Following the arrest and imprisonment of Gov. Charles Clark in May 1865, Mississippi was for the third time without a chief executive. The state remained under martial law until 13 June, when Pres. Andrew Johnson appointed William Sharkey to serve as provisional governor. Responsibility for restoring order and gaining Mississippi’s readmission to the Union fell to Sharkey.
William Lewis Sharkey was born in Tennessee in 1797 and came to Mississippi with his family in 1803. He had a highly successful law practice in Vicksburg, served briefly in the state legislature, and was elected chief justice of the Mississippi High Court of Errors and Appeals, a position he held for eighteen years. After leaving the bench, Sharkey served briefly as the American consul in Cuba and compiled the Mississippi Code of 1857.
Sharkey was a member of the Whig Party and a strong Unionist. He was one of the few Mississippi political leaders who did not support the Confederate States of America, even after the Civil War had begun. His loyalty to the Union earned him the appointment as provisional governor. Pres. Johnson adopted a conciliatory policy toward the southern states and moved quickly to restore them to the Union. He directed Sharkey to call a constitutional convention to declare the ordinance of secession null and void and to abolish slavery. Johnson also directed Sharkey to hold a general election for state officials in October. Addressing the violence of postwar Mississippi, Sharkey ordered Union Leagues disbanded and founded some new local militia units, hoping they would be more effective and more popular than the US military. Sharkey tried to walk a difficult line, supporting plans for Reconstruction while allowing some authority to pre–Civil War officials. Though opposed by the federal government, he encouraged the federal government to relinquish control of the state.
Benjamin Humphreys won the governorship in October 1865, but Sharkey did not yield the office until December. The Mississippi legislature then appointed Sharkey to the US Senate. In addition, the legislature passed a set of laws known as the Black Codes that gave Mississippi’s former slaves virtually no civil or constitutional rights.
Because of the Black Codes and because the Mississippi legislature refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the US Congress refused to seat Sharkey and the rest of Mississippi’s congressional delegation in December 1865. In 1867 Johnson’s lenient plan of Reconstruction was replaced by the congressional plan, which imposed certain political restrictions on southern whites but extended the vote to Mississippi’s former slaves.
Sharkey did not take an active role in Reconstruction after December 1865. He continued his law practice in Jackson until his death in Washington, D.C., on 30 March 1873. Sharkey County is named in his honor.
- William C. Harris, Presidential Reconstruction in Mississippi (1967)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912)
- Dunbar Rowland, Encyclopedia of Mississippi History, vol. 2 (1907)