Sunday, March 8, 2009

For March 10: “…you have got to fight. Which side will you fight with?”

Do you know who this is?
-He was Thomas Jefferson’s grandson.
-He was named after a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
-His picture is on the CSA $100 bill.

He was born at Monticello - a son of the South, with an influential heritage that set the stage for his lifetime achievements. His grandfather was Thomas Jefferson, architect of the Declaration of Independence, Secretary of State for the new United States government, Vice President, and President. He was related to the first Attorney General, Edmund Randolph. He could trace his heritage in the New World back to Pocahontas on his father’s side, and to the early colonial settlers on both of his parents’ side.

George Wythe Randolph was born at Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 10, 1818. He was the last child of Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. and Martha Jefferson Randolph - Thomas Jefferson’s daughter. “Geordie” would be named after his father’s law teacher and mentor, George Wythe, one of the Virginians who signed the Declaration of Independence 42 years before the birth George W. Randolph.

George grew up in the Monticello area, often visiting. His father managed many of Thomas Jefferson’s business affairs after Jefferson’s retirement from the Presidency. As a young man, George briefly attended Cambridge University in Boston, living under the care of his oldest sister, Ellen. Ellen was an accomplished scholar – particularly in languages – and a favorite with her grandfather. She had married Boston merchant Joseph Coolidge in 1825, taking residence in Boston.

In 1831- at the age of 13 – George was allowed to serve in the U.S. Navy, serving as midshipman before leaving the service in 1839. He then obtained a law degree from the University of Virginia, graduating in 1841. He would practice law for a decade in Albemarle County, Virginia, then move his practice to Richmond in 1851.While in Richmond, he built a successful law practice, served on the city council, was an officer of the Virginia Historical Society, and served briefly as a state senator. He also married a wealthy widow – Mary Elizabeth Adams Pope – and would reside in one of the elite neighborhoods of Richmond. The couple would have no children.

George would be elected to the 1861 Virginia Convention as a secessionist, and would be appointed as a member of a special delegation – composed of George Randolph, William B. Preston, and Alexander H.H. Stuart – to travel to Washington D.C. where they met with the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The purpose of the trip was to determine where Lincoln stood on the question of the control of Federal facilities in the southern states – whether or not he would be willing to relinquish control of the Federal forts to state authority. The committee would represent the three groups that made up the Virginia Convention: secessionists, unionists, and moderates.

The special delegation was caught in a storm that disrupted travel between Richmond and Washington, and finally arrived at the Willard Hotel three days later than they planned. The delegation visited the White House. Lincoln saw them, and made an appointment to see them again at nine the following morning, when the commissioners presented the resolution of the Virginia Convention that asked the President to “communicate to this Convention the policy which the Federal Executive intends to pursue in regard to the Confederate States”. Lincoln had already seen the resolution – news of the Virginia Convention was regularly printed in the Washington newspapers – and had written his reply.

Lincoln stated that he would “hold, occupy and possess” the properties that belonged to the federal government. By the time of Lincoln's meeting with the Virginia commissioners began, Confederate guns had been firing on Fort Sumter for several hours.

The delegates left, reporting back to the Virginia Convention on April 15. William Preston (pro-Union commissioner) addressed the Convention, followed by George, who said he believed they were seeing the beginning of "the greatest war ever waged" on the American continent. He thought the North would, at least at the beginning, be undivided in support of the war, noting that in the North "there was but one opinion, and that in favor of the war." George thought that the coming war would be primarily a defensive war by the North, aimed only at repossessing the forts and arsenals seized by the states that had seceded.

With keen insight, George continued, indicating that to stop the war at simple repossession was like trying to “stop a prairie fire”. He concluded with the thought that “you have got to fight. Which side will you fight with?”

Virginia seceded on April 17th, casting their lot with the Confederacy. George joined the Confederate army, serving as a major commanding an artillery battalion at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10, 1861. Putting his artillery to good use, he later wrote that the enemy “fired upon us with shot, shell, spherical case, canister, and grape from 6 and 12-pounders, at a distance of about six hundred yards, but the only injury received from their artillery was the loss of 1 mule.”

He was promoted to Brigadier General on February 12, 1862.

On March 18, 1862, George was appointed by Jefferson Davis as the Secretary of War, seceding Judah Benjamin. He would take office on March 24, serving until his resignation almost eight months later. He would be one of five men to hold the position during the life of the Confederacy.

Most of his attention upon taking office was devoted to the defense of Richmond and Virginia from the Army of the Potomac, under Union General George B. McClellan (pictured on right), in what became known as the Peninsula Campaign, which ended in withdrawal for the Union forces.

One crisis past, George looked to the situation in the west. He urged General Theophilus Holmes to move his forces across the Mississippi, joining with Confederate forces on the east bank. Unfortunately, this put George in conflict with President Davis, who ordered him to rescind the order, and that the idea of having Holmes cross the river was a terrible one.

George did as ordered, rescinded the order, then resigned his post. Hindsight indicates that Davis – and Confederate hopes in the war – would have been better off if the order had been allowed to stand.

He resigned on November 17, 1862, frustrated by the lack of vision and support by the president. He wrote to his brother after he resigned about Davis: "He lacks system, is very slow, does not discriminate between important and unimportant matter, has no practical knowledge of the workings or our military system in the field."

Discovering he had tuberculosis, George travelled to Europe in the hopes that his health might improve. He returned to the United States after the fall of the Confederacy, and passed away on April 3, 1867 from complications arising from pneumonia. He is buried in the Jefferson family graveyard at Monticello.

No books about George W. Randolph are available at our local library.

Randolph as a child at Monticello: Jefferson Encyclopedia
Randolph seated: Generals and Brevets
Battle of Big Bethel: Library of Congress
George B. McClellan National Archives
$100 CSA bill: Rebel States Currency

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