Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke      

American voters generally like military heroes, but in our day John Sappington Marmaduke would have been warned away from candidacy by even the bravest spin doctor. Tall, blue-eyed, mustachioed, somewhat handsome though middle-aged, Marmaduke unfortunately appeared haughty and reticent, spoke poorly from the platform, alienated powerful business interests, and was a bachelor. He also had killed a fellow officer in the Civil War.

Yet this former Confederate general managed to get elected governor of Missouri. His productive administration aided in the state’s transition from an antebellum culture into a new Missouri in which former Unionists and Confederates worked together.

Marmaduke was the offspring of a prominent Saline County clan who were leaders of the Boonslick Democracy, a powerful political alliance of Southern aristocrats and yeoman farmers, many of whom were also slaveholders before the War Between the States. His Virginia-born father, Miles M. Marmaduke, was elected lieutenant governor in 1840 and succeeded briefly to the governorship when Thomas Reynolds committed suicide.

The second son among ten children, Marmaduke studied at Yale and Harvard and earned his lieutenant’s commission from West Point. When the issue of secession split Missouri, the father supported the Union while the son sided with the South. His initial battle was an embarrassment: his ragtag bunch of Southern militia fled the Unionists in an 1861 skirmish waggishly dubbed the Boonville Races.

His subsequent career, with stints as a cavalry leader, was distinguished, and he rose to the rank of major general. While under Gen. Sterling Price’s command near Helena, Arkansas, in September 1863, however, he fell out with his immediate superior, Gen. Lucius “Marsh” Walker. Marmaduke suggested that Walker’s absence from the field had imperiled Marmaduke’s men in the face of the enemy. Walker resented this implication of cowardice and challenged Marmaduke to a duel.

“I have not pronounced you a coward,” Marmaduke wrote back harshly, “but I desire to inform you that your conduct as commander of the cavalry … was such that I determined no longer to serve you.” Consequently, at first light September 6, the two generals faced each other with Colt Navy revolvers. Both fired and missed. Marmaduke recocked and fired, striking Walker with a killing shot. Marmaduke offered his assistance, and Walker, in his failing moments, forgave his subordinate.

After the South’s surrender, Marmaduke, impoverished, accepted a lucrative contract with a St. Louis insurance company but quit because he disapproved of its shadiness. He became editor of an agricultural journal that took railroads to task for discriminatory pricing against the state’s farmers. Among ordinary citizens, there was a rising sentiment for railroad regulation, and in 1875 Marmaduke was appointed to Missouri’s first rail commission. In 1880 he lost the Democratic nomination for governor to Thomas T. Crittenden, a former Union officer with railroad backing. The railways were desperate to end the banditry of former rebel guerrillas like Jesse and Frank James, and Governor Crittenden brokered the reward that resulted in the assassination of Jesse James in 1882.

Crittenden’s unpopular pardon of Jesse James’s killer, and the general mood for railroad regulation, won Marmaduke the 1884 Democratic nomination for governor. Missouri got a better governor than many voters expected. Marmaduke acted to end railroad strikes in 1885 and 1886. In 1887 he pioneered a regulatory law. He raised support of public schools to one-third of the state’s budget and backed successful social-reform measures. His refusal to engage in patronage hiring was legend.

Because Marmaduke was a bachelor, two nieces served as hostesses at the Governor’s Mansion, helping ease the sting of the death of Marmaduke’s mother and two sisters in his first year in office. In a warmly evocative 1906 memoir address, John F. Lee reported that Marmaduke, though never married, had felt “the deepest and tenderest feelings of the human heart. … His bearing toward women was very chivalrous and he was a great favorite with them. …” 

Lee called him a man of “strong affections and hearty dislikes … nonetheless hearty when he was the subject of the jest.” The governor carried a cane, the gift of a former Union soldier wounded at Wilson’s Creek, with a carving of a man shot through the noggin and the words, “I fought agin Marmaduke.”

Marmaduke enjoyed hosting a yearly Christmas party in the mansion for Jefferson City children. Sadly, in 1887, his strong constitution gave way and he died from pneumonia on the day scheduled for the annual gathering. More than three thousand mourners slogged through the cold winter weather to the capital city cemetery for Marmaduke’s interment. His tombstone reads: “He was fearless and incorruptible.”

This Article originally appeared in the Oct/Nov 2000
issue of  Missouri Life Magazine

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