Study Guide

The Marines' Hymn Meaning

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Sing Along If You Know It

“The Marines’ Hymn” is the oldest and probably best known of the official military songs in the United States. Even those who don’t know the difference between a squid and a devil dog recognize the song’s first line: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” Yet even the most loyal leatherneck can’t tell you the exact origins of the song. According to some, a Marine wrote the song during the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s, but this is only a guess.

All we really know is that the song’s opening lines were already part of Marine Crops lore by 1850. “The shores of Tripoli” was stitched on the Marine Corps battle colors shortly after the Marines hoisted the American flag over the Tripolitan city of Derna in 1805. “The halls of Montezuma” was added to the Corps’ flag after the Marines captured Chapultepec Castle in 1847 during the war with Mexico. The line commemorates two of the most dramatic moments in early Marine Corps history. But what exactly happened on the shores and in the halls?

For 20 years at the end of the 18th century, pirates operating off the Barbary Coast—the present day North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya—harassed American ships and captured sailors to be held for ransom. During that period, the United States, like most European nations, either paid the ransom or bought protection from these attacks by paying tributes to the pashas that ruled over the North African territories. In 1801, however, newly elected President Thomas Jefferson announced that the US would no longer pay these tributes, a stance that he had held since he had first gone to Europe to discuss the matter in the 1780s. Arguing that rewarding these terrorist-like attacks only encouraged more of the same behavior, Jefferson rejected the Pasha of Tripoli’s demand of a $225,000 tribute from the new administration. The outraged pasha declared war on the US, and in response, Jefferson sent over the Navy and the Marines.

A fleet of brand new American frigates set up a blockade around several Barbary Coast ports, but the Pasha of Tripoli refused to surrender. In fact, his pirates captured the USS Philadelphia in late 1803, and its crew was taken hostage. Had not Stephen Decatur and a small band of Marines managed to fight their way on board long enough to scuttle the ship in early 1804, the Philadelphia’s big guns would have been turned against the other American vessels.

The war’s decisive battle was fought a year later in 1805. A small force of Marines backed by a much larger force of mercenaries captured the city of Derna, forcing the Pasha to make a deal. The resulting peace agreement was far from perfect (as the Pasha held more American prisoners than the US did Tripolitans, the US agreed to pay a sum of money for the release of the difference), but Americans viewed the war as a victory. They had delivered a fighting force to the Old World and forced concessions from a foreign ruler. The Marines and the American Navy were celebrated as symbols of the young nation’s military muscle.

A little more than 40 years later, the Marines again played a pivotal role in a foreign military campaign. War broke out between the US and Mexico in 1846. By 1847, American forces had seized control of the war, but the nation’s capital, Mexico City, had not been taken. The heart of the ancient city was defended by Chapultepec Castle, also known as the “Halls of Montezuma.” Perched on a hill, the castle served as a military academy in 1847, but with large guns mounted behind its walls, it also offered protection to the surrounding city.

On September 13, 1847, a unit of Marines joined the Army soldiers ordered to take the castle. Withering rifle and artillery fire from behind the stone walls—much of it aimed by teenaged cadets—took a deadly toll, but the Marines and infantrymen successfully scaled the walls and captured the castle. This opened up the city to the American forces and moved the war to a speedy conclusion.

Why Do We Need Marines?

The battles at Derna and Chapultepec Castle were significant in advancing American military goals; the Marines celebrated their role in these events by sewing them into their flag—"From Tripoli to the Halls of the Montezuma." When some unknown songwriter decided to give the Corps an anthem, he began with this line, but it was probably more than just pride that guided this decision. Almost from its inception, the Marine Corps had faced challenges from officials who questioned its place in the American military establishment. The phrase, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” served as a reminder that America needed its Marines.

The case against the Marines began during the 1830s when President Andrew Jackson tried to dissolve the Corps. Marines had fought under his command at the Battle of New Orleans, but Old Hickory still believed that the US Army could absorb the branch. And there was some logic to his argument. The Marines had been founded on the British model; they were designed to be an adjunct to the Navy, providing the shock troops that took the beaches and secured the ports in the beginning of an amphibious assault, and so they were never intended to be part of extended land campaigns. They were trained to provide the first wave, the expeditionary force that rode shotgun for the Navy.

The Marines were also charged with another important task: protect naval officers from mutinies. Again, the British Navy provided the model. Life as a British sailor was particularly hellish. Often forced into service, spending their lives on the high sea or in distant ports, British sailors were kept under control through brutal force. The threat of mutiny was constant, so to protect the officers, a detail of Marines was always assigned to British ships. In fact, their quarters were strategically placed in between those of the crews and the officers.

Andrew Jackson, however, believed that the model was both dated and poorly suited to American realities. The US Navy was a far less critical part of America’s defenses (you know, not being an island like Great Britain is), and the Army could handle the onshore responsibilities previously assigned to the Marines. Nor was Jackson the only president to question the need for this separate branch. More than 100 years later, Dwight D. Eisenhower, another president with a background in the US Army, made the same argument. The US military simply did not need an entirely separate branch to provide the first wave during amphibious assaults.

Moreover, in the decades that followed, changing technologies strengthened the argument. The Marines had built their reputation by storming beaches in sometimes suicidal assaults; they loved to boast that they were the “first to fight,” the vanguard that secured the landing site that allowed the Army to land safely. As time wore on, however, those beaches became increasingly guarded by long-range missiles that could cherry-pick incoming Marine landing vessels. Amphibious assaults seemed to be a thing of the past, and arguably so were the Marines.

Semper Fi

Of course, the Marines have repeatedly challenged the argument. They point to a long line of service—from “the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”—to demonstrate their importance. Indeed, just as the song says, they “have fought in every clime and place…. [In] the snow of far-off Northern lands and in sunny tropic scenes.” They served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, in France during World War I, in the Pacific theater during World War II, in Korea, in Vietnam, and most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Especially in the most recent conflicts, though, their role has paralleled the Army’s; they are less amphibious shock troops than part of the infantry assigned a role in a long-term ground campaign.

In 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cancelled the 20-year, $15 billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program. The EFV was introduced as the amphibious landing vehicle of the future, and its cancellation triggered yet another round of speculation that neither amphibious assault nor the Marines have much of a future. Secretary Gates was quick to declare his commitment to the Marines, though. “Let me be clear,” he insisted. “This decision does not call into question the Marine’s amphibious assault mission.” But Gates also acknowledged that the sort of “large-scale amphibious assault landings” of past wars may no longer be feasible, especially now that modern anti-ship missiles make it necessary to launch amphibious landing craft from as much as 60 miles away. And signaling that the Marines may once again be fighting for their lives, he ordered an analysis of the Marines’ role within a constantly evolving defense establishment.

Of course, the Marines have heard this sort of thing before. Their institutional heads have been on the chopping block since the 1830s. Perhaps that’s one reason why Marines are so committed to the Corps; their attachment to the branch is almost religious. So if the Corps does, once again, come under attack, the Marines will be ready. And among their arguments will be a song that reminds us of the role they have played from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.

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