- Historic Sites
The Marine Tradition
The Corps is supposed to be tough, and is. This often confounds its enemies and sometimes irritates the nation’s other services
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
In addition to the fighting, of which the Corps had a great deal, the early commandants of the Marines had two primary concerns—the development of a stiff discipline, and the business of coping with the professional hostility of army and navy officers. Major Archibald Henderson, who became commandant in 1820 and served in that capacity for 39 years, is generally credited with having done as much as any one man to build the Corps on a solid basis, and he once wrote feelingly to the secretary of the Navy: “Our isolated Corps, with the Army on one side and the Navy on the other (neither friendly) has been struggling ever since its establishment tor its very existence.” As mentioned, President Jackson proposed in 1829 that the Corps be merged either into the infantry or the artillery; Congress refused to hear of it, and when five years later it enlarged the Corps, making it part of the naval establishment but not of the Navy, and giving the commandant the rank of colonel, Jackson readily signed the act.
The tradition of-tough discipline, established in the infancy of the Corps, remains to this day, although disciplinary forms have changed a good deal. There is a record of a private who had been found asleep on sentry go sentenced to walk post for the next two months encumbered by a ball and chain. In 1820, a private court-martialed for desertion was sentenced to wear an iron collar, with a six-pound shot attached, for four months, to forfeit all pay during that period, and then to be drummed ignominiously out of the service. At a slightly later date, a marine who jumped ship could receive three-dozen lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails, followed by a discharge; and during all of this early period the lash was used freely as a disciplinary means. A minor offender might be deprived of his daily rum allowance for a stated period; marines who got drunk were often punished by being forced to drink one or two quarts of salt water.
It was around 1875 that the famous Marines’ Hymn was written, with its stirring recital of Marine achievements “from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” and its jeering assertion:
The legend was full-blown by now, and the special Marine spirit of separateness and superiority was well established. There was a certain amount of justification for it, because the Corps by mid-century had soaked up an uncommon amount of fighting in many widely separated places.
There had been the brief, semiofficial naval war with France, and the intermittent wars with the Barbary pirates and other freebooting inhabitants of the African shore of the Mediterranean. Amid this, in 1805, there had been the astonishing Goo-mile march from Egypt to Derne of a heterogeneous force under General William Eaton, an American diplomatic agent who had recruited a highly mixed little army in the Near East to come overland and unseat the Bashaw of Tripoli, with whom the United States was at war. The spearhead of Eaton’s force—or, if not precisely the spearhead, at least the visible sign and symbol of United States authority—was a tiny detachment of marines, eight of them in all: one lieutenant, one sergeant, and six privates. The army reached Derne, stormed a harbor fort, and the marines’ young First Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon hoisted an American flag over the captured stronghold—the first American flag to fly over an Old World outpost. That the Bashaw of Tripoli was not unseated but instead was able to make an excellent peace with the Americans took none of the glamour from this exploit. The Marines had indeed been “to the shores of Tripoli,” and the fact was duly noted in the song.
There had been many other fights, too. Marines served in the War of 1812—it was a force of marines and sailors who provided what opposition the British encountered at the Battle of Bladensburg, just before the capture of Washington—and there were marines in Fort McHenry when the unsuccessful British bombardment of that place led Francis Scott Key to write the song that became the national anthem. It is also of record that there were marines with Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, and of course marine detachments served on such ships as the Constitution , the United States , and the Essex .