The U.S. Marines and the 19th Century

The U.S. Marines and the 19th Century

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The U.S. Marines and the 19th Century

In the beginning of the 21st Century the U.S. Marine Corps stands at a strength of approximately 200,000 personnel. The Marines are also equipped with tanks, helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and specialized ships, manned by the U.S. Navy, to transport them to various destinations. These numbers constitute a larger force than the entire armed forces of many countries and the U.S. Marine Corps is considered the junior service of the U.S. military. The Defense Act of 1947 guaranteed the continuing existence of the Marine

Corps as law. All this happened in the 20th century. During the 19th century the Marines not only fought the enemies of this country, foreign and domestic, but had to fight for their very existence.

“In 1806 Marine Corps registers showed a paid strength of only eleven officers and 307 noncommissioned officers and enlisted men. Its main duties at sea focused on guarding against mutinies on U.S. Navy ships. In combat, marines fired their muskets at enemy ships’ officers and crew during battle, formed contingents to board enemy ships or attack enemy shore installations, and repelled enemy boarders. On shore, marines guarded U.S. Navy yards in several American cities.” (With Fidelity and Effectiveness: Archibald Henderson’s Lasting Legacy to the U.S. Marine Corps, Joseph Dawson, p. 271) The early 19th century saw the United States as a small agrarian society trying to build a unified country. After the Revolution the Army, Navy and Marines were disbanded as they were believed to be not needed. No one planned to go to war with anyone and any possible land conflict could be handled by the various state militias. This changed with the influx of piracy by the French and a few North African Arab kingdoms, commonly called the Barbary pirates. The United States had a thriving mercantile marine that proudly sailed across the world to find new markets. This made them perfect targets. John Adams, the 2nd president, reconstituted the Navy and with that the Marines. New ships were built and sailors and Marines were recruited to man them. They fought against pirates in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. This had the un-intended effect of preparing them for the 2nd war with Great Britain from 1812 to 1814.

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For the first two decades of the nineteenth century the Marines were fully employed in their traditional duties. But times were changing. The traditional duties of the Marines were starting to be seen as archaic and redundant. New technologies were entering military as well as civilian life.

One problem the Corps had at this time was perception. Many saw Marine officers as someone who could not acquit themselves well enough to serve in the Army or the Navy so through “influence” they were given commissions in the Corps. Many Navy officers were questioning the need for Marines on board ships. “Naval officers often viewed the Marines as an inferior breed and referred to Marines on board ship as ‘idlers’. An occasional piece would appear in naval professional journals about reducing the number of Marines or taking them altogether off naval vessels.” (Daniel Pratt Mannix and the Establishment of the Marine Corps School of Application, 1889-1894 Jack Shulimson p.470). These views were even shared by the President of the United States. In 1829 President Andrew Jackson called for the abolishment of the Marine Corps and its assimilation into the Army. Rising to the Corps defense was its energetic Commandant, Brigadier General Archibald Henderson.

“Archibald Henderson wore the uniform of the United States Marine Corps for nearly fifty three years, and for almost thirty nine years he served as Commandant of the Corps. He guided the marines through shoals of criticism and set a personal example for leadership. Supervising new officers initial training that began their transition from civilian to military life, Henderson made himself the exemplar of duty for nineteenth century marines. Henderson’s personal supervision partially compensated for the lack of formal training courses during the early decades of the Corps. From the 1820’s through the 1850’s he advocated increasing the number of enlisted marines and officers in order to better to fulfill the variety of tasks assigned to the Corps by the Navy Department”. (With Fidelity and Effectiveness: Archibald Henderson’s Lasting Legacy to the U.S. Marine Corps, Joseph G Dawson p.727).

The Marine Corps in the 19th century can almost be packaged into one man: Brigadier General Archibald Henderson. General Henderson joined the Marines in 1806, became Commandant in 1821 and served in that capacity until his death in 1859. For his long service he is justly called the “old man of the Corps”. He knew for the Corps to survive and flourish he had to do more than the standard shipboard duties and guarding navy yards. He pushed for more training, officer and enlisted. To guard against any charge of corruption he made sure that every penny was accounted for and any piece of equipment was not to be thrown away if someone could use it. He imprinted his personality on the Corps that lasts to this day.

Trying to expand the roles of the Corps General Henderson also offered the services of his Marines in joint operations with the Army. Notably this occurred in Florida in the Seminole War and more famously in the Mexican-American War. This type of duty gave his Marines active service outside of their normal duties. Not only did they get experience in different types of operations but they also became more noticed, in a favorable way, in the public eye. This change in perception helped the Commandant in his battles with Congress to reform and enlarge the Corps.

What General Henderson was basically trying to do during his tenure was to make the Marine Corps not just combat ready or look good to the public but to make it a “professional” service. This was a trend not just going through the military but throughout American society. “The Marine officer experience was a result of the several larger trends that altered all aspects of American life during this period. Among the most important of these impulses were technological change, advances in formal knowledge, an expanding industrialism, a restructuring in both of private and public organizations, and a pervasive profesionalization of American society. Whether called a ‘search for order’ the ‘visible hand’ or the ‘organizational revolution’, the dominant feature of this entire process was its avowed emphasis upon rationality and control. It was in the industrialization and urbanization processes of the late nineteenth century that the professions, like other aspects of American life, took on their modern cast.” (Military Professionalism: The Case of the U.S. Marine Officer Corps, 1880-1898, Jack Shulimson p. 232)

After the end of the end of the Civil War this movement for reform seemed to stagnate in the Marine Corps. The commandants immediately following General Henderson did not have the same vision or strength to move the Corps in a forward direction. It took a new generation of young officers to take those steps forward. Captain Daniel Pratt Mannix was one of these officers. In 1889, with the consent of the commandant, he created the Marine Corps School of Application. This was the first Marine specific school to teach officers their trade. At this time the Naval Academy at Annapolis was allowing its midshipmen to accept officer commissions in the Marines.

As these reforms took shape the search for a mission was also being discussed among Marines, Navy and Congress. A new “Steel” navy was being built as the United States was entering the competition of empire building with other European powers. Once again naval officers were questioning a need for Marines on board ships and looked on the Corps as a leftover from the old days of sail. Tradition bound Marines did not want to lose their role with the Navy while more progressive naval officers did not see a reason to have Marines taking up space on board ship. This controversy dominated Marine and Navy thinking for the last part of the century. It was actually resolved on the battlefield.

During the Spanish-American War the Navy found that their goals tended to be different than the goals of the Army. The Army’s goal was the destruction of the Spanish Army in Cuba. The Navy’s goal was the destruction of the Spanish fleet. To meet the Navy’s goal the heights above the harbor of Santiago had to be captured. The Army did not see this as an important objective so the Marines were sent in to capture this important high ground. “For the Navy, the message was that it could not depend upon the Army to secure land-based sites for naval purposes. The Navy required its own land force. It had this in the Marine Corps” (Shulimson p.240). The seizure of advanced bases for the navy became one of the main missions of the Corps.

The end of the 19th century did not end the debate about the Corps, but the idea’s and the reforms initiated by General Henderson, Captain Mannix and others laid the foundations for the achievements of later Marines. The idea’s of joint operations and advanced training, though belittled by critics, later proved essential for waging a modern war.
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