We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Isham G. Harris of Tennessee

Confederate Governor and United States Senator

Sam Davis Elliott

Publication Year: 2010

In 1931, when the Nashville Banner conducted a survey to determine the “Greatest Tennesseans” to date, the state’s Confederate “War Governor,” Isham G. Harris (1818–1897), ranked tenth on the list, behind such famous Tennesseans as Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, Andrew Johnson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. In 1976, however, when the Banner once again conducted the survey, Harris did not appear in even the top twenty-five. The result of fading memories and the death of the generation that knew him, the glaring omission of Harris’s name still seemed striking and undeserved. In Isham G. Harris of Tennessee, Sam Davis Elliott offers the first published biography of this overlooked leader, establishing him as the most prominent Tennessean in the Confederacy and a dominating participant in nineteenth-century Tennessee politics. Harris grew up on the frontier in Middle Tennessee, the youngest in a large family. He left home as a teenager, and found and lost a fortune in the boom and bust times of the 1830s in Mississippi and West Tennessee. Admitted to the bar in 1841, he enjoyed almost immediate success as an attorney due to his quick intellect, aggressive nature, and native ability to influence people. He launched a political career in 1847 that lasted, with some interruption, for fifty years, during which he never lost an election. Harris rose to prominence in the 1850s as the leader of the Southern rights wing of the Democratic Party, fiercely advocating the right to hold property in slaves. He served in the Tennessee state Senate, as a U.S. congressman, and as governor during the secession crisis, when, Elliott contends, Harris used his political influence and constitutional power to trample on the state constitution to align Tennessee with the Confederacy. As governor, Harris tirelessly dedicated himself to the Confederate war effort, raising troops and money and establishing a logistical structure and armament industry. When the Federals overran large portions of Middle and West Tennessee in 1862, he attached himself to the headquarters of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. As a volunteer aide, he served each of the army’s commanders on nearly every one of its famed battlefields and was deemed a possible successor to Jefferson Davis should the new republic survive. After the war, Harris went into voluntary exile in Mexico. He returned home in late 1867 and worked behind the scenes to “redeem” Tennessee from Radical rule, eventually becoming the most famous of the state’s Bourbon Democrats. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1877, he held that seat until his death in 1897. He successfully used the Senate’s arcane parliamentary rules to block assertions of Federal power at the expense of states’ rights, but advocated imaginative application of Federal power where clearly authorized by the Constitution. The story of nineteenth-century Tennessee remains incomplete without a thorough understanding of Isham Green Harris. Elliott’s exhaustive and entertaining biography provides essential reading for anyone interested in the political and military history of the Volunteer State.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Biography Series


pdf iconDownload PDF (21.0 KB)
pp. ix-x

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (65.9 KB)
pp. xi-xviii

“Tennessee will not furnish a single man for purposes of coercion but 50,000 if necessary for the defense of our rights and those of our southern brothers.” With these defiant words written on April 17, 1861, in response to the U.S. government’s call for troops, Governor Isham Green Harris of Tennessee gave notice that the state ...

Abbreviations Used in Notes

pdf iconDownload PDF (29.4 KB)
pp. xix-xxii

read more

1. "From the Beginning Fairly Successful As a Lawyer": 1818–1853

pdf iconDownload PDF (210.9 KB)
pp. 1-30

For Isham Green Harris, the governor of Tennessee, April 6, 1862, dawned a bright, sunny day full of the promise of a great victory, one that would repel the blue-clad troops from the North who had, in the previous few weeks, invaded Tennessee. The Confederate army, gathered from all parts of the South, ...

read more

2. "My Buisness Will Be to Advocate the Principles and Platform of Democracy": 1854–1860

pdf iconDownload PDF (211.3 KB)
pp. 31-59

When Green Harris took up his law practice in Memphis in 1854, the city had grown substantially from the small, rough river town of just a few years before. The census of 1840 showed a total free population of 1,799, with 221 slaves. By 1850, the population had grown to 8,841, and by 1854, thanks in part to ...

read more

3. "For the Defense of Our Rights and Those of Our Southern Brothers": 1861–1862

pdf iconDownload PDF (284.1 KB)
pp. 60-100

With South Carolina out of the Union, and other Deep South states preparing to follow, the Tennessee General Assembly met in special session on January 7, 1861. Hot-blooded secessionists vowed in newspapers that the state would “not bow to the yoke of despotism,” while moderate Unionists rejoined that ...

read more

4. "I Intend to Remain Until the Battle is Over": 1862

pdf iconDownload PDF (223.9 KB)
pp. 101-131

Accompanied by a strong force of gunboats, Federal Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant sailed two divisions of his command up the Tennessee. A winter of confused and often lackadaisical effort on the part of the Confederate military relating to the defenses on the Tennessee resulted in the fall of Fort Henry on February 6, 1862, ...

read more

5. "In This Struggle for National Independence": 1863

pdf iconDownload PDF (167.8 KB)
pp. 132-154

As the Army of Tennessee settled behind the Highland Rim, Isham G. Harris was called on once again to operate in his element, politics. Yet the exigencies of the war made the execution of the familiar unfamiliar. First, the retreat from Murfreesboro brought to the surface differences that existed between Braxton Bragg and ...

read more

6. "Tennessee, A Grave or a Free Home": 1864–May 1865

pdf iconDownload PDF (196.6 KB)
pp. 155-181

After its loss at Chattanooga, the Army of Tennessee settled down for a winter during which Joseph E. Johnston and his officers would restore its strength and the confidence of its men. The new year of 1864 would see Harris continue his role as an advocate and morale-booster for the Tennessee troops in the army. ...

read more

7. "Better a Penniless Exile than to Have Violated Principle": 1865–1867

pdf iconDownload PDF (142.0 KB)
pp. 182-200

In early May 1865, the new Unionist legislature in Nashville passed a joint resolution “Declaratory of the treason of Isham G. Harris, ex-Governor of the State of Tennessee.” The resolution accused Harris of “treason, perjury, and theft” and stated he was “responsible to a great extent for the war, misery, and death of ...

read more

8. "We of the South Have Accepted the Results in Good Faith": 1868–1876

pdf iconDownload PDF (204.4 KB)
pp. 201-228

On January 29, 1868, an advertisement appeared in the professional cards section of the Memphis Appeal for “Isham G. Harris, Attorney at Law.” His substantial personal fortune effectively wiped out by the war, Green Harris resumed his life’s profession in 1868. There was little other means of making a living, ...

read more

9. "Stand by Your Time-Honored Principles": 1877–1883

pdf iconDownload PDF (227.4 KB)
pp. 229-260

Although the previous Congress had numerous ex-Confederates in its ranks, the prospect of Confederate war governor and Mexican exile Isham Green Harris in the Senate seems to have been particularly obnoxious to his former enemies. The New York Times, crediting the School Fund slander, recalled Andrew Johnson’s hatred ...

read more

10. "The Old Man Invincible": 1883–1897

pdf iconDownload PDF (311.5 KB)
pp. 261-304

In a letter to a friend in early 1884, Harris complained that he was becoming increasingly “disgusted with modern politics and modern politicians.” Lamenting that neither party adhered “to the old landmarks,” Harris felt that the Democrats were almost no better than the Republicans in observing the constitutional limits ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (131.7 KB)
pp. 305-326


pdf iconDownload PDF (74.7 KB)
pp. 327-336

E-ISBN-13: 9780807136614
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807134900

Page Count: 352
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Southern Biography Series