Music at the Archives – John Philip Sousa

Today’s guest blogger is Trevor Plante, a supervisory archivist at Archives I. 

 Following up on two recent blog posts from our office by Juliette Arai and Mark Mollan I thought it would be a great opportunity to blog about one of my favorite Marine Corps documents that I often show Marines when we have them here for tours. 

Enlistment for John Philip Sousa
Record Group 127, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps, Entry 76, Service Records of Enlisted Men, 1798-1904. ARC Identifier 922155 / MLR Number I-2 76

The Navy and Marine Corps had a great program during the 19th Century – great for parents anyway. You could literally sign your children over to the military. Authorized by an act approved March 2, 1837 “An Act to provide for the enlistment of boys for the naval service…”


The act allowed boys to enlist, with the consent of their parents or guardians, as long as they were not younger than thirteen years old or over eighteen years of age. The apprentice boy program was eventually expanded to include the Marine Corps. Boys between the ages of 11 and 18 could enlist in the Marine Corps, with the consent of their parents or guardians, and had to serve until they were 21 years old unless they were discharged sooner.

The most famous example we have of this program is the first enlistment paper found in John Philip Sousa’s Marine Corps Service Record (ARC 922155). Sousa enlisted June 9, 1868, at the age of 13. His enlistment paper shows that he voluntarily enlisted “to serve for a period of 7 years, 5 months and 27 days in the Marine Corps of the UNITED STATES, unless sooner discharged.”  John Philip Sousa’s signature appears twice on the front of the enlistment paper and both of his parents signatures appear twice on the reverse. The first parental signatures provided consent to their son enlisting in the Marine Corps. The second set of parental signatures are Sousa’s parents acknowledging that their son would have two dollars deducted from his monthly pay ”to be taught or instructed in the trade or mystery of a musician.” Sousa would also have one dollar deducted per month “for his scholastic teaching in the ordinary branches of the English language.”
Record Group 127, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps Entry 76, Service Records of Enlisted Men, 1798-1904, ARC Identifier 922155

Sousa served as an apprentice musician in the Marine Band from this first enlistment until he was 20 years old with the exception of a period of six months. His rank during his service appears as ”boy” in the Marine Corps Muster Rolls found in Record Group 127.

After his discharge from the Marine Corps, Sousa continued conducting as well as playing the violin and touring with several traveling theater orchestras. On Oct. 1, 1880, Sousa became the 17th Leader of the Marine Corps Band. He served as the director of the Marine Band for 12 years before resigning to form his own civilian band in 1892.

Sousa died on March 6, 1932, at Reading, Pa. His body was brought to Washington, DC to lie in state in the Band Hall at Marine Barracks, Washington. Four days later, two companies of Marines and Sailors, the Marine Band, and honorary pall-bearers from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps headed the funeral cortege from the Marine Barracks to Congressional Cemetery where he was buried.