Leathernecks: An Illustrated History of the United States Marine Corps

  • Published

Leathernecks: An Illustrated History of the United States Marine Corps by Merrill L. Bartlett and Jack Sweetman. Naval Institute Press, 2008, 479 pp.

Leathernecks is a comprehensive and marvelously illustrated account of the history of the United States Marine Corps. Its authors, award-winning military historians Merrill L. Bartlett and Jack Sweetman, examine the personalities and events that have shaped the Corps over its 235-year history, from the service’s inception in 1775 through its most recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bartlett and Sweetman begin their story not in the legendary Tun Tavern in Philadelphia but, interestingly, in the village of Passamaquoddy, Nova Scotia. In November 1775, the citizens of that remote Canadian town sent a petition to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia requesting “to be admitted into the association of North Americans, for the preservation of their rights and liberties” (p. 13). Despite its appeal, the idea of liberating Passamaquoddy was quickly overshadowed by the prospect of capturing the nearby British naval base in Halifax. Thus, Congress recommended that Gen George Washington conduct an amphibious operation on the coast of Nova Scotia, “that two battalions of Marines be raised” from among his forces, and “that they be distinguished by the names of the first & second battalions of American Marines” (p. 14). Washington wisely rejected the scheme. At the time, his nascent army was fully occupied with the investment of Boston, and he could ill afford the loss of two battalions. Nevertheless, Congress decided to raise the Continental Marines separately from the army and began appointing officers in Philadelphia.

This little-known account of the Marines’ founding is but one of the many nuggets in this veritable gold mine of interesting information. Through a concise and lively narrative, the authors relate numerous anecdotes from the Corps’s past while providing a comprehensive organizational and operational history of the service. They examine the development of the Corps through the Revolution, detailing the Marines’ first amphibious landing at Hog Island in the Bahamas as well as their role as ships’ troops serving in every major naval engagement of the war. They go on to examine the service’s activities during the Quasi-War with France and the First Barbary War. During the latter conflict, Lt Presley O’Bannon and seven other Marines carried the American flag to the shores of Tripoli—an event later memorialized in the Marine Corps Hymn.

The leathernecks—so named because of the broad leather stocks that Marines wore for protection against sword slashes—would go on to serve heroically at sea and on land during the War of 1812, the Seminole War, and the Mexican War. The Corps was not immune to the sectional tensions that would eventually lead to the Civil War in 1861. Of the 63 officers on active service, 20 would resign their commissions at the outbreak of that war, many to accept commissions in the new “grayback” Marine Corps of the Confederacy. Both corps saw considerable action during the conflict, for the most part aboard ship but also at the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Drewy’s Bluff. Bartlett and Sweetman do an admirable job of detailing these events, particularly in shedding light on the organization and operations of the Confederate Marines as well as the many amphibious operations conducted by the USMC across the globe during the nineteenth century.

Looming large over the second half of the book is the Corps’s service in the world wars. During World War I, the Marine “Devil Dogs” in France served with the Army’s Second Infantry Division, most conspicuously at the Battle of Belleau Wood near the Marne River. The authors do justice to World War II, perhaps the “Golden Age” of amphibious warfare and an important era in Marine history. They develop a clear analysis of how amphibious techniques evolved in this period with masterful retellings of the epic Pacific battles—Guadalcanal, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima, to name just a few—now firmly entrenched in Marine Corps lore.

The last four chapters of the book cover the time between the beginning of the Korean War and 2008. Bartlett and Sweetman consider such well-known battles as the Chosin Reservoir and Khe Sanh in addition to lesser-known events such as Capt John Ripley’s heroism at the Dong Ha bridge in central Vietnam and the disastrous Mayaguez incident. The final chapter thoughtfully analyzes the Corps’s many recent contributions to the war on terror, from the first F/A-18 air strikes in Afghanistan to pitched infantry battles in Iraq.

The authors make use of numerous primary and secondary sources to document their work, and they provide a sample of these sources in a comprehensive “Suggestions for Further Reading” section. This leads to what is perhaps the work’s only weak spot: the absence of citations and a complete bibliography, both of which would be useful to other researchers. Nevertheless, the strengths of the book are many, including its high-quality scholarship and excellent writing, as well as the numerous full-color illustrations—112 in all. Additionally, Leathernecks is populated with over 140 photographs and 30 detailed maps. In short, the book is a masterpiece of visual and written history. Bartlett and Sweetman have produced a genuinely important book that will be a valuable addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the history of the United States Marine Corps.

Lt Col Rick Spyker, USAF

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."