Early Amphibious Warfare

1775 - Continental Marines founded; origins of the U.S. Marine Corps

In November, 1775 the Continental Congress considered a resolution to raise two battalions of marines in order to assist the Nova Scotia Committee. The committee, formed to consider the petition of some residents of Nova Scotia who wanted to join in the American rebellion, believed that aiding the dissident Nova Scotians might allow them to capture Quebec-bound munitions ships and a large stock of military stores at the British naval base in Halifax.
Thus, both the Continental Congress and the committee saw a need for a marine force capable of aiding in the seizure and defense of ships and making amphibious assaults against shore objectives. Congress authorized the establishment of two battalions of Continental Marines on 10 November 1775. Each of the two battalions was to be divided into ten fifty men companies in order to distribute the Marines' manpower between their shipboard and amphibious duties.

Congress tried to turn over responsibility for the formation of the marine force and the Nova Scotia expedition to the commander of the Continental Army, General George Washington. Earlier in 1775, Washington had directed the fitting out of a small naval force along the coast of Massachusetts, manned by a regiment of Marblehead fishermen which had split itself between "sailor" and "marine" duties. However, Washington's army was besieging British forces in Boston and he was in the midst of reorganizing his army. He wrote Congress that he did not have the time or resources to devote to a new marine force.

Consequently, Congress took back oversight for the Continental Marines. On 28 November 1775 the first Continental Marine officer, Samuel Nicholas, was commissioned. The primary duty of Nicholas and other early officers was to fill the ranks of their units with enlistees, so these individuals often had little knowledge of naval warfare and life at sea. The first enlisted Marines - most hailing from Philadelphia - were typically small merchants, businessmen, skilled tradesmen, workers and unskilled laborers who also had little knowledge of naval matters. Nevertheless, by the end of 1775 a small force of some 235 Marines was assigned to six naval vessels fitting out in the Pennsylvania port.

Portrait of Samuel Nicholas

Samuel Nicholas, first commissioned officer in the Continental Marines

The small amphibious force first saw action in March 1776, landing at New Providence in the Bahamas to seize British powder and shot stored at Fort Montagu. Later in the war, Continental Marines made other amphibious assaults in Maine and again the Bahamas, fought as part of Washington's army, operated small boats on rivers, and even escorted the national treasury. At sea, they fought - and enforced discipline - on board Continental Navy warships.

Once the war ended, Congress ordered the Continental Marines disbanded. However, the force was reincarnated as the United States Marine Corps on July 11, 1798 when the United States began to rebuild its naval establishment, which had withered away in the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War.


Millett, Allan R. Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps  (New York: The Free Press, 1980).

Colonel Brooke Nihart, "Amphibious Operations in Colonial North America," in Merrill L. Bartlett, ed., Assault From the Sea: Essays on the History of Amphibious Warfare (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983), pp. 49


Back to Top