Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

JAMES ALEXANDER SEDDON
(July 13, 1815–August 19, 1880)

Jon L. Wakelyn

Participants in great events, for their own personal reasons, write about their peers with such venom that they are able to sear into the consciousness a reputation that history really cannot shake. Such was the fate of Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, who had the misfortune both of having been a personal friend of President Jefferson Davis (q.v.) and possessed of a secure place in the firmament of Virginia’s antebellum “southside” aristocracy. For those sins, Henry S. Foote, in his Casket of Reminiscences, depicted Seddon as an arrogant tyrant in public who fawned before Davis in private. Foote described Seddon as a person possessed of an “atrabilarious visage,” and “it may safely be asserted that he did not possess a single one of the qualities needed for a creditable and useful performance of the duties now devolved on him” (144— 145). Incompetent aristocrat, sickly, ascetic to a fault, subservient to a president who wanted to conduct his own war policy, many historians have dismissed Seddon as a failure. Yet Seddon served in the war office for the longest period of any secretary, and he participated in many major decisions concerning the Confederate war effort. His life and accomplishments, then, require another look in order to uncouple him from Foote’s lasting stain and to give his war record a fair assessment.

Seddon indeed was guilty of belonging to the Fredericksburg aristocracy, but it was not necessarily one that had evolved from the ancient FFV (First Families of Virginia) tradition. His father Thomas, a parvenu who began life as a Falmouth wholesale merchant, gained place among the old elite after he married Susan Pearson Alexander, descendant of a distinguished Fredericksburg planter family. Thomas became a planter after his marriage, but he also owned a bank in Fredericksburg, an occupation hardly thought genteel by the old, established families. James was born in Fredericksburg on July 13, 1815, and at an early age came under the influence of his aristocratic uncle Philip Alexander, an oldschool state’s rights local political leader. No doubt aspects of the Seddon family

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