- Historic Sites
The Marine Tradition
The Corps is supposed to be tough, and is. This often confounds its enemies and sometimes irritates the nation’s other services
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
The marines on the Essex had quite a time. Under the energetic Captain David Porter, the Essex sailed around Cape Horn (where she met such a storm that many of the marines were at one time noticed in an attitude not common in the Corps: on their knees in prayer) and got into the Pacific for a raid on British whalers. The raid was successful, and Porter finally sailed clear to the Marquesas, where he established a base on Nukuhiva Island. Then he sailed off for new adventures, leaving Lieutenant John Gamble, U.S.M.C., [see Cover] with sailors and marines to guard the base and three captured whalers. Gamble was ordered to stay there five months; if Porter did not return, he was then to make his way home. (This marine officer, incidentally, had already shown that he was capable of commanding and navigating a ship.)
Porter was captured by the British and never did return. Gamble’s men, meanwhile, were enjoying a pleasant war, lii’e in the Marquesas being easy and the native girls very friendly; and when the five months ran out hardly anybody but Gamble wanted to go home. There were desertions, and a mutiny, and a fight with the natives—and, at last, Gamble sailed off for Hawaii with a naval midshipman, three sailors, and three marines, all that remained of his original command. A British cruiser gobbled him up in mid-Pacific, and by the time the prisoners were returned to the Atlantic, the war was over.
Between formal wars, the Corps was kept busy. Marines helped destroy pirate nests in the Caribbean in the iSuo’s; they also went all the way to Sumatra, where they made up part of a landing party that, in 1832, stormed and sacked the stronghold of Ouallah Battoo, whose rajah had been making free with American merchant vessels that visited those waters. Some of the Navy’s perennial irritation with the Marines undoubtedly stems from incidents like this: landing parties were usually composed of marines and sailors, but after the dust had settled people had a way of believing that the marines had done it all.
A marine detachment marched to Mexico City with Winfield Scott, in the Mexican War (there comes the “Halls of Montezuma” motif), and had a prominent part in the spectacular storming of Chapultepec. Characteristically, the suppression of John Brown’s uprising at Harpers Ferry in 1859 was accomplished by a detachment of marines (the handiest available force when news of the trouble reached Washington) under the general direction of an army officer, Colonel Robert E. Lee.
The Civil War brought the same problem to the Marines that it brought to the other services: that is, officers of southern birth mostly resigned and went oft to serve the Confederacy. About half of the Marines’ captains and two-thirds of their first lieutenants, according to one historian, gave up their commissions when the war began. Another problem was also shared with the other services. Congress had set up no retirement system for superannuated officers, and many officers tended to be downright aged, since an officer with no income but his pay would never retire voluntarily and there was no way to make him retire except by preferring charges of misconduct. This was at last remedied by an act permitting retirement, on pension, to officers of forty years’ service; a little later, the act was broadened, giving the President discretionary power to retire officers at the age of 62 or on completion of 45 years’ service.
The Corps served in the Civil War, of course, although perhaps less prominently than in some other wars. Farragut used a detachment of marines when he occupied New Orleans in 1862, and a battalion of marines fought at the First Battle of Bull Run, but for the most part the marines performed their service afloat. Actually, the Corps at that period was neither organized nor trained properly for amphibious operations, and landing parties—as at Fort Fisher in 1865—were usually composed of marines and sailors together, with the marines playing no outstanding role.
It was during the years after the Civil War that the Corps emerged with its modern character fully established: as an ever-ready striking force that could be used anywhere. It took part in landings in many, many places: in Formosa and in Uruguay, in Mexico and Egypt and Haiti, in Argentina and Chile and Nicaragua and in North China, in Panama and—away back in 1871, this was—in Korea, where no fewer than six marines won Medals of Honor for bravery. If many of these landings came in support of the “dollar diplomacy” that went out of date as a better understanding of good relations between the United States and other New World nations developed, this does not detract from the extent or the quality of the service rendered. One important factor was that marines could be put ashore in places where the Army could not be used without a formal declaration of war. Technically, the United States was mostly at peace with the nations which were favored by marine landing parties.