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Henry M. Mathews
Henry M. Mathews - Brady-Handy.jpg
5th Governor of West Virginia
In office
March 4, 1877 – March 4, 1881
Preceded by John J. Jacob
Succeeded by Jacob B. Jackson
7th Attorney General of West Virginia
In office
Governor John J. Jacob
Preceded by Joseph Sprigg
Succeeded by Robert White
Personal details
Born (1834-03-29)March 29, 1834
Frankford, Virginia
(now West Virginia)
Died April 28, 1884(1884-04-28) (aged 50)
Lewisburg, West Virginia
Political party Democratic
Spouse Lucy Fry Mathews
  • Mason Mathews
  • Eliza Shore Reynolds Mathews
Relatives Mathews family
Alma mater University of Virginia
A.B. 1856
B.L. 1857
Profession Politician
Military service
Allegiance Confederate States of America Confederate States of America
Branch/service  Confederate States Army
Years of service 1861–1864
Rank Confederate States of America Captain.png Major of Artillery 1863–1864

Henry Mason Mathews (March 29, 1834 – April 28, 1884) was an American military officer, lawyer, and politician in the U.S. State of West Virginia. Mathews served as 7th Attorney General of West Virginia (1873–1877) and 5th Governor of West Virginia (1877–1881), being the first former Confederate elected to a governorship in the United States. Born into a Virginia political family, Mathews practiced law before the outbreak of the American Civil War. When Virginia seceded from the United States in 1861, he volunteered for the Confederate States Army, where he served in the western theater as a major of artillery. Following the war, Mathews was elected to the West Virginia Senate, but denied the seat due to state restrictions for former Confederates. He participated in the 1872 state constitutional convention that overturned these restrictions, and was thereafter elected attorney general of West Virginia. After one term, he was elected governor of West Virginia.

Mathews was identified as a Redeemer, the southern wing of the conservative, pro-business Bourbon faction of the Democratic Party that sought to oust the Radical Republicans who had come to power across the postwar South. However, Mathews took the uncommon practice of appointing members from both parties to important positions, causing his administration to be characterized as "an era of good feelings." His administration faced challenges related to the Long Depression, most notably the outbreak of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, as a protest to wage cuts. After several failed attempts to quell the strike, Mathews called on President Rutherford B. Hayes for federal assistance, which brought national attention to the strike that spread to other states in what would be the first national labor strike in United States history. Mathews' handling of the strike was criticized at the time, though the involvement of the federal government in breaking up the strike has come to be seen as inevitable by modern historians. In later life, Mathews served as president of the White Sulfur Springs Company (now the Greenbrier Resort).

Early life

Henry Mason Mathews was born on March 29, 1834 in Frankford, Virginia, U.S., (located in modern-day West Virginia) to Eliza Shore (née Reynolds) and Mason Mathews. His father was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and his family had been politically prominent in western Virginia since the beginning of its European settlement in the early 1700s. His ancestry was Scotch-Irish and/or Welsh.

Mathews received a primary education at the Lewisburg Academy, and afterward attended the University of Virginia, earning a Bachelor of Arts in 1855 and a Master of Arts in 1856. Outside of academics, he was a member of the fraternal organization Beta Theta Pi. In his Masters Thesis, "Poetry in America," Mathews reconciled the decline of fine arts in the face of industrialism with the potential for societal advancement such industry might bring, stating, "while we may regret to see the art of poetry declining, . ... we know also that this very fact is an evidence of the continual improvement of the mind of man, and of the advancement of the world in the accomplishment of its destiny."

On the completion of his graduate degree, Mathews entered Lexington Law School and studied under John W. Brockenbrough, graduating in 1857 with a degree of Bachelor of Laws. He was admitted to the bar in the same year, at which point he opened a law office in Lewisburg with his younger brother, Alexander F. Mathews. Soon afterward he accepted the professorship of Language and Literature at Alleghany College, Blue Sulphur Springs, retaining the privilege to practicing law in the courts. Also in 1857, at age 22, Mathews married Lucy Fry Mathews, daughter of Judge Joseph L. Fry. They had 5 children: Lucile "Josephine", Mason, William Gordon, Henry Edgar, and Laura Herne.

Mathews became active in public life in the years proceeding the outbreak of the American Civil War. He did local organizing for Democratic presidential candidate John C. Breckinridge during the 1860 presidential campaign. Breckinridge lost the national vote to Abraham Lincoln, who did not receive a single vote in Mathews' home county of Greenbrier. Nevertheless, Greenbrier opposed secession in the United States, voting against it in the Virginia Secession Convention of 1861 the following Spring. When Virginia ultimately decided on secession, Mathews voiced, "I am in favor of the preservation of our glorious Union, and a resort to all Constitutional remedies for its restoration. Next to my Bible, I reverence [the] Constitution of my Country & the Union."

Military service

There is but one sentiment here. Every man, young & old is ready at a minute's warning to defend the Old Commonwealth.

—H. M. Mathews letter to Virginia governor John Letcher, April 21, 1861
Brigadier General Alexander W. Reynolds, uncle of Major Henry Mason Mathews

Despite Mathews' objection to secession, he chose to follow his home state of Virginia on its joining of the Confederate States of America in May 1861. Mathews, along with his two brothers, volunteered for the Confederate States Army (CSA) at the rank of private. Mathews was assigned to the staff of Brigadier General Henry Wise, who in 1861 engaged in a public feud with fellow CSA general John B. Floyd over authority of the western Virginia region. Mathews' father, Mason Mathews, who was the Virginia House Delegate for Greenbrier County, made field visits to each of the generals, then recommended in writing to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that both be deposed. President Davis removed Floyd from command in Virginia and reassigned him to Fort Donelson in Tennessee.

In 1863, Henry Mathews was moved to the staff of his uncle, Brig. Gen. Alexander W. Reynolds, in Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson's division of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton's army. He was promoted to major of artillery and accompanied the generals throughout the Vicksburg Campaign. When general Stevenson's division advanced to Baker's Creek for the Battle of Champion Hill, Mathews was left in Vicksburg as the chief of his department.

Following the Vicksburg Campaign, Mathews was arrested by orders of General Robert E. Lee after an unintended strategic error. He described the circumstances in a letter to his brother, Capt. Joseph William Mathews:

On the night of the 6th [October 1864], I got into Camp tired and wet, went to bed and slept very soundly. About midnite a courier brought me a note that each brigade should move with its own ordnance. By a very dim light and just aroused, I read the note incorrectly, that each division shall move with its own ordnance. When I discovered my mistake I explained the matter to General S[tevenson]. He said that my explanation was perfectly satisfactory and asked me to make it in writing in order that he might forward it to Gen. Lee. I did so and just before Lee rec'd the explanation he ordered S. to arrest me and prefer charges. So here I am in arrest.

Lee dismissed the charges on receipt of the explanation and Mathews returned to his camp. By the end of 1864, Mathews had lost enthusiasm for war and was granted discharge from the Confederate States Army.

Political career

Political rise

While at war Mathews' reputation as a fledgling leader had spread through his home state. In a post-war state that was dominated by the Republican party, Mathews, a Democrat, was elected to the West Virginia Senate in 1865 but was not allowed to serve due to the restriction that prohibited former Confederates from holding public office. As Democratic support increased in subsequent years, state Republicans amended the West Virginia State Constitution to return state rights to former Confederates in an attempt to appeal to voters. However, the effort backfired as the Democratic party quickly regained control of the legislature. Mathews was sent as a Democratic delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1872 to overhaul the 1863 Republican-drafted state constitution. The drafting of this new constitution, of which Mathews was a part, enabled his rise in the politics of the state. The following year, 1873, Mathews was elected 7th attorney general of the state under Governor John J. Jacobs, succeeding Joseph Sprigg, and served one term in which his popularity within his party rose.

'Death to Bourbonism' Cartoon
An 1870s political cartoon calling for "Death to Bourbonism"

At the conclusion of his term as attorney general, Mathews defeated Republican Nathan Goff by 15,000 votes in the most one-sided race for governor in state history at that time. Thus, on March 4, 1877, Mathews became 5th governor of West Virginia, and the first Confederate veteran in the United States to be elected to a governorship. Mathews' conservative, pro-business platform aligned him with the Bourbon Democratic movement sweeping the South. Mathews was the first of the Bourbons to ascend to a governorship, though many would follow all over the South in the 1880s.

Governor of West Virginia

In his inaugural address, Mathews emphasized unity and progression in the wake of war, promising:

The legitimate results of the war have been accepted in good faith, and political parties are no longer aligned upon the dead issues of the past. We have ceased to look back mournfully, and have said "Let the dead past bury its dead," and with reorganized forces have moved up to the living issues of the present.

Mathews' address was well-received across the state. The Republican Morgantown Post praised Mathews' "broad, manly, and liberal address, which possesses, to our mind, an honesty of purpose, and a freedom from disguise, that is truly refreshing. . . The skies are brightening all around, and argue well for a long lease of the best fraternal feeling." Mathews' inauguration, one "of flowers and flags and banners and music, feasting and revelry," had been a more elaborate affair than previous gubernatorial inaugurations had been, setting a precedent in the state that has continued to the present.

On assembling his cabinet, Mathews sought "perfect peace, that fighting might cease." He appointed both Republican and Democratic party members to his cabinet, a move that was uncommon in the post-war political climate.

Harpers 8 11 1877 Blockade of Engines at Martinsburg W VA
Blockade of engines at Martinsburg, West Virginia, July 16, 1877

Great Railroad Strike

Awaiting Mathews in office were economic woes associated with the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent Long Depression. In July 1877, four months into his term, he was alerted that Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia, had been stopping trains to protest wage cuts. Mathews called out local militia under Colonel Charles J. Faulkner to disperse the protest, but unbeknownst to Mathews, several in the company were rail workers themselves, and many others were sympathetic to the strike. The militia acted indecisively on arrival, and in the confusion a striker named William Vandergriff fired on the militia and was mortally wounded by return fire. Local papers blamed Mathews for the death and deemed Vandergriff a "martyr." The militia officially conveyed to Mathews that they would thereon refuse his orders.

Mathews responded by sending another militia company—this time making sure no rail workers were among them—to address the growing strike, but he was informed that this company too would not act against the strikers. Mathews finally complied with the urging of his administration to request Federal troops from newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes. Mathews' decision to call for federal support garnered significant national notice to the strikes. Local newspapers were highly critical of the governor's characterization of the strikes to Hayes as an "insurrection" rather than an act of desperation, with one notable paper recorded a striking worker's perspective that, "[he] had might as well die by the bullet as to starve to death by inches." Mathews' decision to call for federal assistance has been vindicated by historians, who have come to view federal involvement as inevitable.

Hayes had vowed not to involve the Federal government in domestic matters during his candidacy several months prior, and he sought to solve the matter diplomatically. After failed negotiations with leaders of the railway "insurrection," he reluctantly dispatched Federal troops to Martinsburg. However, by this time the strike, by then referred to as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, had reverted to peaceful protest in Martinsburg while violence spread to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Missouri. The strike gained considerable support in other states across the country.

In 1880, Mathews was again required to dispatch the militia, this time to Hawks Nest, Fayette County, to stop the state's first major coal strike, as miners from Hawks Nest were being threatened with violence to cease productivity by a rival constituent.

Relocating the capital

West Virginia State Capitol 1
West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia. Charleston was made the state's permanent state capital during Mathews' administration.

From 1863, when West Virginia was formed, through 1875, the capital of West Virginia had traveled between Wheeling and Charleston, with its location largely dependent on political party control of the state, with Republicans favoring Wheeling and Democrats favoring Charleston. Early in Mathews' administration, a vote was held to determine a permanent location for the capital, which was currently located in Wheeling. Three options of Charleston, Clarksburg, and Martinsurg were presented (Wheeling was not listed as a voting option). During the campaigning, state Democrats employed a young Booker T. Washington to engage in a speaking tour to consolidate black opinion in favor of Charleston. Charleston won the vote, and has remained the state capital since.

State debt and treasury

Questions of debt owed by West Virginia to Virginia persisted throughout Mathews' term in office. The question arose quickly when in 1863 West Virginia was created from the northwestern Virginia region. While both states recognized that a debt existed, determining the value of the debt proved difficult. Virginia authorities had determined that West Virginia should assume approximately one-third of the state debt as of January 1, 1861 — the year Virginia was seceded from the United States, determining West Virginia's total to be $953,360.32. Mathews' advisers countered with the figure of $525,000. Another figure given to him by the Virginians was $7,000,000, owed by West Virginia to its eastern counterpart. Unable to determine the accuracy of these reports, and recognizing that the question had taken on political meaning, Mathews pursued policy intended to suspend a resolution until the specifics had become clear. His successor, Jacob B. Jackson, inherited the same problem and further suspended the resolution of the matter. The argument dragged on throughout the 1800s and the debt was not retired until 1939.

During Mathews' administration, Attorney General Robert White secured a decision by the United States Supreme Court in favor of levying taxes against the burgeoning railroad industry, which to that point had not paid any taxes to the State of West Virginia. This decision resulted in an influx of thousands of dollars into the State treasury.

Views on race and slavery

Before the Civil War, western Virginia had a relatively low slave population compared to the eastern part of the state, or the South as a whole (4% in western Virginia as compared to about 30% in the South). Mathews' family were among this slave holding population in western Virginia. Mathews' precise views on race and slavery are unclear, though he was a member of several local political conventions that issued statements and resolutions opposing racial equality, both before and after the Civil War. He was also a member of the state convention that wrote the 1872 West Virginia Constitution, which declared that "White and colored persons shall not be taught in the same school." Historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor states that the belief of "the necessity of racial stratification" would have been a common position of a White southerner "and a good many prominent Northerners" around this time.

During Mathews' political rise, he was identified as a Redeemer – the Southern faction of the Bourbon Democrats. Redeemers dominated Southern politics in most areas from the 1870s to 1910 and were generally led by wealthy former planters, businessmen, and professionals who expelled the freedmen, carpetbaggers, and scalawags from Southern government and reestablished white supremacy in the South. However, West Virginia historian Otis K. Rice objects to this characterization of the West Virginia Redeemers:

This fails to do justice to the flexibility of West Virginia Bourbons. The West Virginia Democrats who followed the Republican founders of the state included Governors Mathews, Jackson, Wilson, Fleming, and MacCorkle. These men were ready to adjust to changing political conditions and to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the federal Constitution, which conferred freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote and hold office upon former slaves.

From 1865 to 1957 West Virginia passed eleven Jim Crow laws under Democratic leadership. None of these were passed during Mathews' administration of 1877 to 1881. In 1881, following the ruling of the Strauder v. West Virginia Supreme Court case, Mathews reversed a 1873 state law that prohibited blacks from serving on juries.

Later life

At White Sulphur Springs
Late 19th-century White Sulfur Springs Company

Mathews retired from politics in 1881, at which point he returned to his law practice. He additionally served as president of the White Sulfur Springs Company (now The Greenbrier resort) following its post-war reopening. The resort became a place for many Southerners and Northerners alike to vacation, and the setting for many famous post-war reconciliations, including the White Sulphur Manifesto, which was the only political position issued by Robert E. Lee after the Civil War, that advocated the merging of the two societies. The resort went on to become a center of regional post-war society.

Henry M. Mathews died unexpectedly on April 28, 1884 and is buried in the at the Old Stone Church cemetery in Lewisburg, West Virginia.


Henry Mathews Guinea stamp
Henry M. Mathews on a 2010 Republic of Guinea stamp

In policy Mathews was a strict Bourbon Democrat. He established a state immigration bureau to attract new workers to the state, expanded the coal and oil industries, improved transportation, and funded a state geological survey. He was described by West Virginia historian James Callahan as "a patriotic, broad, and liberal minded ex-Confederate who had fully accepted the results of the Civil War and was well fitted to lead in meeting living issues." His administration at large has been characterized as "an era of good feeling," due to his appointing of Republicans to office during his Democratic tenure.

Fellow West Virginia Governor William A. MacCorkle, in Recollections of Fifty Years of West Virginia (1928), said of him: "He was not a good come-and-take debater, but when he had prepared himself to make an oration on the issues of the day, he was splendid. His oratory was easy, smooth, perfectly balanced, his voice was splendidly modulated, his gestures were perfect, and he could make as fine an impression on a rather cultivated audience as any man in the state." Historian Mary L. Rickard, in the Calendar of the Henry Mason Mathews Letters and Papers in the State Department of Archives and History (1941), offered a critical analysis of his administration: "At this time there was less wealth per capita in West Virginia than in 1865, the result of which had a pronounced effect upon State politics. Those highest up in the social scale held the highest political positions and the entire organization became dangerously corrupt." However, West Virginia historian Richard Fast notes that no committee to investigate any alleged scandal or mismanagement was appointed during Mathews' term.

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