Augustus William Magee, U. S. and Mexican revolutionary army officer, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1789. He was the son of James and Margaret (Elliot) Magee. His father, a native of County Down, Ireland, settled in New York before moving to Boston and was a privateer captain in the American Revolution and following independence was one of the leading merchants in the China trade. With the wealth gained from his voyages to the Orient, James Magee purchased the opulent former home of Massachusetts royal governor William Shirley, when his son Augustus was nine years old. Upon James Magee’s death in 1801, Augustus’s education fell to his father’s best friend and business partner, Thomas Handasyd Perkins. Known as the “Merchant Prince” of Boston, Perkins was one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts and placed Augustus, then twelve, in the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Likely Perkins intended Magee to work in some capacity in his trading empire, as he employed Augustus’s older brothers Charles and James Jr. as ship captains in his growing fleet. However President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 upset these plans, and following matriculation from Phillips-Exeter, Augustus was enrolled at the United States Military Academy at West Point. There were no class rankings at the institution at this time, and Magee graduated on January 24, 1809, and qualified as an artillery officer. He served in the Atlantic Coastal Forts for several months before being transferred to Fort Adams, near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was assigned to a light artillery company which was incorporated into a consolidated regiment of artillery, cavalry, and infantry under Lt. Col. Zebulon Pike. This officer detailed Magee to serve in a temporary capacity at Fort Claiborne in Natchitoches, Louisiana, which was then short of officers.
At Fort Claiborne, Magee was tasked with dealing with lawlessness in the Neutral Ground, an area of disputed ownership between the United States and New Spain, which had been established in 1806. The area had attracted a growing number of “banditti,” and Magee was employed on one occasion to escort Spanish trade caravans across the zone. A group of banditti stalked Magee’s column, waited for the escort to pass, and then seized the Spanish merchants and robbed them of their goods. Magee later recognized two of the perpetrators on the streets in Natchitoches and had them arrested. Both Spain and America wanted to halt such depredations, and on August 1, 1810, a bilateral patrol was undertaken, jointly commanded by Magee on the part of the Americans and José Maria Guadiana for the Spanish. The patrol searched the length of the Neutral Ground for two weeks and burned a dozen buildings and ousted thirty-four illegal inhabitants. After a time, however, the banditti returned, and in March 1812 Magee led a second American-only expedition and evicted more squatters. His tactics were brutal. John Sibley, the U. S. Indian agent, said Magee had his prisoners “Striped tied to Trees & Whipt & Burnt with Chunks of fire…to make them confess.” Sibley also alleged that Magee’s patrol missed most of the actual banditti and merely harassed harmless settlers.
In 1811 Magee, credited with being one of the best-informed young officers in the United States Army, was recommended for promotion by Gen. James Wilkinson. This was likely on the recommendation of Pike, since Wilkinson had been recalled to Washington in 1809 and may have never even met Magee. The promotion languished for more than a year and was ultimately rejected by Secretary of War William Eustis in early 1812. The most likely reason was politics: Magee’s patron Perkins, a leading Massachusetts Federalist, was throughout 1811–12 engaged in partisan attacks against President James Madison and led the effort to successfully defeat the Republican governor of the Bay State, Elbridge Gerry. Secretary of War Eustis was a Gerry ally.
Magee also had an alternative pathway to martial glory waiting for him, and this likely spurred his decision. An opportunity presented itself to the young officer to join an expedition into Texas to assist Mexican revolutionaries there, being organized by José Bernardo Maximiliano Gutiérrez de Lara, alongside a network of former recruits of Aaron Burr, including Kentucky Militia general John Adair, former U. S. Army officer Josiah Taylor, West Florida veteran Samuel Kemper, and former U. S. Army officer William Murray. Magee was likely recruited by Murray, who had been among the chief witnesses in the 1807 trials of Burr conspirators and had survived a court martial over the affair. Murray, also an artillerist, was one of Magee’s colleagues on his arrival at Fort Adams and served as Magee’s second in a duel in early 1812.
Magee took a furlough and, bypassing his chain of command at Fort Claiborne, resigned from the United States Army on June 22, 1812. He became commander of the growing force later known as the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition. Although Adair was to be overall commander, he ultimately declined, and Magee assumed command (although Gutiérrez technically outranked him, the Mexican rebel never commanded in the field). Magee’s forces gathered in the Neutral Ground, crossed the Sabine River on August 7, and won a skirmish against a small Spanish force under Bernardino Montero, the Nacogdoches garrison commander. Magee took Nacogdoches without a fight on August 11 and was joined by Gutiérrez several days later. With the loot of Juan José Manuel Vicente Zambrano's trade convoy, the Republicans obtained supplies from the United States while waiting for additional recruits to arrive. Many Spanish soldiers and civilians also joined Magee’s army, including his former colleague from the Neutral Ground foray, José Maria Guadiana, who became the Republican commander at Nacogdoches. About the middle of September the force occupied Trinidad de Salcedo on the Trinity River. Marching on San Antonio, they learned of plans of a Spanish ambush, and Magee instead took a side road off the Camino Real to La Bahía and occupied the presidio of Nuestra Señora de Loreto around November 7, 1812. Six days later, the Spanish army arrived and began a four-month siege of the Republicans.
Magee, feeling his force insufficient to break the siege, parlayed with Spanish governor Manuel María de Salcedo on a surrender and withdrawal, but his American officers rejected the proposal because it did not contain a pardon for their Mexican rebel colleagues. Magee, who had by this point become seriously ill, likely with consumption, lost the support of his officers over what they believed was his cowardice. He was not replaced, but the command was effectively taken over by Samuel Kemper as Magee’s illness worsened. He passed away on February 6, 1813, and was buried within the grounds of the presidio, even as the Spanish continued to bombard the fort, “rolling the balls around the graveyard.” Kemper assumed command of the Republican Army at Magee’s death.
Bexar Archives, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Ed Bradley, We Never Retreat: Filibustering Expeditions into Spanish Texas, 1812–1822 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2015). D. W. C. Baker, A Texas Scrapbook Made up of the History, Biography and Miscellany of Texas and Its People (New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1875). George W. Cullum, Biographical register of the officers and graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., from its establishment, in 1802, to 1890, with the early history of the United States Military Academy (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1891). Julia Kathryn Garrett, "Dr. John Sibley and the Louisiana-Texas Frontier, 1803–1914," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 45–49 (January 1942–April 1946). Julia Kathryn Garrett, Green Flag Over Texas: A Story of the Last Years of Spain in Texas (Austin: Pemberton Press, 1939). Henry Lee, “The Magee Family and the Origins of the China Trade,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 81 (1969). Phillips Exeter Academy, Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, New Hampshire: J & B Williams, 1838). Carl Seaburg and Stanley Paterson, Merchant Prince of Boston. Colonel T.H. Perkins, 1764–1854 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971). William Shaler Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. U. S. National Archives, Letters Received by the Secretary of War, Registered Series, M221 Rolls 35, 45 and 49.
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James Aalan Bernsen,
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