The Magoffins in the Civil War


James Wiley Magoffin established a grand residence and trading post across from El Paso del Norte (Ciudad Juárez) in 1849 that became known as Magoffinsville. An important social and commercial center, Magoffin specialized in livestock and merchandise brought from the eastern U.S. and Mexico.

Magoffinsville was also the site of the U.S. Army’s second military post in El Paso and the first to be named Fort Bliss. In 1853, four companies of the 8th Infantry were sent to the El Paso area to re-establish a fort at the Pass. The army leased buildings at Magoffinsville, and Magoffin supplied the troops there, at Fort Quitman, and at Fort Davis.

The Outbreak of War

Charcoal drawing of confederate soldier.At the outbreak of the Civil War, James Wiley declared his allegiance to the Confederacy. It is unclear how much his business interests dictated his politics, but when federal troops withdrew from Fort Bliss and Magoffinsville in March 1861, James Wiley took over the post on behalf of the state of Texas and the Confederacy. Later that same year, James Wiley, also a brigadier general in the State Militia, was tasked with enrolling men and organizing the 33rd Brigade. Confederate Lt. Col. John Baylor called the 33rd into service sometime after he arrived in El Paso in July 1861.

Records show that James Wiley, under the company name of J.W. Magoffin & Co., was actively supplying both Baylor’s second Texas Mounted Rifles and the Confederate Army of New Mexico commanded by Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley. His sons Samuel and Joseph, his brothers-in-law Gabriel Valdés and Isaac Lightner, and his son in-law Charles Richardson all worked in the company.

When Gen. Sibley arrived in El Paso in December of 1861, Samuel Magoffin immediately joined the General’s staff as one of his aides. During the Confederate campaign into New Mexico, Joseph Magoffin and Gabriel Valdés helped freight troops and goods as far north as Fort Fillmore. Samuel continued to serve, and participated in the Battle of Valverde and other engagements until Gen. Sibley was turned back at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Shortly after Gen. Sibley’s brigade returned to El Paso, Joseph joined the Confederate Army as a commissary agent under Gen. Sibley’s command.

By May 1862, the Confederates were ordered to withdraw to San Antonio as Union troops advanced on the Rio Grande from California. Some El Paso businessmen and their families moved across the river to El Paso del Norte. This apparently included the Magoffin’s in-laws, the Lightners, and James Wiley’s wife Dolores Valdés Magoffin. The rest of the family, including James Wiley, joined the Confederate Army in fleeing to San Antonio.

Joseph and Samuel, both serving on Gen. Sibley’s staff, went to San Antonio and then on to Marshall, Texas. Both men were later ordered to Richmond to testify during the court martial of Gen. Sibley. Afterward, they returned to the Louisiana/east Texas area. A vindicated Sibley promoted Samuel from lieutenant to major and aide-de-camp, and made Joseph a captain and permanent quartermaster. A year later, Samuel transferred to James Patrick Major’s 2nd Cavalry Brigade serving in west Louisiana along the Bayou Teche. It was during this time that Samuel became interested in Sara Jane Woolfolk, who lived near Rosedale. Their romance blossomed in spite of the challenging circumstances.

Wartime Social Lives

Samuel’s brother Joseph continued to serve as a quartermaster and commissary officer throughout the war. Like his older brother, Joseph also had an active social life. It is likely that he met Octavia MacGreal, the daughter of a longtime and prominent Brazoria lawyer and plantation owner, somewhere in the Houston area in late 1862 or early 1863. She was the sister of Clarence MacGreal, another soldier in Gen. Sibley’s Brigade. Joseph married Octavia in March 1864 in Galveston. Throughout the remainder of the war, Joseph wrote to his young wife about his experiences, always expressing his love and devotion to her in ways similar to this letter written in May 1864:

“Oh would that I were there to see how happy-very, very happy we would be. I have almost persuaded myself never to leave you again. I shall certainly never do so if I can possibly avoid it. I have felt your absence so much, and I am getting worse and worse every day. Are you not glad and truly happy to have one heart whose whole strength and admiration is enveloped and lost in your own that you can call yours? You little vixen. I sometimes think that I love you too much-but no! That can never be-you are too good, too noble for me ever to complain.”

The Red River Campaign

In early 1864, Captain Joseph Magoffin was promoted to major and transferred to be with his brother on James Patrick Major’s staff, where he continued to be a commissary agent. His letters to his new wife provide some insight on both his and his brother’s activities during the Red River Campaign that spring. His early letters are filled with optimism: “I trust … that we may whip the Yankees out of Louisiana soon, which will give us strong grounds for returning again,” he told her in late March. Later he wrote, “We have already been most miraculous, successful, and to a thinking mind it would appear that certainly God is on our side.” The next month he described the battles of Wilson’s Farm and Mansfield. He told Octavia how Samuel had grabbed the regimental colors at Wilson’s Farm and led a charge late in the day, which caused the enemy to withdraw from the field. Answering his wife’s query about his proximity to the battlefields, Joseph wrote:

“Without blowing my own trumpet, I will only say to you that I came very near being killed. A shell exploded [with]in five feet of me, but without doing any harm. [General] Major says that I was fishing for a flesh wound to get a furlough on. My escape was so wonderful that every one speaks about it. … Don’t be alarmed—there is no more fighting. And besides, I shall be more careful in the future.”

This may have been the first campaign in which Joseph had been so intimately close to the fighting. Near Pleasant Hill, he wrote:

“Were you to pass over the ground from Mansfield to this place about twenty miles and witness the number of dead and wounded, and every moment hear of the death of a general or some dear friend falling and the cannon blast still ringing in your ears as you think and write to the dearest and loved ones at home hardly knowing what an hour may bring forth—yet ever hopeful and sanguine as to the result.”

Samuel Magoffin’s Death

In the summer of 1864, Samuel and Joseph Magoffin received separate furloughs from Major’s staff—then at Shreveport, Louisiana—and went to see their respective ladies. In June, Samuel wrote to his father, James Wiley, that he was engaged to Sara Jane Woolfolk and was planning to get married on July 25th. Shortly before the appointed date, Samuel, his colleague Lt. Slack, and a servant traveled to the Woolfolk estate near Rosedale. The wedding was postponed when Mrs. Woolfolk, who was ill, insisted that the ceremony be delayed several days until she was well. Samuel apparently set up camp in the nearby bayou woods—close enough that (according to letters) the Woolfolks could send hot meals out to him. This continued for a couple of weeks and set the stage for the longtime family legend about his death. The area between Rosedale and Morganza, with the Woolfolk plantation halfway in-between, was a hotbed of wartime activity. Small groups of Confederate troops and officers hid out in the bayous, while patrols from the Union base at Morganza ventured out to search for the Rebels and to destroy food and provisions stored in the countryside. A group from the 2nd New York Volunteer Cavalry and the 87th Illinois Regiment of Mounted Infantry under the command of Col. A. L. Gurney left Morganza the night of August 8 to raid the area south toward Rosedale. According to Gurney’s report, a detachment returning from a small engagement had captured two Confederates and eight horses and killed one soldier. He also reported that they encountered Samuel, “who, in attempting to escape, was thrown from his horse and captured.” Samuel reportedly died from his injuries from the fall three hours later; he was buried in the Woolfolk family garden.

The news about Samuel’s death got back to Joseph in Shreveport in dribbles of information. “Various are the rumors concerning his last moments,” Joseph wrote to Octavia. He describes in exquisite detail that Samuel had been severely injured but was still conscious and recognized people. The Union doctor called to treat him was a pre-war friend, whom Samuel acknowledged with a smile, but he never spoke again before his death. Though he was not there, Gen. Sibley told Joseph that Samuel died of exhaustion. The church’s records, which Joseph probably was unaware of, say Samuel died of sunstroke. This version, from what would seem to be an authoritative source, a general, is probably why the family and the initial histories of the Magoffin Home claimed that Samuel Magoffin died of exhaustion while running away from Union troops. However it happened, it is clear from Joseph’s letters home after Samuel’s death that it hurt him deeply and affected his outlook on the war and the world in general. “It seems that I have lost everything on earth that is dear to me, except you my own precious and ever devoted little Darling. … It’s true I have lost the best friend and relative to me on earth.”

James Wiley Magoffin

Unlike the Magoffin boys, it is somewhat less clear what James Wiley Magoffin did during the Civil War after his retreat from El Paso. One thing is certain: he did not serve in the Confederate Army. In fact, in February 1863, he wrote Gen. John Magruder that “I do not wish a position … as there are many more active gentlemen to fill those offices.” Instead, he offered his services as an emissary to the Mexican government and traders, perhaps to receive goods at El Paso del Norte or Fort Bliss. There is no indication that anyone did more than consider his request. It appears that he tried to continue his business activities and support the Confederate war effort. He also served briefly as the state senator for El Paso. Magoffin continued to keep track of his interests in West Texas from afar. In March 1865, he presided over a large meeting in San Antonio calling upon the Confederacy to make every effort to retake the western territories and open a way to California. There was even a letter to the editor of a Houston paper promoting Magoffin as a gubernatorial candidate for the next election.

The End of the War

The end of Civil War hostilities in the West did not come until summer 1865. Joseph Magoffin did not sign his Parole of Honor until August 14, and for several months he debated what to do for a career and whether his family should settle somewhere in East Texas. His father’s property along the Rio Grande had been seized by Federalists, who had targeted the landholdings of Confederate sympathizers in El Paso, working through the Third District Court in Mesilla, New Mexico. In December 1865, the U.S. Marshal auctioned off the Confederates’ properties, including those of James Wiley Magoffin. After unsuccessful attempts to regain the property, James Wiley, in declining health, transferred all his claims to the property to Joseph and died in 1868. Joseph was left to initiate the legal process to regain the land.

An 1867 U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld a lower court ruling that the Mesilla District Court did not have proper jurisdiction and that all the seized lands were to be legally returned to their pre-war owners. El Paso’s former Confederate landowners, including Joseph Magoffin, spent the next few years undoing all the deed transactions.

Rebuilding El Paso

Over the next 45 years until his death in 1923, Joseph Magoffin laid the foundations of a new life and a new El Paso. He successfully reclaimed all his father’s landholdings. He built his own homestead and raised a family. He helped relocate and enlarge Fort Bliss twice. He helped recruit several railroads, which began the major expansion of El Paso in 1881, and he sold land to the newcomers. He co-founded several utilities and businesses, including the State National Bank, where he was vice president for 40 years. He helped incorporate El Paso city government and served as County Judge, Alderman, and would go on to become the first four-time mayor of the city. The dramatic changes surrounding the Civil War mark a critical chapter for both the Magoffin family and for the development of El Paso.


Magoffin Home Family Papers, Magoffin Home State Historic Site archives, El Paso, Texas.

Dr. Cameron Saffell. “The Magoffins in the Civil War,” paper presented at the Texas State Historical Association annual meeting, El Paso, Texas, March, 2011.