The Origins and Birth of the United States Marine Corps

Revolutionary war marines. Weapons and Warfare

The Continental Marines

Marines were first raised in America during the War of Jenkins Ear (1739 – 1742), when the British Admiralty recruited a naval infantry regiment of 3000 men from the American colonies for a campaign against Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and South America. The result was a four battalion unit commonly known as “Gooch’s Marines”, after a Virginia governor named William Gooch, who raised and led the outfit. A dumping ground for criminals, debtors, and vagrants, Gooch’s Marines served credibly for the most part around the Caribbean. However, between tropical diseases and a disastrous attack against Cartagena, in today’s Colombia, the unit lost over 90% of its men by the time it was disbanded at war’s end in 1742.

When the American Revolution broke out, some American colonies’ militias formed their own marine contingents. Most prominent among those marine militia was Massachusetts’ Marblehead Regiment, formed in January of 1775 from seafaring men from the region around Marblehead, Massachusetts. Folded into the Continental Army in the summer of 1775, and reorganized as the 14th Continental Regiment early the following year, it served George Washington as an ad hoc marine unit, especially during his 1776 New York Campaign.

In the meantime, the Continental Congress decided to raise a marine unit, and on November 10th, 1775 a resolution drafted by future president John Adams was approved. It directed in relevant part: “That two Battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments; and that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken, that no persons be appointed to office, or enlisted into said Battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage by sea when required; that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress“.

Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, birthplace of the United States Marine Corps during the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

November 10th is celebrated to this day as the birthday of the United States Marine Corps. To implement the congressional directive, a Pennsylvania captain named Samuel Nicholas set up a recruiting headquarters in Tun Tavern, on Water Street in Philadelphia, which is considered the birthplace of the US Marines. Tun Tavern was a successful establishment with a reputation for serving fine beer, and Captain Nicholas appointed its owner, Robert Mullan, to serve as his chief Marine recruiter.

A good pitch and a good pitcher of beer go well together, and within weeks, enough Marines had been recruited to man the Continental Navy’s ships in the waters off Philadelphia. On January 4th, 1776, less than two months after the congressional directive that ordered the Continental Marines into being, Captain Nicholas and his naval infantry set sail. Two months later, Nicholas and his Continental Marines would have their baptism of fire at the Battle of Nassau, in the Bahamas.