The early days of November bring more than just chilly weather and the beginning of a winter-long food and football hibernation cycle. That’s what Thanksgiving is for.
Come the 10th and 11th – the Marine Corps birthday and Veterans Day respectively – military towns and American Legion Halls all over the country begin shaking with the booming voice of Marines past and present, singing the Marines’ Hymn, a song about the Halls of Montezuma and the Shores of Tripoli.
If you’re a Marine, you definitely know what these are. If you’ve served in the military at some point, you’ve probably been able to pick up what they mean. But for a lot of civilians, military culture and tradition can be a black hole of knowledge – unless one of their history teachers was a Marine, there’s no reason for them to know this.
Can you imagine Marine Corps grade school?
The Halls of Montezuma
No, the Marines did not fight Aztec warriors. They were around 300 or so years too late for that.
The reference is to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire…which also happens to be modern-day Mexico City. In 1847, the U.S. and Mexico were engaged in a bit of a war and it wasn’t going well for the Mexicans. The Americans were in the middle of capturing the Mexican capital. But Mexico under dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna wasn’t going down easily – neither were its people.
To break the fighting spirits of the Mexican troops while capturing the city itself, Gen. Winfield Scott determined that he would have to capture Chapultepec Castle, a military academy on the heights overlooking the city. The hill leading up to the castle was a 200-foot slope ending in a 12-foot wall, designed to keep enemy troops from doing exactly what the Marines were about to do.
After the Americans made it through volley after volley of artillery and gunfire, the Mexican Army was waiting for them. They engaged in a good old-fashioned fistfight.
They then scaled the castle walls and entered the inside of the castle – known as the Halls of Montezuma. They raised the American flag and by the time Gen. Scott entered the castle, the streets were guarded by U.S. Marines.
The Marines captured the fortress in an hour, with a loss of 90 percent of the Marines’ officer and NCO corps. Legend has it the NCOs and officers added scarlet stripes to their pants to commemorate their lost brothers here. Today these are referred to as “blood stripes” to remember the Marine blood shed in Mexico City.
The Shores of Tripoli
Why do the Marines sing about the Shores of Tripoli when those particular shores have been pretty unfriendly to Americans for much of the time most active Marines have been alive? Because, like Chapultepec, this battle happened early on in Marine Corps history.
The wars with the Barbary pirates were an epic and underreported time in American history. The Marines got one of their first heroes when Lt. Presley O’Bannon and his contingent of Marines accompanied a force of Arab allies under U.S. agent William Eaton marched 500 miles overland to attack the city of Derne.
It was after the march that O’Bannon and the Marines, along with Eaton and his Greek and Arab mercenaries, captured the city against a much larger force. The Tripolitans sent reinforcements, but by the time they arrived, the city had already fallen. When that force tried to retake the city, U.S. Navy vessels and captured Tripolitan guns manned by Marines repelled the attack.
The capture of Derne forced the leaders in Tripoli to make peace with the Americans, stop raiding American shipping, and free American slaves. The Marines say Lt. O’Bannon was presented with an elaborate Mamluk-style sword by the Ottoman representative, which is now the model for those carried by Marine Corps officers.