Jacob Thompson

Jacob Thompson

Male 1810 - 1885

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  • Born  15 May 1810  Leasburg, Caswell, NC Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender  Male 
    Died  24 Mar 1885  Memphis, Shelby, TN Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Buried  Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, Shelby, TN Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Father  Nicholas Thompson,   b. 20 Mar 1781, Orange, NC Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. 28 Jul 1857, Caswell, NC Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Mother  Lucretia VanHook,   b. 22 Feb 1788,   d. 19 Mar 1858, Caswell, NC Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Family  Catherine Jones,   b. 1822 
    Married  18 Dec 1838 
     1. Macon Caswell Thompson,   b. 11 Nov 1839
    Last Modified  20 Apr 2015 
    Family ID  F2043  Group Sheet

  • Photos
    Jacob Thompson 1810-1885
    Jacob Thompson 1810-1885

  • Notes 
    • From www.fulkerson.org

      Jacob Thompson was born 15 May 1810 in Leasburg, Caswell County, North Carolina, the third child of Nicholas and Lucretia Van Hook Thompson. Studious and bright, he prepared for college at the Hawfield School in Orange Co. and was valedictorian of his class at the University of North Carolina in 1831. Following this he was appointed a tutor at the University. He resigned to study law and later became licensed to practice in the courts of North Carolina.

      Not long afterward, Jacob migrated to Natchez, Mississippi to seek his fortune. An older brother, Dr. James Thompson, had already been living in Mississippi and persuaded him to move to Pontotoc. Once there, Jacob became actively involved in the affairs of the U.S. Land Office and the Indian Agency, and then in state politics. He organized courts of law in ten new counties. (Mississippi grew in the 1830's as it forced out the Native American tribes on its frontiers. There were 60 counties in Mississippi by 1840 and the entire state was in the hands of white settlers - except that black slaves already outnumbered the white population.) Jacob's record of achievement earned him election to the state legislature.

      During this time he met the beautiful Catherine Jones (called Kate), daughter of wealthy planter Peyton Jones. They were married on the 18th of December, 1838. He was 28 and she was just sixteen. Their only child, Macon Caswell Thompson, was born on 11 November 1839. They lived in Oxford on an elaborate estate built in 1843 near the University of Mississippi, at what is now 910 Old Taylor Road. They developed their land as a cotton plantation, and it became a source of substantial income for them.

      United States Congress
      Jacob was elected to the United States House of Representatives in that same November and was continuously reelected to Congress through 1851. While in office he served as chairman of the House Committee on Indian Affairs and as a member of the Committee on Ways and Means. One of his fellow Representatives on the Mississippi Congressional delegation was Jefferson Davis, later to become a hero in the Mexican-American War, a United States Senator and the President of the Confederate States of America. Following his service in Congress, Jacob was instrumental in lobbying the Mississippi state legislature to establish a law school at the University and worked on its development with University President Longstreet. In the fall of 1854 the University admitted its first law class.

      Secretary of the Interior
      At the 1856 Presidential convention in Cincinnati, he actively supported the nomination of James Buchanan. This support earned Jacob appointment as the Secretary of the Interior after Buchanan took office in March 1857.

      Thompson found a group of almost independent agencies in the Department. He welded together a unified organization, and was able to quickly dispose of an accumulated backlog of business, establishing a reputation for efficiency. Thereafter, Congress accepted his recommendations with little hesitation. Jacob's forthright handling of a scandal within the ranks of the Department was credited with saving Buchanan from a critical political embarassment.

      Jacob and Catherine made their mark on the Washington social scene. They were frequently invited to the White House to dine with Buchanan. Catherine's gracious hospitality (and her relative youth) made invitations to the Thompson residence highly coveted among the Washington elite.

      The Thompson's son, Macon, had a facial defect which may have proven difficult for him in Washington society. At the age of 20 he headed west to Kansas and Nebraska and "went mostly among the Indians there."

      Like many other Southerners, he opposed secession and worked hard for the preservation of the Union. Evidently having advance knowledge of Mississippi's plan to secede from the Union, Jacob resigned his position as Secretary on 8 January 1861. Mississippi's secession was proclaimed on the following day. (It also has been said that, being a Mississippian, he was kept in the dark about Buchanan's millitary conferences concerning the pending Southern secession - which may have alienated him from the Buchanan administration.) When the Civil War began, he volunteered his services to the Confederacy.

      Confederate Army
      Jacob contributed generously from his own funds to equip and prepare troops for the Confederate cause. He took an active role in the field, although he had no prior military training, serving as aide to Gen. Beauregard at Shiloh. He attained the rank of Lt. Colonel and was present at the battles of Vicksburg, Corinth, Tupelo, Grenada and the Tallahatchie River. At Water Valley he had his horse shot out from under him.

      The Homefront
      During Jacob's absence, Catherine experienced the war firsthand. In December 1862, Oxford was occupied by the Union army of General Ulysses S. Grant. In addition to having their baled cotton confiscated, the Thompson house was taken over and used as a military hospital until Grant withdrew his troops to Memphis.

      Then, the Union troops of General Hatch looted the house in August 1864. Catherine pleaded with General Hatch, who was sitting in a large upholstered rocker in the central hallway. He told her that his men could take anything they wanted, except the chair he was sitting in. Then he had a wagon brought to the front door, and made off with the Thompson's silver, china and oil paintings.

      Two weeks later, the Union troops of General Andrew Jackson "Whiskey" Smith invaded Oxford. They spared the University but burned the Oxford town square and many residences - reportedly in retaliation for some of the Confederate offenses described above.

      General Smith deliberately ordered the burning of the Thompson estate. This task was assigned to a Union officer named William S. Burns, who was not keen to set fire to the Thompson house. Catherine's daughter-in-law, Sally, had just given birth and she and the baby were still confined to bed. (Macon was also gone to war, as a captain in the Confederate army.) After allowing Mrs. Thompson to remove personal and family items, and having the bed bearing Sally and the baby carried out onto the front lawn, he carried out his orders. (Burns later decided he'd seen too much of this type of "warfare." He resigned his commission before the end of 1864.)

      The Secret Mission
      Following this military experience, he returned home to Oxford in late 1863 and was again elected to the state legislature. In March 1864, he received a message from Confederate President Jefferson Davis, asking him to lead a secret Confederate delegation to Canada. Jacob arrived in Canada in May, 1864.

      Their primary mission was to arrange terms for peace through contacts with influential Northern businessmen and politicians. If that failed, their orders were to try to subvert the Union war effort using various means, including arranging the escape of Confederate POWs from the Johnson's Island prisoner-of-war camp on Lake Erie. Johnson's Island, located in Sandusky Bay on the Ohio shore, usually had about 3,000 Confederate prisoners at any one time, but had a capacity for 5,000.

      Note: Jefferson Davis also sent an emissary to the Pope, asking him to try to stop the emigration of Irish and German Catholics, because the Union was offering them land grants and cash bounties to come over and join the Union Army in the fight against the Confederacy.

      The Confederate "headquarters" was established in Canada, as reported by one of the other "special agents" assigned to Canadian duty:

      "The Queen's Hotel where we stopped fronted on Toronto Bay. It may be said we found Confederate headquarters here at this hotel...There was everything in the prospect at Toronto to make a sojourn enjoyable. The leading newspapers of Canada were published here and the South got a friendly comment on the course of events."

      Any Southern endeavour which ventured outside the Confederacy during the war tended to be viewed in an unfavorable light by the residents of the Northern states. During the War the Union had witnessed not only Robert E. Lee's invasion reaching Gettysburg, but also many authorized and "not quite official" Confederate cavalry raids deep into Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. These invaders tended to be known as "guerillas," "raiders," "plunderers," "bushwhackers," "looters," "marauders," and "robbers." [see note below] There were also a number of Confederate privateers - regarded by the Northerners as rogue "pirate" ships- which were capturing and sinking Union commercial shipping on the high seas. Complicating Jacob's intended peace mission, or perhaps just complementing his role, there were other, similar Confederate plots involving operations on Canadian soil:

      "...various schemes for burning and pillaging were concerted by Confederate emissaries in Canada, and some of them were carried into effect. On the 19th of October, a raid was made on the village of St. Albans, Vermont, about 15 miles from the frontier [Canadian border]. The marauders robbed the banks, fired on the passers-by, killing and wounding several, and succeeded in making their escape into Canada...On the night of November 25th, an attempt was made to burn the city of New York. Fires were simultaneously kindled in several of the large hotels, but were fortunately extinguished before much damage was done. The perpetrators of this crime also escaped into Canada." - G.P. Quackenbos, History of the United States, New York, Appleton, 1868

      The Lake Erie Affair
      The above source also tells us that, "Another party captured and burned two small steamers on Lake Erie." It was a plan gone awry. John Yates Beall, the Confederate captain who attempted to carry out Jacob's plan, later wrote to a Canadian newspaper:

      "Immediately on my arrival in Canada I went to Colonel Thompson at Toronto...He informed me of a plan to take the MICHIGAN (14 guns) and release the Confederate officers confined at Johnson's Island...We arranged our plans...I came to Windsor to collect men...On Monday morning we started..."

      The MICHIGAN was the only United States war vessel on the Great Lakes, assigned to guard the Confederates on Johnson's Island, off Sandusky, Ohio. Jacob had instructed another Confederate Captain, Charles H. Cole, to create some type of distraction on the MICHIGAN and to give a signal when Beall might attack. In the meantime, Beall and his group boarded the Detroit-Sandusky steamer PHILO PARSONS on September 19, 1864, at Malden, Ontario, posing as ordinary passengers.

      Cole was drinking with the officers of the MICHIGAN when Beall took over the PARSONS off Kelley's Island. Perhaps because of some slip-up, Cole was arrested and failed to send a signal to Beall, but Beall proceeded according to plan. Enroute to Sandusky on the PARSONS, Beall had to stop at Middle Bass Island for wood. Another small steamer, the ISLAND QUEEN "with a large number of passengers and 32 soldiers" tied up alongside them for the same purpose. The PARSONS raiders took them all prisoner, but then released all the soldiers and civilians on the isle, sworn not to leave for 24 hours. The ISLAND QUEEN was towed out to deep water and sunk. The PARSONS finally headed for Sandusky, but for some reason [possibly because Cole had not sent the signal] the crew all backed out, refusing to attack the MICHIGAN. Beall later reported, "I then started to attack the MICHIGAN, when seventeen of my twenty men mutinied...This necessitated my turning back...."

      Beall sailed the PHILO PARSONS north again to Sandwich, Ontario. On September 20th, "after plundering and cutting her pipes to scuttle" her, he abandoned the ship to sink. It was also set on fire, according to other accounts. The MICHIGAN must have been close behind, as Commander John C. Carter of the MICHIGAN soon afterward telegraphed, "I have got the principal agent prisoner on board and many accomplices." They had in fact captured neither Jacob nor Captain Beall, but the failure of the mission would haunt future Confederate plots out of Canada.

      Pirate of the Great Lakes
      Jacob was undeterred by this failure. On November 1, 1864, he bought the steamer GEORGIAN in Toronto, Ontario. This ship was described by a Union diplomat in Canada as "a new vessel, built some year and a half since on the Georgian Bay, by [George] H. Wyatt and others, and has, I believe, made one trip across the Atlantic. She is a splendid vessel, built with great care, a fast sailer, and would be capable of doing immense injury to the shipping on the Lakes." He noted the Confederate agents "claim that she is particularly adapted to the lumber trade, as she carries heavy loads with light draft and intend to strengthen her..."

      Two days later the ship arrived at Buffalo, New York, where the worried mayor telegraphed the Union Navy that the GEORGIAN would be "be armed on the Canada shore for the purpose of encountering the USS MICHIGAN and for piratical and predatory purposes." Later revelation of Jacob's own official report to the Confederacy confirmed his intention "to have a boat on whose captain and crew reliance could be placed, and on board of which arms could be sent to convenient points for arming such vessels as could be seized for operations on the Lakes..."

      However, the great amount of attention that both Jacob and the GEORGIAN now drew hampered any real attempt to carry out the plot. Jacob wrote to Confederate Secretary of War Benjamin Judah on December 3rd that, "The bane and curse of carrying out anything in this country is the surveillance under which we act. Detectives, or those ready to give information, stand at every street corner. Two or three can not interchange ideas without a reporter."

      The ship itself, much too big to hide, brought instant attention to the Confederate plans as it proceeded from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie and then on to Lake Huron. Jacob complained that, "...the story went abroad that she had been purchased and armed for the purpose of ... destroying the shipping on the Lakes and the cities on their margin. The wildest consternation prevailed in all the border cities. At Buffalo two tugs had cannon placed on board... four regiments of soldiers were sent there...bells were rung at Detroit, and churches broken up on Sunday. The whole lake shore was a scene of wild excitement." In addition, the GEORGIAN became subject to frequent searches, although nothing suspicious was ever found - except that it sailed about on Lake Huron with no cargo and never seemed to have a purpose.

      It had been Jacob's hope to stir up a popular uprising against the U.S. Government and gain control of "the three great Northwestern States of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio" as this event "in 60 days would end the war." As late as January 1865, when the South had been almost completely retaken by Union troops, Jacob was still trying to rally support for the Southern cause and proclaiming, "There is no ground to doubt that the masses, to a large extent, of the North are brave and true, and believe Lincoln a tyrant and usurper."

      Canadian authorities finally seized the GEORGIAN on April 6, 1865 - ironically in Georgian Bay - days before the War's end. On it they found documents showing Thompson's intent to use "Greek fire" and an armed contingent of "marines" to attack and seize American fishing vessels in order to assemble a small Confederate navy on the Lakes.

      Brave Catherine
      Somewhere in the course of these events, Catherine received reports that Jacob was dead. However, he sent a Canadian girl to Oxford with a message: Catherine was to join him in Canada, and bring his receipt for the $200,000 he had invested in British stocks. She thus began her hazardous journey through the Union lines to Canada:

      "'With forged papers, Mrs. Thompson started up the Mississippi by packet steamer. In Memphis she was sent ashore with the other passengers, and behind a screen with a lady attendant, sho was stripped to the skin. When her corset, into which she had sewn the slip of paper, was handed to inspecting guards, she told a joke. It must have been a good one, for the soldiers tossed the garment back over the screen and she was allowed to continue her flight.

      There was one more inspection point to be passed, in Cairo, Ill. For this ordeal the clever Catherine was ready. In Germany she had bought a partial upper plate. Making a tiny wad of the paper, she put it in the roof of her mouth and went safely through to be reunited with her husband.' The southern belle had become an 'iron magnolia." - Jane Gray Buchanan, Thomas Thompson and Anne Finney of Colonial Pennsylvania and North Carolina

      War's End
      Canada moved to expel Jacob, declaring him the "espionage mastermind" of the Confederate mission. John Beall suffered a worse fate, having been captured by the Union a few months after the Lake Erie affair, and was secretly executed as a Confederate pirate at Governor's Island, New York, on February 24, 1865.

      The War ended on April 9, 1865, and within 5 days Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Jefferson Davis had escaped capture by the Union, but had a $100,000 bounty on his head. So did Jacob, whose reputation for plotting and scheming was sufficient, in the eyes of the Union, to implicate him in the Lincoln assassination. Although he believed he could clear his name, friends in Canada convinced him that the Union's hysteria over the assassination made it unwise to return to the United States.

      With the finances Catherine had smuggled through the Union lines, and additional funds in Liverpool banks, the Thompsons spent a year traveling through Europe. In England they were received by the Prince of Wales and his mother, Queen Victoria. Catherine returned to Mississippi, but Jacob went back to Canada for another two years. After that, passions cooled and he was able to prove his innocence in the Lincoln matter.

      They left Mississippi and moved to Memphis. Jacob, having had a long affiliation with the University of Mississippi, was appointed to the board of the University of the South at Sewanee. He continued an active role there, and became one of the school's great benefactors. His will provided the University 100 shares of AT&T stock (the telephone was invented in 1876) or $10,000. University trustees chose the cash and built a classroom building, which was dedicated as Thompson Union. [Had they chosen the stock, they might instead have made the university one of the richest in the nation.]

      Jacob died on the 24th of March, 1885 and was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. At his funeral he was eulogized as "a brilliant statesman, a friend of all classes, a great man who would be missed by all who knew him."

      Reactions to his death were not consistent elsewhere. The U.S. Department of the Interior closed in his honor on March 26, and lowered its flag to half-mast, as was customary on the death of a former Secretary. The Northern newspapers were indignant about this, as editorialists expressed their hatred for the the Southern politician whom they called a "traitor and conspirator."

      During Jacob's last two decades and long after his death, this black cloud of notoriety hung over his name.

      Note: The source for the unsympathetic descriptions of the Confederate raiders is the Quackenbos book cited above.

      "Jacob wooed and won the hand of beautiful Catherine Jones (called
      Kate), the daughter of wealthy planter Peyton Jones. Kate was sixteen
      at the time of their marriage on 18 Dec. 1838; she would become an ideal
      planter's wife and later on, a celebrated Washington hostess. Jacob and
      Kate's only child, Macon Caswell was born on 11 Nov. 1839, less than a
      year after the ceremony. This fact clearly refutes the story of Jacob's
      marrying a fourteen-year-old Catherine, then taking her directly to a
      convent in France for a four-year stay to further her education and
      overcome her father's objections to the union."