Major General Jason Bohm is the US Inspector General of the US Marine Corps. Recently, General Bohm published his book: Washington’s Marines: The Origins of the Corps and the American Revolution, 1775-1777. I had the opportunity to discuss with General Bohm the topic of his book recently. Along with the recording, please enjoy this transcript of our conversation.
Michael Troy (MJT): General Bohm, welcome to the American Revolution podcast.
Jason Bohm (JB): Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it.
MJT: We're here today to talk about your book about the Marine Corps in the American Revolution. Is this your first book?
JB: It's my second book, actually.
MJT: Oh, what's your first book about?
JB: The first book is a contemporary piece. It's called From the Cold War to ISIL, One Marine's Journey. And it basically talks about the evolving national military strategy from the end of the Cold War until the current fight against ISIS.
MJT: Obviously as a Marine, I understand why you'd like to write a book about Marine history, but the Marines do have a long and storied history spanning several centuries. What drew you specifically to the American Revolution?
We instill in our Marines that it is our responsibility to live up to the legacy, the sacrifice of the service of those who went before us. So it was a natural for me to be able to, in my own journey, continue to study Marine Corps history. And then share an expanded view of Marine Corps history, as it parallels American history, to be able to tell a Marine Corps story as I'm telling the nation's story.
And there's not a better time to do that than as we approach the 250th anniversary. And so what I found out as I was doing my own self study is that there are a lot of stories about early Marine Corps history. That are myths, but they're based on, loosely on, reality. There's more to the story and there's some misunderstandings and misperceptions.
And quite frankly, this is a area of little known history that most Marines know about. They know more about World War 2 and Vietnam and the contemporary operations, but. A lot of Marines from generations current are not as familiar with the early history, let alone our nation at a very important time in our current history.
So I wanted to bring those together, the forming of the nation, the understanding of what led to the winning of our freedom and our independence, and then why it's so important that we continue to defend those today.
MJT: The Continental Marine Corps was founded in 1775. At that time, of course, the Continental Congress was very busily creating an army, a navy, inventing a new form of government, a whole bunch of things. Why do you think the creation of a Marine Corps was a priority for Congress?
JB: Well, I think you hit on the fact that it wasn't a priority at the very beginning. In fact, it was the third priority in the pecking order as you identified there.
So again, for context for the listeners, I think everyone's familiar with the events of April 1775 at Lexington and Concord that really forced the Congress's hand to have to adopt a national army utilizing the New England militia units that were holding the British under siege in Boston following Lexington and Concord.
Obviously selected George Washington to become Commander in Chief and the focus was on that current crisis that was an ongoing conflict in the New England states. Well, a lot of people may not realize, but the American continent is also a maritime nation. You know, you think about the vast eastern seaboard that we have, and the countless lakes and rivers and canals that, particularly back in the 18th century, were used as principal highways to move people and move things more effectively, more efficiently and more cost effectively than a road system that was very poor back in the day.
So the need for a Navy and Marine Corps became very prevalent as the war went beyond the opening months when we had to deal with the initial crisis outside of Boston. I think most people are familiar with the fact that the British, in order to resupply and reinforce themselves, had to transport their goods 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.
So, if the Continental Congress could create a Navy that could degrade the British ability to reinforce and resupply, that would obviously be to the advantage of the Americans and, in fact, assist the Army and General Washington on the land fight as well. So, out of necessity, there were actually an intelligence report that came that there were some British ships loaded with military wares on its way to resupply the British in Quebec in October of 1775, with the army being created in June of 1775.
And so the Congress used that as an opportunity to create the United States Navy. And it did that by ordering George Washington to purchase 2 ships from Massachusetts and basically manned them and they were not only intended to make him commander in chief of the army, but basically take over the Navy at the same time.
Washington balked at the idea. There weren't any ships available in that area. Because most of the ships who had already been employed as privateers or being used for the state. So Congress took that responsibility off of Washington's hands, and they purchased merchant ships that were converted into warships down in the Philadelphia area.
And then we get to the Marines, so October 75, you create the Navy. The Navy needs Marines to serve with the fleet to not only provide good order and discipline on the ships, provide security to the ship's officers against mutiny. They also fought from the fighting tops of the ships, they provided boarding parties to capture enemy ships, they defended their own ships, and they actually manned cannons alongside their sailor brothers on board the fighting decks as well. Marine detachments on board Navy ships continued to provide that fire support all the way into the 1990s.
That service was needed on the fleet, but there was a specific event that resulted in forcing the Congress's hand to create the Marines in November of 1775. And that was the Committee of Safety from Passamaquoddy, Nova Scotia, contacted Congress and stated that they wanted to join the Association of North Americans fighting for their liberty and their freedoms.
Well, Congress started salivating, thinking this was an opportunity to create a 14th colony to fight against the motherland. So there was a committee of three that consisted of John Adams. John Langdon and Silas Deane, who met in the 2nd story room of a place on the Philadelphia waterfront called Tunn Tavern.
And Tunn Tavern was owned by a gentleman named Robert Mullen, who we'll talk about here in just a moment. That committee of three meeting in Tunn Tavern devised a plan for creating a landing force consistent of two battalions of Marines whose assignment it was going to be to go to Nova Scotia, conduct a naval amphibious operation and capture the key British base in Halifax and therefore help bring Canada into the fold as a potential 14th colony.
And so that committee of three briefed the Congress on the 9th of November. And on the 10th of November, 1775, Congress resolved to create two battalions of Marines and calling them the 1st and 2nd Battalion of American Marines. And that was the official birthday of the Marine Corps, which is still celebrated by Marines across the world, regardless of their location or their circumstances, every November 10th.
MJT: Given that the first mission was north of New England and the war was going on in New England and that's where most of the maritime people and ships came from in America, why do you think the Marine Corps was first established in Philadelphia rather than New England?
JB: Well, really a couple of reasons. And again, one you already stated, New England was a focus of maritime activity. And I had already mentioned the fact that the privateer industry was starting to gear up. And it was a very lucrative market for individual ship owners and crews to go to sea, sanctioned by the Congress with letters of mark to capture British ships and then sell them as prize ships and the cargoes, and a portion of that prize money would be shared with the crew and the captain.
Because of that, many of the New Englanders who were not already committed to having joined a militia and part of the army now that was holding the British under siege in Boston, working in a privateer industry or private industry for trade to be able to continue to bring revenue into the state of Massachusetts and the other New England colonies, or already manning the Massachusetts, New England, or Connecticut, or Rhode Island State navies that were created as well. The bottom line is there was little left to be able to create a Marine Corps in the New England area. As I stated, when Washington was tasked by the Congress to purchase ships from Massachusetts to create the United States Navy, he balked at that and said that there are not a lot available here. I recommend you look further South towards Philadelphia.
The first ships of the United States Navy were converted merchant ships that were purchased in the Philadelphia area. And that is where the first fleet was assembled. And if the Marines were going to serve with the fleet, then it made sense that they would be recruited from an area in which there was more ample population of military age males who had not already gone to war as a soldier or a privateer. And where the fleet was going to be based out of.
MJT: Around the time Congress was creating the Navy and the Marine Corps in Philadelphia, Washington actually did create his own ad hoc Navy up in New England with the support of John Glover, who was an army officer, but obviously had a marine background
MJT: maritime background, thank you. I find it interesting that Washington opposed. Being responsible for a Continental Navy, but then wanted to build his own Navy at the same time.
JB: Yeah. So actually Washington and Benedict Arnold both built their own Navy's, uh, Arnold up on Lake Champlain to block the advance of the British coming down from Canada and to be utilized for the attack against Canada.
And then Washington initially created a Navy outside of Boston and then did it again when he transferred to New York and create a local Navy outside of New York. And the reason for that was because the U. S. Continental Navy had no capacity of ships to be able to support his land operations. So, although the Continental Army held the British under siege in Boston, it was only from the landward side.
The British still had control of the seas. Therefore, they could be indefinitely resupplied and reinforced, and that was of great concern to Washington. So, out of necessity, he created his own navy, and as you stated, he went to John Glover, who was a colonel at the time, from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Glover had his own fishing fleet.
And so he leased Washington his first ship, named the Hannah, which was named after John Glover's wife. Eventually, his navy would grow to about six ships, but it had mixed results. And the problem was that these ships were being manned by soldiers, and the soldiers enlisted to serve on the land, not at sea, even though some of them had seafaring experience.
And in fact, there's a quote from one of Washington's agents. And I read it says, “The people on board the brigantine Washington are in general discontent and have agreed to do no duty on board said vessel and say that they enlisted to serve in the army and not as Marines.” So, although there were some early successes with Washington's Navy, as it was referred to. Many of his crews actually mutinied and didn't want any part of serving there because life at sea was very difficult, and that's why they wanted to stay on land.
Arnold had similar circumstances up north in Lake Champlain, and as you may know, Arnold was a seafaring man himself, living in Connecticut coast and had a business interest at sea. So he knew a little bit about operating on the water. And he convinced General Gates that they needed to elicit the support of soldiers to man their freshwater fleet upstate New York. Arnold had a similar discontent with the service of his people up there. And this is a quote from Arnold himself. Quote, “We have a wretched motley crew, the Marines, the refuse of every regiment, and the seamen. Many of them never went with salt water.” He understood that if you're pulling people, cherry picking people out of your battalions to go serve as Marines. You can bet they weren't picking their best and brightest to go serve on the ships. They were keeping their best soldiers and they were given what was left over to become Marines and sailors serving with the freshwater.
So that just reinforced the need for a national Navy and Marine Corps who were trained to fight on the land and seas as professionals.
MJT: Arnold's mission, and he mostly created his own mission, was to stop the British from invading from Quebec into New York. And he effectively did hold them off for an entire year, even though they eventually had to succumb under the weight of the British.
JB: Right. No, I think Arnold did a brilliant job in the Battle of Valcour Island. You know, lost all but one of his ships, but as you stated, delayed the British for another year to buy us time.
MJT: Right, and that was Arnold's real victory. He had won before he fought the battle. The British had to build an entire Navy to contest Arnold's Navy, and that took them an entire year, and they lost an entire year of possible advancement into New York.
JB: Tactical loss, strategic victory.
MJT: That's the story for a lot of American battles, I think. And Washington's Navy was primarily used like privateers. They, they were not big enough or numerous enough or large enough ships to compete with the British Navy, but what they could do is take out British transports that were bringing supplies to the British Army in Boston.
Yeah, in fact, that became the naval strategy for the entire American naval force, whether it be state privateer or Continental Navy, we would never be able to go head to head against the Royal Navy in fleet actions. Recall that I said that our initial ships for the Continental Navy were just converted merchant ships, and they basically had lower caliber cannons on them.
Once they were met, no way could they go up against a British man of war or a ship of the line. In fact, in December of 75, Continental Congress authorized the construction of the first 13 frigates. These are the first built from the keel up U.S. warships that were constructed across the eastern seaboard and completed between ‘76 and ‘77, that became our capital ship.
We never went higher than a 44 [gun] frigate. Now we did build one 74 gun ship called the America that wasn't commissioned until 1782. And it never was completed in time to join the fight in the war, and we gave it to France as a gift at the end of the war. It was basically one on one, uh, ship engagements or small ship engagements, but we never wanted to take the British on fleet to fleet.
MJT: Right. By comparison, the British had dozens of ships of the line that had 70, 80, 90, 100 cannon on a single ship and very large caliber cannon, which was important, not only for blowing bigger holes in your enemy walls, but also you could shoot at a greater distance and decimate your enemy ship before they even got close enough to fire on you.
So yeah, it was a contest. Yes. And I think the fact that they were being used as privateers is probably another reason why a lot of soldiers did not want to participate as a seaman or Marines on a ship. If they wanted to be privateers, they would join a privateer ship, which would basically be doing the same thing and be much more lucrative for them.
JB: They really did serve a valuable service in that fact that the Continental Congress was unable, as we're all well familiar, to adequately supply the Continental Army. So the, the goods that we were capturing on these British ships went to the army to be able to clothe them and feed them and provide them the munitions that we weren't otherwise going to get from the Congress until we could build that capacity up in America, which never, as you know, got up to the speed that we needed it to be.
MJT: Yeah, a large portion of the muskets, flints, gunpowder, cannonballs that the Continental Army used in the first couple of years were provided by the British via the privateers.
JB: Yeah, before the French started providing us that aid.
MJT: The privateers and the Navy both provided that critical ability to secure these munitions from the enemy and give them to our army.
I think they were all kind of working out how this was all going to work. The Continental Congress, though, seemed to have a different idea. The first mission that they gave to the commander of the Continental Navy, Esek Hopkins, uh, was not just taking out transport ships.
JB: So the first fleet was commanded by a gentleman named Commodore Esek Hopkins.
And as stated, they assembled in Philadelphia in January of ‘76. And as they went down the Delaware River and went out into the Atlantic, Hopkins had two envelopes that he had sealed that he was to open once he hit the open seas. And the first was his first set of orders, which basically talked about the expectation for the conduct of sailors and marines in the execution of their duties. The Congress was not short of providing guidance on how people should behave.
The second set of orders were his tactical orders, and they were quite ambitious and quite frankly, very unrealistic, this is. Five, it grew to seven ships that were small converted merchant men with no cannons larger than nine pounds.
And the largest ship was the Alfred. That was the Commodore's flagship, and it only had 22 cannons on it. When Hopkins opened his set of tactical orders. You first have to understand that it was Clausewitz that said that war is an extension of politics. So politics really drove these first orders because they were written by politicians are civilian leaders.
And in essence, what they told Hopkins to do is he was to immediately set sail for the Chesapeake Bay and to find, locate, and either capture or destroy the entire British fleet operating off of the Chesapeake Bay. That was driven by the fact that the Virginian politicians were driving for that action to occur.
If that was not enough, once he was complete with that mission, he was to continue down to the Carolinas to do the same mission there: locate, seek out, and destroy or capture the British fleet located there. And if that were not enough, then he was supposed to push up to Rhode Island and locate, seek out, and destroy the British fleet located there.
There was actually a caveat in the orders that basically said, and oh by the way, if the weather doesn't permit it or other circumstances may impact your ability to do so, use your best judgment. In executing your orders. Well, Hopkins very wisely thought about his chances of success in executing these orders with this nascent fleet on its maiden voyage when he decided to go in a different direction.
MJT: Yeah, I mean, I think you're right. I mean, essentially, he was being asked to take on much, much larger fleets than he had with an enemy that was much more experienced. It would have been like sailing into a brick wall. He would have been that would have been the end of his life.
JB: And there's no doubt in my mind that they would have been defeated in the first engagement. There's evidence of that in the later engagement against a single ship. Uh, that, that one against six of those continental ships all fighting simultaneously.
MJT: Yeah, we'll get to that later, but yeah, I think it was just insane that the orders he was given, I, I think my thought in reading it the first time was why didn't they just tell him to sail over to England up the Thames and, um, take London, you know, it was just fantasy.
JB: Yeah, they were actually, you know, as you said, Congress was finding their way and they just didn't have realistic expectations or really understand what the capabilities of their forces were at the time. Giving these insane orders, what did Hopkins decide to do instead? Yeah, so he, he looked at that and he said, well, I am clearly going to use this caveat that's been given to me as a golden present.
And he had earlier received an intelligence report of a lot of gunpowder and munitions being stored by the British down in the Bahamas, specifically of the Island of New Providence. And as we know, one of the limiting factors Washington was confronted by in the Siege of Boston was the lack of gunpowder and the lack of cannons.
Hence, Henry Knox going to Fort Ticonderoga to bring the cannons over from New York. Well, Hopkins had the same opportunity to go down to New Providence and gain gunpowder and cannons for Washington's use. So that's what he did. He set sail for New Providence Island, the first lieutenant of his flagship, the Alfred, was a gentleman named John Paul Jones, that some of you may have heard of, and the commander of his Marine detachment on board the flagship was a gentleman named Samuel Nicholas, who was the first Marine commissioned officer in Marine Corps history.
Nicholas had led the recruiting effort to man these ships of the fleet. If you recall earlier, I said that Congress original intention was to create two battalions of Marines to invade Nova Scotia. Well, when Washington balked at that operation, because the Congress originally directed that Washington create these two battalions of Marines, by cherry picking soldiers with seafaring experience, similar to what he did to form his own fleet, to create these two battalions.
Washington said, there's no way, I'm already undermanned. I'm trying to reorganize the army. I don't have the resources I need. I can't create these two battalions of Marines and I can't lead an operation against Halifax. My hands are pulled here.
And oh, by the way, if you recall, this is when we sent Montgomery and Arnold up to invade Canada as well. So he's already depleted his forces by several thousand.
John Hancock, who is the president of the Continental Congress, acquiesced and he said, okay, General Washington. You're relieved of your responsibilities of creating the Marines, but we're still going to create this distinct and separate branch of service to serve with the fleet.
And so they commissioned Samuel Nicholas. Who was another tavern owner out of Philadelphia, he owned the Conestoga Wagon Tavern. And he recruited with the help of some other officers who were commissioned the first Marines to serve with the fleet. So, as Hopkins is sending his first fleet down to New Providence, he assigned Samuel Nicholas, who's a captain at the time, with creating a landing force that would combine the different ship companies together to form a battalion of Marines.
When they didn't form the original two battalions, what they did do is they decided to organize the Marines into 50-man companies. Each company would be assigned to be the ship detachment of a specific ship in the fleet. And then they would just pull these ship detachments together to create a larger battalion to conduct limited operations ashore.
So Samuel Nicholas lands with 220 Marines and 50 sailors in New Providence, and he captures two forts on New Providence Island. And in fact, they catch 88 cannons, 15 mortars, and a couple of howitzers, far more than what Henry Knox took from Fort Ticonderoga. Unfortunately, what they didn't do is, Hopkins did not place his ships in a position.
To allow the British to escape with most of the gunpowder. So the night before the landed force landed, the majority of gunpowder was evacuated to Eastern Florida. But when Samuel Nicholas landed and captured those two forts, there were like 26 barrels of powder. But 88 cannons and 15 mortars, which were brought back up to the continent, and they were used very effectively in several of the major ports across the eastern seaboard, and several of those cannons and other ordnance were given to the Continental Army as well.
MJT: Yeah, as I recall, they actually took a civilian ship in the Bahamas to help carry all the equipment back up.
JB: They did. Yeah, they, they, so the, you could argue that the raid, although he didn't get his principal objective, the gunpowder was very successful, and they actually employed two additional ships. One that he captured, and then one that he basically impressed into service.
MJT: Now on the way back, the fleet went from back from the Bahamas up to New England, they did encounter a British ship, the Glasgow.
JB: The two days prior to that, they actually captured two British ships. And they were towing them along as prize ships, so they had already had to diminish the crews and the Marines from the existing ships in order to man prize cruises on the captured ships.
Hopkins was in the search to capture more ships, again, to try and get the supplies and goods needed by the Navy and the Army, and he had his ships moving in two separate columns through the ocean. with the captured vessels following in trace. And it was in the middle of the night, actually about 01:00 in the morning, where they spotted an unknown sail in the distance, and it wound up being a British frigate with 20 cannons, the Glasgow.
The Cabot, which was one of the continental ships, moved ahead to identify whether this was friend or foe. As they approached each other, and they were broadside to broadside, The way it would work back in the day is if they couldn't see your flags, or you weren't flying your flags, or you're trying to deceive your enemy, they would holler at each other and say, who are you?
In this case, the captain of both ships identified themselves, and then a Marine on board the Cabot from the fighting tops lobbed a grenade onto the deck of the Glasgow, which initiated a battle. The Cabot opened up first with broadside, but it only had weak six inch cannons and only had seven of them firing against 11 nine pounders coming from the Glasgow.
The Cabot was severely damaged up front. Then the flagship, the Alfred, got into the fray. And she only fought for about three minutes, exchanging broadsides, before her tiller was shot out, and she lost the ability to steer. So she had to drift out of the fight as well, which brought the Andrew Doria and Continental Ship, the Providence, into the fight as well. And the bottom line is, the Glasgow, because the Americans did not fight as a cohesive organization, as a cohesive fleet, was able to hold off six continental ships.
They got slammed. They were severely damaged, but what the Americans were trying to do is capture the ship. And in order to do that, they didn't want to destroy and sink the ship. So most of their fire was angled high. To take out her sails and her masts and her riggings. Therefore, her crew wasn't being impacted by anything other than the musket fire from the Continental Marines firing from the American ships. And she took one killed and one wounded in that fight.
The Glasgow was fighting for her life. So she was blasting away at the decks of the American ships and the Americans took far more casualties, including the first three Marines killed in our Marine Corps history in combat. One of them was Lieutenant John Fitzpatrick and two privates. The Glasgow got away cause she started pushing towards Newport where the British had a fleet operating out of Newport, Rhode Island at the time.
And the American ships took her under chase, but the problem was they were still weighed down with all the ordinance that they had captured in New Providence. So they couldn't move as fast through the water and the Glasgow was able to successfully make it to Newport before Hopkins decided to turn around because he didn't want to face that British fleet that was waiting at Newport.
MJT: Yeah, when you see their limited abilities with a single British frigate, you know, they're not going to do well against an entire British fleet.
JB: And you could argue that Hopkins was in his right not to obey his initial orders from the Continental Congress, because it probably would not have gone.
MJT: After this, we don't hear much of the Continental Navy. They do make it back to port and deliver They're goods, but the British pretty much bottled them up after that, right?
JB: Yes, and there was another problem, and that was disease. Nearly half of the fleet succumbed to yellow fever and became combat ineffective. And so now that the fleet is up in New England, it gets back to the problem that I was talking about earlier, and that's recruitment.
There was that lucrative privateer industry, the Continental Army. the state navies. Hopkins had a very difficult time manning his ships at that point. Not to mention the fact that the British were bottling them up in the port. They could have escaped if they had enough people to effectively man their ships, but they did not.
What happened during this period is because they were not going to sea, Samuel Nicholas asked Hopkins if he could go back to Philadelphia for some personal business. Hopkins agreed, sent Nicholas back to the Congress with dispatches to inform them about the Navy's activities. Nicholas has to go back to the Alfred, but the Congress denied him, kept him in Philadelphia, promoted him to major, and then assigned him the task of recruiting new crews for the four of those original 13 frigates that were now under construction. Being constructed in Philadelphia
So, although the Navy that 1st fleet of merchant converted ships basically cease to operate as an effective fleet, those ships still did go out and participate in 1 on 1 or small 1 or 2 ship engagements. Until they were either captured or destroyed later in the war, but now we have the 13 frigates that are being built that are going to come to conclusion and being constructed, and they will all put to sea and engage the British in 1 on 1 or 1 on 2 small engagements as well.
MJT: Right, and supplementing the Continental Navy are state navies. I know Pennsylvania had a pretty significant state Navy at this time.
JB: Yeah, 48 ships.
MJT: That was where the real effectiveness was, especially for Philadelphia defending the Delaware River and the British for moving up that way.
JB: Well, if I could hit on that just a moment, none of the forces were able to operate independently, whether it was in the land, you know, you had militia with continental forces with people that just showed up with their rifles.
Same thing happened at sea. You had privateers, Continental forces. And state forces all fight side by side. So, for example, in the defense of the Delaware River, it was actually Captain John Berry, who is a Continental Navy officer, who was given responsibility to defend the Delaware, and he did that by utilizing a combination of Continental Marines, Continental soldiers, Continental sailors, and then Pennsylvania Navy forces as well, and Pennsylvania Marines, who manned the floating batteries, the Arnold and the Putnam that were operating on it. So it was really an eclectic group that, all contributed.
MJT: Right, and we see the similar things with the Army, where state troops and state militia will often put themselves under the command of the Continental Army in times of need, and that's, yeah, that's exactly what Barry was doing.
Yeah, I was only surprised they didn't use John Glover, uh, that he never joined the Navy, uh, because he was, you, I mean, he was a maritime expert and ended up saving Washington's bacon on several occasions, not only getting him off Long Island when the British invaded there in 1776, but also helping him cross the Delaware a few months later for the critical offensive they used.
During this time, the Navy was pretty much inactive, and as you say, the Marines were in a recruitment and rebuilding capacity without a whole lot of Continental ships, at least, to sail on. What were the Marines doing in late 1776? They got more involved with the Army at that time, right?
JB: To be clear, there were always Navy ships at sea. They just weren't large, they were small ships. For example, the Lexington. You know, many of these World War II known names all come from the American Revolution. The Lexington was a 16-gun ship that was converted merchant ship that was commanded by John Barry, and she put to sea, and she was out there capturing British ships left and right. The Reprisal was another one. There are literally tens of ships out there operating in those capacities.
It just doesn't get a lot of attention because these were very small engagements, relatively speaking, but that activity never stopped every time one of those ships without it. See, there were Marines on board serving side by side and actually doing the fight and then capturing the enemy ships by through boarding parties and manning prize crews and doing all of that.
But to answer your point, around Philadelphia, I mentioned that Nicholas is now a major. And he is in charge of recruiting Marines to man four of the frigates being built in Delaware. That is the Delaware, the Washington, Effingham, and Randolph. Those ships were still under construction.
And as all of that activity is going on with the fleet, we have the New York campaign happen with Washington in the summer of ‘76. And then he's basically under pursuit by General Howe across New Jersey and crosses the Delaware River on December 8th of 1776.
Now, Washington's force, which started out at about 19,000 in the New York campaign, the force that was with him, the main part of the army, had been dwindled down to just about 2,500.
And you have Charles Lee, and you have Horatio Gates still up in New York with a couple of thousand themselves. But the main army with Washington about 2500 and we all know the story how the enlistments are going to end. Washington's forces have been greatly depleted by desertions, by disease, by casualties, and now it's going to be further degraded by terminating enlistments.
Washington knows this is a low point for the war, and he has to re-seize the initiative from the enemy if they want to preserve the fight for independence. And so he calls out to the Congress and he asked for assistance. He gets that assistance from several different locations. One of them is a brigade of associators, which are Philadelphia militia led by a gentleman named Colonel John Cadwalader.
Cadwalader will be promoted to brigadier general right around Christmas time as they get ready for the Battle of Trenton. That name is important because the other group that is sent by the Congress to assist the Continental Army in its greatest time of need is Samuel Nicholas and the Continental Marines, Nicholas, just like he did in New Providence takes three of the ship detachments from three of those frigates under construction and creates 120 to 130 man battalion. They get on gondolas and they go up the Delaware River and they link up with Washington at Trenton as he's crossing into Pennsylvania the 1st time.
Now, Washington, recall, did not have a very high regard for Marines because of his experience in using soldiers to serve as Marines, and he didn't know what the Continental Marines intent was. Cadwalader shows up around the same time. And he tells Cadwalader, hey, go talk to those Marines and figure out whether they intend to fight on the waters or on the land. And they said, well, General, they're here to fight for you. They're here to assist you right now. And he said, very well, I put them under your command as a separate battalion.
So the Continental Marine Battalion will be assigned to Cadwalader's Brigade of Associators and fight over the next 10 crucial days in the Battle of Trenton. In the Battle of Assumpink Creek and the Battle of Princeton as a separate and independent battalion fighting under the Brigade of Associates, if that makes sense.
MJT: Yeah. Cadwalader was a Pennsylvania State General. He was not a Continental General, but he was working very closely with Washington at this time because it was, it was really all hands on deck. This is right after the British had taken New York with overwhelming force, chased the army across New Jersey.
Everybody had fled and Philadelphia was panicking that they were going to be next, that the British were just going to keep on and invade them. Congress retreated to Baltimore and said, Washington, do your best. We're out of here. It was all hands on deck. They were trying to decide what to do next.
Washington decided, as you know, embark on what will become the 10 Crucial Days and do a counterattack across the Delaware River. And I believe there were four different crossings. Cadwalader was doing a separate crossing from Washington further downriver and the Marines were with him at that time, right?
JB: That's correct, around the Bristol area.
MJT: Right, and they actually had trouble crossing. Washington was able to cross and get to Trenton. These guys did not. Well some of them made it across, but they never really got the whole force across.
JB: Yeah, so originally they were supposed to cross at Dunks Ferry, but the weather conditions did not permit it.
So they went further down river, around Bristol, and they got about two thirds of their force across the river before the Nor'easter really hit hard, and they were unable to land their artillery. So Cadwalader makes a decision to abort the mission. His belief is that no one of the other three forces successfully made it across the river that evening either.
And so the next morning, he's actually writing a letter to Washington recommending that they link up and all of a sudden he hears cannon fire in the direction of Trenton. Ah, son of a gun! you know. So they figured out that Washington did make it successfully across and now the blood of the Marines and the Associators is up.
They want to get in a fight. So they convinced Cadwalader to get over the river. So he does successfully cross the river that next day. Once he's across, he starts moving towards Trenton, only to find out that Washington had made the decision to cross back into Pennsylvania, now with 900 Hessian prisoners in tow.
So he starts to get a little squirrely, starts to flounder, and he's on the verge of aborting the mission once again. And the Marines and his officers and associators, with the help of Colonel Reed, Convince him to stay because they see that the Hessians are fleeing in fear. And in fact, Von Donop and the force that wasn't captured is trying to get up to Princeton to be able to link up with the British brigade that's based out of there.
Cadwalader and the Continental Marines take Von Donop's force in pursuit. And they actually capture about 50 stragglers, uh, but Van Donop was able to stay just a step ahead of them and successfully get to Princeton before they could capture him. The Americans would hold up around Crosswicks and right to General Washington, recommending that he come back into New Jersey and continue to capture eastern New Jersey back from the British and Hessian forces.
MJT: Right. I think Washington had initially conceived this as a hit and run raid. We're going to go over there. We're going to take Trenton and we're going to go back to Pennsylvania. And that's the end of it. And it was really the fact that the, this other force under Cadwalader and the Marines had gotten over to New Jersey, albeit late, and shown Washington that the enemy was in flight and this was something that they could do. That there was a vulnerability there, and that's what convinced Washington to change his mind and come back over.
JB: Well, I got to tell you, I'm not sure I necessarily agree with you because there's evidence that shows that Washington actually wanted to continue attacking up to Brunswick. But I think that reality set in after a very long evening and marching nine miles through a blizzard, not having had a warm meal, and having 900 prisoners. Wiser heads prevailed, and he decided he had to get over there. But I think he was itching to continue to fight up north. There's evidence of that in some of the historical record as well. So I think this played right into what he really hoped to do to begin with.
MJT: My view on, on Washington's initial intent was actually that he thought he was going to go over to Trenton and die. I think he thought that this was the end of the cause, and I'm just going to fight to the death. Because There's no,
JB: I don't know if I agree with that, Mike, because there's also evidence that said they were going to go up in the mountains and continue to fight as guerrillas if they need to, to keep the fight alive. So, I don't think Washington was a feign accompli a type of fella who figured he was just going to go die on vine or die on the state.
MJT: I mean, I'm sure he had a range of ideas and hopes, and it changed from minute to minute, but he saw it as a long shot, I think.
JB: Absolutely, a long shot. That's just all the more reason why we owe him our respect, is the bold move that he did. It was a do or die situation, no doubt about that.
MJT: I mean, the call sign for the night was literally victory or death, and I think that was not just a name. I think he really meant it. I mean, he was going to win or he was going to die.
JB: Something I can appreciate as a Marine. We don't surrender.
MJT: Well, I mean, there are, there are other times when it makes sense to do a tactical withdrawal or whatever, but I think he saw at this point, it really was do or die, there was really no third option.
There wasn't a whole lot of good communication and coordination between all the crossings. Washington was the only one that successfully got across on that first night, and I think some people think it was just maybe his force of will or something, but really. He was crossing further up river from all the other crossings and the river, the Delaware River at that point is much narrower and has a faster current and therefore it wasn't freezing over at the same rate as it was for the lower crossings.
So there was good reason why his group got across and the others did not, at least initially. And it is impressive that they did get across the next day, given that…
JB: I agree. And they said to actually the crossing back into Pennsylvania was more difficult than the one going…
MJT: and I think a few of the men who did make it over that first night in the lower crossing. We're like, there's no way we're going back over that river again. That was nearly suicide. But yeah, they do get through the ten crucial days and the Marines stay with Washington's force for that entire period up through Princeton?
JB: Yeah, and actually it goes beyond Princeton for, uh, about four more months, and it's a very interesting story. Once Princeton is complete, Washington takes his army up into Morristown, and then it begins the Forage War. This was one of these areas of Marine Corps history I had no idea of, and the fact that, uh, Henry Knox now had more cannons than he had men to man them. A lot of those enlistments did terminate after the men agreed to extend their enlistments to do the Ten Crucial Days. But once that was done, many of them went home.
And so there was basically no Continental Artillery Corps at this point. Knox is looking around and he says, well, wait a minute. Those Marines know how to operate cannons on board Navy ships. They operate very similar to land-based cannons. And he went to Washington and asked if the Battalion of Marines could be assigned to the Corps of Continental Artillery.
Washington agreed. So, for the remaining months, while the Marines were fighting as augmentation to the army, they fought as artillerymen, which the Marines didn't mind because artillerymen actually got paid a little bit extra because of the technical skill required to be able to manipulate the cannons.
And in fact, two of the Marine officers from the battalion. resigned their marine commissions and took army commissions and fought the remainder of the war as Continental artillery officers.
MJT: So did the marine companies that accompanied Washington remain distinct marine companies still during this time?
MJT: Okay, so they didn't completely merge into the army.
JB: No, they did not become soldiers. They were still the Marine Battalion, but they were assigned, now detached, if you will, from the Associators and attached to Knox and the Corps of Artillery.
MJT: Did they ever get reassigned to ships after, at this point?
JB: Yes, they did. Yeah, over the course of the next four months, they slowly went back to Pennsylvania and to Philadelphia to remand the ships. The first group that left was Robert Mullen, who was the owner of Tun Tavern. His company was assigned to escort British prisoners back to Philadelphia, and then once he was there, they just kept him there and reassigned him to his ship.
MJT: That was the point where Philadelphia was getting ready for what would, the next year, be the British invasion up the Delaware River. So they were building up their river defenses at that point, and also using the ships for privateering, essentially, going out and seizing merchant vessels and things like that.
JB: I wouldn't call it privateering. They were out engaging British ships, both man of war and they were not going to capture any British ship. They can get their hands on whether they were a warship or a British merchant ship. They engaged plenty of British warships during the war.
MJT: Right. And they basically forced the British to change their tactics a bit in that they didn't control the seas as much as they would like to think they did. They had to travel more in larger groups. They didn't like to send even a single military Navy ship out on its own because it might be attacked. They did sometimes. They had to worry about merchant ships and transport ships being attacked. And so this was a whole thing that they had to worry about.
JB: And there's another key benefit from the naval operations, and it started with the raid on New Providence, is once Hopkins went down there and we captured those two forts and all those ordinance, the British realized that they now have to defend their holdings across the globe. And that caused the British to pull some of their naval assets off of the eastern seaboard in order to protect the West Indies and protect the homeland.
Because Marines under John Paul Jones actually invaded Scotland and England and they were operating in the English Channel and there was great fear instilled in the British public when the Pirate Jones and his Marines were out there operating in their home waters.
So that's just another example of how we took the fight to the enemy from a naval perspective, naval, and for those who don't know, when you say naval, that means Navy and Marine Corps. As opposed to just Navy, which is just Navy.
MJT: Jones and there were actually a couple of other ships captains over in Europe that were wreaking some havoc. Jones actually got a ship from the French and went on this mission. My understanding is those ships were largely crewed by European sailors and Marines. Is that true?
JB: Yeah, there's some truth to that. Go back to what we talked about with why the Marines were recruited out of Philadelphia. That's because that's where the fleet was. And in this case, Jones was a man without a ship, and Benjamin Franklin procured a older French warship that Jones renamed the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin.
And so he had some American crew members that were with him, but he had to fully man out the ship, so they recruited some Frenchmen to fight in the American Navy and Marines as well. So, to be clear, although they may have been Frenchmen, once they joined the Continental Marines or the Continental Navy, they were then Continental Sailors and Marines, regardless of where they came from.
So, in fact, every one of the original Marines, not one of them was born in America. They were all immigrants from European countries. And that's the way our country has survived all these years. People shouldn't get caught up on saying, well, they weren't really Marines, they were Frenchmen. No, they were French men who were enlisted in the Marines and in the Navy to serve on the U.S. warship.
MJT: Yeah, we think of the French generals who joined the Continental Army, like Lafayette, the most famous, obviously. But there were a lot of Frenchmen who joined the Continental Army and Navy and Marines and fought as Americans, or fought, you know, as Continentals for the freedom of this country.
And it's pretty impressive. One of the Marines that was on Jones's ship, I guess, is responsible for his victory against the Serapis, because those two ships were locked together until a Marine from the Bonhomme Richard managed to lob a grenade into them. Serapis’ ammunition bunker and that was the end of them.
JB: Sometimes it's all it takes is one person to turn the tide of war.
MJT: The Marines were very active in Europe, excuse me, and in America. We see the British getting more and more spread out and what they had to defend. So the Marines continued to fight through the end of the war, although American naval activity kind of reduced as the French got more involved in the war, and the French Navy and French Marines took a more direct role in the seas off of the East Coast.
JB: We used the French and the Spanish to a lesser degree to fight. Any fleet level battles that were going to be prosecuted against the British, but all of our one on one or small one or two ship engagements continued throughout the war. In fact, every one of those 13 frigates that we built, our first warships, were either captured or destroyed in the course of the following years after they put to sea, because they were actively out there engaging the British.
MJT: Yeah, we put the Navy to very hard use during the war. There was very little left at the end. And in fact, the one ship that did survive the America, which was actually never made it into combat because it was built so late, we ended up giving to the French, right?
JB: Yeah. Yes, absolutely.
MJT: Yeah. The French had given us a lot of ships and a lot of other things during the war. So it was our, I think it was kind of our way of repaying them.
JB: Yeah. I don't think we quite ever, uh, you know, at that time it was a weak compensation, but we didn't have much off. I think we paid them back a few times over since then.
MJT: Yes. They, they made a good investment in us long term. Maybe the King didn't think so, but France did.
Yeah, exactly. But at the end of the war, as you say, we disbanded the Navy, got rid of all our ships, and we also essentially disbanded the Marine Corps, and effectively disbanded the Army. I think the Army shrunk down to about a hundred soldiers at one point after the war. So there was no Navy for the first few years of the United States under the Constitution. What changed to Rebuild the Navy and the Marine?
JB: Well, like always is the case. Anytime a conflict is over, which is very expensive to prosecute. The nation's looking for a peace dividend. They have to reinvest in, rebuild in infrastructure, rebuild in the economy, starting jobs, allowing people to get back to normal lives.
So that was the case at the American revolution, just like it's been the case after every war in American history. But like is always the case and has proven time and time again, throughout history, the enemy always gets a vote. And so in this case, both British and French forces were impressing American sailors to serve in their navies.
And it was actually the Quasi War with France in the late 18th century that caused America to start reinvesting its naval forces. And it was in 1798. In which the Navy and the Marine Corps were reestablished and the Marine Corps has been around ever since. There was never a period after that where we stood down.
That was the birth of the modern Marine Corps, if you will. That is when the title of the common on the Marine Corps was actually. bestowed by the Congress. A lot of people mistakenly refer to Samuel Nicholas as the first Marine officer in the American Revolution as being the first Commandant, but that's not true because it was not officially bestowed on the Commandant until 1798 when the Corps was re established.
MJT: Nicholas was in command of the Corps, he just didn't have the title of Commandant.
JB: He was not in command of the Corps, he was the senior Marine officer. Actually, the Congress commanded the Corps.
MJT: Fair enough. Yeah, the Quasi War has always been interesting to me. It's, we actually almost went to war with France at that time. It was in the 1790s. John Adams was president. He made George Washington, pulled George Washington out of retirement, made him a general. Washington had no interest in going off to war, and so he pretty much relied on Alexander Hamilton to run the army.
And as you say, we rebuilt the Navy and the Marines because we were being attacked at sea. Our merchant fleet was being attacked and we needed something to defend them. But the Quasi War never came to anything.
So the first real engagement after that, uh, major engagement would be, Marines referred to as the shores of Tripoli, no? Under Jefferson?
JB: Absolutely. Yes. And, uh, so the Barbary pirates, And, Tripoli Sultans were basically capturing Western vessels and crews and holding them ransom, basically being bullies in the Mediterranean.
Because we didn't have a credible naval force to do anything about it, we were paying a lot of ransom money and paying for access to the Med. You know, really providing some ridiculous compensation to these sultans to be able to do any kind of trade in the Mediterranean. And we finally had enough of it.
And a strong independent streak in America said, you know, even if it is more cost effective just to pay these ransoms, we're not going to do it anymore. We built up our fleet and we have some really historic and heroic actions taking place. And that is to your point where one of the sentences from the Marines hymn, From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli, comes from the fight against the Barbary Pirates in 1804-1805 time frame.
MJT: Any new projects you're working on these days? Yeah, thanks for asking. I'm actually in the process of writing the next chapter, if you will, to Washington's Marines. I'm likely going to call it America's Marines, but what it's going to do, it's going to pick up in 1775 again, And it's going to fill in the gaps of what the other Marines were doing outside of Nicholas and his group from Philadelphia.
So it will focus, the first half of the book, uh, predominantly on the war at sea and on the rivers. And talk about what that was like and a lot of these things that you're not familiar with right now. You're saying, well, the Navy wasn't really doing a lot. They were doing a lot. But it was all these small independent actions. So I'm going to tell that side of the story.
And then I'm going to use, just like I did in Washington's Marines, the second half of the book was really focused on the Ten Crucial Days. The second half of this book is going to be focused on the Penobscot Expedition of 1779.
An incredible story for those who don't know. Think about all the Loyalists who were forced out of America. They needed someplace to go. Many of them went to Nova Scotia, Canada. But Nova Scotia didn't have the infrastructure or the economy to support them. So Britain needed to find a home for them. And we have New England, and you have Nova Scotia, which translates to New Scotland.
Now they wanted to create New Ireland. And they did that by invading northern Massachusetts in an area called Penobscot Bay, which is today part of Maine, which didn't become a state until 1820. So the British invaded the United States. And they established a foothold to create this new colony called New Ireland, and Massachusetts was up in arms.
So Massachusetts created its own naval campaign to oust the British out of the Penobscot region. And they collected this eclectic group of 42 ships, which were half privateers. Half state Navy, and then there were three Continental ships. One of them being one of the 13 original frigates, this one, the Warren.
And the Commodore for this expedition was the captain of the Warren. Then they had Massachusetts militia as the ground force. To be able to oust the British. Well, long story short, it winded up being the greatest naval defeat in American history for 160 years, all the way up until Pearl Harbor. So extraordinary story that, uh, that I'll be telling here in the next year.
MJT: Yeah, it is an interesting story. I think that's the one where a Massachusetts militia officer by the name of Paul Revere got court martialed afterward. Right?
JB: That is correct. So, Paul Revere was in charge of the artillery and you want to talk about inept leadership. He, along with General Lovell, and it was actually one of the Marines who raised allegations against him. That led to his court martial.
MJT: Yeah. Interesting story. I look forward to it. Your first book on the revolution, Washington's Marines is out now. It's available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. I heartily recommend it. And hopefully everybody will get a better understanding of the history of the Marines from it.
JB: Absolutely. I really appreciate your time, Mike, and the opportunity to, uh, to share some word about our great nation and our Marines history. And I want to thank you again for all you do with American Revolution Podcast, great effort, and I'm really impressed with your work. Thank you. God bless Semper Fidelis.
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Washington’s Marines: The Origins of the Corps and the American Revolution, 1775-1777, By Jason Bohm (Savas Beatie, 2023).