The History of the USMC, On the Ground in the Middle East

Government

USMC photo

Service members in your nation’s capital get a twofer today. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, but the Federal government is observing the holiday today, which also happens to be the United States Marine Corps birthday. Yes, the Navy’s Army, which has its own Air Force turns, 242 today.

On November 5, 1775, the Second Continental Congress issued a commission to Philadelphia merchant Samuel Nicholas, making him “Captain of Marines.” Five days later, Congress authorized the recruitment of two battalions of Marines, and Nicholas set-up a recruiting station in, appropriately if you know any Marines, a tavern.

Tun’s Tavern had been a popular Philadelphia hangout. The local Freemason’s lodge met there, as occasionally did delegates to the Congress. Nicholas was able to raise one battalion (not two) of Marines, who were soon onboard the new ships of the Continental Navy, headed to the Caribbean. In March, 1776, Nicholas led his men ashore to raid British powder stores in the town of Nassau, in the Bahamas. And from the resulting Battle of Nassau, the legend of Marine amphibious derring-do was born.

to the Shores of Tripoli

Although the Continental Marines were disbanded after the Revolution, the young nation soon realized that it needed a navy to protect its commercial shipping interests, and Marines to protect those ships against boarding parties. At this point, each Marine was issued “one stock of black leather and clasp” to protect his neck from cutlasses when boarding a ship or repelling boarders, and the nickname “Leatherneck” was born. The tradition lives today in the high collar of the Marines’ dress blue uniform.

Almost from the start, the Marines have been involved in ground operations in the Middle East. Their legendary bravery was proven in Libya in the First Barbary War. American merchantmen were under constant harassment by Berber pirates operating in the Atlantic and Mediterranean along the coast of present day Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. Rather than pay tribute, President Thomas Jefferson sent the Navy and Marines to put a stop to this piracy.

Since we’re supposed to learn from history, it is worth noting that while Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha of Tripoli, declared war on the United States, there was no formal declaration of war in response. In raising a navy, Congress provided Jefferson with the 18th-Century equivalent of the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force that authorizes our present-day conflicts.

Congress told Jefferson that in the event of war with the Berber tribes, the Navy should “protect our commerce and chastise their insolence—by sinking, burning or destroying their ships and vessels wherever you shall find them.” A further resolution in 1802 entitled “An act for the protection of commerce and seamen of the United States against the Tripolitan cruisers” reinforced Jefferson’s authority to act.

In March 1805, Marine Lt. Presley O’Bannon led seven other U.S. Marines and a force of about 400 locally recruited mercenaries on a March westward from Alexandria, Egypt. Their aim was to take Tripoli and free the American sailors held there since the USS Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli in 1803.

O’Bannon never made it to Tripoli, but in the Battle of Derne, a Tripolitan city, his forces defeated approximately 4,000 Berber soldiers and O’Bannon became the first American to raise the U.S. flag over a foreign territory, earning him enshrinement in the Marine Corps Hymn.

Happy birthday you brash, bold, bragging, hard-fighting, hard-drinking Leathernecks. Semper Fi.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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