The Marine Tradition


Since the Continental Navy was very small and vastly outweighed by the British fleet, neither it nor its marines cut a very large figure in the history of the Revolution. Marines did fight at Trenton and at Brandywine, however, and they were most definitely present on the Bonhomme Richard when John Paul Jones captured H.M.S. Serapis in that famous engagement off Flamborough Head. Marines with muskets were stationed in the American ship’s fighting tops and on the poop deck during this engagement, and their fire kept the British ship’s upper deck swept clear—a point of no small importance, since the Bonhomme Richard’s lower-deck battery was put out of action early in the engagement, and this helped to restore the balance. Toward the end of the fight, someone in the American ship’s rigging managed to drop a grenade down an open hatchway in the British ship, the grenade exploded a supply of powder on the gun deck, and the British surrender quickly followed.

The Marines are great on legends, even when these are of modern invention, and a current historian of the Corps avers (tongue in cheek) that when the British captain, early in the fight, called across to ask [ones if he had surrendered, and Jones made his famous reply—“I have not yet begun to fight!”—some disgruntled marine remarked bitterly that there is always some so-and-so who does not get the word.


In any case, the Marines served in the Revolution, acquitting themselves well—and then, alter peace came, went entirely out of existence, along with almost all the rest of the American military establishment, the young Republic having at that moment the innocent notion that it could get along quite well without any armed services at all. This happy frame of mind did not last long. In 1794 Congress began to rebuild the Navy, and the Marines’ resurrection took place on July 11, 1798, when Congress passed the basic act setting up the Marine Corps. It authorized a strength of 33 officers and 848 men, specifying that the Corps should be employed on sea duty, on duty at various posts and garrisons in the United States, and—the all-important clause which permits use of the Marines almost anywhere—”any other duty on shore, as the President, in his discretion, shall direct.”

It was about this time that the Marines’ famous esprit de corps began to develop. This was partly due to sheer force of circumstances. By tradition, detachments of marines on warships served not only as a ready striking force but also as a species of seagoing police to enforce discipline. In the old British Navy, when a line-of-battle ship went into action, armed marines would line up, facing outboard, just behind a row of guns, to keep faint-hearts from deserting their posts, and any ship’s captain relied on his marines to keep order in case of trouble with the crew. As far as the sailors were concerned, therefore, marines were something of a race apart, and of necessity the members of the Corps quickly developed the feeling that they were not just part of a ship’s company but members of a highly special organization that went far beyond their immediate surroundings. They were of the Navy but not in it, and to survive at all they had to build up a sense of cohesion and loyalty to their own group.


The feeling also was consciously fostered by those in authority. Very early in the game, a young marine officer on a warship was insulted, apparently via a punch in the jaw, by a naval officer, and he promptly got a very stiff letter from Major William Ward Burrows, commandant of the new Corps. Burrows wrote sternly that “a Blow ought never to be forgiven, and without you wipe away this Insult offer’d to the Marine Corps, you cannot expect to join our Officers.” Burrows urged the young marine to fight a duel, pointing out that a certain Lieutenant Gale, of the Marines, had been struck by a naval officer during a recent cruise of the U.S.S. Ganges . During the cruise, Lieutenant Gale could get no satisfaction; but as soon as the ship returned to port, he challenged the naval man to a duel, and shot him; and “afterward Politeness was restor’d.”

A distinctive uniform was adopted. During the Revolution, the Marines had worn green coats with white breeches, and when the Corps died, this uniform died also. The new Marines, in 1798, wore surplus army uniforms, including scarlet waistcoat and facings and dark-blue coats and trousers, but by 1804 something more special was devised—blue coats faced with gold and scarlet, white pantaloons, and plumed shakos. Also included was a leftover from the original costume—a stiff leather stock, or neckpiece, worn about the throat, which did not remain part of the uniform forever but which did leave marines with their enduring nickname: “leathernecks.” ft was also regulation, in the early 1800’s, for marines to wear long pigtails, which must be powdered liberally with flour each day. What the poor men did about the sticky mess that would inevitably develop when spray or rain turned the flour into a gooey paste is not stated in the regulations.