Symbol of Command

The Marine Leader’s Sword

Introduction

One thing that stands out about the American republic is that it was born in war.  As statesmen declared the independence of the United States in a somewhat eloquent indictment of King George III, tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors converged on the American colonies to subdue the rebellion by force.  The war would last eight years.  The revolutionaries armed themselves with weapons that primarily served as hunting weapons; the British military was better armed.

The critical task of supplying colonial troops with the weapons needed to defeat their British enemy fell upon the Congress.  In 1775, few factories in America were capable of producing firearms, swords, and other weapons, but none were capable of producing them in the quantities needed to sustain an army for several years.

At the height of the war, more than fifty-thousand men were under arms: another thirty-thousand troop served in state guard and militia units.  To arm these men against the well-supplied British regulars, Congressional agents gathered weapons from various sources on two continents.  Patriots had begun to store weapons in anticipation of hostilities between themselves and British regulars, some of which came from British armories and storehouses, provisional magazines, and supply ships.

At the beginning of the Revolution, Continental military officers relied on soldiers to bring their weapons from home — their hunting weapons, which included fowling pieces, smooth-bore Brown Bess muskets (suitable for use with ball or shot), and after 1776, the shotgun.  These weapons also included outdated or barely serviceable firearms from the French and Indian Wars and weapons captured from enemies.  It wasn’t a sufficient number of weapons.

It wasn’t long before congressional agents began issuing contracts to produce weapons.  The domestic arms industry struggled to expand to meet demand, but they simply could not meet the need to sustain American troops through a protracted conflict.  Congressional agents turned to France and Spain, who were too happy to supply arms to the Americans.  Shipments from France began in 1776and continued through 1783.

The Edged Weapons

Edged weapons played a critical role in the Revolutionary War.  Battles such as the Guilford Courthouse (North Carolina) were decided in bloody hand-to-hand combat where bayonets, swords, axes, and tomahawks were used with lethal effectiveness.  The battle was a victory for the British, but they marched off with far fewer men than before the battle began.

Infantrymen in close combat, no longer able to load and fire their long guns, relied on hanger (hunting) swords or bayonets.  Hunting swords were short, cut-and-thrust weapons used by German Jaegers and  American riflemen.  The bayonet was the most widely used edged weapon throughout the ages because it transformed muskets/rifles into a spear — which terrified inexperienced/poorly trained troops.  The officer’s small sword was a pervasive civilian pattern worn as part of a gentleman’s formal attire and the most common sword carried by officers during the Revolution.  Officer’s swords were light, straight, and slender in design; Cavalry swords were heavier, longer, and curved.[1]  Shown right, pre-Revolutionary gentleman’s sword owned by Richard Varick, Aide-de-Camp to General Washington.

The Marines

Marine Corps officers and noncommissioned officers have carried swords since the American Revolutionary War.  Presumably, the swords carried by officers ashore were gentleman’s swords, while officers and enlisted men serving aboard ship used cutlasses.[2]  What made cutlasses appropriate aboard ships was that they did not hinder or trip fighting men as they boarded enemy ships, climbed the rigging, or battled an enemy in close-in fighting.  The broad, heavy blade of the cutlass was sufficient for crushing skulls or decapitating heads.

The Continental Navy cutlass was the cousin of the cavalry saber but designed and constructed for fighting at sea, on crowded decks, in rolling seas.  Unlike the cavalry saber, the cutlass did not have the advantage of a galloping horse behind it, so its weight and the muscled arm of an experienced sailor or Marine had to be sufficient to kill the enemy, and the shorter time it took to do that, the better for whoever wielded it.  A large, enclosed handguard shielded the swordsman’s hand.

The cutlass was a highly specialized weapon that evolved from the falchion (shown right).  Between 1740-1780, the cutlass was a sturdy but straightforward instrument with an imported blade and a crude wooden cylinder for a hilt.  The single-edged blade was curved so slightly that it might appear straight at first.  One of the first Americans to make this weapon was Richard Gridley.  Even after 1775, the American cutlass was a crude affair, so whenever possible, rebels captured and used the superior British cutlass, the hilt of which was made of blackened iron.  The grip was hollow for a better balance.

The NCO’s

When serving ashore, starting in the 1820s, Marine NCOs began wearing distinctive short sabers with a cast brass eagle head hilt and curved blades.  In 1859, a completely new sword pattern emerged, originally patterned on the U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword (model 1850).  The Marine NCO sword may be patterned after the foot officer’s sword, but with significant differences.  The Army sword had heavy wide blades, while the early Marine NCO swords had highly polished blades.  These swords were finally incorporated into Marine Corps regulations in 1875 even though they were in use since 1859, and in fact, with slight modifications, remain in service today.  The M1859 Marine Corps NCO Sword is the oldest weapon in continued (unbroken) service in the U.S. weapons inventory.

Today’s NCO Sword features a cast-brass hilt with a half-basket handguard.  It has a leather-wrapped grip bound with twisted brass wire, a slightly curved, single-edged blade, beautifully etched, with a wide central fuller and short false edge.  The NCO sword comes with a black leather scabbard with two brass mounts.

Marine Officer’s Sword

The current Marine Corps Officer’s Sword is patterned on the Mameluke Sword allegedly presented to First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon by the Ottoman Empire, Viceroy Prince Hamet, on 8 December 1805, as a gesture of respect and praise for the Marine’s performance in combat at the Battle of Derna.  Subsequently, in 1825, the Commandant of the Marine Corps adopted the Mameluke Sword for wear by officers.[3] 

In 1859, the Marine Corps prescribed a completely new sword pattern for Marine Corps officers; it was the same sword prescribed for NCOs with differences in brass hilts, scabbard mounts, and hand grips.  The grips of NCO swords were wrapped in leather, while the officer’s grips were covered by sharkskin.  In 1875, Marine Corps regulations again prescribed the Mameluke Sword for wear by commissioned officers; it has been an item of a Marine Corps Officer’s seabag ever since.

The Mystery of O’Bannon’s Sword

Almost everyone, Marine or otherwise, knows about “Chesty” Puller.  My guess is that hardly anyone outside the Marine Corps knows about Presley O’Bannon, who has become a Marine Corps legend.  It has become a tradition in the Marine Corps to name its buildings in honor of those who distinguished themselves as Marines.  One such building at Quantico, Virginia, is O’Bannon Hall.  Literally, every Marine Corps second lieutenant wants to grow up and become like First Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon.  He is, to Marines, a man from history who embodies what a Marine should be: Courageous, daring, and resourceful.  I know something of Lieutenant O’Bannon, primarily from my research on the Barbary Wars.  What I know of his sword, however, I picked up from the writings of Brigadier General E. H. Simmons, USMC (deceased).[4]

Presley Neville O’Bannon

As indicated previously, the popular story is that O’Bannon received the Mameluke Sword from Prince Hamet in recognition for his daring exploits during the Battle of Derna.  It may be accurate, but in the absence of written records, we aren’t entirely sure.  But there is a more plausible story, which is just as interesting.

To recap the event, First Lieutenant O’Bannon, a Navy midshipman, and six privates provided the backbone to a force of mercenaries raised and hired by U.S. Naval Agent William Eaton, himself a former U.S. Army officer.  Eaton hired these mercenaries in Egypt and, with O’Bannon as his second in command, marched 600 miles across the Libyan desert, intending to reinstate Hamet Qaramanli to his rightful throne.  Hamet had been forced out of Tripoli by his brother, Yusef, who seized the throne for himself.  Normally, this family matter would not have peeked the interests of the U.S. government, except that in May 1801, Yusef cut down the flagpole in front of the U.S. Consulate and declared war on the United States of America — an insult to the United States that could not be left unanswered.[5]

President Jefferson reciprocated by sending a naval squadron to the Mediterranean (the forerunner of today’s Sixth Fleet), but not much was accomplished in “demanding satisfaction” until Commodore Samuel Barron assumed command of the squadron in September 1804.  Serving under Barron was Mr. Eaton, a scholar of Arabic language and somewhat of an eccentric.

On 27 April 1805, Eaton assaulted the walled city of Derna under cover of smoothbore naval gunfire from the 18-gun brig USS Argus (captained by one of the navy’s greatest commanders, Master Commandant Isaac Hull), the sloop USS Hornet, and the schooner USS Nautilus.  Observing the action ashore, Master Commandant Hull reported: “At about half after three we had the satisfaction to see Lieutenant O’Bannon and Mr. Mann, midshipman of the Argus, with a few brave fellows with them, enter the fort, haul down the Enemy’s flag, and plant the American ensign on the walls of the battery.  And on turning the guns of the battery on the town, they found that the enemy had left them in great haste, as they [the guns] were found primed and loaded.  In two hours, the city was taken.”

So impressed was Hamet with O’Bannon’s courage that he presented him with a jeweled Mameluke scimitar.  This operation was later quite favorably noted by British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, calling it “The most daring act of the age.”  The problem is not with the operation, which is well-documented.  The problem, for Marines, is whether O’Bannon actually received a Mameluke sword from Hamet Bashaw.  If he did, where is it?

According to General Simmons, there are several claims (and possible answers) to the question, noting that senior European officers popularly wore the Mameluke (style) sword.  Napoleon had one.  The Duke of Wellington had one.  Senior flag officers in Great Britain continue to wear the Mameluke sword during ceremonies while in evening dress.  In other words, there were no shortages of Mameluke Swords from the early to mid-1800s.

There is a Mameluke Sword at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis that has “a claim” for being the genuine O’Bannon sword.  According to the curators, after receiving the sword from Hamet, Lieutenant O’Bannon passed it to his executive officer, Midshipman George Washington Mann — and it has remained in possession of the Mann family until it was loaned to the museum.

Midshipman Mann was the son of Colonel George Mann, born in Annapolis in 1783.  Colonel Mann owned an Inn on Conduit Street, which claims to be one of many places where General George Washington rested his weary head — and might account for Colonel Mann naming his son after the nation’s first Commander-in-Chief.

Mann entered naval service in 1801 and was posted to the Mediterranean Squadron.  In 1804, Midshipman Mann served aboard USS Argus, whose Marine Detachment Commander was First Lieutenant Presley N. O’Bannon.  O’Bannon himself received his commission as a second lieutenant of Marines in 1801 and served in the Mediterranean in 1802.  Argus was the ship that transported William Eaton to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1804.  To assist Eaton in his mission, Master Commandant Isaac Hull detached O’Bannon, Mann, and six privates to accompany him ashore.  Eaton’s mission was to locate Hamet Qaramanli in Egypt and, if possible, restore him to his rightful throne.  This particular story ends with the Battle of Derna (1805).

Afterward, Midshipman Mann returned home due to an injury to his eye, presumably received during the fight, but returned to active service in 1807.  The Navy advanced him to Lieutenant in 1809, and he served until 1811 when he resigned his commission and returned home.  The Mann family continues to live in the Annapolis area.

There is no question that the Mann family’s Mameluke sword is genuine.  However, the question remains whether it is the sword presented to Lieutenant O’Bannon.  The question arises from the fact that there is a near-identical Mameluke scimitar in the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts, presented to Master Commandant Isaac Hull by William Eaton, accompanied by a letter written to Hull by Eaton on 14 January 1805.  In this letter, Eaton stated, “Kourshek Ahmet Pasha has given you a present of a superb saber which he intends for you, worth $200, all the gentlemen with me received the same compliment.”[6]

Presley Neville O’Bannon was one of the gentlemen present with Eaton when the swords were presented (i.e., more than one).  Midshipman Mann was also present.  The swords were given to “the gentlemen” in advance of the Battle of Derna, not as a reward for deeds accomplished but in anticipation of an event yet to come.  The Battle of Derna was fought between 27 April – 13 May 1805.  This brings us back to the question, “Where is Lieutenant O’Bannon’s sword?”

William Eaton returned to the United States in November 1805 through Norfolk, Virginia.  At a dinner in his honor held in Richmond, both Lieutenant O’Bannon and Midshipman Mann received toasts in absentia as “… the heroes who first planted the American banner on the walls of Derna.”  The following month, Mr. John Love, a delegate to the Virginia Assembly representing Fauquier County, where O’Bannon was born, proposed that Virginia honor O’Bannon with “… a handsome sword with such appropriate devices thereon as they may think proper.”  Mr. Love’s proposal sailed through both houses of the state legislature.  In January 1806, the governor presented the measure to the Council of State, which named a committee to select an appropriate design for the sword.

Six months later, the committee submitted its proposal to Major John Clarke, Superintendent of the Virginia Manufactory of Arms, Richmond.  The sword design was elaborate with, among other things, the head of a bearded and turbaned Moslem for a pommel and an engraving on the hilt of O’Bannon raising the flag over Derna.  Major Clarke had only just finished the blade in 1809 when he was replaced as superintendent by Mr. John Carter of Richmond.  Carter completed the sword in July 1810.

Meanwhile, Captain O’Bannon had resigned his commission, married Matilda Heard in Frederick County, Virginia, in 1809, and relocated to Kentucky in the same year.  O’Bannon didn’t receive the Virginia sword until the fall of 1812.[7]

At the time of Captain O’Bannon’s death, he was living in the home of his cousin John O’Bannon, in Henry County, Kentucky.  He also died without a will.  It wasn’t until an article about Captain O’Bannon appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1917, written by John Presley Cain (a collateral descendant of O’Bannon), that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) began looking into the O’Bannon story.  Mr. Cain, having revealed O’Bannon’s burial place on a farm just outside Pleasureville, Kentucky, prompted the DAR to seek the permission of his descendants to move his remains to the Frankfort Cemetery.  O’Bannon was reinterred there on 14 June 1920.

At the ceremony, Miss Margaret Mosely (Kansas City), a third-great niece of O’Bannon, brought the Virginia Sword and had it displayed unsheathed and crossed with its scabbard on top of the gravestone.  In 1941, Mrs. Margaret Mosley-Culver donated the Virginia Sword to the U.S. Marine Corps Museum.  To add to the confusion, the Virginia Sword has been variously described as a Mameluke Sword, which it is not.  It more closely resembles a U.S. Army infantry officer’s sword.

There is also some myth associated with Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Archibald Henderson’s decision to prescribe the Mameluke Sword for wear by Marine Corps officers.  After the U.S. Congress disbanded the Continental Navy and Marine Corps at the end of the Revolutionary War, the only military secretary was the Secretary of War until 1798, when Congress re-established the Navy Department.  During those “in-between” years, uniform regulations fell under the purview of the Secretary of War.  It wasn’t until 1804 that the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Robert Smith, authorized “yellow-mounted sabers with gilt scabbards” for Marine Corps officers.  The wording of the regulation allowed Marine officers to wear just about any sword that met that vague description.

Why Henderson prescribed the Mameluke Sword remains a mystery.  Part of the legend is that O’Bannon and Henderson had (at some point) served together and that Henderson so admired O’Bannon that he prescribed the Mameluke Sword for all Marine Corps officers.  It is an interesting story, but according to General Simmons, unlikely.  If the two men ever met, it was probably a brief encounter.  Henderson did not enter Marine Corps service until 1806; O’Bannon resigned in 1807.

In any case, Henderson’s uniform regulations of 26 April 1825 prescribed the officer’s sword as follows: “All officers when on duty either in full or undress uniform, shall wear a plain brass scabbard sword or saber, with a Mameluke hilt of white ivory and a gold tassel; extreme length of the sword three-feet, one-inch only to serve as a cut and thrust — the hilt in length four-inches and three-quarters, width of scabbard one-inch and seven-eighths, width of blade one-inch.”  This, according to General Simmons, describes Henderson’s own sword exactly.

Between 900-1250 A.D., Egyptian dynasties included several ethnic/cultural groups, such as the Ikhshidids, Fatimids, and Ayyubids.  They were primarily served and guarded by Mamelukes, individuals of Turkic, Caucasian, Eastern, and Southeastern European origin.  The Mameluke was both free-born warriors and indentured fighters — a class of Egyptian knights whose influence increased within the Moslem hierarchy.  The increase in political influence was worrisome to the Ayyubids, as it should have been.  One Moslem historian describes the origin of the Mameluke as “enslaved Christians.”  Accordingly, Moslems looked upon the Mameluke as “infidels,” or unbelievers who refused to surrender to the will of Allah.

In 1250, a Mameluke became Sultan of Egypt, and his heirs ruled Egypt through 1517.  But even when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Mamelukes maintained a considerable hold over the sultanate.  The word Mameluke in Arabic, by the way, means “one who is owned.”  It refers to non-Arab people “enslaved” to Moslem rulers.  Their reputation as fighters (and their uniforms) impressed Napoleon and his marshals.[8]  The French recruited Mamelukes as personal guards and adopted their swords, which, as we can see today, are displayed in numerous paintings of high French officers — such as Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste Antoine Marcelin Marbot.

The sword’s earliest form was a light horseman’s weapon intended for slashing.  When the British manufacturer Wilkinson Swords straightened the blade, they ruined the sword as a weapon, which may no longer matter to anyone since the sword is no longer the first choice in offensive or defensive weapons.

In 1859, Marine First Lieutenant Israel Green commanded a Marine Detachment with service under Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, who was ordered to put down an insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  As it turned out, Colonel Lee was quite pleased with the Marines’ performance at Harper’s Ferry, but Lieutenant Green was considerably less satisfied with his Mameluke Sword.  On cue from a young cavalry lieutenant named James Ewell Brown Stuart, Green rushed John Brown and his men in the firehouse.  Green burst through the door and cut down on the older man’s neck as hard as possible, which bent the sword almost double and did little more than irritate Mr. Brown.  That would not have happened with an M1911A1 at 10 yards.

The Marine Corps prescribed a different sword for officers and NCOs in that same year — one that would cut something more resistant than a birthday cake.

Endnotes:

[1] The difference between swords and sabers is that swords are straight blade weapons, while sabers are (generally) shorter in blade length and curved. 

[2] The cutlass was a relatively short-bladed slashing sword — the shorter length most suitable for shipboard action.

[3] The Mameluke Sword (style) is also worn by flag rank officers in the British Army, and for officers of major general rank in the Australian Army.

[4] Brigadier General Edwin H. Simmons (1921-2007) served with distinction in three wars, later serving as the Director, Marine Corps History and Museums, both on active duty and into retirement.  He authored numerous books about the History of the Marine Corps; whatever General Simmons didn’t know about the Marine Corps probably isn’t worth knowing.

[5] Yusef no doubt felt confident that this insult would go unanswered because the U.S. Congress had been paying the Qaramanli family bribes for fifteen or so years; anyone who pays bribes deserves no respect — or so he thought.

[6] At the time, Egypt was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.  Kourshek Ahmet Pasha was the Viceroy of Egypt.

[7] Presley and Matilda’s union was, according to sketchy accounts, not a very happy one.  The O’Bannon’s were divorced in 1826, remarried in 1832, and then in 1843, Matilda was committed to an insane asylum in Lexington.  Captain O’Bannon passed away in 1850.  Their only child died of cholera in 1835.  My guess is that if O’Bannon left the Marine Corps to marry Matilda, he later in life regretted doing so. 

[8] There is evidence of Mameluke Swords in use by Europeans during the Crusades, likely taken from dead Islamists.  General Simmons believed that the Mameluke Sword may have existed before the time of Christ, notably in Damascus.