Monday, January 16, 2017

The Military Men

As recruits for the filibuster began to come in, Gutiérrez de Lara began to look for a leader for his expedition. The natural choice was Gen. John Adair, a former Continental Army officer who was believed to have been the choice of commander for the Burr Expedition. Adair appears to have turned Gutiérrez down. Gen. James Wilkinson had made Adair the scapegoat for the Burr affair, and though Adair was acquitted of any charges, the controversy cost him his U.S. Senate seat from Kentucky. He needed rehabilitation, not controversy. Unless the expedition had official U.S. government support, Adair was not likely to lead it, though he did aid in raising men for the venture in the end.
Wilkinson himself was a possibility, but he too was suspected in the Burr affair and he was the senior officer in the U.S. Army at a time when clear war clouds were on the horizon. Although he had been a loyal agent of Spain for 20 years, he had since cut those ties, and that was not an impediment to undermining his former employer now. Wilkinson allowed two of his sons, James Biddle Wilkinson and Joseph Biddle Wilkinson, to join the expedition. James, who served as an aide-de-camp to Toledo, brought the first news of the defeat at Medina, and died shortly thereafter of his wounds.[1]
Gutiérrez eventually settled on a young army officer and favorite of Wilkinson. In 1812 Augustus William Magee was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Claiborne on the road between Nacogdoches and Natchitoches. He had been tasked with clearing out the neutral zone of the many squatters, thieves, and other undesirables who had settled there. In June 1812, Magee resigned his commission as a result of being passed over for promotion. He then signed up with Gutiérrez, taking command as the expedition’s colonel.
Magee’s background has largely been untouched by historians. A biographical sketch attempted in 1944 found little beyond the recycled information found in Shaler’s letters and other well-worn sources. The standard narrative is that Magee was a West Pointer and favored subordinate of Wilkinson, “evidently of Irish extraction.”[2] Nonetheless, Magee’s history, when fully considered, is very informative of possible motivations for his unusual career move. Augustus Magee was, in fact, no poor junior officer dependent upon his meager earnings in the army or awed by the mercenary sums Gutiérrez offered. He was, rather, the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Boston. His father James Magee was an Irish Presbyterian who immigrated to America before the revolution. During the war, he served as a privateer, commanding four vessels during the conflict before being captured in 1781.[3]  After the war, Magee prospered as a trader and married Margaret Elliot of Boston, daughter of a successful tobacco dealer. His real springboard into the Boston elite
The Shirley-Eustes House, where Augustus Magee was raised.
came when his wife’s sister married Thomas Handasyd Perkins, member of one of the city’s great mercantile families. Magee and Perkins formed a business partnership that cemented the Irishman’s success. The two brothers-in-law would become the foremost American merchants in the lucrative China trade, and, by all accounts, the best of friends as well. Magee’s family, moreover, profited from the Perkins family relationship for over thirty years.[4] For Augustus, born during one of James’ extended voyages (he would not see his father until he was four years old), this meant a lavish lifestyle and an exemplary education. In 1798, when the young boy was nine, his father purchased the opulent former mansion of Massachusetts royal governor William Shirley.[5] Augustus’ years in the house, however, did not last long, for a pair of tragedies struck the family soon afterwards. In 1801, James Magee died of an illness. The same year, his brother Bernard, also a sea captain, was killed by natives in the Pacific Northwest.  Besides Augustus’ two older brothers, T.H. Perkins was the closest male relative remaining in young Magee’s family. Circumstantial evidence suggests Perkins took a strong interest in his brother-in-law’s orphaned children. Several years before, he had given Augustus’ brother James Jr. an early start running a hotel. He had remained at James Magee’s side steadfastly in his final days, accompanying him on a trip to a New York Spa in a failed effort to recover James’ health.[6]
Thomas Handasyd Perkins
The year after his father’s and brother’s deaths, Augustus, now 13, was enrolled in the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, about fifty miles away. It was then, as today, one of the elite schools in America. The principal of the school, Benjamin Abbot, had married a sister of T.H. Perkins. As a double in-law, Magee was a distant relative indeed, but Abbot and Perkins were close and it is likely the latter helped young Augustus enter the school. When he did, he became the only child of James Magee to acquire a significant education.[7] His name appears in the catalogue of students alongside some of the weightiest names in early American history. George Washington’s nephew Bushrod attended a few years before, as had future senator Daniel Webster. Among Magee’s own classmates was another boy his same age, George Pickering, whose father Timothy had been Secretary of State in the Washington and Adams administrations.[8] Future graduates included President Franklin Pierce and the sons of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant. Of Phillips Exeter, it would be said in 1859 that “Such a galaxy of names as appear upon the catalogue of this institution will not, perhaps, be found in connection with any other academy on this continent.”[9] Magee’s instructor, Abbot, became a legend at the institution. Under his hand, the curriculum was rigorous and a day at
Phillips-Exeter Academy around the time Magee would have attended.
the school full of “exacting duties,” including readings from the Bible, memorization and recitation exercises all day long.[10] Discipline was firm, but tolerant. Abbot was “feared, respected and loved alike by student and townspeople,” a graduate of the class of 1811 wrote, adding, “the decorum and manly bearing which characterized the school while he was at its head must have deeply impressed itself upon the lives of those who were so fortunate as to be his pupils.”[11] One of those pupils was Augustus Magee.
Magee moved on to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1809 and qualifying as an artillerist.[12] He was assigned to the Atlantic coast and eventually to the frontier in Louisiana. Again, it is likely that T.H. Perkins’s hand was the guiding one in Magee’s career progression. Augustus’s immediate family consisted entirely of seafarers and none of had any army background. However, his uncle-in-law did. As one of the founders of a local Massachusetts militia company, Perkins rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was frequently addressed by those who knew him as “Colonel Perkins.”[13] At the time of Magee’s appointment to West Point in 1808, the Secretary of War was Henry Dearborn, a former major general, also of the Massachusetts militia. Perkins was also very active in Massachusetts politics, and although a congressional nomination was not required at the time, West Point was very small and the appointments coveted. Perkins was well-placed to aid Magee.
Such a benefactor, however, came as a mixed blessing. By 1812, Lieutenant Magee had by all accounts served well in “cleaning up” the Neutral Ground. He had the support for his promotion of Gen. James Wilkinson, the senior general in the army. Furthermore, he was a rare and valuable West Pointer at a time when the army was in the midst of an expansion that ultimately grew the ranks of the officer corps from 191 in 1808 to 3,495 by the end of the War of 1812.[14] But despite all of this he was still denied a promotion in Early 1812. Though three years was hardly a long time to endure in one rank, Magee certainly felt he had earned promotion, and his record seems to back him up.[15] The evidence strongly suggests politics as the most likely reason for Magee’s rejection. Such political meddling in the army was common at a time when Republicans, hostile to a standing army in the first place, were in power in Washington. As Joyce Appleby notes, “The fierce partisanship that flared up during the bitterly contested presidential elections of 1796 and 1800 cast a long shadow over the lives of the first generation. Parties monopolized political life in a totally unexpected way.”[16] This monopoly extended to the army’s officer corps. After his election in 1800, Jefferson famously purged the army of all Federalist officers above the rank of captain. He had gone to the extent of interviewing one candidate for appointment to West Point personally and asking, “To which of the political creeds to you adhere?” After the young man mentioned that his family were federalists, Jefferson responded, “There are many men of high talent and integrity in that party, but it is not the rising party.” The young man, Joseph Swift, was admitted anyway, but the intimidation was taken in earnest.[17]
In March 1809, two months after Magee had graduated West Point, the new President, James Madison, replaced Dearborn as Secretary of War with another Massachusetts man, William Eustis, and it was to him that Magee’s promotion in 1812 fell. The change was likely fatal for Magee’s prospects. Eustis, a former military surgeon, had no militia tie to Perkins, but he did have a political connection to him, and it probably was not a pleasant one: Eustis had served in the Massachusetts legislature as a Republican at the same time that Perkins served as a Federalist. Perkins had always been politically active. As early as 1794, he was listed as a “vote distributor” for the party, a kind of local organizer and election fixer, and served on the Massachusetts Federalist Central Committee. He was at the center of one of the most charged political incidents of the day, the 1806 murder of Republican Charles Austin by the Federalist Thomas Selfridge. Perkins served as the foreman of the jury that found Selfridge guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter but acquitted him of murder – a ruling which appalled Republicans.[18]
While these sins may not have offended Dearborn any more than Joseph Swift’s family’s federalism offended Jefferson, Perkins’ politics took an even more partisan shift during and after the 1808 election, and almost certainly offended Eustis, as well as President Madison himself. Perkins worked conspicuously against Madison’s election in 1808, and again antagonized the President in 1810 when he led the official escort through Boston for the British minister Francis James Jackson, whose behavior in America so incensed the President that he was declared “persona non grata” by him. [19] Perkins was also involved in the separatist movement that culminated in the Hartford Convention, and would in 1815 serve as one of three ambassadors to Madison from the convention. But long before, his connection to a movement that Republicans thought treasonous, was well known [20] The Magee family was not overtly political, but were likely also Federalist. Their wealth and status argue for it, as does their early residence on Federal Street, a hotbed – as the name implies – of Federalist activity in Boston.[21] The graduates of Philips Exeter Academy, including those mentioned above, were almost all Federalists, or later, as Daniel Webster was, Whigs. The totality of the evidence therefore suggests that Eustis denied the promotion on political grounds, perhaps as a slight intended for Perkins. This certainly accounts for the bitter, injured tone of Magee’s letter of resignation, which he wrote to Estes on June 22, 1812. “Feeling myself dissatisfied with the service and personally slighted,” Magee wrote, “I have the honor to offer to you my resignation of the commission which the President of the United States had been so pleased to bestow upon me.” [22]
Magee was giving up a lot. He was by all accounts a competent and capable officer. Not only was he part of the moneyed elite, but also of the intellectual one, a legacy of his time at Phillips Exeter. With such a background, Magee was clearly intelligent, and was indeed described by Shaler as one of the best-informed officers in the army.[23] He was from a wealthy and industrious family (his father and brothers, despite all their fortunes, sailed personally with their precious cargos rather than remain in the comfort of home). He had lost that father as a young man, with all the psychological baggage that brings. He spurned the seafaring profession, which his two older brothers continued to exercise to great success. Whether he abandoned the family business out of rebellion, fear of the sea, or a desire to prove himself on his own terms is unknown. The lure of Gutiérrez’ expedition was strong to a man who was smarting under a slight to his honor, and he had proved that he was willing to risk everything for honor. In 1811, he fought a duel, killing a Frenchman in a sword fight in which Magee lost a little finger.[24] 
One other factor may have sealed the deal: the personal entreaties of William Shaler. Although it is probable that it was Wilkinson or an ally who initially pointed Gutiérrez to Magee, Shaler was certainly acquainted with the young officer, describing him to Monroe as “a very tall, robust Bostonian, handsome of person and countenance, commanding in appearance and withal prepossessing in manner.”[25] Moreover, Shaler’s biography closely parallels that of James Magee. Like the young officer’s father, Shaler was a New England merchant captain who had plied Asiatic waters. He had visited Hawaii only a few years after James Magee had made America’s first visit there. He had sailed the same waters in the Northwest, where Bernard Magee had been killed. In the small, club-like circle of New England merchantmen, Shaler certainly knew of the Magee and Perkins families. Even if the young officer concealed his family ties, any conversation about Spain would have made an impression. Had Shaler shared his own history of Spanish obstructionism while attempting to open up trade, it would have sounded familiar to the young lieutenant. His father, like Shaler, had been interrogated by the Spaniards at Valparaiso and T.H. Perkins’s brother Samuel had had his cargo seized at Lima.[26]
An opportunity for glory had allure for Magee as well. Shaler, writing to Secretary of State James Monroe, said Magee’s “sole object in undertaking the command of that expedition appears to be military fame.” We know too that Gutiérrez adopted as the expedition’s emblem an emerald-green flag – a symbol of Ireland – in honor of Irish-descended Magee. Gutiérrez supposedly chose such a symbol to appeal to Magee’s vanity.[27] It is noteworthy that unlike rebels in Spanish Florida, where the first “lone star” flag was raised, Magee did not insist on a banner containing any American symbolism. Indeed, when American envoy John Robinson passed through the filibuster camp en route to meet with Spanish officials, Magee exhibited marked hostility towards Robinson, specifically for carrying a flag of the United States. Historian Ed Bradley suggests that while a minor incident, the argument indicates not all filibusters were pro-American expansionists, and “Magee in particular held considerable hostility toward the United States over his lack of advancement in that nation’s army.”[28] Indeed, at the army’s lowest ebb, it was the Mexican revolutionary Gutiérrez, not the American officer-turned mercenary Magee, who desperately begged for U.S. military support in exchange for ceding Texas to the United States.[29] Indeed, when one considers Magee’s connections to the Federalist party and a key leader connected to the Hartford Convention movement, Magee as commander was probably the worst American choice from the perspective of the Madison Administration, if suggestions of its complicity in the expedition are to be believed.
Magee was not the expedition’s only West Pointer. Joining him in Texas was 1807 graduate Samuel Noah. Noah was a London-born Jew who had emigrated to the United States at age 20. After several years working in New York City, he applied for an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, but was turned down and in 1805 was accepted into West Point. Also well-educated and reputably excellent in penmanship, he was employed as a secretary and transcriptionist for the superintendent, as well as a court reporter at the academy. Appointed to the infantry arm, he was stationed at Fort Adams, Mississippi. Here he met then-captain Winfield Scott and, of course, Wilkinson. A student of history with a passion for the lives of great men, Noah engaged in a private study of Napoleon’s campaigns while waiting, like Magee, for a promotion that never came. As an official West Point history recorded, “Wearied finally with slow promotion, and disgusted that ignorant civilians were appointed to rank him, he resigned March 31, 1811, his commission of First Lieutenant in the Army.”  The date is noteworthy, because unlike Magee’s resignation, which was likely submitted after he had learned of the proposed filibuster, Noah resigned months before the project was even rumored, while Gutiérrez was still in Saltillo. Nonetheless, a year later, when he presumably heard of the expedition for the first time, Noah joined it, “allured by visions of a golden future.”[30]

[1] Schwarz,126.
[2] Col. M.I. Crimmins, “Augustus William Magee, The Second Advanced Courier of American Expansion into Texas,” West Texas Historical Association Year Book 20 (1944): 92.
[3] Henry Lee, “The Magee Family and the Origins of the China Trade,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 81 (1969): 104.
[4] Lee, 107.
[5] Margaret would later sell the house in 1819 to former Secretary of War William Eustis – the same man to whom Augustus Magee had penned his letter resigning his commission. The Shirley-Eustis House still exists today and is a National Historic Landmark.
[6] Frederick C. Detwiller, “Magee Family Mariners ca. 1750-1820,” 2012. Unpublished manuscript provided by the author, of Georgetown, Massachusetts.
[7] Lee, 117.
[8] Phillips Exeter Academy, Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, N.H.: J&B Williams, 1838), 14. Despite the title, there was no military training curriculum at the academy at the time.
[9] Austin Coolidge and John Mansfield, History and Description of New England, General and Local, Vol. 1 (Boston: Austin J. Coolidge, 1859) 491.
[10] Laurence M. Crosbie, Phillips Exeter Academy, a History (Exeter, N.H.: Phillips Exeter Academy, 1923), 57.
[11] Ibid., 58.
[12] While most sources state that Magee was either 2nd or 3rd in the class of 1809, this is inaccurate, as class ranks were not instituted until 1815. Magee was the second person to graduate in that year, but students studied at different paces and merely graduated when they finished the coursework. Magee graduated 7 months after beginning, which was average for the time.
[13] Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, Merchant Prince of Boston. Col. T.H. Perkins, 1764-1854 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 40.
[14] Appleby, 113.
[15] Spencer Tucker, ed. The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, A Political, Social, and Military History, Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012), 970.
[16] Appleby, 20
[17] Appleby, 31 and Linklater, 196.
[18] Trial of Thomas O. Selfridge, Attorney at Law, Before the Hon. Isaac Parker, Esquire for killing Charles Austin on the Public Exchange in Boston, August 4, 1806 (Boston: Russel, Cutler, Belcher and Armstrong, 1806), 5.
[19] Seaburg and Patterson, 217.
[20] Thomas Gary, ed. Memoir of Thomas Handasyd Perkins containing extracts from his diaries and letters (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856), 219.
[21] Detwiller, F.C. Magee Family Mariners ca. 1750-1820.
[22] Augustus Magee to William Eustes, Baton Rouge, June 22, 1812, quoted in Ed Bradley, We Never Retreat: Filibustering Expeditions into Spanish Texas, 1812-1822 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015), 37.
[23] “Magee, Augustus William,” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association. (accessed April 15, 2016).
[24] Warren D.C. Hall, Notes furnished by W.D.C. Hall in D.W.C. Baker, A Texas Scrapbook Made up of the History, Biography and Miscellany of Texas and Its People (New Orleans: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1875), 224.
[25] William Shaler to James Monroe, August 18, 1812. Shaler Papers.
[26] Madeline Coughlin, “Commercial Foundations of Political Interest in the Opening Pacific, 1789-1829,” California Historical Quarterly 50, no. 1 (Mar., 1971): 17 and James Yard to James Madison, 19 March 1802, Founders Online, National Archives (accessed April 1, 2016).
[27] Bradley, 36.
[28] Ibid., 44.
[29] Ibid., 47.
[30] George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy,
(Accessed April 14, 2016.)

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