In spring 2003, I was a Marine in military occupational specialty school at Fort Lee, Virginia. Like most Marines stationed on an Army base, I felt out of place on a sprawling fort surrounded by soldiers. Many of us young Marines were just a few months removed from the intensive boot camp indoctrination. We wanted to show our pride to our newly adopted family—a pride the soldiers could not understand. The Marine detachment did all it could to differentiate itself from the soldiers’ barracks right next door, and one of the most poignant traditions has stuck with me to this day.
It is not clear when this tradition at Fort Lee started, but every night at 2100, no matter the weather, the Marine Corps students would stand in formation and sing the Marines’ Hymn. I imagine the main purpose was to get a muster every evening and weekend, but it also was the perfect opportunity to cultivate esprit de corps in the young Marines. Since we were merely students, many complained that there were better things we could be doing, like sleeping. But no matter how tired or annoyed we were to have to be outside and formed each night, when it came time for the Hymn, our chorus echoed throughout the entire base—as well it should. The Hymn is filled with passion and tradition, with the words and music weaved into the soul of every Marine of every generation.
Soul of the Marine Corps
The Marines’ Hymn is the most iconic hymn of all the military branches. Many people who know nothing about the U.S. military culture know the melody of the Marines’ Hymn. Its actual composition date is unknown but was probably somewhere in the late 1840s to the mid 1850s. It fully entered the American consciousness by the early 1900s. Many of the hymns and anthems associated with the military branches originated during the same period, but none are more revered than the Marines’ Hymn.
During the first decades of the 20th century, Americans began seeing Marine Corps culture as one that captured the most adventurous, esteemed, and proud of all the services—and separate from the Army and Navy. The Marines were elite and would fight anywhere in the world. Marines were sent throughout the Caribbean, to Central America, the Philippines, and even China. Marines would fully come into their own during World War I, during which they gained the reputation as the fiercest U.S. units. It was the Marines that gave the U.S. naval power of the time its teeth. It was the Marines’ Hymn that gave it is soul.
History of the Hymn
While the exact genesis of the Hymn is unknown, there are clues in the Hymn that help us discern meaning.
The first line, “From the Halls of Montezuma,” refers to the 1846–48 Mexican-American War and the Battle of Chapultepec. In September 1847, Marines marched from the Gulf-of-Mexico coast to Mexico City, capturing the capital after intense fighting. The Mexican-American War was politically unpopular but created many national heroes that would later become legends—and villains—in the Civil War. And even though the war was unpopular, it was a watershed moment in the development of the Marine Corps.
The second line, “To the shores of Tripoli,” referrers to the first Marine Corps’ missions along the Barbary Coast in 1801. The First Barbary War was the first foreign crisis for the President Thomas Jefferson’s administration. While ambassador to France, Jefferson worked to defeat the Barbary Coast kings who demanded tribute from all nations who trade in the Mediterranean Sea. He ultimately failed but would be undeterred when he became president. He ordered a squadron of ships and a detachment of Marines to the Mediterranean, where they ultimately raided the port in Tripoli, burning 10 ships.
There are no references to battles from the Civil War in the Hymn, suggesting the lyrics—perhaps initially written in the form of a poem—took shape at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. The final verses are the best:
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.
The Army and Navy have historically been rivals. The final verses indicate the Marines have a divine calling that surpasses any earthly bound enmity. Singing these verses on an Army base for all the soldiers to hear fueled our young Marine Corps souls.
The melody was first performed in 1859 in the Jacques Offenbach opera “Genevieve de Brabant.” However, it was probably derived from a Spanish folk song, making it very recognizable to the people of the time. The form did not take recognizable shape until the late 1860s, when it was added to the popular melody. There has been only one minor change since the Commandant of the Marine Corps officially recognized the Hymn in 1929. In 1942, “in the air” was added to acknowledge Marine air power.
A Hymn that Stands Alone
The other service anthems were written well after the Marines’ Hymn took root. “The Army Goes Rolling Along” was adapted from John Philip Sousa’s 1917 “Field Artillery March” (itself adapted from Edmund Gruber’s 1908 “The Caissons Go Rolling Along”). It proudly sings the story of the Army but did not become the official Army hymn until 1956. The official Navy song, “Anchors Away,” dates its origin to 1906, but it was originally composed for the Naval Academy and not the Navy. Coast Guard Captain Francis Saltus Van Boskerck wrote and composed the “Semper Paratus” in 1922. The Air Force anthem “Wild Blue Yonder” predates the Army’s, as it was composed during World War II as the Army–Air Corps began to differentiate itself from the other branches, including the Army. All these anthems are powerful and carry their service’s proud history, but remain in the shadow of the Marines’ Hymn.
The Marines’ Hymn sets the standard for service hymns. It is more than just a song. It remains popular and recognizable because it speaks to the rooted American virtues of honor, courage, and commitment that embolden Marines in every generation. Hymns are composed out of the feeling of the group to which they are first sung. Hymns perfectly combine music and emotion that cuts through time and space.
When Marines sing their Hymn, the words and melody become more than an anthem. They resonate a joyous sound that links generations to what they have done to what they will do. The Marine Corps not only earned their Hymn, but they set the bar for every other branch—and bring a smile to even the Marines “upstairs” on duty looking down on us.