Thomas Herndon

Thomas Hord Herndon Jr. (1828-1883) was a lawyer and politician who was a delegate to the Alabama state secession convention in January 1861. During the American Civil War, he commanded the Thirty-sixth Alabama Infantry Regiment from May 1862 to April 1865. He later served in Alabama House of Representatives (1876-77) and then represented Alabama’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives (1879-1883).

Herndon was born on July 1, 1828, in Erie, Greene County (the town is now in Hale County), to Thomas Hord Herndon Sr., a wealthy merchant and planter, and Emma Sarah Toulmin Herndon. He was one of at least seven siblings; both parents remarried after a spouse had died. Thomas Jr. attended private school before enrolling at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, graduating in 1847. In 1848, he enrolled in the law school at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in December of that year married Mary Edmonia Alexander of Eutaw, Greene County, with whom he would have seven children. In 1849, Herndon was admitted to the Alabama State Bar, establishing his first law practice in Eutaw. A staunch Democrat, Herndon became the editor of the Eutaw Democrat newspaper in 1850 and the following year ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the State House of Representatives.

In 1853, Herndon moved to Mobile, Mobile County, where he resumed his law practice and later won election to the State House, serving from 1857 to 1858. His growing political influence led to his appointment as a trustee of the University of Alabama, serving from 1858 to 1859 before moving back to Greene County. As debate heated up around the institution of slavery, Herndon too became a vocal proponent of the southern states’ rights and secession movements. He served as a delegate to the 1860 state Democratic Convention, during which members pledged to support William Lowndes Yancey‘s “Alabama Platform” preserving slavery in the territories at the party’s national convention. He also was a delegate at the secession convention, where he was among the majority who voted in favor of leaving the Union on January 11, 1861. In March, Herndon assisted with the adoption of a new state constitution that forbade the emancipation of slaves under any circumstances.

In May 1861, Herndon organized the Thirty-sixth Alabama Infantry Regiment at Mount Vernon, Mobile County, with men from Tuscaloosa, Greene, Fayette, Sumter, and Monroe counties. For his efforts, Herndon was given the rank of major and his regiment was thereafter tasked with constructing defenses at Oven Bluff and Choctaw Bluff in Clarke County. The Thirty-sixth was then stationed in Mobile, where Herndon was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel on March 14, 1863. A month later, the unit was sent to Tullahoma, Tennessee, to join the Army of the Tennessee, seeing combat at the Battle of Chickamauga, where Herndon received his first of two wartime wounds. His unit later saw action during the Chattanooga Campaign at both Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, as well as at Crow Valley, Rocky Face Ridge, Resaca, New Hope Church, and finally, Atlanta in August 1864, when he was wounded once again. A brother, Edward, died in battle that May in Virginia.

Taking leave to nurse his wounds, Herndon rejoined his unit in Florence, Lauderdale County, in November 1864 as it and the rest the Army of the Tennessee wound their way north to take part in the disastrous battles of Franklin and Nashville in Tennessee. The Thirty-sixth was transferred to the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, and Herndon was promoted to the rank of full colonel on March 1, 1865. Sent to Spanish Fort in Baldwin County, Herndon’s regiment endured a combined Union navy and army operation that eventually overwhelmed the Confederate defenses at the conclusion of the weeklong Battle of Spanish Fort on April 8. Herndon and his unit managed to escape but were forced to surrender at Meridian, Mississippi, on May 10, 1865.

After the war, Herndon returned to Mobile, where he resumed his law practice. Filled with immense political ambition, he made an unsuccessful bid to become governor in 1872. He defeated fellow Civil War veteran William C. Oates in the Democratic primary but lost to Republican David P. Lewis in the general election, having received little support in the northern counties. Undaunted, he continued his political career as a member of the state Constitutional Convention of 1875, at which he and other “Bourbon” or “Redeemer” Democrats replaced the 1868 Constitution implemented under the Reconstruction Acts. He then ran successfully for a seat in the State House of Representatives in 1876 and, with his growing popularity, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for Alabama’s First Congressional District in 1878, defeating incumbent James Taylor Jones. He was reelected twice and served on the foreign affairs and commerce committees. He died at his home on March 28, 1883, reportedly from health issues related to his war wounds, just after Congress convened. Jones won the election to fill his seat. Herndon was interred with his wife in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile.

Share this Article