MARINES. One theory as to the origin of "marines" as a distinct category of troops stems from the requirement in the early eighteenth century to protect British officers on shipboard from their "pressed" crews (men who had been, in essence, kidnapped and forced to serve on ships—a common recruitment method in use at the time). The marines, in this circumstance, were a species of seaborne military police. But there also was a requirement for crack troops who could constitute landing parties, boarding parties, and deliver musket fire from the rigging in close sea fights.
British marines made up a considerable portion of the Boston Garrison. Although they did not accompany the British column to Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775, a marine officer, Major John Pitcairn, was second-in-command of this force and figured prominently in the day's historic events. Two battalions of British marines took part in the assault on Bunker Hill, where Pitcairn was mortally wounded. British and French marines figured in subsequent land operations in America and in practically all sea battles. When determining force strength, the rule of thumb was one marine assigned on board a ship for each gun.
The first American use of marines can be traced to the War of Jenkins's Ear (1739–1843, fought in retaliation for an act of Spanish torture against a British privateer). At that time, an American regiment of marines was raised in 1740. Commanded by Colonel William Gooch of Virginia and officially identified as the Sixty-First Foot, "Gooch's Marines" were raised in the colonies and fought creditably in the West Indies. American marines served on board privateers during the French and Indian War (1754–1763), and were sometimes known as "gentlemen sailors."
On 10 November 1775 the Second Continental Congress resolved that two battalions of American marines be raised. Established as a package deal offered by the Committee on Nova Scotia, the two battalions were designed to be used as an amphibious landing force, for a projected naval expedition against British facilities at Halifax. In December, officers assembled their marines as the Continental navy put together its first squadron. On 3 January 1776, the fleet sailed from Philadelphia. With hopes of gaining powder for Washington's beleaguered army before Boston, 230 marines and fifty seamen landed on the island of New Providence two months later. The island's two forts were captured and all military stores and ordnance on the island were removed.
The first Continental marine detachment on record, however, was the seventeen-man group under Lieutenant James Watson that served on board the sloop Enterprise from 3 May 1775. Although originally from Connecticut, on 10 June they came under control of the Continental Congress when the delegates voted themselves the control of all forces on Lake Champlain. This marine force later took part in the battle of Valcour Island, 11-13 October 1776.
Throughout the remainder of the war, marines continued to serve on board Continental ships, and in one instance, with the Continental army during the battles of Trenton and Princeton, both in New Jersey. The concept of an independent corps of marines quickly disappeared, but their "amphibious" nature did not. In October 1777, marines executed a landing off Billingsport, New Jersey, and evacuated the besieged American garrison. In January the following year, marines captured and briefly held the island of New Providence for a second time.
A company of marines under Captain James Willing left Fort Pitt on 10 January 1778 in the armed boat Rattletrap for an expedition to New Orleans, and on 3 February the company took part in the capture of two French trading vessels near Kaskaskia. Along the lower Mississippi, Willing's marines raided Loyalist settlements in an attempt to wrest control of the river. The company reached New Orleans, where Willing remained, but a portion returned to Kaskaskia, Illinois, under the command of Captain Robert George and enlisted in a new artillery company. This unit participated in George Rogers Clark's operations against the Indians. The remainder later took part in the abortive attempt to seize Mobile, in British controlled West Florida.
The major marine amphibious effort came in July 1779. A joint force made up of New England militia and state troops, along with the Continental navy force engaged in an expedition to seize a British fort that had been established at Penobscot Bay, Massachusetts (now a part of Maine). Although the intervention of a superior British squadron prevented the successful accomplishment of the assigned mission, the force of slightly more than 300 Continental and state marines performed admirably. They also took part in the unsuccessful defense of Charleston in 1780. On the high seas they were in practically every battle involving privateers and ships of the state navies, as well as those battles in which ships of the Continental navy were engaged. Marines served under John Paul Jones in his raids on Whitehaven, England, and St. Mary's Isle, Scotland, and were with him in the Bonhomme Richard-Serapis engagement on 23 September 1779.
James Fenimore Cooper has written:
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. In many instances they preserved the vessels to the country, by suppressing the turbulence of ill-assorted crews [in accordance with what was mentioned at the beginning of this article as their original purpose], and the effect of their fire … has usually been singularly creditable to their steadiness and discipline.
The navy and marines ceased to exist in 1783 and were not revived until 1794, when American merchant ships were attacked by the corsairs of the Barbary Coast of Northern Africa. The need to protect American shipping led to the revival of the navy, and by the spring of 1798 there were marines on board the ships that had been completed to address this emergency. On 11 July 1798 the U.S. Marine Corps became an individual service within the American navy.
Smith, Charles R. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775–1783. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975.
revised by Charles R. Smith