John B. Magruder was the Confederacy’s master showman whose tactics have gone down in history as the best flim-flam of the Civil War.
John Bankhead Magruder: Virginia Soldier
John Bankhead Magruder (1807-1871) was Virginia born and raised, University of Virginia and West Point educated and trained, and a lifelong professional soldier.
During the in the War with Mexico he fought bravely and earned two brevet promotions and a solid reputation as a reliable and capable military officer. He also earned a reputation as a flamboyant and witty extrovert.
At six feet tall, sporting an elegantly trimmed mustache, he was considered handsome and courtly. He also was said to have a fine tenor voice and could easily be coaxed into song. Sometimes he even wrote his own melodies. He loved acting in amateur theatricals, which accounted for his nickname “Prince John.”
He also had a fondness for the bottle.
George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign
At the outset of the Civil War, the regular United States Army was small. There were only four generals. Magruder was a colonel.
In April, 1861 however, Fort Sumter surrendered. Within weeks, Virginia seceded from the Union, and Magruder, like many other Virginia-born officers, resigned his commission and enlisted in the Confederate army. His impressive credentials assured him of a quick promotion to major general, and given the command of the Army of the Peninsula, a small division deployed in Yorktown, a sleepy little village populated by farmers but rich in early history. Most importantly, it was near the vital strategic confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the James River.
By spring, 1862, General George B. McClellan was in command of the Army of the Potomac, and had whipped a huge Union army into impressive shape. He was an expert organizer who believed in a well-trained force. Goaded into action by the Washington politicians, he devised a complex back-door approach to capturing Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Rather than marching his army a hundred miles or so directly from Washington to Richmond, where he knew there would be intense resistance (and casualties) every step of the way, he planned to sail them down the Chesapeake, and march his army up the Virginia Peninsula.
Meanwhile, General Magruder’s forces had already been well entrenched. The general had also become familiar with the Peninsula’s geography with its numerous streams, creeks, boggy terrain and dearth of good roads. This was a definite advantage, and one that McClellan completely lacked. Knowing his forces were the first defenders along the way, Magruder also knew that he was hopelessly outnumbered and outsupplied.
General Joseph E. Johnston, the commanding officer of the Confederate Army was more than a hundred miles away. It might be days before he could march his army down the Peninsula with reinforcements.
The best Magruder could possibly accomplish was to buy time until General Johnston could provide assistance.
The situation was made for Magruder’s flair for the dramatic.
Magruder’s Old Razzle-Dazzle
Deceptive ploys to confuse the enemy have been around for centuries, and have always been a part of military training, but this flim-flam was one for the books! Using his theatrical disposition and experience as well as his better knowledge of the land itself, General Magruder embarked on an elaborate and wily subterfuge to confuse the Federals into believing they were facing mammoth forces.
Knowing the Federal pickets (advance guards) would be watching, Magruder stage-managed his ruse by marching his limited troops in a large circle, with many areas open to view. This line of soldiers, whooping and hollering and passing in sight of various sections of the Union army appeared endless. The reality, however, was that the same soldiers were passing and re-passing. This is a maneuver is commonly used in stage plays.
Then Magruder deployed and redeployed his artillery. While his small army was marching in circles, he ordered the artillery to race quickly to various venues and do the same. The sounds of cannon fire were heard throughout a large area. The drums tapped out their rat-a-tats and the bugles sounded their commands. The upshot was that the Federals believed there was Confederate activity all around.
McClellan’s army fell for the scheme hook, line and sinker. They were easily flummoxed into believing they were vastly outnumbered, a phenomenon to which George McClellan would be personally vulnerable on numerous occasions. He regularly believed he was outmanned and outsupplied, and never quite realized the main fact: he was out-Generaled.
In actuality, the Yankee troops vastly outnumbered the Confederates and could have easily pushed Magruder’s miniscule force into the Chesapeake, had they pressed. Instead, they believed a siege would be necessary, and settled in for the long haul. This gave General Johnston sufficient time to reinforce Magruder, and slog it out and tussle with the Union army all the way to Richmond.
General John Magruder would perform capably throughout the Civil War, mostly in the west, but it was his Yorktown strategy that would prove to be “Prince John’s” finest hour, his tour de force, and his assure his place in the history books.
Catton, Bruce – The Civil War – The Fairfax Press, 1980