Lt. Presley O’Bannon, The Marine Corps Mameluke Sword, And The Shores Of Tripoli Before It Was A Hymn

One can say many things about the United States Marine Corps, but one can’t say that these mighty warriors of the modern era do not love their history.  For when an American Marine recruit steps on the famed yellow footprints of Paris Island or San Diego, they are literally walking into a historical tradition that pre-dates the American Constitution itself.

The recruits know it, the current Marines know it, and the enemy that will have to face these warriors will soon know it.  And within the first few decades of America, it would be the Barbary Pirates turn to find out that of which United States Marines are made.  Out of this engagement would come one of the most enduring symbols of Marine Corps history and bravery.

It Started in a Bar

The United States Marine Corps might be one of the few organizations that pride themselves on having been founded in a bar.  On November 10th, 1775, the Continental Congress would issue a proclamation creating the United States Marine Corps, but in fitting tradition when you need to recruit a few Marines, you head to a bar. Tun Tavern in Philadelphia would become the historical birthplace for the Marines and in a short time, they would find themselves firing upon British officers from the riggings of American ships in the war for independence.

After the war, it would fall upon the Marines to maintain their naval roots and serve as a Department of the Navy.  Just know that if you should remind a modern Marine that they are a department of the Navy, you might be in for a fight.  But history is the truth, and these early Marines would find themselves going just as far as the United States Navy would transport them.  But thankfully for Lieutenant Presley O’ Bannon, that would mean a ride to North Africa in the early 1800s and a place in Marine Corps legacy on the famed shores of Tripoli.

Tun Tavern in the Revolutionary War via
Tun Tavern in the Revolutionary War

For years since the United States became an independent nation, American shipping fell out of the protection of European powers and was subject to the rampant piracy that took place off the shores of North Africa in the Mediterranean.

Barbary Corsairs and men from the Ottoman provinces of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli had made quite a name for themselves by seizing Western shipping and demanding ransom for its crews.  Hostages were known to endure grueling conditions in captivity as they awaited a ransom that was in fact often paid.  In some cases, the payment requested exceeded 10% of the American budget at the time until the day a President Thomas Jefferson said no more.

An American Flag on Foreign Soil

Emboldened by a more equipped United States Navy, Thomas Jefferson sent ships and Marines to combat the threat of piracy off North Africa.  Upon arriving with a force aided by Greek Christian and Arab mercenaries, the United States Military would set out on a mission to quell the pirate threat and establish the United States as a legitimate world military power.

And while holding together a force of Christian and Muslim mercenaries would prove more complicated than thought, they set out from Alexandria, Egypt to lay siege to the Libyan city of Derna.

The United States Navy along with any allies they could scrap up were already conducting a blockade of Barbary Pirate ports as well as conducting raids when possible.  For O’Bannon and Marine Corps history, it would take a 600-mile march over the deserts of Egypt and Libya to reach Derna.

But when they did, Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon would lead a charge with his Marines and combined mercenary force to take the city of Derna.  It would mark the first time that the United States flag would be victoriously raised in combat on foreign soil.

With continued pressure from the sea and a new threat of land invasion from Derna, the Barbary powers signed a treaty ending hostilities on June 10, 1805.  For their actions in combat, an Ottoman Empire Viceroy gifted Lieutenant Pressley O’Bannon a Mameluke sword that would become the inspiration for the sword carried by United States Marine Officers to this very day.

O’Bannon would return to America and embark on a career in politics in the State of Kentucky.  Meanwhile, the United States Marine Corps would take the traditions and sword of Lieutenant Pressley O’Bannon and embark on a legacy that would take them from the volcanic ash of Iwo Jima to the streets of Fallujah.

The Hymn and Sword

In 1825, Marine Corps Commandant Archibald Henderson would adopt the Mameluke sword awarded to O’Bannon to be carried by Marine officers in what would be a tradition that would carry on through modern times.  As far as the fabled hymn of the United States Marine, while it would not become a tune until the 20th century, the phrase “to the shores of Tripoli” would adorn the Marines Flag in the 1830’s.

There is not a Marine in the modern era who was not made as a recruit who would not go to sleep at night before uttering the phrase, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” before falling asleep each night.

The United States Marine Corps loves its history, and they would be the first to tell you that not only are they fighting for the Marine next to them in combat, but they are also fighting for all the Marines who came before them.

And without exception and almost to a heightened degree, they are fighting for the Marines who stormed the shores of Libya over 200 years ago.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE