By Brian D. Kowell
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2021, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in October/November 2021.
“He’s the hero for the times,
The furious fighting Johnny B. Magruder”
– Civil War Ballad
Though a small engagement, the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, made General John Bankhead Magruder a celebrity. Pompous, egotistical, and given to theatrical behavior, he thrived on the recognition. Nicknamed “Prince John” because of his penchant for lavish entertainment, courtliness toward ladies, and fashionably ornate military dress, he also was fond of strong drink.
He was famous for keeping McClellan’s army at bay on the Warwick River Line from April 4, 1862 until General Joseph Johnston arrived on April 18, despite being grossly outnumbered. In his Memoirs, E.P. Alexander noted: “Magruder who was expecting reenforcements [sic] made the bravest possible display, exhibiting the same troops repeatedly at different points.” As another scholar asserted, Magruder delayed McClellan’s advance by the trick of “marching troops around groves of trees and shuttling cannon from place to place to create an impression of enormous strength.” Once Johnston assumed control on the Peninsula, Magruder was largely sidelined. He was incapacitated from overwork, anxiety, and renewed drinking. Later, his failure at Malvern Hill, also attributed to drunkenness, led to public disfavor and loss of command.
Magruder was the master of deception. Take for example his dealings with Captain Franklin Buchanan of the CSS Virginia. The Confederate Navy was short of men to crew the new ironclad. Lieutenant John Taylor Wood, grandson of President Zachary Taylor, nephew by marriage to President Jefferson Davis, and cousin to Brigadier General Richard Taylor, was sent to meet with General Magruder to obtain volunteers from his infantry. One would think with all that clout behind Wood, Magruder would be happy to oblige. Indeed, he made no objection and Wood selected 80 men “with some experience as seamen or gunners” from Magruder’s ranks. However, when the men arrived at Gosport Naval Yard for training, Wood commented to Buchanan that they “are certainly a very different class of men from those I selected. I find that but two of the new men selected by myself were sent; the others are men I did not see, nor even visit their encampment.”
Lieutenant Robert D. Minor, another of the Virginia’s officers, wrote, “Some of the ‘so called’ volunteers had bad characters from their commanding officers, who could not manage them, and were brought aboard in double irons.” Seems like Magruder pulled a fast one and palmed off his riff-raff on the Navy.
If Magruder was not in command, he seems not to be a team player. Buchanan sought to coordinate a joint attack by the CSS Virginia and Magruder’s Army of the Peninsula against the Union land and naval forces at Newport News Point, Virginia. Magruder had recognized that his flanks were vulnerable on the James and York Rivers and had been pestering Richmond for naval assistance. Magruder and Buchanan met in late February 1862 to discuss the combined operation. Buchanan proposed that the ships from the James River Squadron attack Newport News Point from the James while the Virginia and her consorts attack the Union fleet directly. Simultaneously, Magruder would attack by land in the rear of the Point. Such a three-pronged assault could wrest Newport News Point from Union control, helping to secure Magruder’s flanks.
Magruder initially agreed to Buchanan’s plan and the two parted after notifying Richmond of the details. Buchanan went back to Gosport to prepare. He wrote to Magruder on March 2, 1862, “It is my intention to be off Newport News early on Friday morning next unless some accident occurs to the Virginia to prevent it, this I do not anticipate. You may therefore look out for me at the time named. My plan is to destroy the fleet first, if possible, and then turn my attention to the battery on shore. I sincerely hope that acting together we may be successful in destroying many of the enemy.”
Right after meeting with Buchanan, Magruder wrote to Adjutant General Samuel Cooper on February 26, 1862, “I am also satisfied that no one ship can produce such an impression upon the troops at Newport News as to cause them to evacuate the fort.” As the time for the attack approached, Magruder began to back out, writing to Richmond that “the roads are impassable…I do not think the movement advisable.” He concluded that he was planning to pull his little army back to the Warwick River Line and “it is too late to co-operate” with the Virginia “even if the roads will admit it, which they will not, for the enemy is very re-enforced both at Newport News and Fortress Monroe…Any dependence upon me, so far as Newport News is concerned is at an end.”
Buchanan got word of this change in plan from Magruder on March 3 to tell him “it is too late to co-operate” that the enemy had recently been reinforced with infantry and 6 batteries of artillery and smugly concluded that it “would have been glorious if you could have run into these as they were being landed from a Baltimore boat and a commercial transport.” Maybe Magruder was only acting at their initial meeting when he agreed to the plan and never intended to follow through with his part. How Magruder was able to march back to the Warwick River Line over the impassable roads instead of forward to support Buchanan is a mystery. Maybe it had something to do with Magruder’s fear of Union reinforcements, although McClellan’s Army of the Potomac did not begin to arrive at Fortress Monroe until after March 17. Maybe Magruder needed some “liquid courage.” Whatever the reason, Magruder was not part of the team.
Following the battle of the ironclads on March 9, 1862, Magruder wrote that he was not impressed by the “glorious achievement of the Confederate states war-steamer Virginia” and what he termed “Ericson’s battery.” He continued, “Finding as I anticipated, the naval attack produced no effect.” However, Magruder did want to cooperate with the Navy after 389 Union vessels began disembarking the Army of the Potomac at Fortress Monroe. He wrote to General Lee, “It seems to me, therefore, that the Virginia, if she cannot get the Monitor, ought to…intercept all re-enforcements of troops, and to cut off further supplies” to McClellan’s Army and that this should be “pursued at once.” He asked that if that could not be done to have the Virginia pass up either the James or York Rivers to essentially become a floating battery to help secure one of his own flanks.
His biographer wrote that Magruder was an officer of contradiction throughout the war. While some thought he was a steady soldier, others found him lacking at critical junctures. One of his privates wrote to his mother about Magruder later in the war, “Does he leave the whiskey alone now? That was a very serious failing with him on the Peninsula. He is not one of our great generals. In these parts he is considered a second rate general; not comparable to Lee, Jackson, Bragg and Longstreet.” We will never know if the proposed attack on Newport News would have succeeded.
Sources (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1894-1922, Series 1, Volume 7, pp. 758-59; Volume 9, pp. 14, 44, and 50; Series 2, Volume 2, p. 137.
Franklin Buchanan Letterbook, 1861-1863, Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Library, University of North Carolina.
Military Memories of a Confederate, Edward P. Alexander, Charles Scribner & Sons, New York, 1908, p. 63.
Prince John Magruder: His Life and Campaigns, Paul D. Casdorph, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, 1996.
Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War, Patricia L. Faust, ed., Harper and Row, New York, 1986, p. 468.
“Inside a Belaguered City: A Commander and Actor, Prince John Magruder,” Mark Grimsley, Civil War Times Illustrated, Volume 21, Sept. 1982.
The CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender, John V. Quarstein, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2012, pp. 76, 81, and 104-105.
Captain Roger Jones of London and Virginia, Lewis Hampton Jones, J. Munsell’s Sons, Albany, New York, 1966, p. 265.
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 1, p. 695, “The First Fight of the Ironclads; March 9, 1862,” John Taylor Wood, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, Century Co., New York, 1887.
Charles W. Trueheart Papers, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, Dear Mother 21 Feb 1862 (accidentally dated incorrectly by content of the letter; probably should be 1863).