April 1925

Commandant of the Marine Corps-William Ward Burrows

Volume 8, Issue 14

"The Lost Grave Found" might be a more appropriate title for this little sketch than the above, because it would never have been written if it had not been for a paragraph in an annual report of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution that pointed to the long-sought-for final resting place of the first Commandant of the American Marines-William Ward Burrows, born in South Carolina, adopted by Philadelphia, an oldest inhabitant of Washington, where he died, and who sleeps in Arlington among the Nation's sons.

The Marines are clannish. They are all for one and one for all. They keep alive, as no other military organization does, the memory of those who have passed over. These Marines have a beautiful thought which they seldom express in public. It is that their Corps is a living tiling that never dies; that it has a Soul-the Spirit of their Departed-a cloud of witnesses who to their Country and their Corps have been Ever Faithful.

The Marines never forget! And, remembering, have often asked the question: "Where is the grave of the first Commandant?" The Daughters of the American Revolution at last gave the answer-"Grave 301-B, Division Western, Arlington."


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"A gentleman of accomplished mind and polished manner," wrote Washington Irving in "Salmagundi" of William Ward Burrows. But he was more than that: He was a loyal American and a leader who instilled into the hearts and minds of the new Marines the traditions and "esprit de corps" of the old Revolutionary Corps. He was broad-minded and far-seeing, an organizer, and an eflicient officer. He was not only a leader in his own Corps, but a very energetic and pleasing factor in the civic, business and social life of Philadelphia when it was the capital city and of Washington City from 1800 until his death. "His virtue as a man procured him many warm, sincere, and affectionate friends," commented the "Poulson's Daily American Advertiser's editor, while "his services in nursing the infant Corps over which he presided, so useful to our naval enterprises, ought to be particularly commended by a grateful country."

Early in life he moved from Charleston, S. C., to Philadelphia, where, on October 8, 1783, he married Mary Bond, daughter of Thomas Bond, Jr., "Surgeon and Purveyor of the Continental Army."

William Ward Burrows was associated in business matters and in a social way with Robert Morris, who did so much for our own United States in finances and in the administration of naval affairs during the Revolution. Though a Federalist, and on intimate terms with John Adams, nevertheless his political faith did not prevent him from being an ardent admirer and firm friend of Thomas Jefferson, the Republican, or, as the Marine officers in their correspondence called him, The Democrat.

John Adams has often been called the "Father of the Marine Corps." He believed in them. He urged use of them during the Revolution. On board the frigate "Boston," en route to France, he actually fought us a Marine in action with the "Martha." And so it was John Adams, the New Englander, who selected a Southern-born gentleman to be the first leader of the new Marine Corps. On July 12, 1798, in Philadelphia, William Ward Burrows received his commission of that same date as Major Commandant.

What a task that commission spelled to Burrows! A war raging, vessels going into commission every day and they all required Marine guards, officers to the number of thirty-two and 848 enlisted men had to be raised immediately. There were three or four officers already in commission and possibly a hundred or so Marines enlisted for one year serving on the frigates, but that number could hardly be called a hare nucleus, fortunately for our country and the Corps, Major Burrows was equal to his responsibilities, for no part of his duty was more successfully performed than that of tilling the commissioned grades with officers and gentlemen and the eulisted ranks with loyal, efficient Sea Soldiers.

The indefatigible exertions and intelligent methods of the first Commandant brought honor and glory to the Marines in the first war under the Constitution, and laid the splendid foundation for the new Corps.

The first Headquarters of the Corps was under canvas, a short distance from the heart of the City of Philadelphia, which, at that time, was the Capital of the United States. Headquarters at first consisted of Major Burrows, a clerk or two, and the few Marines waiting orders to active duty. In addition to these, the Commandant soon added his historic Marine Band, which, under the efficient leadership of Drum Major William Farr, often charmed Philadelphians.

It was not long before Major Burrows organized his staff, which consisted of Captain George Memminger, Adjutant; Second Lieutenant Thomas Wharton, Quartermaster, and Second Lieutenant James Thompson, Paymaster, who later married Sarah Lurrows.

The Headquarters remained in Philadelphia no longer than that city was continued as the Capital City. The last incident of importance participated in by the Marines in Philadelphia was the celebration of the Fourth of July in the year 1800. The Universal Gazette, of Philadelphia, in describing this celebration, stated that "the Society of the Cincinnati distinguished the occasion by an elegant entertainment given at the City Tavern, at which the following toasts were given, to the animating notes of martial music by the band belonging to Colonel Burrow's corps of Marines." This affair was made notable, as far as the Marines were concerned, by the Society of the Cincinnati conferring honorary membership upon Colonel Burrows. It is on this occasion also, we read in the press for the first time, of the famous United States Marine Band playing in public.

The National Capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, and the Marines, already distinguished as "Presidentlal troops," arrived in the Federal City in July of that year. Stopping for a few days in Georgetown, they soon pitched their tents on a most "beautiful hill overlooking the Potomac"-the same hill on which today is located the Naval Hospital.

With his genial and social disposition, Colonel Burrows did much to drive the gloom away from the dismal city, for Washington, in those ancient days, is described as the "City of Magnificent Distances," the "Wilderness City," the "Mud Hole," the "Capital of Miserable Huts," mid the "City of Streets without Houses."

One of the first diversions furnished Washingtonians was the Marine Band concerts that took place on the hill, already mentioned, where the Marines had their camp. This hill was part of "the reservation selected for the National University on E street, between 23rd and 25th Street." AVe read in Mrs. Thornton's Diary that during the latter part of August, 1800, she and her mother "went to the Hill to hear the Marine Band," which was playing at the Marine's Camp on the "ground intended for the University."

Colonel Burrows organized the first Dancing Assembly to interest social Washington, and, of course, musicians from his band supplied the music. He was a member of every committee of any importance that Interested itself in civic affairs. He paraded his Marines before President Jefferson on the White House Grounds on July 4, 1801. The "National Intelligencer," In reporting this celebration of the Fourth of July, stated that "Lieuten- ant Colonel Burrows, at the head of the Marine Corps," saluted the President" while the Marine Band played "with great precision and with Inspiring animation, the President's March, as the Marines went through the usual evolutions in a masterly manner, fired sixteen rounds in platoon, and concluded with a general "feu de joie."

Throughout the French Naval War, from 1708 to 1801, the Commandant supplied Marines for every conceivable duty, both ashore and afloat. In this war, the Marines added laurels to those gained in the Revolution; they succeeded in their second start as they had in their first.

Peace brought with it the usual reductions in the armed forces and Colonel Burrows entered into the spirit of national economy, as the Marines have ever since done to the present date. Reductions in numbers and appropriations, however, did not hinder efficiency, and the Tripolitan War found over half the Marines (with a strength of about 500) in the Mediterranean.

Colonel Burrows is the only Commandant of the Marine Corps who has had the honor of commanding the Corps in two wars, unless Archibald Henderson, who commanded during the Indian Wars of 1836-1842 and the Mexican War, is excepted.

Both President Jefferson and Colonel Burrows found enjoyment in discussing many topics, and frequently they were seen, as shown by the correspondence of the Commandant, with his officers, riding along the wooded bridle paths tracing the romantic Rock Creek.

The father of William Ward Burrows was William Burrows (born 1726-died May 2, 1781), a lawyer of Charleston, S. C. His mother was Mary Ward (born October 11, 1728-died February 17, 1775). His parents were married April 20, 1749. He was the middle of three children, with an older sister, Polly, and a younger sister, Sarah Ward Burrows. He was born in Charleston, S. C., on January 10, 1758. Educated as a lawyer in America and England, he was admitted to Middle Temple in 1772.

Resigning from the Marine Corps, on March 6, 1804, he died exactly one year later in Washington, aged 47 years, and was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery, Georgetown. His remains were re-interred in the Arlington National Cemetery on May 12, 1892.

Colonel Burrows left behind him two daughters and one son. William Burrows, his son, was killed in action during the War of 1812, while commanding the U. S. S. Enterprise, in an engagement with the Boxer. Sarah Burrows, the older daughter, was married to General James Thompson, of Washington, on May 31, 1803. They had one daughter, Mary Cecilia (born February 25, 1804; died April 27, 1833, in Mexico City), who, on April 22, 1823, was married to Michell Hersant. Mrs. Thompson died March 31, 1848, and General Thompson on October 16, 1856.

Francis Harriet Burrows, the younger daughter, was married to John Nelson, Attorney General of the United States in President Tyler's Cabinet, on November 18, 1816. She left a daughter, Mary S. Nelson, who, on April 20, 1837, married Alexander Neill, and the son of this union is living today at Charles Town, Jefferson County, W. Va.-[Reprinted courtesy D. A. R. Magazine.]

On 21 October 1921, Maj McClellan suggested to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, MajGen John A. Lejeune, that 10 November be designated as the birth date of the Marine Corps, an anniversiary that had not typically been celebrated to that point.