A Quick History of the United States Marine Corps Through 10 Historic Battles
This article is a quick primer on some of the key battles of the United States Marine Corps. While as a fighting organization of the United States military, the US Marine Corps has participated in nearly every conflict of the United States since 1775 as well as many other military and even humanitarian operations, these battles have become indelibly linked to the narrative of the US Marine Corps.
These battles have been selected here, and will demonstrate how they became representative of the Corps at the time, and how they also helped promote the enduring legacy of the Corps in the years to come.
These battles have been ranked chronologically, and their ranking here are a subjective judgement of the author on their significance and contribution to the narrative of the Corps’ history. Each of these battles and events played its role, and are remembered by US Marines today.
The Battle of Nassau - New Providence, Bahamas – 3-4 March 1776
Shortly after the formation of the Continental Marines in November 1775 by order of the Continental Congress, the fledgling Marine Corps would see its first action against the British. A small fleet of ships under Commodore Esek Hopkins, the first Commander of the Continental Navy, sailed to the Caribbean to raid and disrupt British commerce. At this time, trade in sugar and other commodities was a valuable source of income from these colonies, but could also be vulnerable to raiding and attack.
On the 3rd of March 1776, Captain Samuel Nicholas led 200 Marines and some 50 sailors in an attack on New Providence Island with aim of raiding Nassau, the port town of the island defended by two forts. In what would be the first amphibious assault by the Continental Marines, Nicholas and his men quickly overwhelmed the forts garrisons and seized the town. The stores of weapons and gunpowder were seized.
Ultimately, Nassau was only held for two weeks and abandoned, as thinly stretched resources and manpower of the Continental Congress could not hope to hold out against British attempts to take it back. Nevertheless, it served as a disruption to British commerce and the ability for the Continental Congress to project some power and striking capability at the enemy far from the main battlefields on the continent. This action is remembered as the first action of what would later become the United States Marine Corps.
Tripoli – 1803
“…to the shores of Tripoli…” is a verse from the Hymn of the United States Marine Corps. Not long after the independence of the United States from the United Kingdom, the newly established United States was faced with the problem of asserting its status as a new nation.
In the Mediterranean Seas, a loose confederation of outlaw states known as the ‘Barbary states’ conducted piracy on the seas. Unescorted ships of all nations faced capture and pillage if they did not pay tribute to the Basha of Tripoli. In 1803 an American frigate, the Philadelphia, ran aground off Tripoli and its crew were taken captive, the United States tried unsuccessfully to negotiate their release over many months.
An angry, President Thomas Jefferson, under pressure from Congress and the American public for a solution, found it in a daring US Navy Captain, Stephen Decatur. Decatur led a daring raid from the sea to burn the Philadelphia in the harbour at Tripoli. Meanwhile, an equally daring US Marine Lieutenant, Presley O’Bannon, led a small group of about 12 Marines accompanied by several hundred mercenaries in an attack on the Basha's garrison at Derne. The attack was preceded by an epic march over 500 miles of desert, a feat in of itself.
Following what was to be known as the first land battle of the United States military ton foreign soil since the creation of the independent United States, the hostages and crew of the Philadelphia were freed after 18 months of confinement. The episode is remembered further in the sword used by US Marine officers today, the mameluke sword, reputedly gifted to Presley O’Bannon as a token of thanks.
From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli, We will fight our Country's Battles on the Air on Land and Sea. First to Fight for right and freedom, and to keep our Honor clean, we are proud to bear the title of the United States Marines— First Verses of the Hymn of the United States Marine Corps
Chapultepec – Mexico City, 1847
“From the Halls of Montezuma…” is how the Hymn of the United States Marine Corps begins. This recalls the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848, a struggle between the newly independent Mexican nation and the United States feuded over border territories.
The US Marine Corps participated in a number of small actions, but the largest and best opportunity by far for the Corps to demonstrate its continued relevance was at the storming of the Mexican Citadel of Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Here the Marines battered down the gates and assaulted the citadel, repelling counterattacks including one by mounted Mexican lancers.
The timing of these events was important for the Corps, as questions were being raised in Congress about the Corps’ continued utility. But when the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Archibald Henderson, was presented with a commemorative flag by the citizens of Washington with the words “From Tripoli to the Halls of Montezuma” upon it, it seemed that another legend was captured for the narrative of the Marine Corps.
Finally, the red stripe found on the uniforms of Marines, known as the "blood stripe", was an adoption to the Marine Corps uniform after the battle of Chapultepec. Marines below the rank of Corporal do not wear this stripe, and hence the wearing of this distinctive addition to the uniform is reserved for non-commissioned officers (NCOs), staff non-commissioned officers (SNCOs), and officers.
Cuzco Well, Guantanamo Bay – 1898
The Spanish American War saw the United States in an imperial venture to help liberate former Spanish colonies in Cuba and the Philippines. Following the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbour, the United States chose to back the independence of the Cuban colony, and so Cuba became a focal point for battle.
While less well remembered than the actions at Santiago Bay, most notable the ‘Rough Riders’ of future President Theodore Roosevelt, the US Marines would serve and fight in Cuba. At Guantanamo Bay in the southeast corner of Cuba, a Spanish garrison guarded the entrance to this harbour which would serve as a useful stepping stone for the US bid to capture Santiago a few miles down the coast.
Under LtCol Robert Huntington, the Marines landed near the mouth of Guantanamo Bay and maneuvered to a position to strike at the Spanish garrison at Cuzco Well. Supported by naval gunfire from the USS Dolphin, the Marines assaulted the defenders. In the chaos of battle, before the advent of modern radio communications equipment, shells from the Dolphin landed amidst the assaulting Marines wounding some of them. The quick thinking and fearless action of Sergeant John H. Quick in signalling the Dolphin with semaphore flags, despite exposing himself to the fire of every Spanish rifle in the battle, saved the Marines and their attack from failure.
The writer Stephen Crane, the well known author of the novel the ‘Red Badge of Courage’, was an embedded journalist with the Marines during these events and recorded these actions; Crane’s dispatches served as to promote the deeds of the Marines in a much needed public relations campaign win. The Marines carried the day and seized Guantanamo Bay, which would become an important coaling station for the US Navy. Sergeant Quick would likewise earn the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Boxer Rebellion – June 1900
In May 1900, a detachment of Marines under Captain Jack Myers was sent to Peking to reinforce the American embassy and foreign legations. Anti-foreigner resentment had turned to bloodshed as the ‘Society of the Righteous Harmonious Fists’ or ‘Boxers’ movement rebelled against what they perceived as aggressive foreign incursions. A foreign sector of Peking housed all the foreign legations, which came under siege by the Boxers. This Legation Quarter became the scene of savage fighting, romanticised in the Hollywood film “Fifty Five Days at Peking”. The Marines fought alongside the military forces of all the besieged legations – Russian, French, Japanese, British, Italian, and others – but perhaps most notably alongside the Royal Marines of the British Legation. Not surprisingly, the events in Peking captured the attention of all the Western press offices and people eagerly followed the events and exploits.
Ultimately, the international forces prevailed over the Boxer movement. The US Marines gained a significant amount of publicity and fame for their part in the affair. After a long period of virtual anonymity in the 19th century, the events in China propelled the Marines to a level of national fame. To this day, US Marines continue to serve as a guard force at all US Embassies throughout the world.
Belleau Wood – June 1918
The United States entered the First World War in 1917 after several years of neutrality. An American expeditionary force, which included US Marines, landed in France under General John J. Pershing. Initially the French and British, who had been fighting since August 1914, wanted the American forces to be split up and serve as reinforcements along the Western Front. The Americans successfully resisted this, and finally went into action along the Aisne-Marne sector east of Paris in the spring of 1918, just in time to help resist a major counterattack by the Imperial German Army in a final bid for victory.
WW1 - USMC Attack at Belleau Wood - June 6, 1918 - Marine Corps Museum by Lionheart Filmworks
Outside Chateau Thierry, the US Marines went into action on the 2nd June 1918. Here, the Marines saw columns of allied troops withdrawing to the rear. In what has become Corps legend, it is said that a retreating French officer who suggested the Marines join the retreat to the rear, was answered with “Retreat!? Hell, we just got here!”, by Captain Lloyd Williams. The Marines would soon encounter the Germans, first in an attack by advancing Germans who were picked off by Marine marksmen at ranges of over 800 yards. The incredulous Germans fell back, then pummelled the ill-prepared Marines with artillery fire. On the 6th of June, the Marines advanced on German positions in the small village of Bouresches and a wood known as the Bois de Belleau. Attacking across a wheatfield, Marines were cut down by withering machine gun fire, but secured a foothold in the treeline of the wood. Over the next 20 days, the Marines would fight a pitched battle in a space less than four square miles and would win.
The fierce nature of the fighting earned the Marines the moniker ‘Devil Dogs’, reputedly from the Germans themselves, and the wood itself was renamed by the grateful French nation as ‘Bois de le Brigade de la Marine’ or ‘The woods of the Marine Brigade’. The casualties were however costly. In a short period, the Corps experienced more Marines killed and wounded in this single battle than it had in its entire history to date from its early origins in 1775. While the battle is relatively unknown in the history books of the First World War, it is the stuff of legend in the Marine Corps. The battlefield is also the site of the Aisne-Marne cemetery, where many American soldiers of the First World War are buried.
Iwo Jima - 1945
It is difficult to select a single battle or campaign from the Second World War that best exemplifies the fighting nature of the US Marine Corps in this period. From Pearl Harbor to the battle in Japan, Marines fought in nearly every battle and campaign of the Pacific Theater of operations. During the early 20th century, the Marines had developed a doctrine of amphibious warfare, whereby working closely with the US Navy they could be deployed rapidly to strike from the sea. This requirement became immediately apparent as Japan rapidly seized the island regions of the Pacific and asserted its dominance.
What became known as the ‘island hopping’ campaign in the Pacific came to characterize the fighting for the United States in this part of the war. From Guadalcanal in 1942, and later at places like Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, and Peleliu, the Marines fought in savage and merciless fighting against a determined enemy.
Dominated by an extinct volcanic mountain, Mt Suribachi, the island of Iwo Jima was a desolate and barren landscape on which the Japanese had built an airfield. In February 1945, the United States was poised to strike closer to the Japanese homeland. A volcanic island, Iwo Jima, would serve as a way point towards bringing the war to Japan but was heavily defended. On the 19th of February, the Marines landed on the exposed and sandy beaches of Iwo Jima supported by barrages of fire from the US Navy. With no place to seek cover, the Marines dragged themselves across the beaches to close with the enemy in a brutal fight to control the beaches.
On the fourth day of battle, the Marines secured Mt Suribachi and raised a large American flag at its summit: this event was captured on film, and remains one of the most iconic images of war to this day. But, the fighting would continue on until March 25th – the Japanese fought hard and nearly to the death of every last defender. The Marines suffered some 26,000 killed and wounded in 36 days of fighting. Hardly the last battle fought by the Marines in this war, the Marines would fight on in Okinawa.
"Of the Marines at Iwo Jima, Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue"— Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander US Navy forces at Iwo Jima.
Flag Raising on Iwo Jima - US National Archives
The US Marines played an important role in the Korean War, nearly from the start. With North Korean forces encircling UN forces at Pusan in the southernmost region of the Korean Peninsula, a solution to relieve the besieged international forces had to be found. An audacious plan in September 1950 executed by General Douglas MacArthur at Inchon, a harbor outside Seoul known for treacherous mud flats. A landing here of US forces spearheaded by the Marines saw US forces rapidly outflank and out maneuver the North Korean forces, who tumbled back across the border.
We've been looking for the enemy for some time now. We've finally found him. We're surrounded. That simplifies things.— Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller, Commander of the 1st Marine Regiment at Chosin Reservoir.
By November, the US Army forces to which the Marines were attached had pushed the North Korean Army to the Yalu River, a demarcation point which threatened the intervention of China in support of North Korea. In pursuing the enemy, MacArthur overplayed his hand and China entered the war. The Marines of the 1st Marine Division soon found themselves encircled by at least 10 Chinese Divisions in the Chosin Reservoir, a frozen lake deep in North Korea.
In Washington, the situation for the Marines who appeared hopeless as they were now completely surrounded, trapped and cut-off in the dead of winter in hostile territory. But in what was to become a defeat for the American forces, the Marines managed to extract an unlikely ‘victory’. In the dead of winter, vastly outnumbered and working in extremely adverse conditions for both men and equipment, the Marines withdrew south back to Seoul fighting off the repeated attacks of the Chinese and North Koreans. The retreat from the ‘Frozen Chosin’ became the stuff of Marine Corps legend and the tough revolve of Marines in the worst of conditions.
Khe Sanh – Tet Offensive, 1968
The US Marines landed in the early days of the Vietnam War in 1965, reinforcing the US airbase at DaNang. Following this, the Marines would remain engaged in the fighting that characterized the Vietnam War, chasing an elusive adversary across a complex landscape where the enemy was frequently difficult to distinguish from the population. Few large battles took place, until the early days of 1968 when the North Vietnamese took advantage of an agreed truce during the lunar New Year, to launch a series of surprise attacks around Vietnam. Finding themselves at a disadvantage from a well-coordinated attack, American forces were fighting across the country in cities from Saigon in the south to the Imperial City of Hue further north.
At Khe Sanh, a US Marine airbase not from the North Vietnamese border, the Marines found themselves surrounded and besieged a large force. The airstrip inside the base became the lifeline for the Marines, bringing in supplies of food and ammunition and extracting the wounded. Targeted by the enemy for destruction by bombardment, the airfield was continuously patched up by Marines and US Navy Seabees inside the base. Hoping to make the Marines at Khe Sanh into another victory similar to the crushing blow to the French at Dien Bien Phu years earlier, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces pressed hard. The international press, and the anxious government in Washington, watched the outcome anxiously. On Easter Day, Sunday 14th of April 1968, the Marines attacked and cleared a stubborn concentration of enemy NVA troops and ended the 77 day siege of Khe Sanh.
The extent to which Khe Sanh was in danger of becoming another Dien Bien Phu is debatable, and the Marines fought hard elsewhere during Tet such as in Hue City. But the nature of the siege of Khe Sanh and the sensational representation of the encircled Marines came to characterize binary aspects of the war – the setbacks and increasingly futile nature of the war in Vietnam, but also the resilient fighting spirit of the American forces against the odds.
Fallujah – Iraq 2004
As an active military organization, the US Marine Corps continues to take part in a wide range of security and defense activities, including warfighting. During the long years of warfare following September 11th 2001, it is difficult to single out one episode from which the US Marines distinguished themselves. One episode seems to stand out, due to the nature of the fighting and its common characteristics which echo the other battles in the history of the Marine Corps.
Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States and its allies, the regime was of Saddam Hussein was toppled only to experience a vacuum of leadership which opened up a period of chaos and resistance to American occupation. In the Sunni tribal regions especially in a period now characterized as the insurgency in Iraq, major cities outside of Baghdad were occupied by militant resistance fighters, some which held Islamist allegiances to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
The city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, became one of these to fall to AQI forces and became the scene of a notorious lynching of American contractors in March 2004. In response, US Marines launched an attack on the night of the 4th of April which became known as “Operation Vigilant Resolve”. Fallujah was now under siege from US forces, with the aim of clearing it of AQI forces. Fighting in Fallujah served as a sort of prelude to fighting and increased insurgency around Iraq, such as AQI in nearby Ramadi, and from another sect of Shiite Mahdist Forces under cleric Moqtada Al Sadr around Baghdad and Najaf. Ultimately, what became known as the first battle of Fallujah was inconclusive as forces negotiated a withdrawal from the city at the request of the provisional Iraqi government, in order to prevent further destruction of the city. This opened the stage for a next battle later that year.
The Second Battle for Fallujah, “Operation Phantom Fury”, was launched on the 7th of December at dawn by US Marines and Iraqi forces. By this time, Fallujah was thought to be occupied by approximately 3,000 AQI forces; most of the civilian population having entirely evacuated before the fight commenced. The attack was expected by the AQI forces, who had prepared themselves with caches of weapons and booby traps to defend the city. Over a month and two weeks, US and Iraqi forces battled hard and methodically through the city, wiping out AQI forces.
The battle, characterized by a fight in a complex urban environment, was compared to the hard fighting in Hue during the Vietnam War. On the 23rd December 2004, the city was back in the hands of Iraqi forces. Despite this victory, the key leaders of AQI remained elusive, and the insurgency continued. However 2007 saw the beginnings of a reversal of bad fortune as popular resistance against AQI and improved cooperation with US forces occurred in the regions which had resisted US occupation. Fallujah is remembered by US Marines, amongst the other episodes of the Iraq War, as a hallmark of the Marine Corps fighting spirit in the 21st century.
The battles and events presented here are but a small representation of a storied history of a fighting organization of the United States military. Some of these events have become the stuff of legend and are remembered as part of an inherited tradition and legacy, used to inform the members of the organization today about their expected behavior and values. Ultimately, these are human stories as well, and impacted the people who participated in them in different ways.
Notes on sources and recommended reading:
Alexander, Joseph H., The Battle History of the United States Marine Corps, (New York: Harper Collins, 1997)
Bradley, James, Flags of our Fathers, (New York: Bantam, 2000)
Millett, Alan, Semper Fidelis: the History of the United States Marine Corps, (New York: The Free Press, 1980)
Owen, Joseph R., Colder Than Hell: A Marine Rifle Company at Chosin, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003)
West, Bing, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle of Fallujah (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 2006)