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Magruder's Peninsula campaign in 1862.

The Peninsula campaign, conducted on the Confederate side by General John Bankhead Magruder, though unduly subordinated in the already-written history of the war, conspicuously comprised a rapidly-recurring series of some of the most brilliant achievements of the soldiership of the South.

The Peninsula, between York river on one side and James river on the other, with Hampton Roads, or the southern extremity of Chesapeake Bay, making its seaboard boundary, is, in some of its associations, as historic ground, perhaps, as any similar-sized district of country within the limits of the United States. The sad site of Jamestown, in its almost vestigeless ruins, is in itself a poem of pathos, carrying us back to the first successful attempt to establish an English colony in the New World, with all the perils and privations, all the heroic and romantic reminiscences of the contests between the white man and the red man, interwoven with that eventful epoch. It need not be forgotten, either, that into this same James river, washing the southern shore of this same Peninsula, the first cargo of negro slaves was brought into this country by a Dutch ship that ought to have sunk to the bottom of the sea with the pandora-box she was bringing here. And here we see in the subtle touch of things—wide apart in time—the weird weaving of that web of fate that makes romance of history and almost justifies superstition in intelligent minds; for where is the human intellect that is capable of tracing in continuity the connecting line of logic in events and institutions dating back to the slave-ship, panoplied in the laws, sailing [61] up James river in 1620,1 and culminating in the scenes of nearly two and a half centuries subsequent, when an invading army and a blockading navy were pressing upon the Peninsula, seeking to capture the capital of the South, in a great war ‘between the States looking and leading to the forcible emancipation of all the slaves in the country?’ And there is Yorktown, where, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered, the curtain was rung down on the last scene in the last act of the great American revolution, the event of events, that then and there gave a new trend forever to the politics of the world.

That historic and histrionic Peninsula was a fitting theatre for John Bankhead Magruder. The field was full of heroic associations; and the man himself was an impersonation of all the high qualities to make up the full figure of a veritable knight of ‘the lost cause’ at its auroral opening, when the whole South was on the tiptoe of undoubting expectation of an early consummation in complete success.

When Magruder took command of the troops in the Peninsula he found a force meagre in numbers for the work to be done, but of as good quality as even the exceptional spirit and endurance of the South could supply. Promptly reconnoitering in every direction; calling around him brave and trusty men to the manner born who knew their native heath as well as they loved it; with the quick and accurate apprehension of the intuitive soldier, he was in a few days as familiar with the field in which he had been ordered to operate as if he had spent his boyhood there. Proceeding to fortify against assault, whether by land or water, or both combined, his works very soon showed that the eye of an entelligent engineer had carefully looked through the topographical surroundings and characteristics of the situation in all its length and breadth. He made his headquarters camp at Yorktown as strong, on both land and water front, as the best engineering skill with the means he had at hand would permit. But ‘Prince John,’ as he had been called in the ‘old army,’ was too high in spirit, too restless in energy, too dashing in his passionate fondness for enterprise and emprise to wait long for the enemy to come. Halfway down the Peninsula he soon showed himself, ‘giving the dare’ to any and every Federal commander [62] whose aspirations after early laurels might move him to move upon the advanced camp of the Confederates at Big Bethel. Confidently taking the gauntlet up, General Benjamin F. Butler marched out from Fortress Monroe with a fine array of well-appointed artillery and infantry, and made a spirited attack upon Magruder's audacious little army on the morning of the 10th of June, 1862. When those serried columns of Federal troops, a dense mass of men, came crowding up the road and, halting in front of Big Bethel, opened the battle with a cannon shot that came hurtling over the little encampment still staying there, as if courting annihilation, it was not only a perilous moment for Magruder and his men, but it was a pivotal moment for the city of Richmond, too; for with the capture of the Confederate force on the Peninsula it would have been but a holiday march to the Southern capital for the invading army. But Magruder, brave as Ney, meteoric as Murat on the field, and steady and stern as Soult when there was need for the nerve to stand, was more than equal to the hazard of the unequal battle. The odds against him were enough to discompose almost any man; but instead of being unnerved Magruder seemed to find both pride and pleasure in straining all his resources as a great soldier to meet the emergency and master it. The first piece of his artillery fired was said to have been sighted by his own accurate eye, and to have told with havoc in the enemy's ranks. The battle was brisk and brief, closing with brilliant success on the Confederate side, a rapid retreat of the invading army to its impregnable stronghold at Fortress Monroe, and the loss of but a single man of Magruder's force, with dead and wounded enough on the Federal side to tell a tale of woe as the troops that had proudly tramped through the streets of Hampton in the early morning, to break up and brush away the nest of ‘rebels’ at Big Bethel, returned in the evening gloaming dispirited, disordered, and whipped into a new estimation of the prowess of the men of the South fighting for their firesides and in the faith of their fathers, who were as tall as the tallest among the framers of the Constitution and the founders of the Union. The battle of Big Bethel demonstrated the great qualities of soldiership in Magruder, and the unsurpassed courage, constancy and devotion of the rank and file of the Confederate armies, as illustrated in the sample shown that day of the then unrenowned soldiery of the South. [63]

But it was further on, between that time and the advance upon Richmond by General McClellan through the Peninsula, when Magruder's broad, brilliant, and versatile capacities as a strategist were most signally shown. Exposed every hour of every day and night to attack, either from James river, but seven miles away on the south of him, or from York river, washing against the very feet of his camp at Yorktown, on the north of him, or, as it might have been, from both sides simultaneously; with an army inadequate in numbers to the defence of his position from one-fifth of the force finally sent against it; with good reason to be expecting another formidable assault at any moment straight in his front from the gathering thousands and tens of thousands of well-appointed troops ever rendezvousing at Fortress Monroe, only twenty-seven miles off—it truly required a man ‘not in the common roll of men’ to suit the situation. Magruder proved himself to be such a man. Anon McClellan came with his mighty host, a splendid army of more than a hundred thousand men, as well appointed, perhaps, as any army the world had ever seen. And George B. McClellan himself, intellectually gifted, with the best of scientific training and observation, and experienced in war, was a chieftain to inspire any opponent with an anxious sense of the necessity for all possible energy and ingenuity to thwart him. Magruder now rose to the full height of his highest individuality, both as a man and a soldier. Painfully aware of the utter inadequacy of his own force and of the hourly frowning fact right in the face of him, that by the mere momentum of the enemy's stupendous strength the little Confederate army of not more than ten thousand men at Yorktown and around it could be borne away like thistle by the wind, General Magruder knew that he had nothing to rely upon except strategy and finesse to hold the opposing army at bay until relief in reinforcement could come to bar the route to Richmond and save the Confederate capital from easy capture. And strategy and finesse were never more brilliantly and successfully applied. It was absolutely necessary for McClellan to be outwitted—for him not to be allowed to know that the paucity of Magruder's numbers, in comparison with his own, really constituted little more than a cobweb in his way. It was necessary to delude and confound him. And all the arts and ingenuity, all the craft and activity, all the misleading demonstrations, all the false signals, all the marches [64] and countermarches, that could possibly be brought into play to make up a magnifying maze of movements and motives, were required to deceive and bewilder him. With Magruder it was not a question of strength in arms, but of strength in skill, in audacity, in military diplomacy. He was equal to it all. Here, there, everywhere, by night and by day, he showed himself to the enemy in a magnifying glass, not only exaggerating the numerical proportions of his army, but in making illusive and confusing dispositions of his troops, in carefully concealed changes, and in transformations as deceptive as a juggler's tricks. General McClellan was a man of exceptional mental capacities; he was familiar with the arts and with the science of warfare; he had courage of the finest temper and character of the highest type; he was doubtless as eager to move upon Richmond as the authorities at Washington were impatient in expecting him to do it. But the strategic genius of Magruder threw a spell over him and made him see a mountain that was but a mole-hill in a mirage. And so the Peninsula was held by ten thousand men against more than ten times ten until the Army of Northern Virginia, with General Joseph E. Johnston (the Von Moltke of the Confederacy), came upon the scene. And then there was a great gray lion, ‘sure enough’—as they say in lower Virginia—to look the big blue lion defiantly in the face.

John Bankhead Magruder was a very remarkable man. His was what might be literally called ‘a picturesque personality.’ He had a fondness for tinsel and tassels. With an irrepressible spirit of restless energy, instinctively susceptible of the charm of danger, full of health and physical force, it was evident that nature had made him for a soldier. Of courtly address, a sparkling, flowing, delightful talker, a terse, correct and inspiring writer, he could not but be a striking figure in social and civil life, of course. But it was in the field, in full military array, well mounted, as he always was, with the fire of patriotic ambition and personal pride in his eye, that he was seen at his best. He was unsurpassed in horsemanship, and he sat in his saddle as if his ease and grace and steadiness of seat belonged to him by instinct rather than from training. There were few such fine-looking men as he was in either army. As a man he had his faults, of course, or he would not have been human. He was impulsive; capricious on occasion; sometimes too quick, perhaps, in the [65] harshness of his suspicions, as well as in the fullness of his confidences. Such, however, are generally the concomitants of those ennobling qualities to be found in the fine-tempered organisms of the rare men we meet in life like John Bankhead Magruder.

1 August, 1619.—Ed.

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