Originally published on February 13, 2015
This weekend many people will celebrate the sentimental holiday of Valentine’s Day. Sentimental isn’t a word that is often used to describe George C. Marshall, but glimpses of his romantic side appear in correspondence with his first wife, Elizabeth “Lily” Carter Coles.
According to Marshall’s sister, Marie Louise Singer, George didn’t have many girls before Lily. “He did have one affair where he was so madly in love he thought he would die.” She wasn’t interested in George and he was quite unhappy about the whole thing. His classmates confirmed this. J. Banks Hudson said that he “never paid much attention to girls early.” But in his last year at the Virginia Military Institute he met Lily.
Lily lived with her widowed mother near the gates of VMI. Lily was at least four years older than Marshall. She was known as a college widow-a young woman in a college town who dates students of successive college classes. In fact, she had dated Marshall’s older brother Stuart when he was at VMI in 1893. Many of Marshall’s classmates stated that Lily was a “mature woman when we were boys.” She was handsome, had a good figure, and was very striking.
Classmate Erskine Miller said that he and Marshall would often go to her house and listen to her play the piano. He decided to stop visiting with Marshall when it looked as if Marshall was serious about her. Edward Ryland said “his courtship of Lily Coles was a sensation. She didn’t date VMI men much and preferred the Washington and Lee University ‘minks’ men.” Hudson said, “Once George fell in love, he would run the block (VMI’s term for sneaking off post). It was decided that someone would have to tell him he might get caught and thrown out. We drew lots and I got the job. He just said, let me handle that. I asked how he escaped getting caught. He said no sentry was going to report the first captain, and it was doubtful if the sub-professors (who were recent graduates) would either. Sometimes he would dress up a dummy and put it in his bed. He knew inspection routines and could guess when they would be by.”
On Tuesday, February 11, 1902 George and Lily were married in Lily’s home on Letcher Avenue.
Marie recalls that “Mother was upset about it. Lily had gone with Stuart. She was a college widow and went with a lot of the boys. After George’s marriage, Stuart made some remark about Lily. George never had anything much to do with him afterwards.” She also noted that over time their mother came to love her and said that “Lily was a lovely person; most enchanting.”
Whatever the family thought, correspondence between them showed their love for each other. In 1917, after 15 years of marriage, Marshall wrote to Lily “I do wish you would send me some kodaks (pictures) of yourself. Not posed ones, but just chance shots – good, bad and indifferent.” In the same letter he writes, “Dearest, I love you very much. I want you very much; and I would give my very soul to have you close to me this afternoon. You are all I think about and long for. I even think a mud hole would be pleasant with you in it.” In a letter from Lily to Marshall she says, “It seems about a thousand years since you and I have exchanged letters and yet I can truthfully say there is not a single day where I do not think of you.”
Lily died September 15, 1927 while writing a note to her mother about being released from the hospital following surgery. Marshall wrote to Pershing about his loss and said “twenty-six-years of most intimate companionship, something I have known since I was a mere boy, leaves me lost in my best effort to adjust myself to future prospects in life.” It took a long time for Marshall to get over her. Marshall’s sister Marie said that she “used to spend two or three months at a time at Fort Benning when George was a widower. He kept photographs of the first Mrs. Marshall all over the house. And it took the second Mrs. Marshall a year to get most of them put away.”
George and Lily never had children.