Why the Marine Corps Birthday Ball Doesn't Actually Happen on its Real Birthday

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(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Katrina Heikkinen)

Every Nov. 10, United States Marines past and present gather in their finest dress blues to celebrate the birthday of their beloved Corps, just as they have every year since 1921. But for more than a century before that, Marines who celebrated their beloved Corps' birthday did so in July.

Yes, it turns out the Marine Corps' birthday really is in July, a fact confirmed by the Marine Corps History Division. For a lot of Marines (and those of us who just enjoy watching cakes being cut with swords), that might come as a surprise. But before you launch an angry email campaign against me, know that Nov. 10 is still a valid day to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday -- it's just not the official birthday.

Everyone who's anyone knows the Marine Corps was started in Philadelphia's Tun Tavern on Nov. 10, 1775, right? Well, for the most part, yes. But the Marine Corps as we know it was actually established on July 11, 1798, and the service recognized that date as its official birthday for the next 123 years.

Read: What Happened to the Original Tun Tavern, Birthplace of the Marine Corps

In November 1775, the Continental Congress established two battalions of Continental Marines (emphasis ours) along with their requisite officers and enlisted men. Samuel Nicholas, an innkeeper turned first commandant of the Marine Corps, along with Robert Mullan, whose family owned Tun Tavern, recruited the first Marines. Marines raided the Bahamas, captured ships and generally kicked the Redcoats around from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico until the end of the Revolutionary War.

Then they were gone.

But not forgotten, especially if you were a British soldier who fought against them.

With the war over and independence achieved, the nascent United States didn't need a fighting force. The official Defense Department stance is that the Corps was disbanded "for reasons of economy," which is both true and misleading. While the new country did have a lot of debts to pay, it wasn't just the Marine Corps that was disbanded. The Continental Navy was, too, with its vessels sold off in 1781, while the Continental Army was replaced by state militias that were called upon when needed. The more salient truth, however, is that the young republic and many of its citizens actually had a deep mistrust of standing, professional armies, believing they were "instruments of tyranny, and generals as potential tyrants or dictators."

That belief persisted until around 1792, when Americans needed a professional military to fight Native tribes on the frontier. Until 1794, the U.S. depended on what is today the U.S. Coast Guard for maritime security. The United States Congress had to pass the Naval Act of 1794 to build frigates to protect American shipping.

To that end, on July 11, 1798, the Marine Corps was formally reestablished under the Navy, just in time to fight the French on the high seas in the Quasi-War and to fight the Barbary pirates of North Africa. From there, of course, the Marines fought the British again, captured islands from Cuba to the Philippines, and distinguished themselves during World War I.

Until November 1921, the Marine Corps recognized its summer birthday with little fanfare. That's when the 13th commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. John A. Lejeune, decided it was time to celebrate the Corps with a little bit of fun by issuing a single, legendary order.

"The order summarized the history, mission, and tradition of the Corps, and directed that it be read to every command on 10 November each subsequent year in honor of the birthday of the Marine Corps." With Order 47, Lejeune moved the Marine Corps birthday celebration to its original date and set up the tradition of a Marine Corps ball for decades to come, along with a future where boots ask celebrities on dates on social media.

Best of all, a move from July to November is welcome news for Marines who want to wear the boat cloak to the ball. And when it comes to a birthday celebration, that's all anyone can ask for.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Facebook, X or on LinkedIn.

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