Created by Congress in 1798, the United States Marine Corps is one of the two services of the Department of the Navy and one of the four American military services. Its legislative legitimacy as a separate service was made clear in the Marine Corps Act of 1834.
The Marine Corps measures it unofficial historic existence from the American Revolution (1775–1783). The marines copied from their British Royal Marine counterparts, serving aboard U.S. Navy vessels for several reasons: intimidate the sailors into obedience; serve as bodyguards for U.S. naval officers; become naval gun crews in desperate gunnery engagements; serve as on-board snipers and grenadiers; and spearhead boarding and landing parties. Ashore, marines lived in barracks in navy yards in east coast port cities. "Marine Corps towns" were Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Norfolk, Charleston, and New Orleans. The marine enlisted force came from uneducated rural and urban British Americans and Irish and German immigrants. Nonwhites were banned from the Marine Corps by law to avoid fraternization with multiracial sailors the marines policed. Marine officers tended to be West Point and Annapolis dropouts, ambitious Celtic and German immigrants with some education, displaced southern gentry, and educated and unemployed youths influenced by bright uniforms and tales of exotic foreign adventures.
The U.S. Marine Corps had two predecessor organizations, four regiments of three thousand colonials recruited for a Royal Navy expedition to Cartagena (in contemporary Colombia) in 1741 and the Continental marines of the Revolution. The first unit, known as "Gooch's Marines" since it was raised by William Gooch, royal governor of Virginia, became too sick to play any role in Admiral Edward Vernon's failed campaign. Only three hundred of these marines returned to the colonies; the rest deserted or died of tropical fevers. The Continental marines, raised directly by Congress for shipboard service, may have numbered two thousand officers and men over the course of the Revolution. Other groups of seagoing soldiers served as state troops; these marines served on coastal and inland waters as widely separated as the Ohio River, Lake Champlain, Chesapeake Bay, and along the Atlantic seaboard.
The Continental marines, like the Continental navy, never grew large enough to challenge the British forces but performed well enough in isolated sea battles and limited raids ashore. The most memorable successful Continental marine operations were a raid on New Providence in the Bahamas in 1776 and two single-ship victories in 1776 and 1778. Marines also fought well in several ship-to-ship defeats and participated in the failed Penobscot Bay expedition in Maine during 1779. By war's end only five Continental navy ships had marine detachments, and the corps dissolved in 1783.
Reborn to man the six frigates authorized by the Naval Act of 1794, the U.S. Marine Corps served principally in sea battles as marksmen in the rigging and tops and as boarding parties. The ships guards, no more than one or two officers and fifty enlisted men, also participated in raids from the sea. The marines of the 1798–1812 era fought French privateers and warships in the Caribbean, pirates in the same area, and the Barbary corsairs of the Mediterranean and in 1805 spearheaded a mercenary force led by the American William H. Eaton that captured Derna (in contemporary Libya) and displaced the bashaw of Tripoli, a corsair sponsor. This action is commemorated in the Marine's hymn with the words "to the shores of Tripoli."
The War of 1812 provided the marines with more opportunities for distinguished service that, however, had little effect on the war with Great Britain or even on the engagements in which they participated. In a war marked by repeated American strategic and tactical errors and lack of ardor, the marines made a commendable impression as steadfast fighters. Marines fought aboard the frigates Constitution, United States, Essex, Chesapeake, and Lawrence and other warships in sixteen sea battles. In battle ashore, marine companies from the naval stations at Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans joined extemporized American armies that failed to save the capital but repulsed major British expeditions sent to seize two of the most valuable ports of the United States.
The postwar Marine Corps of thirty-five officers and 1,200 enlisted men (compared to 2,700 authorized men during wartime) continued to serve primarily as "soldiers at sea." In 1820 President James Monroe appointed Archibald Henderson, a thirty-seven-year-old Virginian, as the corps's colonel commandant; he went on to serve for thirty-eight years. A combat veteran and driving commander, Henderson used his long tenure as commandant to set much stricter standards of dress, training, and discipline than were common in the army and navy of that era. He advocated a larger and better navy and created firm bonds between the Marine Corps and Congress. Essentially, Henderson created the foundation of the modern Marine Corps.
Heinl, Robert D., Jr. Soldiers of the Sea. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Nautical and Aviation Publishing, 1991.
Millett, Allan R., and Jack Shulimson, eds. Commandants of the Marine Corps. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2004.
Moskin, J. Robert. The U.S. Marine Corps Story. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977.
Simmons, Edwin Howard. The United States Marines: A History. 4th ed. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003.
Allan R. Millett