Once the decks had been cleared, the ship would grapple its opponent and a boarding party of heavily armed soldiers would be sent aboard. During the fight, part of the boarding party would be assigned the task of damaging the enemy’s rigging.
On deck Marines led boarding parties in close action and repelled enemy boarding parties. The nickname “Leatherneck” derived from the thick leather stock worn around the neck to protect the Marine from the decapitating slash of an enemy’s cutlass.
To board an enemy ship or in a final assault on land, Marines relied on the Brown Bess’s bayonet and on a short, brass-barreled flintlock blunderbuss. In the confusion of combat, the latter’s flared muzzle made it easy to reload with a charge of powder followed by a handful of buckshot, rocks, nails, or whatever nastiness was available. The blunderbuss evolved into the shotgun, and in the 1847 attack on Mexico City, Marine Major Levi Twiggs carried his favorite double-barreled shotgun. For the trench assaults in France in World War I, Marines adopted repeating shotguns, and used them again in the close combat of jungle fighting in World War II and Viet Nam.
The slow firing muskets made edged weapons a necessary last resort. For close combat, enlisted men’s muskets were fitted with bayonets, officers carried a brace of pistols and a sword, and boarding parties from the ship’s crew brandished cutlasses and short pikes. The sword for officers was not prescribed until 1829 when the Mameluke sword was authorized. It had become popular with Marines from their service in the Mediterranean against North African pirates. A similar sword is still today a Marine officer’s ceremonial sword.
The battle would be a succession of hand-to-hand conflicts to board or to repel boarders. The order “prepare to repel boarders” was issued when a ship was threatened with an enemy assault. Pikemen formed behind those crewmen armed with cutlasses. The Marines, with bayonets fixed, formed behind the pikemen to cover them. At the command “repel boarders,” grape and musketry were brought to bear upon the enemy as they prepared to attack. Men remaining on the broadside guns continued to fire, and stood by with pikes to repel enemy attempting to enter through gun ports or quarter galleries.
When this was accomplished, a large well armed and armoured boarding party would storm across to engage the disordered and demoralised enemy. The ship’s boats would be armed and loaded with soldiers who would attempt to board the enemy at some place away from the main boarding action.
The sound of the drum is a signal for the crew to take their stations as in action. The call is beaten in such a manner as to be readily understood and distingushed from all others. On hearing it every one on board repairs immediately to his station. When there, the crew is at general quarters. With the order “Cast loose and provide both” the guns are cast loose, for the service of the gun placed in their proper positions ready for use, small arms brought up from the armory, while the quarter gunner of each division provides waist-belts for cutlasses, bayonets, pistols and battle axes.
Each gun’s crew to divided into boarders, pikemen, sail-trimmers, firemen and pump-men. The boarders provide themselves with cutlass, revolvers, pikemen have their muskets at hand ready to grasp, pumpmen their battle axes. If it is necessary to call away the boarders, the captain commands- “Boarders on the starboard bow!” Away rush the boarders to the point indicated. “Boarders on their port quarter!” Away they go again and stand by, cutlass in hand ready to board.
At the order “Pikemen over the boarders!” those who are under arms on the poop, with the pikemen, form a line with bayonets, along the deck in rear of the boarders, who keep close down until the order comes to board. At the command “Repel Boarders” the pikemen advance their pieces over the heads of the boarders and fire and though at an imaginary foeuntil the order comes to “Fall back pikemen! Stand by to board!” Board! and with a wild yell the boarders spring to the hammock nettings and rigging, bandishing their weapons, simulating the real thing.
The quarter gunner of the after division is provided with a rattle which he springs when the boarders are called; the sound of a gong calls away the pikemen as in the din of battle-the executive officer, though he has a speaking trumpet might not be distinctly heard. If a fire should break out, a quick ringing of the bell calls away the firemen and pumpmen, who repair to the pumps, and the locality of the fire indicated by rolls of the drum if the fire should be formed, by one roll, and if aft by two: at the third roll the firemen and pumpmen return to their quarters, and the carpenters’ coil up the hose.
Courtesy of John Pike and Global Security.
Image: Boarding and Taking the American Ship Chesapeake (engraving) by Thomas M. M. Hemy. Courtesy of Peter Searle.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading:
- Napoleonic Era Naval Tactics (4/5): Marines in the Fighting Tops
- Napoleonic Era Naval Tactics (1/5): Battle Formation and Cutting-Out
- Napoleonic Era Naval Tactics (2/5): The Weather Gage
- Napoleonic Era Naval Warfare Tactics: French vs. British
- Napoleonic Era Naval Tactics (3/5): Types of Shot and Dismasting