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Robert C. Murphy (1827-1888)

Robert Creighton Murphy was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1827. After law school he spent time with the Mexican Boundary Commission.  In August 1853, he was appointed the first government-salaried U.S. Consul in Shanghai, China; he resigned in June 1857.  In 1858 he moved to Wisconsin, where he managed Caleb Cushing’s  interests in the Saint Croix Valley.  Murphy was living in Saint Croix Falls when he was commissioned as the colonel of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry.

In the late summer of 1862, the Iuka and Corinth Operations in Mississippi included fights at Iuka, Corinth, Holly Springs, Port Gibson, Vicksburg, and other places.  The Battle of Iuka was fought on September 19, 1862; it was the opening battle of the Iuka-Corinth Campaign.  On the 14th, just before the battle, Colonel Murphy and his brigade were guarding the small supply depot at Iuka.  He withdrew his brigade, however, when faced with a much larger enemy force.  Major General William S. Rosecrans relieved Murphy and ordered him to be court-martialed for failing to destroy the supplies before leaving.  Murphy was acquitted of all charges.

Later in 1862, Murphy was put in charge of another Union supply depot at Holly Springs, in northern Mississippi, a short distance from Memphis.  In a raid led by Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn on December 20, 1862, most of the garrison was captured and a large quantity of supplies was destroyed, seriously disrupting Ulysses S. Grant’s first Vicksburg Campaign plans.  This time, Murphy was dismissed from the Army without a court martial, earning him a notorious reputation.

Murphy wrote to President Lincoln hoping for a hearing or court martial.  Adjutant General Joseph Holt concluded that Murphy’s account of the incident was reasonable, but General Grant stonewalled until the end of the war. Murphy continued trying, unsuccessfully, for the next fifteen years to get a hearing.

Murphy died in 1888 and is buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

In Fifty Years in the Northwest (UWRF Archives F 606 .F65 1888), we find the following article about Murphy.

COL. ROBERT C. MURPHY.—Col. Murphy, a man of fine address and admirable social qualities, made his home at St. Croix Falls in 1860-61 and 62, during which time he was in charge of the Cushing interest and property, which position he left to accept the colonelcy of the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. His military career was not fortunate and its abrupt termination was a sad disappointment to himself and friends. An article in the Milwaukee Weekly Telegraph, from the pen of one who knew Col. Murphy well, thus sums up some of the salient points in his character and career. We make a few extracts:

Col. Murphy was educated and accomplished.  He had been instructed in the Patridge Military School, and was possessed of some experience in Indian fights on the plains with Burnside, bearing scars of that experience, and a recommendation of skill and courage from Gen. Burnside to Gov. Randall.  His great intuitiveness, his ready manner, his cultivation of mind, gained for him the respect and charity of his superiors, and brought him the respect and confidence of his regiment.  His father, a native of Ireland, was a successful practicing lawyer and politician in Ohio, without much education; a man of strong natural talent and integrity.  Upon his son he showered all his earnings, in the form of that which the father lacked the most—books, schooling and polish. Judge Murphy (the father) was the bearer of important dispatches to Texas from the Tyler and Polk administrations in connection with the annexation of that republic to this country, and is referred to in Benton’s ‘Thirty Years’ as Tyler’s ‘midnight messenger.’  Young Murphy was appointed by President Pierce American consul in China, while Gen. Caleb Cushing was minister to that country, and he discharged important consular and judicial duties there with credit to himself and the government.  Upon his return Gen. Cushing selected him to take charge of the Cushing interest and property at St. Croix Falls, in this State.  From there he went ‘to the front,’ and his military career was cut short by his failure at Iuka and Holly Springs.  Gen. Grant dismissed him in brief, terse words, but was willing afterward that he should be heard by a board of army officers detailed for that purpose.  Stanton was inexorable and refused.”

After his dismissal from the army he removed to Washington and accepted a clerkship in the post office department where he still remains. It is due to him to say that his own version of his military troubles is ingenious and plausible, and would, if sustained, quite exonerate him from the charges that have pressed so heavily upon him.

Newspaper Articles

From The Polk County Press of August 8, 1863:

— Col. Murphy, late of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers, was in the city yesterday.  President Lincoln has assured Col. M. that in his opinion his dismissal from the service by order of Gen. Grant was unjustified by the facts, and it is probable that he will be restored to the service.  The full testimony in the case was a few days since submitted to the Judge Advocate General for final determination.  There can be no doubt among candid men that Col. Murphy has on all occasions discharged his duty as a soldier with fidelity and skill. — Milwaukee News.

From The Polk County Press of December 12, 1863:

We are gratified to learn that Col. R. C. Murphy, who was dismissed the service immediately after the affair at Holly Springs about eighteen months ago, has been fully restored by the President to the rank in the volunteer service of which he was wrongfully deprived.  After his dismissal, Col. Murphy sought redress at Washington.  His case was referred to Judge Advocate Holt [Joseph Holt] who made a full investigation of the facts and reported that there existed no cause for his dismissal.  Notwithstanding this report, under the red tape system prevailing at Washington, the case was deferred until the present time, when the President has found time to confirm the report and to do justice to as capable and as brave an officer as ever went from Wisconsin.

Col. Murphy has been published as “disloyal” by all the leading administration papers of this state, for no other reason than that he was a democrat when appointed to command his regiment.  As the administration now itself admits that the charge was wholly unfounded, the opportunity is an excellent one for those presses to retract their slanders without rendering themselves reliable to the frowns of their masters.—Milwaukee News.

For more on Murphy, see:

  • “Robert Creighton Murphy: U.S. Consul at Shanghai, Brigade Commander, National Scapegoat,” by Eric Politzer, Newsletter of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, Fall 2002: 4.  (Available in the UWRF Archives ; and online.)
  • “Thwarting Grant’s First Drive on Vicksburg: Van Dorn’s Holly Springs Raid,” by Thomas E. Parson, Blue & Gray Magazine, vol. 27, no. 3 (2010): 6-26, 42-50.  (Available in the UWRF Archives E 461 .B64 v. 27 no. 3 2010)
4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2013 7:51 pm

    I spent some time searching old newspapers for information on Col Murphy. This was the latest one I found. It was written 40 years after the war, an eye witness account of a soldier 
    reminiscing about the capture of Holly Springs.  The soldier was hiding in the telegraph office,
     having just helped Murphy send a telegram warning to Grant of a large force ready to overrun
     Murphy’s post.  From the Valley Leader of Grand Rapids Wisconsin,. July 31, 1902:  
    “Looking out, we saw Col. Murphy at the head of about one hundred men charging the rebel lines. He would break their line, then charge back, and strike at another point. He kept this up longer than I thought any man could, but at last was surrounded and forced to surrender.”

  2. May 6, 2013 9:39 am

    I put the newspaper article from the Valley Leader July 31 1902 page on Murphy online at
    This was obtained through the Badgerlink WI newspaper archives service. Read the “Booming Cannon” column. You may have to zoom your browser to read it. (ctrl +) on Chrome.

  3. May 6, 2013 11:00 am

    The newspaper column “The Booming Cannon” was syndicated to many newspapers. In the newspaper archives (for WI residents free through Badgerlink),

    I used the newspaper archives to search on Col Robert Murphy to find the references. The Janesville newspaper had many accounts, as one of Murphy’s underlings wrote back regularly about happenings with Col Murphy’s WI troops.

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