William Henry Denson (1846-1906) was a prosperous farmer and lawyer who served in the Alabama State House of Representatives in 1876 as well as the U.S. Congress representing Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District from 1893 to 1895. A veteran of the Confederate Army, he enlisted in the spring of 1863 and rose to the rank of colonel by the end of the Civil War. He also served in various legal and political capacities, including twice as president of the state Democratic Convention.
Denson was born on March 4, 1846, in Uchee, Russell County, to Augustus R. Denson of North Carolina and Elizabeth Ivey of Georgia. A prosperous planter, Augustus moved his family to Alabama in 1833 and served as a soldier with the Alabama Volunteers in the 1836 Second Creek War. William was one of five sons and three daughters and spent his childhood working on his father’s farm while attending local schools. In 1863, Denson enrolled at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, but left school to enlist in the Confederate Army as a member of Maj. James F. Waddell’s Battalion of Artillery. Denson served in almost every battle during the Atlanta Campaign, alongside his brother John B. Denson, until John was killed at the Battle of Resaca in May 1864. With the exception of a temporary furlough for illness, William’s military service extended through the end of the war.
After the conclusion of hostilities in May 1865, Denson followed in his father’s footsteps and became a farmer. Using the proceeds from his new vocation, he moved to the burgeoning city of Columbus, Georgia, where he studied law and worked in the law office of R. J. Moses. Admitted to the Alabama State Bar in 1867, he began practicing law in Union Springs, Bullock County. He married Rosa E. Cowen on December 21, 1868, a niece of politician James L. Pugh and native of Eufaula, Barbour County; the couple would have five children. In October 1870, Denson moved his family to LaFayette, Chambers County, where he again practiced law and was elected as the city’s mayor four years later. In 1876, he was elected to the Alabama State House of Representatives, where he served on the Judiciary Committee and became a member of the joint committee on revising the code for public statues in the state of Alabama. The following year, he moved his family to Gadsden, Etowah County, where he continued to practice law. In return for his faithful work for the Democratic Party and as an elector for Pres. Grover Cleveland in 1884, Denson was appointed by Cleveland as district attorney for Alabama’s Northern and Middle District Courts, where he would serve from June 30, 1885, to June 3, 1889.
In 1890, the Alabama Democratic Party appointed Denson president of the state Democratic Convention. That year, Reuben F. Kolb, a member of the Alabama Farmer’s Alliance, sought the Democratic nomination for governor. Denson, though a progressive Democrat, was still a white supremacist, and he feared a split among Democrats would help Republicans. As convention president, he helped prevent the Populist Kolb from obtaining the Democratic nomination in favor of Thomas Goode Jones, who was eventually elected governor. Kolb would be defeated by Jones again in the 1892 gubernatorial contest, considered one of the most corrupt elections in Alabama history.
Also in 1892, Denson was elected to represent Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, replacing William H. Forney. (The district ran from DeKalb and DeKalb counties in the east to Franklin County in the west.) Running for reelection in 1894, Denson lost to former Democrat turned Populist Milford W. Howard in a heated race. He had been courting the Populist vote, advocating for free silver and the government to lend money to farmers, which alienated Democrats. He and his family moved to Birmingham, Jefferson County, where he resumed his law practice. In 1899, he was again chosen as president of the state Democratic Convention and helped nominate delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1901, which concentrated power in the state legislature, decreased opportunities for home rule, and established voter requirements that reduced the political influence of poor whites and African Americans in the state. Denson died on September 25, 1906, and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Jefferson County. His grandson William Dowdell Denson would serve as the U. S. Army’s chief prosecutor in the war crimes trials at the notorious Dachau concentration camp in Germany after World War II.
Hackney, Sheldon. Populism to Progressivism in Alabama. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Harris, D. Alan. “Campaigning in the Bloody Seventh: The Election of 1894 in the Seventh Congressional District.” Alabama Review 27 (April 1974): 127-38.
Smith, A. Davis, and T.A. DeLand. Northern Alabama: Historical and Biographical. Chicago, Ill.: Donohue & Henneberry, 1888.