Thursday, November 8, 2012


Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder
(Cdv, M. Jones Collection)
By Mike Jones
           After the loss of Galveston on October 4, 1862 to Union forces, and the bombardment along the coast of other points, such as Sabine City, Lavaca and Corpus Christi, the people of Texas demanded a replacement for Brig. Gen. Paul Hebert, who showed little inclination to fight. They got what they wanted with Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder, a flamboyant, crafty and aggressive commander. Colonel John S. "Rip" Ford said Magruder's military value was worth "50,000" troops.
          Magruder was born in 1807 in Caroline County, Virginia. As a youth he attended the Rappahannock Academy where he received a classical education and probably where he became a polished young gentleman. He entered the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, N. Y. in 1826 and graduated in 1830, 15th in a class of 42. Magruder served with distinction in both the Seminole wars and the Mexican War. In his personal life, he married Henrietta Von Kapff of Baltimore, Maryland and the heiress of a fortune. The couple had three children, two girls and one boy.
          Nicknamed "Prince John" by his Army friends because of his love for military finery, pomp and ceremony, and his bon vivant appetites, he resigned from the U.S. Army April 20, 1861, shortly  after Virginia seceded, and accepted a commission in the Confederate Army on May 21, 1861 as colonel. He was then promoted to brigadier  general June 17, 1861 and to major general on October 7, 1861.
          Magruder got off to a good start, commanding Confederate troops in a victory at the Battle of Big Bethel, Virginia on June 10, 1861. He didn't, however, measure up to General Robert E. Lee's expectations in the Seven Days Battles in June and July, 1862 around Richmond. General Joseph E. Johnston was also reportedly disappointed with Magruder. President Jefferson Davis wasn't ready to give up on him and assigned him on October 10, 1862 to the command of the Department of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. This proved to be an excellent decision for all  concerned. While as a subordinate commander he may have been a disappoint, Magruder proved to be an excellent and energetic independent commander.
           Magruder made the long trip to Texas and set up command in Houston on November 29, 1862 at the Fannin House Hotel. He immediately began drawing up a daring plan to take back Galveston, the largest city and most active Texas port. Galveston was held by a small fleet of Union gunboats and transports, a detachment of Marines and less than 300 men from the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry, which was too small to physically occupy the city and administer the local government. Plans were in progress to send in more reinforcements and occupy Houston, which was the major railroad hub and key to controlling Texas. With little manpower, Magruder cobbled together a force that included two "cottonclad" steamboats, the Neptune and Bayou City, 300 volunteer sharpshooters on the boats, 1,500 men on foot and 12 pieces of artillery. Crossing from the mainland on a railroad bridge that had been left intact, the attack began at 4 a.m. on January 1, 1863. Personally leading the land forces, Magruder fired the first cannon to signal his men to commence firing.
           The Union gunboats returned fire and was overwhelming the Confederate land forces. The attack on the Massachusetts infantry on Kuhn's Wharf failed when it was found the scaling ladders were too short. However the tide of battle turned when the cottonclads aggressively engaged the enemy gunboats. The Bayou Lane attacked the U. S. S. Harriet Lane, but the cottonclad's artillery piece exploded and it missed an attempted ram of the Union vessel. The Neptune then successfully rammed the Harriet Lane and the sharpshooters decimated the Union bluejackets topside. The Texans then boarded the enemy ship and captured the vessel. The Union commander, Commodore W. B. Renshaw on the U. S. S. Westfield, thought he was being attacked by Confederate ironclads. During a temporary cease fire, Renshaw ordered his other ships out of the harbor. Renshaw was killed when the Westfield, which had been grounded, demolition charge went off prematurely. The victory was the only time Confederates took back a captured port and held it until the end of the war. Magruder became a hero to Texans and throughout the Confederacy.
Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder
(Cabinet card, M. Jones Collection)
          Other victories followed, including the sinking of the U. S. S. Hatteras off the coast by the C. S. S. Alabama on January 11, 1863, the capture of two blockade ships on January 21, 1863 and the Battle  of Sabine Pass, Texas on September 8,  1863. The Federals then successfully invaded South Texas in November, 1863 but Magruder was able to contain the invasion by setting up a strong defense line that kept the Union forces away from the main population areas of Houston and Galveston, San Antonio and Austin. Most of the Federals were withdrawn to take part in the Red River Campaign in the spring of 1864.
        Magruder was transferred to Camden, Arkansas in August, 1864 where he commanded Confederate troops there and where he was noted to command  in his usual royal style. An expected invasion of Federals into South Arkansas never materialized and Magruder was transferred back to Texas in March, 1865 and reestablished his command in Houston, where he ended the war. Magruder went into self-exile in Mexico but refused service in either of the armies in that nation's own civil war. However Magruder continued his dress in a tailor made suit befitting of a major general, described as being "salt and pepper color, with a tall dove-colored hat, and patent leather boots." He returned to the United States in 1869 and supported himself by speaking engagements.on the former Emperor Maxilimilian and Empress Carlota of Mexico, his exploits in the Mexican War and the War for Southern Independence. He traveled extensively to New York, Mobile, New Orleans and back to Galveston. He charged $1 per ticket for his lectures. Finally, suffering heart trouble, and out  of funds, he moved into a room at the Hutchin's House hotel in Houston, paid for by his former aid, Edward Turner, a local attorney. He died there on February 18, 1871 and was first buried in Houston's Episcopal cemetery. However the grateful citizens of Galveston had his body moved and reburied in that city's Episcopal cemetery with a suitably elaborate monument over his grave.

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