The Civil War Leatherneck
1 January 1861
U.S. Marine Corps had only 1,892 officers and menEarly in 1861, the Union Navy lost most of its bases in the southern states. Notably, Floridian authorities leading an Alabama militia unit took over the Pensacola Navy Yard in Florida on January 16 and forced Marine Captain Josiah Watson to sign a pledge not to bear arms against the state of Florida. Other Floridian troops took control of all of Pensacola's forts except Fort Pickens. In April 1861, Marine Lieutenant John Cash and 110 Union Marines and assorted Union Infantry occupied Fort Pickens and held it until a larger garrison could take control of it. The Union controlled Fort Pickens throughout the Civil War.
The secession of Virginia from the Union forced Marines from the Cumberland, the Pawnee, and the Pennsylvania to destroy the Norfolk Navy Yard. Other battalions were deployed quickly to the Brooklyn and Philadelphia Navy Yards for guard duty, and another battalion provided security for the recaptured Norfolk Navy Yard in May 1862.
The last such battalion, a small unit of only 112 men commanded by Major Addison Garland, suffered the most embarrassing Marine defeat during the Civil War. Sent to Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco, the entire unit was captured by Captain Raphael Semmes commanding the Confederate ship Alabama off the coast of Cuba on December 7, 1862. Semmes forced the Marines to sign promissory notes not to bear arms against the Confederacy and sent them on their way.
The relatively minor role the Union Marines played during the Civil War was partially due to the small size of the Corps. On January 1, 1861, the U.S. Marine Corps numbered only 1,892 officers and men. To compensate for various losses, 38 new officers were appointed early in 1861. In July, Congress increased the size of the Corps by another 28 officers and 750 men, and President Lincoln authorized two 500-man increases in 1861.
Commandant Harris understood the primary role of the Marine Corps to be shipboard service, much as it had done during the War of 1812. The main strategy of the Union was to force the surrender of the Confederacy by blockading the Atlantic coast, a task for which the Marine Corps would be well suited.
In addition, the Union sought to capture the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. This task was given to Major General Irvin McDowell, who left Washington on July 16, 1861, at the head of some 35,000 troops. Included in this force was 1 small Marine battalion consisting of 12 officers and 336 men. Commandant Harris assigned Major John Reynolds, whose career stretched back to the Seminole War and who was one of the few veteran officers remaining in the Union Marine Corps, to command the battalion. Brevet Major Jacob Zeilin, another experienced commander, volunteered to command one of the battalion's four companies. The other officers and enlisted men in the battalion had little experience, however.
Five days later, on July 21, the Union Army was confronted by a Confederate brigade under the command of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. The Marines were assigned to support an artillery battery during the confrontation and soon found themselves caught in the midst of the Battle of Bull Run. The artillery battery the Marines were supporting changed hands three times during the battle until Confederate reinforcements appeared and tipped the battle in their favor. The Union Army, and the Marine battalion with it, dissolved. Bull Run was the only land-based battle in which the Marines participated during the Civil War. For the rest of the conflict, the Marine Corps performed its traditional role of supporting naval actions and engaging in amphibious assaults.
In December 1861, Marines destroyed a Confederate headquarters near Charleston, North Carolina, after the Dale had bombarded it. In January 1862, the Marine detachment from the Hatteras landed and burned Confederate stores at Cedar Keys, Florida.
By the end of December, 1864, Wilmington was the Confederacy's only remaining Atlantic port. Wilmington itself was stuated on the Cape Fear River some 10 miles inland. The mouth of the Cape Fear River was guarded by the impressive Fort Fisher situated on a peninsula. One wing of the fort bisected the peninsula while a second wing turned perpendicular to the first and stretched along the Atlantic face of the peninsula. The landward face of the fort, the face that bisected the peninsula, mounted some 20 cannons. Fifty feet in front of the gun emplacements was a palisade of sharply pointed logs driven into the earth, and 500 feet in front of the palisade was a minefield controlled by electric detonators. A small battery had been emplaced at the point of the peninsula to prevent enemy ships from entering the Cape Fear River and attacking the fort from behind.
A Union fleet approached Fort Fisher on January 12, 1865, commanded by Rear Admiral David Porter. Union troops began landing on the peninsula on January 13 and started erecting gun emplacements. The next day, the fleet and the landed guns began bombarding Fort Fisher, and by mid-afternoon on January 15, all but one of the fort's guns had been disabled, the wires controlling the minefield had been severed, and the palisade had been breached.
Union forces launched two separate attacks against the landward face of Fort Fisher. Major General Alfred Terry led the Army Infantry along the riverbank while a naval brigade under Lieutenant Commander K. R. Breese, Porter's chief of staff, attacked along the seashore. The naval brigade included 1,600 sailors from the fleet led by their officers and a 400-man Marine battalion under the command of Captain Lucian Dawson. The Marine battalion advanced along the seashore with the intention of occupying successive trenches as it went and laying down covering fire for the advance of the sailors.
Dawson's battalion barely reached the second of three trenches when Breese sent him new orders, however. Believing that the slope of the beach provided sufficient cover, Breese Joined Dawson there and then ordered the entire brigade, sailors and Marines both, to charge 600 yards down the beach at Fort Fisher. The Confederate defenders fired into the charging mass as quickly as they could and managed to break the rush about 50 yards from the fort.
Captain Dawson caught up to the leading Marine companies just as the charge faltered and ordered two companies to take cover and fire at the parapet as the rest of the brigade, including two Marine companies, fled. Once the rest of the naval brigade was out of range, Dawson and the remainder of his Marines withdrew. Breese later blamed the failure of the assault on the "absence" of the Marine battalion, though he was generous enough to comment that its absence was due to poor planning rather than cowardice. Nevertheless, although some of the Marines fled, Dawson had been able to rally many of his men and performed an important role in the withdrawal of the brigade. Of the 351 casualties suffered by the naval brigade, the Marine battalion lost 16 men killed or missing and 41 wounded. Dawson and seven other Marine officers received brevet promotions and seven enlisted men were awarded Medals of Honor.
The battle for Fort Fisher raged for five hours, until another Union brigade arrived to reinforce the assault, and the defense began to crumble. While the naval attack was unsuccessful, the Army assault was able to capture the fort from the landside. The Union had captured Fort Fisher and with it control of the Cape Fear River, effectively isolating Wilmington.
The Confederate Congress established its own Marine Corps on March 16, 1861. Initially, it was planned that the Confederate Marine Corps would consist of 6 companies, each of which would be made up of a captain, first and second lieutenants, 8 noncommissioned officers, 2 musicians, and 100 men. After Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy, the Confederate Corps was increased to 10 companies - 46 officers and 944 men - and a headquarters unit consisting of a commandant with the rank of colonel, a lieutenant colonel, a major, an adjutant, a paymaster and quartermaster, a sergeant major, a quartermaster sergeant, and two musicians was established. The Confederate Corps never realized these authorized strengths, however.
Twenty U.S. Marine Corps officers left the Union and joined the Confederacy, 19 of whom accepted commissions in the Confederate States Marine Corps - the twentieth joined the Confederate Army. These men represented some of the most experienced officers then on active dury, including the adjutant officer and inspector of the Marine Corps, Major Henry Tyler, a 38-year veteran and commander of the Washington Barracks; Captain George Terrett, the hero of Chapultepec; Captains Algernon Taylor and Robert Tansill, who had been recognized for their valor during the Mexican War; Captain John Simms, who had led the assault on the Barrier Forts in China; and First Lieutenant Israel Greene, who had led the assault against John Brown's raiders at Harper's Ferry. Tyler was commissioned as the Confederate Corps's lieutenant colonel and Terrett as its major. Taylor was commissioned as quartermaster and Greene as the Corps's adjutant officer. Lloyd Beall was commissioned as Commandant Colonel of the Confederate Marine Corps. Beall probably owed this privilege to his acquaintance with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whom he had met at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy, and with whom he served in the 2nd Dragoons before accepting a position as paymaster major, the post he resigned when the Civil War began.
The Confederate Marine Corps enlisted the first Marines in March 1861, and by July, three companies of Marines had been raised. Marine Guard detachments were raised for the CSS Sumter and the gunboat McRae as well. Confederate Marines saw their first action in July, occupying Ship Island off the coast from Biloxi, Mississippi.
Confederate marines played more than a defensive role during the Civil War. In February 1864, the Confederates launched a combined assault on a Union base on the Neuse River near New Bern, North Carolina. The Confederate Navy and Marine Corps were responsible for dealing with any Union Navy ships that might come to the aid of the Union Army when the Confederate Army attacked.
John Taylor Wood, who held commissions as a colonel in the Confederate Army and as a commander in the Confederate Navy, commanded the Confederate naval forces for the assault on New Bern. His command consisted of 115 naval officers and men from the James River Squadron, 10 midshipmen from the Naval Academy, and 25 Marines from Company C stationed at Camp Beall.
The attack began on February 1, 1864, but the Confederate Army's assault broke down almost immediately. Wood decided to continue with the naval side of the operation and sought out Union gunboats. very early on the morning of February 2, Wood's boats found the Union gunboat Underwriter and closed with it. The Confederate Marines exchanged heavy fire with the Underwriter and then boarded her and captured her after a vicious melee. Four Confederate sailors and one Marine were killed in the action, and another seven sailors and four Marines were wounded. Nine Union sailors were killed, another nineteen were wounded, and twenty-three managed to escape. Union forces on the shore began shelling the captured gunboat, and Wood decided to set the gunboat on fire and abandon it.
The fall of Fort Fisher essentially ended the participation of Union Marines during the American Civil War, but the war was not yet over for the Confederate Marine Corps. Charleston, South Carolina, finally gave in to Sherman's Army on February 17, 1865. Commodore John Tucker, the commander of the Charleston Squadron, scuttled his ships and led his sailors and Marines north to Richmond, where he incorporated the remaining Marines at Drewry's Bluff to form Tucker's Naval Brigade. Captain Tattnall led Marine Company E into North Carolina where it remained for the rest of the war.
On April 2, 1865, the Union Army broke through Confederate lines just south of Petersburg. Facing a two-to-one disadvantage, General Lee recommended to President Davis that Richmond be evacuated. Tucker's Naval Brigade joined Lee's Army as it marched south. Union cavalry easily kept pace with the retreating Confederate Army and attacked its flank and rear, slowing the Confederate column enough for Union Infantry to engage it in combat. Captain Terrett and a unit of Confederate Marines were captured in just such an engagement at Amelia Court House on April 5, 1865.
Union harassment compelled Lieutenant General Richard Ewell's Corps, including Tucker's Naval Brigade, to halt along Saylor's Creek. The Union artillery bombarded the ridge on which Ewell's troops were positioned, and then the Infantry advanced across the creek and up the slope. As the Union Army started up the slope, Ewell gave the command to counterattack, and the regiment, including Tucker's Naval Brigade with its Marine battalion, now commanded by Captain Simrns, charged down the slope and pushed the Union Army back.
Despite such a heroic effort, Ewell's regiment was enveloped by two other Union divisions, and Ewell reluctantly surrendered. Tucker's Naval Brigade, unaware of the Union envelopment and Ewell's surrender, withdrew farther south, where it was able to secret itself in a densely wooded ravine. A Union general accidentally discovered the brigade that evening and returned under truce to inform Tucker of his situation. Tucker, too, reluctantly surrendered when he learned that he was surrounded by Union forces.
Captain Simms, 6 other Marine officers, and approximately 45 Marines were captured along with Tucker's Naval Brigade. A few Confederate Marines had managed to escape capture on April 6, and so 4 Marine officers and 25 Marines, including First Lieutenant Richard Henderson, accompanied General Lee when he signed the surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 6.
The remnant of the James River Squadron, too, had been ordered to join Lee's march south. Admiral Semmes, the commander of the squadron, scuttled his ships on April 2 and then led his 500 sailors and Marines to join Lee, only to find the Army had already left. Semmes organized a train at the railroad station in Richmond and proceeded to Danville, Virginia, arriving there on April 4 to find the Confederate government already established in the little town. On April 5, Semmes's men were organized into an artillery brigade, and Semmes was given command of it as a brigadier general of the Confederate Army. On April 10, however, news arrived that Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, and the Confederate government fled farther south. Semmes's brigade was attached to the Army of North Carolina for the rest of April, but surrendered at Greensboro on May 1.
Confederate Marine Company C; had managed to survive the battle at Mobile Bay and continued to serve in the defense of the city of Mobile from March 27 until April 12, when the city fell to Union forces. It retreated up the Mobile River with the remnants of the Mobile Squadron to Nanna Hubba Bluff, where the squadron surrendered on May 10. The Civil War ended for the Confederate Marines with the surrender of the few Marines attached to the Mobile Squadron.
The Union Marine Corps had lost 77 men dead, 131 wounded, and 142 captured during the Civil War. Another 257 died of causes unrelated to combat. Two hundred fifty Confederate Marines are known to have been captured, but the lack of records prevents an estimation of other casualties on the Confederate side.