Willard Warner (1826-1906) was an entrepreneur, politician, soldier, and sometime gold prospector who had already led a varied life before he arrived in Alabama in 1865. After serving as a Union officer in the Civil War, he was elected to the Alabama legislature, represented the state in the U.S. Senate, farmed cotton, and built a small but briefly successful iron furnace in Cherokee County.
Warner was born on September 4, 1826, at Granville, Ohio, the son of Willard and Elva Williams Warner. He had an older sister, Helen. His great-grandfather, Daniel Warner, served as an officer in the American Revolution. Willard Warner attended local public schools and then received a liberal arts education in Ohio at Marietta College; he graduated in 1845.
In the winter of 1849, Warner, like many other easterners, headed west to the gold fields of California. After a hazardous journey of many months across Panama and north along the Pacific coast, he reached San Francisco at the height of the gold craze. Warner did find gold but not enough to make him rich. Instead, he witnessed the dark side of human nature, including price-gouging, scarred landscapes, greed, and the death of good men for little gain. Undoubtedly, Warner's time in the gold fields prepared him for what he would witness in the coming Civil War. He headed back east, having learned about human nature and the qualities needed to endure catastrophic situations, which would serve him well commanding soldiers during the Civil War.
After his return to the East in 1852, Warner settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he opened and operated a wholesale grocery business. In 1854, he moved to Newark, Ohio, to work for the Newark Machine Works, a maker of threshing machines, where he rose to become treasurer and then general manager. He thus acquired the industrial knowledge and business experience that he would later apply to enterprises in postwar Alabama. In 1856, Warner married Eliza Woods of Newark. (Her brother, William Burnham Woods, as well as Warner, later served with General William Tecumseh Sherman in Georgia and was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.) Warner became an early influential member of the Republican Party in Ohio, serving as a county party chairman and delegate. It was through his political work in Ohio that he became acquainted with several men who later held influential positions in Washington, D.C., and who helped further his career. Among these were Salmon P. Chase, future U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and Senator John Sherman, brother of General Sherman.
Soon after the Civil War began, Warner helped raise and organize the Seventy-sixth Ohio Infantry, and he became major of the regiment. This unit saw considerable combat in the Western Theater. During the course of the war, Warner rose to the rank of major-general. In 1864, Sherman appointed him inspector-general for his army in Georgia, and Warner was with Sherman at the Confederate surrender in North Carolina. He finished his military service as provost marshal in Raleigh, North Carolina, occupying the offices formerly used by the state's governor. In the postwar era, Warner divided his time between his Ohio home and family and a cotton plantation he had acquired along the Alabama River near Prattville.
For the next several years, Warner was commercially and politically active in both Ohio and Alabama. He was elected in 1866 to the Ohio State Senate, and just two years later he was elected to the Alabama legislature. Later that same year, he was elected Alabama's first Reconstruction-Era senator. When his term expired in 1871, he unsuccessfully sought reelection. His brief tenure provided him little opportunity to make any important impact in the Senate other than to participate in Alabama's readmission to the Union. His opposition to the Republican machine politics of the time, which sought northern advantage politically and financially in the South, ended his brief foray into national politics. In general, he disliked party politics and opposed those Republican leaders who sought personal gain and exacted revenge on the South. In 1871, Pres. Ulysses S. Grant appointed Warner customs collector at the port of Mobile. The following year, he declined Grant's offers to be governor of the New Mexico Territory and ambassador to Argentina because he felt the positions were beneath him, and he retreated from politics into business.
Once out of politics, Warner began his most significant project in Alabama, helping develop the early iron industry. In 1873, Warner organized and was president of the Tecumseh Iron Company, named in honor of his former military commander, in Cherokee County near the Alabama-Georgia state line. The area possessed the necessary ingredients for iron production—iron ore, limestone, and timber for charcoal—and was the location of at least two small iron operations before the war. A company town formed around the furnace after it went into blast in early 1874; it was named Tecumseh as well.
Warner produced low-cost iron and prospered during the 1870s and early 1880s. Then his company, like the iron industry throughout the South, began to suffer from increased competition from both northern and foreign producers. Tecumseh's charcoal blast furnaces could not contend with newer technologies entering the industry and the shift from coal to coke-fired furnaces in Birmingham and elsewhere. With business declining, Warner closed the furnace and in 1890 moved to Chattanooga, where foundries had been one of the principal purchasers of his iron. In Chattanooga, Warner became involved in a variety of businesses, including a textile mill, a bank, a wagon company, and a casket factory. He returned to political life and in 1897 was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly, where he introduced legislation to create a state flag.
Willard Warner died suddenly on November 23, 1906, at his office desk at the Chattanooga Coffin and Casket Company, of which
he was president. He was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Newark, Ohio. Warner was representative of those nineteenth-century
men whose multi-faceted careers provided them the depth of experience needed to build modern, industrial America. He was also
a representative of one aspect of the New South revival, which depended as much for its success on northerners, who, like
himself, made a home in the South, as on native southerners already living there.
Ryan, John B. Jr. "Willard Warner: Soldier, Senator, and Southern Entrepreneur." Master's Thesis. Auburn University, 1971.
———. "Willard Warner and the Rise and Fall of the Iron Industry in Tecumseh, Alabama." Alabama Review (October 1971): 261-279.
Willard Warner Papers at the Tennessee State Library & Archives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Ned L. Irwin
East Tennessee State University
Published December 8, 2008
Last updated February 21, 2011