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Lessons in Leadership
By H. Paul Jeffers, Alan Axelrod
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 H. Paul Jeffers, Alan Axelrod
All rights reserved.
The third child and second son of George C. Marshall and the former Laura Emily Bradford, George Catlett Marshall Jr. was born on December 31, 1880, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. He grew up telling teachers that he was certifiably descended from John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the United States. To other boys he bragged about being related to the dreaded pirate Blackbeard. How he acquired the nickname "Flicker" is unclear, but it could have evolved from a distortion of the word "Freckles." As a redhead, he had them in abundance. Young George liked licorice candy that he bought at Crane's store and enjoyed reading the adventures of Jesse James and other cowboys in dime novels, along with tales of Nick Carter, Diamond Dick, and Frank Merriwell, and the "Old Sleuth" series. In the small-town America described by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, George Marshall was more like Huckleberry Finn than Tom. He found school-learning hard and was deemed "slow" by many.
George never emulated Huck by floating down a river on a raft, but he did attempt to build one. His purpose was to open a shortcut to school by starting a ferry service at a penny per trip across a stream called Coal Lick Run that flowed behind the Marshalls' house. When his effort to build the raft failed, a local shopkeeper assisted his enterprise by giving him an old flat bottomed boat. For several days, George's ferry business thrived. One day a group of girls informed him they were out of pennies for the fare. Demanding free passage, they boarded the boat. When he refused service, they started to ridicule his poor performance as a student.
"I was terribly humiliated," Marshall recalled many years later in an interview with Forrest C. Pogue, his official biographer, "and what made it worse, my chum Andy [Thompson] began laughing at me. And there I was—the girls in the flatboat all jeering at me and my engineer and boon companion laughing at me and I was stuck. Just then my eye fastened on a cork in the floor of the boat which was utilized in draining it. With the inspiration of the moment, I pulled the cork, and under the pressure of the weight of the passengers a stream of water shot up in the air. All the girls screamed, and I sank the boat in the middle of the stream."
Forced to wade ashore, with dresses soaked and mud-stained, the frantic girls ran home and reported the disaster to their mothers. Irate, the women sought redress from George Sr. The result for George Jr. was punishment with a hickory switch in the cellar.
* * *
Looking back on his schooldays, George evoked a painful time when he felt ashamed to admit his ignorance, particularly in arithmetical problems. "If it was history, I was all right; I could star in history," he recalled. "But the other things I was very, very poor in. Grammar I knew nothing about."
Unlike his older brother Stuart and his sister Marie, George was seen by their father as a disappointment. Six years older, Stuart Bradford Marshall possessed all the admirable traits of diligent application and ambition that their father had exhibited to succeed in business and that seemed to be missing in George Junior. Poor marks for schoolwork or a report of classroom misdemeanors meant a display of parental dismay in the form of the dreaded hickory.
Part owner of a coal company with 150 coke ovens and coal fields, George C. Marshall Sr. was a man of his times. A respected businessman and a vestryman of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, he was a Freemason and Knight Templar as well as a proud Democrat who heartily backed Grover Cleveland for president in the year George Jr. was born, and again in 1888. He was for William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and took George Jr. to march in a pro-Bryan parade. Wearing a gray paper hat and carrying a cane, George Sr. approved of the way the Republican President William McKinley's choice to be assistant secretary of the navy, Theodore Roosevelt, spoke out about driving the Spanish out of Cuba, even if it took the navy and army to do it.
Originally from Kentucky, George C. Marshall, Sr. had seen some action in the Civil War as a rifleman in a brisk skirmish in the town of Augusta, Kentucky, on the Ohio River opposite (and east of ) Cincinnati, Ohio. Because its residents were almost equally divided in their allegiance between North and South, the city council raised a militia early in the war to protect the community from whatever side might threaten its peace and security. Eager to help, and hoping to impress Laura Bradford, the pretty, fifteen-year-old daughter of a locally prominent landowner, sixteen-year-old George volunteered. When a detachment of Confederate cavalry led by Colonel Basil Duke, George's cousin, arrived on September 27, 1862, to occupy the town, a battle ensued. When it ended, the Confederates had suffered twenty-one killed and eighteen wounded and the town's militia, seven dead and fifteen wounded. To ensure no further trouble, Duke ordered immediately after the battle one hundred militiamen be held as hostages, including George Marshall. When he was released a few weeks later, he found Laura Bradford more impressed with his heroics than were her parents.
Because the Marshalls had little standing in Augusta, the prominent Bradfords discouraged Laura from seriously considering George as a suitor. They managed to stall Laura and George's marriage for a decade, but, finally, in 1873, the couple married and left Kentucky for the coal- and steel-making region of western Pennsylvania. Here they settled in Uniontown, where George Marshall soon prospered. Their first child lived only six months. The next, a son, Stuart, became the father's favorite. He was followed by a daughter, Marie, and then George Jr., who became the mother's favorite. The future general remembered his wife as very quiet, but with a great deal of strength of character and a keen sense of humor.
Recalling a mother who was always forgiving, Marshall told biographer Forrest Pogue, "Sometimes she may have been worried; sometimes she may have been ashamed; sometimes she may have been shocked; but she heard what the matter was, what the affair was, and whenever there was humor in it, it amused her very much."
* * *
George Jr. could never remember exactly when he started thinking about a military career. He might have overheard his mother say something about the virtues of soldiering to his father after a conversation with a distant relative, Colonel Charles Marshall of Baltimore, who had been at Robert E. Lee's side in the Civil War. Shortly thereafter the decision was announced by Mr. Marshall that eldest son Stuart was to enter the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Part of the impetus for this choice, instead of West Point, lay in an abrupt downturn in the family's finances because of a failed investment. Although the United States Military Academy was tuition-free, George Sr. was a prominent Democrat, and appointments to West Point were made by congressmen or senators, all of whom in the Pennsylvania delegation at that time happened to be Republicans. Although Stuart performed well in the military classes at VMI, his real interests lay in science. Rather than following graduation in 1894 with an application for a commission in the U.S. Army, he joined a local ironworks as a chemist.
Seeing Stuart in a cadet's uniform and hearing him talk about his VMI experiences may have influenced George's decision to enroll at the Institute, but his decision actually to pursue a military career seems to have resulted from his seeing the triumphal return to Uniontown of Company C of the Tenth Pennsylvania Infantry from the Philippines in 1899. Marshall was impressed by the parade and celebration, a grand American small-town demonstration of pride in Uniontown's young men and of wholesome enthusiasm over their achievements.
Painfully remembering his second son's struggles in public schools, George Sr. nurtured grave reservations about George Jr.'s ability to succeed in the military. His doubts were exacerbated by Stuart's objections. Having done very well at VMI, he stated that he was fearful his brother would do poorly and disgrace the family name. The expression of concern was directed not to George Sr. but to Mrs. Marshall because she would be paying the costs of George's tuition ($365) and uniforms ($70) out of the proceeds of sales of real estate properties in Augusta and Uniontown. Overhearing Stuart's harsh words, General Marshall later said, made more of an impression on him than all his instructors, parental pressures, or any other factor. He decided right then and there that, in the slang of the period, he was going to "wipe" Stuart's face by excelling as a cadet at VMI.
Venturing away from home for the first time, sixteen-year-old George C. Marshall Jr. arrived in the village of Lexington, Virginia, on September 11, 1897, and climbed a steep hill to stand at the edge of the broad parade ground on which Stonewall Jackson had drilled cadets when he was an instructor at VMI in the 1850s. Stuart said that the spirit of the Confederate hero was so great throughout the institute that an eerie light was seen at times in his old classroom. Far more stern and foreboding to Marshall was the figure of the present superintendent, General Scott Shipp.
Six feet tall, lean, shy, and getting over a bout of typhoid fever, George Marshall was assigned to barracks room 88. As he walked down a long avenue toward the building, he heard a bugle sound assembly for dress parade. Watching the adjutant and sergeant strutting out to form the line on which the battalion would fall in, he thought they were wonderful-looking figures.
Although Superintendent Shipp had banned the hazing of freshmen, called "rats," George and other first-year students were subjected to a ritual that required them to bare their buttocks and squat for ten minutes over a bayonet, the handle of which had been jammed into the floor. Some witnesses averred that he did so for twenty minutes, but because he was still weak and recuperating from typhoid this seems doubtful. When his strength at last gave out, he rose shakily. Brushing against the bayonet, he was cut and bled profusely, but because all who had participated in the hazing could have been expelled for violating Shipp's ban, he did not report the incident.
At the end of the year, his academic standing proved that he was not as "slow" as his brother had feared. Of eighty-two men in his class, Marshall ranked eighteenth, with his strongest showing in the military classes. As a reward, he was named first corporal for the following term.
After a summer at home, Marshall in his second year again fared best in military subjects and finished the year ranked twenty-fifth academically in a class of sixty-nine. A civil engineering major, he completed the third year ranked nineteenth among forty-seven and was unanimously elected "first captain," making him the highest-ranking cadet officer.
"What I learned most at VMI," Marshall recalled, "was self-control, discipline, and the problem of managing men which fell to the cadet noncommissioned officer and cadet officer. He was very severely judged by his classmates if he was slack."
In his senior year, George C. Marshall Jr. could have been the model for the can-do heroes of books by Horatio Alger and articles in Boys' Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines that celebrated the all-American-boy with the "bully" attitude and spirit extolled by Vice President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, who felt that (as he wrote in his 1900 essay "Character and Success") "in the great battle of life, no brilliancy of intellect, no perfection of bodily development, would count when weighed in the balance" against the combination of moral qualities that create character.
At twenty years old, Marshall was tall, handsome, a tackle on the VMI football team, drill field leader, and sufficiently well respected to have been chosen to lead the Ring Dance at the Ring Figure Ball. He was also head over heels in love. The object of his affections was the beautiful, auburn-haired belle of Lexington whose only flaw was a heart condition that limited her physical activities to countryside outings and drives around the road that bounded the drill field. A doctor's daughter, she resided in a wooden Gothicstyle cottage with her widowed mother at 319 Letcher Avenue at the Limit Gate of the campus.
Passing by on a spring day with a friend, Marshall heard one of his mother's favorite tunes playing on a piano. Looking for the source of the music, he peered through an open window and found Elizabeth Carter Coles at the keyboard. Inquiring from the friend and other cadets, he learned she was called Lily. Delighting in flirting with VMI men, she had already disappointed several who asked to marry her. One of them, Marshall learned, was his brother.
When Stuart made unkind, unfair remarks about her, perhaps because she had rejected him, Marshall was reported to have told his goddaughter, Rose Page Wilson, years later, "I cut him off my list." He remained estranged from Stuart for the rest of his life.
Noting that Lily's family ancestry included a governor of Virginia and a member of the Continental Congress at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and that other relatives were among the finest names in the landed gentry of Virginia, Marshall recalled that Lily's family looked down on him because the name of his hometown sounded as if it had been founded during or after the Civil War. They were shocked when they discovered that Uniontown, Pennsylvania—founded on July 4, 1776—was actually a year older than Lexington, Virginia.
As graduation approached, Marshall found that the odds favoring a VMI graduate's obtaining a commission to make him the equal of a new graduate of West Point had improved greatly with an authorization by Congress to the army to expand army strength by 100,000 enlisted men and 1,200 officers to put down an insurrection in the Philippines related to the Spanish-American War. Of these new officers, one-fifth were to be selected by means of a written examination. Although Marshall's parents were against his choice of an army career, George Sr. recognized that his second son's whole heart was in it and wrote to Superintendent Shipp to ask if George had the qualifications essential to the making of an officer. Shipp said he had complete confidence that if commissioned in the army, Marshall, would measure above the average West Pointer.
Given this assurance, Mr. Marshall wrote to a VMI graduate, John S. Wise, who was close to President McKinley, to appeal to the president in support of George's application for permission to take the qualifying examination. Noting that George was related to Chief Justice John Marshall and that George bore the name most worthily, Wise heartily recommended him.
To increase the likelihood of being granted permission to take the test, Marshall traveled to the nation's capital carrying letters of recommendation from John Wise and Superintendent Shipp. Demonstrating the pluck that Teddy Roosevelt so admired in American youths, Marshall sought and obtained required endorsements by showing up unexpectedly at the office of Attorney General Philander Knox, who was a friend of George Sr., and at the home of the chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee, John A. Hull. Both were polite but promised nothing. Marshall rounded out his Washington odyssey by seeking out the commander in chief himself. Arriving at the White House, he was informed by the butler that without an appointment he would never meet with the president. Undaunted, he waited in the foyer and watched people who had appointments go into the presidential office. When a man and his daughter were escorted in by the butler, Marshall attached himself to the procession and entered the president's office. After the pair had met with the chief executive, Marshall found himself alone with McKinley. The president asked him what he wanted, and Marshall calmly stated his case.
"I don't recall what he [President McKinley] said," Marshall noted in an interview more than half a century later, "but from that [meeting] I think flowed my appointment or rather my authority to appear for examination."
On September 6, 1901, as McKinley was shaking hands in a reception line in the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, shot him at point-blank range. Eight days later, the president died, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to office. On that very day, Marshall reported to Governors Island in New York Harbor to begin the three-day examination. He found it surprisingly easy, scoring an average of 84.8, but did concede to Shipp that he had difficulty with the geography questions.
Guarding against the possibility of failing to obtain a commission, Marshall had accepted appointment as commandant and instructor at the Danville Military Institute in Virginia. Taking up his post at the military elementary and prep school, he taught arithmetic, algebra, history, English, and drill regulations and discipline while waiting to hear if he would become, as Wise jokingly wrote to a member of the examining board, one of the fittest pieces of food for gunpowder turned out by VMI for many years. Informed that he would receive his army commission as second lieutenant on December 31, his twenty-first birthday, Marshall called the news a very acceptable Christmas present, resigned from his teaching position, and decided to propose to Lily.
Excerpted from Marshall by H. Paul Jeffers, Alan Axelrod. Copyright © 2010 H. Paul Jeffers, Alan Axelrod. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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