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The Marine Corps Birthday: A 244-Year History

The history of the Marine Corps birthday is one that stretches back 244 years.

Today is the United States Marine Corps birthday, a day of celebration and pageantry that began 244 years ago on November 10, 1775.

In the growing American Revolution in November of that year, the Second Continental Congress commissioned Samuel Nichols “Captain of Marines.” On November 10 that legislative body passed a resolution creating “two Battalions of Marines,” and Captain Nichols was charged with recruiting and leading the Marines.

Nichols established a recruiting headquarters at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, and in January of 1776 he and his Marines were assigned to the USS Alfred, the ship that flew the first American flag.

Two months later, the Marines conducted their first amphibious assault against British forces at the Port of Nassau in the Bahamas.

During the Revolution, Marines began to establish what would become their famed legacy as they fought on land and sea. At the close of the American Revolution, however, the Marines Corps and Navy were all but disbanded.

This changed when on July 11, 1798, President John Adams signed a bill that recreated the Marine Corps.  From that day until 1921, the day was considered the Corps birthday.


Marine Corps Birthday

In October of 1921 Maj. Edwin McClellan, Officer-in-Charge, Historical Section, Headquarters Marine Corps suggested to Maj. Gen. Commandant John A. Lejeune that November 10 be declared as the Corps birthday.  He also suggested that a dinner be held in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the event.

The 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps agreed, and on November 1st he issued Marine Corps Order No. 47 (Series 1921).  It begins as follows:

The following will be read to the command on the 10th of November, 1921, and hereafter on the 10th of November of every year. Should the order not be received by the 10th of November, 1921, it will be read upon receipt.

On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of Continental Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”….

From that day forward, Lejeune’s order has been read by Marines to Marines in locations around the world wherever they are serving.

Gen. John A. Lejeune. Credit: Pinterest.

First Came the Celebration

Not long after the issuance of Order No. 47, Marine commands began to not only honor the birthday, but in varied fashions they began to celebrate it.

In 1923, the Marine Barracks at Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania held a formal dance in celebration of the Corps 148th birthday; Marines at the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, staged a 20 minute mock battle on a parade ground; and at Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a Marine baseball team played a Cuban team, winning by a score of 9 to 8.

As to McClellan’s suggestion that a dinner be held, that took the form of a “birthday ball.”

The first one took place in Philadelphia. Guests included General Lejeune, Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis, and a platoons of politicians, soldiers and sailors. 

Prior to the event, General Lejeune unveiled a memorial plaque at Tun Tavern, the Corps birthplace.  The gift was from the Thomas Roberts Reath Post, American Legion, whose membership was comprised exclusively of Marines.


Then Came the Cake

While there is a crumb of evidence that the first birthday cake ceremony was held at Quantico, Virginia in 1935, it is clear that one was held at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. in 1937.

On that November 10th, Maj. Gen. Commandant Thomas Holcomb presided over the cutting of a large birthday cake designed after the famous Tun Tavern.  From that point forward, the idea of a Marine Corps birthday celebration with cake and a ball grew.

On October 28, 1952, General Commandant Lemuel Shepherd, Jr., directed that the Marine Corps Birthday be formalized. He also provided an outline of how this would be accomplished, which was included in the Marine Corps Drill Manual and approved in January 1956.

Cake is the order of the day as the Marine Corps celebrates its 244th birthday. Credit: Marine Corps Times.

A Marine Corps Birthday Tradition

So who gets the first piece of cake?

There are currently three cake cutting scripts used.

The cutting of the cake represents a renewal of each Marine’s commitment to the Corps.  As such, the birthday cake is traditionally cut with the Mameluke sword. The weapon gets its name from the cross hilt and ivory grip design, similar to swords used by Ottoman warriors, and the Corps tradition of carrying this sword dates from Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon’s assault of Derna, Tripoli in 1805

The first piece of cake is presented to the guest of honor; the second piece of cake is presented to the oldest Marine present; and the third piece of cake is presented by the oldest Marine to the youngest Marine present, signifying that experienced Marines will nurture and lead the young Marines that fill the Corps ranks.

And speaking of young Marines ….

I’m your average kid.  I played sports in high school, had a good looking girlfriend, had good grades, and could have gone to college.  But I choose to defend freedom. No matter the price.

I am a United States Marine.

For 244 years that sense of espirit de corps has formed and motivated the spirit of the United States Marine Corps.


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