We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


99 years ago, Marines, north of Paris

100 years ago, Thaddeus Stephenson Allen answered his country’s call and enlisted in the Marine Corps. T.S. Allen soaked up history as a young man, reading

stories of Lexington and Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Lundy’s Lane, Chapultepec. These seemed to me like those stories which begin, “There were giants in those days.” Still, they gave a heroic background in my mind for the closer events of the Civil War, and the brief but glorious episodes of the War with Spain, in reading of which I was first introduced to the Marines.

The internet is an amazing thing. I was reading Alan Axelrod’s “Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps” and he quoted, but did not identify of one of the Marines in MAJ Thomas Holcomb’s 6th Marines. Checking the end notes, I found that it was from “Echoes from Over There” (Edited by Craig Hamilton and Louise Corbin), as quoted in Robert Asprey’s “At Belleau Wood“. Fortunately, “Echoes from Over There” is available online, so I was able to not only to find the original quote, but the full, first-hand story of Marine Private T.S. Allen. Not only that, but with a quick visit to Ancestry-dot-com, I was able to find out considerably more details about his family. (Sadly, once I get on that site, it’s a time-sink for me and I emerge hours later knowing many things, most of which are of no relevance to what I was looking for originally!)

He write vividly of his first experience in combat, drawing on his knowledge of history. He wrote this while still hospitalized due to being gassed in Belleau Wood and one can easily see how he’d eventually end up in the newspaper business…

“Here they come!” a shrill boyish voice piped up.

“Hold your fire!” the injunction ran from officer to officer and man to man.

The German barrage lifted; the French guns almost ceased firing. The men about me were cursing and swearing in that choice collection of profanity that belongs to the Marines. It took me back swiftly, on the wings of memory, to a lonely walk in the woods I had taken, as a boy, when I had whistled to keep up my courage.

The German troops were clear of the woods. On they came with closed ranks in four lines. One looked at them with almost a friendly interest. No particular hate or fear. And yet there was a queer sensation along the spine, and the scalp seemed to itch from the tug of the hair at the roots. The fingers bit into the rifle.

“Hold your fire!”

As the command rang on my ears with a sharpness that enforced obedience, I seemed to be standing on Bunker Hill and hear the command: “Wait till you see the whites of their eyes!”

I think I know how those old Yanks felt that day, as the enemy drew nearer and nearer.

The next I recall is firing. Firing. Firing. My fingers were tearing greedily at more ammunition, then the instinct of the hunter restrained me. I began to fire slower, looking for my mark, making sure of a hit. The Huns now appeared to me almost on top of us and then, all of a sudden, there was nothing more to aim at. A few scattered groups with hands held up, racing for our lines and shouting “Kamerad! Kamerad!”

The Marines weren’t the only ones there, as Army units were on both sides of them, but this fight really does deserve credit for “The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps”. It remains legendary in the Corps and I hope to be able to some more research to learn the stories of these Marines and share them with you. If my cards fall right, I’ll be in Belleau Wood next year, walking the ground. After all, that’s the only way to understand it.



How to fail at seizing a weapons cache, 1775 edition, Part II: Pitcairn and Adair

We’ve mentioned a number of the British commanders and linked to some biographical information, but it may be useful to learn a bit more in-depth about the two Marine officers who played such significant roles in the Battle of Lexington.

Major John Pitcairn

Major Pitcairn was 52 years old at the time, so, no spring chicken. When Pitcairn had joined the Marines in 1746, they were still a part of the Army, though they did serve on Navy ships. He fought in the French and Indian Wars as a Captain, so he may have served between 8 and 17 years as a Lieutenant. Then he served at least 8 years as a Captain before his promotion to Major had come in 1771.

Unlike the British Army at the time, in which officers purchased their commissions, advancement in the Marines was purely by seniority. Since the Admiralty had determined that field grade commissions in the Marines had been largely honorary, no Marine officer was promoted to Colonel until 1771. This neatly coincides with Pitcairn’s promotion to Major, so his stalled advancement was greatly helped by that change.
When he arrived in Boston in 1774 to command the Marines, the situation was not exactly what we would imagine when we think of “Royal Marines”:

In Boston, he found that the marines he was to command were lacking adequate supplies, clothing and were an ill-disciplined lot. Drunkenness, fueled by the potent and cheap rum available in Boston, was so bad that Pitcairn took to living in the barracks with his men to keep them from drinking rum and wrote directly to the First Lord of the Admiralty describing the problem. He even blamed the rum for deaths in his regiment. Pitcairn enforced harsh discipline and marched his regiment hard and often on Boston Common. This toughening-up up proved invaluable to his marines on the long and bloody retreat from Concord.

— From Edward Witek‘s post on Pitcairn at Lexington

On the other hand, I might hear some arguments from those who have commanded Marines in garrison that, under poor leadership, that is exactly what a garrison can devolve to regardless of lineage.From the initial designation of Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot in 1664 until the disbanding of what had grown to 10 regiments of Marines in 1748, the size and organization of Marine units within the Army seems to have varied widely. While we always think of the elite Royal Marines today, they hadn’t been awarded that designation by King George III until 1802.

In 1755, the Marine Corps expanded to 50 permanent companies, each of which belonged to one of the Grand Divisions – Chatham, Portsmouth or Plymouth. Interestingly, the Marines companies in Boston were from all three Grand Divisions. My impression is that their nominal roots in a particular Grand Division had little affect on whether they were familiar with each other, as they would not often be formed into battalions anyway. Since that hadn’t occurred in the Americas since 1759 at Quebec, it is likely that few of the officers, NCOs and certainly none of the privates had ever “seen the elephant”.

Pitcairn would not survive the war, dying in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Lieutenant Jesse Adair

Adair is characterized in some of the passages that I’ve read as a young, impetuously aggressive officer. One would imagine that in a Marine Lieutenant from an Irish family with a strong military heritage. However, Adair was not a young officer. He was somewhere between 35 and 44 years of age at the time, though he certainly was aggressive. He may also have served in the French and Indian Wars with Pitcairn. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Adair would be noted , not only for his courage in surmounting the colonist’s defenses, but also as the “Eldest Lieutenant”. (That makes his promotion with the seniority system not indicative of any particular merit.)

There is also a story of Lieutenant Adair as not quite the sharpest officer during the 1776 evacuation of Boston as he was dispatched along Boston Neck to impede any pursuit.

Lieutenant Adair of the Marines, an acting engineer, was ordered to strew crow-feet in front of the lines to impeded the march of the enemy, as it was supposed they should attack our rear. Being an Irishman, he began scattering the crowfeet about from the gate towards the enemy, and, of course, had to walk over them on his return, which detained him so long that he was nearly taken prisoner.

Though it may simply have been an ethnic joke at the Irishman’s expense.

Adair did survive the war, rising to command of the 45th Company of Marines, “but was not the sort of officer who flourished in peace. In 1785, Captain Adair was ‘reduced’, and disappeared from the Marine List.” (Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer, p282.)



How to fail at seizing a weapons cache, 1775 edition, Part I: The Battle of Lexington

On the night of 18 April 1775, the British occupying Boston set out to seize a weapon’s cache at Concord, Massachusetts. On my visit to Boston over the weekend, I was reminded of some of the ingredients of this disaster.

General Thomas Gage had been appointed military governor of Massachusetts in 1774, but his 3000 troops affected little outside of their garrison in Boston. As such, when he was ordered to seize the rebellious colonists weapons and arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, his troops had to set out from Boston to do so.

In order to retain the element of surprise, no one was told in advance of the expedition. It has been speculated that General Gage’s wife, who reportedly sympathized with the colonists, let word slip that the operation was going to take place. Regardless of whether that is true or not, the mustering of 700 soldiers at 9pm and preparations for marching would certainly have alerted the citizenry. So, the element of surprise was lost immediately and Paul Revere and William Dawes departed by separate routes to warn Adams and Hancock.

The British had sent out mounted patrols in advance to intercept just such couriers. Unfortunately, since such a patrol was so unusual, it served to alarm the locals and prompt rebel leaders to start rallying the militia anyway.

When choosing the composition of the force to march rapidly to seize the weapons and the leaders, Gage chose to draw each regiment’s light infantry company for speed and their grenadier company to serve as the shock troops. On the surface, this sounds like it might be a good strategy. The light infantry companies were made of soldiers used to moving fast, often serving as skirmishers and tended to be among the better trained and motivated troops in a regiment. The grenadier companies were also an elite company within a regiment, being composed of the larger soldiers, who by designation would have carried grenades and been chosen for their physical prowess. Each of the companies deployed with a lieutenant normally assigned to that company, however, the captains assigned were not necessarily familiar with the troops. Similarly, Marine Major John Pitcairn, who would lead the vanguard of the expedition, had never commanded the light infantry companies as a unit. Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Bernard would have had the same circumstances with the grenadiers he commanded. Thus, the company-grade leadership was not familiar with the men, nor did they know their officers.

Gage also chose his most senior regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, to lead the expedition. Smith was regarded as cautious and methodical – a cool and courageous leader, but one with little imagination. Smith had not, of course, ever commanded the light infantry and grenadier companies as a separate unit, nor had the particular collection of company officers serving under him. It is entirely possible that in a garrison that included 13 regiments, he might not have even known all of his officers on the march. Perhaps not the best choice for a rapid expedition into a restive countryside.

I’ve been able to read the orders and reports of the British officers, which is critical to understanding what happened. The first thing that strikes me is the woeful inaccuracy in reporting the number of troops opposing the British forces, starting with a grand underestimation of their possible numbers and continuing with exaggeration of the number first encountered. For example, Major Pitcairn received reports from the vanguard of the light infantry companies advancing on Lexington that 500 militiamen were drawn up on the Green to oppose them. When Pitcairn arrived at the front of the column, he remembers some 200 militiamen filing off the Green when fighting erupted. There were approximately 80 men in the Lexington militia.

To return to the mustering of the troops in Boston, we head to Boston Common, where the troops headed when ordered at 9pm. By 10pm, the troops were assembled, but LTC Smith was late in arriving. While long-service professionals are well aware that any army is a “hurry-up-and-wait” operation, this could not have sat well with the men, who had likely been in formation early in the day, conducted their normal duties all day long and expected a normal night of garrison duties with a comfortable night’s sleep when surprised with these orders.

Unlike the extensive plans for loading and unloading that we know of for the amphibious operations in World War II, there was apparently no such plan for this operation. Similarly, they failed to obtain appropriate boats for the transport of the troops and they traveled on barges which were so tightly loaded that the men had to stand for the crossing. Not only that, but when arriving on the opposite shore, they had to debark in waist-deep water. Massachusetts in mid-April does not feature warm evenings or delightfully sunny days. So, troops who’d but awake since first light were cold, wet annoyed and still awake on the banks of the River Charles nearly 20 hours later at 2am.

An hour into the march, Smith dispatched Pitcairn with six of the light infantry companies to move more rapidly than the main column. An hour later, he sent back for reinforcements, realizing that his slow progress had cost him the element of surprise.

As they approached Lexington, Pitcairn was traveling at the rear of his advance party when he received the exaggerated report of 500 militiamen. He moved rapidly to the front to take charge of the situation.

When the British arrived on Lexington Green, Marine Lieutenant Jesse Adair was posted at the front of the column, likely due to Pitcairn’s familiarity with the Marine officer and trust in his judgement. Captain John Parker had his militia in formation off to the right side of the Green, so that they were not blocking the march of the regulars, but could make a show of force. Adair, seeing the militia drawn up off to his right, worried about the flanking position if the column were to continue forward on its march to Concord. The 80 militia men were in perfect position to rake the British column if they attempted simply to march past them to Concord. As such, Adair lead his troops forward, attempting to scare off the militia, his men reportedly shouted “Huzzah” to terrify the armed farmers, merchants and tradesmen.

Pitcairn arrived at the confusing situation, taking half of the companies off to the left along the road to Concord. Amongst great confusion and much shouting, a British officer demanded that the colonials disarm and disperse. The lack of familiarity and trust between officers and men played a role in the continuing confusion. These light infantry had just marched about fifteen miles from Boston, cold, wet and tired on the trail, annoyed at their officers and frustrated that the rabble in front of them did not simply disperse. On each side, officers had implored their men not to fire, but a gun fired and in the ensuing confusion, the angered light infantrymen opened fire on the slowly dispersing but not disarmed militia.

The horror that is battle took place in front of many civilians, including women and children who had gathered to watch the militia mustering. After all, the stand off, even if not involving violence, was sure to provide more excitement than anyone in Lexington had seen in most of their lives. A simple stalemate in which both sides had simply gone their own ways would assuredly have led to tales told in tavern and around town for decades. These civilians likely helped swell Pitcairn’s professional estimate of the number of militia, who may well have already begun to disperse by the time his attention was focused.

The resulting carnage was far worse than a tense stalemate and certainly has been told of for a few centuries now.

The officers struggled to get the men under control, calling for them to cease fire, but the damage had been done. A bayonet charge by the troops led to the death of Captain Parker’s cousin Jonas and six others were killed. Prince Estabrook, an African-American slave serving in the militia, was among those wounded, as was Johnathan Harrington, whose wound was fatal, raising the death toll to eight.

Colonel Smith rode forward to the sound of the guns, ordered a drummer to beat “Assembly” and restored order when the rest of the column arrived.

In Part II, we will meet a few officers, then examine the Battle at Concord in Part III, finishing with the retreat back to Boston in Part IV.




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