Quick: Think of the words “military man” and “Shenandoah Valley” and what names pop into your mind? Perhaps Robert E. Lee? “Stonewall” Jackson?
Certainly these names are forever synonymous with Valley history, and particularly here in the Lexington, Va. home of these two legendary American Civil War generals.
But there is another military man whose life we can discover in the Shenandoah Valley's Lexington, one whose more recent legacy has left perhaps a most enduring impact on the entire modern world: George C. Marshall.
Although Marshall was born in Uniontown, Pa., he began his long and distinguished career of service at Virginia Military Institute, where he graduated in 1901, and where his Foundation and Museum has been located since 1964.
The Marshall Foundation building houses several floors of public museum exhibits and extensive archives that relate to Marshall's long career.
The building that's home to the George C. Marshall Foundation seems to blend in almost too easily with the uniform, no-nonsense-yet-elegant style of the VMI campus, or “Post” – as it's formally termed. The Marshall Foundation can be found on the south side of the large, square, central Parade ground.
The building's unassuming setting in the VMI Post could possibly resonate with Marshall's tendency to want to “blend in” and stay focused on achieving results. His quiet character is just one extraordinary characteristic that made Marshall the notable man that he was.
Marshall made his mark as a serious, masterful logistical planner, yet one who could also be an assertive leader. His work often went on behind the scenes, and his public persona could often exist under the shadow of better-known and often personally flamboyant WWII field commanders, such as another VMI alumni who shared the same first name: Patton.
After finishing at VMI, he was mentored by General John J. Pershing, then became the WWII Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. After the War's end, as Secretary of State, he was the prime architect of the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan, as it became known following the War, and then Secretary of Defense during the Korean War.
After so many years of military service, he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Marshall Foundation facility exists more like a presidential library, and not unlike the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Museum and Library that's located in nearby Staunton, Va.
“The Marshall Foundation is really a 'hidden gem,'” says Dr. RPW “Rob” Havers, Foundation president. Before the Foundation libary, archives and museum were built, collections of Marshall's papers and materials had essentially been hidden away in Washington D.C office basements.
The idea of locating a home for Marshall archives at VMI was first pursued in the mid 1950s. It provided a big step toward fulfilling the Foundation mission of preserving Marshall's memory and accomplishments for future generations.
And also to give today's Lexington visitors a chance to see a bit of 20th century history come to life, Dr. Havers says. “See some of those key acts in Marshall's long career, the Peace Prize being one, of course. And also undertake research in a fantastic research library. Really get to know who Marshall was in the world in which he acted.”
The result is that people have indeed been coming to visit, often from all over the world. Many visitors had been children who actually lived in the ruins of post-war Europe and had been sustained and saved by food and goods provided by the Marshall Plan. Many come simply to say thanks.
Many younger visitors may simply try to wrap their minds around an incredibly complex story that was before their time. So why even bother to learn about a man like Marshall in this century?
“One of the fascinating things about George C. Marshall is that he is a student of history,” Dr. Havers explains. “He believes that you can learn from the past. And that can give you insight into the present. And indeed, into the future.”
Even as Hitler's Germany was invading Poland in 1939, coincidentally on the day Marshall was taking his position of U.S. Army Chief of Staff, he had been publicly lamenting the lack of quality teaching of history in the United States.
Dr. Havers observes that people may learn differently about history today than the way they did in Marshall's day. So the story of Marshall is presented a broader historical context. Still, it also never gets too far away from introducing the man and individual that he was.
Marshall was willing to defy current social conventions in order to get any job done – if that's what it took. He was relatively forward-thinking amid the mid 20th century status quo.
He recruited minorities and women to serve in the military. He reached out to Native American "Code Talkers" during the War years, part of efforts to develop a cadre of highly-specialized cryptologists. Marshall believed that everyone deserved to serve and believed that everyone should serve.
His winning the Nobel Peace Prize had not come without controversy. How could a military general who played a major role in one of the largest conflicts in history ever receive such a prize?
His legacy could possibly be summed up in these few words: “He won at war and he won at peace.”
Ultimately, his life reflects a man who reached out to people, a “connector” who never hesitated to think outside the box in order to make a difference.
Marshall's challenges were huge. First, engineer a win for the very survival of democratic values against a dictatorship that was steamrolling the globe.
Then deal with its immediate aftereffects: Homeless and starving civilian masses, ruined national economies and increasing political instability -- all of which existed in post-war Europe and Japan during the late 1940s.
Marshall's personality was never brash. He was a deep thinker, respected for his integrity. He was steady. He cared about people. Perhaps most of all, the common soldier. “He embraced diversity,” says Dr. Havers.
While access to the Marshall Foundation's extensive archives is generally limited to serious researchers, two full floors of public museum space are rich with exhibits and information that are designed to bring Marshall and his world to life.
Visitors can see a lot of authentic WWII-era memorabilia: A fully-restored Jeep, the gold plated typewriter Marshall had received in 1949 from the Overseas Press Club. A “talking map” created by the National Geographic Society, and the gold Nobel medallion he received in 1953. Plus films and interactive media displays.
The Virginia Military Institute is itself a visitor destination with its own VMI museum and regularly-scheduled full-dress cadet outdoor parade drills that are always open to the public.
The city of Lexington and surrounding Rockbridge County are both rich in Civil War history, arts and culture, downtown dining and shopping and, of course, world-famous Shenandoah Valley scenic beauty.
The Marshall Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday. There is an admission fee that includes discounts for groups, students and senior citizens and free admission for children and U.S. Active duty military members.
Contact the Marshall Foundation at MarshallFoundation.org, or call (540) 463-2083. Historic photos courtesy The Marshall Foundation.
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Jackson Memorial Hall houses the cadet chapel and the VMI Museum. Photo: Burton R. Floyd
Located at the intersection of historic US Route 11, Interstate 64 and Interstate 81 in the "upper" Shenandoah Valley area, Lexington is home of the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. It's also the county seat of Rockbridge County, Virginia.
Lexington was settled in 1777 and named in 1778. It was the first of many towns and cities in the country to be named after Lexington, Massachusetts, where the first shot was fired during the American Revolution.
There is plenty of Civil War history here: Virginia Military Institute was the site of a Union raid, and Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's only home that he ever owned was in Lexington. It's now a museum. Both Jackson and Robert E. Lee are buried in the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery in downtown Lexington.
Lexington's military heritage is also event at the Lee Chapel, the George C. Marshall Museum, Virginia Military Institute Museum, and the Museum of Military Memorabilia.
The retro-themed Hull's Drive In Theater is the first community-owned, non-profit drive-in in the U.S.