We continue in our journey through American history towards present day America in the fourth installation of our 10 Part Series on the Battle Streamers of the Marine Corps. In this edition, you’ll learn that the early Marines not only fought against foreign military aggression, but also against pirates and rebels within our own borders. As you’ll see, it is very clear why the Marine Corps is recognized as a Department of the Navy. An overwhelming number of early Marine campaigns were under the direction of the Navy and fought at sea.
Operations Against West Indian Pirates
In the early 1820’s, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico was infested with pirates accountable for almost 3,000 attacks on merchant ships. Having caused significant financial loss while also frequently murdering and torturing their victims, the pirates were ruthless in their attacks on commerce. Fed up with the incessant pillaging of merchant ships, the Navy created the West India Squadron in 1822. Led by Commodores James Biddle, David Porter and Lewis Warrington, the squadron was tasked with eliminating piracy in the area. The mission was a dangerous one for a number of reasons aside from the inherent danger of fighting pirates, often in close quarters. The sailors were frequently exposed to brutal storms, blistering heat, yellow fever and malaria. Despite the dangers, the Navy squadron, assisted by the Marines, relentlessly defeated the pirates over a period of 10 years. By the early 1830’s piracy in the Caribbean was nearly non-existent and the sailors returned home having completed a rigorous mission that made essential shipping lanes once again safe for all nations.
It is no secret that the United States military fought several wars against Native American Indians. Many, however, many do not know that the United States Marine Corps also fought in some of the campaigns. Beginning in 1811 in Florida, the Marines assisted with operations against Indians. The Marines took part in the Battle of Twelve Mile Swamp, where a group of Indians ambushed a convoy of wagons being escorted by the Marines. One Marine lost his life and was the first killed in the line of duty since 1806. By 1836, the Marines had been involved in a number of battles against the Indians, including the Creek Indian War, the War against the Seminoles and the Battle of Hatchee-Lustee. The Marines also patrolled the coasts of southern and eastern Florida as well as the Everglades. These patrol groups were known as the “Mosquito Fleet” because of the dense mosquito population in the areas in which they worked.
In 1845, the United States annexed Texas, making it a state and infuriating Mexico, as they believed Texas was part of their territory and did not rightfully belong to the United States despite the Texas Revolution in 1836. In 1846 tension between the United States and Mexico boiled over and the Mexican War was underway. The Navy’s Pacific Squadron, assisted by the Marines, successfully blockaded Mexico’s eastern and western coasts and also captured many of Mexico’s vital ports. After completing the blockade, Navy troops entered from the Gulf of Mexico and fought their way up the rivers to capture other Mexican forts and supply lines. Attacks then shifted from the east to the west where the Navy successfully captured California. They then began to work from both the east and the west to squeeze Mexico into surrender when Mexico City was captured. As part of the treaty, the Rio Grande was established as the border between Mexico and Texas and the agreement still holds true today.
During the civil war, a key to the northern victory was the Union Navy’s blockade of the southern coast. Spanning more than 3,000 miles from Virginia to Texas, the blockade cut off the supply lines, effectively crippling the confederate economy, and also prevented foreign countries from intervening. Most Marines in the Civil War served as “seagoing detachments” on the ships of the blockade squadrons. When the Marines did participate in attacks on land, they were primarily amphibious based attacks that led to landfall under the direction of the Navy. For example, the Marines were instrumental in the sinking of CSS Alabama and the seizing of Mobile Bay in 1864. Other Marines were tasked with searching the seas for Confederate ships that were raiding commerce. Many Marines also served on the Mississippi river in gunboats, patrolling the waters and maintaining the Union blockade on Confederate commerce. The defining characteristic of the early Marines was their penchant for battle on the water as a department of the Navy.
Marine Corps Expeditionary
Established in 1919 and first awarded in 1929, the Marine Corps Expeditionary Streamer is issued to a unit that “engaged in a landing on foreign territory, participated in combat operations against an opposing force, or must have participated in a designated operation for which no other service medal is authorized.” When representing the Marine Corps as a whole, the streamer is adorned with twelve silver stars, four bronze stars and one silver “W.” The stars represent the roughly 76 expeditions in which the Marine Corps participated and the silver W is in recognition of the defense of Wake Island during the dawn of WWII.
In 1898, long-standing tensions between the United States and Spain reached a breaking point when the American ship USS Maine was sunk by a Spanish explosion on February 15th. The vast majority of the crew on board the ship perished in the strike. Emotions from the tragedy led to a quick and resounding victory for the United States Navy, assisted by the Marine Corps. On May 1st, the Pacific Squadron of the Navy destroyed the entire Spanish fleet in Manila Bay of the Philippine Islands. Less than two months later, the Navy completed a resounding victory over the Spanish outside of Santiago, Cuba; which was at the time a Spanish colony. The Marines also executed beach landings in Cuba and Puerto Rico, another Spanish colony, during this time, in collaboration with the Army. The streamer was originally issued to any unit of the Navy or Marine Corps who “had served in the Philippine Islands between the dates of May 1st and August 16th, 1898.” Those serving in the West Indies (Cuba and Puerto Rico) were awarded the West Indies Campaign streamer. In 1913 it was discontinued, and the Spanish Campaign streamer was awarded to “any member of the Navy or Marine Corps who had served on active duty during the Spanish American War.”
Stay tuned for next week’s edition of our 10 Part Series on the Battle Streamers of the United States Marine Corps. We will move forward in history to cover the: Philippine Campaign, China Relief Expedition, Cuban Pacification, Nicaraguan Campaign, Mexican Service and Haitian Campaign streamers. Also be sure to check out our previous editions of the series below!