Rufus King was born in New York City on January 26, 1814, the scion of a family long distinguished in the annals of colonial and post-Revolutionary America. After attending the preparatory department of Columbia College, where his father was president, he was graduated from West Point in 1833, but resigned his commission three years later to become a civil engineer. From 1839 until the outbreak of the Civil War, King owned and edited a series of newspapers in Albany, New York, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the same time he served as adjutant general of New York for four years, was prominent in framing the Wisconsin constitution of 1848, and served as superintendent of Milwaukee schools and as one of the first regents of the state university. Although he had been appointed minister to the Papal States by Lincoln, he resigned upon the bombardment of Sumter and was appointed one of the first volunteer brigadier generals, ranking from May 17, 1861. He organized the celebrated "Iron Brigade" of Wisconsin regiments, which went on to glory under other commanders, but his own war career left much to be desired. After duty in the Washington defenses during the winter of 1861-62, he was assigned a division of General Irvin McDowell's III Corps and occupied the line of the Rappahannock until the campaign of Second Manassas. After the presence of Stonewall Jackson's Confederate corps in the Manassas area became known, McDowell posted James B. Ricketts' division in Thoroughfare Gap and King's division at Gainesville to prevent the junction of James Longstreet's corps with that of Jackson. King pulled back without orders, compelling Ricketts to do the same, thus opening the door to the Union debacle on August 30. Although King's troops fought well at Groveton on the twenty-ninth, it was rumored in army circles that their commander had been drunk. A subsequent court of inquiry, convened at the request of McDowell, determined that King had willfully disobeyed orders and, furthermore, had been guilty of a "grave error" by retiring. At this juncture he was appointed to Fitz John Porter's court-martial, thus affording the rather unusual military spectacle of an officer reprimanded for dereliction sitting in judgment upon another officer charged with the loss of the same battle. He had no further important duty, and his failing health—he was an epileptic —is said to have compelled his resignation in 1863. Thereafter he went to Rome as minister until the mission was closed by the refusal of Congress to vote funds for its continuance. After a year's service as deputy collector of customs in New York City, he retired from public life in 1869. He died in New York on October 13, 1876, and was buried in Grace Churchyard, Jamaica, Long Island.
Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.