Burke, John (1830–1871)

By: Max S. Lale

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: November 1, 1994

John Burke, Robert E. Lee's "favorite spy" and Texas adjutant general, was born in Philadelphia in 1830 and orphaned or abandoned by his parents at age eleven. He grew up on his own in New York City, then moved to Marshall, Texas, where he worked as a cobbler and studied law at night. He was admitted to the bar, entered practice with his brother-in-law Pendleton Murrah, and became a prominent criminal defense attorney.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War he enlisted as a private in Company E, First Texas Infantry, Hood's Texas Brigade, raised in Marshall and commanded by Frederick Bass, also of Marshall. Shortly afterward Burke began a career as a scout and spy for P. G. T. Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnston, and other senior officers, including T. J. Jackson during the Valley campaign of 1862. He rode with J. E. B. Stuart around McClellan's army in 1862. Burke traveled behind Union lines as far as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. He used disguises, frequently the uniform of a Union officer, and would change the color of his artificial eye. He was able to provide Lee with valuable information about Union forces and dispositions. His most daring adventure came after he was apprehended in Philadelphia. He was placed under guard, in irons and handcuffs. As the train to Washington crossed a high trestle, he jumped into the river and made his way back to Lee.

Fatigued by his exertions and now a colonel, Burke resigned and accepted appointment by Governor Murrah as adjutant general of Texas, effective November 1, 1864. General Lee wrote a letter thanking him for his services. Unfortunately, records of the adjutant general's office were lost in the Capitol fire of 1881, and little of Burke's service in that assignment is known.

At the end of the war he joined Murrah in his flight to Mexico. After Murrah died, Burke returned to Marshall and resumed his law practice. He married Jennie Taylor in 1865, and they had two sons and a daughter. His most famous case at the bar was his defense of prisoners held at Jefferson in the Stockade Case in 1869. Burke died at Jefferson on January 18, 1871, and is buried there.

Traylor Russell, Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and Others (Waco: Texian Press, 1973). Harold B. Simpson, The Marshall Guards: Harrison County's Contribution to Hood's Texas Brigade (Marshall, Texas: Port Caddo, 1967). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
  • Criminal Law and District Attorneys
  • Military
  • Confederate Military
  • Spies and Scouts
  • Soldiers
Time Periods:
  • Civil War
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Reconstruction

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Max S. Lale, “Burke, John,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 22, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/burke-john.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: