Grand Old Man of the Marine Corps turns 220

17 Jan 2003 | Sgt. A. Lyn Bell

In late December 1816, a group of Marines traveling by ship up the Potomac River to Washington were set back when their vessel was halted by ice. They were forced to disembark and march to the town of Dumfries through Quantico, Va., which was then a quiet woodland area.

A fellow Marine visiting his family nearby rescued them from the frozen woods. He used his own money to hire a wagon for them to expedite their journey to Washington. "A generous-natured man," as one of the Marines would describe him, Capt. Archibald Henderson was tall and thin with a hard nose and manner "displaying the courtesy of a gentleman and the fire of a man familiar with fighting."

Born in Colchester, Va., Jan. 21, 1783, to Sara and Alexander Henderson, Archibald was one of 10 siblings. The family moved to Dumfries when Archibald was seven, where his father established a store. His father owned stores in Colchester, Occoquan, Alexandria and Dumfries, Va., and became famous as the 'Father of the Chain Store.'

Henderson received appointment as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps at 23. During the War of 1812, he served as a captain on the USS Constitution, and for his gallantry against the British corvettes Cyan and Levant off the coast of Portugal, he was awarded the rank of brevet major.

A bold officer, he relished in the image of the Marine Corps. During the British attack on Washington, D.C., Lt. Col. Franklin Wharton, third Commandant of the Marine Corps, fled from the Washington Navy Yard by boat. Though Henderson was far from the scene, he felt Wharton had damaged the public image of the Marine Corps by not taking to the field himself and brought Wharton up on charges of neglect of duty and dishonorable behavior. Wharton was acquitted of all charges but died in office the next year, during which time Henderson served as interim commandant until the senior officer could be appointed. Henderson would not be long-removed from the Commandants' Quarters. Oct. 16,1820, the fourth commandant, Lt. Col. Anthony Gale was court martialed and removed from service. Henderson was sworn in the next day.

At 37 years old, he took the reins of the Marine Corps. He would not hand them over for 39 years. Henderson, known today as the Grand Old Man of the Marine Corps would out serve nine presidents and leave a legacy to the Corps in both traditions and legend.
Henderson's 14 years of service prior to becoming the fifth Commandant were marked by gallant fighting against the British during the War of 1812 and against pirates in the Caribbean, but his great legacy grew greater with his rise to power.

An issue Henderson saw to the betterment of the Corps would come in 1834 when Congress passed the "Act for the Better Organization of the Marine Corps." It better established the mission of the Corps as part of the naval establishment but gave latitude by the order of the president to allow detachments to serve with the Army. President Andrew Jackson would use this act the next year during the Indian Wars.

Florida had become a hot spot for the Army as conflicts between settlers and Seminole and Creek Indians erupted in war. Heeding Henderson's request to support the Army, Jackson finally gave him permission to assist and Marines were brought from shipboard duty to aid the Army.

Henderson placed himself in command and, taking virtually the entire available strength of the Corps, left for the extended campaign. In a legendary moment, Henderson is said to have tacked a terse message on his office door, which read:

"Have gone to Florida to fight Indians. Will be back when war is over. Signed, A. Henderson, Col. Commandant"

After the Indian Wars, Jackson felt the Marine Corps was no longer needed and sought to eliminate it, but Henderson's tenacity proved as unyielding in tongue as he was in body and a legislative duel sent Jackson away unheard by Congress. The Congressional hearings, instead of disbanding the Corps, doubled its strength and appropriations. He was also awarded the brevet rank of brigadier general.

During the war with Mexico, which began in May 1846, Marines fought several geographically distinct campaigns.  Under orders from President James Polk, Henderson sent 1st Lt. Archibald Gillespie on a secret mission to the west coast of Mexico. The mission resulted in the cession of California from Mexico. Within a few months of the cession, Marines were the first to set foot on Mexican soil during the Invasion of Mexico and march on Mexico City in September 1847.

With the city secured, Marine 1st Lt. Augustus S. Nicholson cut down the Mexican colors and ran up the Stars and Stripes. As a result of the Marines' participation in the Mexican War, the citizens of Washington, D.C., presented Henderson with a blue and gold standard which bore the motto, "From Tripoli to the Halls of Montezuma."

In the years that followed, Henderson led his Marines through service around the world, in conflict and humanitarian aid. He regulated training of Marines enforced stricter guidelines of conduct and brought the Corps out of its infancy, developing it into a mature, defined organization.

On Jan. 6, 1859, Brevet Brig. Gen. Henderson died quietly while taking a nap at the age of 76. He had been out for his daily walk "apparently in his usual good health," according to his Notice of Death, which dripped with the despair that swallowed Washington over the death of their favored Marine. It details "it was apparent that death came without a struggle, and the good man and brave soldier had passed to his final rest without suffering in any respect the bitterness of death."

Henderson's funeral was one of the largest seen in Washington, according to the Washington Ledger, which published his death notice. Two Navy commodores, two Navy captains, three Marine Corps colonels and the famed Surgeon General Thomas Lawson were among his pall bearers and President James Buchanan and the cabinet were all in attendance. As a sign of respect, all flags were ordered to half-mast and a mourning band was ordered for all military officers to be worn for 30 days. His remains were interred in the Congressional Cemetery in southeast Washington. Henderson was remembered for giving his best to the Marine Corps and was well recognized for his leadership and foresight. The Corps that Commandant Lt. Col. John Harris inherited on the eve of the Civil War was insured a continued role as a strong-armed force in the American military structure by Henderson's fierce fighting, both in battle and politics.

Henderson' tenaciousness endured even after his death. After living in the Commandant's House for more than 38 years, he included it in his estate, attempting to will it to his son.

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