The First Leathernecks

A Combat History of the U.S. Marines from Inception to the Halls of Montezuma (1775–1848)

Placing the Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. (Artist: Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR)

It took two centuries to forge the modern Marine Corps. It was the War of 1812 that set the Corps on the path to renown and established their high standards of dedication, loyalty and combat prowess. It was the Marines’ accurate and devastating musketry coupled with their skill at manning cannon aboard the American warships of the period that resulted in victory at Lake Erie, Bladensburg, Baltimore and New Orleans. Despite their demonstrable value in those battles, the Marines were forced to fight for their survival on home turf. This untold story is an exciting, exhilarating tale of the most formative years of the United States Marine Corps. It goes a long and insightful way toward explaining how and why “Send in the Marines!” became a viable and reliable diplomatic ploy throughout the early years of American history.

EXCERPT: Marine’s First Amphibious Assault

At the onset of the American Revolution, Congress — especially the New England delegates — insisted on a Continental fleet. The Southern delegates balked at the idea but then approved it, if the fleet’s first mission would be an incursion on the British Bahamas. New Providence, the Bahamian capital, was known to have a huge arsenal of artillery, 200 barrels of black powder, and sundry military equipment.

Commodore Hopkins, Commander of the American Fleet, had two converted merchantmen: the Alfred, mounting twenty 9-pounders and ten 6-pounder cannon and; the Columbus, armed with eighteen 9-pounders and ten 6-pounders. Two brigs, the Andrea Doria and the Cabot, had sixteen 6-pounders and fourteen 6-pounders respectively. The sloop Hornet mounted ten 4-pounders and the schooner Wasp had eight 2-pounders. All told, the fleet could fire 578 pounds of iron cannonballs per salvo.

Marine Captain Samuel Nicolas commanded the 234 Marines on board the six ships. The larger ships had a detachment of 60 Marines and the smaller ships held 20 to 40 Marines fighting as sea soldiers. He was assisted by 1st Lieutenant Matthew Parke and Lieutenant John Fitzpatrick. The Marine uniform now consisted of a light brown coat with skirts turned back and faced with white cuffs. The coat, adorned with buttons, was worn over a white cloth jacket and breeches, blue stockings and new shoes.

In early 1776, the American fleet set sail for the Bahamas from the Delaware Capes in the Philadelphia area. Nassau was the administrative center of the islands with a defense of 300 provisional militia commanded by Major Robert Sterling. The Americans anchored 50 miles north of Nassau.

Browne, the governor of the island, did nothing for defense. Fort Nassau and Fort Montagu more or less protected the city on the west and east end. Nassau had forty-six 12- and 18-pounders but they were mounted on rotten gun carriages and the fort itself had very weak walls. Montagu, more of a redoubt, had seventeen 12- and 18-pounders. With these two forts, the British considered the island its strongest possession in North America.

Commodore Hopkins determined that the two sloops and the Providence would surprise the town while the other ships were kept out of sight. The Marines were issued muskets, ammunition and broadswords. They were kept hidden below deck until embarking for the amphibious assault.

On Sunday, March 3, at hearing of the fleet nearby, the Governor sounded the alarm by firing three cannon, which promptly collapsed on their mounts. The gunpowder was quickly ordered to be removed to the mainland.

John Paul Jones, then captain of the Alfred, had the idea to land at Hanover Sound. In whaleboats, 50 sailors and 234 Marines landed at New Guinea, a freeman’s port two miles east of Fort Montagu. The landing was unopposed. The British militia asked the Marines their purpose. The Marines replied: “Sent by the Congress of the United Colonies in order to possess themselves of the Powder & Stores belonging to His Majesty.”

The British meanwhile had spiked all the cannon except three guns. This would have been the perfect spot to resist the Americans, but the moment was lost. The British retreated to Fort Nassau and asked their black slaves to fight alongside them. A few agreed and were armed with pistols. Marine Lieutenant John Trevett, under a flag of truce, said to the townspeople that they were coming only for the stores and would spare the town. The Marines slept that night at Montagu while Commodore Hopkins issued a manifesto to the “townspeople. That night, because of the weak gun carriages, 162 barrels of powder were shipped out on the Mississippi Packet and the St. John to the Governor at St. Augustine, Florida. But, by neglecting to secure the west door of the city, Commodore Hopkins failed to get all the powder.

The next day, the Marines took Fort Nassau without firing a shot. The grand flag of the United Colonies was run up in place of the British colors. Capt. Dayton and Lt. Trevett captured the Governor, who appeared ready to escape. With the Governor prisoner, the 32-man Marine guard used at their discretion all the Governor’s wine and other liquors as they did everything else for which they had occasion. The Governor wouldn’t go aboard the Alfred so he was seized, collared and dragged away. He and two other officials were later returned and paroled.

The American ships were loaded with the captured munitions. The Andrea Doria received 4,780 shot and shells to replace her stone ballast which was dumped on shore. Hopkins set up a triangle on the capital parade ground where inhabitants could make complaints against any of his men, who were punished immediately if found “guilty. His courts martial were short and decisive with the number of lashes few but very severely given.

The Marines captured a total of 46 iron cannon, 140 hand grenades, 9,831 rounds of shot, 154 bolts of double-headed shot (a high-tech munition used for cutting rigging), 11 canisters of grape, two mortars, 24 barrels of powder, 220 gun carriages and 355 British pounds sterling.

On Saturday, March 16, the Marines embarked for home. By attacking outside of the continental U.S., the Americans had internationalized the war. British supremacy on the sea, as well as other British enclaves ranging from the West Indies to Canada, were now challenged by the Americans and found themselves open to a possible Marine amphibious assault anywhere. The Revolution had taken on a new dimension.

Excerpted from The First Leathernecks.

Don Burzynski was a guest history columnist for the Marine Corps Times and Navy Times in Arlington. He has been a historian for 52 years starting as a re-enactor in 1959, reliving the Civil War Centennial, the Bi-Centennial of the American Revolution and currently the Bi-Centennial of the War of 1812. He holds three Detroit EMMYs and two CLIOs for commercial concepts when he was a Creative Director/Producer in the advertising field. He has spoken and conducted research for The History Channel and has appeared in a number of their films. In 1996, he won the prestigious Magruder Award from the Marine Corps Historical Foundation for living history excellence. The First Leathernecks is Don’s first book on the U.S. Marines.