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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 425

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This is the grave of the traitor James Seddon.

Born in 1815 in Falmouth, Virginia, Seddon was a pretty sickly child, so he was largely home-schooled. This wasn’t so uncommon among the southern elite anyway, which was largely rural and thus frequently hired tutors to live on-site. In 1836, he started law school at the University of Virginia and after completing it, moved to Richmond to start a law practice. About this time, his father and older brother both died, leaving him in charge of the family’s property, including their many slaves. He invested in a Louisiana plantation, bringing him lots of money based on the driving of human beings to their death. He thought about moving out there, but figured the law was more fitting. He became a fanatical states-rights extremist during these years, one of the young generation of Virginians that would follow the ideas of John C. Calhoun and other southern extremists.

Seddon served off and on in Congress in the years before the Civil War. He was elected in 1844 but decided against running for re-election. Evidently this was because of intra-party differences, but I haven’t seen what this was. He came back for a partial term between 1849-51 but then, citing poor health, again stepped away.

When the South committed treason in defense of slavery, Seddon was initially a moderate and attended the peace conference in Washington around how to stop civil war, which basically was a group of people who wanted to give the South everything they demanded in exchange for staying in the Union. Lincoln wasn’t having it and it failed. So when Virginia joined its southern neighbors in committing treason in defense of slavery, Seddon went right along.

In fact, the supposed moderate became the Confederate Secretary of War in November 1862 when Jefferson Davis appointed him to the position. Seddon is not really seen as an important Confederate player, despite this position. Check out how minimal his Wikipedia page compared to any random Confederate general, just as a comparison. This is probably somewhat unjustified, but it stems back to the fact that Seddon was a toady to Davis. They were personal friends before the war and nearly everyone considered Seddon the lesser person in the relationship. He is often described as an incompetent aristocrat who lorded his position over everyone except for his friend Davis, who he sucked up to constantly. Again, I imagine some of this is unfair, not because I have anything positive to say about the man, but because Davis’ defenders after the war tended to turn their ire on Seddon and I don’t trust them.

As a leading Confederate official in charge of finding people to fight the war, Seddon had to deal head on with the very real hardship the war was causing on the southern white population. One of the things that led to war is that Southern leaders told everyone that there would be no real suffering and that the Union would cave quickly. After all, those Yankees weren’t manly enough to fight. Look what Preston Brooks had done to Charles Sumner after all! But in fact, the war was brutal and the draft only made it worse. Given this was largely a rural population, drafting farmers meant that women and children moved awfully close to starvation, especially for young families, the exact type of men that would be drafted. Jefferson Davis basically didn’t care. After all, he was the ultimate in the medieval feudal lord reborn in the plantation South, a commonly held notion among Confederate leaders. Mere yeomen whites needed to sacrifice while Davis and others continued to grow cotton for the market. But Seddon had to deal with this. He did go to Davis and expressed strongly the suffering the draft was causing. He urged Davis to grant more exceptions to the draft. Moreover, he realized that soldiers taking whatever they wanted from farmers was also alienating large sectors of the population. Davis admitted these things were true, but that they were necessary.

Seddon also struggled with the prickly Confederate generals, a situation that Davis, who wished he was leading soldiers in the field, did not help solve. In particular, Seddon clashed with Joseph Johnston, who he urged to be more aggressive in keeping Vicksburg out of Grant’s hands. But Johnston worried that he would be criticized if he failed and would not receive proper credit if he succeeded, so he demurred and delayed and of course Grant did succeed in dividing the Confederacy in half. Toward the end of the war, Seddon began to take the hunger plaguing the Confederacy seriously. There were a few food shipments sent here and there, but in the end, most food was earmarked for the military. Maybe if the Confederate elites had taken growing food seriously early in the war instead of growing cotton, this would have been less of a problem for them.

He resigned as Secretary of War on the first day of 1865, when he returned to his plantation. The traitor John C. Breckinridge replace him. But of course he lost all of his human property shortly after. Moreover, toward the end of the war, Benjamin Butler sent a war party up the Rappahannock River with the explicit goal of burning Seddon’s nearby plantation, which succeeded. After the war, when the pictures of Andersonville came out, the furious American public was looking for more than just the camp commander, Henry Wirz, to blame. Several leading Confederates, including Robert E. Lee and Seddon were charged with “conspiring to injure the health and destroy the lives of United States soldiers held as prisoners by the Confederate States.” But Andrew Johnson was not going to have any southern leaders charged for the 750,000 people they killed in one way or another. The charges were soon dropped and only Wirz was punished, somehow the only Confederate executed. What a huge mistake that was. Seddon died in 1880 at his plantation, Sabot Hill, in Goochland County, Virginia.

James Seddon in buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. As always, I am extremely grateful, especially when I can use them to visit America’s worst people. If you would like this series to visit more members of the Treason Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Toombs is in Washington, Georgia and John Reagan is in Palestine, Texas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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