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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.