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FW: ANB - Bio of the Day: Samuel Jameson Gholson [1808-1883]

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  • A.J. Wright
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      From: ANB Biography of the Day [mailto:biod-request@...]
      Sent: Monday, July 16, 2001 1:00 AM
      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 [1850]).

      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.
      Access Date:
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