Williamson S. Oldham (1813–1868)

Williamson S. Oldham was a lawyer and politician who was born and reared in Tennessee. He was elected twice to the Arkansas House of Representatives and once to the Arkansas Supreme Court, but subsequent failed efforts to get elected to the U.S. Congress from Arkansas convinced him that Texas was a more promising venue for a political career. The results in the Lone Star State were similar—small victories but ultimate frustrations in his ambition to go to the national Congress. He was a major figure, and frequent critic, however, in the congress of the Confederacy, and after the war he wrote a memoir that detailed the rise and fall of the Confederacy.

Williamson Simpson Oldham was born on June 19, 1813, to Elias Oldham and Mary Burton Oldham, poor farmers in Franklin County, Tennessee. He was largely self-educated but, at the age of eighteen, started a school in the hills west of Chattanooga. He studied law under Justice Nathan Green of the Tennessee Supreme Court and was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1836, the same year Arkansas gained statehood.

Oldham married Mary Vance McKissack, with whom he would have five children, and they moved to Arkansas, settling in Fayetteville (Washington County), where he established a law practice. In 1838, he ran for the Arkansas House of Representatives and won a seat from Washington County. He was elected again in 1842 and was Speaker of the House for a brief term. He was a popular politician, and his former colleagues in the legislature elected him in 1844 to one of the three seats on the Arkansas Supreme Court. He served until 1848.

The Arkansas Supreme Court and, in fact, the entire Arkansas judicial system were in their formative stages, and most of the court’s docket every year dealt with procedural matters and often niggling errors by lawyers or trial judges. Its docket every term also dealt with disputes involving banks, sometimes the Real Estate Bank of Arkansas but far more often the State Bank of Arkansas. After his election to the legislature, Oldham got involved in the legislative and judicial wrangling over control of the Real Estate Bank, helping “foment” (according to Supreme Court historian J. W. Looney) the bank’s controversies. Oldham and the industrious and prolific chief justice, Thomas Johnson, continued to write opinions settling banking disputes long after the State Bank had closed in 1843. Both banks closed amid corruption and mismanagement.

In 1846, while sitting as a justice, Oldham lost a race for the state’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to Robert Ward Johnson. He aspired to be a U.S. senator but was disappointed there, too, in 1848. Discouraged by the political setbacks and plagued with a lingering case of tuberculosis, Oldham, along with his wife and children, moved in 1849 to Austin, Texas—a route often followed by other Arkansas politicians of the era, notably Justice George S. Paschal, who also became a prominent Texas leader. In Austin, his wife died, and in 1850 he married Anne S. Kirk. After her death, he married Agnes Harper in 1857.

Although he continued to practice law and search for political opportunities, Oldham ventured into business, including newspapering. He was president of the Austin Railroad Association in 1852 and, from 1854 through 1857, was editor of the State Gazette at Austin, a Democratic journal. He ran for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in 1853 and for a seat in Congress in 1859 (Texas had gained statehood in 1845) but lost both times. He moved his family to Brenham, Texas, midway between Austin and Houston, in 1859. He and his law partner and newspaper co-editor became fierce critics of Governor Sam Houston, a foe of secession. Houston retaliated against criticism by Oldham by charging that, as a Supreme Court justice in Arkansas, Oldham had pilfered bank books and thrown them into the White River.

As the crucial presidential election of 1860 approached, Oldham became deeply enmeshed in the politics of slavery and secession, which would consume him for the final eight years of his life. A devoted secessionist, he defended slavery, not on moral grounds but as a historical system that government was obliged to preserve until Black people in his view could progress to a level closer to equality with white people. It was a philosophy that would be applied by Southern moderates to the racial segregation that was preserved for a hundred years after the Civil War and emancipation. Oldham claimed to fear that emancipation would lead to the destruction of the Black race.

Oldham supported Kentucky senator John C. Breckinridge in the presidential race of 1860 rather than the regular Democratic Party candidate, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. Breckenridge was a foe of secession but later became a Confederate leader. When Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, Oldham became a Texas delegate to the Provincial Congress of the Confederate States of America. His first assignment by President Jefferson Davis was to go to Arkansas and bring it into the Confederacy. Arkansas voters had called a secession convention after Abraham Lincoln’s election, but the convention delegates wavered about joining the Confederacy. An Arkansas Gazette analysis of the popular vote on the convention was that 23,626 Arkansas voters favored staying in the Union and 17,927 were for joining the Confederacy. While the delegates were dithering, Oldham, once a friend of many of the delegates but now representing the Confederacy, threatened Arkansas with an economic boycott if it did not join the other Deep South states and Texas in the Confederacy. The delegates seemed to be unmoved.

When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln called on Arkansas to supply 780 soldiers to maintain law and order. The convention voted down that idea and then voted overwhelmingly to secede. Arkansas declared its independence of the United States on the afternoon of May 6, 1861, and soon joined the Confederacy.

As a Confederate senator, Oldham became a leading voice in the Southern government and sometimes a critic of it. He often criticized, albeit mildly, the policies of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Southern war strategies. He fiercely opposed conscription, saying that drafting men against their will violated human rights promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. He became involved in the military effort and participated as a civilian adviser in several campaigns. He took a lenient view of President Lincoln, saying he was merely mirroring the sentiments of Northern people, who he said were determined to bring calamity to Dixie.

After the war, Oldham wrote extensively about the secession movement and the war. He wrote a book that purported to be a history of secession and the war, detailing the Southern failures that led to the defeat. He offered an analysis of nearly every battle and attributed General Ulysses S. Grant’s victory to overwhelming military forces.

Oldham died of typhoid fever on May 8, 1868, in Houston, where he had moved two years earlier. The Galveston News carried this message upon his death: “We shall take an early opportunity to give a sketch of his life and character. We can now only say that in his death Texas has lost one of her ablest statesmen, who for many years has borne a prominent part in our public affairs.” Oldham County in Texas was named for him. He was buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Houston, Texas, but in 1938 his remains were removed to Eagle Lake Masonic Cemetery at Eagle Lake, Texas.

For additional information:
“Death of Hon. W. S. Oldham.” Arkansas Gazette, May 23, 1868, p. 2.

Hempstead, Fay. Historical Review of Arkansas, Vol. 1. Chicago: Lewis, 1911.

“Judge W. S. Oldham.” Galveston Daily News. May 9, 1868, p. 2.

Oldham, Williamson S. Rise and Fall of the Confederacy: A History of a Journey from Richmond to the Rio Grande, from March 30th until June 26th, 1865, Or the Last Days of the Confederate States. Edited by Clayton E. Jewett. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.

“Simpson History: William Simpson Oldham (1813–1868), SPEECH OF HON. W. S. OLDHAM, OF TEXAS, ON THE SUBJECT OF THE FINANCES [Confederate] Senate, December 23, 1863.”  https://simpsonhistory.com/notes/williamsonoldham.html (accessed June 22, 2023).

“Tribute of Respect.” Galveston Daily News, May 14, 1868, p. 1.

Ernest Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas


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