“Making a Man and a Soldier”
Genesis of a Marine
The 231 handpicked enlisted men marched into the gymnasium at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, for their last muster as a unit. It was June 16, 1919, graduation day for the 3d Officers’ Training Camp (OTC). After five months of strenuous effort, each man had earned a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve. The post band opened the ceremonies with a medley of martial tunes capped by John Philip Sousa’s march “Semper Fidelis.” The music turned out to be the most stirring portion of the program, which otherwise consisted of short speeches and the presentation of commissions. A reporter noted that the “striking feature of the proceedings” was their solemnity and simplicity in comparison with graduations at West Point and Annapolis. Although the writer ascribed this difference to “that precision and lack of fuss so characteristic of the doings of Marines,” in truth there was little to celebrate at the moment. Seven months earlier there had been rejoicing when an armistice ended the “war to end all wars.” Now the United States was rapidly demobilizing its forces. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General George Barnett, pointedly noted in his speech that this placed the class “in a peculiar position.” This commissioning ceremony would not launch the lieutenants on a grand and glorious new career; rather, for most of them it marked the end of their service as Marines.
With the exception of a few prewar NCOs, the vast majority of the men had joined the Corps with patriotic fervor to fight the Germans. Few of these wartime volunteers had seen action and they now had to return to civilian pursuits with the exhortations of the speakers as their only reward. Barnett told them: “Whatever after this you do in life your service will have left its traces in your hearts . . . once a Marine, always a Marine.” Major General Littleton W. T. Waller echoed that theme: “You have come in and absorbed our traditions and beliefs and I tell you you can’t go wrong if you live up to their principles.”
One of those men faced with an imminent return to the civilian world was Lewis Burwell Puller, a Marine private with less than a year in the Corps. At five feet, eight inches and 144 pounds, he was not a physically impressive figure, except for his pronounced barrel chest, serious square-blocked face, and outthrust jaw. His voice was his most distinctive trademark. One listener described it as a “Virginia drawl combined with an individual Brooklynese.” Young Puller spoke slowly, with more than a touch of Southern accent, underpinning his own unique pronunciations with a deep-throated, gravelly intonation. He was not normally loud, but when the situation warranted it, he could “bark like a howitzer” or “shout commands with all the vigor and carrying power of an angry bull.” He did not possess any special athletic ability or a superior intellect. His final standing in OTC, just below the middle of his class, did not indicate any outstanding military aptitude. He might have accepted his fate and gone quietly into the military obscurity that awaited all of his companions, but his reaction demonstrated what may have been his greatest strength. He had his mind set on a military career and would persevere with relentless resolution in pursuit of his dream. He would not only find a way to remain in the Corps, but would excel as a combat leader. Decades later, he would be the most legendary Marine of all and his deeds and words would do much to establish the traditions, beliefs, and principles that continue to mold succeeding generations of Marines.
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Lewis Puller was the product of a distinguished line of Virginia gentry on his maternal side. His mother could trace her roots back to Lewis Burwell, who had come over from England in the mid-1600s as a leader in a company of military settlers. Four generations later, another Lewis Burwell fought as a colonel in command of Virginia militia during the American Revolution, owned a 3,400-acre plantation, and served in the state House of Delegates. His daughter, Alice Grymes Burwell, married William Clayton Williams, a lawyer and also a delegate in the Virginia legislature. Their son, Lewis Burwell Williams, became an attorney and followed in the political footsteps of his father and grandfather. His daughter, Mary Blair Williams, gave birth to Martha Richardson Leigh, Lewis Puller’s mother.
Lewis Puller’s distant paternal ancestors apparently were not so illustrious. Samuel and Mary W. Puller were the first to leave a permanent record, but little survives about them beyond the fact that they had five children and lived in Gloucester County, Virginia. This small district occupied part of the peninsula formed by the Rappahannock and York rivers, in the eastern region of the state known as the Tidewater. Mary gave birth in 1833 to John William, her second child and first boy. Apparently Samuel died before 1850. By that time, seventeen-year-old John already was working as a blacksmith to help the family. At the age of twenty-two, now a farmer, he married Emily Simcoe. Their first child, born in 1858, was Matthew Miller, Lewis Puller’s father.
John Puller clearly had ambition and ability. He aspired to something more than manual labor and soon opened a hotel with his younger brother Sam. His neighbors obviously put some faith in his potential. In 1859 they elected him to a captaincy in the local militia, a cavalry unit known as the Gloucester Light Dragoons. The honor was all the more notable given that he was only twenty-six, far younger than the norm for such a position of responsibility in those years. Sam joined him in this endeavor, too, enlisting as a private. Outsiders with a financial background were not so certain of the capabilities of the two brothers. A credit-rating bureau placed a hesitant appraisal in its books in the fall of 1860: “Shd [should] not sell them largely on cr. [credit] not much means & quite extravagant notions. May be good. Wd. [would] advise caution.” January 1861 brought a harsher assessment: “Fast men, advise cash sales.”
If “fast” could be construed as aggressive or freewheeling, John W. Puller appears to have fit that description, though he had no immediate opportunity to demonstrate it. In May 1861, less than a month after the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, the seventy-eight men of his militia unit reelected him as their captain. The cavalrymen remained close to home for the next ten months, however, outposting the entrance to the York River at Gloucester Point. In March 1862, during the Peninsula Campaign, they saw their first fighting. A few weeks later, they merged into the newly formed 5th Virginia Cavalry Regiment. Thereafter, action was plentiful. The Tidewater horsemen participated in the Seven Days’ Battles in June, the cavalry raid on Catlett’s Station and the Second Battle of Manassas in August, the Battle of Sharpsburg in September, Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s ride through Pennsylvania and Maryland in October, and clashes in the Shenandoah Valley in early November. In the last action, Sam Puller was captured by the Yankees, but was exchanged for Union prisoners days later.
The regiment was winning a high reputation in the Army of Northern Virginia. Following another raid in late December, Major General Fitzhugh Lee, the brigade commander, praised the 5th’s attack across a difficult river ford as “one of the most admirable performances of cavalry I have ever witnessed.” Jeb Stuart, commander of the cavalry division, had cried out during a tight spot in one battle: “Go bring the Fifth here, I know that will charge, that never goes back on me.” Although John Puller was never mentioned in dispatches for bravery, he had performed well enough to rise to the rank of major in December 1862. He also had developed a stoic attitude toward the increasingly bloody conflict. He frequently told his men: “There was but one way [out of the war] and that was to be killed out.”
In November, a Tidewater sheriff had asked Stuart to allow the local horsemen to come home for the winter: “The citizens of Gloucester would be delighted to have our much-beloved Capt. Puller & his men with us.” With a Union army in northern Virginia and threatening Richmond, that was not possible. Lee’s brigade bivouacked in the field, with the mission of guarding the left flank of the Confederate position along the Rappahannock River. It was a hard winter, made more so by the lack of good shelter and provisions. One soldier wrote home: “The horses are starving, they get only a little hay every other day and we don’t get much ourselves we get a quarter pound of bacon a day.” Morale also was hurt by a feud between the regiment’s commanding and executive officers, with each lodging formal charges against the other.
On the morning of March 17, 1863, word came that strong Union forces had crossed the river at Kelly’s Ford, ten miles to the east. The rebel brigade had just eight hundred men available that day, but they saddled up and trotted out to meet the enemy. Puller took on the challenge with a light heart. One of his men recalled the major’s words as the company formed up: “Boys, be prepared to bite the dust today.” A fellow officer remembered Puller’s jovial shout as he passed by: “Harry, leave me your haversack if you get killed!” Later that day, the 5th tried to outflank the main Union cavalry force, but ran into two mounted brigades and simultaneously came under fire from sharpshooters posted along a stone fence. The twin threats and the heavy fire created confusion in the Southern ranks. The regimental commander called for Puller to assist in rallying the men, only to hear the reply: “Colonel, I’m killed.” A musket ball had passed through John’s chest; moments later, he fell out of his saddle and died.
Before the day was over, the outnumbered Confederates had driven the Yankees back across the river. A few days later, Fitzhugh Lee heaped plaudits upon his men and pointed to a lesson in the outcome: “You have repeatedly charged an enemy sheltered by stone fences and impassable ditches, in the face of his artillery and volleys from thousands of his carbines. . . . Rebel cavalry have been taught that a determined rush upon the foe is the part of sound policy as it is the part of true courage.” Stuart commended “the determined bravery of [Lee’s] men for this signal victory, which, when the odds are considered, was one of the most brilliant achievements of the war.” The cost had not been cheap. Among the 133 Southern casualties was Major John Pelham, an exceptional young officer who already had thrilled the Confederacy with the audacious exploits of his horse artillery. Puller’s death was not lost in the outpouring of grief for Pelham. Fitzhugh Lee praised the Gloucester leader as a “gallant and highly efficient officer.” Stuart mentioned “the brave Puller” in his dispatch on the battle. An officer in another regiment lamented his passing: “Courteous, good, and brave. He was a great loss to us.”
Sam Puller escorted John’s body back to Gloucester County in the midst of a snowstorm. A Confederate chaplain on leave conducted the funeral service at the Puller house, where he was surprised by the “very large collection of citizens and soldiers.” He preached from the Second Book of Samuel: “How are the valiant fallen in battle? Jonathan slain in the high places? I grieve for thee, my brother Jonathan.” Emily Puller, left with four-year-old Matthew and his two-year-old brother, “was very much distressed.”10
Lewis Puller’s maternal ancestors also fought with distinction in the war. The brothers of Mary Blair Williams were among those who rushed to the colors. Lewis B. Williams, Jr., a lawyer and VMI professor, quickly earned the rank of colonel and command of the 1st Virginia Infantry Regiment. He was severely wounded while leading a charge during the Peninsula Campaign, but recovered and rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia for the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania. At that time, he and several fellow officers were disgraced following their court-martial for imbibing too much alcohol during the army’s march through Richmond. Restored to his command on the eve of Gettysburg, Williams led it in the glorious and ghastly frontal attack that went down in history as Pickett’s Charge. Of the 155 men in the 1st Virginia, 120 were killed or wounded, including their colonel. One of the few survivors recalled that “foolishly and insanely he rode cooly and deliberately in front of the regiment, mounted on his horse.” Williams was shot through the spine and spent several days in agony before finally succumbing. Colonel Waller Tazewell Patton, a distant relative and fellow regimental commander in Pickett’s division, was mortally wounded in the same desperate gamble. Two other Williams brothers fought for the South in the three-day battle. A fourth, Robert, probably was also present, but on the opposite side of the lines. A graduate of the Military Academy at West Point, he had stayed with the North when war broke out. He served at the time of Gettysburg as a major in the staff corps.1
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The Civil War left the Puller family with a heroic legacy and little else. According to family lore, Union forces subsequently burned Emily Puller’s home to the ground on the pretext that John’s spurs and sword hanging on the wall constituted possession of military equipment. It was winter and the widow and two youngsters walked ten miles in blowing sleet to Gloucester Courthouse to find shelter. She died soon after of pneumonia. Another Confederate officer took in the orphans and raised them for a time. Sam Puller survived the war and tried to establish himself as a merchant, but never prospered and led a bachelor’s life in a hotel. A sister, Sara, eked out an existence as a live-in housekeeper. These were difficult times, especially in a “burnt county” such as Gloucester, which had suffered considerable physical destruction. John’s proud tradition at least lived on; the local Confederate soldiers named their veterans organization after him.
When Matthew M. Puller grew up and struck out on his own, he settled in the Tidewater village of West Point. He had a taste for business like his father and uncle before him, and became a modestly successful salesman for a wholesale grocer. He was a dapper dresser, habitually sporting long, double-breasted frock coats, custom shoes, and a cane. Despite his minimal education and modest upbringing, he exhibited a refined, gentlemanly air. He married Martha Richardson Leigh, known as Pattie to family and friends. Lewis Burwell Puller, their third child, was born June 26, 1898. He and his two older sisters, Emily and Pattie, were joined later by a younger brother, Samuel. The family lived comfortably in a two-story, white-frame house, with a stable, a carriage, two horses, three servants, and a view of the York River. It was a happy and loving home. Lewis later would remember only one time when his father ever was angry with Martha. She had taken the children to Richmond for a visit but failed to show them the state fair: “He seemed to think it was pretty awful that we did not see the prize horses and cattle. Next to Mother, he thought a thorough-bred horse was the most beautiful thing in this world.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Chesty by Colonel Jon T. Hoffman, USMCR. Copyright © 2001 by LtCol Jon T. Hoffman, USMCR. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.