Like so many former Marines, I was initially disturbed to learn that U.S. Marine sentries posted at the Naval Academy at Annapolis were being replaced by sailors (The Marine Company at Annapolis was officially “disestablished” on Jan. 13, 2006). Not that sailors aren’t every bit as capable: They’ve been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us – and we with them – for more than two centuries.
But sentry duty at Annapolis has been a 155-year tradition for Marines. Naval tradition is the lifeblood of the Corps, and I believed – until my former Marine Corps commandant disabused me of that belief – that to remove Marines from the guard posts at Annapolis would somehow lessen the potency of that lifeblood. Other Marines I’ve spoken to have felt similarly.
Here’s why: Despite the usually good-natured rivalry that has always existed between the most-junior Marines and sailors, the Marine Corps as a whole has always been fiercely proud and protective of its Naval traditions. Marines are, after all, an arm of Naval service under the Department of the Navy.
Modeled on Britain’s Royal Marine Corps, the earliest ranks of American Marines were formed in 1775 and organized for service as a Naval infantry force attached to the fleet. The first leathernecks (so-named for the leather stocks they wore around their necks to deflect sword blows), served as guards, gunners, sharpshooters, and usually the lead elements of any Naval landing party. In time, they proved to be one of the most colorful components of American Naval service, once prompting Admiral David Dixon Porter, the famous Civil War-era U.S. Naval officer, to say, “A ship without Marines is like a garment without buttons.”
In 1851 – six years after the “Naval School” opened its doors (the Naval School officially became the U.S. Naval Academy in 1850) and a decade before the beginning of the Civil War – Marines assumed watch-posts at Annapolis. They have since manned key internal security posts, performed ceremonial duties, and posted sentinels at the Academy Museum and the crypt of Naval hero John Paul Jones.
Granted, there have been periods during that century-and-a-half that the Marine guard force has been reduced, shifted from certain posts, and removed from others. During the Spanish-American War, for instance, the Annapolis Marines were deployed to the fighting. They were again deployed in the first decade of the 20th century for “pacification” duties in Cuba.