The rationale behind the present parade precedence structure appears to be based more on custom than on any documented set of criteria. The majority of texts, manuals, and guides on the subject of military and naval customs and traditions appear to cite service seniority as the determining factor in deciding the precedence of the armed forces in parades.
The Marine Officer’s Guide, section 1823, states “To avoid conflicts at parades or ceremonies, the places of honor are allocated in order of Service seniority…” Likewise, in Military Customs and Traditions, it is stated that “Precedence among military units vary much as among people - is normally determined by age.”
A joint-service color guard marches down a spectator-lined avenue during a parade honoring Desert Storm veterans.
In theory, this criteria for establishing the parade precedence of the various armed forces would seem to be very straightforward and easily comprehendible. However, in practice this is not the case. There exists among the various branches of the services a divergence of opinion on the issue of dates which mark the beginnings of their respective branches.
Service seniority can be interpreted in a number of ways. For example, one could trace the origins of the various branches in their respective dates when the Continental Congress passed initiating resolutions. Using this criteria we could find the Army being established in June 1775, the Navy in October 1775, and the Marines on 10 November 1775.
However, seniority of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps is obscured by the divergent elements of the intentions of the Continental Congress as compared to the realization of those intentions. Although the intention of the Congress to established an Army is apparent in several resolutions of June 1775, the realization of those intentions was not effected until 1 January 1776 when General Washington states in his orderly book, “This day giving commencement to the new Army which in every point of view is entirely Continental.”
Likewise, the Navy which the Congress created by resolution in October 1775 was not to be realized until several months later. The process of procuring and outfitting ships as well as enlisting and commissioning personnel was a time-consuming one. The commander in chief of the Navy and other officers were not commissioned until 22 December 1775.
The Marine Corps, on the other hand, even though established by resolution on 10 November 1775, was actually a force in readiness before the Army or the Navy. Samuel Nicholas was commissioned a Captain of Marines on 28 November 1775, a month before the first officer of the Continental Navy was commissioned. Indeed, the Marine Corps’ claim to being the oldest integral force in being results primarily from fortunate circumstances. The Corps was much smaller and more closely knit than either of the other services, and its origin was not complicated by the existence of provincial and local forces already in the field. Thus, the Continental Marine force was all regular Marine from the beginning during the period when the Army was an amorphous mass of mixed Continentals and militia, and the Navy lacked ships. The Marine Corps appears, therefore, to be the first truly “federal” armed services branch.
The question of seniority of the armed services is further confused by the fact that nearly all of the original Colonies placed militia, ships, and troops serving as Marines in action at the opening of hostilities, before the establishment of the Continental Congress. It could be argued that these forces, having been taken under Continental pay and control, constituted the beginning of the American Army, Navy, and Marines.
Thus, it seems that no definitive case can be made for establishing the relative seniority of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. In fact, the only facts that correspond with the present parade order of Army, Marine Corps, and Navy respectively, are the dates when their first officers were commissioned, in June, November, and December of 1775. It appears that the present order of parade precedence has evolved over the years, perhaps initially based on early opinions of the actual dates of origin of the services. In any case, the present order of parade precedence has become one of our foremost military customs and as the foregoing has indicated, there appears to be little evidence to support any change in that order. The present order of parade precedence is indicated in DoD Directive 1005.8 as Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force. Therefore, by analogy, the order of display of colors should be in the same order.
USMC History Division