He was called “Prince John,” but he was far from royalty. He was part of two losing wars but was popular among his troops. Gen. John Magruder, a Virginia-born Confederate general, took charge of Texas defenses from late 1862 onward and led a series of colorful adventures along the way.
John Bankhead Magruder was born in 1807 in Port Royal, Virginia, a small port city not far from Washington, DC. His father was a planter and attorney, but he fell into bankruptcy and lost everything by 1820. He began attending the University of Virginia in 1825 and soon received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
He enrolled at West Point in 1826. Magruder was an able cadet, graduating fifteenth out of forty-two in his class in 1830. The newly commissioned lieutenant was then assigned to the 7th Infantry and soon transferred into artillery. It was a quiet time for the army, and he went from post to post. He found time to study law and became a licensed attorney. In 1845, he was transferred to General Zachary Taylor’s forces in Corpus Christi as the United States prepared for the admission of Texas into the Union and to enforce American claims on the Rio Grande. War with Mexico erupted a few months later, and Magruder served ably in the Mexican War and slightly wounded in 1847. He served alongside many other officers who would lead armies in the Civil War some fifteen years later.
After the war ended in 1848, he was assigned to a post in California where he managed to also become a popular attorney, real estate speculator, saloon owner, and also ran a railroad while still tending to his army duties.
As Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency in 1861, Magruder was assigned to a post in Washington, D.C. When Virginia seceded in April, Magruder chose to defend Virginia and joined the Confederate army as a colonel. Given his extensive knowledge of military defenses in the area, he was put in charge of the Arm of the Peninsula east of Richmond. Popular among his troops, it was said by one friend, “he could fight all day and dance all night.” With successful efforts against Union incursions into the area, Magruder was rewarded with a promotion to major general later that summer.
By spring 1862, Gen. George McClellan attacked the eastern peninsula of Virginia. Magruder was outnumbered nine-to-one but managed to use the bogs and thick forests to his advantage. He managed to fool McClellan into believing Confederate forces were stronger than they were and delayed the Union advances for several critical days. However, as Robert E. Lee took command and attempted to reorganize Confederate forces into a counter-offensive by late June, Magruder was bogged down by poor communication and poor coordination. He was accused of being drunk and faced the charge without resorting to character attacks against his critics. In the end, the charges never stuck.
He was transferred to command the District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in October 1862. By this point, the Union Navy had just seized Galveston. He organized a counterattack of artillery and Confederate gunboats. Magruder attacked New Year’s Eve. By the next day, he had captured three Union ships and forced the rest to flee. Galveston remained in Confederate hands for the remainder of the war.
Magruder maintained his headquarters in Houston while directing officers throughout Texas to enforce the draft and maintain order. Working with Confederate units in Louisiana and Arkansas, he managed to keep Union forces from invading Texas. After Lee surrendered in Virginia in April 1865, Magruder, along with Gen. Kirby Smith, tried to hold out against Union forces but realized all was lost. On June 2, they formally surrendered. But he understood how leaders in the losing side of uprisings and civil wars had been treated historically. Fearing for his life, as did many other Confederate officers and officials, Magruder fled to Mexico.
Magruder offered his services to Emperor Maximilian, the puppet king installed by the French after they seized control of Mexico in 1862. France had used the pretense of Mexico’s immense foreign debt owed to France as a pretense for invasion and the distraction of the American Civil War as a cover. The ever-unpopular Maximilian found himself the target of increased uprisings in 1865 and welcomed the services of a respected general.
But Magruder soon realized just how perilously close to the abyss that Maximilian had become. The United States had made it quite clear that French intervention in Mexico would not be tolerated. With unrest growing, the French pulled their army out of Mexico in 1866 and urged their puppet king to leave as well. Convinced he was beloved by the people, he decided to stay instead. As rebel armies advanced and Maximilian’s armies crumbled, Magruder read the writing on the wall. He fled back to the United States in early 1867. Not long afterward, Maximilian was overthrown, captured, and executed by firing squad.
The one-time Confederate soldier and Mexican advisor found a general amnesty for Confederate officers in the United States and capitalized on his wartime adventures. He spent the next several years off-and-on the lecture circuit making a tidy living regaling audiences with his tales. Magruder died at his home in Houston in 1871.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.