The First Leathernecks: A Combat History of the U.S. Marines From Inception to the Halls of Montezuma (1775-1848), by Don Burzynski. Warrior Publishing Group,117 pages. Soft cover: $24.95. Ebook: $9.95.
The modern image of the U.S. Marine Corps comes from World War II: young men in green camouflage fatigues storming the beaches of tiny islands in the south Pacific, and in some cases, enduring an unimaginable slaughter. But the history of the Marines goes back to the beginning of the republic, though most people only hear the echoes in the first two lines of the Marine Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli…” Military historian Don Burzynski lifts the veil on this history with his fascinating and thorough new book, The First Leathernecks.
Though they appear similar to the civilian eye, the Marine differs significantly from his U.S. Army cousin. Marines are “sea soldiers” with numerous missions, including securing beachheads that the Army can later exploit. In its earliest days, Marines specialized in defending ships from boarders. They also served as expert gunners and marksmen, picking off Royal Navy officers from a ship’s “fighting tops” during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. In 1831, as Burzynski tells it, the Marines first took on a modern role as an expeditionary force when they attacked and destroyed a nest of pirates at Quallah Battoo in modern Indonesia.
The “shores of Tripoli” phrase in the Marine Hymn refers to the 1805 liberation by Marines of a group of sailors imprisoned by Barbary pirates based in the city that is now the capital of Libya. For the student of political history, the phrase also hints at President Thomas Jefferson’s moves to replace the leader of the pirates with someone more favorably inclined to American interests, a plan 21st century pundits might have called “regime change.” By the same token, the “Halls of Montezuma” refers to an almost suicidal but successful storming of a Mexican fort by Marines in 1848, part of the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848, an American war of conquest which won it most of the southwest United States and set the modern southern boundary. In each case, the Marines overcame overwhelming odds that secured the Corps’ fearsome reputation.
Burzynski’s book is almost of hymn of its own kind to the early days of the Marine Corps. He has dug deep into sometimes sketchy source material and brought to light the troubles and early valor of the nascent branch of the U.S. military. Though the book is intended as a military history, it could have felt more three-dimensional with stronger portraits of key officers and more details about the struggles within the government about the role of the Marines. However, the lively illustrations by Charles Waterhouse and Burzynski’s detailed knowledge of this early time provide a successful foundation for further exploration.