Joseph Addison Turner was a writer, editor, publisher, lawyer, and planter. He is best known for publishing The Countryman, a weekly newspaper produced from his Putnam County plantation during the Civil War (1861-65). Despite his previous publishing failures, Turner’s Countryman generated a wide southern readership during its four-year existence.
Born on September 23, 1826, in Putnam County, Turner was the son of William (“Honest Billy”) Turner and Lucy Wingfield Butler. At seven years old, he suffered a bone infection that left him crippled for life and kept him homebound for several years. As a result, Turnwold, the Turner family home located nine miles from Eatonton, served as the primary location for his early education. His father tutored him using the family’s extensive library. His later education included six years at the Phoenix Academy in Eatonton and one term at Emory College at Oxford in 1845.
After a year at Emory, Turner moved to Eatonton, where he taught for a year at the Phoenix Academy, then prepared for and passed the Georgia bar. In 1850 Turner married Louisa Jane Dennis. They had eight children. In 1855 he entered politics by running for solicitor general of the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit. He lost the race but was elected to the Georgia senate two years later.
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Turner pursued his literary passions. He published a wide array of poems, book reviews, articles, and essays under a variety of pseudonyms. In 1848 he began his first publication, Turner’s Monthly, which lasted only three months. In 1854 Turner founded a weekly journal called the Independent Press. It was a business failure, and he shut it down within the year. Throughout the rest of the decade, he edited several other publications that failed. He moved back to his plantation, Turnwold, in 1856, and there, only after the outbreak of the Civil War, did Turner achieve publishing success.
On March 4, 1862, Turner published his first issue of The Countryman, a unique venture that stands as probably the only newspaper ever published from a plantation. Declaring Turnwold’s purpose to be the cultivation of “corn, cotton, and literature,” Turner drew on the plantation’s extensive library and built a full printing shop on the site. Despite difficulties created by shortages in ink, paper, and other materials over the course of the war, The Countryman circulated throughout the Confederacy from its inception through its final issue in May 1866.
Turner was a staunch advocate for slavery and the Confederacy. The original motto for The Countryman read, “Brevity is the Soul of Wit,” but by 1863 Turner had changed it to “Independent in Everything, Neutral in Nothing.” He used The Countryman to voice his pro-Confederate views through articles and editorials. The venture was also distinguished for launching the journalistic career of yet another notable Georgian—Joel Chandler Harris. Turner hired the sixteen-year-old Harris, an Eatonton native, as an apprentice and typesetter for The Countryman in March 1862. Under Turner’s guidance and stern editing, Harris remained with the paper for its duration. He developed into an excellent literary composer and contributed a number of essays, poems, and book reviews to the paper himself.
In June 1865 Union officials placed Turner under military arrest for “publishing disloyal articles,” and publication of The Countryman was suspended for several months. After the suspension ended, Turner managed to revive The Countryman for four months before, exhausted, he shut down the operation for good in May 1866. Turner died almost two years later, on February 29, 1868, in Eatonton at forty-one years of age.