[Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator by Sam Davis Elliott (Louisiana State University Press, 2009). Cloth, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 320/353. ISBN: 978-0-8071-3490-0 $48]
Compared to the legions of minor Civil War military figures that have been accorded full biographical treatments, governors have been surprisingly neglected in the literature. Thus, when one does emerge, it serves notice. Deserving of attention is Sam Davis Elliott's new book Isham G. Harris of Tennessee, a scholarly work that provides readers with a meticulous political biography of the man as well as an account of the governor's wartime role as military aide and advocate for his state's Confederate soldiers.
According to the author, no great body of Harris papers exists. In spite of his obvious handicap, Elliott has dutifully attempted to outflank the roadblock by poring through an impressive array of other primary and secondary sources. While the reader thus gains few insights into Harris's personality and relationships with intimates and family, the Tennessean's political career as governor and senator is painstakingly recreated.
Isham Harris appears to have been one of those rare powerful Confederates who was able to get along well (or at least never badly) with essentially everyone he needed to get along with, from President Davis on down through all the prickly commanders of the Army of Tennessee. The evidence uncovered by Elliott shows that Bragg, Beauregard, and the Johnstons all held Harris in high personal esteem and seem to have truly valued his services and presence on the field. Most Civil War readers will recognize Harris as the man who held the dying Albert Sidney Johnston in his arms at Shiloh. Also, at at least two points during the war, the governor was also seriously considered for appointment as a general officer.
With the fall of the state capital in early 1862, Harris attached himself as a volunteer aide to the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee, and he spent the rest of the war on the move in support of the army, always advocating for Volunteer State officers and men. Elliot does a very good job of comprehensively tracing these movements and interactions. A military aspect that one wishes the author had devoted more attention to was the governor's role in the funding, organization, and staffing of the Provisional Army of Tennessee, the state precursor of the Confederate Army of Tennessee. On the other hand, perhaps it was felt by Elliott that the subject was covered well enough in the first volume of Thomas L. Connelly's standard history of the army. Also, while the author does mention such criticism in passing, a more detailed discussion of whether Harris's direct attachment to the army and tireless attention paid to it led him to neglect his other duties might have been in order.
While many biographies of important Civil War figures tend to peter out in the postwar period, Elliott devotes over a third of his study to Harris's life after the war, one that included a period in exile, a renewed law practice, and a lengthy second career in the United States Senate. Indeed, from reading Isham G. Harris of Tennessee, one gets as much a history of 19th Century Democratic politics, state and federal, as a biographical treatment of the man. Author Sam Davis Elliott has succeeded in making the best of a difficult situation, and his impressively researched biography will likely be regarded as the standard work on Governor Harris's political career.