The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps
The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps

The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps

Khalid Elhassan - February 6, 2019

The US Marines’ Historical Predecessors

Ship borne infantry that specializes in supporting naval operations, otherwise known as naval infantry or marines, have been around for thousands of years. In the early days of naval warfare, sailors doubled as soldiers in a pinch, until the ancient Phoenicians introduced complements of soldiers whose primary tasks were not the care, maintenance, and operation of ships. Instead, the duties of these specialists revolved primarily around boarding enemy ships and warding off enemy boarders from their own vessels, or conducting amphibious operations by disembarking to attack and raid targets on land, then returning to their vessels.

Before long, others around the Mediterranean basin began copying the Phoenicians, and took to employing their own ship borne infantry. By the late 6th century BC, marines were a common feature in the Eastern Mediterranean. The ancient Greeks took the idea and ran with it, and as early as the 5th century BC, they began introducing heavily armed and armored hoplites on their triremes for the specific purpose of boarding enemy vessels. The Athenians, in particular, refined the concept, and built themselves a sea empire around the Aegean and Black Sea, with marines playing an integral role in their naval strategy and tactics.

The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps
Ancient Phoenician marine. Pintrest

The Romans – who learned the concept from both the Greeks and Carthaginians against whom they fought protracted wars – developed and took naval infantry even further. Landlubbers, the Romans were excellent soldiers but poor sailors, and they discovered during the First Punic War (264 – 241 BC) that they were no match for the highly experienced Carthaginians in seamanship and naval tactics. So they hit upon the innovative idea of transforming naval engagements into de facto land battles. The Romans accomplished that by modifying their ships with a device called a corvus (crow), that was basically a plank on a pivot with a heavy metal beak, that was dropped on an enemy vessel when it drew near, penetrating its deck and securing it to the Roman ship. Roman naval infantrymen – Marinus – would then cross over the plank, slaughter the enemy sailors and rowers, and capture the ship.

In the middle ages, the Venetians, masters of a maritime trade empire that would eventually capture and sack Constantinople in 1204, then go on to rule Byzantium for over half a century, created a well organized marine corps. Known as the Fanti da Mar (sea infantry), the Venetian marines were comprised of 10 companies, that could be combined to form a marine regiment that supported naval operations with amphibious landings and ship borne combat.

The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps
British Royal Marines accompanying captain Cook as he talks with South Sea islanders. Pintrest

During the Age of Exploration, the Spanish, masters of the world’s first far flung global empire upon which the sun literally never set, formed the Spanish Marine Infantry in 1537 – the oldest marine corps still in existence. Other European naval powers followed suit, including the British, whose Royal Marines – the model upon which the Americans would draw a century later, when forming the naval infantry that eventually became the United States Marine Corps – can trace their origins back to 1664.

By the 18th century, naval service, particularly in the British Royal Navy, often entailed long voyages that could last for years. Living conditions aboard ship were often abysmal, and the crews included many sailors who had been forcibly press ganged into serving king and country. As Winston Churchill described it, life in the Royal Navy back then boiled down to “rum, buggery, and the lash“. That led to an evolution in the role of marines: in addition to their traditional functions, the marines now also served as the captain’s armed muscle aboard ship. Quartered apart from and treated differently than the rest of the crew, marines kept the often brutalized and miserable sailors in check, preventing them from rising up in mutiny and murdering their officers.

The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps
Revolutionary war marines. Weapons and Warfare

The Continental Marines

Marines were first raised in America during the War of Jenkins Ear (1739 – 1742), when the British Admiralty recruited a naval infantry regiment of 3000 men from the American colonies for a campaign against Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and South America. The result was a four battalion unit commonly known as “Gooch’s Marines”, after a Virginia governor named William Gooch, who raised and led the outfit. A dumping ground for criminals, debtors, and vagrants, Gooch’s Marines served credibly for the most part around the Caribbean. However, between tropical diseases and a disastrous attack against Cartagena, in today’s Colombia, the unit lost over 90% of its men by the time it was disbanded at war’s end in 1742.

When the American Revolution broke out, some American colonies’ militias formed their own marine contingents. Most prominent among those marine militia was Massachusetts’ Marblehead Regiment, formed in January of 1775 from seafaring men from the region around Marblehead, Massachusetts. Folded into the Continental Army in the summer of 1775, and reorganized as the 14th Continental Regiment early the following year, it served George Washington as an ad hoc marine unit, especially during his 1776 New York Campaign.

In the meantime, the Continental Congress decided to raise a marine unit, and on November 10th, 1775 a resolution drafted by future president John Adams was approved. It directed in relevant part: “That two Battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or enlisted into said Battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required; that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress“.

The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps
Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, birthplace of the United States Marine Corps during the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

November 10th is celebrated to this day as the birthday of the United States Marine Corps. To implement the congressional directive, a Pennsylvania captain named Samuel Nicholas set up a recruiting headquarters in Tun Tavern, on Water Street in Philadelphia, which is considered the birthplace of the US Marines. Tun Tavern was a successful establishment with a reputation for serving fine beer, and Captain Nicholas appointed its owner, Robert Mullan, to serve as his chief Marine recruiter.

A good pitch and a good pitcher of beer go well together, and within weeks, enough Marines had been recruited to man the Continental Navy’s ships in the waters off Philadelphia. On January 4th, 1776, less than two months after the congressional directive that ordered the Continental Marines into being, Captain Nicholas and his naval infantry set sail. Two months later, Nicholas and his Continental Marines would have their baptism of fire at the Battle of Nassau, in the Bahamas.

The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps
Continental Marines, circa 1777. Pintrest

The Marines’ First Action and Aftermath

The Continental Marines’ first combat operation came about because the Continental Army was hard pressed for gunpowder. Its recently appointed commander in chief, general George Washington, had asked Congress for 400 barrels of gunpowder, but his political masters responded by sending him fewer than 40 barrels – barely enough for 20 rounds per soldier. Despite Washington’s repeated remonstrations, pleas, and threats of impending disaster if his forces were not adequately supplied, no more gunpowder was forthcoming. So alternatives were sought, and it was decided that if Congress could not provide what was needed, perhaps the British would.

Virginia’s colonial governor, Lord Dunmore, had removed his colony’s stores of weapons and munitions – including gunpowder – to Nassau, New Providence Island, in the Bahamas, when the Revolutionary War erupted, to secure them against capture by the rebels. When word arrived that there were over 200 barrels of gunpowder stored in the Bahamas, Congress directed the commander of the recently established Continental Navy, Esek Hopkins, to raid the British stores and seize the desperately needed munitions. The ensuing naval operation and amphibious assault was to be the first significant engagement of the new Navy and Marines.

On February 17th, 1776, Esek Hopkins sailed from Delaware to the Bahamas with a small fleet of eight ships, accompanied by a contingent of Continental Marines under the command of captain Samuel Nicholas. Stormy weather forced two of Hopkins’ ships to turn back, but he sailed on with his remaining six vessels, finally reaching New Providence Island on March 1st. There, he promptly captured two British merchantmen off Nassau, replacing the two ship he had lost on the way there. Then, for reasons lost to history, Hopkins kept his ships anchored offshore for two days, before finally landing a force of about 200 Marines and 50 sailors on the morning of March 3rd.

The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps
Fort Montagu in the Bahamas, the first fortification captured by an American marine amphibious landing. Fine Art America

By then, the defenders were aware that enemy vessels were operating in their waters, and when ships were spotted sailing in to Nassau, the alarm was raised. At the approach of the American forces, the outnumbered defenders evacuated Fort Montagu, one of two fortifications defending Nassau, and it was promptly occupied by captain Nicholas and his Continental Marines. Nicholas failed to continue on to and capture Nassau that day, however, and spent the night of the 3rd in Fort Montagu. That night, the British in Nassau loaded most of the gunpowder stored there – 162 barrels out 200 – aboard a ship, which managed to sneak out of the harbor and sail away to safety. The following morning, Nicholas and his men occupied Nassau, and seized the remaining 38 barrels of gunpowder, wrapping up the Continental Marines’ first major operation.

By war’s end, the Continental Marines had grown to over 2000 men. After America secured its independence in 1783, the Continental Navy was demobilized, and its Marines were disbanded. In subsequent years, however, tensions with European powers, particularly France, played out on the high seas, and America’s inability to protect its shipping or retaliate against aggression led Congress to formally reestablish the US Navy in May of 1798. Two months later, on July 11th, 1798, president John Adams signed into law a bill establishing the United States Marine Corps as a standing military force within the Department of the Navy.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

History – Birth of the US Marine Corps

Military – The Origins of the Marine Corps

Time Magazine, November 10th, 2015 – How the US Marine Corps Was Founded Twice

Varsity Tutors – The Continental Marines: The Birth of the Leathernecks

Wikipedia – History of the United States Marine Corps

Marine Corps University – Brief History of the United States Marine Corps