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john bankhead magruder
11 january 2010
If you had given me a pop quiz on John Bankhead Magruder a few weeks ago, I would have said "Civil War general. Um . . . Confederate? Some kind of controversy or disgrace. Um . . ."
After reading Thomas Settles's highly informative new biography of Magruder, I would go to the head of the class. My knowledge has certainly started an inexorable drift back toward primal innocence since I closed the book, but for the moment at least, I feel like a newly-minted Magruder expert, and I am enjoying the feeling.
John Magruder was born in 1807 into the Virginia gentry. He took after his spendthrift father; his lifelong character note was to be out of his financial depth. But he was charming, energetic, and intrepid, and he didn't stay in any one place or occupation long enough to sink into permanent misery.
I say "any one occupation" despite the fact that Magruder was a West Pointer who spent most of his life as a military officer. But like many of the professional soldiers of his generation, his career was enormously varied, and provided lots of free time for second and third careers. Magruder was stationed all over North America, and fought in the US-Mexico War as well as the Civil War. He had the leisure to become a significant speculator in the Southern California land market between the wars. He was a lawyer, a duellist, a bon vivant – a kind of caricature of the Old South.
And I was right when I opened the book expecting to read about controversy. Magruder, like many Confederate generals, was the focus of keen envies and slanders – so put upon at times that Settles, I fear, probably overstates a defense of him against the baser calumnies of his opponents. Magruder's wife spent almost the entirety of their marriage living as far away from him as possible, but Settles depicts their relationship as happy and devoted, though interrupted by medical and financial obstacles. Magruder was a party-goer who was at least once arrested for being a public nuisance, and he had to make a special promise that he would remain sober for the duration of hostilities before Jefferson Davis would confirm his commission – but Settles insists that Magruder would never do such a low thing as to drink while on duty.
The nadir of Magruder's war service was the battle of Malvern Hill, during the 1862 Peninsular campaign. Magruder, after getting lost on his way to the field, spurred his men into a futile attack, incurring heavy losses. (To be fair, he was following Robert E. Lee's orders, and the only thing Lee could reproach Magruder with was not having the initiative to see that Lee's orders were stupid.) Anyway, rumors at once surfaced that Magruder was drunk again. To clear him of those insinuations, Settles adduces evidence that Magruder had taken some morphine for an upset stomach.
When a biographer has to defend his subject from accusations of drunkenness by suggesting that he was stoned, you know he's on thin ice. But while Magruder could be erratic and inconsistent, he was incontrovertibly brave, charging into action in Mexico, Virginia, and later in Texas, where he led a land force across the old railroad bridge to retake Galveston from Federal occupiers.
After the war, Magruder was one of the Rebel die-hards who offered their services to Emperor Maximilian of Mexico instead of submitting to Republican rule. Maximilian made Magruder head of his imperial land office. They failed, however, to do land-office business; the expected flocks of Lost Causers never materialized, and the inevitably broke Magruder wandered back to the U.S., swearing allegiance to his former enemies. He died in Houston in 1871, and is buried in the Galveston that he wrested from the Union, a Confederate original to the last.
Settles writes a very strong narrative, amply documented. While I have, perhaps, the momentary attention of someone at LSU Press, however, let me vent one of my pet peeves. Though there are some pictures in John Bankhead Magruder, there isn't a single map. This is the more lamentable because Settles spends much of the book meticulously describing the movement of armies across the Peninsula. LSUP, guys, I am your audience. I read a dozen Civil War books a year, at least. I know the context. And so I liked this book, despite your penurious resistance to illustration. But I do not bear in my cerebrum a topographical map of Tidewater Virginia. The only people who can follow this operational narrative are fanatics who think about nothing but the Army of Northern Virginia, or folks who actually live today on the banks of the Chickahominy. The rest of us need maps. Thank you, that is all.
Settles, Thomas M. John Bankhead Magruder: A military reappraisal. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009. [Southern Biography Series]