THE UNITED STATES MARINES CORPS 1798-1804
By Gregory J.W. Urwin
Campaigns Magazine, January-February 1984
Contrary to a popular misconception, United States Marines cannot trace their lineage unbroken back to the year 1775 and the beginning of the American Revolution. The last Continental Marines were discharged in September 1783, and their place was not filled for nearly another 15 years. The U.S. Marine Corps was called in to being in 1798, when the North American republic was embroiled in an undeclared war with France.
With the successful close of the War of Independence, the American government disbanded its regular army and navy. This frugal move was interpreted as a sign of weakness by the young republic's many enemies. Great Britain, France, Spain and the Barbary pirates took their turns bullying the new nation. They either barred American ships from their ports or openly preyed on Yankee merchantmen as they plied the high seas. As an added insult, British and Spanish agents urged Indian tribes on American's frontier to oppose her westward expansion.
War-weary, beset by debts and a struggling economy, and unable to free themselves of their anti-military prejudices, the American people were slow to grapple effectively with these threats. In 1792, the Washington administration established the Legion of the United States, a small but efficient regular army that eventually subdued the Indian of the Northwest Territory. In their dealings with more powerful adversaries, the Americans preferred pacific methods. Annual cash tributes to the Barbary States purchased a limited immunity against pirate attacks on Yankee shipping. Patient negotiations won some tension-deflating concessions from Britain and Spain. But when American diplomats approached the government of revolutionary France, they were informed that they would have to furnish bribes before talks could ever begin!
When news of the infamous "XYZ Affair" crossed the Atlantic, the American people lost their patience and demanded military retaliation to expunge this blot on the nation's honor. "Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!" became the watchword of the day. Between April and July 1798, Congress created a Navy Department and authorized the construction or purchase of six frigates and at least twenty-four smaller warships. These vessels were manned by crews organized in the fashion of Britain's Royal Navy, and each had a marine guard. In theory, a ship was supposed to have one marine for every gun mounted on her decks. In the age of fighting sail, marines were an indispensable part of a ship's company. Marines functioned as a man-of-war's policemen and sharpshooters. Their muskets and bayonets kept enemy boarders at bay, and they were a captain's primary reliance for maintaining order below decks.
The U.S. Navy's first marine detachments were ad hoc affairs, created on a ship-by-ship basis. They lacked a cohesive form of organization or a central command structure. To remedy these deficiencies, Congress passed "An Act for Establishing a Marine Corps" on July 11, 1798. The
new United States Marines Corps was organized as an over-sized battalion with enough men to furnish thirty-two ship's guards. On paper, the Corps's strength was one major-commandant, thirty-two captains and lieutenants, forty-eight sergeants and corporals, 720 privates, thirty-two fifers, and thirty-two drummers. The Commandant's staff consisted of an adjutant, a paymaster, a quartermaster, a sergeant major, and a drum-and fife major. President John Adams appointed William Ward Burrows, a personable lawyer and merchant from Philadelphia, as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps. In 1799, Burrow's command was expanded by eight officers and 196 enlisted men, and the year after that, Burrows was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Despite these marks of official favor, Burroughs and his officers had a hard time finding enough men to fill out the ranks of the Corps. Throughout the two-and-a-half years of the Quasi-War, Burrows never had more than 500 Marines under arms. In their desperation, Marine recruiters actively enlisted aliens; nearly a quarter of the Corp's first members were Irishmen. There were few inducements to attract seafaring Americans into the Corps aside from sheer patriotism. Marine
privates were only paid $6.00 a month, while able seamen could earn $17.00 in the U.S. Navy. Sailors with special skills could make up to $50.00 a month.
The Marine Corps offered no recruiting bounties in those early years, but prospective enlistees were promised a generous annual clothing allowance of $20.00 to $25.00. On October 26, 1798, Commandant Burrows described the handsome uniform that was issued to his Marines on a
Blue cloth jacket, lapelled and faced with red, edged with red and a red belt, red cuffs cut underneath with one small button; red collar, with a shoulder strap, edged with red, ending with red wings below the shoulder, one coat to each soldier. Red vest, blue woolen overalls with red seams, two to each; naval buttons to all, viz: an Eagle, with a shield on the left wing, enclosing a foul anchor. A common hat, trimmed with yellow, turned up on the left side with a leather cockade, one to each. White linen overalls, two to each. Shirts ruffled to the bosom, four to each. Shoes, with strings, or ribband, two pairs to each. Two Epaulettes for each Sergeant, one Epaulet for each Corporal. The Epaulets are yellow silk. Drummers and fifers dress: Red cloth coat, with a blue belt, edged with common yellow livery, blue cuffs, edging the same, with a blue shoulder strap edging the same, ending with blue wings, below the shoulder and edging the same. Another standard piece of Marine clothing was the watch cloak. Since sentry duty was a Marine's most common task aboard ship. The Secretary of the Navy allotted one watch cloak for every two men in December 1798.
The first Marine uniform was based on garments designed for the Rifle Battalions of the Legion of the United States. Since the Army had abandoned the legionary structure and converted the Rifle Battalions into standard infantry units, the surplus riflemen's clothing was issued to Burrow's Marines- a sensible economy measure.
The Marines were not always satisfied with their uniforms. Many items were shoddily made or unsuitable for wear at sea. On May 13, 1799, a disgusted lieutenant wrote Commandant Burrows; "A number of the Marines have lost their hats overboard by accident, and I have procured others for them...The hats that I received from the Agent for them were of a bad quality. After they had been wet a few times they cracked and broke very much, so badly that some are worn out, and I have replaced them by others." Burrows attempted to improve matters in March 1800 by authorizing a special summer uniform fro his troops. "There has been adopted a Summer Dress for the Marines," Burrows announced, "a white linen coatee made of Russia Duck with a red cape. Lapelled with two buttons on each side bound Ferret and a small skirt about six inches long; overalls edged with red." Burroughs recommended that his Marines receive two white coats apiece, but any man who wanted the "Summer Dress" had to pay for it out of his pocket.
The Quasi-War provided the U.S. Marines with few opportunities fro glory, but whenever they came, Burrow's men performed well. The marine guard of the USS CONSTELLATION distinguished itself in that frigate's victories over the L'INSURGENTE and the VENGEANCE. Other marine detachments participated in the successful amphibious operations at Puerta Plata on Santo Domingo and St. Christopher on Dutch Caracao. Following the Quasi-War, the corps was reduced in size. Lieutenant Colonel Burrows stayed on as Commandant until 1804, when he was forced to resign by growing ill health and financial difficulty.
Editors Note- Please take a minute to look at the similarity with our
uniforms and the modern dress blues of the US Marine Corps. We are
often mistaken for Marines.
R.W. "Dick Gaines
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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