Was Humphrey Marshall the ‘resigningest’ Rebel general?

Berry Craig

Was Humphrey Marshall the ‘resigningest’ Rebel general?

Marshall Jr. was a Whig and “Know Nothing” congressman before the war


    Rebel Gen. Humphrey Marshall of Kentucky was a legend in his own mind.

    On this date in 1862, he figured his recent victory over the Yankees at the little battle of Princeton, Virginia, now West Virginia, was big enough to earn him a big command.

    The Rebel brass kept him in southwestern Virginia. So he threatened to quit.

    He followed through in June, 1862. But Marshall changed his mind, returned to the army and resigned for good in June, 1863. He wound up the war back in politics, as a Confederate congressman in Richmond, Virginia, the Rebel capital.

    Marshall's ego was as big as his belly. He was one of the portliest generals in the Civil War. Born in Frankfort in 1812, Marshall also stepped to his own drummer, like his famous grandfather, Kentucky pioneer Humphrey Marshall Sr. 

    Early Kentucky was staunchly Jeffersonian. But Marshall Sr. was a rock-ribbed Federalist. He was also an avowed atheist who fought a duel with Henry Clay, Kentucky's most popular politician ever.

    Marshall Jr. was a Whig and “Know Nothing” congressman before the war and was also U.S. minister to China. But he supported pro-slavery Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for president in 1860.

    Though Kentucky refused to join the Confederacy, Marshall (and Breckinridge) did.

    A West Point graduate and Mexican-American War veteran, Marshall became a Confederate general in 1861. So did Breckinridge, whose military career was considerably more illustrious than Marshall's.

    Marshall could be persuasive. He recruited several Rebel soldiers in devoutly Unionist eastern Kentucky yet was less successful as a battle captain. Brigadier General James A. Garfield, a future president, beat him at the Battle of Middle Creek, in Floyd County, Ky., on January, 10, 1862. Marshall had to retreat into southwestern Virginia.

     Marshall’s loss and the Confederate defeat at the Jan. 19, 1862, Battle of Mill Springs, in Pulaski County, Ky., enabled the Union army to win eastern Kentucky and subsequently drive into Tennessee.

     Marshall was back in uniform in time for him to join General Braxton Bragg’s ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Kentucky in the summer and fall of 1862. After Bragg lost at Perryville on Oct. 8, 1862, and left the state, Marshall saw no more significant service.

     He was evidently a more effective politician, though he represented a state that never seceded. Created in November, 1861, Kentucky’s Confederate "government" had no legal standing and represented the minority viewpoint in every region of the Bluegrass State except the far western Jackson Purchase, dubbed “Kentucky’s South Carolina” for its deep Confederate sympathies.

     In the Confederate House, Marshall “distinguished himself…as a debater and an orator, equaling similar honors achieved by him previously in the Congress at Washington City,” according to William B. Allen’s 1872 History of Kentucky. “He belonged to a family which has added luster to our State and country – in the senate, upon the bench, at the bar, and before popular assemblies.” He was distantly related to John Marshall, perhaps the most famous chief justice of the Supreme Court.

     Marshall was one of many politicians turned generals on both sides in the Civil War. Most of them didn't do especially well on the battlefield. Breckinridge and Union Gen. John A. Logan, a Murphysboro, Ill. native, are among the exceptions. (Breckinridge was also a Confederate secretary of war.)

-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at berry.craig@kctcs.edu.