Born in Virginia in 1807, John Bankhead Magruder rose to prominence in the early days of the American Civil War. A notable commander in Virginia, he cemented his place in history with his performance at the Second Battle of Galveston in January 1863.
Known as “Prince” John for his manners and social graces, Magruder spent his boyhood near Fredericksburg, Virginia, where his father practiced law. He entered the United State Military Academy at West Point in 1826. Four years later, Magruder graduated with the rank of second lieutenant and began an uneventful decade in the army until the United States declared war on Mexico. He served with distinction in the Mexican-American war, taking part in battles from the border of Texas to Mexico City, fighting at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Molino del Rey, Chapultepec, and Mexico City. The rest of Magruder’s time in the United States army proved to be routine. He served in both California and Kansas before returning east to command an artillery regiment in Rhode Island.
When Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, Magruder left with his home state. He was immediately given the rank of colonel in Virginia’s volunteer forces and placed in a strategic position on the Virginia peninsula with the job of protecting the Confederate capital at Richmond. Magruder did his job well, defeating Benjamin Butler’s Union forces at Big Bethel, one of the earliest battles of the war, before seeing action at both the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battles in 1862. His performance at Malvern Hill received harsh criticism, however, with commentators claiming that he had allowed the Union army to escape capture. Later, Magruder's leadership would be vindicated and his record restored, but at the time he faced great scrutiny.
Prior to the Seven Days, Magruder had been ordered west to head up the Trans-Mississippi department. Following the criticism of his performance during the Virginia campaign, however, he was sent to Texas to take command of that state as well as the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. Magruder immediately made his presence felt on his arrival on the Texas coast. He organized an attack to break the Union blockade of Galveston and was successful at the Second Battle of Galveston.
This was the high-water mark of Magruder’s time in Texas and he spent the rest of the war busy with administrative work and trying to make sure his men were fed. Following the war, Magruder fled to Mexico with other Confederates and was employed by the Emperor Maximilian I. After the revolt against Maximilian, Magruder returned to the United States, where he swore the oath of loyalty required of all ex-Confederates and settled into a life of giving speeches on his time in Mexico to audiences around the country. Magruder died in Houston in 1871. His body was eventually moved to Galveston where it was reinterred at the Episcopal Cemetery on April 7, 1894.