Did Continental Marines Wear Leathernecks?
The Continental Marine Color Guard and Fife and Drum Corps wears the 1776 style uniform of the Marines: green coats with white facings. A question has arisen about the use of leathernecks during the era of the Revolution. While undoubtedly later (in the 1800s) such bands of stiff leather were part of the uniform, were they in the period of interest?
Painted representations of the uniforms are unreliable because of the use of cloth bands around the neck during this period. The material of such bands is not obvious upon examination of a painting.
The following material provides some back ground information and some quotes on the topic. As will appear, the leatherneck first formed part of the Marine Corps uniform in 1798. This when the Corps was re-authorized by Congress.
On Stocks and Leathernecks
One definition of the word “stock” is:
“A collar or a neckcloth fitting like a band around the neck” [1, page 1873]
Similarly the word “cravat” is defined as:
“A cloth worn about the neck, usually over the shirt. Black was accepted as the most practical color. The cravat was later replaced by the stock.” [2, page 130]
And the word stock is defined as: [2, page 129, quoting 3]
“A part of an officer’s dress, which consists generally of black silk or velvet, and is worn round the neck instead of a neckcloth. The soldier’s stock is of black ribbed leather, and is part of his small mounting. Red stocks were formerly worn in the guards; they are still so in some Prussian regiments.”
- Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Gramercy Books, New York, 1996
- John R. Elting, ed., Military Uniforms in America; The Era of the American Revolution, Presidio Press, San Rafael, 1974
- Charles James, A New and Enlarged Military Dictionary …, T. Egerton, London, 1802
Origin of the Nickname “Leathernecks” for the Marines
It is questionable whether the origin of the term “Leatherneck” can be accepted as a legitimate member of the family of legends. More like a tradition, it is. For there can be no doubt of the origin, considering that U. S. Marines of three generations wore leather collars. It is as obvious as the nickname “Red” for a recruit with carrot-colored hair and freckles.
Now accepted by Webster as a synonym for Marine, the term “Leatherneck” was derived from a leather stock once worn around the neck by both American and British Marines–and soldiers also. Beginning in 1798, “one stock of black leather and clasp” was issued to each U. S. Marine annually.
This stiff leather collar, fastened by two buckles at the back, measured nearly three and a half inches high, and it prevented the neck movement necessary for sighting along a barrel. It supposedly improved military bearing, by forcing the chin high, although General George F. Elliott, recalling its use after the Civil War, said it made the wearers appear “like geese looking for rain.”
The stock was dropped as an article of Marine uniform in 1872, after surviving through the uniform changes of 1833, 1839, and 1859. But by then it was a part of American vocabulary, a word preserved, like so many words, beyond its original meaning.
Etymology of the Word “Leatherneck”
The chief dispute over the origin of this slang term for a marine is whether in originated in the Royal Marines or the U.S. Marines. The term is a reference to the high, leather collars that were once a part of marines’ uniforms in both countries. Although Mencken and Morris recount the tale that British sailors called marines leathernecks not because of their collars, but because marines washed only their faces, omitting the rest of their bodies, resulting in an unwashed and leathery neck.
Mencken comes squarely down on the British-origin side, stating that the term crossed the Atlantic during the First World War. He may be right about the British origin, but his dates are clearly wrong. Lighter’s earliest American citation is from 1907, too early for the WWI crossing. The earliest unambiguous citation is a reference to the Royal Marines, dating from 1889-90. But Lighter has a British citation from 1823 that refers to U.S. Marines and their “leather neckcloths.”
Complicating the arguments of those who claim an American origin, is the fact that the U.S. Marines abandoned their leather neck stocks in 1875, some 32 years before the first attested American usage of the term. It is possible of course, if unlikely, that the slang usage survived those years unrecorded.
Partridge suggests that it may be related to boot-neck, another term for a Royal Marine that dates from the mid-nineteenth century.
The OED2 also includes an 1898 usage from Australia, where leatherneck is slang for a rouseabout, or a man or boy employed at a sheep station. This term is probably unrelated to the leatherneck as marine term, and probably derives from the leathery skin of the neck acquired from long hours working in the desert sun.
Mencken, H.L., The American Language, 4th Edition; Alfred A. Knopf; 1936. Supplement One, 1945. Supplement Two, 1948. The classic study of American English. It is somewhat dated, but still valuable for historical work. The abridged version is still in print: The American Language; H.L. Mencken; annotated and abridged by Raven I. McDavid, Jr.; Alfred A. Knopf; 1963; ISBN 0-394-73315-0.
Morris, William and Mary, Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins; Harper & Row; 1962. A book with some 3,000 interesting etymologies. This edition is somewhat dated and the Morrises sometimes favor folkloric explanations with little evidence, but a fun book that supplies the details behind some of the more interesting etymologies. The current edition, edited by the Morris’s son Evan, corrects many of the shortcomings of the first one, but I don’t use it as a reference–not for any fault just that it wouldn’t add anything to my current library.
J.E. Lighter, editor, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Random House; Vol. I: A-G, 1994, ISBN 0-394-54427-7; Vol. II, H-O, 1997, ISBN 0-679-43464-X. An invaluable source for non-standard, American words and phrases. Excellent usage citations. Unfortunately only the first two volumes have been published, so you are out of luck for words beginning with the letters P-Z. I rely heavily on this source, primarily because it gives actual citations of use.
Eric Partridge; edited by Paul Beale, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 8th Edition; MacMillan; 1984; ISBN 0-02-594980-2. A superb source that focuses mainly on British slang, but which is also useful for Americanisms.
C.T. Onions, editor, The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology; Oxford University Press; 1966; ISBN 0-19-861112-9. With 24,000 entries, this in one of the most comprehensive etymological sources available. Its one drawback is a lack of slang entries, and given its age many slang terms it might have included have now passed into standard English.