John H. Reagan (1818-1905)
John Henninger Reagan was born on October 8, 1818 in present-day Gatlinburg, Tenn. to Timothy R. and Elizabeth Lusk Reagan. Like most East Tennessee families, the Reagans made their living by farming and trade. Both sides of John Reagan's family had came to America before the Revolutionary War and had settled in the Smoky Mountain region.
John Reagan proved himself to be an able youth growing up in the Tennessee backwoods hunting and fishing. As he reached his adolescent years, however, financial hardship fell on the family and their son's education had to end in order for the family to survive. The ever-resourceful youth decided he would provide for his own education and began working on his own to pay for the expense.
John held a variety of jobs to pay for his schooling and started studying law. During his time as a student, he worked as a tanner, farm laborer, a mill over-seer, and eventually as a salesman.
Around the age of 20, Reagan saw opportunities drying up in Tennessee and began hearing talk of Texas and the numerous opportunities available to an enterprising individual. With just enough to make the trip, the Tennessean joined the mass migration from the state to the New Republic of Texas.
Reagan's study of law allowed him admittance to the bar. Reagan became a deputy surveyor of public lands in 1839 to 1843 and began to establish his practice. Although Reagan focused his efforts on the job and his law practice, he directed most of his energy farming property he had acquired for his service.
The charismatic Tennessean quickly distinguished himself in the new state and rose to prosperity. In 1847, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives and left the post when he won the election to serve as the District Judge of Texas where he served five years out of a six year term. He again left office with a year remaining to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1857, Reagan became the Democratic Representative elected to Congress from the State of Texas.
He distinguished himself early on in his term in the House. The Tennessean's upbringing and his efforts in helping secure Texas Independence made him an ardent supporter of the State's Rights issues that were beginning to dominate national politics. His reputation had grown through the years and he was considered one of the most respected members of Congress.
In 1861, he left his Congressional seat to serve as a member of the Secession Convention of Texas and voted for the young state to join the Confederate cause. Reagan was the voice of reason in the Texas Convention. While many on both sides thought the war would only last a few short months, the Tennessean noticed the character of the men who were abdicating their positions to join the Confederate cause and saw a different picture.
Reagan's experience and wisdom shown through when he voiced his belief that a war could in fact last for years and provisions needed to be made for that possibility. He was joined in that belief by long-time friend and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who saw a man of incredible ability in Reagan.
Reagan was immediately elected as Texas's representative to the provisional Congress of the Confederacy. With states seceding left and right, then-President Lincoln began withdrawing federal operations from the seceded states. Maintaining communications in the Confederarcy became a primary goal of the Davis Administration.
In March 1861, President Jefferson Davis appointed Reagan Postmaster General of the Confederacy. For many people, this was seen as a minor post of little significance and beneath the skills of Reagan, but the Tennessean realized the significance of an efficient mail delivery system.
In June 1861, the United States Post Office ceased all delivery in the seceded states and forced the Confederate Post Office to begin official operations.
Three months earlier Reagan had been given the order by President Jefferson Davis to make the governmental body self-sustaininga point that was also laid out in the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. In addition, President Davis directed Reagan to meet with Confederate Railroad tycoons and assure their support in transporting not only mail, but other needed supplies to the seceded states. President Davis was so impressed with Reagan's performance he also put the office in charge of telegraph operations, which were just starting to become a factor in American communications.
Reagan realized what would have to be done and used his organizational abilities to ensure communications and transportation within the CSA would remain a serviceable infrastructure. His primary responsibility and focus had to remain on reorganizing the postal delivery system and making it work without government funding.
The postal rates he established to move the mail were very simple and efficient. It cost $.05 per 1/2 ounce under 500 miles, $.10 per 1/2 ounce over 500 miles, and $.02 for "drop letters" and circulars.
"Drop letters" were mail that was left at the post office and picked up later at the same location. Circulars included business flyers and newspapers, which provided a steady stream of income for the office.
The Confederate Government contracted the printing of postage stamps for the new office. In fact, more than 6 million stamps were printed for the Confederate Postal Service by Southern printers and the De La Rue Company in London, England. The stamps conformed to the new rates established by Reagan and bore the images of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Since the CSA had no postal treaties established with foreign governments or the Union government, Reagan had to become creative in order to ensure their delivery into the proper system. Since there was no funding for the office, everyone, including President Jefferson Davis, had to pay their own postage on letters and every additional service provided by the Post Office also carried a fee.
Reagan constantly kept abreast of Union occupations and adjusted mail rates according to the risk of delivery. When the Mississippi River was taken by the North in 1863, Reagan charged a higher rate to ensure the mail could be smuggled across the River and placed back into Confederate channels for delivery.
Reagan became one of the most watched men in the War Between the States by Union and international governments. His brilliant ability to operate the Confederate Post Office under the most miserable and trying of conditions impressed people in the highest ranks of power. His delivery service rivaled the North's and aggravated Union Generals, who would often find the mail service continuing in cities after they had been supposedly captured and operations shut down.
Reagan became one of President Jefferson Davis' most loyal and trusted Cabinet Officers. As the war began breaking down for the South, Reagan continued making adjustments in the delivery service and maintained his office's primary functions.
On April 2, 1865, the Confederate Capitol of Richmond was ordered evacuated. President Davis and his Cabinet Officers packed what they could and began making their way south towards Georgia. They hoped to get into the Trans-Mississippi region where southern resistance was still strong. During the journey, Confederate cabinet members began splitting off from the Davis group and heading out on their own to avoid being captured with the Confederate President. The Union had offered an outrageous reward for his capture and Union leadership was turning southern cities inside out looking for him or word of where he might have fled.
On May 10, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured outside the small town of Irwinville, Ga. The only Cabinet member caught with him was Gatlinburg resident and Confederate Postmaster General John. H. Reagan, who had loyally remained by his President's side throughout his exodus to safety. With Union anger running rampant following the assassination of President Lincoln, Davis was severly mistreated and paraded like a show pony through the cities on his way north to Fort Monroe, Va. where he would remain chained in a damp cell for two years.
Although captured and transported with the President, John Reagan escaped the brunt of the Union fury and was released from prison. In Richmond, the Union Army was occupying the southern Capitol buildings and seizing Confederate documents. What they found about the Confederate government's operations was pretty much expectedexcept for one glaring thing.
Governmental agencies in both North and South were bankrupt due to the heavy expense of financing the war and couldn't perform even basic civic functions. That is all but the Post Office of the Confederate States of America. Reagan did more than break even during the war. His office was the only one on both sides of the War Between the States that actually showed a modest profit.
The Gatlinburg native returned to his home in Texas and managed to weather the Reconstruction politics that practically tore the state apart. He restarted his law practice and began working his farm.
Reagan once again became a leading member of his community and helped the state reorganize its government. He served as a member of the State's Constitutional Convention in 1875 and helped author the new Texas Constitution. That same year, he was returned to his old seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and remained there 13 yearsleaving it when he won election to the United States Senate in 1887. It was a bitter-sweet victory for the Senator. In December of that year, his long-time friend and former CSA President Jefferson Davis died on a business journey while in New Orleans.
Reagan was interviewed by newspapers throughout America and Europe on the passing of Davis. He summed up his former President in words that spoke well of his character in office and would become a principal description of Jefferson Davis. John Reagan revealed Davis had reluctantly taken the position of President when the war started, but, when asked to serve, Davis felt he had no other option but to join his fellow countrymen in the Southern cause. Among one of the most remembered questions was when Reagan was asked what Jefferson Davis' motives were for his participation in the war.
"To secure a government that should be friendly to the people," said Reagan. "He was an intense believer in the doctrine that the States should control absolutely their domestic affairs . . ."
As in the past, Senator Reagan went on to again become a leading figure in American politics. He assisted in the passage of numerous important legislative bills including co-authoring the federal act that established the Interstate Commerce Commission.
In 1891, he surprised everyone when he suddenly chose to resign his seat in the U.S. Senate. During the war and since entering political life, Reagan had watched the railroad industry's incredible expansion in America and realized the potential of bringing American goods out of the heartlands and to the export cities that were boomingespecially with the advent of newly created refrigerated freight cars. The potential was such that America could quickly become a world economic power.
The only problems with the railroad industry, however, was the fact it was controlled mainly by federal regulations, which had led to rampant corruption among industry leaders and government officials wanting to control it. Farmers, who were becoming the nation's principal source of wealth, were being taken advantage of in ways that threatened the agricultural industries of numerous states.
To fight the railroads, farmers, who had tired of paying outrageous shipping fees, formed entire political parties to fight them in Washington, D.C, but were unsuccessful because of the money railroad companies could throw around in the city and influence elected officials. State governments had watched the unsuccessful efforts to reform the railroad industry and, in frustration, many decided to take matters into their own hands and form state-level railroad commissions to fight the fees mega-sized companies were charging farmers. Because of the reputation of industry executives to influence politicians, the farmers were very leery of the new commissions.
The efforts were deemed so important to American economic growth that Senator John Reagan didn't think twice about abdicating his Senate seat when the Texas Governor tapped him for the position of Director of the Texas Railroad Commission. The Governor told Reagan he was the only person with the reputation for integrity that could be trusted to make the system work and have the confidence of the people. Reagan once again found himself working on the side of the underdog. He implemented simple state regulations on railroads and managed to bring the companies under control in Texas. His work and regulations gained immediate attention and became a subject of study by other state governments. Reagan soon found himself becoming a spokesman of sorts for state regulation of railroads.
It was in that capacity that John Reagan traveled to the State of Tennessee. Through the years, he had kept in touch with his family members in Sevier County and decided to return to the Smoky Mountains in order to see them again. Knoxville newspapers accompanied him on the journey home. Reagan was welcomed as a returning hero by Sevier County leaders. The crowd who lined the street to see Gatlinburg's most famous native son was reported by the newspapers to be "one of the biggest in East Tennessee and most assuredly the biggest ever seen in Sevier County's history."
Reagan spent time with his family and wandered his old childhood haunts in Sevier County. In 1903, at the age of 85, John H. Reagan finally retired from public life. He returned to his home near Palestine, Texas and died on March 6, 1905. In honor for his service to a Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, the United States, and the State of Texas, a day of mourning was declared and the entire Texas State Legislature left Austin to attend his funeral.
From the TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom