among the many, it may not be amiss to state --- that if he has a WIFE or aged PARENT, he can make them an Allotment of half his PAY which will be regularly paid without any Trouble to them, or to whomever he may direct, that being well Fed and Clothed on Board Ship, the remainder of his PAY and PRIZE MONEY will be placed in Reserve for the Relief of his Family or his own private Purposes. The Single Young Man, on his Return to Port, finds himself compelled to cut a Dash on Shore, with his GIRL and his GLASS, that might be envied by a Nobleman. Take Courage then, seize the Fortune that awaits you, repair to the MARINE RENDEVOUS, where on a FLOWING BOWL of PUNCH, on Three Times Three, you shall drink.
Long Live the United States and Success to the Marines
The Daily Allowance of a Marine when embarked is One Pound of BEEF or PORK. One Pound of BREAD. Flour, Raisins, Butter, Cheese, Oatmeal, Molasses, Tea, Sugar, &c. &c. And a Pint of the best WINE, or half a Pint of the Best RUM or BRANDY, together with a Pint of LEMONADE. They make Liberty in warm countries, a plentiful Allowance of the choicest FRUIT. And what can be more handsome than the Marines' Proportion of PRIZE MONEY, when a Sergeant shares equal with the Fleet Class of Petty Officers, such as Midshipmen, Petty Officers, &c. which is five shares each; a Corporal with the Second Class, which Is Three Shares each; and the Private with the Able Seaman, one Share and a Half each.
Desiring Greater Particulars, and a more full account of the many Advantages of this Invaluable Corps, apply to CAPTAIN MULLAN at TUN TAVERN, where the bringer of a Recruit will receive THREE DOLLARS.
January, 1776 3
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.