Friday, May 1, 2009

John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal

by Thomas M. Settles

From the publisher:
Of all the major figures of the Civil War era, Confederate general John Bankhead Magruder is perhaps the least understood. The third-ranking officer in Virginia's forces behind Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, Magruder left no diary, no completed memoirs, no will, not even a family Bible. There are no genealogical records and very few surviving personal papers. It is not surprising, then, that much existing literature about Magruder is incorrect. In John Bankhead Magruder, an exhaustive biography that reflects more than thirty years of painstaking archival research, Thomas M. Settles remedies the many factual inaccuracies surrounding this enigmatic man and his military career.

Settles traces Magruder's family back to its seventeenth-century British American origins, describes his educational endeavors at the University of Virginia and West Point, and details his early military career and his leading role as an artillerist in the war with Mexico. Tall, handsome, and flamboyant, Magruder earned the nickname "Prince John" from his army friends and was known for his impeccable manners and social brilliance. When Virginia seceded in April of 1861, Prince John resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and offered his services to the Confederacy.

Magruder won the opening battle of the Civil War at Big Bethel. And later, in spite of severe shortages of weapons and supplies and a lack of support from Jefferson Davis, Judah P. Benjamin, Samuel Cooper, and Joseph E. Johnston, Prince John, with just 13,600 men, he was able to hold his position on the Peninsula for a month against George B. McClellan's 105,000 man Federal army. This successful stand when Richmond was exceedingly vulnerable, was, according to Settles, John Magruder's greatest contribution to the Confederacy.

Following the Seven Days' battles, however, Magruder was harshly criticized for being too slow at Savage Station, then too rash at Malvern Hill and was transferred to command the District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. There he skillfully recaptured the port of Galveston in early 1863 and held it for the Confederacy until the end of the war. After the war, he joined the Confederate exodus to Mexico but eventually returned to the United States, living in New York City and New Orleans before settling in Houston, where he died on February 18, 1871.

John Bankhead Magruder offers fresh insight into many aspects of the general's life and legacy, including his alleged excesses, his relationships within his family, and the period between Magruder's death and his memorialization into the canon of Lost Cause mythology. With engaging prose and impressive research, Settles brings this vibrant Civil War figure to life.

For more than thirty-five years, Thomas M. Settles has been a professor of history at San Antonio College in San Antonio, Texas.