Friday, November 8, 2013

A Few of Our Favorite Things, Part Seven: Happy Birthday, Marines!

As Curator of Printed Books, trying to identify a favorite item in the Library Company’s collection feels like being asked to pick a favorite from among my children.  The fact is that my favorite item in the collection is the collection. It’s greater than the sum of its parts, each piece being made exponentially more valuable by the support of other pieces. Having identified a subject to research, I have never failed to find a more than sufficient wealth of relevant material in our stacks to create a focused mini-collection.  Until now.

The history of the United States Marine Corps should be an easy subject to study at the Library Company, thought I. The Marines identify November 10, 1775 as the birthday of the Corps.  On this date a resolution was passed in the Second Continental Congress to form two battalions of Marines. The image below is of the resolution as printed in a 1777 copy of the Journals of Congress – this copy is pristine and unopened.  They were to serve as infantry aboard naval ships during the war with Great Britain.  Philadelphian Samuel Nicholas was commissioned as the first Captain of the Marines, making Nicholas in effect the first Commandant of the Marine Corps. Nicholas, a Quaker, was from a family of tavern-keepers. Their tavern was the Conestoga Waggon (sic) and the first Marine recruiting took place at that location and, more famously, at Tun Tavern. Upon his death in 1790, Nicholas was interred in the Friends Burial Ground, which later became the site of the Arch Street Friends Meeting House.  Each year in the early morning hours of November 10, a group of Marines quietly places a wreath at his grave.  Later in the day, thousands of Marines and their families join a decidedly less reserved celebration at Cookie’s Tavern in South Philadelphia. 

With such a strong and continuing link between Philadelphia and the Marine Corps, I expected to find an abundance of relevant material in our collections.  Unfortunately, it has proven decidedly difficult to identify a “Marine Corps Collection” among our existing holdings. Efforts to locate and acquire Marine Corps-related materials that pre-date the Spanish-American War (1898) have also met with little success.  And conversations I’ve had with experts on the subject have been entirely discouraging. 

Not satisfied with being told my mission was impossible, I began digging.  I have now come to see that this dearth of material makes perfect sense, and presents an inviting challenge to overcome.  A combination of unique elements in the history of the Marine Corps is to blame for my difficulties.  There is one factor I hesitate even to mention, as I myself come from a proud Marine Corps family. While it was not until November 1775 that Congress called for an official body of Marines, there were men serving in that capacity under the descriptor of Marine six months earlier, less than a month into the war.  But these Marines were under the command of the now-notorious traitor Benedict Arnold. It would be inconceivable to trace the history of the Marine Corps back to Arnold, no matter how plausible. The identity of “Marine” and the development of an historical narrative was, therefore, thwarted from the start.  Furthermore, the Continental Marines, those who took part in the Revolution after their official formation by Congress, were decommissioned following the end of that conflict, and it was more than a decade before the Corps was reformed.

Similar stumbling blocks were caused by the nebulous relationship the Corps had to other branches of the military during the revolution and the armed conflicts of the 19th century.  As infantry serving aboard Naval ships, Marines were both protecting the sailors and conducting amphibious assaults.  At times, they were joined by army soldiers in these efforts, and at other times, they supported the army in their actions.  This made for a complex chain of command, which in turn makes it often impossible to distinguish the actions of Marines from other servicemen in any military engagement.  

Of course, we have printings of the journals of the congressional sessions that mention the formation of the Corps.  Another 1777 copy of the Journals of Congress is shown above.  This one contains many delicately-inserted flowers, including one on the page that describes the pay scale of the various members of the new Navy.  In addition to consulting official government documents, we can piece together actions of the Marines by reading reports of battles in newspapers and in unofficial printed records.  Marine lore and legend also give us leads, but these can also mislead.  The first line of the Marine Corps Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma,” references the vital involvement of the Marines at the battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War.  But in most contemporary descriptions of that battle, the Marines, as distinct from the army soldiers, are given only the most passing mention. 

And this is where I end this entry.  With a plea to our members, friends, and supporters to think of the Library Company if ever you should locate some piece of early USMC history.  We would be exceedingly happy to add it to our collections.

Rachel A. D'Agostino
Curator of Printed Books

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