On this day in 1862, Confederate General John Bankhead Magruder is given command of the Trans-Mississippi Department.
A Maryland native, Magruder attended West Point and graduated in 1830. He distinguished himself during the Mexican War (1846-48) when he commanded a company during General Winfield Scott’s campaign from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel for meritorious service. After the war, he served in a variety of military positions, including a stint as an observer in France. Magruder garnered a reputation as a playboy prone to heavy drinking and lavish entertainment and became known as “Prince John.”
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Magruder resigned his commission and joined the Confederate army. He was placed in charge of defenses between the York and James rivers. On June 10, 1861, Union General Benjamin Butler attacked Magruder’s force at Big Bethel, Virginia. The Confederates repulsed the assault in what was one of the first land battles of the war. Although the credit actually belonged to junior officers John Bell Hood and Daniel Harvey Hill, Magruder made the most of the modest victory, and the Southern press inflated the stories to make him an early Confederate hero.
The next year, Magruder brilliantly defended the James Peninsula during Union General George McClellan’s campaign against the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. Magruder dammed streams, flooded lowlands, placed painted logs called “Quaker guns” at strategic points to fool the Yankees, and marched parts of his 13,000-man army back and forth to give the illusion of greater strength. McClellan fell for the ruse and spent more than a month outside of Yorktown, Virginia,while the Confederates moved more troops into place.
Magruder’s reputation soon unraveled. At the Seven Days Battles in Virginia, he was tentative and sluggish as a field commander. He seemed to crack under pressure, but this was probably the result of an allergic reaction to morphine, which was part of a medication he was taking for acute indigestion. At the battles of Fair Oaks, Savage’s Station, and Malvern Hill, Magruder made a series of costly mistakes. Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee expressed his disappointment with Magruder for his slow reaction to attacking the retreating Yankees, even though General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson exhibited a similar sluggishness during the same engagements and Lee said nothing about him. As a result, President Jefferson Davis reassigned Magruder to command Confederate forces in Texas.
Magruder enjoyed some success in Texas and partly restored his reputation when he captured Galveston in 1863. He spent the rest of the war in the West before fleeing to Mexico after the collapse of the Confederacy. He returned to the United States in 1867 and died in 1871.