The U.S. Marines of 1861

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.

Marines on parade at Marine Barracks Washington, September 1861

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.

Marine uniform crest during the Civil War

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.

Colonel Commandant John Harris

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.

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6 Responses to The U.S. Marines of 1861

  1. Bob LaPolla says:

    Would love to read an emerging civil war book about the marines ! I have always wondered about them. I know that traitor Robert E Lee commanded marines in the capture of John brown at harpers ferry . How did the marines get assigned to Lee or vice versa for that mission? Bob LaPolla

    • Chris Kolakowski says:

      When John Brown launched his raid, the Marines at Marine Barracks Washington were the largest body of organized infantry available in that city. They were assigned to Lee.

  2. Ever since my husband found out that Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart were both marines sent to Harpers Ferry to quell John Brown’s raid, he’s had the idea that Lee and Stuart had a close relationship even before the war broke out. Is there any evidence to suggest this? Or that their previous acquaintance with each other had an influence on how they worked together in the Army of Northern Virginia?

    • Lyle Smith says:

      I’m not an expert on Harper’s Ferry, but this is what I think I know.

      Lee and Stuart weren’t Marines themselves. Lee was a Lt. Colonel in the Army who happened to be on leave, I believe, and at his home in Arlington. Lee was simply given command of the ad hoc Federal force tasked by Winfield Scott to stop John Brown’s raid. J.E.B. Stuart just so happened to be in Washington City at the time and was ordered to go as well. Scott sent who and what he had, at hand, to Harper’s Ferry to deal with the problem.

      • Lyle Smith says:

        Also, Lee and Stuart weren’t members of the same Cavalry Regiment in the U.S. Army. Lee was in the 2nd Cavalry and stationed in Texas.

        Stuart was in the 1st Cavalry and stationed in Kansas.

    • Ryan Quint says:

      It was happenstance that Stuart ended up with Lee at Harper’s Ferry. Stuart was in Washington trying to patent an invention of his when he got word of the raid. He volunteered his services and was told to report to Lee. However, they would have known each other from Stuart’s time at West Point. Lee became superintendent in 1852, when Stuart was halfway through his academics there, and among Stuart’s best friends was Lee’s son, Custis.

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