United States Congressman from Mississippi
United States Secretary of the Interior
Inspector General in the Confederate Army
Confederate Secret Agent
(1810-85) Born in Caswell County, North Carolina, he attended Bingham Academy, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1831, and served as a member of their faculty in 1831-32. He then studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1834, and commenced practice in Pontotoc, Mississippi. He was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Congress, and served from 1839-51. He was the chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs in the 29th Congress. He was appointed U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the Cabinet of President James Buchanan and served from March 6, 1857, to January 8, 1861, when he resigned to throw his lot in with the Confederacy. Horace Greeley's New York Daily Tribune denounced Thompson as "a traitor," remarking, "Undertaking to overthrow the Government of which you are a sworn minister may be in accordance with the ideas of cotton growing chivalry, but to common men cannot be made to appear creditable." He served as Inspector General in the Confederate States Army during the War Between the States. Thompson later served as an aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard at the Battle of Shiloh, and was present at several other battles in the Western Theater of the war, including Vicksburg, Corinth, and Tupelo. He later was the leader of the Confederate Secret Service in Canada in 1864 and 1865. From there, he directed a failed plot to free Confederate prisoners of war on Johnson's Island, off Sandusky, Ohio. He also arranged the purchase of a steamer, with the intention of arming it to harass shipping in the Great Lakes. Regarded in the North as a schemer and conspirator, many devious plots were associated with his name. On June 13, 1864, Thompson met with former New York governor Washington Hunt at Niagara Falls. According to the testimony of Peace Democrat Clement Vallandigham, Hunt met Thompson, talked to him about creating a Northwestern Confederacy, and obtained money for arms, which was routed to a subordinate. Thompson gave Ben Woods, the owner of the New York Daily News, money to purchase arms. One plot was a planned burning of New York City on November 25, 1864, in retaliation for Union Generals' Philip H. Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman's scorched-earth tactics in the south. Some speculate that John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, met with Thompson, but this has not been proven. Thompson worked hard to clear his name of involvement in the assassination in the years after the war. His manor, called "Home Place," in Oxford, Mississippi was burned down by Union troops in 1864. After the war, Thompson fled to England and later returned to Canada as he waited for passions to cool in the United States. He eventually came home and settled in Memphis, Tennessee, to manage his extensive holdings. Thompson was later appointed to the board of the University of the South at Sewanee and was a great benefactor of the school. He died in Memphis in 1885 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
Signature With Place: 4 3/4 x 1, in ink, J. Thompson, Oxford, Miss. Cut irregular at the top which does not affect any of his handwriting. Very desirable Confederate secret agent's autograph.