Chapter II: Military Service

John Marshall was not yet twenty years of age when he enrolled himself in a volunteer company, which had been formed mainly by his efforts. His attention seems to have been wholly given to perfecting himself in the necessary drill and equipment for efficient military service in the field. The zeal and ardor of the young soldier, and the boldness and spirit with which he inspired others at this period, are well represented to us in a graphic account by a kinsman who was an eye-witness of Marshall’s first appearance in the role of military leader in his own county.

“It was in May, 1775. He was then a youth of nineteen. The muster-field was some twenty miles distant from the court-house, and in a section of the country peopled by tillers of the earth. Rumors of the occurrences near Boston had circulated, with the effect of alarm and agitation, but without the means of ascertaining the truth, for not a newspaper was printed nearer than Williamsburg, nor was one taken within the bounds of the militia company, though large. The captain had called the company together, and was expected to attend, but did not. John Marshall had been appointed lieutenant in it. Soon after Lieutenant Marshall’s appearance on the ground, those who knew him clustered about him to greet him, others from curiosity and to hear the news.”

“He proceeded to inform the company that the captain would not be there, and that he had been appointed lieutenant instead of a better; that he had come to meet them as fellow soldiers, who were likely to be called on to defend their country and their own rights and liberties, invaded by the British; that there had been a battle at Lexington, in Massachusetts, between the British and Americans, in which the Americans were victorious, but that more fighting was expected; that soldiers were called for, and that it was time to brighten up their firearms and learn to use them in the field; and that if they would fall into a single line, he would show them the new manual exercise, for which purpose he had brought his gun, bringing it up to his shoulder. The sergeants put the men in line, and their fugleman presented himself in front to the right.”

“His figure I have now before me. He was about six feet high, straight, and rather slender, of dark complexion, showing little if any rosy red, yet good health, the outline of the face nearly a circle, and within that eyes dark to blackness, strong and penetrating, beaming with intelligence and good-nature; an upright forehead, rather low, was terminated in a horizontal line by a mass of raven black hair of unusual thickness and strength ; the features of the face were in harmony with this outline, and the temples fully developed. The result of this combination was interesting and very agreeable. The body and limbs indicated agility rather than strength, in which, however, he was by no means deficient. He wore a purple or plain blue hunting shirt, and trousers of the same material fringed with white; and a round black hat, mounted with the buck s tail for a cockade, crowned the figure and the man. He went through the manual exercise by word and motion, deliberately pronounced and performed in the presence of the company, before he required the men to imitate him; and then proceeded to exercise them with the most perfect temper. Never did man possess a temper more happy, or, if otherwise, more subdued and better disciplined.”

“After a few lessons the company were dismissed, and informed that if they wished to hear more about the war, and would form a circle around him, he would tell them what he understood about it. The circle was formed, and he addressed the company for something like an hour. I remember, for I was near him, that he spoke at the close of his speech of the minute battalion about to be raised, and said he was going into it and expected to be joined by many of his hearers. He then challenged an acquaintance to a game of quoits, and they closed the day with foot races and other athletic exercises, at which there was no betting. He had walked ten miles to the muster-field, and returned the same distance on foot to his father’s house at Oak Hill, where he arrived a little after sunset.” [1]


When news was received of the battle of Lexington, and then of the march of Patrick Henry upon Williamsburg, the colonial capital of Virginia, young Marshall addressed his company in eloquent terms, urging them to prepare for every emergency, and be ready to march to the front at a moment’s warning. Lord Dunmore, the governor, had caused some powder to be seized by night from the magazine belonging to the colony at Williamsburg, and conveyed on board an armed schooner then lying in James River. Patrick Henry immediately assembled an independent company, and with characteristic boldness marched upon the capital to recapture the powder by force. He was, however, met on the way by a messenger from the governor, who paid the full value of it in money; whereupon Henry and his party returned. Dunmore, having fortified his “palace,” issued a proclamation declaring all armed forces in the colony to be rebels. About the same time letters from Dunmore to England were intercepted, which, being filled with misrepresentations, greatly incensed the people. Thus situated, his lordship became apprehensive of personal danger, abandoned his government, and went on board a man-of-war then lying in James River, and which, having received him, dropped down to Norfolk. About the same time Governor Martin of North Carolina took refuge on board a national ship in Cape Fear River, and in South Carolina Lord William Campbell also abandoned his government and retired.

The occurrences to the northward, the hostile attitude of parties at home, and the liability and expectation of being called into immediate service, induced the volunteers of Culpeper, Orange, and Fauquier counties to constitute themselves a regiment of minute-men. This was doubtless the organization to which young Marshall referred, in his address to the militia, as about to be formed. They were the first minute-men raised in Virginia, and numbered about three hundred and fifty. Lawrence Taliaferro was chosen their colonel, Edward Stevens lieutenant-colonel, and Thomas Marshall major. The future chief justice himself received the appointment of first lieutenant in one of the companies of the same regiment.

These were the citizen soldiery who, John Randolph said in the Senate of the United States, in one of his rambling speeches, “were raised in a minute, armed in a minute, marched in a minute, fought in a minute, and vanquished in a minute.” Certainly their appearance was calculated to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy. They were dressed in green hunting shirts, “home-spun, home-woven, and homemade,” with the words “ Liberty or Death ” in large white letters on their bosoms. Their banner displayed a coiled rattlesnake, with the motto, “Don’t tread on me” They wore in their hats buck-tails, and in their belts tomahawks and scalping-knives. Their savage and warlike appearance excited the terror of the inhabitants as they marched through the country to Williamsburg. Lord Dunmore told his troops before the action at the Great Bridge, which we shall presently describe, that if they fell into the hands of the shirt-men they would be scalped; an apprehension, it is said, which induced several of them to prefer death to captivity. To the honor of the shirt-men, however, it should be observed that they treated the British prisoners with great kindness—a kindness which was felt and gratefully acknowledged.

Early in June Lord Dunmore, then at Norfolk and still apprehensive for his personal safety, fled on board of a man-of-war. With the British shipping off the coast of Virginia at his command, he possessed the means of annoying the Virginians, though without being able to strike any effective blow. Through the autumn of 1775 both parties were kept on the alert, but nothing very serious occurred. At length, on November 7, Dunmore proclaimed martial law, denounced as traitors all who were capable of bearing arms and did not resort to his majesty’s standard, and offered freedom to all slaves, belonging to rebels, who would join his majesty’s troops. He set up his standard in Norfolk and Princess Anne counties, prescribed an oath of allegiance, and received a considerable accession to his force from the loyalists.

The Virginians had collected provisions for their troops, which were stored at Suffolk, eighteen miles southwest of Norfolk. To seize these provisions was an object of great importance to Lord Dunmore, and to prevent the seizure was an object of not less moment to the Virginia troops. The provisional government perceived clearly the danger of allowing Lord Dunmore to maintain his foothold at Norfolk, and orders were issued immediately to Colonel Woodford to proceed with a detachment of his minute-men, including Marshall’s company, to protect the supplies at Suffolk, and to drive the enemy from Norfolk. The opposing forces confronted each other at the Great Bridge, as it was called, built over a branch of the Elizabeth River, and lying about twelve miles from Norfolk by the only practicable road to Suffolk. Dunmore, apprised of Woodford’s movements, selected a strong position on the eastern side of the bridge, and erected a stockade-fort, which was supplied with many pieces of artillery. The approach to the bridge was commanded by his cannon, which were trained upon the causeway over which the Americans must pass. The morale of Dunmore’s troops, however, was not equal to his intrenchments. They consisted of two hundred regulars, a corps of Norfolk loyalists, and an undisciplined mob of every class and color. Woodford wisely threw up a breastwork at his end of the causeway, and neither party seemed disposed to begin the attack, several days having elapsed without any serious assault on either side. The Virginia troops were much superior to the enemy in number and character, though for the most part unaccustomed to warfare; yet, being young men of character and full of enthusiasm, they were quite ready for the conflict.

Lieutenant Marshall had now his first experience of war, and in the action which followed he is said to have borne an honorable part, contributing largely by his skill and valor, and by the steadiness of his company’s fire, to the success of the day.

Colonel Woodford, perceiving that the enemy were reluctant to begin the attack, resorted to stratagem to induce them to do so. An intelligent servant of Major Marshall’s, whose fidelity could be relied on, instructed beforehand as to his story, deserted to the enemy and carried a report that the troops at the other end of the causeway did not exceed three hundred shirt-men. Dunmore, deceived by this report, determined to advance to the attack, and dispatched his regulars, with about three hundred blacks and loyalists, to drive the Virginians from their position. The attack was led, on December 9, by Captain Fordyce, a brave and accomplished officer. The assailants were exposed, as they advanced, to the galling fire of the Virginia troops, who were protected by their breastwork. The effect was overpowering. Not more than twenty or thirty minutes were consumed in the action, and then the British, with a heavy loss, were totally routed. They abandoned their intrenchments, spiked their cannon, and fled precipitately to their ships at Norfolk. The Virginians pursued them into Norfolk, and here Marshall remained with his corps until the town was bombarded and burned by the British men-of-war on January 1. Then, there being no longer occasion for his services there, his company returned to their homes in Fauquier.

They were not permitted, however, to remain long inactive, but were reorganized and became a part of the eleventh regiment of Virginia troops. They were then ordered to join the army of Washington in New Jersey, which was falling back slowly before the British troops commanded by Sir William Howe, who was soon after succeeded by Sir Henry Clinton. The American army, notwithstanding its successes at Trenton and Princeton, was in a wretched condition, both as to numbers and materiel. Washington’s letters describing its wants and necessities, and urging relief from the authorities, were so touching as to draw tears from those who read them. In view of the actual state of affairs, he wrote, “nothing but a good face and false appearances have enabled us to deceive the enemy concerning our strength.” When Marshall joined the army of Washington in the Jerseys during this period of profound gloom, patient endurance of suffering formed the highest quality of the soldier.

On the opening of the campaign in May, 1777, Lieutenant Marshall was promoted to a captaincy, but in a position thus subordinate he had slender opportunities to distinguish himself or to attract the eye of his superiors. It can only be said that he omitted no opportunity to engage in the most active service that offered. He was personally engaged, with his command, in the battles of Iron Hill, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, where the corps to which he was attached underwent many hardships and performed memorable service.

On December 19, Washington with his exhausted troops went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. The season was one of unusual severity. The cold was extreme, yet the soldiers were often almost naked, without blankets to lie on, and often without shoes, so that their march might sometimes be tracked by the blood from their feet. Their provisions were always scant, and occasionally they were actually destitute; yet they took up their winter quarters within a day’s march of the enemy, without other shelter to protect them than the rude huts which they hastily constructed of logs and mud. They submitted to all these hardships and privations without complaint, and were always on the alert against threatened attacks of the enemy, who occupied the city of Philadelphia. Well might Washington say of them that “no history now extant can furnish an instance of an army suffering such uncommon hardships and bearing them with the same patience and fortitude. [2]

Marshall’s messmates during this memorable winter were Lieutenant Robert Porterfield, Captain Charles Porterfield, Captain Johnson, and Lieutenant Philip Slaughter. The last-named has left a record of the sufferings they endured from lack of food and clothes. He relates that his own supply of linen was reduced to one shirt, and that, while having this washed, he wrapped himself in a blanket. Most of the officers gave all their clothing, except what they were actually wearing, to their almost naked soldiers. Slaughter had wristbands and a collar made from the bosom of his shirt to complete his uniform for parade. Many of the officers were even more scantily supplied than he, having no under-garment whatever. They all lived in huts, although the snow was up to their knees, and not one soldier in five had a blanket. The country people used to bring them supplies, which, though far from inviting, were bought and consumed with great eagerness. The Dutch women might frequently be seen riding into camp seated on great bags, which contained one or two bushels each of apple pies, baked so hard that they could be thrown across the room with out being the worse for it. Yet these were considered a delicacy and were much enjoyed. Washington every day invited the officers, in rotation, to dine with him at his private table, but these invitations were usually declined by reason of the lack of decent clothing to appear in. Slaughter, being in a state of comparative affluence, often went in place of the others, in order, as he said, that his regiment might be represented.

Of Marshall, Slaughter says:

“He was the best-tempered man I ever knew. During his sufferings at Valley Forge nothing discouraged, nothing disturbed him. If he had only bread to eat, it was just as well; if only meat, it made no difference. If any of the officers murmured at their deprivations he would shame them by good-natured raillery, or encourage them by his own exuberance of spirits. He was an excellent companion, and idolized by the soldiers and his brother officers, whose gloomy hours were enlivened by his inexhaustible fund of anecdote.”

Another account from a contemporary says that at this time his judicial capacity and fairness were held in such estimation by many of his brother officers that, in many disputes of a certain description, he was constantly chosen arbiter; and that officers, irritated by difference and animated by debate, often submitted the contested points to his judgment, which, given in writing, and accompanied, as it commonly was, by sound reasons in support of his decision, obtained general acquiescence. At this period, besides his field service, he acted as deputy judge advocate of the army, and thus came into personal relations with Washington, securing a confidence and regard of lifelong duration.

On the evacuation of Philadelphia by Sir Henry Clinton, in June, 1778, the American force was immediately put in motion with a view to harass and annoy the retreating army. Marshall was in the battle of Monmouth, which ensued, and he remained with his command throughout the campaign as well as during the succeeding winter. About this time he was so fortunate as to be connected with two of the most brilliant actions that occurred during the campaign of 1779. He was with Wayne at the assault on Stony Point, on the night of June 16; and subsequently with the detachment to cover the retreat of Major Lee, after his surprise of the enemy’s post at Powles’s Hook, on July 19, an enterprise which reflected lustre on the American arms.

Toward the close of that year, a part of the Virginia line was detached and sent to South Carolina, to cooperate in the defense of that State; but it so happened that Marshall was attached to the other part, which remained with Washington, but whose term of enlistment soon after expired. He was thus left without any command, and was ordered with other supernumeraries to return to Virginia and take charge of such men as the State might raise for them, it being in the contemplation of the General Assembly to raise a new corps to supply the place of those whose term of service had thus come to an end. Accordingly he repaired to Williamsburg, where the legislature was in session. While the subject was under discussion in the General Assembly and awaiting its tardy action, he took advantage of the opportunity to attend a course of law lectures delivered by the learned and celebrated Chancellor Wythe of William and Mary College; also the lectures of Bishop Madison, the president of the college, on natural philosophy. Thus he was enabled in the ensuing summer to obtain a license to practice law, but his sense of duty to his country soon drew him back to the army. The project for raising additional forces in Virginia seems to have failed, and, tired of inaction, he set out alone and on foot to make the long and wearisome journey to headquarters. On his arrival in Philadelphia, it is said that his appearance and outfit were so shabby that the landlord of the hotel to which he came refused him admittance. He thus resumed his connection with the army; but soon afterward, hearing of the invasion of Virginia by the British troops under General Leslie, in 1780, he again returned thither, and joined the small force under Baron Steuben, who had been left by General Greene (on his way to assume the command of the southern army) for the defense of the State.

General Leslie finding, however, that he could not effect a junction with Cornwallis, finally sailed for Charleston. When, subsequently, the State was again invaded by Arnold, Captain Marshall joined the forces collected to oppose him, and continued in service to the latter part of January, 1781, when Arnold had retired discomfited to Portsmouth. There being still a redundancy of officers of the Virginia line, and no additional troops being raised for them to command, he was unwilling to remain longer a supernumerary and resigned his commission.

  1. Eulogy on John Marshall, by Horace Binney, pp. 22–24. Return to text.
  2. Washington’s Writings, vol. v. pp. 321–329. Return to text.