by Henry Lane Hull
Throughout 1998 Northumberland County celebrated the 350th anniversary of its establishment by the Grand Assembly in Jamestown on October 12, 1648. I had the privilege of chairing the 14 months of festivities working with the anniversary committee. For the actual date of the anniversary we planned a gala celebration on the courthouse green, followed by a dinner under a tent on the grounds of the new Courts Building.
For the latter event we invited former Congressman and Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh and his wife to be the guests of honor. Although he was born in Winchester in 1926, Secretary Marsh was proud of his Northumberland County heritage, always noting that the Marsh family had its roots in Miskimon.
During the Second World War, at 18 he had enlisted in the army and was sent to officer candidate school, receiving his commission at 19 as the war ended. He was assigned to Germany for two years in the Army of Occupation, then returned stateside to graduate from Washington and Lee University and begin the practice of law at Strasburg in the Shenandoah Valley.
He became active in politics and served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat representing the Seventh Congressional District. After leaving Congress he was called by President Nixon to be an Assistant Secretary of Defense and later by President Ford, with whom he had been friends during his House days, to be Counselor to the President. In 1981, President Reagan appointed him Secretary of the Army, a position he held for over eight years, thereby becoming the longest tenured Army Secretary in American history.
During that period he frequently came to the Northern Neck, on one occasion landing in an Army helicopter on the lawn of Stratford Hall Plantation to deliver an address to the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society. Throughout his public career he was a great promoter of history, frequently remarking on the anniversaries of historical events, and trying to imbue others in public service to remember the past as a way of promoting patriotism. He was a flag-waver for America on every occasion where he had the opportunity. He spoke frequently and eloquently and was on call for many commemorative occasions.
The Marshes bought a home on Cockrell Creek in Reedville, and came often to enjoy the benefits and beauties of his ancestral homeland. He took quite an interest in local events in the Northern Neck, following our happenings and being aware of what was occurring down here. In that regard, he particularly noted the writings of Dr. John H. Harding, who has spent much of his time since retiring from the practice of dentistry writing three historical novels about the area.
For the 350th Anniversary banquet the Secretary’s address was a vintage Marsh performance. In a half-hour he traced Northumberland County’s past with a flair that was his typical trademark. I am sure he had done some research to pull together all the facts and people he discussed, but the flow was completely natural, being both homespun and academically challenging for his audience to remember.
Last February John O. Marsh died at the age of 92, four years after his wife had died. His funeral, appropriately, was at the New Market Battlefield Hall of Valor, and he was buried on the grounds of the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park. History had a profound influence on his life as a guidepost for the major roles he played in 20th-century American history and as a constant student of the evolution of the Old Dominion across four centuries.
He never lost contact with his Northern Neck heritage and carried it with him in all the halls of power through which he walked.
John Otho Marsh, August 7, 1926 – February 4, 2019. R.I.P.