The George C. Marshall Papers

George C. Marshall, Sr., to Brigadier General Scott Shipp

MARSHALL began his “rat” year while recovering from typhoid fever; later he was injured in a hazing incident. Despite these initial trials, he quickly demonstrated his military interests and abilities by successively holding the highest cadet positions available in each class: first corporal, first sergeant, first captain. When asked what he had done to make himself first captain, he replied: “The first thing was I tried very hard.... I was very exacting and exact in all my military duties and I was gradually developing in authority from the very mild authority, almost none, shown by a corporal to the very pronounced authority as first sergeant.” (Marshall Interviews, p. 119.)
His responsibilities were large for one his age; he had to learn to exercise authority in such a way as not to create resentment. “The impact of the V.M.I. on my later leadership was probably much greater than I realized at the time. Having been a First Sergeant and later a First Captain meant a great deal in control. I had specific things to do. I was responsible for the men, and you couldn't go to sleep on that. That required your attention every minute. You had to know just what you were doing, and you had to have some talent at putting it over. This was particularly true of the first captain, because he took the lead on such matters.” (Ibid., pp. 116-17)
In later years Marshall recalled that his academic performance at V.M.I. steadily improved after a poor start. In fact, he began and remained a mediocre scholar. His grades in English improved, but he tended to do poorly in mathematics and science. Marshall finished fifteenth of the thirty-three graduates, but managed to stand fifth in civil engineering, his major. Not surprisingly, he did well in military subjects. (Ibid., p. 40; V.M.I., Official Register, 1898–99, 1899-1900, 1900-1901, and 1901–2. [Lexington, Va.: V.M.I., 1899-1902].)
The most serious challenge Marshall faced in his final year at V.M.I. was not scholastic or even romantic—he had fallen in love with the belle of Lexington, Elizabeth (“Lily”) Carter Coles—but getting an army commission. Fortunately for him, the United States Army, consonant with the nation's new world position and at Secretary of War Elihu Root's insistence, was more than three times as large in 1901 as it had been when Marshall entered V.M.I.
A law taking effect on February 2, 1901, required the appointment of 837 new first and second lieutenants. First priority was given to West Point graduates, next to successful applicants from the ranks, then to former officers of the volunteers, and finally to civilians. Although he had graduated from a military school, Marshall had to compete with others from civil life. Excepting West Point graduates, all applicants had to take an admission test. In order to take the examination Marshall needed a letter of authorization from the War Department. (Report of the Secretary of War, 1901 [Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1901], pp. 7–10; Major William Murray Black, “The Education and Training of Army Officers,” Journal of the Military Service Institution 32[January-February 1903]: 17, 20, 30–31.) ☆

My Dr Sir:-

It has been George Jr.s ambition to go in the regular service, and he has been bending his energies to that end. While his Mother and I both were against it I believe in taking him on his own judgment etc. I have many warm and influential friends of the administration and quite close ones at that. They will do for me all that it is possible to do. Even so far as making it a personal demand. On that score I am fully satisfied and assured—[1]
Now my object in writing is to ask of you a letter simply giving me your opinion as to George's fitness. Whether he possesses those qualifications, so essential to the making of an officer that would be a credit to the Institute or not particularly as it comes from the V.M.I. the West Point of the South.[2] At any rate I will present them in person, and do the talking for the V.M.I—
By doing this, you will greatly oblige

Yrs very truly

G. C. Marshall
P.S.—All I can say is that if he only makes as great a success in his line as Stuart has in his I will be both satisfied and proud of him—[3]
G. C. M.
VMI/Alumni File; H
    [1]At the request of George C. Marshall, Sr., John S. Wise wrote a letter of recommendation to President McKinley on January 30, 1901. Wise cited George's relative, “the illustrious John Marshall . . . and the records fail to disclose since then one of the name who was either fool or coward. They are filled with instances of intelligent brave gentlemen of this name and this boy bears it most worthily. I heartily commend him.” (NA/RG 94 [Document File].) Wise, a V.M.I. graduate (1866) and the son of a former governor of Virginia, had switched to the Republican party, moved to New York, and helped William McKinley win the 1896 presidential nomination.
    [2]In response to Mr. Marshall's request, General Scott Shipp wrote a letter of recommendation on January 23, 1901: “I was a Confederate officer, and for nearly forty years have been Commr or Suptdt of this school. I have served on Bd of Visitors to both West Point and Annapolis. With this experience I assert with absolute confidence that if commissioned in the army, young Marshall will in all respects, soon take his stand much above the average West Point graduate.” (Ibid.) On February 12, 1901, George C. Marshall, Sr., requested General Shipp to write a personal letter to President McKinley, much like the one that Wise had written. Superintendent Shipp responded with a letter to the president on February 14, recommending Marshall for a second lieutenancy and commenting that “Marshall is fully the equal of the best.” (Ibid.)
    [3]Upon graduation from V.M.I. in 1894, Stuart B. Marshall joined the Dunbar Furnace Company in Dunbar, Pennsylvania, where he soon became chief chemist.