The Marine Guard
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
The concept of Marines — sea-going soldiers — goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. In those days, and for centuries to come, there was a division of labor in a warship: sailors operated and navigated the ship, soldiers (“marines”) did the fighting, and the gentry provided (hopefully) a unifying leadership. By the 17th Century, when regular navies began appearing, more and more officers were sailors, and sailors had taken charge of the great guns in there ships. But the tradition remained of “sea soldiers” providing small arms fire and other soldier skills.
While there were Continental Marines during the Revolution, they, and the Navy, went out of existence when independence was won. As a new United States Navy was becoming operational in 1798, a new Marine Corps was authorized by Congress on 11 July 1798. It missions were to serve in ships of the Navy as well as forts and garrisons ashore, and to perform any other duty directed by the President.
The duties of Marines aboard ship basically were four: Provide musket fire aboard ship in combat when the opponents were close together. Provide a hard core of tough troops when needed to assault another ship in man-to-man combat. Provide the main strength of any armed party put ashore. And finally, on a daily basis, provide sentries outside the Captain’s cabin and at such other places as the Captain thought necessary.
The Marine Corps was created as a second armed force within the Department of the Navy. It was commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel Commandant who oversaw its administration. In the early days, one or two officers were ordered to a particular ship with the first duty of recruiting the Marine Guard under their command. In recruiting for Constitution, First Lieutenant Lemuel Clarke advertised for three sergeants, three corporals, one armorer, two musics (a fifer and a drummer), and fifty privates — and all had to be at least five feet, six inches tall. Assisting him in this effort was Second Lieutenant William Amory.
The Officer in Charge, Marine Guard worked for two masters when assigned to a ship: the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the ship’s captain. He reported to the Commandant on matters of professional fitness and training, supply, pay, and the character and adequacy of his men. He reported to the Captain for the day-to-day employment of his men (seeing to it that said employment was in accordance with the Marine Corps missions) and for the discipline of his Marines (with the certain backing of the Commandant to see that it was fair and nondiscriminatory). While disagreements were known to occur, the difficult system worked.
Second Lieutenant William Amory was the only Marine officer known to have had a serious difference with Constitution’s Captain. Captain Samuel Nicholson, the ship’s first commander, was not an ideal leader of men. Indeed, since first going to sea on 22 July 1798, he had had any number of disagreements with his junior officers, and during November and December of that year had confined, reprimanded, or fired a number of them. For reasons that have not come down to us, he withheld delivery of their commissions both to Amory and Navy Lieutenant Charles C. Russell. On 28 December, the two officers left the ship in protest to take up their grievances with authorities ashore. The details of these actions, too, are unknown, but Russell shortly thereafter was given command of a small warship, and Amory was returned to Constitution in the following summer, when Captain Nicholson had been succeeded by Captain Silas Talbot, and Captain Daniel Carmick had taken charge of the Guard.
The first real action for Constitution’s Marine Guard occurred in May 1800, during our Quasi-War with France.
On the 3rd, Talbot discovered several ships in the small harbor of Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic today). So much traffic in such a small place made him think that French privateers might be using it as a base, but it was too small to take his big frigate into, so he decided to bide his time and wait for them to leave port. On 8 May, he spotted a brig, a barge, and a schooner coming to anchor in a large bay west of Puerto Plata. He sent five craft, all loaded with armed sailors and Marines, to engage the barge and schooner and free what appeared to be an American merchantman. Only a few shots were fired before the Frenchmen abandoned both their privateer, named Esther, and the prize, the brig Nymph. The barge escaped in shallow waters. After the two captures were secured, Talbot sent a second boat force to try and take the barge. It wasn’t found, but the force returned on the 10th with the American sloop Sally in custody. She had been found to be a law-breaker carrying contraband. One ship still was in Puerto Plata.
No doubt recalling the Trojan horse, Talbot manned Sally, well-known at Puerto Plata, with ninety sailors and Marines and ordered Captain Carmick and Navy Lieutenant Isaac Hull to go in and cut out the remaining vessel (kidnap her). On the morning of 11 May, Sally crept slowly into the small port on a fitful breeze. Nobody there suspected a thing. As soon as Hull ran Sally alongside his objective, Carmick and his Marines came storming up from their hiding places belowdecks and swarmed into the privateer. In less than thirty minutes, she — the former British mail packet Sandwich — was theirs without a scratch. While Hull had to spend the rest of the day getting the prize in shape to sail, the Marines stormed ashore and spiked the guns of a nearby fort before troops in the town could respond. At sunset, Sandwich and Sally sailed peacefully out to sea as if on an excursion. It had been a totally bloodless and successful operation.
During the Barbary War, Constitution was particularly active in the summer of 1804, leading her squadron in repeated attacks against Tripoline shipping and bombarding the town of Tripoli. Unlike the Marines from other ship, under Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, who helped take the town of Derne, Constitution’s Marines never got ashore or into close combat. Private Charles Young, during a bombardment of the town on 3 August, was unfortunate enough to have an elbow smashed by a shell fragment as the ship moved in very close to the shore fortifications. He was the only one ofConstitution’s Marines hurt in the war.
The War of 1812 was the period of Constitution’s greatest glory, and her Marines were very much a part of the story. Their musket firepower repeatedly played an important role in the victories won by the ship.
On 19 August 1812, Constitution duelled with the British frigate Guerriere in a closely fought action that twice had the two ships entangled by their rigging. On the second occasion, First Lieutenant William Sharp Bush, officer in charge of the Marine Guard, leaped atop the quarterdeck bulwark with the intention of leading boarders in a man-to-man assault of the enemy. Before he could do so, he was shot through the head by a British sniper and fell dead on deck. The naval officer who attempted to replace him was shot through the abdomen, and the ships pulled apart before another effort could be made. In return, the fire by U. S. Marines had wounded the two most senior British officers, their Sailing Master, and a number of seamen. The enemy was so damaged that surrender followed. William Bush was the only Marine officer to die in action in “Old Ironsides,” and the first U. S. Marine officer to die in combat anywhere. Private William Mullen, serving in the mizzen fighting top, was shot in the ankle in this fight.
A little over four months later, when Constitution was off northeastern Brazil, she duelled with the British frigate Java. This was a fight involving a lot of maneuvering by the ships, but at one point they became entangled and Marine musket fire had a telling effect. Of particular impact was the mortal wound to the British Captain, Captain Henry Lambert, inflicted by Sergeant Adrian Peters (or Peterson), firing from the main fighting top, seventy-five feet above the action. The senior surviving officer was unable to regain the initiative and Java became Constitution’s second wartime victim. U.S. Marine casualties in this fight were Private Thomas Hanson killed, and Privates Michael Chesley, John Elwell, and Anthony Reeves wounded. All but Reeves are known to have been stationed in the main fighting top, so there must have been an awesome fire fight high in the rigging.
Constitution’s third and final fight of the War of 1812 occurred on 20 February 1815, when she defeated the British light frigate Cyane and the corvette Levant simultaneously in a night engagement. While the ships never came together as in the earlier duels, the Marines got in their licks when the distances came within a hundred yards. Paying the ultimate price for the American victory were Privates Antonio Farrow, William Horrell, and John Lancey, one-half of the American deaths on this occasion. The officer in charge at this time was Captain Archibald Henderson, who would become the Corps’ fifth Commandant and hold the position for thirty-nine years!
Years went by with the Marine Guard sharing in the generally humdrum duties of peacetime “showing the flag” operations. Then, in May 1845, Constitution found herself in a little-known port on the far side of the world. The Captain, John Percival, received a smuggled letter from a French missionary somewhere inland asking for help in getting out of the country as he had been threatened with execution by the government. Captain Percival, already nicknamed “Mad Jack” for his legendary impetuosity, took immediate armed action to gain the missionary’s release, including the capture of three war craft then in the same port. This action, and taking hostage local government officials, failed to gain the desired response. Four days later, in a squall, the captured craft, whose crews had been kept aboard, attempted a getaway. One ended her attempt when Constitution fired a nine-gun broadside at her. The second overturned in the surf near the mouth of a river it was attempting to enter and was recaptured.
The third made its way into the river successfully, pursued by American boats loaded with armed Marines (including First Lieutenant Joseph Cross) and sailors. A mile or so upstream, the last craft was found beached and abandoned. When some 150 native soldiers appeared on the high ground as the Americans were trying to get it afloat again, they grabbed their weapons and with “a real Anglo-Saxon shout” charged pell-mell at this “opposition” and dispersed it “in a most precipitate manner.” The Marines, it is said, gathered coconuts on their way back to the boats. Captain Percival was unable to free the missionary and, regretfully, went on his way. All this took place in what today is known as Danang, Vietnam.
A decade later, Constitution was serving as flagship of the West African Squadron when, while visiting Monrovia, Liberia, Commodore Isaac Mayo was asked by local authorities to see if he could bring peace between the warring Barbo and Grebo tribes, some miles south of the capitol near the Cavally River. When his negotiator was threatened by the Barbos, Mayo decided to use force. On 5 September 1853, a five-boat force loaded with armed Marines (led by Major N. S. Waldron) and sailors, and supported by a 12-pounder howitzer and Congreve rockets, made an amphibious assault. The destruction of a few huts by his bombardment convinced the Barbos to talk with the Grebos, who already had indicated a willingness to do so. Except for one native woman slightly wounded on the arm, there were no casualties. The talks were held on Constitution in the Commodore’s cabin, he and his officers in their gold lace finery and the tribal leaders in feathers and skins. The treaty was “signed” on 6 September. On 18 July 1854, a similar “palava” — without an assault first — brought peace to the Grahway and Half Cavally tribes, also in Liberia.
Constitution’s last Marine Guard was a reduced unit that served aboard during her 1931-34 grand tour of the United States following an extensive restoration funded, in part, by popular donations. It consisted of two sergeants, two corporals, four privates (first class), and seventeen privates.
Heinl, Robert D. Soldiers Of The Sea. Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute, 1962.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
—. Undefeated: Old Ironsides In The War Of 1812. Chapel Hill: Tryon Publishing Company, 1996.
—. A Signal Honor. Chapel Hill: Tryon Publishing Company, 1998.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1998, TGM