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Editorial Note on Performance at VMI and Seeking an Army Career
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: GPO, 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.)
Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 1, “The Soldierly Spirit,” December 1880-June 1939 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), pp. 9-10.