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Heritage Of The War

July 2024
3min read

From the American Civil War to the beginning of America’s involvement in the Second World War is a long time, and the two things apparently have very little relation with one another. Yet there is a thread connecting them, if it is nothing more than the thin strand that runs through human affairs, tying the man of the 1930’s with the men of the 1860’s; and one is somehow compelled to think about it in examining the career of General George Catlett Marshall, who became America’s top military man just in time to handle the momentous matters that led the United States to go to war with Adolf Hitler’s Germany and the Japanese Empire.

A reminder is at hand in Forrest C. Pogue’s new book, George C. Marshall: Education of a General, 1880-1939 . This is the first volume of what will ultimately be a three-volume life of one of America’s great soldiers: the definitive biography, almost certainly, a work very much worth attention. Marshall, of course, first saw daylight long after the Civil War had ended, and yet somehow he had roots that went back to that time: reading about what he was and what he did, one cannot help feeling that he stemmed out of the Civil War era, that the strengths he brought to his high position grew out of things done and learned in that most terrible of conflicts.

To begin with, Marshall appears to have been a born soldier: a man who from his childhood was meant for this calling, one whom the soldier’s duties and responsibilities fitted as the glove fits the hand. As a military cadet and later as a young second lieutenant, he was obviously a man destined to command, a soldier in—let us say—the tradition of Stonewall Jackson, who clearly could have been nothing on earth of any consequence except a leader of fighting men.

In addition, consider this: Marshall was born in Pennsylvania in 1880, and instead of going to West Point he went south, into Virginia, and went to the Virginia Military Institute, which may not seem quite the place for a Yankee. He went there showing no enormous talents as a student. At the end of his third year he ranked only nineteenth in a class of forty-seven—and yet, as everybody in the place expected, he was made first captain of the corps of cadets for his senior year. V. M. I. had seen born soldiers before that, and it recognized this one when it had him.

Beyond which, the old tradition touched him sharply. The superintendent of V. M. I. had been with the cadets who fought the Yankees at New Market, Virginia, in 1864. The walls of the barracks at the Institute still bore the marks of Federal cannon balls, the graves of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee were near at hand, and the college catalogue in its listing of graduates gave heavy black type to those who had been killed fighting for the Southern Confederacy. Marshall was never sure that the place gave him a good academic background, but he wrote that it did teach him “self-control, discipline … I learned also the problem of managing men.”

All of this, to be sure, is not the point of Mr. Pogue’s book. He tells the story of Marshall’s career, from his boyhood down to the day in the fall of 1939 when he became chief of staff of the United States Army, with problems of infinite magnitude and consequence lying just ahead of him. It is a fascinating story; it gives a detailed account of the way in which this rather cold and self-contained person became a gifted leader and master of men, and not too much of it rests on the days when he was a boy with his career to make, a lanky Pennsylvanian plodding through the favorite school of the Southern Confederacy.

Yet the point does remain. One of Marshall’s immense virtues was that he recognized throughout his army career that an American general is always going to have to adapt himself to nonmilitary civilians who are only temporary soldiers. He will not, in all probability, have highly trained professionals after the European model; he will have to take gangling lads from the farm, the small town, and the city streets, most of whom would prefer to be anywhere on earth except in the Army, make soldiers out of them, and then find the knack of using them so that they can stand up to the test of battle. Marshall learned this, apparently without trying to—it is worth noting that he did very well when the Army, unable to use the ordinary devices of military discipline, had to handle the Civilian Conservation Corps boys in the early years of the New Deal. It fell to his lot finally to command more soldiers than any other American who ever lived, and by far the most of them were CCC boys enlarged. In the end they did pretty well, and it was George C. Marshall who would have been blamed if they had not.

George C. Marshall: Education of a General, 1880-1939, by Forrest C. Pogue, with a foreword by General Omar N. Bradley. Viking Press. 421 pp. $7.50.

Marshall had a background, in short. His roots went back to that other war which we drifted into by folly and blindness, that war which should have been avoided but was not avoided, that war which cost so much and, as we often are tempted to think, won so little; and the roots were good. Out of the Civil War, we somehow got a heritage which may be a little better than we really deserved. We got a tradition, a knowledge of what the American fighting man is really like, an understanding of what leadership in this democracy actually means. Reflecting on the career of General George Marshall, one is bound to confess that it finally paid off.

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