John Jones Pettus served the shortest term as governor in the state’s history—five days beginning with the resignation of Henry Foote on 5 January 1854. Pettus is best known, however, for his second stint in the office, during which he took Mississippi out of the Union in 1861.
John Jones Pettus was born in Wilson County, Tennessee, on 9 October 1813 and moved with his family to Kemper County, Mississippi, as a small boy. By the 1840s he was a wealthy cotton planter, with at least twenty-four slaves and well over one thousand acres of land. A Democrat, Pettus represented Kemper County in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1846 to 1848 and in the State Senate beginning in 1848. He was named president of the Senate in 1854.
In 1850 Pettus was one of six Democrats and six Whigs whom the Mississippi legislature selected to represent the state at the Nashville Convention, which sought to address sectional disputes, especially involving issues of the expansion of slavery into the West. Pettus decided not to attend, sensing that the convention would likely support compromises he could not endorse. As the sectional crisis worsened during the 1850s, Pettus became identified as a “fire-eater,” a term that described the South’s strong supporters of secession. His 1859 election as governor by a large majority (34,559 votes for Pettus, 10,308 for his opponent) indicated that secession was becoming more popular with the voters of Mississippi. In his inaugural address, Pettus predicted that the growing sectional animosity would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery and the loss of the South’s enormous financial investment in the slave labor system. Condemning John Brown’s Raid and the growing Republican Party, he said that secession and the establishment of a southern confederacy would be the South’s only way of maintaining slavery, and he called on other slave states to prepare for the possibility of secession.
After the election of Pres. Abraham Lincoln in 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union and invited other southern states to join in the formation of a southern nation. Under Pettus’s leadership, Mississippi followed South Carolina out of the Union on 9 January 1861 and joined the Confederate States of America on 4 February.
Late in the fall of 1860, Pettus instructed Mississippians to start amassing weapons for a likely war. Over the next summer hundreds of militia units were formed throughout the state, and by the fall of the year, after the First Battle of Bull Run, many of those local units were enrolled in the Confederate Army. Pettus won reelection in the fall of 1861 with only token opposition. The following year, in response to the issue of funding, recruiting, and providing supplies for Mississippi’s troops, Pettus called for complete commitment: “I recommend that the entire white male population of the State from 16 to 60 years of age, be enrolled in the militia.”
To his opponents, Pettus seemed rough in manner and poor at administration, while his supporters considered him a decisive if often combative leader. Like many Mississippians, he suffered personal losses as a consequence of the war—his son, John, died at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in 1861—and frequent displacements from his home. In 1862, during the early stages of the Vicksburg Campaign, Pettus was forced to move the state capital first to Enterprise and then back to Jackson. When his second term expired in October 1863, Pettus urged Mississippi to keep fighting, and in the summer of 1864 he joined the Confederate Army as a private. After Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Pettus refused to surrender and settled in Arkansas, where he continued to resist federal military authorities until his death from pneumonia on 28 January 1867.
- Robert W. Dubay, John Jones Pettus, Mississippi Fire-Eater: His Life and Times, 1813–1867 (1975)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, vol. 2 (1907)