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James Ferguson Dowdell

Joshua Shiver, Auburn University
James F. Dowdell
James Ferguson Dowdell (1818-1871) served in the U.S. Congress representing Alabama's Seventh Congressional District from 1853 to 1855 and the Third Congressional District from 1855 to 1859. A wealthy plantation owner and strong proponent of states' rights, Dowdell signed the Ordinance of Secession for the state of Alabama in 1861 and then served as the commander of the Thirty-seventh Alabama Infantry regiment during the American Civil War. After the war, Dowdell became a professor at East Alabama Male College (present-day Auburn University) in Auburn, Lee County, then served as its second president.
James Ferguson Dowdell was born near Monticello, Georgia, on November 26, 1818, to Lewis Jefferson and Elizabeth Clay Farley Dowdell; he had three siblings who lived to adulthood. After completing his preparatory studies and graduating from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, Dowdell read law under Hugh A. Haralson of Georgia and completed his law degree in 1840. The following year, he was admitted to the state bar and established his own legal practice in Greenville, Georgia. On June 23, 1842, he married Sarah H. Render, and together they would have four children.
In 1846, Dowdell uprooted his family and moved to Oak Bowery, Chambers County, where he took up farming and served as president of the Oak Bowery Female College. Young and ambitious, he decided to run for the Alabama House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1849 in support of southern rights; he failed in his bid and ran again, also unsuccessfully, in 1851. The following year, he ran once again for office and was elected to the U.S. Congress, representing Alabama's Seventh District from March 4, 1853, to March 3, 1855, succeeding Alexander White, who declined to run. Sampson W. Harris would succeed Dowdell in the Seventh District.
In 1855, reapportionment brought Chambers, Montgomery, Macon, Russell, and Autauga Counties together into the Third Congressional District that had been held by Harris from 1847 to 1855. Dowdell then ran as a representative from this district, winning the election and serving two terms from 1855 to 1859. He declined to run for another term, and David Clopton won the open seat. During this period, Dowdell, who was known as an accomplished debater, spoke in favor of protecting southern rights and expanding slavery in the Kansas Territory during debate on the Kansas-Nebraska Bill. Dowdell became an ordained Methodist minister and by 1860, the U.S. Census listed his occupation as "farmer" and the value of his estate at $78,000, an astronomical sum for the time. Although Census records are inconclusive, he likely owned many slaves and a large plantation.
A staunch Democrat and associate of the fiery pro-secession William Lowndes Yancey, Dowdell eagerly signed Alabama's Ordinance of Secession as a member of the January 1861 state convention. And during the debate, he voiced some support for the resumption of the slave trade. In spring 1862, Dowdell received a commission as colonel of the Thirty-seventh Alabama Regiment, which he helped raise. It was organized in Auburn with men from the surrounding Tallapoosa, Pike, Henry, Macon, Barbour, Chambers, and Russell Counties. The Thirty-seventh Alabama saw extensive combat in the Western Theater in the Confederate Army of the West at the battles of Iuka, Corinth, Chickasaw Bayou, Port Gibson, and Champion's Hill. Wounded during the September 1862 Confederate defeat at Iuka in Mississippi, Dowdell was in poor health by the time his regiment was surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant's Union forces on July 4, 1863, at Vicksburg. Given his poor condition, Dowdell was paroled and ruled physically unable to resume active service. Returning to Alabama in 1863, he ran for governor but lost handily to Thomas H. Watts. By August 1864, Dowdell had retired from military service because of his failing health and settled in Auburn.
Like most Confederate veterans, Dowdell was desperate for employment. In 1866, he became a professor at the recently reopened East Alabama Male College (EAMC) in Auburn, teaching courses on political economy. From 1866 to 1870, Dowdell served as the second official president of the college, guiding it through tumultuous postwar years that saw decreased enrollments and funding. Dowdell considered enrolling women at the all-male school to raise funds until the school could be transferred to the state in order to save the college from closure, but the idea was rejected. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which granted federal land to states that they could sell and then use the funds to establish land-grant universities to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanical arts as well as classical studies. Alabama accepted the offer of land in 1867 and sold the acreage to raise funds. Dowdell realized that donating the campus to the state and establishing it as a land-grant institution was his only means of saving the struggling school and his livelihood.
By 1870, Dowdell was in dire financial straits after the collapse of the slave-based plantation economy of the South. His net worth had dwindled to approximately $7,000, or less than ten percent of his pre-war wealth. His health continued to decline, and he died on September 6, 1871. Son James R. Dowdell would serve as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court from 1909 to 1914.

Additional Resources

Dorman, Lewy. Party Politics in Alabama from 1850 through 1860. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
Thornton, J. Mills, III. Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
Published:  August 1, 2016   |   Last updated:  December 19, 2017