United States Marine Corps History: “Resolved, That Two Battalions of Marines Be Raised”

The story of the United States Marine Corps begins before there even was a United States to speak of.

The “Birthday” of the Corps

The colonial predecessor to the Marine Corps was formed before independence was even declared. On 10th November 1775, the Second Continental Congress authorized the creation of two battalions of Marines. This date has famously become the birthday of the Marine Corps, celebrated every year since 1921 with a ball, ceremony, and cake anywhere and everywhere there are Marines.

The Continental Congress Resolution to Create the Marine Corps
The Continental Congress Resolution to Create the Marine Corps

The order called for “one Colonel, two Lieutenant Colonels, two Majors, and other officers as usual in other regiments”, but the first officer to be commissioned was Samuel Nicholas, a Philadelphia native and Quaker (Philadelphian Quakers, though famously pacifist, would retain a long-standing association with the infamously bellicose Marine Corps all the way through the 20th century—including MajGen Smedley Butler). Nicholas was commissioned a captain on 28th November 1775; it is unclear why there were two and a half weeks’ delay between the creation of the Marine Corps and the commission of its first officer. But, as one of the only officers and certainly the most senior, Nicholas was essentially the officer in charge of the infant Marine Corps. Today he is regarded as the first commandant by tradition, though not by law as that position did not yet officially exist.

Capt. Samuel Nicholas, First Traditional Commandant of the Marine Corps
Capt. Samuel Nicholas, First Traditional Commandant of the Marine Corps

John Adams Sees a Need

What was the impetus behind the creation of a corps of marines? On 2nd November 1775, the Congress considered the curious petition of the “Inhabitants of Passamaquaddy in Nova Scotia … to be admitted into the association of the North Americans.” The Second Continental Congress saw an opportunity to disrupt British naval operations and extend American liberty to the territory of Canada in an assault on Halifax. Halifax had been, in the 18th century, a hub for British naval activity. Included amongst a list of “Proposals” by John Adams, and probably dated 9th November 1775, is the creation of two battalions of marines for the express purpose of landing at Halifax in Nova Scotia and destroying the naval base there.

At the end of 1775, the recruiting effort was most important. The Continental Congress seems to have initially tried to get personnel from General Washington’s army, then encamped at Cambridge outside of Boston. He was wary of diverting any resources to Congress’ scheme to assault Halifax—he recommended that marines be recruited from New York & Philadelphia, “where there must be now numbers of Sailors unemployed” and advised that there was nothing at Halifax worth destroying. The Congress “resolved that the two battalions of marines be raised independent of the army” at the end of November.

Tun Tavern in Philadelphia
Tun Tavern in Philadelphia

Tun Tavern Inn: The Birthplace of the Corps

Tradition holds that Capt. Nicholas held his recruitment at Tun Tavern, located at King Street and Tun Alley in Philadelphia. The tavern had previously been used in 1756 as a recruiting station by Ben Franklin. There’s some controversy about whether Capt. Nicholas actually used Tun Tavern; some historians claim that he himself was a tavern owner and used his own tavern, the Conestoga Waggon, to draw enlistees. But Tun Tavern has made its way into most of the books as the location of the first Marine recruitment drive.

What we do know comes from one of the earliest lists of enlisted marines, the muster roll of Lt. Isaac Craig’s company of marines, taken on 19th December 1775. It gives us valuable insight into the early marines. There were 41 men in the company (nine short of the 50 prescribed by Congress). Only eight were born in America. The others were mostly Irish (13; Lt. Craig himself was born in Ireland), British (7), Dutch, German, and Swiss. All but one were recruited in Philadelphia. None of them were sailors, even though the Congress directed the recruitment of none “but such as are good seamen.” They were laborers, carpenters, bakers, butchers, and barbers. On 27th December, Capt. Nicholas was delivered 100 muskets and 100 bayonets with which to outfit his ragtag marines. The Marine Corps had got its start and was preparing to make its name as an expeditionary force in readiness.

Tun Tavern Historical Marker in Philadelphia
Tun Tavern Historical Marker in Philadelphia
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