FW: ANB - Bio of the Day: Samuel Jameson Gholson [1808-1883]
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Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day
American National Biography Online
Gholson, Samuel Jameson (19 May 1808-16 Oct. 1883), jurist and
general, was born in Madison County, Kentucky. Little is known
of his parents, but it is certain that the family moved to Russellville
in northern Alabama in 1817. There Gholson studied law with Judge
Peter Martin and gained admission to the bar in 1829. A year
later, the young lawyer crossed the border into northeastern
Mississippi, where he settled in Athens in Monroe County and
established a law practice.
Although still relatively unknown in Mississippi, Gholson found
some success in a brief political career. In 1835 he won election
as a Democrat to the state legislature, and the following year,
upon the death of one of the state's congressmen, Gholson narrowly
defeated the much more prominent John A. Quitman in a special
election to serve out the remainder of the term. Gholson's brief
tenure in Congress expired in March 1837, but after a special
session was called during the summer, before the regular congressional
election in November, Gholson again won a special election and
retained his seat. In a strange turn of events, however, he lost
the fall election and reluctantly surrendered his seat after
a lengthy controversy. After this abrupt end to a promising political
career, Gholson married Margaret Ragsdale in 1838.
Having lost his position in Congress, Gholson began a long but
relatively uneventful judicial career. On 13 February 1839 President
Martin Van Buren appointed him U.S. district judge for Mississippi.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, federal judges
lacked the power they were to gain after the Civil War, when
a flurry of congressional action and constitutional amendments
considerably expanded the jurisdiction of the federal courts.
Consequently, Gholson's court heard few cases, most of which
involved local matters, and none of the judge's decisions was
published by contemporary law reporters. The scant glimpses of
his record available from cases appealed to the U.S. Supreme
Court are unexceptional. The Supreme Court overruled, for example,
Gholson's decision to uphold the rights of white settlers to
build schools on lands previously ceded by treaty to Native Americans
(Gaines v. Nicholson ).
After two decades of judicial service, Gholson returned to the
political fray when the sectional crisis gripped the nation.
Along with Judge William L. Harris of the state supreme court,
Gholson presided over the Mississippi Democratic Convention of
1860 and urged his state's party faithful to take a strong "southern
rights" position. When sectional tensions reached a boiling point
the following year, Gholson attended the Mississippi secession
convention and became a member of the committee to draft an ordinance
of secession. Although a strong supporter of slavery and separation
from the Union, Gholson, himself a slaveowner, stirred up a bit
of controversy among the delegates by proposing a nearly 100
percent increase in the tax on slaves. He reasoned that since
slavery had helped bring on the war, slaveholders ought to bear
much of the financial burden of southern independence. The convention
promptly defeated the proposal. When Mississippi officially seceded
in January 1861, Gholson resigned his position as a federal judge
and joined his state's militia.
Gholson saw constant action and suffered repeated injuries during
his Civil War military career. Beginning as captain of the Monroe
County Volunteers (Company 1, Fourteenth Mississippi) in early
1861, he was later promoted to colonel and brigadier general
of state troops. In February 1862, at the battle of Fort Donelson,
he was wounded in the right lung, taken prisoner, and ultimately
exchanged, before being wounded twice more at the battles of
Iuka and Corinth later the same year. On his recovery in 1863
and in light of the impending threat to Vicksburg, Gholson was
promoted to major general in command of all state troops and
was also put in charge of all Mississippi railroads.
Conflict over whether soldiers were under state authority or
Confederate command, however, weakened Mississippi's defenses,
and even after the fall of Vicksburg and the passage of a new
Confederate Conscription Act, Gholson stubbornly refused to surrender
his men to Confederate authority. Despite his differences with
the Confederate government, he was a close associate of President
Jefferson Davis, who referred to Gholson as "a man of sterling
integrity . . . fearless in the discharge of every trust." Eventually,
in summer 1864, Gholson became a brigadier general in the Confederate
army, after having briefly commanded a cavalry brigade in Mississippi
and Alabama earlier that year. He was wounded twice in 1864,
first during the spring at Jackson and finally in December at
Egypt, Mississippi. In this, Gholson's last and most serious
brush with death, he lost an arm and retired from military action.
After the war Gholson returned to Monroe County, this time settling
in Aberdeen, and practiced law before winning election to the
state legislature in 1865. He served as Speaker of the house
until 1867, when the Military Reconstruction Act changed the
face of Reconstruction state governments across the South. Forced
out of power along with other ex-Confederates, in 1870 Gholson
became chief of the Monroe County Ku Klux Klan and later defended
several fellow Klansmen during the federal government's brief
campaign against Klan violence. After conservative white Democrats
regained control of Mississippi's government in 1878, Gholson
returned to the legislature as Speaker. He died five years later in
Gholson's career in many respects typified that of the nineteenth-century
southern statesman. His rise within the legal profession opened
the door to political opportunities throughout his lifetime,
and his high standing within the community made him an ideal
candidate for a position of military leadership during the war.
Gholson was certainly a better general and politician than he
was a judge, as he was more committed to the causes of slavery,
secession, and the Democratic party than he was to the abstractions
of the law.
In general the biographical record on Gholson is scant. The
David W. Haley Papers in the Mississippi Department of Archives
and History (Jackson) contain a few letters to and from him,
but the main sources of information about his life are scattered
biographical sketches and brief mentions in various works on
Mississippi history. See, for example, The Papers of Jefferson
Davis, vol. 2 (1974), p. 204; John K. Bettersworth, Confederate
Mississippi: The People and Policies of a Cotton State in Wartime
(1943); Dunbar Rowland, History of Mississippi: The Heart of
the South, vol. 2 (1925), pp. 432-33; Publications of the Mississippi
Historical Society, vol. 9 (1906), p. 66; and James D. Lynch,
Bench and Bar of Mississippi (1881). An obituary is in the Natchez
Democrat, 24 Oct. 1883.
Timothy S. Huebner
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Timothy S. Huebner. "Gholson, Samuel Jameson";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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