Leroy Pope Walker (1817-1884) was a member of one of the most politically powerful families in early Alabama. He was a staunch supporter of states' rights and secession and served in a number of legislative, judicial, and political positions, including secretary of war of the Confederate States of America. Notably, he also served as the defense attorney for infamous outlaw Frank James, brother of Jesse James.
Walker was born in Huntsville, Madison County, on February 7, 1817, to John Williams Walker and Matilda Pope Walker. Leroy Pope Walker was named after his maternal grandfather, LeRoy Pope, a founder of the town of Huntsville. His father and grandfather were among the early settlers in Alabama called the Broad River Group, which exerted a powerful influence over state politics. Two of Leroy Pope Walker's seven siblings, Percy Walker and Richard W. Walker, were also distinguished in Alabama politics. (Novelist and essayist Walker Percy is a descendant.)
Walker grew up in Huntsville. He attended the University of Alabama from 1833 to 1835 and then the University of Virginia. He was admitted to the bar in 1837 and practiced law. Walker married twice, first to a Miss Hopkins, with whom he had two sons, Clifton and John Percy. After the death of his first wife, Walker married Eliza Pickett of Montgomery in 1850, and the couple had two daughters and a son: Matilda Pope, Eliza Pickett, and Leroy Pope Jr.
Walker was an important figure in state offices, in Democratic politics, and in secession. During the 1840s, Walker served in the state House of Representatives, representing Lawrence County and later Lauderdale County. His peers elected him Speaker of the House in 1847 and 1849. He served as president of the 1848 Alabama Democratic Convention. In 1856, Walker served the Democratic Party as an elector pledged to candidate James Buchanan in the 1856 presidential election.
In the later 1840s and 1850s, Walker became increasingly pro-slavery and secessionist in his politics. In 1846, he served as a member of the Russellville Convention, which adopted a resolution that demanded protection for slavery in any new U.S. territories. This language was later included as part of what has been called the Alabama Platform. When the Compromise of 1850 was adopted and California admitted to the Union as a free state, Alabama states' rights advocates selected Walker as a delegate to the Nashville Convention of 1850-51, where southern secession was debated as a possible response. In 1860, Walker led the Alabama delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Charleston. When the national Democratic Party refused to support the protection of slavery in new territories in its platform, Walker and the other Alabama delegates walked out, splintering the Democratic Party. This set the stage for Abraham Lincoln's election and Alabama's subsequent secession. Walker did not serve as a delegate to the Alabama Secession Convention, but his pro-secession views were widely known.
After the establishment of the Confederate States of America (CSA), new president Jefferson Davis, then living in the new CSA capital of Montgomery, began looking for an Alabamian for his cabinet so that all southern states would be represented. William Lowndes Yancey, a rabid secessionist, and Clement Comer Clay, a moderate secessionist , declined Davis' offer. When Yancey recommended Walker for Secretary of War, Davis offered Walker the position.
During the Confederate government's stay in Montgomery, Walker made two declarations that would return to haunt him. In a speech in Montgomery, Walker dismissed the possibility of a long and bloody war and offered to sop up all the spilled blood with a handkerchief, implying that the Confederacy would be victorious quickly and with little bloodshed. And in a public speech after the firing on Fort Sumter, Walker allegedly declared that the Confederate flag would soon be waving over the White House and possibly even Faneuil Hall in Boston. Walker later denied making such a claim. Walker was both badly out of step with Davis's policy and dangerously ignorant of the realities of the situation that the Confederacy faced.
As secretary of war, Walker was ill prepared for the magnitude of the task he faced. He was a poor administrator, and he had no appreciable military experience. In the summer of 1861, Walker was blamed for the supply and organizational problems of the Confederate military. In September, after a disagreement with President Davis over the Confederate violation of Kentucky's neutrality, Walker resigned and was given an appointment as a brigadier general the next day.
Walker commanded garrisons at Mobile and then Montgomery, but lacking any substantial body of troops, he resigned his commission in 1862. He returned home to his Huntsville law practice and defended Alabama Unionists charged with treason. Walker had been an ardent secessionist, but he had parted with the Davis administration and believed that north Alabama Unionists deserved their day in court . In 1864, he was commissioned as a colonel for a military court, serving until the conclusion of the war.
After the war, he was influential in bringing down the rule of the Republican Party in Alabama during Reconstruction. He served as the president of the Alabama Constitutional Convention, which ended Reconstruction in Alabama in 1875. In 1883,
he served as the defense lawyer for outlaw Frank James, who was being tried for a robbery at Muscle Shoals, and gained his acquittal. Walker died on August 23, 1884, and is buried in Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville.
Davis, William C. A Government of Our Own. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Harris, William C. Leroy Pope Walker, First Secretary of War of the Confederacy. Master's thesis, University of Alabama, 1959.
Thornton, J. Mills. Politics and Power in a Slave Society. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
D. Jonathan White
University of Alabama
Published November 18, 2008
Last updated October 3, 2011