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The Colonel Ebenezer Magoffin Story

Madison County ILGenWeb Coordinator - Beverly Bauser


Ebenezer “Ben” Magoffin was born in 1817, in Harrodsburg, Mercer County, Kentucky. He was the brother of Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin, who was a wealthy southern sympathizer, but advocated strict armed neutrality at the beginning of the Civil War. The Magoffin brothers were the sons of Beriah Magoffin Sr., a native of County Down, Ireland, and Jane McAfee Magoffin, daughter of Samuel McAfee, a Kentucky pioneer. Governor Magoffin refused to supply four regiments to the United States when demanded to do so by President Abraham Lincoln. He also declined a request to furnish a regiment to the Confederacy. He wanted to preserve the Union through compromise and conciliation. He forbade either side to set foot on Kentucky soil, but when they did in September of 1861, he had no power to force their evacuation. Gradually, a pro-North consensus emerged in Kentucky, and the pro-Union legislature in Kentucky remained in the Union. Beriah Magoffin resigned his governorship in the summer of 1862, when his position became “untenable.”

Colonel Ebenezer MagoffinEbenezer Magoffin moved from Kentucky to Boone County, Missouri in 1856. On February 19, 1856, he purchased 2,160 acres in north central Pettis County, Missouri. He moved to the new farm (named Prairie Lea) with his family and slaves in either 1856 or 1857. Many of his neighbors were fellow Kentuckians who had immigrated to the county in the mid-1850s. In May 1861, Ebenezer Magoffin went to Jefferson City, Missouri to offer his services to his adopted state. Missouri Governor Claiborne F. Jackson instructed him to return home and raise a regiment of cavalry to act as scouts in the West Central Missouri area. He and Major Thomas E. Staples proceeded to organize the regiment, which was ordered to Boonville to defend it from Union General Lyon’s troops advancing from Jefferson City. When Ebenezer’s wife became ill, he remained at home with her while Major Staples took charge. On June 17, 1861, Governor Jackson’s ill-trained and under-armed Missouri State Guard, under the command of his nephew Colonel John S. Marmaduke, was attacked and defeated by General Lyon. Governor Jackson retreated, and set up a temporary state government in exile at Neosho, until Confederate General Sterling Price could recapture control of the western Missouri river valley and Jefferson City. Magoffin rejoined his regiment shortly after the Battle of Boonville. On July 5, 1861, at the Battle of Carthage (Missouri), Magoffin received prisoners and acted as aide to Governor Jackson. After that battle, Magoffin, still without official rank, was ordered by the Governor to return to Central Missouri to recruit troops and procure supplies for General Price’s army. With this new regiment organized, Magoffin was elected Major, and later, he claimed, elected Colonel. The new regiment was quartered on his farm. He was supposed to leave with the regiment to join the main army, but as before, he was unable to do so. In August 1861, he was summoned to Fort Leavenworth to serve as witness for John J. Jones. He returned home, and found that all but twelve of his men had already departed with Colonel Edwin Price (son of General Price). On about August 29, 1861, Magoffin took the twelve men to Georgetown to purchase shoes and clothes for them.

Meanwhile, Union Lieutenant Colonel Henry M. Day of the First Illinois Cavalry, stationed at Jefferson City, was ordered to Lexington, armed with a list of names of rebels and secessionists who he was to arrest. Magoffin was not on the list, but only because he was so well known it was thought unnecessary to include his name. Colonel Day’s men reported seeing what they thought were Union soldiers, but when they turned and ran, they were assumed to be rebels. Colonel Day and his men charged up the hill in pursuit, firing on the rebels, who were in fact, Magoffin’s men. In the skirmish, Sergeant Glasgow was shot to death by Colonel Magoffin. Word reached Colonel Day that the notorious Colonel Magoffin was believed to be in town. Magoffin was hiding in the Kidd Hotel, armed with a pistol and shotgun. He was induced to surrender, and was arrested on the charge of murdering a soldier of the U. S. Army. He was threatened with execution by the angry Home Guards, many of whom personally knew him, but he was safely transferred to headquarters at Sedalia, Missouri and jailed. During an interview that evening, Colonel Day admonished his prisoner: “Magoffin, I am astounded that a man possessed of as much intelligence as you appear to be, should take the course that you have in assassinating Federal troops.” Colonel Day then expressed the hope that Magoffin would be shot or hung up by the neck, and that he would like to be the man to do it.

Magoffin was not executed, however, but was taken to Lexington as prisoner. After the Battle of Lexington, which began September 13, the tables were turned. Magoffin was released in exchange for former Missouri Governor Austin A. King and former Missouri Supreme Court Judge John Ryland, prisoners of Magoffin’s son, Captain Elijah Magoffin. Ironically, Lieutenant Colonel Day, who was severely injured in the battle, found himself the prisoner of Colonel Magoffin. But Day was kindly treated by Magoffin, who was said to be a perfect gentleman.

Magoffin was officially commissioned Colonel of Infantry by General Sterling Price, and instructed to recruit yet another regiment. He campaigned for recruits with the Missouri State Guard throughout the fall of 1861, but on December 7, 1861, he received word that his wife was dying. He tried to return home, but was fired upon by soldiers reported to have been posted in every room of his home except Mrs. Magoffin’s bedroom, as well as outside the house. Magoffin fled, but left his horse behind. On December 9, Magoffin sent word to Colonel Frederick Steele, stationed at Sedalia, that he wished to see his wife before she died. Through the efforts of some of Magoffin’s Union friends, who believed and implied to Colonel Steele that Magoffin might be ready to swear allegiance to the U. S., Magoffin was granted a pass on December 10 to be with his wife. Accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel E. B. Brown, an exhausted and distressed Magoffin returned home just before Mrs. Magoffin’s death.

The pass which Magoffin had received ran from December 10 to December 20, 1861, and guaranteed the safety of Colonel Magoffin, his family, and his property. However, his hogs, chickens and turkeys were shot by passing Union soldiers. After the funeral, Colonel Steele sent Magoffin a “parole” dated December 14, 1861, where Magoffin was to promise that he would not “in any manner by word or deed, aid, assist, or give countenance to the enemies of the United States Government.” If he accepted these conditions, he was to be permitted to remain at home “in the quiet, unmolested pursuit of his usual peaceful occupations.” On December 16, 1861, Colonel Magoffin wrote to his good friend and family physician, Doctor James R. Hughes, who had been instrumental in obtaining the first pass for him and was with him and his wife on the night she died, that he could not accept the parole received by him on December 15, because he had word from reliable sources that there was “a conspiracy to assassinate me in my home.” The army officers at Sedalia, however, were under the mistaken impression that Colonel Magoffin had accepted the parole. Magoffin was subsequently captured by a large Union force on December 19, 1861, at Milford, Johnson County, Missouri, along with 684 rebel troops under Colonel F. S. Robertson. Magoffin was camped with the Confederates at the mouth of Clear Creek on the Blackwater River, approximately 17 miles west of Prairie Lea. Magoffin was unarmed, and not in command of any of the rebels, and he was with them solely for his protection from those whom he believed were going to kill him. His sons, Captain Elijah H. Magoffin (age 24), and Beriah Magoffin (age 19) were captured at the same time.

After Magoffin’s capture, he was taken under guard to St. Louis, and eventually tried on dual charges by a panel of four Union officers. He was charged with murdering Sergeant Glasgow in Georgetown on or about August 29, 1861, and of violating his alleged parole not to resume arms against the U. S. by leaving his home to rejoin a Confederate force. The trial commenced on February 6, 1862, and ended February 20, 1862. He was found not guilty of the charge of murdering Sergeant Glasgow, but was found guilty of the charge of violating his parole on December 19. According to one source, Magoffin proved a discipline problem for prison officials at Gratiot Street in St. Louis. He led insurrections among the inmates, and was involved in several arsons inside the prison. It was decided then to send him to the prison at Alton, where he was to be shot to death “at such time and place as the commanding officer of this department (Major General Halleck) may direct.” Halleck approved the findings of the commission. Colonel Magoffin correctly argued that the so-called commission had no jurisdiction in such cases. Judge-Advocate, John F. Lee, in reviewing Magoffin’s case, wrote that military commissions are not a tribunal known to our laws, and had no power to inflict death except by sentence of court martial.

On March 24, 1862, Magoffin’s brother and former Kentucky Governor, Beriah Magoffin, sent a telegram to Kentucky’s statesman, John J. Crittenden in Washington, asking his help in obtaining a suspension of his brother’s sentence. Beriah said he thought he could prove he was innocent. The telegram was delivered to President Lincoln, and Lincoln granted the suspension. That same day, March 25, 1862, Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant-General, telegrammed General Halleck in St. Louis that Magoffin’s sentence was suspended pending his review of the case. President Lincoln, on April 9, 1862, wrote to General Halleck, that “if the rigor of the confinement of Magoffin at Alton is endangering his life, or materially impairing his health, I wish it mitigated so far as it can be consistently with his safe detention.” Judge-Advocate Lee recommended in April that Magoffin’s death sentence be lifted, and even suggested that he be released on parole, however that was not to be the case.

Magoffin was placed in irons and was taken to the Alton prison by steamboat. He was placed in a small cell on an upper floor, behind a padlocked door, with a guard stationed in front. Many other Confederate officers, however, were allowed on parole to roam within the city limits of Alton during the daytime. Magoffin languished at the Alton prison. As month after month passed on, executive clemency failed to remand him to the general population of the prison. His fellow prisoners felt that some plan of escape must be devised. Two sons of Colonel Magoffin had been captured at Blackwater and also housed in the Alton prison. One of them was permitted to visit him in his cell in order to attend to him during an illness. The son was free to go back and forth from his father’s bedside to the prison yard. It was after one of these visits, that the young man was observed by an intimate friend intently studying a part of the wall in his father’s cell which formed the partition between the cell building and the old part of the prison which held the female prisoner cells. A wardrobe in Ebenezer’s cell was rolled away from the wall, and a door was found on one side of the wall, but not the other side, outside of Magoffin’s cell. It was soon discovered that the door led to an old, unused passageway that led down the stairs to another door, which had been plastered over.

Adjoining the cell building in which Magoffin was housed, was a frame structure used as a wash house. That was not the originally intent of the building, as shown by the large brick oven which stood in disrepair. The oven had become a harbor for rubbish of all kinds. A plan was developed to dig a tunnel from the bottom of the oven to and under the north wall of the prison. The next question was what should be done with all the dirt from the tunnel? In another part of the prison, in the corner of the yard, were preparations of erecting another building. The excavations had been abandoned, however, as racks were erected in that part of the yard for the drying of the men’s clothing, since clothes lines were not allowed in the prison. It would be easy for the men to launder their clothes in the wash house, while some would work on the tunnel. The dirt would be placed in the sacks which were provided for clothing. The sacks of dirt would be taken to the racks (along with sacks filled with clothing so no suspicion would be aroused), and the dirt placed in the already excavated area.

The men worked hard on the tunnel, carrying out sacks of dirt which they emptied near the drying racks. Only a thin crust of dirt was left over the end of the tunnel, so that no suspicions might be aroused by broken sod on the outside of the wall. The locks and hinges of the doors (one in Magoffin’s cell and the other at the end of the passageway) were well oiled so no sound would be heard, and keys were filed to fit the keyholes. The plaster was stripped from the door, and arrangements were made to cover the defaced wall, so as to conceal their work.

On July 24, 1862, the plans for the escape were complete. Because of the extreme heat at the time, the door of the cell building was left open, and the men had the freedom of the prison yard during the early night, as well as by day. One of the prisoners walked around the yard that evening, and came to the wash house. As no one was looking, he entered the wash house and crawled through the old oven into the tunnel. Inch by inch he crawled fifty feet through the darkness, until he reached the point where he could feel the earth above him. He broke the sod and ascended into the open air, six feet from the end of the sentinel’s beat. He ran up the side of the hill into the deep shadows that lay upon its slope. At the other end of the tunnel, another prisoner waited. No news is good news, and when the other prisoner didn’t return, he entered the tunnel. Crawling through, he also reached his freedom. It was not until the entire safety of the effort was well assured, that they allowed the chief prisoners – Colonel Ebenezer Magoffin and his sons - to attempt their escape. By some means, friends outside the prison left a skiff waiting for the Colonel along the river bank. It had been waiting for him several nights, as the exact date of the escape was unknown. Thirty-six prisoners passed safely through the tunnel to their new-found freedom, including Colonel Ebenezer Magoffin and his two sons. At last, Dr. F., a large, stout man, entered the passage, but returned to the wash house. “They’ve found it out boys” he said in a whisper to the little group of men waiting anxiously in the wash house, “the Feds have found it out and are busy stopping up the tunnel.” Those men returned to their quarters, resolving to keep their silence. They waited for morning, but discovered the alarm had been a false one. The Federal officers had no knowledge that anything was wrong. Later, some of the men asked why the Doctor gave a false alarm. “Well you see,” he answered,” some of the boys had intended to take their baggage with them, but found the tunnel a tighter fit than they had expected it would be, so they had to leave their carpet bags behind them. These things blocked the way, so that some of the others had to leave their boots and hats behind them. When I got there, the tunnel was pretty full, and as I was pulling myself through, I just thought that some fellows wouldn’t have any more sense than to raise a row if they happened to get stuck, and that would mean a recapture of Magoffin, so I thought I’d stand Uncle Sam’s boarding house a little while long. But mind you, this is in confidence – it might make some of the boys mad.”

The extent of the escape was not known until late in the morning. The prisoners had been divided into squads as usual, and the chief of each squad was to report to the adjutant every morning the number of his men who were fit for duty, sick in quarters, or in the hospital. The chiefs, at least what was left of them, presented themselves to the adjutant and gave their reports. It wasn’t unusual for a few men to be missing (they were usually hunted up by the guards), but the realization of the escape finally came. The ground outside the prison was examined, and the exit at the tunnel was found. Alarmed was raised, and the hunt for the men began. A few of the prisoners were recaptured – one of them was found in a blackberry patch without shoes or hat. Charles H. Fulcher, one of the prisoners, returned to the prison and gave himself up. He stated that after reaching the outside, the prisoners scattered like sheep. Fulcher, with two others, went about two miles below Alton, and he decided to return. Another prisoner was found in a tree, just above the Alton distillery. The soldiers “invited” him down from the tree, and lodged him in the prison. As for Colonel Magoffin and his sons - they were long gone.

Below is a list of men who escaped the prison (some were recaptured, but most got away):

Richard J. Martin
Oscar J. Jones
John O. McClusky (planner of the tunnel)
James R. Robinson
Joseph Watson
Charles Thomas
Charles E. Woodward
Errendis Navo
John Peabody
Francis M. Page
Andrew J. Prewitt
William S. Dyer
Cave Dyer
Avery Dyer
James E. Dogler
Captain H. W. Sweeney
Colonel Ebenezer Magoffin
Beriah Magoffin
Elijah H. Magoffin
Colonel Richard K. Murrell
Charles H. Fulcher
James O’Grady
Amos H. Hood
George W. Berryhill
George C. Miller
Francis J. Zaber
Smith Stevenson
William Stores
John T. Tipton
Adolphus Andrews
Ralph J. Smith
William J. Jackson
William Kelly
William T. Blevins
James T. Newcomb
Edward M. Mubic
Tombstone of Colonel Ebenezer Magoffin

After the escape of Colonel Magoffin from the Alton prison, records of his life are vague and contradictory. He and his sons rejoined the Confederate Army, and may have served under General J. O. Shelby in Arkansas. Another source states he was killed soon after his escape from Alton. Most agree, however, that he was stabbed to death in 1865 by a man named Cordle, probably in Arkansas. One of his friends and Cordle were fighting in a tavern, and when the Colonel intervened to break it up, Cordle stabbed him. His son, Elijah Magoffin, pursued his father’s killer 600 miles into Texas, where he caught up with him and hanged Cordle, thereby avenging his father’s death. Ebenezer Magoffin is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri.



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