The Real Story of the Marine Corps Blues
By Joseph Andrew Lee
A close-cropped nape sheathed behind a rigid, red-trimmed collar. White gloves folded perfectly—left over right—across a flawless brass buckle. A scarlet stripe along the seam of blue trousers lead to a pair of black shoes polished so highly that you can count in their reflection six gold buttons leading up the broad, medal-adorned chest of a U.S. Marine.
The Marine Corps dress blue uniform is distinct in its simplicity and is said to be steeped in nearly 241 years of tradition. A Marine in his dress blues is who many Americans picture when they hear the phrase “man in uniform.”
As a Marine recruit, I was taught that each element of a Marine’s dress uniform is directly linked to the Corps’ heritage and combat legacy. But after speaking to the Marine Corps Historical Company and visiting the National Museum of the Marine Corps, I was astonished to find much of what I was taught in boot camp is only half-truth, born out of necessity in a political fight for survival.
Tradition holds that the color blue was chosen for the Corps’ naval ties and the red trim is a nod to the Marines who served aboard the Bonhomme Richard, the famous Revolutionary War ship commissioned by the French and captained by John Paul Jones.
Jones was indeed a legendary war fighter—a sailor with the guts of Chesty Puller and the tactics of Sun Tzu—but his Marines had nothing to do with the red trim on our dress blues.
“Unfortunately, there’s no evidence to support that,” said retired Gunnery Sergeant Thomas E. Williams, the director of operations for the United States Marine Corps Historical Company. “The truth is, legends such as this have risen from a fight for survival. The Marine Corps has been fighting wars on two fronts throughout its history—one against America’s adversaries, but another here at home preserving its own image and existence.”
One of these many fights took place during Andrew Jackson’s presidency and another after World War I, when the Marine Corps, led by General John A. Lejeune, fought what you might call the “Battle of Capitol Hill.”
“While these myths and traditions may not have been fully based on historical fact,” added Williams, “they still served a distinct historical purpose in the fight to preserve the image and heritage of the Corps.”
The public affairs team of Lejeune’s Corps connected a loose set of historical dots to essentially create an elevator speech about the legacy of the uniform. Perhaps the connection these Marines made to Jones’ Marines came from a 1779 passage in John Adams’ diary, where Jones and his Marines were described with a sort of reluctant reverence.
“After dinner I walked out with Captains Jones and Landais to see Jones’s Marines dressed in the English uniforms, red and white … You see the character of the man in his uniform, and that of his officers and Marines, variant from the uniform established by Congress—golden button holes for himself, two epaulettes; Marines in red and white instead of green. Eccentricities and irregularities are to be expected from him—they are in his character, they are visible in his eyes.”
Coinciding with the formal establishment of the United States Marine Corps in July 1798—the Continental Marines, the Corps’ predecessor, was actually disbanded after the Revolutionary War—the Marines’ first blue uniforms were actually hand-me-downs modified from an existing rifleman’s uniform worn by the experimental Legion of the United States.
According to Uniforms of American Marines: 1775-1932, by Marine Major Edwin North McClellan, former officer in charge of the Historical Section, this first blue uniform called for, “Plain short coats of blue, with a red belt, edged with red, and turned up with the same, with common small naval buttons, with blue pantaloons edged with red, and red vests.”
Like much of the equipment procured by the Marines during its history, they made the best of what they were given.
Embroidered into the top of a Marine officer’s hat—called a “cover” by Marines—is an ornate, cross-shaped braid.
The quatrefoil dates back to the early 19th century. Marine lore has it that during ship-to-ship fighting in the War of 1812, Marine officers wore a rope cross on their covers to distinguish themselves to their own sharpshooters high in the ship’s riggings.
The reality, however, is that there’s no way Marines in the ships’ riggings could have seen a quatrefoil 60 feet below on the deck of an enemy ship. The quatrefoil was simply popular French military fashion of the day, copied by both the Army and Marines.
Leatherneck for Posture
The quatrefoil isn’t the only element of the uniform to have its history manipulated by Lejeune’s powerhouse public affairs team.
The standing collar—worn by both officers and enlisted—represents the high, leather stock, or collar, worn by Marines throughout the early 19th century. This stock did inspire the nickname “leatherneck,” but despite what Marines are taught at the depot, it was never worn to fend off sword assaults.
“I’ve seen and handled a lot of these weapons, and I can tell you that a leather stock wouldn’t have even slowed down a cutlass assault to the neck,” said Williams. “These were worn for one purpose—to make the Marine hold his head up straight.”
Blood Stripes for the Fallen
Marines are also taught that the scarlet “blood stripe” that runs down the seam of each trouser leg was created in honor of the Marines who fell in the Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican War in 1847.
Turns out this is a half-truth.
Marine sergeants were actually wearing a dark blue stripe edged in red during the battle of Chapultepec, so it couldn’t have come from there. The first truly red trouser stripes for officers and noncommissioned officers (NCO) were added to the uniform in 1892, but while the change may not have been made to honor the fallen at Chapultepec, the Corps now pledges the stripe to all of its fallen—regardless of the blood stripe’s origin.
Emblematic to the Corps
Good news, Marines. It’s not all myth.
The gold buttons worn on the dress blue coat feature one of the earliest Marine Corps emblems—the eagle and anchor with an arc of 13 stars—and have been a part of the uniform since 1804, making them the oldest military insignia in continued use.
In 1868, the current emblem of the Marine Corps—the eagle, globe and anchor (EGA)—was adopted.
The eagle does, in fact, represent the proud nation the Corps defends. The globe represents its worldwide presence; and the anchor points to the Marine Corps’ naval heritage and its ability to access any coastline in the world. Together, the eagle, globe and anchor symbolize the commitment of the Corps to defend this nation—in the air, on land and at sea.
The EGA can be found as many as four places on the Marine Corps dress blue uniform—one on the front of the dress white cover, one on each side of the high collar and one on the belt buckle of enlisted Marines above the rank of corporal.
Whether you want to call it a sabre or a saber, the sword is the oldest weapon still in use by the U.S. military, and the Corps has two that may be worn as accoutrement to the dress blue uniform.
There’s little myth surrounding these blades.
Marine officers carry a Mameluke-hilted sword, honoring Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, who in 1805 marched 600 miles across the North African desert to capture the Barbary Coast town of Derna, where the American flag was hoisted for the first time over foreign soil. This is the battle mentioned in the Marines’ Hymn — “to the shores of Tripoli.”
Marine sergeants have carried swords from the earliest days of the Corps, and used them in the field through the Civil War. The first officially specified NCO sword was issued by Commandant Archibald Henderson in 1826. The current Marine NCO sword, carried for parade and ceremony by enlisted Marines above the rank of corporal, was authorized by the sixth commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel John Harris.
The Lejeune Version
With duds dating to the birth of our nation and to that of the Corps, it’s no wonder Marines pride themselves on the appearance of their dress blues. And I must say, now that I’m versed on the fact and fiction of my blues, if you ask me about their history, you’re still likely to get what I will now call the “Lejeune version.”
–Joseph Andrew Lee is a USO multimedia journalist.
You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.