Civil War Wednesday: Alexander Stephens

  • Monument in front of Liberty Hall

    Monument in front of Liberty Hall, Stephens’s home in Crawfordville, Georgia.

A younger Stephens.
A younger Stephens.

Alexander H. Stephens, a Georgia native, graduate of Franklin College (later UGA), and a former member of the Georgia legislature and the U.S. Senate, served as vice-president for the Confederate States of America. Stephens, along with the other delegates from the Empire State, joined representatives from South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana as they met in Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861 to consider the next steps toward achieving some form of independence among the recently seceded states. Texas had also left the Union, but due to the great travel distance required, their delegates did not arrive in Montgomery until activities had set in-motion the establishment of the Confederate States of America.

During the deliberations, and subsequent drafting of the Confederate Constitution, “Little Aleck” took a very active role. When the time arrived for naming the provisional president and his cabinet, Stephens received the position of vice-president. Early in the war, Stephens spent time in the Confederate capital, which relocated to Richmond, Virginia, after the Old Dominion seceded. Stephens and President Jefferson Davis initially enjoyed a relatively positive working relationship. Soon, however, Davis relegated Stephens to a figure head with minimal responsibilities; yet another cabinet member Davis did not take full advantage of in navigating through the struggles of maintaining a fledgling nation at war. Stephens made frequent trips back to his beloved Georgia, and as 1863 unfolded, he spent the majority of his time at his home, Liberty Hall, in Crawfordville. Despite many naysayers of the period who criticized Stephens for failing to offer more active support of the Davis administration, the Georgian primarily took issue with two decisions emanating from Richmond. Stephens did not agree with conscription (the draft), and Davis’s ability to institute marital law.

Of conscription, Stephens suggested the act proved “…radically wrong in my judgment, both in principle and policy. Under this general system it will with us be a simple question of how much political quackery we have strength of constitution to bear and yet survive.” [1] As for suspending the writ of habeas corpus and imposing martial law, Stephens turned, as he always did, to Constitutional law. His brilliant legal mind interpreted the matter as the “… [Confederate] Constitution was made for war as well as peace…laws for the civil authorities and laws for the military…the constitutional guarantees are above and beyond the reach or power of Congress, and much more…beyond the power of any officer of the government.” [2] For his position on each of these issues, but especially his speaking out against martial law, Stephens received much criticism in newspapers throughout the Southland. “Little Aleck” remained in Crawfordville, until early 1865, when hopes for a potential end of hostilities drew him back to Richmond.

Davis appointed Stephens, and fellow Georgian John A. Campbell, along with Virginian R.M.T. Hunter to meet with President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. After four hours of discussion onboard the River Queen, with Lincoln holding steadfast to his demand for the seceded states to peacefully resume their place within the Union, the failed Hampton Roads Peace Conference ended. The fighting would continue

Notebook and reading glasses on Stephens’s desk.
Notebook and reading glasses on Stephensâs desk.

without Stephens, who returned to Crawfordville. On May 11, 1865, Federal officers took him into custody, and he spent five months incarcerated in Boston’s Fort Warren prison. After receiving parole, Stephens once again returned to Crawfordville, where he spent the next few years penning his two-volume discourse A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, which appeared in print, volume one in 1868, and the second in 1870. He served several terms as a U.S. Representative from Georgia before his election as governor in the fall of 1882; he would hold this position but four months.

Stephens died on March 4, 1883, and after an initial interment in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, he came home to Crawfordville one final time where he rests today, amid the scenic grounds of the Alexander H. Stephens Historic Park. Tourists can visit his home, as the Georgia Department of Natural Resources currently manages the site.

[1] Stephens to Unknown Recipient, August 29, 1863, in Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private. With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, and Since the War, ed. Henry Cleveland (1866; repr., n.p.: IGCtesting, 2013), 173.

[2] Stephens to Honorable James Calhoun, Mayor of Atlanta, September 8, 1862, Ibid., 747-48.

All photographs taken at the A. H. Stephens State Historic Park in Crawfordville, Georgia, courtesy of the author.


Michael Shaffer

Michael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center. He is a Civil War historian, author, and newspaper columnist, and a member of the Society of Civil War Historians. He serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and assists the Friends of Camp McDonald as a Civil War consultant.

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