Closer Looks : The Thompson Union Story Tanner Potts, Research Associate for the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation

A few years ago, The Onion’s website posted a short article entitled “Area Dad Needs More Time With Museum Plaque.” The article features a father, nearly pressing his nose to the wall as he reads every word of the provided description, and his frustrated daughter. “I honestly don’t even know how long he was there,” she said with exasperation, “because by the time he finished up, we had already moved on to another room.” The dad snaps a picture of the plaque for a later, even deeper read.

Am I ashamed or proud to say that several of my friends alerted me to this article on social media? Since co-leading a task force on campus memorials at the University of the South in the spring of 2016, I’d taken up a similar habit around campus: finding the bronze dedication plaque in each building I walked into, squinting to read the often faded, embossed lettering, my impatient friends giving up and continuing without me.

Later that year, when I was delivering a package to our Advancement office in Thompson Union, my perusals paid off when I took a slower and closer look at the bronze plaque in the entranceway. The plaque commemorating the benefactor of the building hangs beside a staircase:

In Memoriam Jacob Thompson 1810-1885 Secretary of the Interior of the United States Soldier-Statesman to the Confederacy And for Twelve Years Trustee of the University of the South Donor of Thompson Hall 1883

An employee looked up while I peered over their desk; they had never noticed the plaque either. Yet there we stood in front of perhaps the oldest Confederate memorial on campus. I took a picture because I needed more time with this plaque.

That Thompson Union serves as a Confederate memorial may come as a surprise to most. While the building was a student union until 1975, students – and most faculty and staff members, for that matter – have few reasons to visit Thompson Union today. Even frequently visited places on campus are infrequently pondered. But for Gorgas Hall, Armfield Bluff, Jessie Ball duPont Library, and Thompson Union, a quick online search often reveals the stories behind the inscriptions. Awareness of this history is a key element of our work, but people are often surprised to hear that the basic historical contextualization is already at their fingertips. The contextualization of a problematic memorial is only as useful as the community is curious and engaged. Still, this quick search merely scratched the surface of the deep connection between Thompson and the university. What follows is the story of how the current home of the University of the South’s Office of Advancement was paid for by a man who had been a powerful slaveholder and Cabinet Secretary before the war, a Confederate spymaster during the war, and a man wanted by the law after Lincoln’s assassination.

Hailing from Oxford, Mississippi, where he owned one of the largest plantations in the county, Jacob Thompson rose to national prominence as the Secretary of the Interior under President James Buchanan. His time in the District was shortened by the secession winter. When Thompson learned that President Buchanan planned to reinforce besieged Federal soldiers at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, the secretary resigned his post to join the secession movement.

Thompson enslaved 97 people in Oxford, MS in 1860

Thompson's connection to the University of the South reaches back into the antebellum period. As Secretary of the Interior, Thompson connected James Hervey Otey, the Bishop of Tennessee and one of the university’s founders, with the State Department as the founders sought advice on its governance from the leaders of European universities.

This political cartoon depicts the confusing scene of secession in 1861. Thompson is shown in the foreground, escaping with stolen money. This is a reference to a previous scandal in Thompson's career, in which he allegedly stole $870,000 from the Department of the interior.

The Confederacy utilized Thompson’s talents first on the battlefield, but Jefferson Davis – Thompson’s new president and old friend – had grander plans for him. In order to garner support, spread fear, and liberate captured Confederates held in Federal prison camps, Davis charged Thompson to lead the Confederacy’s Secret Service, or spy network, based in Canada.

Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, sent Thompson north of the border with $1 million in gold. (1) Thompson’s agents acted as martial, economic, and political insurgents in 1864-1865. The Confederate Secret Service worked to assist the escape of Confederate prisoners of war held in the Great Lakes region; agents set a series of fires across New York City, hoping to burn the city to the ground; they dabbled in economic sabotage by buying up gold reserves in the Midwest; they attempted to disrupt the outcome of the 1864 presidential election.(2) The first page of a report from Thompson to Benjamin detailing these exploits is displayed on the left. After Lincoln’s murder, many Federal officials believed that Thompson and his agents also aided and abetted the president’s assassins.

Jacob Thompson closed his account of $600,000 in Confederate funds at an Ontario bank on April 10, 1865. Four days later – the same day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated – Thompson fled to Europe. (3) On that day, before the president left for Ford’s Theatre, Federal spies told Lincoln of Thompson’s flight from Canada. Lincoln did not intervene to stop the escape, saying, “When you have the elephant by the hind leg, and he’s trying to run away, it’s best to let him run.” This order may have been the last given by the 16th president; that same night, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln as he watched a performance at Ford’s Theatre. (4)
From the New York Times, May 4, 1865

Immediately after Lincoln’s assassination, rumors swirled in Washington and across the northern U.S. about the Confederate cabinet and their roles in plotting the crime. The U.S. government named both Jefferson Davis and Jacob Thompson as co-conspirators and offered rewards of $100,000 and $25,000 respectively for their capture. The links between Jacob Thompson and the conspirators found guilty of the assassination plot were never proven beyond the circumstances of his service as a spymaster for the Confederacy. John Surratt, who was found not guilty in the trial for his involvement in the assassination, had worked as a courier for Thompson and may have stayed with him abroad as they both fled. Surratt’s mother, who owned the boarding house in which the conspirators met, became the first woman executed by the Federal government. Still, the connections to Thompson remain unproven allegations. (5) One of the issues with researching a member of the Confederate Secret Service is that their documents are, well, secret.

Catherine Ann Jones Thompson, wife of Jacob Thompson

Joined abroad by his wife, who allegedly smuggled $200,000 in British bank bonds out of the country in an elaborated dental piece secured in her mouth, the fugitive Thompson travelled in luxurious style around the world (6). Still, the Confederate commissioner appeared preoccupied with his “wanted” status in America. In a letter from Dublin, later published in a Mississippi paper, Thompson explained his plight and flight and declared his innocence: “Was it because I feared to meet there the penalties of offended law? Was it because trials might be instituted and proofs adduced which would affix a stigma upon my name? No! It was because I felt there was no constitution or law in the South for the protection of my rights.” (7)

Still, friends at home pressed for the fugitive to return. Thompson responded defiantly: “To be ruled by Negroes is bad enough, but to be ruled by vile abolitionists is intolerable.” In Europe he found himself welcomed into an influential community of ex-Confederates. They, too, he said “all express themselves in very strong terms against returning to communities controlled by negroes.” (9)

The Thompson House on the square in Oxford, MS. The Thompson Family ran this building as a hotel after the Civil War.

Notwithstanding those stated positions, Thompson returned to the U.S. once Federal officials dropped the warrant for his arrest. He settled again in Oxford.

In 1869, Chancellor William Mercer Green of the University of the South wrote to Jefferson Davis to express his hope that the former Confederate President would be offered the position of Vice-Chancellor of the university. Jefferson Davis did not return the interest, instead becoming the president of the Carolina Life Insurance Co., for which he hired Jacob Thompson. Three years later, at a meeting of the university's Board of Trustees, Davis proposed to create an endowment partnership between the University and his company. (9)

Jefferson Davis (left) and William Mercer Green (right)

It took only five years for Thompson to reestablish himself in the U.S., making a fortune with the Carolina Life Insurance Co. and becoming a trustee of the University of the South. The university’s leaders appointed Thompson to its executive board, a precursor to today’s Board of Regents. Thompson helped to secure loans and set the university on a sounder fiscal foundation.

The home of Bishop Green, located on Tennessee Avenue. Thompson would have stayed here during his visits for Board of Trustee meetings.

When Jacob Thompson died in 1885, his will stipulated that the cash-strapped University receive either $10,000 cash or $100,000 in stock in the Bell Telephone company. The trustees chose the cash instead of the stock, and institutional histories ever since have contended that the University foolishly lost out on a colossal gift. (10) However, in a 1956 letter from the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (successor to the original Bell company), an official explained that the shares of stock more likely were from a small, local telephone company that later merged with Bell. It is probable that the finance committee made the prudent choice in selecting the cash. (11)

Thompson's Gravesite

Thompson’s most lasting tangible contribution to the university occurred earlier with the construction of the building named in his memory. In 1882, Thompson provided the lead gift of $1,000 and the Chemical and Philosophical Hall opened (12).

Since its construction, Thompson Union has served the university as a science building, a student union, an advancement office. Today it is slotted as the location for a new University Commons. Through all these reinventions, the usually unnoticed memorial to Jacob Thompson remained the constant.

Image from the University's Master Plan in 2013 which highlights Thompson Union for potential changes

Memorialization does not cease once a building is dedicated or renovated. Today, as when it was built from 1882-1884, the old building on University Avenue – the heart of Sewanee’s fundraising operation – still stands as a tribute to Thompson’s career as “Soldier-Statesman to the Confederacy” and loyal patron to the university. That hardly anyone other than compulsive plaque-readers like myself notices is not an argument that Thompson Union’s genealogy is unimportant.

Just the opposite.

As the University of the South enters its second 150 years, our campus is grappling with the vast infrastructure of memorialization it harbors to the masters and defenders of the slaveholding older, the civilian and military architects of the Confederacy, and the leaders of the movement to suppress African American political power and reestablish white rule in the South. With this history all around us, we are obligated to become more, not less, attentive to the names and histories attached to the Sewanee we inhabit and love. There is both a need and an obligation to know these histories; a denial or dismissal of our past fails to condemn the causes celebrated in earlier times.

Last spring, historian Craig Steven Wilder of MIT visited Sewanee’s campus and spoke of this obligation to a large crowd assembled in Convocation Hall. When prompted to advise our university with his most salient piece of advice, Dr. Wilder encouraged universities to “model” their past, presents and futures on the ideals that they claim to uphold. “There is a better history of the American university if you actually have the courage to tell it…. And, there is a chance to actually make real the kinds of things that we say rhetorically; you know – our commitment to diversity and inclusion.” For Sewanee, making our ideals and values "real" means we must ensure that our buildings and the features of our Domain advance our goal to "create and sustain an intercultural community that includes and empowers all our members (13)."

There are a number of ways you can literally or figurative look more closely at Sewanee by participating in this project. The next time you walk through a building on campus, spend a little more time with the plaques, ask questions about the names, and seek answers.

Join the Sewanee Project’s work by transcribing on FromThePage and interrogating the words of our founders.

Follow our forums or speakers this year as we webcast these events, and use these opportunities to ask questions.

Your friends may be like mine and roll their eyes when you pause to take a closer look. Just invite them to come back and look with you.


  1. Frederick Hatch, John Surratt: Rebel, Lincoln Conspirator, Fugitive (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2016), 30-33.
  2. Confederate States Of America. Confederate States of America records: Microfilm Reel 6. to 1889, 1854. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mss16550006/.
  3. Hatch, 109.
  4. Charles Anderson Dana, Recollections of the Civil War: with the Leaders at Washington and in the Field in the Sixties (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898), 274.
  5. Hatch, John Surratt, 111.
  6. Chitty, “He Fought,” 15.
  7. P. L. Rainwater, “Letters To and From Jacob Thompson,” Journal of Southern History 6, no. 1 (February 1940): 104.
  8. Rainwater, “Letters To and From Jacob Thompson,” 107, 108.
  9. William Mercer Green to Jefferson Davis, December 9-14, 1869, in The Papers of Jefferson Davis (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008); George Rainsford Fairbanks, History of the University of the South (Jacksonville, Fla.: The H. & W. B. Drew Company, 1905), 146.
  10. Arthur Ben Chitty, “He Fought One Union, Built Another,” The Sewanee Alumni News 22 (February 1953): 15-16.
  11. S. Whitney Landon to Arthur Ben Chitty, May 28, 1956, in Jacob Thompson Biographical File, University Archives and Special Collections, Jessie Ball duPont Library, University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. (UASC).
  12. University of the South in acct with Chemical and Philosophical Hall 1882, List, Thompson Union Vertical File, UASC.
  13. Campus Commitment to Diversity, University of the South, 2015, http://www.sewanee.edu/about/commitment-to-diversity/.

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