The small American sloop, bedraggled and battered by wind, weather, and sun, made its way slowly towards the harbor as the sun rose above the sea. The year was 1800 and a few United States Marines had embarked on a mission that would help define the future of the Corps. The breeze was strong so that the men huddled below the gunnels on deck appreciated their woolen coats.
Yet the men crowded below deck continued to sweat in the stifling hot air that never managed to cool inside the hold during the warm Caribbean nights. Ahead, at anchor beneath the guns of a small, temporary battery ashore, lay the fast and sleek French ship, the former British packet, Sandwich.
Fresh off its hard-fought victory in the Revolutionary War, the United States of America was ready to flex a little of its newly formed muscle in its own backyard.
The Few, the Proud, the Marines
Offshore lay a British frigate, intent on recapturing the Sandwich from its current French masters. The Sandwich had been taken under a Letter of Marque and it now sailed the seas waylaying other ships of the British Crown. Lt. Isaac Hull of the USS Constitution was the temporary skipper of the small American merchantman, Sally, that made its way into the Spanish harbor of Puerto Plata in what is now the Dominican Republic.
On board, Hull had enough sailors to man both the Sally and the Sandwich, along with a few, proud United States Marines. The majority of the Marine Detachment from the USS Constitution had been deposited ashore under the command of Captain Daniel Carmick, USMC, and were making their way towards the Sandwich as well.
The Continental Navy had been disbanded and the Continental Marines mustered out of service at the end of the Revolutionary War. The fledgling United States had hoped to be able to maintain neutrality in European affairs, but a maritime nation without a navy did nothing but invite attack.
After a series of insults and provocations, the United States Congress authorized the reestablishment of a navy. This new force soon found itself in an unofficial war with the French who had been attacking any merchantmen that traded with the British. The USS Constitution, one of the six American frigates authorized by Congress, was patrolling the Santo Domingo Station when it was discovered that a French privateer had put into harbor at Puerto Plata.
From Allies to Foes
Commodore Silas Talbot, of Revolutionary War fame, was in command. This operation had been brought about by a fit of pique at the audacity of the French to prey upon American shipping. Most of the naval powers at the time had committed acts of impressment aboard American ships or seized them outright under the authority of the various kingdoms who hated the Americans.
Republican France was perhaps the worst as they despised the Americans who continued to trade with the British and betrayed the friendship of the French who had come to the aid of the American colonies during the Revolution. The Americans, on the other hand, despised the French for their excesses in their revolution. Any remaining feelings of friendship died when King Louis, who had come to America’s aid, was walked to the guillotine.
Captain Talbot could sail into the harbor and destroy the Sandwich, but he wanted the ship as a prize. In addition, the USS Constitution’s draft was too great to allow it to close with the smaller ship for boarding. He feared the violation of Spanish neutrality would draw fire down upon the small boats of the boarders as they cast off towards the Sandwich or shore bombardment upon his own ship.
Having sent Lt. Hull to reconnoiter the harbor several nights earlier, he had devised a plan to capture the ship. He planned to land the Marines several miles away under cover of darkness then have the unassuming Sally sail into the harbor.
He felt sure he would be able to pull off this daring attack and sail away with a prize ship containing a hold full of pirated American cargo while depriving both the British and the French of a sleek, fast privateer.
First to the Fight
The Marines ashore had made their way to concealed positions near the shore battery protecting the Sandwich. The Sally had entered port and was sailing close to the targeted ship. The Blue Jackets below decks or hidden on the deck were still undetected. When a shout of warning was received due to their exceeding proximity, Lt. Hull immediately pulled into the Sandwich.
The Marines and sailors previously hidden then rushed out of the hold and over the deck to take the ship quickly from its French masters. The Marines ashore rushed out of the foliage and captured the battery before its small garrison could react.
They swiftly spiked the guns and then made their way along the quay to board the ship as well. Unable to depart immediately, the Marines held the town militia at bay until the next day, when they quickly departed.
The attack was one of the only land battles of the Quasi-War with France and it was the first time that the United States Marines had gone ashore under arms since the Revolution.
This small action created quite a stir in the United States, but eventually, to salve the injured neutrality and dignity of the Spanish, the ship and all prize money was turned over to the Spanish crown. The Marines had made their first foreign landing, starting a long list of missions that continues to this day.