Wednesday, November 9, 2011

U.S. Marine Corps Barracks

Today's 236th birthday of the  U.S. Marine Corps is an auspicious time to examine the role that the detachment at the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks in Washington played during the Civil War.  Ironically, the Marines' most famous action during the "recent unpleasantries," actually occurred two years before the war's outbreak  when Marines summoned from Washington put down John Brown's Harpers Ferry insurrection.

Harper's Weekly June 1861 engraving of "The United States Marines and Marine Barracks at Washington."
On October 18, 1859 U.S. Marines, under command of Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, stormed the Engine House at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in which John Brown and his followers had barricaded themselves.  These 86 marines, the only available combat troops in Washington, had been rushed the previous evening by rail from the B&O Depot in Washington.  

The storming of the engine house at Harper's Ferry by the U.S. Marines (Harper's Weekly)

Although the Marines were successful in carrying out this mission, John Brown's raid  only further fueled the increasing sectional differences in the country.  When the country was torn apart by war in 1861, nearly half of the Corp's commissioned officers resigned and aligned with the Confederacy.  

The several hundred marines station at the Barracks were the only regular force of any significance stationed in the imperiled capital at the start of the war.  The District's local militia was not well organized and its loyalty to the Federal Government was suspect.  In the closing days of the Buchanan Administration, 40 Marines were dispatched to secure Fort Washington, a derelict, but strategic  fortification located on a bluff just  south of Washington and possessing a commanding view of the Potomac.  

After the firing on Fort Sumter, Marines manned howitzers at the Navy Yard in case the capital came under attack.  A contingent of Marines were also rushed to secessionist Baltimore to hold Fort McHenry until it could be strengthened by the Army.  A week later, President Lincoln authorized the Corps to enlist an additional 550 privates.

The mostly volunteer Union army that advanced on Manassas Junction in July 1861 included a Marine battalion of 12 officers and 336 enlisted men.  The Marines were assigned to protect U..S. Army Capt. Griffin's Flying Battery and during the advance, the Marines had to double-time in order to keep up with the horse-drawn artillery. 

During the battle on July 21, 1861, the Marines were posted on the Union Army's far right.  Although forced to retreat late in the afternoon along with the rest of the Union army, the Marines were reportedly the only Union outfit to arrive back in Washington as an organized unit.  In their first significant engagment of the war, the Marines suffered nine killed, 19 wounded, and 16 missing in action.  Once back at the Marine Barracks, these exhausted men were able to rest, receive rations and replace gear that had been lost or discarded during the fight and retreat.  Marines were also briefly detailed to protect the few Confederate prisoners from angry Washington mobs.

In September 1861, Harper's Weekly reported that the Marines' numerical strength had doubled since the war broke out and that four companies were stationed at the Washington Barracks.  Over 200 Marines were assigned to the U.S. Navy's Potomac Flotilla, which sought to keep the capital's Potomac River line of communications open.  These marines scoured the southern Maryland countryside to counter smuggling and other pro-Confederate activity.

Washington, D.C. Marine battalion in front of Commandant's House at the Marine Barracks in 1864,.  Established in 1801, the Marine Barracks'  at Eight and I Streets SE  has served the corps for over 200 years and is the Corp's oldest active post.  Since 1906, every Marine Corps Commandant has lived in this home.  It is also the only original structure remaining at the Barracks as the other buildings were razed and replaced circa 1900. (Library of Congress)
Colonel John Harris served as the sixth Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1856 until his death in May 1864 at the age of 70.  Commissioned a second lieutenant in the USMC in fifty years earlier, Harris was part of the Marine contingent that vainly  attempted to hold off the British advance on Washington in 1814.  During the Civil War, Harris had to struggle to maintain the Corps' capabilities amidst a depleted officer corps and limited resources.  Harris is buried in Georgetown's Oak Hill Cemetery.  (Library of Congress)
The Marine Barracks as depicted on the 1857 Boschke map of Washington.  The site for the barracks is reputed to have been chosen by President Jefferson while scouting the area on horseback.  Its location ensured that Marines would be able to quickly respond to any crisis at either the US Capital or the Navy Yard.   The Marines' daily parade was a popular spectacle for local residents and visitors.  (Library of  Congress)

In July 1864, when the initially undermanned defenses of Washington were attacked in Northwest, Marines were rushed from the barracks to help fill in gaps in the lines along with walking wounded from the Invalids' Corps and armed government clerks. 

U.S. Marines posing with fixed bayonets at the Washington Navy Yard whose protection was one of the primary duties of the Marines stationed in Washington during the mid-19th century. (Library of Congress).

For those wishing to personally explore the history of the USMC Barracks, tours are available on Wednesdays at 10 a.,m, at the Main Gate, according to the USMC Barrack's official website.

Clark, George B.  Battle History of the United States Marine Corps, 1775-1945.

Cooling, B. Franklin and Walton H. Owen.  Mr. Lincoln's Forts:  A Guide to the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Scarecrow Press, 2009.

Forman, Stephen M.  A Guide to Civil War WashingtonWashington, D.C.:  Elliott & Clark Publishing,. 

Lee, Richard M.  Mr. Lincoln's City:  An Illustrated Guide to the Civil War Sites of WashingtonMcLean, VA:  EPM Publications, 1981.

Nalty, Bernard C.  United States Marines at Harper's Ferry and in the Civil War.    Washington, D.C.:  History and Museums Division, U.S. Marine Corps, 1983.

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.

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