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Marine Corps Birthday Celebration: History & Traditions

The Marine Corps Birthday is a cherished tradition observed worldwide by the U.S. Marines past and present. This annual event features special exhibits, parades, drill team performances, and inspirational speeches by top leaders, highlighted by the Birthday Ball and ceremonial cake-cutting.

This article breaks down the history of the infamous and highly celebrated Marine Corps Birthday. 

a painting from the early history of the US Marine Corps
Continental Marines at the Battle of Nassau

Establishment of the Continental Marines 

On November 10, 1775, the Continental Marines were officially established by the Continental Marine Act of 1775. This Second Continental Congress decree marked the birth of what would later become the United States Marine Corps. 

The American Continental Marines were designated amphibious infantry. Their duties included safeguarding ship captains and officers, operating cannons, and utilizing sharpshooters in naval battles. Initially deployed as sharpshooters on Continental Congress Navy vessels, these early Marines distinguished themselves as exceptional marksmen.

The Act outlined the formation of two battalions of Marines, each led by a Colonel, two lieutenant colonels, and two majors. Emphasizing maritime expertise, enlistees had to be skilled seamen or well-versed in maritime affairs.

That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two lieutenant-colonels, two majors and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of privates as with other battalions, that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to offices, or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve for and during the present war with Great Britain and the Colonies; unless dismissed by Congress; that they be distinguished by the names of the First and Second Battalions of Marines.

It all started at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Captain Samuel Nicholas established Tun Tavern as the recruiting headquarters, where the first Marines enlisted. While some dispute the possibility of earlier recruiting at Nicholas’s family tavern, the Conestoga Waggon, Tun Tavern is widely regarded as the birthplace of the Marines. 

Besides being the birthplace of the Marines, Benjamin Franklin had previously recruited a militia at the tavern in 1756 to address a Native American uprising. The tavern also hosted a crucial meeting between George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Continental Congress. 

an illustration of the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the US Marines
An illustration of the Tun Tavern, birthplace of the Marines

End of the Continental Marine, Birth of the Corps 

At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783 the Continental Marines were disbanded. 

However, on July 11, 1798, President John Adams reestablished the force, renaming it the United States Marine Corps. This historic revival marked the birth of the modern USMC, continuing its service to the nation.

an officer reads the Marine Corps Order No. 47, Series 1921 at a Marine Corps ball
Reading Marine Corps Order No. 47, Series 1921 at a Marine Corps birthday celebration.

Evolution of Marine Corps Birthday Celebrations 

From 1799 to 1921, the Marine Corps Birthday was July 11. However, in 1921, the date was officially changed to November 10. 

The formal commemoration of the Marine Corps Birthday was initiated by Major Edwin McClellan’s suggestion to Major General Commandant Lejeune. 

This led to the issuance of Marine Corps Order No. 47, Series 1921 by Major General John A. Lejeune. The order contained a historical summary, mission statement, and the rich traditions of the Corps. It also directed that the order be read aloud on November 10th each year.

a black and white photo from a Marine Corps ball dinner just after WWII
A 1947 Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Early Celebrations 

In the early years of Marine Corps Birthday celebrations, various commands expanded the festivities. 

In 1923, at Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania, the 148th birthday was celebrated with a barracks dance. In Norfolk, Virginia, Marines staged a parade ground sham battle, watched by local citizens. At Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, festivities included a baseball win against a Cuban team, a variety show, and boxing bouts. These early celebrations showcased the diversity and enthusiasm of Marine Corps Birthday festivities.

The first “Birthday Ball” likely occurred in 1925 in Philadelphia; no records exist of earlier ones. Distinguished guests included Secretaries of War and Navy, Major General Commandant Lejeune, and prominent figures. 

The main event was unveiling a Tun Tavern tablet, a gift from the Thomas Roberts Reath Post, composed solely of Marines, during the Marine Corps League’s annual convention. 

A parade featured Marines, Regular Army, Navy detachments, National Guard, and other units. An evening banquet was at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, followed by a ball at the Bellevue-Stratford.

cutting the Marine Corps birthday cake with an officer sword
Marine Corps General Robert Neller cutting the USMC birthday cake with an officer sword.

Cake-Cutting Tradition 

The first Marine Corps cake-cutting ceremony is uncertain but noted at Quantico, Virginia, in 1935. Another event occurred at Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., in 1937, presided by Major General Commandant Thomas Holcomb. Officers celebrated with a cake resembling Tun Tavern.

The cake-cutting ceremony tradition involves presenting the first slice to the oldest Marine present, who then passes it to the youngest Marine. This tradition symbolizes the transfer of knowledge from experienced Marines to the new generation, emphasizing the passing of wisdom and heritage within the Marine Corps.

Marines in pt gear on a moto run celebrating the Marine Corps birthday
Marines in PT gear on a moto run celebrating the Marine Corps birthday, a newer tradition.

Present-Day Celebrations 

Present-day Marine Corps Birthday celebrations vary across posts and stations but share common elements. 

Reading Marine Corps Order No. 47 and the Commandant’s message reflects on the Corps’ history. A pageant featuring current and historical uniforms highlights the evolution of attire. The Marine Corps Birthday Run, initiated in 2007, promotes camaraderie and fitness. 

Remarkably, Marines worldwide celebrate, even in austere environments or combat, emphasizing their commitment to tradition, values, and legacy. The global festivities unite Marines past and present, fostering pride and camaraderie.

the grave of Samuel Nicholas, the original leatherneck
The grave of Samuel Nicholas

Somber Traditions

In addition to the jubilant celebrations, the Marine Corps Birthday holds a somber tradition. Each year on November 10th, Marines pay their respects with an annual wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of Samuel Nicholas.

This solemn gesture honors Nicholas’s pivotal role in founding the Marine Corps, reminding all of the sacrifices and dedication that shaped the Corps throughout its storied history.

Marines in dress blues marching with birthday cake
Marines in Dress Blues march with USMC birthday cake.

An Annual Marine Corps Tradition

With such a rich, storied history, it’s no surprise the Marine Corps developed a diverse array of birthday traditions. The US Marine Corps birthday honors its profound history, as well as the past and present Marines that make this military branch so special. 

Check out our full assortment of USMC uniform accessories to celebrate your service in style. 

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