Washington’s Marines is a fantastic book about the history of the United States Marine Corps, and how the Marines helped Washington’s army win crucial battles during the American Revolution. In the book, author Jason Bohm (Maj. Gen., USMC) provides a comprehensive overview of the Marine Corps’ establishment in 1775. General Bohm expertly weaves the Marines’ origins into the first two years of America’s fight for independence. Thus, Washington’s Marines incorporates the context that shows how and why the Marine Corps developed. It explains the strategic purpose behind the Marine Corps. Additionally, General Bohm demonstrates the Marines’ tactical aptitude during the “Ten Crucial Days” from December 25, 1776 until January 3, 1777.
Why a Marine Corps
When the Battle of Lexington and Concord occurred on April 19, 1775, the American colonies had no formal army and no navy. Even though colonial militias drove British forces back into Boston and placed the city under siege, the British still controlled the sea. This allowed them to maintain external lines of communication and conduct easy resupplies. The American colonies had vast ocean access through port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. At the same time, lakes and rivers inside colonies like New York, the Carolinas, and Virginia were critical networks for both British and American armies to control and maintain. Thus, the Continental Congress recognized the importance of a navy. On October 13, 1775, Congress authorized arming and outfitting two vessels for the new American Navy. After authorizing a Navy, the Marines were also needed.
In Washington’s Marines, General Bohm explains that marines were not a new concept. Marine forces have existed as long as naval warfare has been around. Furthermore, the British professionalized their own force of marines that served in conjunction with the Royal Navy. Marines have historically been soldiers of the sea used for providing ship security, acting as raiding parties, and charging ashore to seize key terrain. Due to a lack of supplies, the Continental Army needed a Navy-Marine combined force to conduct raids and seize food, uniforms, arms, and ammunition. Thus, General Bohm’s book is an important reminder of the Marine Corps’ naval roots and joint design with the Navy.
Creating the Marine Corps
The United States Marine Corps’ creation is a topic of great fascination among military scholars, veterans, Marines, and all-around patriotic Americans. Most Marines learn at bootcamp that the Corps was founded on November 10, 1775 at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its birthplace in a tavern is a detail not lost on hard charging Marines, who relish the mystique of a culture of fierce fighters and heavy drinkers (not necessarily in that order).
In popular imagination, we might think of the early force as drunken revelers, who wanted to fight some British redcoats. However, the inspiration for the Marine Corps was not conceived over too much rum and beer. Recruitment took place in a tavern or public meeting houses (i.e. “pubs”) because that is where colonial Americans met to socialize, conduct business, and receive news. In light of today’s recruiting challenges, it is interesting to read how it happened in 1775. Robert Mullan, who owned Tun Tavern, used fife and drum players to attract men to his tavern where they could be recruited. General Bohm also points out the different professional backgrounds of the early Marines. As barbers, bakers, and cabinet makers, they brought a range of skills into the service. Furthermore, their motivations for joining were wide-ranging. They included reasons that we would recognize today such as adventure, career opportunities, and patriotism.
Overall, the naval forces were not as free wheeling as we might think. General Bohm makes clear that rules and regulations were baked into the DNA of the force. Perhaps today’s Marine officers can take solace in the fact that piles of paperwork have been part of the Marine Corps bureaucracy since 1775. General Bohm writes, “The new regulations also directed commanders to maintain copious notes. They were to record enlistments, service, pay, prizes taken and distributed, and deaths.” Thus, the popular saying that the “most dangerous weapon in the Marine Corps is an officer and his pen” appears to have been part and parcel of the Corps’ origins.
Washington and the Marines
Washington’s Marines dedicates a lot of attention to the start of the war. In doing so, General Bohm demonstrates how quickly events moved. The colonists had to create an army from scratch. In June 1775, the Second Continental Congress selected George Washington to be commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington was one of the few men with substantial military experience. His selection was also a political necessity since Washington was from Virginia. Having a Virginian as commander was seen by Massachusetts representatives like John Adams as being important to unite the southern and northern colonies in a common cause.
George Washington showed up to the Second Continental Congress wearing the same uniform that he had worn as a Colonel in the Virginia militia. After assuming command of troops outside of Boston on July 3, 1775, Washington got to work trying to build a professional and disciplined army. This was no easy feat.
General Bohm makes clear that Washington did not initially favor the Marines. His reasons made sense. Washington worried that the new Continental Marines would hinder recruitment of his army in the field. It is interesting how these issues continue in the military today. Different branches of the service still fight with one another for money and resources. Even the Marine Corps and Navy still argue over which ships to build. The battle over scarce resources continues. Washington seemed to anticipate this in his own objections.
Overall, Washington wanted a professional military. As a professional fighting force, the Marines provided Washington with a solution. Thus, Washington turned to the Marines to support his army during one of the lowest points of the war.
The Ten Crucial Days
What will resonate with readers is how the current Marine Corps deals with the same issues as the early Marines. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the Marine Corps fought primarily as ground forces in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the last several years, top Marine leaders have tried to get the Corps back to its amphibious roots by strengthening its integration with the Navy.
General Bohm’s book is a critical reminder of the Marine Corps’ naval roots. But, it also shows that from the beginning of American history, Marines have been pulled from their maritime mission to support ground campaigns. This is exactly what happened from December 25, 1776 through January 3, 1777 i.e. the Ten Crucial Days. Samuel Nicholas was the commander of the Continental Marines. He and his Marines fell under the command of General John Cadwalader. Their mission was to establish a blocking position south of Trenton. However, as Cadwalader and the Continental Marines moved across the Delaware River, a nor’easter turned them back. Nevertheless, Washington and his troops crossed further north and were able to defeat a garrison of Hessians on December 26, 1776 in the famous Battle of Trenton.
Eventually Cadwalader and the Marines made it across the Delaware River. But, after they crossed, they learned that Washington had re-crossed the Delaware back into Pennsylvania! Despite the miscommunication, Cadwalader and the Marines stayed in New Jersey. This was a wise decision. Washington was eager to capitalize on the success of Trenton with another operation into New Jersey. On January 2, 1776, Cadwalader and the Marines finally linked up with Washington’s forces during a critical battle at Assunpink Creek. After successfully defending their position along the creek, Washington’s army along with the Marines slipped away in the night and launched an attack at Princeton the following day.
The Battle of Princeton
On January 3, 1777, British and American forces fought at Princeton. Initially the battle did not go well for the Americans. British forces wounded one of the most gifted American commanders, General Hugh Mercer. Mercer later died from his wounds. After Mercer was bayoneted seven times, his brigade began to retreat. However, Cadwalader and the Marines advanced. In doing so, they were able to halt the British attack. This action bought Washington’s army time to organize a counterattack.
When Washington arrived, he personally led a charge against the British. In this famous incident, Washington’s aide John Fitzgerald supposedly thought that his commander had been shot in a volley of musket fire. But, when the smoke cleared, Washington was still on his white horse rallying the army to assault the British. Washington then said to Fitzgerald, “Away my dear Colonel, and bring up the troops!” As the troops were brought up and the battle turned in American favor, Washington shouted, “It is a fine fox chase my boys.”
Later in the battle, British forces retreated to Nassau Hall on the campus of Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey). In the subsequent action, Colonel Alexander Hamilton directed his artillery to fire on Nassau Hall. The story is that cannon fire decapitated a portrait of King George III. Overall, the Battles of Trenton and Princeton were a turning point for the American cause. The victories helped recruitment and re-enlistments. Winning the battles also helped shore up domestic support for the cause especially in New Jersey.
A Book for the Commandant’s Reading List
I see a future spot on the Commandant’s Reading List for Washington’s Marines. General Bohm has done a great service to the history of the United States Marine Corps. He has drawn on multiple primary sources to build a narrative account of the Marines’ important role in the battles that led to American independence. When Washington’s Continental Army was at its lowest point, the Marines were deployed as a land force. Furthermore, because of their skill with cannons on ship, the Marines were then tasked to help General Henry Knox as artillerymen.
As General Bohm shows in his book, the Marines were a force established to serve with the Navy as “soldiers of the sea.” However, the nature of this responsibility enabled them to be tasked in ways that were identical to soldiers on land. By the 20th Century, the Marines’ abilities to serve by air, land, and sea was codified into law with the passage of the Douglas-Mansfield Bill in 1952. This bill includes a critical provision that states the Marines shall perform “other duties as the president may direct.” Thus, what America’s first commander-in-chief did with the Marines was formally written into law in 1952. In subsequent wars from Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Marines would indeed be used as ground forces.
General Bohm’s brilliant history let’s readers draw their own conclusions about how the past may impact the Marine Corps’ future. While the force continues to focus on its maritime responsibilities, it must also be ready for “other duties.” Nevertheless, today’s Marine leadership believes that the Corps’ primary duties will be in the maritime domain specifically in the Indo-Pacific theater. As a result, the Marines will not have other duties. Their future fight will be consistent with their primary mission as Congress envisioned it on November 10, 1775. To win a great power conflict, America needs a powerful Navy. To achieve a strong Navy, there must be a well-trained force ready to deploy alongside them. In short, there must be a Marine Corps.