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.