The Court-Martial of a Commandant

Commandant Franklin Wharton

Commandant Wharton’s Portrait

One of my favorite and most bizarre episodes in Marine Corps history was the court-martial of the second Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Wharton for dereliction of duty. Future commandant Brevet Major Archibald Henderson filed the charges and prosecuted LtCol. Wharton.

Archibald Henderson was an ambitious young Marine during the time. He perceived Wharton as being an ineffective Commandant. To Henderson, Wharton had tarnished the reputation of the Marines Corps when as the British approached Washington DC in 1814 instead of fielding Marines and fighting the British, he fled the Marine Barracks, traveling to the Navy Yard, and ultimately evacuating as the British entered and burned the city. He referred two charges for trial: “Neglect of Duty” and “Conduct Unbecoming of an Officer and a Gentleman”. The specifics of the first charge contended that Wharton never inspected the troops, presided over parades, and never wore a full uniform. The second charge was that he called a former Marine major a Liar and never apologized, and refused to take the field as the British Army approached Washington prior to it being burned in 1814. The second charge was so outlandish, that it was eventually dropped.

Wharton Sword (6)

LtCol Wharton’s Sword, from the National Museum of the Marine Corps’s Collection

Upon being charged and facing a Naval Court Martial, immediately upon being charged, Wharton issue a jurisdictional challenge, arguing the July 11, 1798 order establishing the Marine Corps stated that Marines would operate under the control of the Army on Land. The Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Crowninshield, declined to weigh in on the matter. He punted to George Graham, the Secretary of War, who in turn punted to Richard Rush, the Attorney General for a ruling. Rush gave control to the Army, who also claimed to not have jurisdiction over a member of the Marine Corps. President James Monroe ordered the army to hold the court-martial.

Boiled down, Wharton’s defense against the other charges was that there was no order requiring him to take marines into the field, preside over parades or wear uniforms. He also questioned what injury was done to public service by he not wearing his uniform. The court acquitted Wharton of the remaining charges and cleared him to resume his status as the Commandant of the Marine Corps. President Monroe pressured Wharton to resign, but he refused, dying in office the following year.

Commandants house

The Commandant of the Marine Corps’s residence. Wharton was the first to live there.

The prologue to the story is that the power of the Marine Corps was severely limited in the wake of the Wharton affair. Navy Yard commanders were given greater authority over the Marines stationed in the barracks in the Navy Yards, leaving the barracks commanders feeling impotent in their commands. Trial witness Brevet Major Samuel Miller and prosecutor Brevet Major Archibald Henderson jockeyed for appointment to the top spot, and both enjoyed the support and had petitioners asking President Monroe to appoint one or the other. Monroe demurred and appointed the senior Marine Anthony Gale, who was court-martialed and cashiered. So by the end of 1819, two out of the three commandants had been court-martialed and one kicked out of the service.

The historical note here is that Samuel Nicholas was never officially commandant, and takes his place in the pantheon of Marine Heroes in a celebratory status only.

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About Kater

I work at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

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