U.S. frigate United States



Excerpts from
White Jacket, or Life Aboard a Man-of-War
containing descriptions of Marines

In my reading, recently, I came across the following descriptions of Marines aboard a man-of-war in the 1840s. The writer is Herman Melville, and the passages are from his novel White Jacket; or The World in a Man-of-War. The novel, which is filled with accurate & closely-observed particulars, grew from his experiences aboard the US frigate United States, on which he shipped as an ordinary seaman in 1843. While fiction, White Jacket is, in fact, probably the single most comprehensive and accurate portrait we have of the daily life aboard a U.S. Navy frigate in the mid-19th-century. This accuracy applies not only to the details of ship and shipboard life, but to the individual sailors and Marines themselves. Rear Admiral S.R. Franklin, author of Memories of a Rear-Admiral Who Has Served for More Than Half a Century in the Navy of the United States, and who himself served aboard the United States on a Pacific cruise in 1842, vouched for the veracity of Melville's portraits, writing: "He (Melville) gives no names, but to any one who served in the Frigate United States it was easy to recognise the men by their sobriquets."

Although a novel, White Jacket was sufficiently respected as a piece of accurate reportage in its own day that advocates for the prohibition of flogging in the U.S. Navy placed a copy of the book on the desks of every member of Congress, among whom Melville's graphic descriptions of flogging proved so influential that they proceeded to restrict the practice in 1853 and then to prohibit it entirely in 1862.


Duties of Marines Aboard Ship, and of the Mutual Contempt between Sailors & Marines


"All large ships of war carry soldiers, called marines. In the Neversink there was something less than fifty, two thirds of whom were Irishmen. They were officered by a Lieutenant, an Orderly Sergeant, two Sergeants, and two Corporals, with a drummer and fifer. The custom, generally, is to have a marine to each gun; which rule usually furnishes the scale for distributing the soldiers in vessels of different force.

Our marines had no other than martial duty to perform; excepting that, at sea, they stood watches like the sailors, and now and then lazily assisted in pulling the ropes. But they never put foot in rigging or hand in tar-bucket.

On the quarter-bills, these men were stationed at none of the great guns; on the station-bills, they had no posts at the ropes. What, then, were they for? To serve their country in time of battle? Let us see. When a ship is running into action, her marines generally lie flat on their faces behind the bulwarks (the sailors are sometimes ordered to do the same), and when the vessel is fairly engaged, they are usually drawn up in the ship's waist--like a company reviewing in the Park. At close quarters, their muskets may pick off a seaman or two in the rigging, but at long-gun distance they must passively stand in their ranks and be decimated at the enemy's leisure. Only in one case in ten--that is, when their vessel is attempted to be boarded by a large party, are these marines of any essential service as fighting men; with their bayonets they are then called upon to 'repel!'

If comparatively so useless as soldiers, why have marines at all in the Navy? Know, then, that what standing armies are to nations, what turnkeys are to jails, these marines are to the seamen in all large men-of-war. Their muskets are their keys. With those muskets they stand guard over the fresh water; over the grog, when doled; over the provisions, when being served out by the Master's mate; over the "brig" or jail; at the Commodore's and Captain's cabin doors; and, in port, at both gangways and forecastle.

Surely, the crowd of sailors, who besides having so many sea- officers over them, are thus additionally guarded by soldiers, even when they quench their thirst--surely these man-of-war's-men must be desperadoes indeed; or else the naval service must be so tyrannical that the worst is feared from their possible insubordination. Either reason holds good, or both, according to the character of the officers and crew.

It must be evident that the man-of-war's-man casts but an evil eye on a marine. To call a man a 'horse-marine,' is, among seamen, one of the greatest terms of contempt.

But the mutual contempt, and even hatred, subsisting between these two bodies of men--both clinging to one keel, both lodged in one household--is held by most Navy officers as the height of the perfection of Navy discipline. It is regarded as the button that caps the uttermost point on their main-mast.

Thus they reason: Secure of this antagonism between the marine and the sailor, we can always rely upon it, that if the sailor mutinies, it needs no great incitement for the marine to thrust his bayonet through his heart; if the marine revolts, the pike of the sailor is impatient to charge. Checks and balances, blood against blood, that is the cry and the argument.

What applies to the relation in which the marine and sailor stand toward each other--the mutual repulsion implied by a system of checks--will, in degree, apply to nearly the entire interior of a man-of-war's discipline. The whole body of this discipline is emphatically a system of cruel cogs and wheels, systematically grinding up in one common hopper all that might minister to the moral well-being of the crew."


The Marines' Mess


"And now, to do myself justice, I must add that, the next day, I was received with open arms by a glorious set of fellows~ Mess No. 1!~ numbering, among the rest, my noble Captain Jack Chase (a highly respected individual and Captain of the Maintop). This mess was principally composed of the headmost men of the gun-deck; and, out of a pardonable self-conceit, they called themselves the "Forty-two-pounder Club;" meaning that they were, one and all, fellows of large intellectual and coporeal calibre. Their mess-cloth was well located. On their starboard hand was Mess No. 2, embracing sundry rare jokers and high livers, who waxed gay and epicurean over their salt fare, and were known as the "Society for the Destruction of Beef and Pork." On the larboard hand was Mess No. 31, made up entirely of fore-top-men, a dashing, blaze-away set of men-of-war's-men, who called themselves the "Cape Horn Snorters and Neversink Invincibles." Opposite, was one of the marine messes, mustering the aristocracy of the marine corps~the two corporals, the drummer and fifer, and some six or eight rather gentlemanly privates, native-born Americans, who had served in the Seminole campaigns of Florida; and they now enlivened their salt fare with stories of wild ambushes in the Everglades; and one of them related a surprising tale of his hand-to-hand encounter with Osceola, the Indian chief, whom he fought one morning from daybreak till breakfast time. This slashing private also boasted that he could take a chip from between your teeth at twenty paces; he offered to bet any amount on it; and as he could get no one to hold the chip, his boast remained for ever good."


Corporal Colbrook Promenades at his Leisure


"Still another mode of passing time (while anchored in harbor), was arraying yourself in your best togs and promenading up and down the gundeck, admiring the shore scenery from the port-holes, which, in an amphitheatrical bay like Rio ~ belted about by the most varied and charming scenery of hill, dale, moss, meadow, court, castle, tower, grove, vine, vineyard, aqueduct, palace, square, island, fort ~ is very much like lounging round a circular cosmorama, and ever and anon lazily peeping through the glasses here and there. Oh! there is something worth living for, even in our man-of-war world; and one glimpse of a bower of grapes, though a cable's length off, is almost satisfaction for dining off a shank-bone salted down.

This promenading was chiefly patronised by the marines, and particularly by Colbrook, a remarkably handsome and very gentlemanly corporal among them. He was a complete lady's man; with fine black eyes, bright red cheeks, glossy jet whiskers, and a refined organisation of the whole man. He used to array himself in his regimentals, and saunter about like an officer of the Coldstream Guards, strolling down to his club in St. Jame's. Every time he passed me, he would heave a sentimental sigh, and hum to himself The girl I left behind me. This fine corporal afterward became a representative in the Legislature of the State of New Jersey; for I saw his name returned about a year after my return home.

But, after all, there was not much room, while in port, for promenading, at least on the gun-deck, for the whole larboard side is kept clear for the benefit of the officers, who appreciate the advantages of having a clear stroll fore and aft; and they well know that the sailors had much better be crowded together on the other side than that the set of their own coat-tails should be impaired by brushing against their tarry trowsers."


Corporal Colbrook's Gallant & Timely Intercession


Later in the tale, the narrator, "White Jacket", encounters this same Marine again, albeit under greatly changed circumstances. White Jacket has been arraigned at the mast under the grave charge of being absent at his station during a tacking of the ship. The fault, in fact, lies with the First Lieutenant, who has failed to inform him of his station but, in attempting to defend himself, White Jacket has managed to offend the ship's Captain who is now on the verge of ordering him flogged. Rather than submit to this degrading ordeal, White Jacket is actually about to lunge at the Captain and pitch the both of them overboard. It is at this critical juncture that the Marine makes his reappearance:

"'Captain Claret,' said a voice advancing from the crowd. I turned to see who this might be, that audaciously interposed at a juncture like this. It was the same remarkably handsome and gentlemanly corporal of marines , Colbrook, who has been previously alluded to, in the chapter describing killing time in a man-of-war.

'I know that man,' said Colbrook, touching his cap, and speaking in a mild, firm, but extremely deferential manner; 'and I know that he would not be found absent from his station, if he knew where it was.'

This speech was almost unprecedented. Seldom or never before had a marine dared to speak to the Captain of a frigate in behalf of a seaman at the mast. But there was something so unostentatiously commanding in the calm manner of the man, that the Captain, though astounded, did not in any way reprimand him. The very unusualness of his interference seemed Colbrook's protection.

Taking heart, perhaps, from Colbrook's example, Jack Chase (the highly respected Captain of the Maintop) interposed, and in a manly but carefully respectful manner, in substance repeated the corporal's remark, adding that he never found me wanting in the top.

The Captain looked from Chase to Colbrook, and from Colbrook to Chase ~ one the formost man among the seamen, the other the foremost man among the soldiers ~ then all round upon the packed and silent crew, and, as if a slave to Fate, though supreme Captain of a frigate, he turned to the First Lieutenant, made some indifferent remark, and saying to me you may go, sauntered aft into his cabin; while I, who, in the desperation of my soul, had just escaped being a murderer and a suicide, almost burst into tears of thanksgiving where I stood."




Read the shipboard journal of Edward W. Taylor, who was a shipmate of Melville's on the United States during the same 1843 voyage described in White Jacket, and who, like Melville's fictional Cpl Colbrook, was a Marine corporal, and poet. Whether Cpl Taylor was the model for the fictional Cpl Colbrook is doubtful, as their personalities had little in common, but Taylor's detailed description of the same voyage depicted in White Jacket provides an invaluable background for the novel.


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Marines in the
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