Speaking of Thomas Staples Martin

I love this particular story about him perhaps because it is at once so remarkable and also so familiar. So modern.
Anyway, turns out that this future political boss enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in 1864, during the Civil War. On May 15 of that year, VMI cadets were called on to fight in the Battle of New Market, and fifty-seven of them were killed or wounded, some of them as young as fifteen years old. Martin, sixteen at the time, missed the action due to ill health. He is said to have suffered from a cold, but it’s hard to tell if that’s true. Regardless, he did see some fighting in the war.
Now fast forward to 1893. Martin is a political unknown, a behind-the-scenes power broker in the Democratic Party who ingeniously trades on his tight relations with the railroads. (He’s district counsel to the Chesapeake and Ohio.) When he decides to put himself up for a suddenly vacant U.S. Senate seat, everyone’s surprised. After all, the shoo-in is Fitzhugh Lee, the former Confederate cavalryman, former Virginia governor, and nephew of Robert E. Lee.
Lee, however, is overconfident. He declines to openly lobby assemblymen for their votes and acts more concerned about participating in Lost Cause arguments over his uncle’s legacy than he does about his own political career. Martin, meanwhile, quietly lines up the votes and, it seems likely, passes on a few bribes as well. While the people of Virginia seem to support Lee and the symbolism that is so heavily invested in his family name, in the end, the election is not in their hands but in the hands of the General Assembly—which, on December 7, 1893, gives the nod to Martin on the sixth ballot, 66 votes to 55.
It is one of the greatest upsets in Virginia political history.
In the end, in the words of historian Harry Warren Readnour, Lee “could not fathom the possibility that a former VMI cadet,” especially one who had allegedly sniffled his way out of New Market, “might be the victor over an ex-Confederate general named Lee.”
Life’s funny that way sometimes.
UPDATE: An alert reader makes a helpful correction.


8 thoughts

  1. “…He is said to have suffered from a cold, but it’s hard to tell if that’s true…….. allegedly sniffled his way out of New Market”
    What kind of yellow journalism is that? According to Cowper in The Corps Forward, he was ill with several other cadets in the institute hospital. He was retained as one of the guards of the barracks when he recovered.
    I’ve come across several cadets who weren’t in the battle, and they weren’t accused of avoiding anything. Shame on you.

  2. Of course it was yellow journalism. Smacks of those newspaper headlines at the grocery store checkout. When you want to smear somebody you should carefully check out all sources. Now I’m going to check out the rest of this website and find whom to report this to, along with your casual answer.

  3. By the way, the full quote is:
    Lee also failed to make an accurate assessment of his adversary owing to his own inflated self-confidence in his ultimate success. For example, he could not fathom the possibility that a former cadet from Virginia Military Institute, especially one who had missed the famed Battle of New Market in 1864 (Martin had a cold and was left behind when the Cadet Corps marched off to war), might be the victor over an ex-Confederate general and the former Governor of Virginia.

  4. Sarah, I appreciate the comment, although perhaps I’d do without being called yellow. It’s neither shameful nor journalism to read the implication in Readnour, but this blog depends on readers like you to offer the fuller story. Thanks for doing that.

  5. You call it a casual blog, but the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities refers to it differently: “Read on our blog about how we are building the encyclopedia, what we are coming across in the process, and explore other interesting discoveries that we are making along the way.” When you click on the link you get your article that twists the words of another author and falsely accuses a VMI cadet. The website allows for comments, I commented.
    If your article is representative of the VHF then they aren’t getting me as a reader.

  6. Sarah, It’s not quite clear to me where your anger is coming from. And “casual” is the nature of this particular medium. But I do agree that my characterization of the quote was not accurate. I appreciate your correction.


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