Today marks the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of federal Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor by Confederate forces, which was the opening salvo in the Civil War.
The Confederate States Marine Corps (CSMC) was established by an act of the Confederate Congress 16 Mar. 1861. Corps strength was authorized at 46 officers and 944 enlisted men but actual enrollment never came close to that number. (A figure for 30 Oct. 1864 lists only 539 officers and men.) Though the officers were mostly former U.S. Marine officers, the head of the corps, Commandant-Col. Lloyd J. Beall, was a former U.S. Army paymaster with no marine experience.
The CSMC was modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps, but there were some differences: the Confederates organized themselves into permanent companies, replaced the fife with the light infantry bugle, and wore uniforms similar to those of British marines. Ashore they provided guard detachments for Confederate naval stations at Mobile, Savannah, Charleston, Charlotte, Richmond, and Wilmington and manned naval shore batteries at Pensacola, Hilton Head, Fort Fisher, and Drewrys Bluff. Seagoing detachments served aboard the various warships and even on commerce destroyers.
Confederate marines saw their first naval action aboard the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) off Hampton Roads, Va., 8-9 Mar. 1862, and near wars end were part of the naval brigade that fought at Sayler’s Creek, Va.
Despite desertions and even near-mutinies, most marines served well and deserved Navy Sec. Stepehen R. Mallory’s praise for their “promptness and efficiency.” The corps weakness was due largely to internal squabbles over rank, shore duty, and administrative assignments. And, with no funds for bounties, the corps could not easily enlist recruits. Until 1864 the monthly pay of enlisted men was $3 less than that of equivalent army grades. Only late in the war were the marines allowed to draw from army conscripts to augment their ranks.
The United States Marine Corps
The United States Marine Corps (USMC) was not utilized to full advantage during the Civil War. Already weakened by the resignations of many of its best officers, the USMCs morale suffered further as a result of feuding between staff and line officers and senior officers who regarded themselves administrators rather than field commanders. Another blow to morale was the practice of appointing new junior officers by patronage.
In 1861 Congress authorized the United States Marine Corps to be enlarged to 93 officers and 3,074 enlisted men, and Abraham Lincoln increased that number by another thousand. However, recruiting was hindered by a lack of funds for bounties and longer terms of enlistment than for men in the volunteer army. By 1863 negative feelings toward the USMC resulted in a congressional resolution that would have transferred the corps to army control. The resolution was defeated, however, and when Marine Commandant-Col. Jobn C. Harris died in 1864, Sec. of the Navy Gideon Welles retired several senior officers to appoint Maj. Jacob Zeilin his successor. Zeilin, at 59, was a combat veteran of the Mexican War and an officer of proven ability.
Harris had governed the corps by carefully following all naval regulations and by staying clear of army operations, and Zeilin continued this policy. As a consequence, marines did not play a major role in expeditions and amphibious operations during the war. Both Harris and Zeilin failed to recognize the possibilities of amphibious assault, regarding such operations as a responsibility of the army. Some 400 marines did participate in the navy’s unsuccessful landing operation against Fort Fisher, 13-14 Jan. 1865; the army landing finally won the battle there.
During the war marines continued their traditional role as ship guards, also manning batteries and participating in limited operations ashore. They did not always perform well, as at First Bull Run, where a marine battalion of mostly raw recruits was routed. But other marines distinguished themselves during landing and gunboat attacks and especially as members of gun crews. 17 marines received the Medal of Honor for conspicuous bravery; 13 of these were sergeants and corporals serving as gun captains and gun-division commanders.
Marine recruiting improved by 1864 with changes in the conscription laws and with bounty money finally available. When the war ended, the corps was at full strength. A total of 148 marines were killed in action, while 312 more died from other causes.