During the first twelve months of the Civil War, from the Battle of Big Bethel through the Seven Days, Major General John Bankhead Magruder was one of the most important Confederate officers on the Virginia front. Yet, then as now, controversy surrounds his military service in the eastern theater. Historian Thomas Settles's new biography, John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal provides a sharply revisionist treatment of its subject's career.1.
Competence and alcoholic impairment comprise the two main issues surrounding Magruder's military career. Settles effectively refutes the charges of incompetence, and provides solid arguments against contemporary assertions that the general was inebriated during the lower Peninsula and Seven Days fighting.
With an effective use of primary sources, Settles constructs a well supported picture of Magruder as a conscientious and talented military leader. The Virginian West Point graduate performed well as an artillery officer in the Mexican War. During the early phases of the Civil War, Magruder won the Battle of Big Bethel2 and effectively blocked the Union advance up the Virginia Peninsula for many weeks, allowing for the concentration of Confederate forces necessary to oppose it. It is a consensus view that the Army of Northern Virginia's staff work was wretched during the Seven Days, and Settles asserts (correctly, I believe) that command level confusion was the primary source behind Magruder's disappointing results at Savage Station and Malvern Hill3. On the other hand, the author recognizes the general's proclivity for launching piecemeal attacks4. Magruder's very risky, but well conceived and executed, New Year's Day 1863 recapture of Galveston, Texas is appropriately put forth as an effective counter to lingering charges of command incompetence. These military actions and others are recounted by the author in more than sufficient detail for most readers, but the decision to include no maps was unfortunate. As an example, a map of the road network used during the Seven Days battles would have greatly enhanced reader comprehension of the controversies raised by the army command staff's poorly conceived orders and by the confusion they transferred to Magruder's local guides.
Since the Trans-Mississippi Department is often seen as the dumping ground for failed generals from other theaters, Magruder is often paired with Major General Theophilus Holmes as subjects for banishment due to disappointing Lee during the Seven Days. The truth is that Magruder was appointed to head the department weeks before, with the transfer temporarily suspended until the end of the current campaign. Settles points out that Lee himself (in his endorsement of Magruder's report, and otherwise) praised Magruder's efforts and did not directly express disappointment; however, a reading of Lee's wording could indicate more 'damning by faint praise' than Settles allows. Also, no objection by Lee to Magruder's departure seems to exist.
Charges of drunkenness are always difficult to assess at a historical distance. One must take into account the standards of the time, as well as, in the consideration of the authorship of primary source materials, issues of loyalty by supporters and self interest on the part of detractors. That said, Settles very effectively counters the accusations (they still linger in the literature today5) that the general was impaired by alcohol while directing his forces on the battlefield, although one might justifiably quibble with the author's confident claim of exoneration. In the end, however, if one must choose one interpretation or the other, Settles' contention is by far the most persuasive and best supported by the evidence.
Settles also seeks to correct several mistakes commonly made by other historians about Magruder's background, such as his birth place and date as well as what first name he went by (John or Bankhead). Evidence from letters supports the former.
The author writes judiciously, and well. Heavily dependent on primary sources, his research is solid. The general's personal papers accumulated prior to 1850 were unfortunately consumed in a fire, but Settles was able to consult a number of collections of later Magruder materials located in repositories across the country. Additionally, with footnotes an increasing rarity, the Southern Biography Series from LSU Press is to be commended for allowing the author's notes to be presented at the bottom of each page6.
In addition to those with a more narrow interest in the life and military career of John B. Magruder, this study is recommended reading for more general students of the eastern and Trans-Mississippi theaters. Whether one agrees with all of his conclusions or not, Settles's revisionist biography provides the type of dispassionate (and largely convincing) analysis, backed by primary source materials, that can persuade minds of serious readers open to change.
1 - Settles characterizes the most recent Magruder biography, Paul Casdorph's Prince John Magruder: His Life and Campaigns (Wiley, 1996), as a work largely affirming the conventional view of Magruder's personal and professional faults. Unfortunately, I have not read Casdorph's book, and thus cannot provide my own comparison.
2 - Credit is often given to D.H. Hill for this victory (with little if any mention of the role of Magruder), but Settles asserts that Magruder was on the field, actively directing the Confederate force.
3 - Of the major works on the subject, Brian K Burton's Extraordinary Circumstances (Indiana University Press, 2001) seems closest to Settles in its assessment of Magruder's performance during the Seven Days.
4 - Piecemeal attacks were hardly uncommon among Civil War generals, especially during the early stages of the conflict. They were a hallmark of Stonewall Jackson's tactical offensives, yet he has largely escaped a similar scale of condemnation [notable exceptions are recent works by Gary Ecelbarger and Peter Cozzens. While laudatory overall, Krick's study of Cedar Mountain is also critical of Jackson's tactical failings].
5 - According to Settles, Casdorph's Prince John Magruder takes an opposing view on the matter.
6 - Southern Biography Series (Bertram Wyatt-Brown has since retired as series editor, to be replaced by Andrew Burstein).
* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock
[review will also appear in On Point magazine in similar form]