Historical Vignette 004 - General Marshall Tate, Humorous tale of a past Chief of Engineers

Brig. Gen. William L. Marshall  

Brig. Gen. William L. Marshall, Chief of Engineers from 1908 to 1910, weighed some 300 pounds. A gifted raconteur with a sense of humor, he enjoyed telling the story of how he became chief.

Summoned to the White House in the summer of 1908, he reported to President Theodore Roosevelt, who asked him if he wanted to be chief of engineers. "I have never asked for anything," Marshall replied. "I am a soldier, sir." "Well," said the president, "I’m going to make you chief if you can complete the 90-mile ride I’m requiring of all mounted colonels."

"Sir," Marshall responded, "If you have a horse that will carry my 300 pounds for 90 miles, I guarantee to stay on top of him." "That’s just the trouble," Roosevelt shot back. "You should keep fit like I do. My aides and I pound the saddle five hours a day when we can find the time, in order to stay fit and be worthy of our cavalry tradition."

Chuckling in a most respectful tone, Marshall answered, "Mr. President, a cavalryman keeps fit by pounding the saddle. But an engineer, you know, has to do most of his work with the other end of his body." Roosevelt burst out laughing and soon thereafter sent Marshall’s nomination to Capitol Hill.

Marshall was no slouch. Early in his career he was part of Lt. George Wheeler’s expedition that explored the southwest and the Rocky Mountains on horseback. Marshall Pass in Colorado is named for him. He was involved in river and canal projects on the lower Mississippi, the Fox River in Wisconsin, and the Illinois River. Marshall made innovative use of concrete and developed cost-saving methods of canal construction. After retirement he served as a consultant to the secretary of the interior on hydroelectric power projects. He died in 1920 at the age of 74.

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