|Corps of Colonial Marines|
Royal Naval Dockyard, Bermuda
|Patron||Sir Alexander Cochrane|
Major George Lewis
The Corps of Colonial Marines were two different British Marine units raised from former black slaves for service in the Americas, at the behest of Alexander Cochrane. The units were created at two separate periods: 1808-1810 during the Napoleonic Wars; and then again during the War of 1812; both units being disbanded once the military threat had passed. Apart from being created in each case by Cochrane, they had no connection with each other.
The first Corps was a small unit that served in the Caribbean from 1808 to 12 October 1810, recruited from former slaves to address the shortage of military manpower in the Caribbean. The locally-recruited men were less susceptible to tropical illnesses than were troops sent from Britain. The Corps followed the practice of the British Army's West India Regiments in recruiting former slaves as soldiers. In the previous year, the Mutiny Act of 1807 emancipated all slaves in the British Army and, as a result, subsequently enlisted slaves were considered free on enlistment.
The second, more substantial, Corps served from 18 May 1814 until 20 August 1816. The greater part of the Corps was stationed at St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast, with a smaller body occupying the future Negro Fort, on the Apalachicola River in remote northwest Florida. Recruits were accepted from among escaped slaves who had already gained their freedom on coming into British hands and who were unwilling to join West India Regiments. The establishment of the force sparked controversy at the time, as the arming of former slaves was a psychological as well as military threat to the slave-owning society of the United States. As a consequence, the two senior officers of the Corps in Florida, George Woodbine and Edward Nicolls, were demonised by Americans such as Hezekiah Niles in his Baltimore publication, the Weekly Register for their association with the Corps and inducing slave revolt.
At the end of the War of 1812, as the British post in Florida was evacuated, the Corps' Florida detachment was paid off and disbanded. Although several men accompanied the British to Bermuda, the majority continued to live in settlements around the fort the Corps had garrisoned. This legacy of a community of armed fugitive slaves with a substantial arsenal was unacceptable to the United States of America. After the Fort was destroyed in the Battle of Negro Fort of 1816, the former Marines joined the southward migration of Seminoles and African Americans escaping the American advance. Members of the Colonial Marine battalion who were deployed on the Atlantic coast withdrew from American territory. They continued in British service as garrison-in-residence at Bermuda until 1816, when the unit was disbanded and the ex-Marines resettled on Trinidad.
Rear Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane raised the first Corps of Colonial Marines in 1808 while commander-in-chief of British naval forces on the Leeward Islands station during the Napoleonic Wars. The British had captured the island of Marie Galante earlier that year, but the French governor of Guadeloupe attacked the island on hearing that illness had weakened its British garrison. Marie Galante slaves assisted the British when promised that they would not be returned to their proprietors; by this means, the island was preserved under British control until the arrival of three companies of the 1st West India Regiment.
Cochrane named the ex-slaves the Corps of Colonial Marines, which was enlarged with fugitive slaves from Guadeloupe. The Corps was paid from Marie Galante revenues, clothed from Royal Navy stores and commanded by Royal Marine officers. After the repossession of Guadeloupe Cochrane maintained the Corps, and on 12 October 1810 redistributed the men: 70 among the ships of the squadron, 20 to 30 to the battery at the Saintes (a group of small islands south of Guadeloupe) and 50 remaining in the Marie Galante garrison. They saw no further action as a distinct body, but were listed in ships' musters among supernumeraries for wages and victuals under the description "Colonial Marine" until mid-1815.
Cochrane, by now a Vice Admiral, assumed his position as Commander-in-Chief of British forces on the North Atlantic station in April 1814 and ordered the recruitment of a body of Colonial Marines as he had done six years earlier on Marie Galante. Rear Admiral George Cockburn, Cochrane's second-in-command on the Atlantic coast, implemented Cochrane's order recruiting the second Corps of Colonial Marines. It served as part of the British forces on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States during the War of 1812.
On 2 April 1814, Cochrane issued a proclamation to all persons wishing to emigrate. Any persons would be received by the British, either at a military outpost or aboard British ships; those seeking sanctuary could enter His Majesty's forces, or go "as free settlers to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies". An historical precedent was Dunmore's Proclamation of 7 November 1775, although this offered freedom only to those who bore arms with British forces.
By 10 May, Tangier Island off the Virginia coast had been occupied by the British and offered an accessible location for those seeking refuge. Male refugees were given the option "to become blue Jackets, take up arms or [to] join the working party" constructing Fort Albion and its infrastructure. The Corps was embodied on 18 May 1814 and made its combat debut in the raid on Pungoteague Creek on 30 May 1814 where, in a skirmish known as the Battle of Rumley's Gut, it helped capture an American artillery battery. James Ross, captain of HMS Albion, later described their involvement as "a most excellent specimen of what they are likely to be. Their conduct was marked by great spirit and vivacity, and perfect obedience". One, a soldier named Michael Harding, was killed early in the battle but "it did not daunt or check the others, but on the contrary animated them to seek revenge". Cockburn's initial impressions were positive; he observed that the new recruits were "getting on astonishingly" and were "really fine fellows". After this, the Corps participated in the Chesapeake campaign; in subsequent correspondence, Cockburn wrote that the recruits had behaved "unexpectedly well" in several engagements and had not committed any "improper outrages".
Members of the Corps served alongside their shipborne Royal Marine counterparts from the Cockburn Chesapeake squadron (HM Ships Albion, Dragon, Loire, Jasseur and the schooner HMS St Lawrence), participating in a series of raids. After the British failed to destroy the American Chesapeake Bay Flotilla at the Battle of St. Jerome Creek, they conducted coastal raids on the towns of Calverton, Huntingtown, Prince Frederick, Benedict and Lower Marlborough. On 15 June 1814, a force of 30 Colonial Marines accompanied 180 Royal Marines in 12 boats in a raid on Benedict. Nine days later, on 24 June, a force of Colonial and 180 Royal Marines attacked an artillery battery at Chesconessex Creek (although this failed to prevent the escape of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, which left St. Leonard's Creek two days later).
The arrival on 19 July of a battalion of Royal Marines, which had left Bermuda on 30 June, enabled the squadron to mount further expeditions ashore. After a series of diversionary raids, the Marines were again landed at Benedict on 19 August accompanied by recently-arrived Peninsular War army veterans. The battalion was to accompany the Colonial Marines in attacks on Bladensburg and Washington in August 1814. A company fought at the Battle of Bladensburg, and the other two companies took part in the burning of Washington. One of the firing parties was led by Second Lieutenant Lewis Agassiz (1793–1866); for his part in the battle, his family was later granted a coat of arms depicting a torch. Casualties suffered by the Colonial Marines during this action were one man killed and three wounded.
On 3 September 1814, three companies of the Colonial Marines joined with three remaining companies of Royal Marines to form the 3rd Battalion, Royal and Colonial Marines. Later that month, all three companies fought at the Battle of North Point in Maryland. A fourth company was created in December 1814, and further recruitment was begun along the Georgia coast during the first quarter of 1815. The number of enlistments allowed two more companies to be raised, with sergeants taken from companies recruited in the Chesapeake.
Although the Corps suffered some combat losses during its Chesapeake campaign actions in 1814, its greatest losses arose from disease due to poor conditions on Tangier Island. An outbreak of dysentery in the winter of 1814 killed the surgeon and 69 men from the battalion. The strength of the corps is mentioned as having risen to about 200 men whilst on Tangier Island in the autumn. The Corps' last tour during the War of 1812 was in Georgia from December to March 1815. Admiral George Cockburn seized the southern U.S coast to disrupt trade, communication, and transportation of troops to the Gulf of Mexico, where Admiral Cochrane's forces planned to take the southwestern territories of the U.S. Part of the Corps joined the successful British attack on Fort Point Peter. The corps occupied Camden County and Cumberland Island, aiding the emigration of an estimated 1,485 slaves from southeast Georgia.
In addition to British outposts on the Atlantic coast at Tangier Island (Virginia) and Cumberland Island (Georgia), there was a similar outpost on the Gulf coast at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River in Spanish East Florida which attracted Redstick Creek Indians and Black Seminoles. George Woodbine and a detachment of Royal Marines were landed from HMS Orpheus in May 1814 with gifts, two thousand muskets and blankets for the Indians. A fort was constructed, and Cochrane sent Edward Nicolls to oversee the operations at Prospect Bluff.
Nicolls left Bermuda with 112 Royal Marines, 3 field pieces, 300 uniforms and 1,000 muskets for recruits to his corps. On 26 August 1814 Nicolls issued his first "order of the day" for his "battalion". It remains uncertain how many men Nicolls had under his command at that time, since muster and pay records have not been found. More escaped slaves were recruited in Pensacola (to the chagrin of the Spanish), but they were forced to return to Prospect Bluff in November after the American capture of Pensacola.
The war ended in February 1815, and the three European companies of the 3rd Battalion, Royal and Colonial Marines were sent back to Britain. With their departure, the battalion was reformed as the 3rd Battalion, Colonial Marines, consisting of six infantry companies of Colonial Marines and a staff company of Royal Marines brought from Canada. They performed garrison duty at the Royal Naval Dockyard at Ireland Island, Bermuda and were carried from there in the transport Lord Eldon to be disbanded in Trinidad on 20 August 1816. Near what is now known as Princes Town, the former Colonial Marines formed a free farming community, known as the Merikens (sometimes spelled Merikins), under the supervision of their former non-commissioned officers. Households had 16-acre (6.5 ha) plots. These settlements were successful, and in 1847 their ownership of the land was formally recognised. The community of descendants retains its identity and commemorates its roots in an annual celebration.
The detachment in Florida, which had grown to about 400 men, was paid off and disbanded when the British post was evacuated at the end of the war. A small number of men went to Bermuda with the British as part of a refugee group, rejoining the main body of Colonial Marines. Others from the Florida unit remained in settlements around the Fort which had become a symbol of slave insurrection. Southern plantation owners considered the presence of a group of armed fugitive slaves, even in a remote and sparsely-populated area of Spanish Florida, an unacceptable danger; this led, under the leadership of General Andrew Jackson, to the Battle of Negro Fort in July 1816 and the beginning of the First Seminole War. For their involvement in the conflict, two former auxiliary officers of the corps were executed in 1818 in what became known as the Arbuthnot and Ambrister incident. It is believed that former Colonial Marine refugees were among a group that escaped to the Bahamas in 1822 and founded, on the west coast of the island of Andros, Nicholls Town [sic], a community that retains its identity to the present day.
Although they were of African descent and formerly enslaved, the British gave the Colonial Marines the same training, uniforms, pay, and pensions as the Royal Marines. A very interesting part of the story is the Colonial Marines not only exposed the hypocrisies of American liberty, but the British provided proof, when treated equally, these men could perform equally or better than their Caucasian counterparts.
Letter from Sir James Cockburn on the subject of the Colonial Marines mentions the "strong & determined prejudices of these men against the West Indian corps, & the high ideas of superiority which they attach to themselves over the African negroes who chiefly compose those regiments; with whom, I am assured, no inducement could probably tempt them to indiscriminately mix & enlist themselves in the same corps
[Woodbine] was actually raising a military force enlisting all red, black and white persons that chose to come forward to the red cross of British humanity
Woodbine was coming on in the rear, at the head of 600 Indians, and that the settlements on the St Mary's and Satilla rivers were breaking up in consequence. On the 21st it appeared ascertained that the enemy's force was about 2,000 men, part blacks
[Colonel] Nicolls continues at the British Post...with the Indians heretofore in hostility against the United States, exercising over them an assumed superintendancy, and directing their conduct in relation to our people.. we can never rest contented and see a British officer (especially of Col. Nicolls' stamp) acting as their superintendent, civil and military
Major Nicholls [sic] was tried in May 1812, on thirteen charges - the first of which was cruelty to a private...by beating...For all of these charges, he was only reprimanded..though the court [disapproved] .. in severe terms on the violence he had evinced on those several occasions.
many of these poor fellows, after voluntarily serving for a few months in a sort of provisional battalion, called the "Colonial Marines," obtained grants of land
at Tangier Island ... the crews there are very sickly with the flux, the water being brackish and bad ... they had been for 2 months on short allowance of food, but had lately obtained a supply from Bermuda
Sugden, on p281, is the source used by Linzy
Ambrister's Commission from Cochrane "Whereas, I have thought fit to send a Detachment of the Royal Marine Corps to the Creek Nations, for the purpose of training to arms, such Indians and others as may be friendly to, and willing to fight under, the Standard of His Majesty: I ..appoint you as an Auxiliary Second Lieutenant, of such Corps of Colonial Marines ... Given under my hand and seal, at Bermuda, this 25th day of July, 1814
pg. 551 has the testimony of a Royal Marine deserter from the Fort, sworn at Mobile on 9 May 1815, advising "the British left, with the Indians, between them three and four hundred negroes, taken from the United States, principally Louisiana
Letter from General Gaines dated 22 May 1815 "P.S. I learn that Nicholls[sic] ..is still at Appalachicola, and that he has 900 Indians and 450 negroes under arms
memorandum dated 21 May 1815 "a few that were shipped to the island of Trinidad, in His Majesty's Ship, The Levant; and such as have enlisted in the Colonial Marines