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Inauguration Represents Ultimate Change-of-Command Ceremony

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12, 2009 – To people in the military, the presidential inauguration is America’s ultimate change-of-command ceremony.

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Military stand-ins walk down the eastside steps of the U.S. Capitol during the 56th Presidential Inaugural Rehearsal Jan. 11, 2009. Army Staff Sgt. Derrick Brooks stood in for President-elect Barack Obama. Navy Seaman LaSean McCray played the role of Michelle Obama. Army Spc. Nicholas Rupple played the part of Vice President-elect Joe Biden. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Karen Lowden stood in for Jill Biden [who holds a doctorate degree in Education] . Army Maj. Gen. Richard J. Rowe, Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region, (middle) acted as himself. DoD photo by Marine Lance Cpl. Bryan G. Carfrey

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At noon on Jan. 20, the United States does more than inaugurate a new president. The country also gets a new military commander in chief.

The military has been involved in helping to inaugurate the president since the beginning of the republic. When George Washington left his home in Mount Vernon, Va., to travel to the then-seat of government in New York City, local militias – and many Revolutionary War veterans – escorted him along the way.

Washington took the oath of office on April 30, 1789. Period engravings show members of the New York militia present at the ceremony on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall on Wall Street. These militia units, which today are part of the National Guard, were the main force of the infant republic’s military, and they played a large role in the military traditions of presidential inaugurations.

The military presence at early inaugurals came from local militia companies that took it upon themselves to escort the president.

In 1801, a militia company in Charlottesville, Va., escorted Thomas Jefferson to Washington, D.C., for the first inaugural in the new capital. Jefferson’s ceremony was small. There was no inaugural parade just a short speech and some patriotic airs played by the Marine Band. Militiamen then escorted Jefferson to the White House.

When James Madison was sworn in to succeed Jefferson in 1809, local Virginia militia companies again took it on themselves to escort the new president.

The first inaugural parade began in 1817 as a spontaneous event when Virginia militiamen escorting James Monroe staged a parade in his honor.

Active duty forces based in Washington started playing a larger role in succeeding inaugurations. The Marine Band -- the Marine Corps' oldest unit -- has participated in every inauguration held in the city. Ship crews in port at Washington Navy Yard also participated in some early inaugurations.

When Abraham Lincoln came to Washington in 1861, the military took on another role. Seven southern states had seceded even before Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861. Threats against Lincoln’s life led to military personnel assuming a security role during his inauguration. News reports from the time talk about sharpshooters in buildings, cavalry units standing by and the platform where Lincoln delivered his inaugural address being surrounded by Army regulars with bayonets on their muskets.

During Lincoln's second inauguration in 1865, the military maintained a security role. And this had to be taken seriously. A photo of the inauguration ceremony on the east front of the Capitol, shows John Wilkes Booth – the man who gunned Lincoln down about five weeks later at Ford’s Theater —standing off to the side. With the Civil War all but won, military bands and troops had time to take part in inaugural activities. Some of those same soldiers, sailors and Marines would participate in Lincoln’s funeral.

The West Point Band first participated in an inaugural when academy graduate Ulysses S. Grant assumed the presidency. The band – and those of the other service academies – have been a fixture ever since.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, military units continued to play prominent inaugural roles. When Theodore Roosevelt took office in his own right in 1905, his paraders included the Rough Riders, the unit with which he rose to fame during the Spanish-American War.

During William Howard Taft’s inauguration in 1909, the 7th New York Militia missed the parade because of bad weather. They refused to leave Washington until they paraded before Taft. Taft, therefore, had two inaugural parades.

The military continued to participate in inaugurations through the 20th century with little change. In 1933, however, the military again assumed a security role when Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. The Great Depression was at its height, and there were threats against the president.

Roosevelt turned the economic situation around, and the military mission at his second inauguration in 1937 was mostly ceremonial. Roosevelt’s fourth inauguration in 1945 was sedate. America was still at war, and the occasion was marked by a small ceremony and parade.

After the war, demands on the military in Washington were centralized in the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee. This temporary, joint military command forms every four years solely to coordinate Defense Department support to inaugural activities. It works with the Presidential Inaugural Committee and Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, coordinating the participation of military units and escorts and some transportation and medical services.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the military again has an inaugural security role in support of lead civilian agencies. About 5,000 servicemembers will provide military support for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Some of the servicemembers will be part of the ceremonial units. Others will provide transportation. Still others will be involved with logistics and security. No matter what they do, they will be carrying on a tradition as old as the republic.

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Related Sites:
Photo Essay: Troops Take Part in Rehearsal
Photo Essay: Troops Prepare for Inaugural Rehearsal
Photo Essay: Troops Make Up Armed Forces Inaugural Committee

Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe U.S. Army Brass Band performs down Pennsylvania Ave. northest during the Inaugural Parade Rehearsal, Washington, D.C., Jan 11, 2009. DoD photo by Marine Lance Cpl. Jacquelyn M. White   
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