American Revolution: Continental Marines; Happy Birthday

November 10 is celebrated as the birthday of the United States Marine Corps at post and stations around the globe. Wherever possible–and sometimes when it would seem impossible– there is a birthday cake. November 10 is celebrated because on that date in 1775 the Continental Congress passed the following 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 appointed to offices, or installed 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; that they be distinguished by the name of the first and second battalions of American Marines.

The resolution was written by a special five-man Congressional Committee that had been established only a week before and, well supplied with Jamaican rum, met evenings in a public house  in Philadelphia. The committee had not intended to create a separate unit of marines but to transfer soldiers from Washington’s Continental Army. When the general objected (the first but not the last case of inter-service rivalry between American soldiers and Marines), Congress agreed to recruit Marines independently.

The wording of the resolution of November 10 indicates the founding fathers had ales than crystal-clear idea of what marines were supposed to be. The battalions are ordered to accept only ‘ such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required.” But marines are not specialized sailors; they are totally different breed of fighter. In fact, the British Marines, on whom the American establishment is based, were specificity exempt from sea duties. Since 1775, the role of the American Marines has evolved in various forms as their countries’ needs have demanded; but they have not served as sailors.  The committee’s language hung over the original intention to use as marines those of Washington’s soldiers who had some sea experience.

In 1775, the British Marines were only 111 years old. But at least as far back as a thousand years before the birth of Christ, men on ships of war were divided into rowers and fighters (sailors and marines). Marines in the fleet of Ramses III helped keep hordes of invaders out of Egypt. The Greek ships that attacked Troy and of which Homer sang carried marines who fought on a forward deck. At the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.E., when Greek city states defeated the mighty Persia, marines (epibatai) from Athens and Corinth played a vital part in a naval battle that changed history.

When Rome ruled the seas, her men-of-war carried a powerful force of marines ( milites classici). These warriors helped defeat the naval power of Carthage in 260 B.C.E. At the crucial battle of Mylae off Sicily, the Romans had 120 marines aboard each of their ships to control the rowers and board enemy ships. The victory began the Roman navy’s mastery of the Mediterranean Sea.

As the historian of ancient sea warfare, Lionel Casson, says of those early marines, “Without such fighters to rake the opponent’s deck during the approach or to stand to repel boarders after the impact [of ramming], the attacked vessel’s marines could grapple and board and stand a fair chance of taking over the attacker.”

The British Marines were originally ordered and raised by King Charles II on October 28, 1664, during the Second Dutch war, which turned New Amsterdam in to New York. They were called the Admiral’s Regiment and reputedly were the first unit to be armed with flintlocks rather than muskets. A detachment of the regiment, dressed in yellow coats and red breeches, was sent to Virginia to keep the peace in 1676. A few of them stayed and became colonist. BY 1741, three regiments of Marines were ordered raised in the American colonies under Colonel Alexander Spotswood of Virginia. One regiment, commanded by Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Colonel William Gooch–and known as Gooch’s Marines–fought in the Caribbean against Spain. British Marines helped capture the French base of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island in 1745, and they aided James Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in 1759. Wolfe himself was first commissioned in the Marines, as was John Churchill, who became the Duke of Marlborough.

On the evening of April 19, 1775, British Marines participated in the first shots heard around the world. Major John Pitcairn, who led the advance guard sent to seize the colonist’s military stores at Concord, was a Marine. It was his contingent that killed Minute Men on the snow-covered Lexington green. After the skirmish later that morning at Concord, the 1st British Marine Battalion formed a hollow square at Lexington to give a breathing spell to the redcoats returning from Concord under a hail of Colonial bullets.

Two months later the 1st British Marine Battalion charged on the left flank in the assault against the hastily constructed American entrenchments on Breed’s Hill [Bunker Hill]. Twice the British moved up the hill and were thrown back. Major Pitcairn, at the head of his men, was twice wounded. Major General Gage, the British commander in America, ordered a third assault. The story is told that when a British army battalion in this third attack was held up by heavy Colonial fire, it was enjoined to “Break, then and let the Marines pass through you.”

The Americans on the hilltop finally ran out of gunpowder and, after fighting with musket butts and stones, fled from the British bayonets. The British Marines were the first to penetrate the American lines. Major Pitcairn was killed; but in this “Battle of Bunker Hill,” for the first time, Colonials had stood up to a frontal assault by British Regulars.

British Marines fought in many sea battles and coastal raids during the Revolution. They helped throw Arnold and the Americans back from Quebec in the spring of 1776. They fought Americans hand-to-hand to prevent them from recapturing Savannah in October 1779. The following spring they helped seize Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor. And Marines were in the force which Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown October 19, 1781. (At Yorktown French Marines helped blockade Colonel Balastre Tarleton, who was holding open an escape route for Cornwallis)

In 1802, George III declared British Marines to be “The Royal Marines.” Admiral Horatio Nelson, England’s greatest sea fighter, wrote that “ Every fleet should have a perfect battalion of Marines and, commanded by experienced officers, they would be prepared to make a serious impression on the enemy’s coast.”

The Royal and American Marines began as enemies, but over the years after the War of 1812 they became comrades. They were blooded to gather in the Boxer Rebellion, World War Two and Korea. They share the same traditions. The Royal Marines wear a badge showing the eastern hemisphere of the globe; United States Marines wear one with the western Hemisphere.


SOURCE: U.S. Marine Corps Story; BY: J. Robert Moskin
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan


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