History of the Continental Marines
(1775 – 1783)
In October of 1775, the Second Continental Congress authorized the acquisition, and manning of two vessels for the Continental Navy. Then on November 10th 1775, The Continental Marine Act of 1775 decreed;
That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant-Colonels, two Majors and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of privates as with other battalions, that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to offices, or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve for and during the present war with Great Britain and the Colonies; unless dismissed by Congress; that they be distinguished by the names of the First and Second Battalions of Marines.
While it was intended that these battalions were to be drawn from the Continental Army, and used for a planned invasion of Nova Scotia, only the First Battalion was formed by December when British and Hessian reinforcements in Nova Scotia made the amphibious invasion impossible.
The Naval Committee published the Continental Marines uniform regulations on September 5, 1776 that specified the following;
Green coats with white facings (lapels, cuffs, and coat lining), and a black leather high collar to protect against cutlass slashes and to keep a man’s head erect.
It is thought that the green color was selected as it was plentiful in Philadelphia, and it served to distinguish Marines from the Blue coats of the Continental Army and Navy. Also, Sam Nicholas’s hunting club wore green uniforms and hence his recommendation to the committee was for green.
Washington was reluctant to support this and suggested recruitment be made in Philadelphia and New York. Legend has it that the first recruiting post was at a Tavern in Philadelphia, making the Marines the only branch of the armed forces “started” in a bar. The Tun Tavern is often named as the “birthplace” although it is more likely to have been the Conestoga Wagon which was owned by the family of Captain Samuel Nichols, the only Commandant of the Continental Marines.
In December 1775 the initial 5 companies joined the Continental Navy as it headed for the Caribbean. The Battle of Nassau, March 1776, marked the first amphibious invasion by American troops. After 13 Days the Marines had captured 2 forts, the Government House, occupied Nassau and captured large stores of supplies.
In December 1776, a detachment of Marines were sent to Trenton to reinforce Washington’s troops, though their arrival was delayed for the Battle of Trenton, they did provide assistance in the American victory at Princeton. Marines continued to serve alongside the Continental Army thru the end of the war. The shipboard Marines continued to support naval engagements with the successful taking of various prize ships and an “invasion” of the British Isles.
In June 1785, as the Continental Navy and Marines were disbanded, the last official act of the Marines was to escort French crowns, loaned from Louis XVI, from Boston to Philadelphia to enable the opening of the Bank of North America. While the United States Marine Corp was re-established in 1798, they still mark their inception as November 10, 1775.
- Hoffman, Jon T. (2002). USMC: A Complete History. New York City, New York: Universe Publishing.
- Abbot, Willis J. (1890). The Naval History of the United States. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier.
- Millet, Allan R. (1991). Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps. New York City, New York: The Free Press. ISBN 1-59114-790-5.
- Journal of the Continental Congress (9–10 Nov 1775), Committee on Nova Scotia: Proposals; NDAR, II: 972, 957–958.
- Jackson, John W. (1974). The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775–1781. New Brunswick City, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
The life of a Continental Marine
During the American War of Independence, many soldiers, sailors, marines and civilians kept journals of their experiences, and we are lucky to have many of these writings survive to the present.
One of these is a journal written by Lt. William Jennison of Milford, Massachusetts. His journal details his time as a Lieutenant in the Continental Marines. As our Chapter Color Guard uses the Continental Marine uniform, this journal may be of added interest.
William Jennison started his military career as a member of the militia that marched to Cambridge in April, 1775. He served in the 13th Massachusetts regiment before being appointed as a Lieutenant in the Marines. Having resigned his appointment to re-enter the Army, he was again re-appointed to the Marines and served until 1780.