“The Marines’ Hymn” is the oldest and best known of the official US military songs. Even if you don’t know the difference between a squid and a devil dog, you’ll recognize the song’s famous first line: “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” We know it, we can probably sing the first bars if asked, but how many of us have ever questioned what exactly those fabled halls are and why they open this important hymn? Here’s what you should know about that curious phrase.
The Mexican-American war broke out in 1846 and by 1847 the invading American forces were near victory and were preparing to take the enemy’s capital, Mexico City. The heart of the ancient city was defended by Chapultepec Castle, with heavy fortifications and large mounted guns that posed a serious threat to the invaders. The castle sat on Chapultepec Hill, which had been sacred ground as far back as the Aztecs, thus the moniker “Halls of Montezuma” after the famous Aztec leader.
On September 13, 1847, the Battle of Chapultepec ensued with a unit of Marines and Army soldiers attacking the castle. Heavy artillery and withering rifle fire from behind the castle’s walls took a high toll on the attackers, but the tenacious Marines and infantrymen eventually fought through and captured the objective. The fall of Chapultepec Castle opened up the city to the American forces and moved the war to a speedy conclusion. The victory added credibility to the young Marine Corp and has become proud part of USMC lore. Part of that lore holds that the scarlet stripe on the trousers of officers and noncommissioned officers, the “blood stripe”, commemorates the high number of Marine NCOs and officers killed taking Chapultepec Castle.