Native New Yorker and former U.S. Army officer George Eliphaz Spencer (1836-1893) served two terms as a U.S. senator from Alabama during Reconstruction. His tenure in Congress is remembered for corruption and abuses of office, including embezzlement, vote tampering, and political patronage that earned him the epithet of “carpetbagger.” As a U.S. Army officer, Spencer recruited Unionist Alabamians to serve in the Army during the Civil War.
George E. Spencer Spencer was born in Champion, New York, November 1, 1836, to Gordon Percival and Deborah Mallory Spencer. His father, Gordon Spencer, served as a U.S. Army surgeon during the War of 1812. Spencer attended Montreal College in Canada, studied law in Watertown, New York, and later headed west to Iowa. There, he was admitted to the bar and served as secretary of the Iowa state senate in 1857. He later traveled to Colorado to prospect for minerals.
After the Civil War broke out, Spencer most likely returned to Iowa and joined the U.S. Army as a captain in 1862 but was soon reassigned as chief of staff to Maj. Gen. Grenville Dodge, who was from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Also that year, Spencer married English author Bella Zilfa. By 1863, Spencer was recruiting troops in north Alabama for the First Alabama (Union) Cavalry Regiment from among the pro-Union populace. Under Gen. Judson Kirkpatrick’s command, he led a cavalry brigade in Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s 1864 Atlanta Campaign and subsequent “march to the sea.” For his gallantry, Spencer was briefly commissioned brigadier general, a practice known as brevetting, on March 3, 1865, before he resigned.
Spencer’s wife died in 1867, and around this time he opened a law office in Decatur. In 1868, the Republican-controlled state legislature elected him and fellow Republican Willard Warner to vacant seats in the U.S. Senate. A close political friendship with the new president, Ulysses S. Grant, enabled Spencer to attempt to personally control politics in the state. His ties with Republican governor William Hugh Smith were at first beneficial to his interests as well. Smith, a former Democrat from Randolph County, had opposed secession. Defeated in a bid for the Confederate Congress, he traveled to north Alabama and spent the war recruiting soldiers for the U.S. Army, as did Spencer.
Spencer’s election to the Senate quickly posed serious problems for Smith, Warner, and others who did not support his agenda. Shortly after Grant’s election, Spencer had the Alabama Legislature petition the federal government to send troops to suppress sporadic violence in the northern and western portions of the state. Smith insisted that local law officials could control the situation, but Spencer successfully painted an overly dim picture of political and social conditions in the state in his senatorial speeches and dispatches to Washington in an effort to retain federal troops.
Spencer’s ties with President Grant allowed him to wrest from Smith much of his control of federal patronage authority, the practice of awarding jobs and funds to supporters, in this case, fellow northerners. Spencer’s vicious personal attacks on Smith and Warner neutralized their political threats to him. Disillusioned, Warner tired of politics and did not stand for reelection, and Democrat Robert B. Lindsay narrowly defeated Smith in 1870 in his bid to stay in office. In May 1871, Spencer successfully maneuvered political ally George L. Murphy to the position of postmaster in Mobile, despite the fact that Murphy had been convicted of misappropriating funds as county school superintendent. This appointment brought a loud public outcry, however, and within a year Murphy was replaced.
In 1872, Spencer held his Senate seat against Democrat Francis W. Sykes, despite the mounting public outcry about his partisan political activities. Having successfully ruined his Republican colleagues, he now turned his attention to the resurgant Democrats who controlled the governor’s office and the legislature. To thwart their effort to dislodge him, Spencer resorted to his old tactic of overstating incidents in the state and demanding the retention of federal troops as Reconstruction came to an end. In the ensuing election cycle, Alabama ended up with two legislatures. The body controlled by the Democrats met at the state capitol and elected Sykes to the U.S. Senate. The body under Republican control, known as the “courthouse legislature,” convened at the Montgomery County Courthouse and, as expected, elected Spencer. Sykes vehemently contested this action and was ably represented before the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections by former Confederate general John Tyler Morgan. But the committee never acted on the issue, and Spencer was permitted to retain his seat. Efforts were made in Alabama to remove him. In the state elections of 1874, the Democrats regained control of all major offices and congressional seats, except for one in the House. A joint committee from the Alabama House and Senate investigated Spencer’s misuse of power in the 1872 election, but he was not removed. In 1876, the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency marked a turning point in Spencer’s fortunes, however. Hayes, a friend of Warner’s, almost immediately removed several of Spencer’s allies from their prestigious positions in Alabama, further diminishing his influence.
In 1877, Spencer married prominent actress William Loring Nunez, the daughter of a former Confederate officer named for her uncle, a Confederate general. She was known among friends and family as May Nunez. The couple spent two years on a ranch in Nevada tending to mining interests before settling in Washington, D.C. Spencer died there on February 19, 1893, and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from Alabama United States Senators by Elbert L. Watson (Huntsville, Ala: Strode Publishers, 1982)
- Woolfolk, Sarah Van V. “George E. Spencer: A Carpetbagger in Alabama.” Alabama Review 19 (January 1966): 41-52.
- ———. The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977.