Confederate Attorneys General

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Confederate Attorneys General

Following secession from the Union, the Southern states immediately began the process of establishing a separate government to guide their course. One of the first acts of the provisional congress of the Confederate States of America was to preserve the force and framework of existing law in the South by adopting the Constitution of the Confederate States, which closely mirrored the constitution of the united states of america.

Though the Confederate constitution made provisions for the existence of a supreme judicial court, with powers like those of the Supreme Court of the United States, the provisional congress refused to enact the legislation necessary to actually establish the national court. Therefore, the attorneys general of the Confederacy were often called on to act in place of a national tribunal and to render opinions interpreting the laws enacted by the Confederate congress. Accordingly their opinions were varied, covering both commonplace issues and constitutional questions.

From 1861 to 1865, the Confederacy was served by four full time attorneys general—Judah Philip Benjamin, Thomas Bragg, Thomas Hill Watts, and George Davis—and by Wade Keyes, who functioned at various times as assistant, acting, and ad interim (temporary) attorney general. As a group, they authored 218 opinions for Confederate president Jefferson Davis and members of his cabinet; most of the opinions were requested by the Departments of War, Treasury, and the Navy, and most were related to the fighting of, or financing of, the U.S. Civil War.

Judah Philip Benjamin

Judah Philip Benjamin (1811–84) was the Confederacy's first attorney general. Appointed by President Davis, Benjamin was confirmed on March 5, 1861, and served until November 21, 1861, when he was named secretary of war. As attorney general, he wrote 13 opinions on such matters as agricultural products tariffs, mail route contracts, and defense appropriations.

Wade Keyes Jr.

Wade Keyes Jr. (1821–79) was named assistant attorney general by Benjamin on May 6, 1861. He became a central figure in the Confederate Department of Justice, and he often assumed the responsibilities of the attorney general when the current appointee was absent or in times of transition.

Before taking the position of assistant attorney general under Benjamin, Keyes was a prominent Alabama lawyer who specialized in property cases. Born to wealth and privilege, he was educated at La Grange College and the University of Virginia. His parents financed an extended tour of Europe and, on his return to the United States, arranged for him to study law with several noted Southern attorneys.

Though Keyes directed his efforts to the Practice of Law and generally avoided politics, he did hold public office for six years as chancellor of the Southern Division of Alabama. It was during his years in this office that Keyes was first noticed by Benjamin. Benjamin, impressed with Chancellor Keyes's administrative abilities, legal intellect, and writing skills, was instrumental in bringing Keyes into the newly formed Confederate Department of Justice.

In the course of Keyes's service to the Confederate president and cabinet, he authored 24 opinions—both for himself and for other attorneys general—on such diverse subjects as the duties of the attorney general; the treatment of prisoners of war; and, drawing on his former area of expertise, the appropriation of Personal Property for the war effort. Following Watts's election as governor of Alabama and resignation as attorney general, Keyes stepped in and served as attorney general ad interim from October 2, 1863, to January 1, 1864, when George Davis was able to take the office.

Thomas Bragg

Thomas Bragg (1810–72) was named attorney general on November 21, 1861, when Benjamin became secretary of war. Bragg had been attorney general for only four months and had authored just seven opinions, when the escalating military conflict threatened his family and his personal interests. He resigned on March 18, 1862.

Bragg was born on November 9, 1810, in Warrenton, North Carolina, the son of Thomas Bragg and Margaret Crossland Bragg. He attended local schools in Warrenton and a military academy in Middletown, Connecticut, before studying law in Warrenton with John Hall, a North Carolina Supreme Court judge. Bragg was admitted to the bar and began the practice of law in 1833 at the age of 23. On October 4, 1837, he married Isabella Cuthbert, the daughter of a locally prominent and politically active family.

Bragg continued to practice law for the next several years, and he began to take an interest in local politics. He was elected to the North Carolina legislature in 1844, and by 1854 he was governor of the state. After two highly successful terms as governor, he was sent to the U.S. Senate, where he served until the secession of North Carolina.

In spite of Bragg's brief service as attorney general, he remained a friend of, and adviser to, the Davis administration throughout the war. After the war, Bragg returned to practice in North Carolina and tried, without success, to restore the personal property and fortune he had lost during the war years. Bragg died on January 21, 1872, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Thomas Hill Watts

On March 19, 1862, Thomas Hill Watts (1819–92) was named to succeed Bragg as attorney general. He served more than a year, and he wrote 99 opinions on Martial Law, reorganization of the military under Conscription, pay allowances, rights of prisoners of war, treasonable offenses, and many other issues related to military service and the war.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Watts had organized the Seventeenth Alabama Infantry Regiment and served as its colonel. He was commanding the regiment in Tennessee when he received the appointment as attorney general. Perhaps because of this background, he had a special affinity for the men on the front lines of the conflict and for men from his home state. He spent many hours visiting wounded Alabama soldiers at nearby field hospitals and camps.

Watts was born January 3, 1819, in Alabama Territory near the town of Greenville in presentday Butler County, Alabama. He was a middle son in a family of modest means. His parents, John Hughes Watts and Prudence Hill Watts, agreed to pay for his education at the University of Virginia if he agreed to forfeit any future claim to the family estate. He thought the bargain was a good one, and he graduated in 1839. He studied law locally and was admitted to the bar in 1840.

On January 10, 1842, he married Eliza Brown Allen. The Wattses had ten children. While practicing law and providing for his growing family, Watts served several terms in the Alabama legislature in the 1840s. In 1850, he made an unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat.

As war approached, Watts was an outspoken opponent of Abraham Lincoln and a firm believer in the right of an individual state to determine its future. While serving as attorney general, Watts left the office in the hands of Keyes on several occasions in order to return home and tend to state business. During the course of those visits, he decided to make a bid for the Alabama governorship in 1863. He was successful. Following his election, he resigned his position as attorney general effective October 1, 1863.

Watts's term as governor of Alabama ended with the fall of the Confederacy. For his part in the rebellion, Watts lost his personal fortune in land and slaves, and, in 1865, he was sent to a Northern prison camp.

Three years later, he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and permitted to return to Alabama to care for his ailing wife. She died in 1873. Following her death, Watts moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and resumed the practice of law. He remarried in September 1875. Watts died in Montgomery on September 16, 1892.

George Davis

George Davis (1820–96) took office as attorney general on January 2, 1864, and he served until the collapse of the Confederacy. He authored 75 opinions on issues such as the constitutionality of the conscription act, the legality of contracts for imports and exports, and the liability of the government for seized property and stored goods.

Davis was born March 1, 1820, at Porter's Neck, New Hanover (now Pender) County, North Carolina. His parents were Thomas Frederick Davis and Sarah Isabella Eagles Davis. He graduated first in the University of North Carolina class of 1838, and he was admitted to the bar in 1839.

He became a prominent and respected member of the local legal community, as well as a man of wealth and taste. He was married, on November 17, 1842, to Mary A. Polk, and they had a large family.

Davis had an early interest in politics, but as a Whig Party member living in a Democratic Party stronghold, he had little opportunity to serve. Finally, when North Carolina withdrew from the Union, Davis was sent to the provisional congress as a delegate from his state. The following year, he entered the Confederate Senate, where he generally supported the administration of the Confederate president. It was from his position in the Confederate Senate that Davis was tapped by the president and asked to take the office of attorney general after Watts resigned. Davis was unable to accept the office immediately, owing to the illness and subsequent death of his wife, so the position was temporarily filled by Keyes.

Davis's last act as attorney general was to advise the president and the cabinet to accept the terms of a presurrender agreement. The agreement was not accepted by the Union. After receiving word of General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, in Virginia, the attorney general resigned and became a fugitive.

Fleeing southward, Davis first sought to locate his children, who were staying with friends near Wilmington, North Carolina. He managed to elude federal forces for a while but was eventually captured at Key West, Florida. He was imprisoned and held until January 1, 1866.

After his release, Davis returned to Wilmington, North Carolina. Just six months after leaving prison, he married Monimia Fairfax, on May 9, 1866. He resumed his legal practice and found himself in demand as a regional speaker. In the mid-1870s, he was offered, and declined, the chief justiceship of the North Carolina Supreme Court. His last public appearance was to deliver the eulogy at the 1889 funeral of Jefferson Davis. George Davis died in Wilmington, North Carolina, on February 23, 1896.

Further readings

Canfield, Cass. 1981. The Iron Will of Jefferson Davis. New York: Fairfax.

Catton, Bruce, and William Catton. 1971. Two Roads to Sumter. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Eaton, Clement. 1965. A History of the Confederacy. New York: Free Press.

The Opinions of the Confederate Attorneys General, 1861– 1865. Buffalo: Dennis.

Sandburg, Carl. 1974. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. New York: Dell.


U.S. Civil War.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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