Marshall McDonald, the sixth child and fourth
son of Angus \V. McDonald and Leacy Anne Naylor (his, wife), was born in
Romney. Virginia, October 18th, 1835, and was named for the Marshall
family, many members of which being devoted friends of his father. Mr.
Alex. Marshall, of Alexandria, and Mr. James Marshall, a lawyer of
Winchester, being particularly so. [As far back as I can remember. Mr.
Alex. Marshall spent a part of each year in my father's house, and the
intimacy which had begun in their early boyhood was never interrupted.
oven in later life, when the burning questions of State's Rights and
Secession separated so many who were connected by ties of blood. And
despite my father's persuasive arguments, with his dear friend "Alex."
he could never convince Mr. Marshall of the expediency, (though he
admitted the right) of Secession, and after the first heated arguments
on the subject, they tacitly agreed to discuss it no more. And their
warm regard for each other was never diminished on account of the
being of a more delicate constitution than the other children, was
allowed considerable liberty in the pursuit of his studies, and earl-
developed a special fondness for chemistry and natural history.
From his early boyhood he was a victim of
asthma, though he never allowed it to interfere with his favorite
pursuits. Many nights when he couldn't sleep, on account of the
suffering entailed by the painful malady, I have known him to spend the
time stuffing and mounting birds, which he began, when very young, to
collect for the old Smithsonian Institute, as well as innumerable
specimens of various other animals. Snakes, fish and every peculiar
thing that had life, possessed an infinite interest for him. And in the
indulgence of these tastes his father provided him with every facility.
A large room on the third floor was at
one time fitted up for his sole use and purposes, the walls being lined
with shelves, filled with jars, cages and all sorts of contrivances for
the prosecution of his favorite studies. If he found an especially rare
specimen of any variety, before consigning it to its deadly bath in a
jar of alcohol—preparatory to its journey to the Smithsonian—he would
keep it alive for some time, for the purpose of studying its habits,
etc. On one occasion he was observed to be. searching carefully
throughout the house, behind pictures, in fact in every nook and cranny
where the smallest object could find concealment, but would not tell for
what he was looking, until the quest seemed hopeless, when he confessed
that one of his rarest snakes had gotten loose, and being an especially
venomous variety—and not yet having extracted its fangs—he was more than
anxious to capture it again.
This announcement caused considerable
excitement, as might well be imagined, until Wood (his brother) coming
in at this critical moment, confessed that he had "killed the vile
He entered the third class at the
Virginia Military Institute in 1856, his brother Woodrow entering the
fourth class at the same time, and although he was a lively participant
in many college escapades during the three terms he was there, his class
standing was always good, and he finally graduated at the head of most
of his studies. An interesting incident in connection with his
graduation was, that he alternated with his best friend, Ned Cunningham,
in his class standing, that is, in every instance where he was first,
Ned was second, and vice versa.
He was a great favorite with "Old Specs,"
as the cadets invariable styled Colonel Smith, the Superintendent, and
that fact might in some degree have accounted for his good luck in
always getting his demerit canceled.
Being in citizens clothes, without a
special p€ rmit, was one of the gravest offences against the military
spirit of the Institution and any cadet caught in that guise, knew just
what he had to expect. Marshall had quite an exciting experience in that
connection one night. He decided, with two or three other choice
spirits, to visit the town of Lexington, which was located tantalizingly
near the V. M. I., and it being a night when no leaves of absence were
granted, they took the precaution to wear the ordinary garb of a
citizen, and made their visit very successfully, without being molested;
but cadet McDonald had scarcely entered his room before the officer of
the day tapped at his door and demanded admittance; evidently suspecting
something. Marshall was non-plussed. He had had no time to remove the
tell-tale garb, but quick as thought he jumped into bed just as he was,
and had barely time to pull the bed clothes around him, before the
officer came in, Iight in hand, and walking up to McDonald jerked the
cover rudely aside and demanded to know what he was doing in citizen's
To which McDonald as quickly retorted,
that he didn't know the rules of the Institution prescribed what garb a
cadet should sleep in; and later when he was brought before the Court
Martial, charged with being in citizen's clothes, he was acquitted on
his entering that plea.
After graduating at the V. M. I., he
attended the University of Virginia in the session of 1858 and '59 and
announced his intention of trying to make the degree of Master of Arts
in two years. 'Tis true he was well prepared, but with the very high
standard then maintained, it was considered a most difficult
accomplishment and only a few of the students had succeeded in doing it.
A letter from Wood (who was there also) to his father, says:
"Marsh has made quite a reputation here
as a man of talent. His ticket is such a large one, and he does so well
too, that I don't wonder at it. He can study, or rather learn more, and
in a shorter time than any other man I ever saw. I suppose he will
certainly (but no man can be certain) graduate ccn his ticket."
It is more than likely that he would have
succeeded in his ambitious desires the following year, but an epidemic
of typhoid fever caused a suspension of the schools and the students
returned to their homes, several months before the usual time for
He remained at home, in Winchester, for a
while, contemplating and partially engaging in the study of medicine,
under his cousin, Dr. Hugh McGuire. It was while he was at home that the
hanging of John Brown occurred in Charlestown and in company with many
ether citizens he attended the execution. Next morning at breakfast he
related, for the benefit of those who had not been there, some of the
incidents connected with it.
He was a great tease, and for my especial
benefit, he made the details as blood-curdling as possible and wound up
"And by the way, Flora, I brought you a
little souvenir of the occasion," and with that laid a long, narrow
package beside my plate.
Curiosity prompted me to open it at
once—and behold a long wooden peg—which he explained was taken from the
gallows. Disgusted, I at once tossed it into the fire, and my father
reproved him for perpetrating so ghastly a joke, though he could not
forebear a smile at my consternation.
In the Fall of 1860, he returned to the
V. M. I. as assistant Professor to Professor T. J. Jackson (Stonewall)
and later was on his staff at Harper's Ferry as Inspector General. He
was afterwards transferred to the army at New Orleans; serving in the
engineer branch, and later was with Pemberton as chief engineer at the
siege of Vicksburg, with rank of Major. I have often heard him laugh
about the fried rats and mule steaks which were a prominent feature of
their bill of fare during the long seige of Grant's army.
In recognition of his services he was
appointed Brig. General, but the commission did not reach him before the
surrender. [In a Letter from Marshall written from Vickburg, Dec. 2nd.
1862, he says: "I have just received my commission as Captain of
Artillery. I do not despair of being a Brigadier if the war lasts a year
or two longer. Don't laugh!" The honor did corne to him, though it was
later than he prophesied.] He was in active service throughout the war,
except during the time of his parole, after the surrender of Vicksburg,
when he returned to his duties at V. Al. I. His next service was with
Kirby Smith in the southwest and he was with that branch of the army
when the end came; so was stranded in the South for some time trying to
earn the money to return home. A letter to his brother explains his
circumstances and his ambitions while there:
Greenville, Washington Co.,
February 25th, 1866.
I have this moment received your letter, having just returned from
making a survey of a bridge. I am thoroughly disgusted and disheartened
at the shameful irregularity of the mails. You have received but one
letter from me. I can recall now, six that I have written to members of
the family at Cool Spring. If I have not written frequently, I have at
least written much oftener than I have received letters from you.
It is true that I had accepted the
appointment of Assistant Professor of Chemistry in the V. M. I. and
confidently expected to spend my Christmas with you on my way to
Lexington, but when I had made all my arrangements and was prepared to
start, I learned that the United States military authorities had broken
up the school there, and I was averse to coming to Virginia without
having some assured means of supporting myself when I got there, so I
determined not to go, and resumed my school here, and am engaged to
teach until the first of June. Then I have the prospect of lucrative
employment, as an engineer.
You will have to be a stranger in a
strange land, as I have been, to know the bitter anguish and regret with
which I relinquished the hope and expectation I had of being with those
I love once more. But this I am resolved on, never to take one step in
the future, that is not well assured, never to exchange certain things
I am well aware that in Virginia, I could
easily earn a comfortable subsistence by teaching a village school, but
from this, as a life time occupation, I turn with utter loathing, and
how could I ever expect to earn more than a bare support in this way?
There was a time when a modest competence would have sufficed for my
utmost wishes * * * * but my idols are overturned now and strange gods
usurp their places. Two ruling passions hold now alternate sway,
Ambition and Avarice, both hell-born and yet potent divinities, at whose
shrine, mankind worship and offer up the purer, holier feelings of their
nature as penitential sacrifices.
I would be rich; or distinguished for
eminent attainments in Science and Art. I had thought that my
appointment at Lexington would open the way to one, but that hope has
faded. Now I would be rich, and here I see clearly the way and means,
which I do not, see in Virginia. Here then I shall remain, unless I
secure a position as Professor in came Institution of reputation.
You see I am growing hard and practical,
the milk of human kindness is rapidly running away from me. The cow is
going dry! :fly heart is an arid waste. But there is an oasis in the
desert; memory is the perennial spring that keeps blooming and verdant
the recollection of the loved ones at home; bright and beautiful flowers
grow around its margin, fragrant with the perfume of fraternal love.
I often sit alone by my fire, in the
gathering twilight, and out of the dim shadows, come the faces and forms
of the loved ones, and gather around—the living and the dead—for it is a
memory of long ago, when the circle was unbroken, ere war had come with
desolating hand to rupture family ties, and rend loving hearts, and
strike down the bravest and the best.
In fancy we are in old Winchester, at the
dear ingleside, gathered on the lawn, in the still evening, under the
light of the harvest moon, the air is redolent with the perfume of
jasmine and honeysuckle, and vocal with the melody of a dozen concerted
voices. Now our father sings some stirring, martial air of Scotland, and
we kindle with patriotic love for the land of our forefathers. Now Flora
carols some blithe and gladsome air, now she and Sue, with blended
voices, sing some plaintive song, while a voice, now still in death
lends its deep, and sonorous bass to swell the chorus.
When memories like these come over me, I
would ignore the future, forget the present, and live but in the past,
but necessity like a cruel schoolboy puts the live coal upon my back and
the terrapin must open his shell, stretch his limbs and move on—on-on,
with no instinct but to escape the present pain.
In my letters i have said but little
about this country and its people. They are so different from those with
whom you have always mingled, that some account of them may interest
you. This district of country is a rich, alluvial section, formed by
successive deposits of mud from the turbulent waters of the Mississippi.
It is intersected in every direction by sloughs and bayous, which, in
time of high water, help to carry off the overcharged waters of the
Mississippi and which at all times abound in fish, and are frequented by
innumerable flocks of water-fowl. The whole country was once covered
with a luxurant growth of vegetation. Oak and hickory and elm grow'
along the margin of the streams. Gloomy forests of cypress cast a deep
shade over the extensive swamps, and with their drooping branches,
sombre foliage and long, pendant wreaths of grey moss, form a scene as
sad and funereal as could be painted.
* * * * At the termination of the session
I will have enough to get an outfit of clothing and purchase some of the
most necessary engineering instruments. I will have to do without a
horse until I can earn enough by surveying to buy one.
I am glad to hear that there is a
prospect of recovering some of our father's property. Whatever
disposition of matters you may deem it best to make, I will assent to.
Should there not be more than enough to support the girls and educate
the younger children, I think it should be devoted to that. If there be
sufficient for the purpose, it would be well to unite and buy a
homestead farm, but as I said before, I am willing to unite with you in
any disposition you may think best to make. Any papers you may require,
I will sign. I wish you Would let me know the condition of his property,
and what will probably be recovered for the heirs. Has it been
confiscated, sold for taxes, or what?
I have a tract of 43 acres in the
Hampshire coal field, for which Flora has the patent. Ask Ed to
ascertain its condition, and the amount of taxes due on it, and Iet me
I might write a good deal more, but am
tired and will write again within a week, and once a week in the future.
You should write to me oftener, instead of complaining of my not
writing. Flora and Ed are the only ones of you, who can claim to be
correspondents at all. I know though you do not love me the less, for
that. And You would write, I am sure, if you knew how much pleasure your
My love to all. God bless you and keep
Your devoted brother,
He finally reached the goal he so
earnestly longed for and was enabled to return to Virginia as Professor
of Chemistry, Mineralogy and Geology in the V. M. I., and while there in
that capacity he established the first Museum that the Institution had
ever possessed. Some idea of the state of society in Virginia at that
time may be learned from the following letter to his sister (Mrs. Jno.
B. Standard) :
Virginia Mil. Institute.
Jan. 8th, 1869.
I hope that when this reaches you you will be convalescent, and busily
preparing for your visit to Lexington. They were all disappointed at
your not returning with me, but hope to see you before long. There is
some gayety here, conducted in a sober sort of way. We have a reading
club, now and then, which is pretty generally attended.
We have plenty of snow here, but no
sleighing. It is rather too fast a pastime for the staid denizens of
this quaint, formal, isolated corner of creation. Miss Mary Lee was here
to-day and spent the day. I was only at home for an hour, the
examinations being still in progress and requiring my presence. I spent
the hour very agreeably with her.
Miss ----, I am happy to say, soon takes
her departure. She said when she came, that she intended to astonish the
natives, and she has done it.
She was startled out of propriety, when a
schoolgirl, by and she has never recovered it again. She dresses in an
outlandish fashion, seeks the reputation of being "fast," talks slang,
and altogether I will be glad when she is gone.
I wish for the honor and credit of our
lower Valley, they would send some representatives, who can distinguish
between the ease and grace and self-possession, which constitutes good
breeding, and that utter abandon of manner, which marks the fast woman.
I have talked so much about the beauty
and grace and polished ease of the girls of our lower Valley, that
people will think I am gassing, after seeing such a speciman as Miss
----. I will have to persuade some one to come and show these
Lexingtonians what a lower Valley girl really is. Do you think any of
them will listen to my persuasions?
Have you seen Miss Al—since I left? She
spoke of going to see you. If she would only come. How proud I would be
to show her to these Lexingtonians. Time is up, good-bye.
While at the Institute, the management at
one time, had considerable difficulty in the matter of the State
appropriation, when Col. Cutshaw wrote Gen. Smith to send "McDonald"
(down to explain the state of affairs to the Legislature, that people
believed what he said. McDonald went, and secured the desired
appropriation, though not until after a hard fight.
His talent for imparting knowledge was
wonderful. On one occasion he volunteered to give extra instruction to
one of the classes in mathematics whose standing was very low. He
brought them to his own house and taught them at night, consequently
they were splendidly prepared.