“And a few Marines…”

An Early History of the Coast Guard and Marines in Onslow County

LtCol L.J. Kimball, USMC (Ret), 15 June 2009

The Coast Guard and the Marines can be said in a sense to have come to Onslow County together for the first time in August of 1862, predating by seventy-nine years their convergence at Camp Lejeune in December of 1941.

It should be appreciated that during the Civil War there were other “Marines” than the United States Marines, which, during that sanguinary conflict, never exceeded a strength of 3600 and constricted by a superannuated leadership, did little to cover themselves with glory, essentially remaining content to perform their conventional function of providing guards for naval ships and installations. In this, fearful of amalgamation by the Army, the Corps abdicated any significant amphibious role to such tactically prescient officers as Captain William A. Howard of the Revenue Marine Service. (The Coast Guard, prior to 1915, was known as the Revenue Marine or Revenue Cutter Service.)

Captain Howard, one of the more distinguished Revenue officers of the era, had, since joining the Service from the U.S. Navy in 1829, progressed through a series of ship and flotilla commands and increasingly challenging shore billets until by 1861, with his genius for organization and imaginative leadership, he had been credited with rescuing the faltering Treasury Department orphan from the brink of disintegration. (His efforts in this regard weren’t hindered by being described as “one of the handsomest men of his day.”)

Howard was quick to recognize that there was a critical need for an amphibious-capable force, which, in the absence of any apparent intention by the U.S. Marines to undertake such a mission, and the preoccupation of the Army with land campaigns, would be a truly amphibious- “soldier and sailor too,” capable of manning gunboats afloat with their own light naval artillery and ashore with the same mobile artillery on land carriages. His force could provide protection underway for the Revenue cutters (in this they would be called “Coast Guardsmen”), supplement the crew as sailors, and serve as soldiers and provide a rapid-response striking force for naval commanders in support of the fleet. And, in a mission that would be echoed in World War II, these Coast Guardsmen or “Marines” would also man Army transports and landing boats. He envisioned that the Royal Marine Artillery would serve a model for his organization.

Captain Howard had a wealth of prior experience on which to base this brainchild. During the Mexican-American War, in addition to capturing eleven enemy vessels and supporting the Army, he had aided Commodore Matthew Perry in the capture of Frontera, Tabasco and Alvarado.

Having almost single-handedly resurrected the Revenue Marine Service for Civil War duty, Howard was driven to resignation by the pecuniary leadership of the Treasury Department in November of 1861. This turn of events afforded a timely opportunity and during the same month, receiving authorization from the War Department, he organized his contemplated unit in New York as the ten-company 1st Regiment Marine Artillery, and was summarily given the rank of colonel of volunteers.

This unit, commonly referred to as the “Marine” or “Howard’s Artillery” was assigned to General Ambrose Burnsides’ Coast Division and was conspicuously active in the subsequent campaigns against Roanoke Island, New Bern and Fort Macon in 1862, serving as Captain/Colonel Howard had intended. In August of that year, a large detachment was attached to Colonel Thomas Stevenson’s 2nd Brigade for a reconnaissance-in-force to Swansboro, the first Federal foray to that Onslow County seaside community.

Landing from seven light-draught steamers on 16 August, Howard’s Marines and the soldiers of the 24th Massachusetts Volunteers invested the town, confiscated firearms, liberated “negroes” and destroyed the abandoned Confederate fort on Huggins’ Island along with five substantial salt-works before embarking on 19 August to return to New Bern.

Until mustered out in 1863, Howard’s Marines continued to operate in coastal North Carolina, providing artillery support with their 6 and 12-pounder naval howitzers and conducting amphibious raids. In their infantry role, these Marines were armed with short Belgian rifles, cutlasses and pistols, and ventured sometimes up to thirty miles inland against specific objectives. Most of these raids were conducted at night and on horseback. From these nocturnal, mounted ventures was derived their popular name of “Horse Marines.”

Howard would continue his amphibious activities through the war. With the disbandment of the 1st Regiment Marine Artillery at the conclusion their three-year enlistments, he immediately organized another regiment, the 13th Regiment New York Heavy Artillery, which was similarly employed. At the War’s conclusion, Colonel Howard was once again reappointed as a captain in the Revenue Marine Service, and served on “special duty” therein until his untimely death of a “severe illness” at the age of 64 in 1871.

The modern history of the cooperative service between the Coast Guard and the Marines begins with the arrival of a detachment of twenty-two Coast Guardsmen at the 1st Marine Division’s Tent Camp at what would become Camp Lejeune in December of 1941. In August of 1862, however, Coast Guardsmen and Marines as defined in an earlier era first served together in Onslow County in an amphibious assault against objectives in and around Bogue Inlet and the seaport of Swansboro. As duly reported by the Wilmington Daily Journal edition of 2 September 1862, Swansboro had recently been ravaged by enemy soldiers, and a “few marines.”

Posted on: February 23rd, 2021
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