The Marine Tradition

The United States Marines are a very ancient fighting corps, covered with battle scars and proud of every one of them—so very proud, indeed, that they have developed an extremely high esprit de corps , which has been defined as a state of mind that leads its possessor to think himself vastly superior to members of all other military outfits. They have fought all of their country’s official enemies and a great many more who were national enemies only by temporary and impromptu arrangement, and the fighting has taken them to all parts of the globe, including many areas that they had never been formally invited to enter. They have battled the Seminole Indians; they once put down a riot in the Massachusetts state prison; they broke in the doors of an engine house at Harpers Ferry and squelched John Brown’s abortive uprising of chattel slaves; and on innumerable occasions they have subdued water front disorders arising from the excessive high spirits of regular navy men on shore leave. Also, their excellent red-coated band has played lor Presidents ot the United States from the earliest days ot the Republic. All in all, they are quite an organization; a fact of which no one is more consistently aware than the Marines themselves.

High officials have at times been of two opinions about the Marines. President Andrew Jackson once tried to abolish the Corps, root and branch, and in the 1890’s a similar move was killed by Congress. Admiral “Hghting Bob” Evans, of Spanish-American War fame, did not think marines were an unmixed blessing on warships, writing bitterly: “The more Marines we have, the lower the intelligence of the crew.” To counter this opinion, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut of the Civil War Navy asserted stoutly that “a ship without Marines is like a garment without buttons,” and the thing that seems to have disturbed Congress the most about recent military reorganization proposals was the fear that they might in some way operate to whittle down the Corps’ size, importance, and independence of action.

The ancestry of the Corps can be traced variously—to a robust wharfside tavern in Philadelphia in 1775, where the first marines were enlisted; to the organization by the British Navy in 1664 of a detachment of seagoing foot soldiers; or, if you want to go a long way back indeed, to the action of the ancient Greeks and Romans in keeping ample details of soldiers on all their war galleys. Wherever you trace it, the idea that a warship can use a few squads of men trained for hand-to-hand fighting, in addition to the complement needed to operate the ship itself, is of long standing, and when the rebellious Colonies undertook to start a navy of their own some months before the proclamation of national independence, the formation of a marine corps was a natural step.


Those first marines were enlisted in the autumn of 1775 at the Tun Tavern, a salty, roast-beef-and-beer establishment on Philadelphia’s Front Street. The tavernkeeper, one Robert Mullan, proved so successful at signing up men that the new Corps commissioned him as a captain, and a recruiting poster of that day dwells enthusiastically on the fine things that would come to a young man who signed up. Each man would get a daily ration of a pound of beef or pork, a pound of bread, and an ample supply of flour, raisins, butter, cheese, oatmeal, molasses, tea, and sugar; not to mention a daily issue of cither a pint of the best wine or half a pint of rum or brandy, as well as a pint of lemonade. A married man could allot half of his pay to his wife, thus providing for her security in his absence, and the man who wrote the poster—Captain Mullan, or some other—emitted a glowing final paragraph:

“The Single Young Man, on his Return to Port, finds himself enabled to cut a Dash on Shore with his GIRL and his GLASS, that might be envied by a Nobleman.”


Enlistments mounted under such stimulus, and when the Navy’s first little squadron of warships (converted merchantmen, hastily given such guns as were available) sailed under Commodore Esek Hopkins in January, 1776, to raid New Providence Island in the Bahamas, more than 200 marines went along. The operation was a typical marines-and-sailors expedition. Hopkins sent a lauding party ashore, and the party seized two British Torts and captured 86 cannon and mortars and a substantial amount of gunpowder that was greatly needed by Washington’s poorly supplied Continental Army. The Marines’ first commandant, Captain Samuel Nicholas of Philadelphia, won promotion to major; Commodore Hopkins got his loot safely back to the mainland. The new country’s first amphibious exploit had been a success.