At the beginning of the American Revolution, the fractured colonies were up against the British Empire like a David against Goliath. For 150 years, the colonists had already experienced an unusual amount of freedom managing their own affairs. This was not because of Britain granting the freedoms, but their preoccupation with local affairs, foreign conflicts, inefficiency, geography, and neglect.
It wasn’t so much a planned rebellion but a continuing outrage against offenses that grew into a movement to protect and defend what the colonists had toiled hard for and held dear.
The American Revolution began in 1765. Some of the key causes were:
The Founding of the Colonies
French and Indian War
Taxes, Laws, and More Taxes
Protests in Boston
Immediate and sometimes violent objections of the Americans to their new taxes both baffled and angered the British. The colonists’ position was that, while Parliament could legislate for the colonies,
taxes could only be levied through their direct representatives of whom they had none in Parliament. (1)
England sent troops to protect against mob violence when Americans refused to import the goods in order to avoid the duties. The Americans’ argument grew boldly stating equality, claiming their colonial assemblies stood on equal footing with Parliament. Their assertion was they alone could legislate for the colonies, while Parliament legislated for Great Britain. (2)(Marines in the Revolution, Charles R. Smith)
British naval and ground forces were placed strategically on a colonial chessboard when arguments and assertions transformed into a growing rebellion and King George’s colonial income stream was faltering. His radar was now switched on.
A never-before-tried precedent to go against a greater enemy for cause the world had never seen before. A collective body of colonists gave birth to the concept of a government by the people. They risked all to obtain inalienable rights and individual freedoms given from God to all men.
Before 1775, the colonists had no central government arsenals stocked with weapons and ammo, no formal armies or navies. Growing unity among the colonies spurred a mobilization of the crudest kind. Whether farmer or shopkeeper, educated or uneducated, they grabbed their rifles to form small groups and state militias. The colonists adapted slogans like “Join or Die,” and “Don’t Tread on Me.”
A fever swept through the patriots, willing to give what little they had for a rapidly evolving mission of independence from Britain.
America’s first Continental Army served under the helm of a tall, unstoppable military leader. Recruitment offered meager rewards and much hardship. General George Washington inspired and led, on his white horse, America’s rag tag patriot troops through defeat after defeat and horrific fighting conditions. With Washington at the front lines, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and other representatives in the Continental Congress had their fight to create an enduring foundation to a budding republic – a new way to live that would require external defense.
The Brits were well-equipped and had years of formal military training. Their success in pillaging and usurping foreign lands made them cocky, brutal, and unforgiving against any attempt to defy their deity, King George. Their many war ships blockaded the harbors of the colonies. The red and white lobsters, with cannons, bullets, and swords, would militarily take from the colonists what they claimed was theirs.
In the late 1700s, the British navy fueled their prowess with the ability to deliver expeditionary ground forces in numbers and navigate waterways into the interior. Washington, Adams, even Benedict Arnold (before he turned) knew they needed amphibious troop movement to expand their defenses and procure much-needed food, ammunition, and warm clothing. Washington’s pivotal victory crossing the Delaware in small boats to win the Battle of Trenton proves this.
The birth of expeditionary power projection.
“On 10 November 1775, the Second Continental Congress authorized the raising of two battalions of [Continental] Marines. From this small beginning we have seen the United States Marine Corps grow into a powerful force for the nation’s security.” (Marine Corps History Division, Brigadier General E. H. Simmons History Center).
Newly commissioned Captains Samuel Nicholas and Robert Mullan supposedly organized the first Marine Corps muster at Tun Tavern, a popular watering hole in Philadelphia.
(The following excerpts are summarized from interviews with Gunnery Sergeant Jon Holmes and Sgt. William Rucker at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), Miramar, Feb 25, 27, 2020).
According to Rucker, the captains rounded everybody up, got them drunk and said we’ve got an offer – ‘you can come fight and protect your country, protect these ships’. They recruited people to see if it’s something they voluntarily wanted to do. Back then, that’s what distinguished the Marines from other branches.
“You weren’t mandated – [they said] you want to come join this fighting institution- come along with us,” says Rucker. One of the requirements was good moral character and rifle skills. They were supposed to be good shots.
Holmes states, “This isn’t a well-trained army that has been established for years. These are people who are tired of being taken advantage of – they don’t like the taxation without representation. They think they can achieve a better life for them and their families and for the future.”
When the leaders of the colonists formally declared their independence 2 July, 1776, John Adams believed it would be “the most memorable epocha in the history of America.” Essentially, the entire war against Britain was an open act of treason with death warrants if overrun or captured. To top it all off – where was the funding for the fight coming from? For years Britain’s East India Trading Company provided a well-established economy that funded Britain’s large navy.
“Then you have people who have been colonizing a frontier land; a farmer’s basic way of life and what they have is what they have to subsist with. The ammunition for their weapons, outside of their militias, is for hunting weapons,” says Holmes.
“Any ships they had were probably ‘tactically borrowed,’” he adds, “everything they had [to fight with] they had gotten from someone else…and they used it to great effect.”
On September 5, 1776, the Naval Committee published the Continental Marines uniform regulations specifying green coats with white facings (lapels, cuffs, and coat lining), with a leather high collar to protect against cutlass slashes and to keep a man’s head erect. The moniker “Leatherneck,” stemmed from that first uniform. Though the green color is attributed to the traditional color of riflemen, Colonial Marines carried muskets. More likely, green cloth was simply plentiful in Philadelphia, and it served to distinguish Marines from the red of the British or the blue of the Continental Army and Navy. (Wikipedia)
Holmes relates that the Continental Marines were originally tasked with security for the Navy. Other than safeguarding the ship during naval engagements, they were to specifically aim for officers on the enemy side.
“They were trained to remove those key positions of leadership so the enemy would fall apart,” says Holmes.
Today, leadership in the Marine Corps is passed down through the ranks. If one falls out- the next highest rank takes over and that dominoes down the lowest rank in the various units. That way there is always a leader to complete the mission and stay congealed as a force. That wasn’t really something that was taught back then.
Yet, in those early days as it is now in the Marine Corps, “Every man a rifleman.” Which one can surmise was a safeguard to protect something so very precious, vital and new as a free republic. The Marine Corps is the only branch of America’s armed forces that requires proficient rifle qualifications from all personnel.
Marine amphibious doctrine grew during the eight-year fight for American independence.
“The infant American Marine Corps was a threat to be reckoned with.” (Marine Corps History Division)
The first amphibious assault by Colonial forces came against the British during The Raid of Nassau, Bahamas, 3 March, 1776. During this naval operation, the Marines sailed there – raided it once and got the ammunition and other military supplies. Their main purpose was to get 200 barrels of gunpowder, but the Brits managed to get most of it off the island. Marines, not to be dissuaded from their goal, conducted a second raiding party and got more.
They also captured in April a small 6-gun schooner HMS Hawk and a merchant vessel carrying guns and gunpowder. (Military History Now)
Nobody thought the Colonists at the time would be capable of putting up any defense- much less mounting a raid and attacking one of the most superior naval powers at the time. The Raid of Nassau was the Marines’ first major victory where a very small organization went forth to take supplies from a much larger, more superior force.
“I think the biggest reason for that… is because they [the Marines] were underestimated,” says Holmes.
The Battle of Nassau was the first major victory for the Continental Marines. In December 1776, the Continental Marines were tasked to join Washington’s army at Trenton to slow the progress of British troops southward through New Jersey. Washington, unsure what to do with the Marines, added them to a brigade of Philadelphia militia. Though they were unable to arrive in time to meaningfully affect the Battle of Trenton, they were able to fight at the Battle of Princeton. (Wikipedia)
One of the Continental Marines’ final acts was escorting gold bullion from King Louis of France to start the first bank and treasury of the United States.
The Continental Marines served throughout the Revolutionary War and were disbanded in 1783 after the Treaty of Paris. In all, there were 131 Colonial Marine officers and probably no more than 2,000 enlisted Colonial Marines.
The American Revolution finally won, the navy and the army were also largely disbanded. The few ships in the young American Navy were sold or turned into merchant vessels. America no longer had the protection of the British navy and had to defend its own interests abroad. The idea of an American Navy was the subject of much debate between the Federalists who favored a strong navy and the anti-federalists who felt the money required for a navy would be better spent elsewhere. Repeated threats from France and the Barbary states of North Africa gave cause to consider resorting to more forceful measures to procure the security of American shipping interests. (Wikipedia)
The United States Marine Corps we know today was re-established formally on July 11, 1798.
Despite this, Nov. 10, 1775 is still considered to be the “birthday” of the U.S. Marines. Enemies of America have been underestimating Marines ever since the organization was formed. They repeatedly shock the world with ‘running towards bullets,’ showing tenacious aggression and fearless force. Fueled by steel-clad brotherly love, their motto “No man left behind,” is life itself.
These time-tested, elite warriors have established themselves throughout U.S. history as game changers on foreign battlefields.
Marines have participated in all wars of the United States, being in most instances first, or among the first, to fight. In addition, Marines have executed more than 300 landings on foreign shores and served in every major U.S. naval action since 1775. (Jan 2, 2020, Britannica.com).
1918: The Battle of Belleau Wood.
“Retreat, hell we just got here!” was the war cry of Capt. Lloyd Williams during World War I, 1918. He was advised to withdraw with the French who had had suffered greatly from a massive German assault in their quest to take France and win the war. Marine 5th and 6th regiments (nicknamed ‘devil dogs’) stood their ground – forcing the Germans to withdraw to Belleau Wood and Bouresches. (1) They then launched their assault into oncoming machine gun fire to clear the woods and recapture French soil.
“The Battle of Belleau Wood did not win the war, but it prevented the Allies from losing it,” said Alan Axelrod, author of Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps.
“The Marines advanced from shipboard guard or constabulary forces of the 19th century into the multi-purpose force-in-readiness of the 20th and 21st centuries.” (2) (warontherocks.com)
1942: The Battle of Guadalcanal.
“On August 7, 1942, in the Allies’ first major offensive in the Pacific, 6,000 U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal and seized the airfield, surprising the island’s 2,000 Japanese defenders. Both sides then began landing reinforcements by sea, and bitter fighting ensued in the island’s jungles.” (Britannica.com)
The Battle of Guadalcanal set a powerful precedent, noted for the operational interrelationship of a complex series of engagements on the ground, at sea, and in the air. This marked a turning point for the Allies in the Pacific. (history.com)
1945: Battle of Iwo Jima.
Shortly after its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japan gained control over much of Southeast Asia and the central Pacific. World War II Commanding General Henry (Hap) Arnold wanted Iwo Jima to place B-29 fighters in favorable range of Tokyo, so that they could support bombing operations in the region. (1)
“There was no way we would have been able to make it to Japan and accomplish what we needed to do to win the war with the [Japanese-occupied] island chains. It was a constant threat for our aircraft potential threat for naval vessels, because the Japanese were using the islands to resupply and do strikes from.” (1b)
“With the partnership of the Navy, the Marines were able to go from island to island – seize it- go to the next objective – and take that. All along the way they are building supply lines for U.S. operations up to the enemy’s front lines.” (2b) (GySgt. Jon Holmes)
Adm. Chester Nimitz created a U.S. Joint Expeditionary Force of Navy and Marines to carry out Operation Detachment. February 19, 1945, Marines began to land on the beach of Iwo Jima in intervals and the rest is legend. The offensive was one of the deadliest conflicts in U.S. Marine Corps history.
Nearly 70,000 troops under the command of Maj. Gen Harry Schmidt were forced to kill the Japanese virtually to the last man because they refused to surrender. (2)
Marines twice raised the American flag on Suribachi’s summit. The second raising was photographed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Joe Rosenthal (AP), to become one of the most famous combat images of World War II. (3) (Britannica.com)
Nimitz said after the battle was won, “Of the Marines on Iwo Jima, uncommon valor was a common virtue.” (USMCU)
1968: Tet Offensive:
During the Tet Offensive 85,000 troops under the direction of the North Vietnamese government carried out attacks against five major South Vietnamese cities, dozens of military installations, and scores of towns and villages throughout South Vietnam. The enemy did this to foment rebellion amongst the South Vietnamese population against U.S. involvement in the war. The size and scope of the communist attacks caught the American and South Vietnamese allies completely by surprise. (Britannica.com)
The Marines, used to jungle and guerilla warfare, were not prepared for the fighting style of house to house, street to street.
“That definitely changed our mindset on how we train and changed America’s mindset on how we train…Gave us our motto, “We fight in any clime and place.” It took a scope back to the Tet Offensive [to see that].” (Sgt. William Rucker)
The offensive was a crushing tactical defeat for the North, but it struck a sharp psychological blow that eroded support for the war among the American public and political establishment.
2004: The Battle of Fallujah 1 and 2.
The First Battle of Fallujah called “Operation Valiant Resolve,” was a U.S. military campaign during the Iraq War. The Iraq city of Fallujah was overrun with extremists and insurgents. Marines were tasked to pacify the city and find those responsible for the March 31 ambush and killing of four American military contractors.
Marine Cpl. Stephen Berge was in an abandoned factory in Fallujah when he felt the tides turning. He didn’t know at the time that this second battle of Fallujah he currently was in, also known as Operation Phantom Fury, would become known as the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War. (Marine Corps Times).
The Second Battle of Fallujah is notable for being the first major engagement of the Iraq War fought solely against insurgents rather than the forces of the former Ba’athist Iraqi government, which was deposed in 2003.
When coalition forces (mostly U.S. Marines) fought into the center of the city, the Iraqi government requested that the city’s control be transferred to an Iraqi-run local security force, which then began stockpiling weapons and building complex defenses across the city through mid-2004.
Insurgency, counterinsurgency was a new kind of enemy and fighting. They hid in the shadows, wore no uniform, used civilians as shields, and were in the business of malevolent terror. They were not afraid to die, had no rules of engagement or sense of humanity in warfighting, and used the crudest methods to do the most explosive and lethal harm. Then brag about the innocent people they killed, including children. https://www.commdiginews.com/politics-2/history-insurgency-iraqs-enduring-defeat-counterinsurgency-fught-123192/
2010: The Battle for Sangin.
In October 2010, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5) started clearing the Taliban insurgency from the Sangin District in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
Prior to that a full third of all British casualties in Afghanistan had occurred in the Sangin District…They were done in with death and injury, gladly turning it over to U.S. Marines.
The Helmand Valley was significant geography. A fertile green zone, the opium drug trade was booming and the Taliban had nestled into a stronghold. The Sangin crossroads fingered out to Kajaki Dam (electricity), Lashkar Gah (Helmand capital), and Kandahar. Dominating Kandahar put the insurgents that much closer to capital city, Kabul, just an RPG or two away from winning the war.
3/7 followed by 3/5 Marines were deployed to clear districts, kill the insurgents that were killing them, stop movement of weapons, ammunition and IED-making materials, open the roads, destroy weapons caches and insurgent hideouts, and hundreds of other tasks. 3/5 lived within feet of the people who wanted them dead. The missions were measured out among platoons, squads, and teams placed on somewhat exposed, but strategically located bases. Daily patrol demanded each Marine taking each step forward in the exact same place as the man ahead, while sweepers tried to unearth the hidden bombs.
Marines earned the respect of the Taliban by showing force and taking the fight to them.
U.S. Marine Corps accomplishments and sacrifices merit an immortal place in America’s history.
Similar observations can be made about the enduring, courageous character of a U.S. Marine in many other legendary battles not mentioned. All of which should be sobering reminders that victorious ends have come about through bloody means.
These points of pride left indelible marks on the Marines fighting in them – more than celebratory and triumphant accolades, but a sense of a harsh, unescapable reality that the environment of freedom can only exist when there are forces to sustain it. Marines need not prove who they are – their results do.
They are not only frightful and lethal when they need to be, but also serve humanitarian missions in natural disasters and disease outbreaks. They adapt to the calls of their country in any clime or place. Marines build vital global relationships with partners and allies who look to them for training. Because of their generous nature, they have helped other nations build their armies and security forces to be able to be ready, like them, for future conflicts. Marines have been one of the most enduring elements of the 20th and 21st centuries, shaping the world by winning its conflicts, securing stability, and building relationships among allies.
“The Army specialty is land warfare, the Air Force is sky space dominance, the Navy has the seas, and the Marine Corps focus on that amphibious ocean to [expeditionary] land aspect. WWII is a great example…if it’s impossible; Marines have found ways to do it.” (GySgt. Jon Holmes)
The Revolutionary War was the beginning of it. Even then they were looking at more than just sailors on ships. America’s various struggles and successes winning independence and sustaining it were and are transformational on the world stage. The Goliath, Britain, underestimated its David, America, slinging her way to freedom to become a shining example to all nations. America’s first Marines helped her do it and have been serving her best interests through generations.
Jeanne McKinney is an award-winning writer whose focus and passion is our United States active-duty military members and military news. Her Patriot Profiles offer an inside look at the amazing active-duty men and women in all Armed Services, including U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard. Reporting includes first-hand accounts of combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against violent terror groups, global defense, tactical training and readiness, humanitarian and disaster relief assistance, next-generation defense technology, family survival at home, U.S. port and border protection and illegal interdiction, women in combat, honoring the Fallen, Wounded Warriors, Military Working Dogs, Crisis Response, and much more. McKinney has won twelve San Diego Press Club “Excellence in Journalism Awards,” including seven First Place honors.
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