Thomas Ruger served as the military provisional governor of Georgia for six months in 1868. In that role he oversaw the removal of the capital from Milledgeville to Atlanta and instituted the convict lease system. A Union veteran of the Civil War (1861-65), Ruger later served as the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Education and Early Career
Thomas Howard Ruger was born on April 2, 1833, to Maria Hutchins and Thomas Jefferson Ruger in Lima, New York. At the age of eleven, the family moved to Janesville, Wisconsin. Ruger spent the remainder of his childhood there, earning a reputation as a quiet but diligent student. Accepting an appointment to the military academy at West Point, Ruger graduated third in his class in 1854. The next year Ruger left the military and opened a law practice in Janesville. In 1857 he married Helen Lydia Moore, and they had two children. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Ruger returned to the army and remained a soldier for the rest of his life.
As an officer in the Third Wisconsin, Ruger served in a variety of engagements, including Chancellorsville and Second Bull Run in Virginia, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and the draft riots in New York City. Through his exceptional service, he achieved the rank of brevet major general by war’s end. Afterward, Ruger served as commander of the state of North Carolina during the early years of Reconstruction.
On January 13, 1868, Union general George Meade appointed Ruger as Georgia’s new provisional governor. His appointment followed the removal of elected governor Charles Jones Jenkins due to his withholding of funds for the 1867 constitutional convention. Ruger served more as a figurehead for carrying out Meade’s wishes than as an executive authority. Although Ruger wielded very little power, he is noteworthy as being the last of Milledgeville’s governors before the capital’s removal to Atlanta in 1868.
The only lasting impact of Ruger’s governorship was the convict lease system. Citing an 1866 provision giving discretionary powers to governors, Ruger initiated two such programs that would set precedence for future administrations. On July 4, 1868, Ruger left the governorship after Rufus Bullock, Georgia’s first elected Republican governor, was inaugurated.
Following his stint as governor, Ruger enjoyed wide postings and appointments within the postwar military hierarchy. These positions included superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, commander of the Department of the South, and commander of the Department of Dakota. In 1897 Ruger retired from his long military career at the rank of major general. His last years were spent quietly with his family at their home in Stamford, Connecticut. He died on June 3, 1907, and is buried at the West Point Cemetery in West Point, New York.