Each branch has its stories of daring and bravery in battle, as well as its heroes, from the War of Independence to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The army and navy obviously figure prominently in American military history. The Air Force’s heritage dates back to when it was an independent branch. The Marine Corps is no different – for the most part. From its foundations at Tun Tavern before the Revolution and its performance at the Battle of Bladensburg in the War of 1812, to the “Bangin’ In Sangin” in Afghanistan, the Marine Corps has been on their side. In Civil War, however, there are simply not as many stories or heroes of Corps exploits as in other wars. The Marine Corps as a branch existed, but its histories are overshadowed by the Army and Navy – where were the Marines?
Before we upset the Marines, it’s important to note that even though there were only 4,000 Marines in the Corps during the Civil War, it played an extremely important role in the Union’s overall strategy, played a pivotal role in a number of pitched battles and 17 Marines earned the Medal of Honor during the war. Small but mighty, the Marines were very important to the war effort.
The Marines were primarily assigned to blockade aboard US Navy ships, which may not have been glamorous, but were essential in strangling the ability of the Confederate States to continue waging war. Without the blockade, supplies, weapons, ammunition, and cotton money, the south could have fought on forever.
The Marine Corps was also key to a second cornerstone of the Union’s strategy to win the Civil War, the splitting of the Confederacy in two on the Mississippi River. Although the Corps performed poorly in the first battle of Bull Run, the first battle of the war, lessons were learned, recruits were turned to veterans, and the Marines were ready for the second round.
In 1862, the second year of the war, the Marines played a central role in the landing and occupation of New Orleans, the most populous city in the Confederacy and an important naval base and economic port. The Marines also moved north to capture Baton Rouge, keeping the Mississippi Delta firmly in Union hands. When the army captured Vicksburg the following year, the Confederacy was cut in half.
The Marine Corps during the Civil War was only able to deploy one battalion at a time. This was primarily used to capture islands and lighthouses essential to supporting the blockade effort. A joint force of Marines and sailors would also land in the south during Sherman’s march to the sea, with the aim of destroying the railroads supplying the southern centers of resistance.
These Marines surprised the 5th Georgia Infantry, capturing its colors. He joined a combined Army-Navy force to fight three companies of Georgian infantry in a counterattack at Gregorie Point, South Carolina. The rebels attacked the Union Center, held by the Marines but were repulsed.
Marines fought throughout the South, from Tybee Island in Georgia, Forts Wagner and Sumter in South Carolina, and Fort Fisher in North Carolina. Like the rest of the Union forces, they had their victories and their defeats. Nowhere was the Marine Corps’ contribution to the Union war effort more critical than at the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864.
Rear Admiral David Farragut’s bold and brilliant attack on the Alabama port city was made possible by the Marines aboard the Admiral’s flagship, the USS Hartford. As the Confederate ships repeatedly attempted to eliminate the Hartford and the Admiral from battle, the Marines raked their decks with precise and deadly fire. Eight Marines would earn the Medal of Honor at Mobile Bay, leading Farragut himself to say, “I have always considered the Marine Guard to be one of the great essentials of a man of war.”