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Another Commandant, Another Court Martial

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The Battle of Baltimore, 1814. Marines under then Captain Gale man batteries in defense of Fort McHenry in a battle for which Gale received a brevet promotion to Major.  Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

The Third Commandant of the Marine Corps is probably my favorite out of all of them. His reign was so brief, no portraits of his likeness are known to exist and his burial location is still unknown. A bit of a rascal, he killed Navy Lieutenant Allen Mackenzie in a duel at the turn of the century. Major William Burrows gave his implicit endorsement of the killing, expressing hope that it would make Naval Officers respect Marines more.

archibald henderson

Archibald Henderson, Future Commandant. Image courtesy of Marine Corps History Division

After the death of the second commandant, the Marine Corps was in a lurch. The ambitious Brevet Major Archibald Henderson, who referred and prosecuted Franklin Wharton in a court-martial and Brevet Major Samuel Miller jockeyed for position for an appointment to the post. Henderson became acting commandant, but Anthony Gale was the senior Marine in the Marine Corps. President Monroe appointed Gale to the post to preserve the seniority rankings.

Gale faced problems straight away. Marine Commanders in the field faced new Navy regulations which diluted their power. Some speculation exists that Henderson, who had chafed at the leadership under Wharton, treated Gale poorly as well. Eventually, Major Samuel Miller brought charges against Gale and put him under arrest. Arrested officers were nominally bound by honor to stay under arrest and Gale decided to not remain arrested, wandering out and continuing his boorish behavior
Miller charged Gale with behavior that seems more appropriate for a trouble making lance corporal in the modern day Marine Corps. These charges included Habitual Drunkenness, Conduct Unbecoming of an Officer and a Gentleman, and signing a false statement. The first charge came because apparently, Gale spent the month of August in 1819 in a drunken stupor in and around Washington, visiting brothels and “common dram shops” to the point where performing his duties became impossible. The second charge accused the commandant of visiting a “house of ill repute” and of wandering in the streets shouting that he “did not care a damn for the president, Jesus Christ or God Almighty.” The third charge accused him of threatening his paymaster, calling him names and trying to engage him in a fistfight.

After nearly a year of charges being levied, Gale was found guilty on most of the charges against him and cashiered from the military. Gale would eventually receive a pension for his time in the Marine Corps, and by the late 1830s had the largest pension of any other Navy or Marine Corps officer at 25 dollars per month. By 1820, 2 out of three Commandants of the Marine Corps had been court-martialed and one of them had been convicted and kicked out. An auspicious beginning to be sure.

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.

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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.