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Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator

by Sam Davis Elliott, Louisiana State University Press, 2010, $48

It seems unfathomable that until recently Isham G. Harris, a Civil War luminary, had never been the subject of a major biography. After all, Harris, who served as both governor and a senator in Tennessee, almost single-handedly carried his state out of the Union in 1861 and then bequeathed to the Confederacy the core of the future Army of Tennessee.

Fortunately native Tennessean Sam Davis Elliott, a lawyer by trade but a gifted historian by avocation, has answered the call. Elliott has written about other notable Tennesseans Alexander P. Stewart and Charles Quintard, and this latest volume will remain the standard treatment of Harris for decades to come.

Elliott covers Harris from his prewar days as a lawyer and politician to his many exploits in the war itself. Although Harris lost his state to Union occupation, he was not despondent and remained with the Confederate Army throughout the war, almost always in the thick of the major battles. He continually urged his beloved Tennessee troops forward and tried, as best he could, to aid the people of the state he could no longer enter. His postwar exploits were just as remarkable, including an exodus to Mexico and abroad, a return to political power in Tennessee and years in the U.S. Senate.

The book covers Harris’ entire life but concentrates on the Civil War years. In dealing with that period, Elliott is not afraid to tackle controversial issues as well as those that reflect negatively on Harris. For instance, the lawyer Elliott quite plainly describes how Harris trampled on the state’s constitution during the secession crisis to take Tennessee out of the Union. He also takes on well-respected historians such as Tom Connelly, arguing that Harris was not ambivalent to the Cumberland and Tennessee river defenses early in the war.

The result is a fresh, scholarly examination of an extremely important figure not only in Tennessee history, but also in the Civil War and national political arenas as well.


Originally published in the September 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here