On Saturday, November 10, 2012, the United States Marine Corps will celebrate its 237th birthday. The Corps of today traces its history to 1775, when the first Marines were raised for Continental service at the beginning of the American Revolution. The regiment of sea-going soldiers disbanded at the end of the war in 1783. If you’d asked an American in the early nineteenth century about the history of the Marines, they’d have told you that they owed their existence to the “Act for Establishing a Marine Corps” of July 11, 1798. The legislation establishing the Marines was one of several passed by Congress as the United States augmented its military for a conflict with the French Republic (the so-called Quasi War). In reality, the War Department had been recruiting men to serve as Marines to guard the newly-built warships since at least 1797.
But that’s another story.
For now, we must ask, what was it like to serve in that infant force? For many new recruits, it certainly started off with promise. To the kid from the farm or the out of work artisan, the enticements for joining the Corps seemed too good to pass up. Printed in newspapers and posted in taverns, recruiting advertisements addressed “lovers of their Country,” and “Gentlemen volunteers,” and promised “present pay and good quarters.” When the new recruits joined their respective detachments, they “shall have new hatts, arms, cloths and accoutrements, and every thing that is fitted to compleat a gentleman Soldier.”1 In Baltimore, Lieutenant Philip Edwards quickly enlisted thirty “able-bodied and good-looking men.” “We may affirm with truth,” said one newspaper, “that they are unrivalled [sic] by no company in the same service, which have hitherto been raised.”2
Most recruiting officers had considerable trouble filling their quotas, however. After all, the government offered only six dollars per month, and no recruiting bounty. An able seaman made 17 dollars per month at this period, and a diligent laborer on shore could make almost double that.
Nevertheless, the patriotic fervor of the masses and the gallant speeches of recruiting officers succeeded in filling the ranks at last. Unfortunately, as the threat of war receded, the monotony of military life set in. Tired of standing guard in one of the bleak navy yards, or stung by the reproaches of contemptuous sailors, Marines began to desert the service in large numbers.
For historians, the deserter advertisements placed in local newspapers provide a wealth of detail about the average Marine private. The one that appeared in a Philadelphia paper is typical:
Ten Dollars Reward,
Deserted from a detachment of Marines at this place, on Tuesday last, the 14th instant, William Christie, 5 feet 11 ½ inches high, 24 years old, brown complexion, blue eyes, short bushy hair, has lost a number of his teeth, stoops much, and has a down look; took with him a new red waistcoat, and a pair new white overalls with naval buttons, one new ruffled shirt, one old plain do., a new pair shoes, and a black stock and clasp. Said deserter lately came from Packquarry, Wayne county, Pennsylvania, was lately confined in Easton goal for stealing, &c., and has been accustomed to navigate the Delaware between Philadelphia and Easton, in boats and rafts. Whoever apprehends this deserter and confines him in any goal, or will deliver him to me at Trenton, shall receive the above reward, and all reasonable charges.
Advertisements like this were a sort of pre-mug-shot wanted poster. Most of these men lived hard lives, and their bodies bore tell-tale identifying marks. Christie had evidently just received his new uniform and took that opportunity to run off. And yet clothing, especially pieces of regimental uniform, was distinctive and hard to dispose of. He’d have stood out like a sore thumb in the New Jersey landscape.
Why Christie ran off when he did is anyone’s guess. For most of the deserters, we must speculate. At other times, the motivations for desertion are crystal clear. Fifer David Luper, for one, did not conform well to military discipline:
TEN DOLLARS REWARD
Deserted last night, a second time, from the Marine Camp, David Luper, a fifer – He had when he went away, a plain blue jacket and vest, light blue overalls, a round hat, which had been bound with yellow, and which he had ripped off in his first desertion, and a pair of new shoes, he is a Carpenter by trade, has grey eyes, sandy hair, sallow complexion, and a nitch in his upper lip. His back is still sore from a flogging he got a few days ago. He may be discovered by his fifeing, as he plays extremely well.
W.W. BURROWS Major Com. of the Marine Corps.4
Why he ran off the first time we can’t know, but evidently the flogging he received for deserting hardened his mind against Burrows and the Corps.
Most organizations have rocky beginnings. It is no wonder that the Marine Corps’ first motto was Fortitudine — Latin for “fortitude.” It would take a few generations and a few more conflicts before the United States Marine Corps gained a reputation as a world-class, first-rate fighting force.
1 The Daily Advertiser (New York), November 13, 1798.
2 Spectator (New York), March 27, 1799.
3 Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), May 27, 1799.
4 Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia), December 26, 1798.
Matthew Brenckle Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.
Questions or comments? Contact the USS Constitution Museum's Curatorial Department at firstname.lastname@example.org