In 1775, Captains Samuel Nicholas and Robert Mullan recruited men in a popular Philadelphia bar, promising them beer and adventure on the high seas. Just a few months after that November gathering at Tun Tavern, some five companies of the finest Marines landed on the island of Nassau and handed the stunned British a gleaming defeat.
Marines across the Corps maintain that the two newly-commissioned officers were in Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern that chilly November day to create a cadre of warriors who would serve aboard ships of the Continental Navy. Former Quaker and onetime pacifist Samuel Nicholas managed to raise two battalions of Marines out of Philadelphia. They would need all the help they could get because while the Army was fighting the British off at home, the Marines were going to take the fight to the enemy.
This 1803 map of Nassau is very similar to its 1776 defenses.
In the early days of the American Revolution, the colonial government of Virginia moved its stores of gunpowder to a “safer” location, to keep it out of the hands of rebel forces — who were desperately low. That location was in the Bahamas, supposedly safe from marauding rebel ships and fighters.
When word reached Congress about the large stores of gunpowder in the Crown Colony of the Bahamas, the body sent secret instructions to Commodore Esek Hopkins to lead a flotilla of eight ships and 220 Marines (led by Capt. Samuel Nicholas) to Nassau and capture the large gunpowder supply in March, 1776. Consisting of two forts, Nassau and Montagu, the island’s defenses were a wreck. Fort Nassau could not support firing its 46 cannons. Fort Montagu controlled the entrance to the harbor, but most of the gunpowder and ammunition on the island was held at Nassau.
After a brief council, Hopkins decided the landing party would land near Fort Nassau aboard three ships at first light. The invaders would capture the town of New Providence before the alarm was raised among the island’s defenders.
They were spotted by the British, who then fired guns from Fort Nassau to arouse the island’s defenses. The landing team was forced to withdraw back to the ships and the ships left to rejoin the rest of the flotilla to determine their next move. The aborted raid did have a positive effect for the nascent Americans however: The Governor of the Bahamas almost had the extra gunpowder moved aboard one ship for safekeeping, but that idea was abandoned. The gunpowder stayed put and Fort Montagu was reinforced with only 30 mostly unarmed militiamen.
Back aboard the rebel flotilla, a new plan was hatched. The Marines, bolstered by 50 Continental Sailors, would land on Nassau via three ships and backed by the USS Wasp for firepower. In two hours, the Americans landed their entire force east of Montagu unopposed. This was the first amphibious landing of the U.S. Marine Corps.
After landing, the Marines encountered a British reconnaissance force as Fort Montagu was reinforced with another 80 militiamen. Word soon got out that the invading force was sizably larger than the island’s defenses, Montagu fired only three shots before giving up, and the militiamen simply returned to their homes. The Marines occupied the fort that night. The next morning, they occupied Fort Nassau without a shot.
Unfortunately for the invaders, the governor managed to sneak 150 barrels of gunpowder out of the harbor that night because none of the American ships were guarding the harbor. They did take the remaining gunpowder stores and all the weapons and guns the flotilla could carry. These weapons were later used by the Army under Gen. George Washington.