Governor Harris

While enthusiasm for the southern cause during the Civil War was lukewarm among family household leaders like Thomas Alexander Paysinger and Benjamin Peeples, their children, siblings, cousins, and other relatives were sometimes much more motivated and involved. No family member embodied belief in the Confederacy more than cousin Isham G. Harris, the governor of Tennessee who led the state to secede from the United States at the start of the war.

Senator Isham G. Harris

Isham G. Harris while serving as a U.S. Senator late in his career. Library of Congress photo.

The Harris family was tightly wound up with the Randle, Davidson, and Thompson families. For example, Governor Harris was both a first cousin to Martha Davidson Randle and a third cousin to William Harrison Thompson’s wife Mary Elizabeth Harris. Martha’s brother John was also married to Isham’s sister Nancy (see chart below). The Randle-Davidson-Harris connection went back to North Carolina where they all lived in Anson and Montgomery Counties; in fact Major John Randle and West Harris were both among the petitioners for the creation of Montgomery County out of Anson. In the early 1830s Isham G. Harris, William H. Thompson, and the family of Mary Elizabeth Harris all separately moved to Paris, Tennessee.

Isham began his political rise from Paris, first winning a seat in the State Senate in 1847, then immediately going on to two terms in U.S. House of Representatives. After stepping down to practice law in Memphis for a few years, he returned to politics to win the governorship in 1857 and again in 1859. As tensions heated up between North and South, the people of Tennessee initially voted against secession in a referendum. But after Union forces fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina and President Lincoln ordered that the governor provide 50,000 troops to the Union army, Governor Harris gave a famous speech rejecting the president’s directive and then rallied the state legislature to break away and join the Confederacy after all. His reading of the changing public mood was apparently correct, as he was shortly thereafter elected governor for a third time over a pro-Union opposition candidate.

His third term as governor was destined to be short, however, as he was forced to flee in the face of invading Union armies early in the war. Harris then joined the Confederate Army, serving on the staffs of several Confederate generals. After the war he had to leave the country to avoid arrest for treason, first going to Mexico and then to England. He returned to Tennessee after the arrest warrant was withdrawn in 1867 and resumed his law practice. When the Democrats regained control over the machinery of state government at the end of Reconstruction, the legislature chose him as one of the state’s U.S. Senators in 1877. He served as Senator in Washington D.C. until his death there in 1897.


The chart is tight to fit on the page; colors provide some visual assistance in keeping the family relationships straight. There is one generation per row, except only that Governor Harris should be on the same row with sister Nancy Warren Harris.

While Isham G. Harris is certainly one of the most accomplished public leaders within the family (judged solely by the offices granted him by his community – not necessarily by the goals or results of his leadership!), it is interesting how many prominent individuals were connected to this branch of the family tree. John Randle, George Davidson, and West Harris were all North Carolina militia officers during the Revolutionary War, and George Davidson was also a member of the North Carolina Provincial Congress and early state legislature. Mary Lyle’s grandfather William was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Maryland militia and an important landowner. Benjamin Peeples‘ political and religious leadership was described in a prior post. Ben Thompson was an important landowner, businessman, and bank officer in west Tennessee. Equally significant individuals are found further out on the branches of the tree. Collectively, it is an useful illustration of the unsurprising fact that social elites tend to marry each other, and pass on the expectations and skills of community leadership to succeeding generations.

Genealogical Note

The Harris family certainly has its origins in England or Wales, but it is one of those early colonial families whose roots become difficult to trace in 17th century tidewater Virginia. The will of Edward Harris of Isle of Wight County, Virginia (proven in 1734) establishes him as the father of Nathan and West Harris. Edward’s father is known to be Thomas Harris whose will was proven in the same county in 1688. Further back in history the documentation is more tenuous and assertions more speculative, though most genealogists attempt to identify the immigrant Harris as one of the Harris’s associated with the Virginia Company and the original settlement at Jamestown. A Thomas Harris who arrived in 1611 on the ship Prosperous is a particular favorite. However, several researchers have tried and failed to find definitive records beyond Edward’s father Thomas. See in particular the book Harris Genealogy by Gideon Dowse Harris, 1914, available online at This book includes the full text of the aforementioned wills, and several other ones as well.

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