The American Battlefield Trust Conference this year was to have featured a tour of mine about the Marine Battalion at the First Battle of Manassas. It has been postponed until 2021. In the meantime, I wanted to share some of my research into the Marines of 1861. This is Part I of a three-part series.
To understand the Marines at Manassas, it is necessary to first understand the Marine Corps of 1861. Marines of the 18th and 19th Centuries served in a very different Corps than what exists today. Indeed, much of the structure, mission, and ethos of the modern Marine Corps comes from the World Wars and subsequent operations.
Marines in 1861 did not know the Eagle, Globe & Anchor (adopted 1868), the motto Semper Fidelis (1883), or the terms Devil Dog (1918), Jarhead (1950s), or Gung Ho (circa 1900). Bulldogs and Chesty (the Marine mascot today) meant nothing. They did not annually celebrate the Marine Corps Birthday (1920), and if they paid any attention at all may have said it was July 11, 1798, instead of November 10, 1775. There were no regular and permanent Marine regiments, brigades, divisions, or corps/Marine Expeditionary Forces; those all came in 1914 or later.
Civil War Marines did have some things in common with the modern Marine Corps: the headquarters at 8th & I Streets SE at Marine Barracks Washington, the band, an early form of the Marine Hymn, service aboard ship and around the world, the term Leatherneck, an emphasis on smart appearance and disciplined drill, aggression in operations, and expeditionary warfare.
Marines of the 18th and 19th Centuries largely operated as small (usually less than 30) detachments of varying sizes aboard U.S. Navy ships. Marines had the mission of keeping discipline among the crew, manning guns or the rigging in battle, and providing parties to board other ships or land ashore. (The current Commandant is trying to push the Marines back toward those roots.) With two notable exceptions, the 200-man battalion in Mexico in 1847 and the 350-strong battalion at Manassas in 1861, this was generally the Corps’ operating pattern until the War with Spain in 1898 and the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
The U.S. Marine Corps in 1861 numbered 48 officers and 2,338 men. It had one colonel, the Commandant, one lieutenant colonel and four majors for the entire service. Most Marines were scattered about the world on U.S. Navy ships and shore stations. The Commandant was 68-year-old Colonel John Harris of Pennsylvania, a veteran of the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Twenty U.S. Marine officers, especially some of the most promising junior ones, had resigned and joined the Confederacy.
A call for recruits went out, and young officers and men arrived at Marine Barracks Washington to put on uniforms and the Corps’ insignia of a bugle and M. Harris and the officers at Marine Barracks set about turning these recruits into warriors. The call to battle would come sooner than expected.