September 29, 2012 6:30:25 PM
Rufus Ward - [email protected]
I recently heard a person comment that the difference between thieves and politicians is that there is honor among thieves. Having spent more than 35 years in politics, I take exception to that comment but I can also understand why sometimes people might think so. It only takes one rotten apple to make a whole bushel basket of otherwise good apples look bad.
In Mississippi's long history there is a politician whose sense of honor and character built a long-lasting national reputation. That individual was Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, who was one of President John F. Kennedy's heroes. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage,'' Kennedy presents biographies of eight particularly courageous U.S. senators, including John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, and L.Q.C. Lamar.
Like so many great men, by hard work and associating with men of character, Lamar laid a solid foundation for his future. In the 1850s he practiced law in Holly Springs with two other men of great intellect, courage and honor. His law partners were James Autry and C.H. Mott. Both were very respected in their profession and throughout the state. Their law firm thrived in antebellum north Mississippi but did not survive the Civil War.
When Autry was only six-years- old, his father died with Crockett, Bowie and Travis at the Alamo. His mother moved to Holly Springs where he attended St. Thomas Hall, an Episcopal school. Even as a child, he was noted for his wonderful wit. At age 22, he was elected to the state legislature and at age 28 became Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. When war broke out he joined the Confederate service rising to the rank of Lt. Colonel before losing his life at the battle of Murfreesboro.
Mott's career was even more distinguished. His family also moved to Holly Springs when he was a child. He, too, attended St. Thomas Hall, as did Gen. E.C. Walthall, an attorney in Coffeeville, who was a close friend of the three partners.
At the age of 20 Mott served as a lieutenant in the 1st Mississippi Rifles during the Mexican War where he was twice cited for bravery by Jefferson Davis. After entering law practice with Lamar and Autrey, Mott served in the state legislature and as probate judge. In 1858 he was appointed by congress as a special commissioner to investigate Indian affairs in the Oregon and Washington territories. When the Civil War erupted he was a general in the state militia but resigned to raise a regiment with Lamar and go to the front in Virginia. Mott became a colonel and Lamar became a lieutenant colonel of the 19th Mississippi Regiment and were in Virginia from the beginning of the fighting. In the spring of 1862, Mott was designated for promotion to brigadier general but died in the Battle of Williamsburg before receiving the orders.
Walthall served as a district attorney and he, too, enlisted when the war started. He entered the Confederate Army as a lieutenant in 1861 and quickly rose through the ranks. By 1864 he was a major general. Confederate general J.E. Johnston considered him to be one of the most able generals in Confederate service. After the war he served for 12 years in the U.S. Senate.
Lamar's career is without parallel. After Mott's death, he assumed command of the 19th Mississippi Regiment and distinguished himself as a military leader. With the end of the war and the onset of reconstruction, he received national recognition as a promoter of reconciliation of the North and South. Lamar then pursued an unbelievable career, including being probably the first former Confederate officer to win election to a major political office after actively campaigning for African-American support. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives, as a U.S. Senator, as Secretary of Interior and on the U.S. Supreme Court.
These four men were not just business and political associates, they were close personal friends. Their friendships extended to their families. Even after the death of her husband, Sallie Mott maintained her friendship with Lamar and Walthall. In 1867 Sallie moved to Columbus where she married John M. Billups. Though they had children and a long happy marriage, Mott remained the love of her life, and she preserved many of his letters, papers and photographs. Much of Sallie's legacy survives in the Billups-Garth Archives of the Columbus Lowndes Public Library.
In 1896, Edward Mayes published a biography of L.Q.C. Lamar. Gen. Walthall presented a copy to Sallie Billups with the inscription: "For Mrs. Sallie Billups from her life long friend E.C. Walthall Apl 4 '96."
Those four attorneys and politicians represented the best of character and service. Mott and Autry also exhibit the haunting reality that many of our nation's best and brightest leaders died 150 years ago in the bloody Civil War.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]