What did the U.S. Marines do during the Civil War?

The Straight Dope, 31-Jul-2001

Dear Straight Dope:

I am a United States Marine Corps veteran and very proud of that fact. During my time in the Corps, the Marines always emphasized their traditions and were very proud of their illustrious and colorful history. The United States Marine Corps has fought gallantly in every war the United States has participated in, but I've never heard anyone mention what the Marine Corps did during the American Civil War. Yesterday, one of the disc jockeys on a local radio station here in Raleigh, North Carolina said that during the Civil War the Marine Corps caught and executed escaped slaves. Is this true? --Semper Fidelis, Carlton J. Womble

SDSTAFF John Corrado replies:

Sir, I've got decidedly mixed news. Please don't make me do any push-ups.

You'd think that the Marines would have had a large role in Union plans. General Scott's "Anaconda Plan" called for strangling the Confederacy through a blockade and by taking over major ports and forts on the southern coast. This meant a lot of shore landings and invasions, which is what we today think of when we think of the Marines. (Except those poor souls who think of Fox's Boot Camp.)

However, Marine Commandant Colonel John Harris felt that such invasions were better handled by the army. He preferred to keep the Marines to their standard practice of guarding ships. This may seem short-sighted at first, but he had good reason for doing so. The Marine Corps in 1861 was in no way the fighting force we know today. The Marine Corps was authorized by Congress in 1861 to increase its strength to 3,000 men. Given that by 1864 the Union Army was fielding approximately 500,000 men, you can see that the Corps wasn't much of a factor, militarily speaking. And that's even assuming that the Corps could get 3000 men--it wasn't until 1864 that the Corps was finally authorized to offer bonuses to those who signed up, and even then the Marines had a longer term of service than the Army.

As if the minuscule numbers weren't enough, the lack of competent leadership made things even worse. Many of the pre-war Marine leaders deserted in order to join the Confederacy. Many of those who were left refused to take line command of the troops, claiming to be merely staff officers. Many of the new officers inducted into the Corps during this time gained their position through patronage- that is, they did hard work for or gave lots of money to elected officials, who wangled a Marine commission for them in return.

So with few numbers and lousy leadership, Colonel Harris probably made the right decision in limiting the Corps to guarding ships and forts. When Harris died in 1864, his successor Major Jacob Zeilin continued the policy.

This doesn't mean that the Corps was inactive or that there weren't times that Marines took part in major invasions. A battalion of Marines was routed at First Bull Run/Manassas (but don't feel bad--most Union battalions were routed in that battle); they were involved in the landings at New Orleans and in the attack on Charleston and Fort Fisher. One hundred forty-eight Marines were killed in action during the war, and 17 received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous bravery (but remember that the Medal of Honor was the only medal available at the time, and was occasionally given out for political reasons, so don't equate it to the modern Congressional Medal of Honor, which is the highest decoration a soldier can receive).

If you're more interested in the southern side of things, it's even more pathetic. Colonel Lloyd Beall, a former Army paymaster with no Marine experience, was commandant of a Confederate Marine Corps that eventually numbered 539 officers and men by late 1864 (like the Union Marines, a Confederate Marine received no bounty for joining and saw a longer term of service; he also got $3 less a month for his troubles). The Confederate Marines were guards at naval stations and shore batteries and on Confederate ships. Other than being praised by Navy Secretary Mallory for "promptness and efficiency," there is little of note in their accomplishments.

As for the "killing ex-slaves" question, I can't find any record of the Marines being involved in that kind of atrocity during the war. The disk jockey may have gotten his facts shuffled. It was the Marines who captured John Brown and who thirty years earlier had tracked Nat Turner. Brown and Turner were both attempting to assemble armies of escaped and former slaves in order to overthrow the planter aristocracy of the South, and I suppose one could describe the Marines' job in capturing the two and their followers as "catching escaped slaves and killing them." However, both of these events came before the Civil War (Brown's capture just two years, Turner's nearly thirty), and it was less a matter of hunting and killing slaves than suppressing treason and armed revolt.

--SDSTAFF John Corrado
Straight Dope Science Advisory Board