Edmund Winston Pettus (1821-1907) was the last Confederate brigadier general from Alabama to serve in the U.S. Senate. An attorney, he was an influential leader of the state Democratic Party but did not hold public office until he was 75 years old. He served in the Senate for 10 years until his death in 1907.
Pettus was born in Limestone County on July 6, 1821, to John and Alice Winston Pettus, the youngest of nine children. He was educated in the public schools and attended Clinton College in Smith County, Tennessee. He then studied law under William Cooper in Tuscumbia, Colbert County. After being admitted to the bar in 1842, he moved to Gainesville, Sumter County, and opened an office with Turner Reavis. Reportedly, Pettus was an impressive figure in the courtroom, standing six feet tall and having a deep voice. Pettus married Mary Lucinda Chapman in 1838 or 1844 (sources disagree), with whom he would have three sons, two of whom died in infancy, and two daughters.
Pettus served as a lieutenant in the Mexican War from 1847 to 1849 with a regiment of the Alabama Volunteers. When the war ended, he traveled to California on horseback with friends to take part in the gold rush. He returned to Alabama two years later, crossing Central America at the Isthmus of Panama; many years later, he would oppose the construction of the Panama Canal while serving in the Senate.
Pettus settled in 1851 in Carrollton, Pickens County. After serving as solicitor of the district (1853-1855) and judge (1855), he moved to Cahaba, Dallas County, where he was living when the Civil War broke out in 1861. During Alabama's brief period as a republic, Pettus was a commissioner to Mississippi, where his brother, John J. Pettus, was governor. In August 1861, he was elected as major in the Twentieth Alabama Infantry, which he had helped recruit in Cahaba. The following October, he was elevated to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Pettus proved to be a resourceful leader in some of the most difficult operations of the western campaigns. He was captured at Vicksburg, Mississippi, with one source saying that he escaped and made his way to his brother's house in Mississippi; after that, he became colonel of the Twentieth Alabama Infantry upon the death of Gen. Isham Garrett. On September 18, 1863, he was promoted to brigadier general, commanding the Twentieth, Twenty-third, Thirtieth, Thirty-first, and Forty-sixth Alabama regiments. Pettus served in a number of battles, including Missionary Ridge and Nashville in Tennessee and Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia. A few days before the Confederacy surrendered, Pettus was seriously wounded in one of the last skirmishes of the war.
After his recovery, Pettus established another residence in Selma, Dallas County, resumed his law practice, and became a powerful force in Alabama politics. In the Democratic Party, he was chairman of the state delegation to each national convention from 1872 through 1896. After failing to secure an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court from Pres. Grover Cleveland and insulted by comments about his age, at 75 Pettus decided to run for the U.S. Senate. In a field that included John Hollis Bankhead, Gov. William C. Oates, and incumbent James L. Pugh, Pettus won the election.
In the Senate, Pettus was made chair of the Judiciary Committee because of his extensive legal experience and served on the Committee on Military Affairs, on the Disposition of Waste Paper Committee, and on the Army Appropriations Committee. He supported the Gold Standard Act of 1900 (which established gold as the only standard for redeeming paper money, in contrast to those who supported using both gold and silver) and favored taxes that benefitted large landowners. He opposed war with Spain until it became a reality and also opposed the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declared that U.S. senators be elected directly by the state's citizens rather than their legislatures. During the debate about the Panama Canal in Congress, Pettus conscientiously backed fellow Alabama senator John Tyler Morgan, who supported construction of the canal in Nicaragua rather than Panama. Pettus also worked for appropriations to build locks and dams on the Coosa River and at Muscle Shoals, as well as requesting appropriations for other state improvements.
The advanced ages of both Pettus (85) and Morgan (82), led the Alabama Democratic Party to hold a special election, called the "dead shoe" primary, to choose their successors in case either or both could not complete their terms. Congressman John Hollis Bankhead was chosen as Morgan's successor, and Joseph F. Johnston as Pettus's. The unusual move proved prescient. On a vacation trip to Hot Springs, North Carolina, Pettus suffered a stroke on July 25, 1907, and died on July 27. He is buried in Live Oak Cemetery in Selma. The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, later the site of Bloody Sunday during the civil rights movement, was named in his honor.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama United States Senators by Elbert L. Watson (Huntsville, Ala: Strode Publishers, 1982).
Berry, Thelma Caine. "The Life of Edmund Winston Pettus." Master's thesis, Alabama Polytechnic Institute, 1941.
Elbert L. Watson
Easley, South Carolina
Published November 8, 2010
Last updated March 22, 2011