Marmaduke, John S.

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Saint Mary

Portrait of Confederate general John S. Marmaduke posing in uniform. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Biographical Information:

  • Date of birth: March 14, 1833
  • Place of birth: Arrow Rock, Saline County, Missouri
  • Claim to fame: Confederate general who killed his superior officer in a duel; Governor of Missouri (1885-1887)
  • Political affiliations: Democratic Party
  • Date of death: December 28, 1887
  • Place of death: Jefferson City, Missouri
  • Cause of death: Pneumonia
  • Final resting place: Jefferson City, Missouri

John Sappington Marmaduke was born on March 14, 1833, in Saline County, Missouri, into a prominent political family.  His father, Meredith Marmaduke, was the eighth governor of the state and a staunch Unionist before and during the Civil War.  But it was the political lead of his uncle, a pro-secessionist governor of Missouri, Claiborne Fox Jackson, which Marmaduke followed in the critical opening months of the Civil War.

Acting upon a rumor of Missouri’s secession in the spring of 1861, Marmaduke left his post with the United States 2nd Cavalry Regiment in New Mexico Territory and headed for home. Though Missouri had not seceded, Governor Jackson appointed Marmaduke as colonel of the 1st Rifle Regiment of the Missouri State Guard (MSG), largely recruited from Saline County. Both his command and membership in the MSG were short lived. On June 17, 1861, Marmaduke and his under trained, ill-equipped regiment were routed in less than an hour at the Battle of Boonville by the rapidly advancing federal forces of Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, sweeping through Missouri in an effort to secure the state for the Union.  In the wake of this small but humiliating defeat, Marmaduke resigned and went to the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Virginia, to secure a commission in the regular Confederate army.    

Despite his failure at the Battle of Boonville, Marmaduke’s background assured him a second chance. He possessed an education from Harvard and Yale, and he had graduated from West Point, albeit near the bottom of the class of 1857. After leaving the MSG, he served on the staff of Lieutenant General William J. Hardee in Arkansas and then on the staff of General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and his former commander during the Utah Expedition of 1858. Marmaduke was promoted rapidly and, by the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, he was back in the field leading the 3rd Infantry in brutal fighting that left General Johnston dead and himself severely wounded. Convalescing for most of 1862, Marmaduke was promoted to brigadier general just before his return to active duty in November.    

After a flurry of letters and charges, the two generals met... and dueled with pistols at 15 paces.

Within a month of his promotion, Marmaduke commanded a division of cavalry at the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862, and despite the Confederate withdrawal under increasing Union Army pressure, acquitted himself well.  During the first half of 1863, Marmaduke operated independently by raiding southeastern Missouri from staging areas in northern Arkansas.  When Marmaduke shifted tactics and used his cavalry to attempt a siege at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on April 26, 1863, he was forced to withdraw, eventually as far as Helena, Arkansas, without meeting the primary objectives of his raiding operations.  

Matters did not improve for Marmaduke as the war progressed into Arkansas.  Leading his cavalry division in an attack on the now Union-held Helena, Arkansas, on July 4, 1863, Marmaduke was driven back with heavy losses when supporting troops under Brigadier General Lucius M. Walker, fearing for their own exposed position, failed to support the Confederate advance.  Though the battle was a repeat of Cape Girardeau with its demonstration of the futility of using cavalry to overcome a fixed position on a riverine port, Marmaduke publically assigned blame for his failure to break the Union line on the cowardice of Walker.  After a flurry of letters and charges, the two generals met near Little Rock, Arkansas, on September 6, 1863, and dueled with pistols at 15 paces.  Marmaduke was unharmed but Walker was wounded and died within the day.  Marmaduke was never formally charged with Walker’s murder and spent only a brief time under arrest.

Controversy was not limited to Marmaduke’s personal and professional failures; it also tainted his successes.  Catching a Union supply train in southern Arkansas on April 18, 1864, at Poison Springs, Marmaduke’s reinforced division captured almost 200 wagons and drove off the outnumbered defenders in what should have been a small but badly needed victory.  The fighting, however, was the combat debut of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry regiment that was primarily composed of ex-slaves.  Once Marmaduke’s cavalry finally routed the stubborn Kansans, a massacre ensued, resulting in few prisoners taken and reports of murder, mutilation, and scalping of the wounded.  Escaping culpability once again, Marmaduke blamed any unnecessary deaths and mutilations on unruly Choctaw Indians present within the Confederate ranks but denied that any wholesale massacre occurred.

Marmaduke blamed any unnecessary deaths and mutilations on unruly Choctaw Indians present within the Confederate ranks but denied that any wholesale massacre occurred.

By late-1864, Confederate forces in Arkansas invaded Missouri in an effort to disrupt federal elections and reclaim territory lost in 1861. Though Marmaduke’s division was in primarily supporting roles for the early phases of Major General Sterling Price’s Missouri Raid, Marmaduke came into his own in the fighting in western Missouri. During the Second Battle of Independence, on October 22, 1864, Marmaduke saved Confederate positions crumbling under determined Union attacks and established a defensive line at Byram’s Ford from which he was eventually pushed during the Battle of Westport on the following day. With Price’s defeat at Westport, the campaign degenerated into a retreat through Kansas and Missouri back to Arkansas. In confused fighting over Mine Creek, Kansas, on October 25, 1864, Marmaduke was captured when he mistook a Union trooper as one of his own men while attempting to reform his fleeing command.

John S. Marmaduke spent the remaining months of the Civil War as a prisoner of war incarcerated at Johnson’s Island, Ohio, and while there received promotion to major general.  Marmaduke returned to Missouri after the war and found employment in the insurance industry and later as editor of an agricultural journal.  By the late 1870s, Marmaduke followed in the family tradition of politics but lost the gubernatorial election of 1880 to Thomas T. Crittenden.  Aggressively campaigning in 1884 and with the support of several ex-Confederate officers, Marmaduke became Missouri’s 25th governor.  Though his term was a successful one during which he brought the state’s railways to heel through regulations while radically increasing education funding, it was cut short by his death from pneumonia on December 28, 1887.

Suggested Reading: 

Gerteis, Louis S. The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012.

Oates, Stephen B. Confederate Cavalry West of the River. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961.

Trimpi, Helen P. "A 'Gallant and Prudent Commander': Major General John S. Marmaduke." Confederate Generals in the Trans-Mississippi, vol. 1, edited by Lawrence Lee Hewitt, Arthur W. Bergeron, Jr., and Thomas E. Schott, 135-166. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013.

Cite this page: 
Perkins, Russell. "Marmaduke, John S." Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 20, 2019 at

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