Military History The United States Marine Corps
Mark R. Folse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0190


The United States Marine Corps is an expeditionary and amphibious force in readiness with a history that spans almost the entire course of US history. The first American marines served under either continental or state employ during the War for American Independence. Although the Marine Corps celebrates 10 November 1775 as its official birthday, it was not until 11 July 1798 that the Marine Corps became a permanent military branch. Marines are an interesting amalgam of military and naval. Like their British Royal Marine ancestors, U.S. Marines serve with the navy afloat but they are not sailors. They have military features and organization but are not just soldiers either. Conceptually speaking, they are best thought of as naval infantry: soldiers who serve on ships at sea, not sailors who fight ashore. During the Barbary Wars (1801–1815), the War of 1812, and the American Civil War, detachments of Marines served aboard most naval vessels as the nucleus of landing parties, and safeguards against potentially mutinous crews. After the Spanish American War (1898–1899), the navy tasked the Marines with studying advanced base seizure and defense which would eventually lead to the Marine Corps adopting amphibious landings as one of their primary missions. The Marines, along with the navy, grew in size and function as the United States increased its sphere of influence around the globe and became a great maritime power just before the Great War. From World War I to the present day, the US Marine Corps has accrued a rich history of counterinsurgency and conventional campaigns. World War II is to this date still the Corps’ largest war which saw it expand to 485,000 Marines. Since the 1952 Douglas-Mansfield Act the Corps has hovered between 170,000 and 200,000 annually. Their present Marine Air Ground Task Force organization has allowed them to remain flexible and reliable to help the navy protect American interests and serve US policy and strategic objectives abroad. Significant participation in the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, and the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of this. Having fought in every major American war, and most of its smaller ones, the US Marine Corps has attracted a robust amount of scholarly attention. What follows is a selected collection of some of the most notable and useful works. It is by no means exhaustive but should serve as a starting point for researchers.

General Anthologies and Annotated Bibliographies

The most exhaustive annotated bibliography to date is Coletta 1986 but it only brings readers up to the mid-1980s. So much has been published on the US Marine Corps since then, however, that readers will have to expand their search. Marine anthologies are multitudinous but there are only a few general ones. Millett and Shulimson 2004 is a great reference tool for all commandants of the Marine Corps up to 1983. Evans 2008 and Neimeyer 2008 are two of the most important collections. The former is a must for readers interested in the Marine Corps’ participation in small wars while the latter contains many primary source articles on Marine Corps policy and history.

  • Coletta, Paolo E. An Annotated Bibliography of U.S. Marine Corps History. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986.

    This book is a comprehensive annotated bibliography of Marine Corps history. It needs updating but if a work concerns Marine Corps history and was published before the mid-1980s, chances are there is a citation for it here. The annotations do not come with descriptions of the titles but are accompanied by full citations and library call numbers.

  • Evans, Stephen S., ed. U.S. Marines and Irregular Warfare, 1898–2007: Anthology and Selected Bibliography. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University, 2008.

    This anthology covers the breadth of Marine small wars operations from the Spanish American War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of these articles are quite critical of mistakes US Marines have made in the past. Brian Linn’s “We Will Go Heavily Armed” and Bruce J. Calder’s “Cacos and Caudillos” stand out in this regard. This book balances history and policy and will inform any discussion of counter-insurgency warfare.

  • Millett, Allan R., and Jack Shulimson, ed. Commandants of the Marine Corps. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004.

    A collection of article length biographies on Marine commandants from Samuel Nicholas to Robert H. Barrow. This book serves as a point of reference for any initial research pertaining to Marine Corps history between 1775 and 1983. Commandants of the Marine Corps has great cohesion between chapters despite being a work of different authors. An updated edition is needed to cover the commandants that have served since Barrow.

  • Neimeyer, Charles P., ed. On the Corps: USMC Wisdom from the Pages of Leatherneck, Marine Corps Gazette, and Proceedings. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008.

    Charles Neimeyer pieces together thirty-four influential articles on Marine Corps policy and history published since 1916. He organizes the book thematically into four distinct sections: “On Being a Marine,” “Training, Roles, and Missions,” “Leadership and Command,” and “Marines on War.” These are all primary sources authored by Marine and navy officers, commandants, and staff officers, that illuminate how U.S. Marine tactical, strategic, and organizational thought have developed over the 20th century.

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