John B Magruder

As McClellan began the Virginia Peninsula Campaign by pushing his large army (about 120,000) from Fort Monroe, his troops soon encountered a small Confederate army (no more than 15,000) near Yorktown. Commanded by Major General John B. Magruder, they were dug in across the peninsula of the York and James Rivers in a position called the Warwick Line (behind the Warwick River).

Magruder – a colorful personality with a knack for the theatrical – marched his meager forces back and forth over the same ground accompanied by much noise and loud orders. This appearance of a much larger force than actually existed fooled McClellan, causing him to order the construction of siege fortifications. The time required to bring up the heavy guns allowed Johnston to gather forces from varied areas of eastern Virginia (swelling the Rebel force to 50,000) – thus taking away the massive advantages that would have been enjoyed by the Union had more aggressive means been employed.

The Warwick Line even used some of the trenches originally dug by Cornwallis in 1781, although Magruder could adequately man none of the defensive line completely.

Eventually these lines would be probed on April 16 in an engagement called the Battle of Dam Number 1 near present day Newport News. The nature of the conflict convinced McClellan he was facing a force of 100,000. When the line was next attacked in early May, the Confederates were found to have fallen back toward Richmond. The rear guard was engaged on May 5th in the first major conflict of the campaign at Williamsburg.

Some bonus material on John Magruder

I have written most of a book on the life of Abner Doubleday and hope to someday complete it. Doubleday wrote several hundred pages of notes about the old army of the USA before the Civil War – notes I believe he hoped to publish in a book, though he never did. Much of this information talks about the era of the Mexican War, and of course it includes a great deal of communication about men – then early in their military careers – who would later become famous in the War between the states. Here is an excerpt from my chapter on this old army material, picking up with Doubleday’s orders to head to Mexico:

Joining other companies at Fort Columbus on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, Doubleday set sail for Texas at the end of August of 1845. The journey aboard the U.S. Store Ship Lexington was long and tedious, with nearly a month being consumed in transit. Doubleday seemed to most remember the voyage for the entertaining presence of John B. Magruder, (who as a future Confederate general would be remembered for the theatrics employed in fooling McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign by marching the same troops repeatedly past the same location, and for a Confederate victory at Galveston). Magruder, who was a fine singer, organized a glee club, and in many other ways proved to be the master of entertainment with varied anecdotes, etc. He was known as “Prince John” amongst his friends, and stories abounded in Doubleday’s accounts of the antics of Magruder in several old army posts.

And another excerpt from a bit later:

Doubleday was much amused by the colorful nature of the population of Corpus Christi at this time, describing it as a charming place for people who dislike the restraints of civilization. Prior to the arrival of the army, Doubleday said that the only law recognized was that of the Bowie knife and pistol. Commenting upon how many people there were in Texas who were criminals—having fled there to escape justice from altercations in the United States—questions concerning a man’s antecedents were thought to be in very bad taste. Doubleday recorded the comment of another officer who pondered, “It’s odd—but every gentleman I have been introduced to since coming here has distinguished himself by committing murder.”21

Magruder again found his way into Doubleday’s narrative. The enterprising officer so fond of amusement arranged for a theatrical company to perform. Doubleday seemed to enjoy their performance, which was well patronized. A humorous incident involved the account of Magruder getting a bit roughed up from apparently venturing too close to the dressing rooms of some of the performers!

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

3 responses »

  1. Larry Freiheit says:

    Good info here, thank you. In Doubleday’s notes, anything about J.K.F. Mansfield? I hope to complete a bio about him next year.

    • I had nothing in my stuff, though I note from the book “My Life in the Old Army” – by Joseph E. Chance – that he is mentioned once. This book is essentially this same material. Chance transcribes it from research at the NY Historical Society. What I had was a typescript document that I believe to be a later revision.

      The section on Mansfield is (p. 79) about the pending Battle of Monterey: “Here we remained until the next day at noon while our Engineers and Cavalry were making a reconnaissance. Several of us ascended to the top of one of the highest trees to obtain a view, but an intervening swell of ground almost entirely concealed what we wished to see. We noticed a white building upon a height in the far distance, which we learned was called the Bishop’s palace or castle, and several flags, one waving over the citadel Fort, another over the Cathedral (Ampudia’s Head Quarters) and another over the Spanish consul’s house. In the evening we heard that our Major of Engineers, Mansfield, considered the works to be of great strength and it required little judgement to know they must be stormed at a heavy sacrifice.”

      Let’s do lunch sometime in Sharpsburg!

  2. Larry Freiheit says:

    Thanks for this info! I will be in the Newcomer House Thursday 11-5 starting in May–2nd and 4th Thursday, so stop by if you are in the neighborhood.

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