1-006 Editorial Note on Attending the Virginia Military Institute

Publisher: The George C. Marshall Foundation

Editorial Note on Attending the Virginia Military Institute


Until he was eight years old Marshall was rather casually educated in a succession of private schools in Uniontown. In September 1889, he enrolled in the local public school. There he was embarrassed and his father dismayed by his lack of knowledge in comparison to his peers, particularly in arithmetic, grammar, and spelling. Although his interest in and knowledge of history was more acceptable, Marshall remembered his four years in public school as “humiliating” and “a very painful time.” When the pain had been eased by the passage of more than sixty years, Marshall agreed that his public-school years had been a valuable and necessary democratizing experience, “very important, I think, in the life of every young American.” Nevertheless, as soon as the family’s financial position improved sufficiently in 1893, he enrolled in Uniontown Academy, a private school.

By his mid-teens, Marshall had begun to look toward a military career. His parents were not pleased by his interest in the tiny, low-status army. Marshall would have liked to attend the United States Military Academy. Education there was free—a consideration of great importance to the family—and a commission was guaranteed to successful graduates. But in his congressional district Academy appointments were based on competitive examination, and Marshall’s scholarly credentials were weak. Moreover, his father was a staunch Democrat in a Republican district. Finally, a painfully injured right elbow probably would have prevented his meeting the physical requirements for entrance.

Stuart Marshall had graduated with a creditable academic record in chemistry in 1894 from the Virginia Military Institute. When George was begging to be allowed to attend, he overheard his brother trying to persuade his mother against it, because he thought the family name might be disgraced by George’s apparent lack of scholastic ability. That, Marshall later recalled, “made more impression on me than all the instructors, parental pressures or anything else, and I decided right then that I was going to `wipe his face’ or `wipe his eye,’ and I ended up at the V.M.I.” His mother sold some property to raise the tuition. (Marshall Interviews, pp. 39-40, 43-44, 89.)

The cadet routine at the Virginia Military Institute was, Marshall remembered, “very austere.” School ran from early September through June with few holidays, little respite from discipline, and practically no provisions for entertaining the cadets. For a boy in the fourth class—a “rat”—hazing by upperclassmen made life “quite an ordeal.” Marshall’s natural stoicism helped him survive. “The routine of cadet life I became accustomed to and accepted. I think I was a little bit more philosophical about this thing than a good many boys. They would get very exercised over something of that kind. It was part of the business and the only thing to do was to accept it as best you could and as easily as you could.” Having agreeable roommates made surviving easier. (Ibid., pp. 96-97.)

The most exciting event of Marshall’s “rat” year was the war with Spain. On April 23, 1898—the day after Congress authorized the president to organize volunteer units “possessing special qualifications”—the cadets unanimously voted to offer their services. (Lexington Gazette, April 27, 1898.) By the time Marshall returned to Uniontown for summer vacation, the local National Guard company had left for the Philippine Islands with the rest of the Tenth Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. Company C’s heroic return the following summer had a profound impact on Marshall, who by then was half-way through V.M.I. and was already winning military—although not scholastic—honors.

Recommended Citation: ThePapers 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. 6-8.

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