The US Marine Corps’ Greatest Defeat … and Greatest Defiant Act in the Civil War

It is rare to for United States Marines to lay down their arms. There have only been a handful of large-scale Marine Corps surrenders, almost all during the US entrance into World War Two. The Fourth Marine Regiment laid down its arms when Army General Jonathan Wainwright ordered Corregidor’s surrender in the Philippines in 1942. Though 1,400 Marines (along with substantial numbers of sailors) capitulated, they first burned their regimental colors. Approximately 100 other Marines surrendered in China and the Philippines when WW2 began. Other Marine Corps formations surrendered at Guam (approximately 140 Marines) and Wake Island (approximately 430 Maines) in December 1941. All of these surrenders occurred after spirited resistance against overwhelming enemy forces.

US Marines from the Civil War standing in formation. (Library of Congress)

In the Civil War, large Marine formations were largely isolated to the Marine Corps battalion that fought at the First Battle of Bull Run and amphibious assaults of combined Navy-Marine units such as against Fort Sumter in September 1863 and Fort Fisher in January 1865. There is one largely forgotten USMC mass-surrender in the Civil War though. This capitulation occurred when two Marine companies taking transport on the civilian steamer Ariel surrendered to CSS Alabama on December 7, 1862 – 79 years before the US entrance into World War Two that prompted other Marine surrenders and 160 years ago today.

For starters, two companies – 140 Marines under the charge of Major Addison Garland, a 64-year-old Virginian with thirty years of military experience – formed in New York for transport to Mare Island Navy Yard in San Francisco, California. When the Civil War began, a detachment of Marines at Mare Island was dispersed to augment Pacific Naval Squadron vessels. Soldiers from nearby Fort Alcatraz temporarily guarded the naval facility, but these men were replaced by an improvised militia of 140 navy yard dockworkers. Major Garland’s Marines were needed to protect California’s only navy yard.

Getting there would be an ordeal. For transportation, they were ordered to travel via the Panamá route. The plan was to board Cornelius Vanderbilt’s steamer Ariel in New York, reach the Panamá isthmus, then board the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s steamer Constitution for transport to San Francisco. The 140 Marines boarded Ariel, accompanied by Navy Commander Louis Sartori on his way to take command of USS St. Mary’s in the Pacific Squadron, as well as 700 civilian passengers. The steamer departed New York on December 1, 1862, heading south for the Caribbean Sea. It was a regular route for Ariel, which already completed the journey ten times since June 1861, carrying $7.4 million in California gold from the isthmus to New York’s banks.

Captain Raphael Semmes of CSS Alabama was aware Cornelius Vanderbilt’s ships carried gold through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti on their way to New York and on December 3 he brought his raider there to seize a “California treasure-steamer.”[1] It lay in wait for the Vanderbilt steamer Champion, what Semmes called “our California friend” in his diary, scheduled to return through the Windward Passage filled with $700,000 in gold.[2]

Master W.G. Jones looks at the approaching CSS Alabama from the deck of the treasure steamer Ariel. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

They spotted a steamer entering the Windward Passage on December 7, 1862, but it was not Champion. Instead, Alabama closed on Ariel as it continued south to the Panamá isthmus. Ariel’s master, W.G. Jones, initially paid the ship no attention as Semmes hoisted a US flag. It was only when the two ships were “a biscuit’s throw off” that Jones recognized the Confederates.[3]

Jones sent for Commander Sartori and Major Garland mustered his Marines, anticipating a fight. CSS Alabama’s officers took notice. Her executive officer, Commander John Kell, later wrote Ariel’s decks “were a crowd of passengers, male and female, and as we drew nearer we could see that there were officers in uniforms and soldiers in groups.”[4]

When within 400 yards, Semmes fired warning shots. One smashed into a mast while a second passed clear of Ariel. Garland was game to fight, as his 140 Marines were drawn up into formation willing to man the single small 24-pounder cannon Ariel had, but Sartori was convinced resistance was hopeless. Jones stopped Ariel’s engines and hauled down its flag. The Confederates dispatched a boarding officer and sailors to Ariel. When the officer boarded, he found Garland’s Marines “drawn up in fighting order” and ready to open fire should the order still come.[5]

These Marines are standing in battle formation in Washington DC. Imagine a similar line organized on Ariel, waiting for the order to fire on CSS Alabama. (Library of Congress)

The Confederate officer ordered the Marines to stack their arms in surrender. They “hesitated for some time, but finally yielded to the gentle persuasion” of Ariel’s master, who continuously pointed to “the frowning ports of the Alabama only a few yards removed.”[6] Master Jones took the Confederate below deck to gather the ship’s papers. When they returned above, they found the Marines fully disarmed. The Confederates later claimed Ariel’s 24-pounder, 125 rifles, and 1,000 rounds of ammunition as captured spoils.

Captain Raphael Semmes condemned Ariel as a prize of war and needed to determine the ship’s fate. Alabama had no space for 800 civilian and military prisoners, so Semmes could not sink Ariel. Instead, he kept a prize crew on it, hoping to intercept the other Vanderbilt steamer, Champion. Then Semmes could seize that ship’s gold, sink one ship, and let the other go.

CSS Alabama captured the steamer Ariel on December 7, 1862. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The prize crew’s officer in charge had Commander Sartori sign a parole on behalf of the 140 enlisted Marines and eight Marine and naval officers on the ship, promising to not take up arms until properly exchanged. One early history of the US Marine Corps notes that the Confederate sailors called for twenty Marines to join Alabama, but “not a man would prove recreant to his trust, or a traitor to his country.”[7] The most service, this history claims, these Marines did to support the Confederate captors was to help guard Ariel’s spirits locker so neither side became intoxicated.

Ariel followed CSS Alabama for a couple of days, but Captain Semmes’ desired run in with the gold-laden Champion never occurred. Sensing Confederate ambitions, Champion’s master diverted his steamer west through the Yucatán Straits between Mexico and Cuba. Realizing he missed Champion and knowing he could not sink Ariel without serious loss of civilian life, Captain Semmes bonded the steamer on December 9. Ariel’s master promised that Cornelius Vanderbilt would pay $261,000 to the Confederate government at the end of hostilities and the ship was released.

Still loaded with the paroled Marines and naval officers, Ariel docked at the port of Colón on December 12. The Marines crossed the isthmus with the civilian passengers and boarded the steamer Constitution for California. They reached San Francisco on December 27, 1862.

Postwar photo of the Mare Island Navy Yard. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

There were far-ranging effects from Ariel’s capture. In 1863 the US Navy began convoying Vanderbilt’s gold-laden steamers through the Windward Passage. This was not the concern of Major Garland’s captured Marines however. The Marines were quickly exchanged and established a barracks at the Mare Island Navy Yard, guarding the largest US Pacific naval facility for the rest of the Civil War. Major Addison Garland commanded them until his death from natural causes in June 1864. The Virginia Marine’s obituary in Washington DC’s Evening Star paid him high honors, noting Garland’s loyalty to “the flag of his country” even as fellow Virginians acted as “traitors who endeavored to break up the government.”[8]

Though they surrendered, the Marines on Ariel exemplified the tenacity and perseverance of the USMC. Just like all mass-USMC surrenders in World War Two, Garland’s Marines only capitulated when ordered to by higher non-Marine authorities – in this case Navy Commander Sartori and Ariel’s civilian master. Even at the moment of surrender the Marines were game, drawn up in battle line on the steamer and willing to fire on CSS Alabama. Though no one was killed or injured that day, this largely forgotten anecdote was the USMC’s worst loss in the Civil War, becoming one of the four largest surrenders in USMC history and the only mass-surrender where Marines never fired on the enemy beforehand. Despite this, because of the conduct, professionalism, esprit de corps, and willingness to face the enemy by Garland’s 140 Marines, it is also perhaps one of the USMC’s finest Civil War moments, where two loyal companies openly faced certain death against an enemy force far outgunning their own.



[1] Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat: During the War Between the States (Baltimore: Kelly Piet and Company, 1869), 520.

[2] Raphael Semmes CSS Alabama Journal, December 4, 1862, Semmes Family Papers LPR43, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

[3] Sinclair, Two Years on the Alabama, (Boston, MA: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1895), 56.

[4] John McIntosh Kell, Recollections of a Naval Life, (Washington DC: The Neale Company, 1900), 203.

[5] Sinclair, 59.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard S. Collum, History of the United States Marine Corps, (New York: L.R. Hamersly Co., 1903), 152.

[8] “Dead”, Evening Star, Washington DC, July 23, 1864.

7 Responses to The US Marine Corps’ Greatest Defeat … and Greatest Defiant Act in the Civil War

  1. I don’t know if it affected the civil war, but in the years prior there was a bureaucratic battle over the question if Marines ashore were subject to the Articles of War or Naval Regulations. I don’t know how that would affect Marines embarked for transportation, but it sounds like Maj Garland did accept the command authority of Sartori.

  2. From my studies of History it was apparent that “the Confederate Government ‘considered’ the possible capture of a gold cargo from California” but NOT that an attempt had actually been made (and by CSS Alabama, no less…) Thanks to Neil Chatelain for this remarkable report.
    In effort to find period reactions to the Alabama/ Ariel encounter, the following article in “Alexandria Gazette” of 30 DEC 1862 page 1 column 3 and continuing on much of page 4 is attached. Of note: the effect of “the bond” demanded by Semmes and its impact on shipping insurance is examined; and “$3 million worth of gold remained at the Isthmus awaiting safe passage to New York, delayed by this Rebel action. The Secretary of the Navy is expected to send the war steamer Connecticut at once to Aspinwall to bring that gold safely to a Northern port”

  3. Scott, yes it seems that Major Garland did indeed acquiesce to the authority of Commander Sartori, which makes sense both because Sartori was a higher-ranking officer and because of the 19th century traditional USMC force structure where it was exceedingly rare for Marine detachments to operate independently of naval command structures.

  4. Also in reply to Mike, the US Navy scrambled when word of Ariel’s capture spread. USS Connecticut was dispatched from New York to start escorting these ships carrying gold and USS Augusta was send from the blockade of Florida to immediately assume that role until Connecticut arrived. I have done a lot of deep diving on all of that and find it all pretty fascinating.

  5. Excellent article! I was a US Marine and an avid reader of Marine Corps history, but never knew this story. Thank you for writing.

  6. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!