November 10, 2023 marks the 248th birthday of the United States Marine Corps. On November 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress authorized two battalions of Continental Marines. The recruiting station was a public house (a.k.a. a pub) known as Tun Tavern. In this location, the early Marines joined the fight for American independence. The commanding officer was Captain Samuel Nicholas. Today we recognize him as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps despite the fact that he never officially held that title.
Birth of an Elite Fighting Force
On October 13, 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the American navy. The Congress did this by authorizing the purchase of several ships that would become the first commissioned navy ships. The Marines were not a new concept. Indeed the Congress had a model from other professional militaries throughout the world to include the British Royal Marines. Nevertheless, the creation of the navy necessitated the creation of Marines to serve with them. Marines are considered “soldiers of the sea.” Their role has been to provide protection on ships, to conduct raids, and also execute ship to shore operations.
Historically, Marines have been the first boots on the ground during amphibious operations. The first Marine deployment was to the Bahamas in early 1776. Commodore Esek Hopkins commanded a naval squadron that included Continental Marines. On this campaign, the Continental Marines conducted their first amphibious landing. Although the amphibious landing was mostly unopposed, the operation set an important precedent. It also provided a model for future operations.
Over the last 248 years, the Marine Corps has continually refined and adapted its amphibious doctrines. The most intense amphibious landings occurred during World War II. Marines fought primarily in the Pacific theater of the war. They conducted an “island hopping” campaign against Imperial Japan. The Marines success in the Pacific theater continued to elevate their status throughout the 20th Century. They served in follow-on American wars to include the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, as well as 21st Century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Throughout Marine Corps history, Marines have been not only as amphibious forces but also as conventional land forces. In the most recent interview with General Jason Bohm, we talked about how Marines were used by General Washington to augment the Continental Army during the American Revolution. In fact, Marines served during the “Ten Crucial Days” in which Washington’s army defeated the British at the Battles of Trenton (Dec 25-26, 1776) and Princeton (January 3, 1777).
The First Marine Corps Birthday Ball
With a proud and distinguished history of service, the Marines have developed several important traditions during their birthday. Every year around November 10, Marine units celebrate the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. The Birthday Ball was initially celebrated in 1925. Since that time, Marine units have celebrated it with several important details, which are consistent across all units.
1. Major General John A. Lejeune’s Historic Order
In 1921, Major General John A. Lejeune issued Marine Corps Order No. 47, Series 1921. This order summarized the history, mission, and traditions of the Marine Corps. It is read at every Birthday Ball. The purpose of reading the order is to reinforce a sense of esprit de corps among Marines. Marines should feel a sense of pride and connection to an institution that is greater than themselves. General Lejeune’s order is also a challenge to present day Marines to continue to uphold and preserve the legacy of the Marines that came before them.
2. Reading of the Commandant’s Message
Along with General Lejeune’s order, the current Commandant of the Marine Corps issues a birthday message each year. The Commandant’s message is read to the Marines at the Birthday Ball. Additionally, Marine Corps Commandants have issued video messages, which units will play at their Birthday Ball.
3. Cake-Cutting Ceremony
Another important tradition is the cake-cutting ceremony. During the ceremony, the guest of honor is given the first piece of cake. After the guest of honor, the oldest Marine present gets the second piece. Finally, the youngest Marine present will be given the third piece. In this manner, the Marines recognize the generational preservation of heritage, tradition, wisdom, and experience as represented by the oldest and youngest Marines present. Moreover, the guest of honor is sometimes the oldest Marine. This is common when the guest is a much older Marine Corps veteran. Also, it is typical for the guest of honor to address the Marines at the Birthday Ball.
4. Uniforms and Formal Attire
The Marine Corps Birthday Ball is a formal affair. As a result, Marines will wear their Dress Blue uniforms. The Birthday Ball will also include a nice dinner followed by dancing. Most units will have professional photographers, who will take pictures of Marines and their spouses. Furthermore, most units also get a gift for each Marine. For example, common gifts include a unit’s challenge coin or a pint glass with the unit logo on it.
Why the Marine Corps Birthday Matters
Out of all the branches of the US armed service, the Marine Corps Birthday Ball is one of the most cherished traditions. Marines are passionate about the celebration of their birthday more than any other branch. One of the reasons is that the experience of becoming a Marine drills the history of the Corps into every Marines head. At Boot Camp or Officer Candidate School, the knowledge of Marine Corps history is repeated over and over by the recruit or candidate. It gets to the point where they will never forget the names like “Samuel Nicholas” or “Tun Tavern.” Indeed, they will most likely shout these names back at a screaming Drill Instructor.
However, the point is to indoctrinate each civilian turned Marine into the importance of Marine Corps history and its many traditions. The Marine Corps Birthday Ball is a way to cherish and celebrate that history without having to shout it! As the Marine Corps turns 248, the longevity of the Corps is a testament to the Marines that have entered her service since 1775. It is incumbent on today’s Marines to continue to preserve and carry on the tradition. For those of us who are now Marine veterans, we can continue to promote and preserve the Marine Corps legacy by teaching history and educating the public about the rich and proud history of the United States Marines.
Check out the current Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Birthday Message and video:
Washington’s Marines and the History of the Marine Corps podcast interview