Edward Cary Walthall, a Confederate general and US senator, was born in Richmond, Virginia, on 4 April 1831 to Sally Wilkinson Whitehall and Barrett White Walthall, a merchant who moved his family to Holly Springs, Mississippi, after going bankrupt in 1841. Edward was educated at an Episcopal school, St. Thomas Hall, and spent one year studying law with his brother-in-law, George R. Freeman, in Pontotoc. Walthall was admitted to the bar in 1852 and moved to Coffeeville. In 1856 he was elected district attorney. The same year, he married Sophie Bridges, though she died soon thereafter. He married Mary Lecky Jones in 1859 and adopted her daughter.
After the outbreak of the Civil War Walthall volunteered with the Yalobusha Rifles and was elected first lieutenant. When the Rifles became part of the 15th Mississippi Regiment he was elected lieutenant colonel. Walthall and other members of the command first saw action in eastern Kentucky at Mills Springs on 19 January 1862, where his steady resolve earned him favorable attention despite the fact that the Confederate Army was soundly defeated in the engagement. He won promotion to colonel of the 29th Mississippi Regiment in April 1862 and led it in the Kentucky Campaign, where the unit participated in an assault on a Federal garrison at Munfordville. He was promoted to brigadier general in late November and took command of a brigade of several Mississippi regiments. Although he missed the Battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro) because of illness, he was in command at Chickamauga, where his forces were heavily engaged and acquitted themselves well. During the Battle of Lookout Mountain, his brigade was stationed on the front of the mountain. On 24 November 1863 Union forces launched a massive assault, attempting to capture the summit. Dense fog shrouded the area and made it difficult for Walthall’s men to discern enemy movements. After a prolonged resistance, an enormous number of Walthall’s men were cut off and captured. With his command reduced to little more than a single regiment, Walthall and his survivors fled down the mountain and made their way across to Missionary Ridge. The next day a wave of Union infantry clambered up Missionary Ridge, breaking the Confederate line in several places. At a critical juncture Walthall’s depleted brigade was ordered to alter its position and check the enemy. Despite receiving a severe wound in the foot, Walthall remained with his troops as they drove the enemy back and held their ground until withdrawing after nightfall.
Walthall’s brigade participated in the Atlanta Campaign and fought with distinction at Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain. He was promoted to major general and divisional command on 6 July 1864 and led troops at Peachtree Creek and Ezra Church. During John Bell Hood’s ill-fated invasion of Tennessee, Walthall led unsuccessful assaults against Federal forces at Franklin on 30 November 1864, having two horses shot from underneath him. Following the crushing defeat at Nashville the next month, Walthall led eight shrunken brigades that formed the rear guard of the army. This command and cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest protected the remnants of Hood’s army as they retreated into Mississippi. Walthall and what was left of his division went to North Carolina, where he was paroled on 1 May 1865.
Walthall met L. Q. C. Lamar while traveling home from the war, and that relationship profoundly shaped the remainder of Walthall’s life. The two men became close friends, and Lamar served as Walthall’s political mentor. For a brief time they practiced law together in Coffeeville. In 1871 Walthall moved to Grenada, where he became a corporate lawyer, representing the Mississippi Central Railroad and the Illinois Central Railroad after it acquired the Mississippi line. He served as a delegate to four Democratic National Conventions between 1868 and 1884 and worked to end Reconstruction in Mississippi. He attended the Democratic-Conservative convention in August 1875 that promised to protect former slaves’ civil rights while plotting to restore white supremacy under the auspices of the Democratic Party at the county level. During the ensuing campaign Walthall spoke extensively throughout the state on behalf of the effort to oust Republicans from power. Neither Lamar nor Walthall espoused violence and racial intimidation, and they in fact courted black voters, but they did so primarily to avoid federal intervention in the November state election. Followers were less constrained in many areas, and a combination of fraud and violence resulted in an overwhelming Democratic victory. Walthall did intervene in an Election Day altercation in Grenada sparked by the beating of a black man by an angry white that threatened to flare into a race riot, but intimidated African Americans refused to return to the polls.
Lamar worked assiduously to have the state legislature select Walthall to replace outgoing senator Blanche K. Bruce in 1881, but a deadlock ensued and Walthall withdrew in favor of James Z. George, who embarked on the first of his three terms. When Grover Cleveland selected Lamar to serve as secretary of the interior in 1885, Walthall was chosen to finish out the remaining year of Lamar’s term. He was elected by the state legislature to his own term in 1886 and served in the Senate until 1894, when he resigned as a consequence of ill health. However, he regained his seat in March 1895 and continued to represent Mississippi until his death in Washington, D.C., on 21 April 1898.
For all his prominence, Walthall is something of an enigma. No biography exists, in part because no large body of letters has survived in any repository. What can be stated with certainty is that Walthall followed Lamar’s lead in pursuing national reconciliation while hoping to limit the federal government’s interference in state political affairs.
- William C. Harris, The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi (1979)
- Charles Hooker, Confederate Military History: Mississippi, ed. Clement A. Evans (1899)
- Edward Mayes, Lucius Q. C. Lamar: His Life, Times, and Speeches, 1825–1893 (1896)
- Memorial Addresses on the Life and Character of Edward C. Walthall (Late a Senator from Mississippi) Delivered in the Senate and House of Representatives, Fifty-Fifth Congress, Second and Third Sessions (1899)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History: Comprising Sketches of Counties, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons (1907)
- E. T. Sykes, Walthall’s Brigade: A Cursory Sketch, with Personal Experiences of Walthall’s Brigade, Army of Tennessee, C.S.A., 1862–1865 (1905)