James Z. George

James Z. George: Mississippi's Great Commoner

Timothy B. Smith
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 256
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    James Z. George
    Book Description:

    "When the Mississippi school boy is asked who is called the 'Great Commoner' of public life in his State," wrote Mississippi's premier historian Dunbar Rowland in 1901, "he will unhesitatingly answer James Z. George." While George's prominence, along with his white supremacist views, have decreased through the decades since then, many modern historians still view him as a supremely important Mississippian, with one writing that George (1826-1897) was "Mississippi's most important Democratic leader in the late nineteenth century."

    Certainly, the Mexican War veteran, prominent lawyer and planter, Civil War officer, Reconstruction leader, state Supreme Court chief justice, and Mississippi's longest serving United States senator to that time deserves a full biography. And, George's importance was greater than just on the state level as other Southerners copied his tactics to secure white supremacy in their own states. That James Z. George has never had a full, academic biography is inexplicable.

    James Z. George: Mississippi's Great Commoner seeks to rectify the lack of attention to George's life. In doing so, this volume utilizes numerous sources never before or only slightly used, primarily a large collection of George's letters held by his descendents and never used by historians. Such wonderful sources allow a glimpse not only into the life and times of J. Z. George, but perhaps more importantly an exploration of the man himself, his traits, personality, and ideas. The result is a picture of an extremely commonplace individual on the surface, but an exceptionally complicated man underneath. James Z. George: Mississippi's Great Commoner will bring this important Mississippi leader of the nineteenth century back into the minds of twenty-first century Mississippians.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-232-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. CHAPTER 1 “A Struggle with Unfriendly Circumstances”: Childhood‚ 1826–1846
    (pp. 3-10)

    It was a scene not unlike many others that fall day in 1828, combining elements of fear, sadness, hope, happiness, and reunion. The estate sale of Joseph George had brought in a large crowd. Some of these people, such as the widow and other reunited family members, wore heavy hearts as neighbors and probably some strangers eagerly went through the deceased’s belongings. Joseph had died several months earlier, in June, and the hardship had only increased for the widow, Mary, and her family. Making matters worse for her, since he died unexpectedly with no will, according to Georgia law she...

  5. CHAPTER 2 “Young without Position or Wealth”: Manhood‚ 1846–1850
    (pp. 11-18)

    Just because James Z. George was no longer a minor, that did not mean he was yet a man. Nevertheless, he had an advantageous start to his life as an adult. He had a small fortune at his disposal, which if invested carefully could give him a tremendous start toward a life of wealth. He also had the mentorship of William Cothran and the eye of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth, whom he called Bettie. But before George could make any headway in his legal, personal, or material affairs, he was diverted.

    The delay was not of George’s own making. Rather, he...

  6. CHAPTER 3 “Ambitious in My Profession”: Maturity, 1850–1856
    (pp. 19-25)

    The decade of the 1850s would see the emergence of James Z. George, ironically even while his nation was crumbling around him. Although compromise in 1850 had stalled any breakup of the Union over California, slavery, or states’ rights, event after event ultimately caused the nation itself to totter and crumble. Events such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and even the caning of a Northern senator by a Southerner on the floor of the U.S. Senate caused major rifts in the already controversial relationship between North and South. The essential disagreement...

  7. CHAPTER 4 “The Aim of My Official Labors”: Wealth, 1856–1860
    (pp. 26-35)

    “I am now seated in my office in the 3d story of the Capitol, enjoying the comfort of a blazing fire,” George wrote Bettie upon entering the office of court reporter in December 1855. For the next several years he spent his winters and some summers in Jackson while the court was in session, despite the loneliness of being away from home. As he would be in the capital for only a couple of months each time, however, it was not feasible to move the entire family for so short a period. Thus he continued to torture himself with his...

  8. CHAPTER 5 “This Movement of Secession”: Changes, 1860–1861
    (pp. 36-43)

    As he had for many years, J. Z. George returned to the state capitol in Jackson in January 1861, but this time things were different. He was not going to attend the supreme court hearings, to argue his own cases, or to work on his court reports in his office in the statehouse. This time George was attending Mississippi’s secession convention. On his and the other delegates’ shoulders rested the fate of Mississippi, at least for decades into the future. At the young age of thirty-four, he had worked hard to build his wealth; now, to him and many other...

  9. CHAPTER 6 “The Duties of My Office”: Captain, 1861–1862
    (pp. 44-51)

    With Mississippi’s secession, J. Z. George, like most other Carrollton men, prepared for war. In the stir of excitement he knew all too well from his Mexican War days, the well-off George threw his lot with the Confederacy. But there were differences this time around. Now he would be challenging the national authority, not fighting to expand it. And this time George’s Civil War experience would not be mostly positive. There would also be much heartache and suffering.¹

    Having just returned from the second part of the secession convention’s proceedings, George and a group of Carroll County men met together...

  10. CHAPTER 7 “My Far-Distant Prison Home”: Johnson’s Island, 1862
    (pp. 52-57)

    It was a disastrous night for the Confederacy, as well as for J. Z. George. The commanding officers of Fort Donelson and its garrison spent that Saturday night, February 15, trying to decide what to do. With no hope of another breakout or of thwarting the Federal attack that was sure to come at daylight the next morning, they determined to surrender the fort. In a comedy of errors, Floyd refused to surrender himself, he being a wanted man in the United States for allegedly, as secretary of war, sending large shipments of guns and ammunition into the South immediately...

  11. CHAPTER 8 “I Report to Gov. Pettus”: State Brigadier General, 1862–1863
    (pp. 58-67)

    “I hereby resign my office of Captain of Company C, 20th Mississippi Regt. to take effect this day,” J. Z. George wrote President Jefferson Davis on October 13, 1862, “when I report to Gov. Pettus for duty in accordance with a telegram from you to him.” The newly exchanged captain thus resigned his position, but he would soon take on even larger responsibilities. The governor of Mississippi, John J. Pettus, had appointed him a brigadier general of state troops, and he was already busy in that capacity.¹

    Such an appointment was not uncommon during the war, especially in the state...

  12. CHAPTER 9 “With Gallantry Discarding Caution”: Confederate Colonel, 1863
    (pp. 68-75)

    During the summer of 1863, a welcome change came for J. Z. George. Federal activity in northwestern Mississippi in support of the Vicksburg campaign required the Confederate commanders in the area to concentrate their forces. Thus James R. Chalmers, commander of the Fifth Military District, ordered George northward to Panola to help repel Federal expeditions south into central Mississippi from Federal bases at Memphis and La Grange, Tennessee. George immediately began preparations to move, glad to be leaving the doldrums of Grenada. “I have bought another horse,” he wrote Bettie, likely knowing that he needed a better mount for the...

  13. CHAPTER 10 “My Prison Home”: Johnson’s Island, Again, 1863–1865
    (pp. 76-84)

    J. Z. George’s capture made news within the Federal high command. The area commander, Stephen A. Hurlbut, notified his superior, Ulysses S. Grant, of the capture. The Federals also noted George’s bravery. In describing the action of the Second Iowa Cavalry, Federal commander Edward Hatch reported they were attacked by “a regiment mounted, led in person by General George.” He also noted, “A few men reached the guns; among them General George and two officers.”¹

    George was first held by the provost marshal in Memphis. He reported that he was handled fairly, telling Bettie, “I have been treated with the...

  14. CHAPTER 11 “One of the Ablest Lawyers in the State” Reconstruction, 1865–1873
    (pp. 85-94)

    Bettie George had forewarning that her husband, who had spent the last nineteen months as a prisoner of war, was coming home that June 1865. She determined to make his homecoming special. “My mother knew he was coming,” remembered one of their daughters, “and made herself a new dress for the occasion.” “She had an old black silk, which had been worn and turned until there was no more use to be gotten from it, so she washed it to get it thoroughly clean and raveled it and used it for the filling with a cotton warp and spun the...

  15. CHAPTER 12 “Surrounded with Difficulties Unprecedented”: Politics, 1873–1875
    (pp. 95-101)

    When J. Z. George and his family moved to Jackson, they came in contact with a variety of political issues. Mississippi Democrats, most all of them old Confederates and white leaders, had begun to rebel again, this time politically. Democrats throughout the South began to try to take back their states from Republican rule, which they saw as racially, sectionally, and economically alien. It was bad enough for these Democrats to see Unionists from the war era such as William Sharkey and James L. Alcorn as governors of the state, but a new state constitution authorized in 1868 by what...

  16. CHAPTER 13 “The Glorious and Decisive Victory”: Redemption, 1875
    (pp. 102-113)

    J. Z. George was stepping into bedlam when he agreed to run the Democratic Party during the 1875 election. And he had few choices available to him. As the election drew nearer, tension increased until a veritable race war erupted in the late summer and early fall. Antiblack riots were common throughout the state, with clashes occurring as early as 1874 at Vicksburg over the removal of the black county sheriff, Peter Crosby. Riots by blacks in Hinds and Yazoo counties only swelled the tension. Mississippi was in crisis.¹

    After several clashes, Governor Ames again called for federal troops to...

  17. CHAPTER 14 “Eliminating the Last Vestige of Republican Domination”: Rewards, 1876–1881
    (pp. 114-122)

    After the state’s politics were securely in Democratic hands, J. Z. George returned to his law profession. Once more he worked with Wiley P. Harris on cases around Jackson on the county level as well as numerous more cases before Mississippi’s high court. He also argued cases on the federal district and circuit levels. In fact, by the mid-1870s the firm of George and Harris was the leader of the Mississippi bar.¹

    Unfortunately, a nasty incident soon took place in which George lost his partner and friend. George had never been known as particularly neat or well dressed, and Harris...

  18. CHAPTER 15 “I Have to Go to the Capitol Now to Do Some Work”: First Senate Term, 1881–1886
    (pp. 123-134)

    Most congressional sessions in the nineteenth century began in December. Such a schedule would have placed the beginning of the Forty-seventh Congress on December 5, 1881. But George became a senator some nine months early due to a special session of Congress called to facilitate a new administration and approve its new appointments. George consequently moved to Washington in February 1881, and was present when the special session opened on March 4.¹

    George suddenly found himself thrust into national politics, and he discovered it was very different from Mississippi affairs. In Washington, George rubbed elbows with famous senators and representatives...

  19. CHAPTER 16 “The Demands on Me Are Incessant”: Second Senate Term, 1886–1890
    (pp. 135-145)

    J. Z. George wrote a friend in the spring of 1885 about his political future. The first-term senator did not have a tremendous record as yet, although he was now the state’s senior senator. But George had done nothing in his years in Washington to make the people or the legislature of the state want him ousted. The only way George would not be returned to Washington was if he chose not to be reelected. And George did not decline reelection; he let it be known that he would serve at least another term. He bluntly wrote his friend Micajah...

  20. CHAPTER 17 “The Central Figure of the Convention”: Constitutional Convention, 1890
    (pp. 146-154)

    J. Z. George rose in the U.S. Senate on August 6, 1890, to ask for something fairly uncommon in that body—a long leave of absence. Short leaves were common, mostly for sickness or family issues. George himself had received a number of those. This would be a long-term absence, however, but to George it was necessary. “Mr. President,” George drawled in his Mississippi accent, “it is necessary for me to be absent from the Senate for an indefinite time, and I ask leave.” None of the senators present objected, so George’s petition was granted.¹

    While George had been sick...

  21. CHAPTER 18 “I Will Correct Them at the Proper Time”: Defense, 1890–1891
    (pp. 155-162)

    When the Mississippi constitutional convention ended in early November, Senator George went home to Carrollton for a few days before returning to Washington and the political battles that awaited him. While at Cotesworth, he oversaw Lizzie’s wedding to Dr. Thomas R. Henderson, which took place on November 12, 1890. There George showed his abrasiveness yet again. The wedding was to take place at “high noon,” and the bride-to-be and others were hurriedly preparing for the affair while guests and relatives gathered. George asked Lizzie when she was going to get “old Jake,” George’s former slave who had remained on the...

  22. CHAPTER 19 “Seems to Be Worn Out”: Third Senate Term, 1892–1897
    (pp. 163-175)

    Large numbers of Mississippi Democrats were unhappy with Senator J. Z. George by 1892. No matter that he had led the effort to throw off Republican rule during Reconstruction, or that he was one of the state’s top leaders, or that he had built up seniority in the Senate, or that he was a chief player in drafting the new 1890 state constitution and then later its chief defender. When a new issue developed that saw George take an opposing position, a major wing of the state Democratic Party turned against him and sought his replacement.

    The major dissatisfied bloc...

  23. CHAPTER 20 “Death Came Very Peacefully”: Death, 1897
    (pp. 176-185)

    Mississippi’s junior senator Edward C. Walthall had mixed feelings in August 1897. Obviously, he and the senior senator from Mississippi had never been on intimate terms, although they had grown closer during their numerous years together in the upper chamber of Congress. Walthall later admitted that he and George had seen some “intermediate interruptions” in their friendship, although, he said, “for nearly [the last] twenty years our relations were most cordial.” Nevertheless, George and Walthall agreed on most issues, and Walthall respected George. As the senior senator lay dying, however, Walthall could not help but realize that with George’s passing,...

  24. Conclusion
    (pp. 186-188)

    J. Z. George’s fame in Mississippi continued to increase after his death. Numerous contemporaries who worked on histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction years, and his Senate career, portrayed him in glowing terms. In an age of segregation and white supremacy, George was a hero to white Mississippians.¹

    The publication of George’s manuscript on politics, slavery, and reconstruction also publicized his name, this time as a historian. George’s successor in the Senate, H. D. Money, took the mostly finished manuscript and toiled with it for several years before giving it up due to bad eyesight. Then, George’s son-in-law William...

  25. Notes
    (pp. 189-226)
  26. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-242)
  27. Index
    (pp. 243-252)
  28. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)