April 19, 2012

The Origins of the United States Marine Corps

Courtesy Photo by Tecom

Immediately after the outbreak of the American Revolution, the colonies went about organizing individual armies and navies. In several of the state navies, provisions were made for the use of Marines. It was not until 26 August 1775, however, that the Rhode Island legislature instructed its representatives to the Continental Congress to propose the establishment of a Navy “at the Continental expense.” The project languished until 3 October 1775, when the Rhode Island delegation managed to present their instructions to the Continental Congress. At the same time, intelligence was presented to the Continental Congress which indicated that two unarmed brigs were enroute from England to Canada with cargoes of munitions which would provide extremely useful to the embattled colonies. Two days later the Continental Congress appointed a committee consisting of John Adams, John Langdon, and Silas Deane to “prepare a plan for intercepting the two brigs.” On 13 October 1775, the Continental Congress directed that two vessels be fitted out, one of which was to include Marines in her crew, and to oversee these activities, a Naval Committee was appointed. The three original committee members were Silas Deane, John Langdon, and Christopher Gadsden, but these were shortly augmented by Stephen Hopkins, Joseph Hews, R.H. Lee, and John Adams. It was this group of American legislators which laid the foundations for the United States Naval Service.

It is worthy of note that at much the same time, 2 November 1775, John Adams, Silas Deane, John Langdon, and Stephen Hopkins were appointed to the Committee on Nova Scotia which was to investigate the possibilities of a campaign against that Canadian province with annexation as a goal. Although the Committee left no record of its proceedings, it is obvious that the projected attack on Nova Scotia would have required some sort of amphibious force.  In the early days of November 1775 the Naval Committee, which included those on the Nova Scotia Committee, introduced a motion to create a Marine force composed of two battalions organized along regimental lines, the men to be obtained from Washington’s army then besieging Boston. On 10 November this resolution was adopted by the Congress, marking the founding of the Continental Marines.

Because of manpower difficulties, the Marine force envisioned by the resolution of 10 November never materialized, nor did the proposed attack on Nova Scotia. Marines assigned to Commodore Esek Hopkins’ squadron, however, carried out the first American landing on foreign soil on 3 March 1776, when 200 Marines spearheaded the assault on New Providence Island in the Bahamas.

Throughout the American Revolution, the Marines served with distinction aboard the Continental vessels, but with the ending of that conflict, the entire Naval Service was so neglected through lack of appropriations and necessary legislation that by 1785 it actually ceased to exist.

The newly created United States of America remained without a Naval Service until 1794, when the U.S. Congress produced the first naval legislation since the end of the American Revolution. The depredations of the Barbary Corsairs were largely responsible for the Naval Act of 1794, which was strongly supported by American shippers who suffered heavily from pirate attacks on their trade with Mediterranean ports. Moreover, the Franco-British sea war found the American merchant ships harassed by both belligerents. The Naval Act of 1794 provided for the construction of six frigates, which were to include on their rolls a force of Marines. However, a temporary lull in the Barbary conflict resulted in the delay of implementation of the Naval Act. During the period of construction, Marines were provided to guard the new vessels but the initial date of such guard duty is unknown. By 1797, the Franco-British naval war had increased in intensity and the interference with American merchant shipping grew more and more frequent, particularly on the part of the French. In view of this activity, Congress enacted the Naval Bill of 1797 which provided $310,000 for the completion and equipping of the previously authorized frigates and for the pay and subsistence of their officers and men.

By the spring of 1798, Marines were well established aboard the ships which had been completed, and the naval appropriation measures of the period made provision for their pay and allowances. At this time the Marines, as a part of the Navy, were administered by the Secretary of War, but on 30 April 1798, President John Adams signed into law an act for the establishment of a separate Navy Department. This law made no mention of Marines but apparently took for granted their existence as a function of the Navy. The House Naval Committee, under the chairmanship of Samuel Sewall, introduced a bill on 22 May 1798 calling for the establishment of a Marine Corps which would have the advantage of better discipline and economy. On 11 July 1798, President Adams signed the resulting legislation and the United States Marine Corps became an individual service within the Navy Department.

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