Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Education of the Confederate Cabinet

   Sixteen men served in the Confederate cabinet, the closest advisors to President Jefferson Davis. Some, like Judah P. Benjamin, John H. Reagan, and Stephen Mallory, served for the duration of the war. Others, like John C. Breckinridge and William M. Browne, served for just a few weeks. What background and experience did these men bring to the job?

      There were four men who served as Secretary of State: Robert Toombs (February 25, 1861- July 25, 1861); Robert M. T. Hunter (July 25, 1861-February 18, 1862); William M. Browne (February 18, 1862-March 18, 1862); and Judah P. Benjamin (March 18, 1862-1865). Toombs was born in Georgia in 1810. He was a graduate of Franklin College in Georgia; Union College, New York; and University of Virginia (law). He served in the Georgia House of Representatives (1845-1853); U.S. House (1845-1853); and the U.S. Senate (1853-1861). Toombs resigned to accept a commission as a Confederate brigadier general. Robert M. T. Hunter followed Toombs as Secretary of State. Hunter was born in Virginia in 1809. He studied at the University of Virginia, then read law under Judge Henry St. George Tucker. Hunter served in the Virginia House of Representatives (1834-185=37); the U.S. House (1837-1843 and 1845 -1847), including as Speaker (1845-1847); and the U.S. Senate (1847-1861). When he was elected to the Confederate senate, he resigned from his cabinet position, serving in the Confederate senate until May 10, 1865. William M. Browne was born in 1823 in Ireland and served as acting Secretary of State upon the resignation of Hunter. His early education is unknown, but he was a newspaper publisher in Georgia prior to the war. Browne was appointed Assistant Secretary of State, and when Hunter resigned, served for about a month ad interim. Following his brief time as Secretary of State, Browne was appointed a cavalry colonel and aide-de-camp to Davis, and then in 1864 as Commandant of Conscription for the state of Georgia. Browne was replaced by Judah P. Benjamin. One biographer considered him a “Jack-of-all-Trades.” Benjamin held many jobs in the Confederate cabinet, including Attorney General and Secretary of War. He served longest as Secretary of State. He was born on Saint Croix  in 1811 to Jewish parents and grew up in Wilmington and Charleston. He studied at local schools, then spent three years at Yale University before heading to New Orleans, where he studied law. Benjamin served in the Louisiana House (1842-1852) and in the U.S. Senate (1853-1861). Benjamin escaped through Florida to the Bahamas and then to France. He never returned to the United States.[1]

   There was one man who served as Secretary of the Navy: Stephen Mallory. Born in 1812 or 1813 on the island of Trinidad at the Port of Spain, Mallory grew up in Key West and attended school in Mobile and Pennsylvania before returning to Key West to work in customs and to study law. Mallory served in the U.S. Senate (1851-1861) and for a time, was chairman of the committee on naval affairs.[2]

   There was also only one man who served as Postmaster-General: John H. Reagan, who was born in Tennessee in 1818. He attended local schools, then what is now Maryville College. By 1839, he was in Texas, where he studied law. Reagan served in the Texas House of Representatives (1847-1849), and the U.S. House (1857-1861). After the war, he served two additional terms in the US House.[3]

   Five different men served as Attorney-General: Judah P. Benjamin (1861); Wade Keyes (1861); Thomas Bragg (1861-1862); Thomas H. Watts (1862-1863); Wade Keys (1863-1864); and George Davis (1864-1865). Following Judah P. Benjamin’s five-month stent, Wade Keyes stepped into the position. Keyes was born in Alabama and attended LaGrange College and the University of Virginia. He studied law, moved to Florida, and wrote on legal topics, then moved to Montgomery. In Alabama, Keyes was elected Chancellor of the Southern Division of the Court of Chancery. He also taught law, eventually founding what became the law department at the University of Alabama. Benjamin was appointed assistant attorney general, the position he held for the duration of the war, serving as Attorney General ad interim on several occasions. He returned to Alabama and the practice of law after the war. Thomas Bragg replaced Keyes in November 1861. Bragg was born in North Carolina in 1810 and studied at the Norwich Military Academy before studying law under Judge John Hall. Bragg served one term in the North Carolina House of Commons (1842-1843); as Governor of North Carolina (1855-1859); and as a U.S. Senator (1859-1861). He returned to North Carolina following his resignation and worked to support the Confederacy. Following the war, Bragg was one of the lawyers who prosecuted Governor William W. Holden. Bragg was replaced by Thomas H. Watts. Born in Alabama in 1819, he attended Airy Mount Academy and then the University of Virginia, where he obtained a law degree. He apparently held no elected office until the secession convention in Alabama in 1861. Watts ran for governor, but was defeated and instead, organized and became colonel of the 17th Alabama Infantry. He served as Attorney General from March 18, 1862, until October 1, 1863, when he was elected governor of Alabama. He returned to the practice of law after the war. Keyes again served for a brief time until George Davis was appointed to fill the position. Davis was born in North Carolina in 1820 and graduated from the University of North Carolina with “highest honors.” He then practiced law in North Carolina. His first political appointment came as a member of the Peace Convention in Washington, D.C., in February 1861. Davis then served in the Provisional Confederate Congress, then as a Confederate Senator. Jefferson Davis appointed him to the Attorney General position. George Davis held that position until he resigned on April 24, 1865, becoming the first cabinet member to leave the administration at the end of the war.[4]

   There were also five men who served as Secretary of War. LeRoy P. Walker was the first. Born in Alabama in 1817, Walker attended the University of Alabama and the University of Virginia. Walker then practiced law, and was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives (1843-1850?, 1853), serving a couple of terms as speaker of the house. He also was president of the Alabama Democratic Convention, and judge of the Fourth Judicial Circuit. His sojourn as Secretary of War only lasted about seven months. Following his resignation, he served a short time as a brigadier general, then resigned, and in 1864, was commissioned a colonel and placed on military court duty. After the war, he served as president of the Alabama Constitutional Convention. Judah P. Benjamin followed Walker, serving from September 1861 to March 1862, when he was replaced by George W. Randolph. Born at Monticello in Virginia in 1818, Randolph was the grandson of Thomas Jefferson. He attended a private school in Massachusetts, then served in the US Navy, then attended the University of Virginia, obtaining a law degree. He set up practice in Richmond. His political experience was in the Virginia Secession convention in 1861. He was then appointed a major and commanded the Richmond Howitzers, and was later colonel of the 2nd Virginia Artillery. He was promoted to brigadier general in February 1862, and then appointed Secretary of War in March 1862, serving until November 1862 when he resigned. Randolph later served as a Confederate Senator. James Seddon, also from Virginia, served next. He was born in Virginia and attended law school at the University of Virginia. He represented his district in the US House (1845-1847, 1849-1851). Seddon also served in the Washington Peace Conference, in the Virginia Secession Convention, and in the Provisional Confederate Congress. Following the war, he was arrested and imprisoned. He returned to Virginia and practiced law. The last Secretary of War was John C. Breckinridge. Born in Kentucky, Breckinridge was a graduate of Centre College, a lawyer, and a Mexican War veteran. He served in the Kentucky House (1849-1850), the US House (1851-1855), as Vice President of the United States (1857-1861), and as US Senator (1861). Breckinridge was commissioned a brigadier general in 1861, and April 1862, as a major general. He commanded troops through numerous battles and campaigns. He served as the last Secretary of War. He escaped to Canada, but later returned to the United States.[5]

   There were three men who served as Secretary of the Treasury. First was Christopher Memminger.  Born in 1803, in the Dutchy of Wurttemberg, he studied law at South Carolina College. He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives (1836-1852, 1855-1860?), and was a member of the South Carolina secession convention, then a delegate to the convention in Montgomery where he helped draft the Provisional Confederate Constitution. He was then appointed Secretary of the Treasury. Following his resignation, he lived in North Carolina, then returned to Charleston, serving again in the South Carolina House. George Trenholm followed Memminger. Trenholm was born in South Carolina in 1807, and by the age of fifteen, was working as a clerk in a cotton brokerage. By 1853, he was head of the company, then director of the bank of South Carolina. He served in the South Carolina House (1852-1856). During the first part of the war, he became a major blockade-running entrepreneur. Trenholm served as Confederate Secretary of War July 18, 1864, to April 27, 1865, and was the second cabinet member to resign. Following the war, he was again in the South Carolina house (1874-1876). For a brief amount of the time, Postmaster-General John H. Reagan served as Secretary of Treasury as the Davis party fled south.[6]  

   As a whole, the men who served in the Confederate cabinet were highly educated with considerable political experience. All but three – Browne, Trenholm, and Mallory – were college graduates. Several had more than one degree. Watts, Keys, Seddon, Davis, and Browne had no prior political experience before the war. However, Seddon and Davis served in the Confederate House or Senate prior to their service in the cabinet. Breckinridge was the most politically experienced member of the cabinet secretaries, serving in the Kentucky House, US House, as Vice President, and as a US Senator. Bragg had served in the North Carolina General Assembly, as Governor of North Carolina, and as a US Senator. (Maybe at some point, we’ll compare Lincoln’s cabinet.) 

[1] Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 78-9; 90-91; 101-2; 155-56.

[2] Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 247.

[3] Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 276-78.

[4] Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 299-302; 303; 311-312, 314; Peterson, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, 49, 52.

[5] Peterson, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, 131-38; Patrick, Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, 20-127, 135-148,149-55.

[6] Peterson, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, 76, 79-83.

Friday, June 10, 2022

William J. Allen and the proposed secession of Southern Illinois

   Talk of secession was nothing new in 1860. You can read more about various states and territories at this previous post. One of the less discussed secession movements occurred in late 1861 and early 1862 and dealt with the southern part of Illinois. There were some who wanted that portion of the state to form a new state and join the Southern Confederacy.

William J. Allen
   Illinois became the twenty-first state in the Union on December 8, 1818. It was created out of the old Northwest Territory. The idea of a part of Illinois breaking off was not new. Between 1840 and 1842, several northern counties attempted to secede and rejoin the state of Wisconsin. Why? Northern Illinois was settled by those from New England and New York. Southern Illinois was populated by those from Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Starting in 1840, those in the north – including Jo Daviess County, Stephenson County, Winnebago County, and Boone County, voted overwhelming to secede from Illinois and join Wisconsin. When Chicago itself would not get on board, the project died.[1]

   Allan G. Bouge, in The Congressman’s Civil War, writes of another attempt of secession in Illinois. U.S. Congressman William J. Allen, “openly advocated the division of Illinois so that the southern region might secede to join the Confederacy.” William J. Allen was born in 1829 in Wilson County, Tennessee. His family moved to Illinois about 1830. He was educated in local schools and received his law degree from the Law Department at the University of Louisville in 1848. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1849, practiced law, served in the Illinois House, was a U.S. Attorney, and was Judge of the Illinois Circuit Court. Allen ran as a Democrat and won a seat in the 37th United States Congress, replacing John A. Logan, who had resigned to accept a commission as colonel of an Illinois Infantry Regiment.[2]

   William J. Allen undoubtedly caused quite a stir across the Northern states when he was arrested in September 1862, along with several others, for involvement with the Knights of the Golden Circle. A Chicago newspaper considered Allen “an undisguised secessionist” and thought he “ought to be beaten.” In reality, Allen had probably agreed with the sentiment expressed throughout many southern Illinois counties: the southern portion of the state should secede and join the Southern Confederacy. One source even stated that Allen had openly proposed this to John A. Logan and had encouraged Illinois men to go south and enlist in the Southern army.[3]

   Allen was taken to Cairo with several others and was placed on parole and allowed the freedom of the city, but they were required to check in once a day. There was apparently no writ or warrant for their arrest. On September 2, Allen was supposed to be heading to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. However, since he was sick, he was left in a hotel in Springfield, Illinois. It is not clear if Allen was ever incarcerated in the Old Capital Prison. On September 10, 1862, Lincoln wrote to Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand that Allen “may be discharged if you advise it, on such terms as you may advise.” One newspaper reported that Allen was back in Springfield by early October.[4]

   Despite his arrest and incarceration, Allen was again on the ballot for election to the U.S. House, again running as a Democrat. And despite his alleged support of the secession of the southern half of Illinois, he again won that election, serving until 1865. He did not run for re-election. Allen did serve in the Illinois constitutional convention of in 1862 and 1870, as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention from 1864 to 1888 and received a recess appointment from President Grover Cleveland in April 1887 to serve as a Federal judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, and position that was later confirmed and one that Allen held until his death in 1901.  

   Information about Allen and the secession of Southern Illinois is hard to come by. James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, considered the standard work on the war, makes no mention of William J. Allen. Neither does Weibley’s A Great Civil War, nor Keegan’s The American Civil War. A reader must turn to older texts, such as Allan Nevins’s War for the Union, 1862-1863 (1960) or Cole’s The Era of Civil War, 1848-1870 (1919). The rampant dissatisfaction caused by the radicals in the Federal government seems to be swept under the rug.  

[1] “The Illinois North-South Split.” Chicago Tribune, October 1, 2015.

[2] Bouge, The Congressman’s Civil War, 43.

[3] Bellow Falls Times, September 19, 1862; Chicago Tribune, September 26, 1862; Illinois State Journal, July 30, 1862. See also Cole, The Era of the Civil War, 1848-1870, 302.

[4] Marshall, American Bastile, 295, 393-394; Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 5:413; The Brookville Jeffersonian, October 15, 1862.

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Expelled from the US Senate for Pro-Confederate Thought Crimes?

   When the subject of Northerners supporting the Confederacy comes up in conversation, everyone remembers Clement L. Vallandigham. An Ohio member of the U.S. House, Vallandigham opposed the Republican party and the prosecution of the war against the South. Vallandigham charged Lincoln with destroying the Constitution and civil liberties. Although not in the army, he was arrested by military authorities, tried and found guilty by a military commission, and sentenced to imprisonment. Lincoln commuted his sentence, and he was banished to the Confederacy. Yet there was another Northern politician before Vallandigham, one who faced expulsion: Jesse D. Bright. 

US Senator Jesse D. Bright

   Prior to 1861, only one US Senator had been expelled. That was Tennessee’s William Blount in 1797. Several senators were “expelled” in 1861 for supporting the Confederacy, although many of these had already resigned. Samuel Bright found himself in a similar position in early 1862.

   Bright was born in Norwich, New York, in 1812. He studied law and was admitted to the Bar in 1831, setting up his practice in Madison, Indiana. In 1834, Bright was elected judge of the probate court of Jefferson County; United States Marshal for the district of Indiana; a member of the Indiana Senate, 1841-1843; and Lieutenant Governor of Indiana from 1843 to 1845 when he was elected a member of the United States Senate. One source stated that Bright was “a Buchanan adherent, unpopular with many Democrats.” Yet he was also the Democratic party boss of Indiana in the 1850s. His support of James Buchanan over Stephen Douglas led to his unpopularity within the state. In the US Senate, he was president pro tempore in 1854, 1856, and 1860, and was in conflict with Charles Sumner. While president pro tempore, he “saw to it that Sumner received no committee assignments.”[1]  

   In a series of letters to his friend William H. English, a Representative in the US House, Bright provided a glimpse into the thoughts of many in those turbulent weeks of late 1860 and early 1861. On December 20, 1860, he wrote that President Buchanan’s message “was a more conservative paper than was generally expected. . . The radicals are not at all pleased with its tone, while the more conservative practical minded men here [Washington, DC] think it means the cold shoulder to the Fire & Sword branch of the Republican party. . . There is some talk I understand of their expelling me on account of my known disloyalty. Let it come. I have got so that I believe nothing I read and am not surprised at anything that takes place.”[2]

   Bright saw three groups contending for power. The first were the “extreme wing of the Republicans, known generally as Abolitionists, and representing the sentiment of the New England States, are for a war of subjugation as they term it, and the total abolition of slavery, which they believe can be accomplished by the march of the Army. . . through or over the States that have declared themselves out of the Union.” The second group was known as the “Administration party” who were “a more conservative class, who oppose this extreme policy.”  The third group was “in favor of furnishing the Government with all the aid that is necessary to defend the capital of the United States against any and every enemy that may threaten to assail it, but who are not willing to vote either men or money to invade the states that have formally declared themselves out of the Union, until every effort to secure peace and an honorable adjustment has been exhausted. There are a great many who do not believe that all efforts have been exhausted; and I am free to admit that I am one of that number.”[3]

   In August 1861, a letter that Bright wrote to his former senate colleague, Jefferson Davis, had come to light. The letter was found in the possession of Thomas B. Lincoln, a pre-war client and citizen of Texas who was arrested in Cincinnati on the charge of treason. The letter in question was dated March 1, 1861, and was written from Washington, D.C.: “To his Excellency Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States: My Dear Sir:- Allow me to introduce to your acquaintance my friend, Thomas B. Lincoln, of Texas. He visits your capital mainly to dispose of what he regards a great improvement in fire arms. I commend him to your favorable consideration as a gentlemen of the first respectability, and as reliable in every respect. Very truly yours, Jesse D. Bright.”  The press went wild. “Hon. Jesse D. Bright Implicated” read one New York newspaper. “One Traitor Arrested and Another Discovered” read an Ohio newspaper. The paper in Evansville considered Bright “one of the meanest, most bigoted and ignorant of the old clique of Senatorial traitors-one of the most cringing lickspittle sycophants of Jeff. Davis, Slidell & Co., he is a ‘peace man’ at this time.” And then a few days later, wrote that Bright “Having long enjoyed the offices and emoluments of the gallant Hooiser State, now that she has nothing further to offer him, he may be safely set down as her enemy. We hope he will be arrested and tained [sic retained?] as a traitor.”[4]

   Given Bright’s position regarding the Lincoln administration and his past entanglements with Republican senators, his time in the senate was limited. On December 16, 1861, Sen. Morton Wilkinson introduced a resolution to expel Bright over the letter to Davis. The resolution was referred to the Judiciary Committee. On January 6, 1862, when the Senate was considering the eligibility of new members, Sumner remarked that the senate was “at this moment engaged in considering the loyalty of certain members.” While not directing his comments toward Bright, Bright answered Sumner: “The Senator from Massachusetts remarked that the Senate were now engaged in examining into the loyalty of certain members of this body. I suppose he alluded to me. I am in that category, and the examination is based on three lines that it is alleged I wrote in a letter to a friend of mine. . . [Before the beginning of the War.] The objectionable feature is that I addressed Jefferson Davis as president of the confederate states. In that I was but following the example of Senators upon this floor who, day after day, spoke and addressed him by that title at that time; yet no exception was taken to that.” Bright then complained that the committee was moving too slow in their investigation. “I have done nothing that I would not do over again under the same circumstance, and that I am not prepared to defend here as elsewhere,” Bright concluded.[5]

   On January 13, 1862, the Judiciary Committee reported that the facts charged against Senator Bright were not sufficient to warrant his expulsion from the Senate, and it was their recommendation that the Wilkinson Resolution should not pass. However, the Radicals would not be appeased, and Wilkerson continued to hammer away, denouncing any that “aided or abetted the South.”[6]  

   Bright’s trial in the senate began on January 20, 1862, continuing sporadically until February 5. Sumner compared Bright and others to Catiline, Aaron Burr, and Benedict Arnold. Andrew Johnson slammed Bright for being in league with John C. Breckinridge and other disloyal senators. Others somewhat sheepishly came to Bright’s defense. Senator Edgar Cowan believed that the question revolved around treason. “Technically, it was not treason. Mr. Bright was. . . simply being expelled because he held political doctrines which were not palatable to the majority of the Senate. . .”[7]

In his defense, Bright simply stated that “From the hour this war actually commenced I have had in view. . . one single object-the reunion of these States.” To Andrew Johnson, he begged: “Point me to the road that leads to peace, the restoration of the Union, making us one Government, with one flag, not a star effaced, and I will travel it with you as long as there is a gleam of light to guide me on such a path; and, forgetting and forgiving, I would even consent to take as a traveling companion, with all his heresies, the Senator from Massachusetts. . .”[8]

   After finishing his remarks, and given the Republican majority in the Senate, Bright gathered his belongings from his desk and walked out the senate chamber. A few moments later, the Senate voted, 32 to 14, to expel Jesse D. Bright. While other U.S. Senators have been censured, and expulsion proceedings undertaken, Jesse D. Bright was the last senator to be expelled from the U.S. Senate.[9]

   Returning to Indiana, Bright sought to be re-elected to the U.S. Senate. The Democratic state senate refused. Shortly thereafter, his property in Port Fulton, Indiana, was confiscated without compensation and became the Jefferson General Hospital, the third largest hospital in the North during the war. Bright moved to Covington, Kentucky, was a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1867 to 1871, president of the Raymond City Coal Company, and in 1874, moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he died in 1875.

   Was Bright sympathetic to the Confederates, or was he simply a moderate who fell victim to the radicals in Congress? The Daily State Sentinel, the organ of the Democratic Party in Indiana, believed the latter, writing that “A party [Republican] intoxicated with the possession of power, influence by political prejudices and animosity, has stricken down freedom of opinion and freedom of speech in the person of a Senator. It is of but little if any consequence. . . whether Mr. Bright occupies a seat in the Senate or retires to private life; but it is of vital importance. . . that this outrage upon the most valued prerogatives of a citizen. . . should be properly rebuked.”[10]  

[1] Gray, The Hidden Civil War: the Story of Copperheads, 70; “Some Letters of Jesse D. Bright to William H. English,” Indiana Magazine of History, (December 1934): 370; “Expulsion Case of Jesse D. Bright of Indiana,”

[2] “Some Letters of Jesse D. Bright to William H. English,” Indiana Magazine of History, (December 1934): 385.

[4] The Buffalo Commercial, August 20, 1861; Evansville Daily Journal, August 21, 1861, August 23, 1861; Belmont Chronicle, August 22, 1861.

[5] “Some Letters of Jesse D. Bright to William H. English,” Indiana Magazine of History, (December 1934): 389.

[6] Murphy, The Political Career of Jesse D. Bright, 140.

[7] Murphy, The Political Career of Jesse D. Bright, 141.

[8] Murphy, The Political Career of Jesse D. Bright, 144.

[9] “Expulsion Case of Jesse D. Bright of Indiana,”

[10] Daily State Journal, February 7, 1862.