Alexander Stephens (1812-1883)
Frail and sickly, the
Confederate Vice President
Despite grave misgivings, Stephens ultimately signed Georgia's ordinance of secession. To his consternation, the recently retired congressman was then selected with nine others to represent his home state at the Provisional Confederate Congress in Montgomery, Alabama, in February. There his status as the South's most outspoken former Unionist won him the vice presidency.
Initially, Confederate president Jefferson Davis consulted his vice president frequently, and Stephens appeared to be part of the president's inner circle. That changed, however, once military concerns began to consume the administration's attention. "Little Aleck" was no military man, and Davis found little time for him after hostilities began in earnest. Stephens likewise had less and less use for the Richmond, Virginia, government, and the amount of time he spent in the Confederate capital decreased commensurately. He grew disaffected with Davis's nationalist bent and lent encouragement to Georgia's governor, Joseph E. Brown, who was a vigorous advocate of states' rights.
Still, Stephens continued to perform some governmental functions, and in 1863 he attempted to initiate an exchange of prisoners with the North. That effort failed, but the diminutive vice president used the correspondence with his Northern counterparts to begin to push for a negotiated end to the war. There was little enthusiasm for such a solution in either the North or the South, but Stephens persisted in his hope that diplomacy could prevail. When a meeting with Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward was arranged at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in February 1865, Davis—who, significantly, did not attend—sent Stephens to head the Southern delegation. Of course, the North could accept no terms that allowed the Confederacy to continue to exist, and the negotiations came to nothing. In general, then, Stephens's tenure as the Confederate vice president may be characterized as a rarely broken string of frustrations and disappointments.
Although not a member of the Bourbon Triumvirate that ruled over a "redeemed" Georgia, Stephens rose once more to political prominence after Reconstruction. He returned to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1873, and he served there until 1882. That same year he was elected governor of the state but died in office on March 4, 1883. Stephens's grave is on the front lawn of his Crawfordville home, Liberty Hall, now a state park maintained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Stephens County in north Georgia is named for him.
William C. Davis, The Union That Shaped the Confederacy: Robert Toombs and Alexander H. Stephens (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001).
Thomas E. Schott, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988).
Emory M. Thomas, The Confederate Nation, 1861-1865 (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).
Chad Morgan, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.