Court-Martial of a Commandant
The Story of Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Gale
Fourth Commandant of the Marine Corps

by LtCol Merrill Bartlett, USMC(Ret).
Article appeared in "Proceedings", June 1985

On 10 November, the Marine Corps' official birthday, a wreath is placed on the grave of each officer who had been a Commandant of the Marine Corps (CMC). But there is one exception. No one is sure where the fourth commandant, Anthony Gale, is buried.

Gale served only a brief period as Commandant - 3 March 1819 to 16 October 1820. Yet his service to the Marine Corps and his country, and the political infighting surrounding his removal from office as a result of a court-martial are illustrative of the often strange relationship that existed between the Marine Corps and the Secretary of the Navy in the Corps' early years. And the machinations of some of Gale's fellow officers for the post of CMC probably contributed to his demise.

Born in Ireland in 1761, Gale migrated to the United States in 1793. Five years later, President John Adams and Congress authorized the formation of the U. S. Marine Corps. On 26 July 1798, Gale obtained a commission in the fledgling Corps and applied for U.S. citizenship. The following September, Gale received orders to the Marine Corps camp at Philadelphia where his first duties involved recruiting enlisted men and guarding prisoners-of-war from the Quasi-War with France. He was to spend most of his career in the Philadelphia area except when at sea.

During the age of sail, junior Marine Corps officers served alternating tours of duty on the U. S. naval vessels; Gale's first tour of sea duty was on the 24-gun Ganges. During this assignment, Gale displayed his hot hot Irish temper when a Navy lieutenant, Allen MacKenzie, relieved a Marine Corps sentry from his duties and placed him in irons. When Gale questioned MacKenzie's actions, tempers flared; Gale called the Navy officer a "rascal" and struck him. A duel followed and MacKenzie was killed. Gale's conduct earned him the approbation of the Marine Corps Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel William Ward Burrows, who indicated in a letter to another Marine Corps officer, " is hoped that this may be a lesson to the navy officers to treat the Marines as well as their officers with some respect."

Gale married Catherine Swope in 1800 after completing his tour on the Ganges. He had been promoted to a first lieutenant by then and numbered ninth of 18 officers in that rank. The Corps also included the lieutenant colonel commandant, four captains and 18 second lieutenants.

Between assignments in the barracks at Philadelphia, Gale saw sea duty on five other ships, including the Philadelphia and Constitution. As a first lieutenant, he earned $30 a month, five more than a second lieutenant and ten less than a captain.

On 24 April 1804, the Commandant promoted Gale to Captain and brevet major. As the senior captain in the Corps, Gale now earned $40 a month. More senior officers commanded the barracks ashore, recruiting and preparing Marines for duty at sea. Such were Gale's duties commanding the barracks in Philadelphia from April 1807 to July 1817.

Under Commandant Burrows, Gale enjoyed success. But after Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Wharton took the helm, Headquarters Marine Corps began to take a sharper view of Gale's irregular ways. In 1816, Wharton ordered a court of inquiry into charges that Gale had used public funds and labor to refurbish his home in Philadelphia. The court found no basis for the allegations; however, further reports of irregularities at the barracks caused Wharton to transfer Gale to New Orleans in the spring of 1817. Gale's successor in Philadelphia, Major John M. Gamble, found the barracks in a sorry state; instances of drunken sentries and theft plagued the new commanding officer. The Commandant ordered another inquiry, but again a host of Navy and Marine Corps officers and civilians testified to Gale's unimpeachable professional conduct. Only Gamble offered negative testimony, a clue to the unrest and political infighting near the Marine Corps' highest post.

When Wharton died in 1818, the senior officers of the Marine Corps seemed to be divided into two camps: one was close to the now-deceased commandant and included Brevet Major Samuel Miller, the Adjutant and Inspector at Headquarters Marine Corps, and Brevet Major Richard Smith. A significant figure opposed to this faction was Major Archibald Henderson, angered by Wharton's alleged faint-heartedness during the War of 1812. Henderson and his supporters charged that the Wharton group encouraged officers to devote themselves to their private lives and business ventures and to ignore their professional duties. Many senior officers, including Gale, preferred to command their barracks hoping to be left alone by both Marine Corps and Navy superiors.

When Wharton died, Gale was the senior officer in the Marine Corps, with an unfortunate reputation for a fondness for the bottle and a hot Irish temper; he did not appear to be much of a gentlemen. Moreover, Gale had seen little combat by comparison with most of his contemporaries, and he often displayed a casual indifference to administrative procedures. With the possibility that Gale might become the next CMC, a flurry of political infighting for the Corps' highest post followed as some hoped that strict seniority - as had been the custom since 1798 - would not be observed. Miller hoped especially that he might receive the appointment. Several members of Congress and the Chief Clerk of the Department of the Navy wrote President James Monroe extolling Miller's professional qualifications for the post. Miller even had the temerity to write directly to the President asking to be considered.

Gale, however, assumed correctly that he would receive the appointment on the basis of seniority, and on 3 March 1819 he became the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps that Gale inherited numbered 47 officers and 875 enlisted men, mostly providing detachments for 58 vessels of war of all sizes.

The duties of his office had changed little from those which the Department of the Navy had defined for the House of Representatives in1803: recruiting, outfitting recruits, providing guards for naval vessels and yards, and disciplining and maintaining small arms for Marines ashore. In addition, the CMC administered the Marine Corps by corresponding with the Department of the Navy and handled all pay and accounts.

In contrast, the Navy of that era received most of its guidance directly from the Secretary of the Navy himself. Although the Board of Navy Commissioners had been in operation since January 1815, its duties remained mostly administrative in nature, leaving operational matters to the Office of the Secretary of the Navy. The small detachments of Marines in the Navy;s ships helped maintain order and discipline among a mostly foreign-born enlisted force plagued by low pay, bad food and dangerous work. Most navy officers and government officials remained convinced that only the threat of the lash and a Marine guard kept this obstreperous rabble in check.

Whatever Gale's shortcomings as an administrator or Marine Corps professional, he understood all too clearly that the limits of his office needed to be defined. Many Marine Corps officers were in the habit of corresponding directly to the Secretary of the Navy or even to the President when they wanted a transfer or extended leave. The indefatigable Henderson even wrote to the Secretary of the Navy requesting permission to join General Andrew Jackson's expedition to Florida.

Gale charged into this administrative breach by taking his troubles directly to Smith Thompson, President James Monroe's Secretary of the Navy. A lawyer, Thompson was appointed to office on 1 January 1819 after the post was offered to Commodore John Rodgers, president of the Board of Commissioners, who declined it. Thompson did not leave a distinguishing mark on the office, even absenting himself from his desk from 28 March to 20 December 1819. However, as unenthused as Thompson appeared to be with his political appointment, he did demand what he considered to be his prerogatives as secretary and Gale came to be at loggerheads with him.

In August 1820, Gale wrote a long, rambling letter which outlined the problems of the CMC's command authority. In it, Gale asked that the limits of his office be defined. If the secretary responded at all, his answer has not survived. Gale had other problems at the time, unfortunately. After 30 August 1820, Brevet Major Miller signed all correspondence from Headquarters Marine Corps as Gale appeared to be on a drunken binge. Miller informed the Secretary of the Navy, and one of the strangest courts-martial in U.S. naval history followed.

In apparent compliance with the secretary's orders, Miller ordered a general court-martial for Gale on 7 September 1820, charging the CMC with:

  • Habitual drunkenness in dram shops and in the streets of Washington, D.C.
  • Conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman, including visiting a house of ill-fame near the barracks, calling Lieutenant N. M. Desha, Paymaster of the Marine Corps, a "damned rascal, liar and coward," and then threatening him, declaring in the streets near the barracks that he "did not care a damn for the President, Jesus Christ, or God Almighty".
  • Signing a false statement (using a Marine Corps private as a waiter and coachman).
  • Violating the orders of his arrest and leaving his quarters without permission.

    The membership of the court-martial contributed to the strange legal proceedings: an Army brigadier general, R. L. Jesup, served as president, alongside two field grade Army officers and two Marine Corps captains. Although preferring the charges, Miller prosecuted the case, and Desha, a witness for the prosecution, received orders as a supernumerary to the court-martial. Meanwhile, the secretary and Miller placed Gale under house arrest, which prevented him from gathering witnesses and evidence in his defense. At the trial, Gale pleaded that temporary derangement, not intoxication, precipitated his strange behavior and claimed a history of mental illness in his family. Unmoved, the court found Gale guilty.

    On 19 October 1820, Miller informed Gale that the President had approved the findings of the court-martial, dismissing the CMC from the Marine Corps. As a post-script to the official letter ending Gale's career in naval service, Miller wished Gale would "correct a habit [drunkenness]."

    Gale's wife appealed to the secretary after the trial. By then, the former CMC had been confined to a mental hospital, and his wife informed the secretary that Gale had first shown signs of mental instability in 1817. She wondered just how she and her children were to survive. Her letter to the secretary was poignant and moving "...his head is silvered with age and service...[he] never neglected his duty until it pleased heaven to visit him."

    In 1826, Gale abandoned the Philadelphia area for Lincoln County, Kentucky, where he purchased 158 acres of land on the Dicks River. There, he lived out his days in poverty and ill health, frequently petitioning a seemingly ungrateful government for a pension. His letter produced first a miserly $15 a month and later $30. But even President Martin van Buren was not moved further by such pleas as, "...[my] children compelled to daily labor to procure a scant subsistence...this is a hard case after devoting the prime of my life to the service of my old soldier now on the verge of his dear children, keep them from want."

    After 1840, Gale's fortunes worsened. Failure to repay a small loan resulted in foreclosure and the courts seized his meager possessions and a side of bacon. He began to drink heavily, resulting in confinement to a mental hospital again. In broken health and spirit, Gale appealed a last time for an increase in his meager pension: "...I cannot remain long in this vale of tears, I am now on the verge of the grave."

    Gale died on 12 December 1843, either of tuberculosis or cancer of the lungs. His wife survived him by four years. Gale's children remained in poverty and appealed periodically to receive their father's pension. In 1966, Marine Corps Commandant General Wallace M. Greene, Jr., expressed renewed interest in the location of Gale's grave and the possibility of finding a picture of him. Although a search produced new information on Gale's activities in Kentucky and other historical figures of interest to Marine Corps historians, no picture of the fourth CMC or the exact location of his grave could be found.

    What of the other participant in this sad tale?

  • In 1824, Thompson received an appointment more to his liking, serving as a justice of the Supreme Court until his death in 1843.

  • Miller performed in the field during the Seminole Indian campaigns in Florida, and after being promoted to lieutenant colonel commanded the Marine Barracks in Philadelphia and Boston. Dying in 1855, he never achieved the commandancy he had sought.

  • Henderson became the eminence gris of the ante bellum Marine Corps, serving more than 38 years as CMC.

    Gale's demise and short commandancy provide a sorry interlude in the history of the Marine Corps' highest post. His untimely dismissal only underscored the political schemes afoot among many Marine Corps senior officers. While Gale's professional shortcomings were well known, he deserved better treatment at the hands of his fellow Marines. To a moralistic jurist like the Secretary of the Navy Thompson, Gale must have been anathema. And Gale's randy behavior and bouts with the bottle, exacerbated perhaps by mental illness, made a change in the Commandancy of the Marine Corps easier to accomplish.

    "Casualties many; Percentage of dead not known; Combat efficiency: we are winning." (Col David M. Shoup, USMC, Tarawa, 21 November 1943. Later served as 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1 January 1960 - 31 December 1963"

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