Early Years and the Civil War
Field was born in Culpeper County on February 24, 1826. He was the son of Lewis Y. Field and Maria Duncan Field. He attended a classical academy for a time, worked in a local store, and taught school until about 1848, when he went to California as the pay clerk of an army officer. Field worked as an assistant to the secretary of the California constitutional convention in September and October 1849. He had returned to Virginia by the autumn of 1850. After studying law with his uncle, Richard H. Field, then a member of the Virginia Special Court of Appeals, he was admitted to the bar in Culpeper County on April 19, 1852. Field married Frances E. Cowherd on June 20, 1854, in Albemarle County. They lived in Culpeper and had three sons and three daughters, two of whom died in childhood. His wife died in April 1877.
In September 1860, when he owned half a dozen slaves, Field became commonwealth’s attorney of Culpeper County. The following April, after Virginia, he enlisted in a local volunteer company (later Company B, 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment) and marched to , where he was detached to serve as a quartermaster. With the help of his influential uncle, Field received a commission as a paymaster on June 10. Promoted to major effective on March 23, 1862, he served as quartermaster on the staff of (who was distantly related to Field’s wife) and fought at the that spring. At the , near his home in Culpeper, on August 9, of that year, Field was severely wounded and later had his left leg . In September 1863 he became chief quartermaster of the Third Corps and was present when the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.
The governor appointed Field a major general of the reorganized volunteer militia in January 1872, but Field may not have taken office before another reorganization occurred later that year. Nevertheless, he was usually referred to thereafter as General Field. An active Baptist layman, Field served as moderator of the Shiloh Baptist Association from 1871 to 1874 and again in 1879 and 1880. After several one-year terms during the 1870s and 1880s as vice president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, Field won election as president in 1880 and again in 1881. In addition to continuing a prosperous legal practice, he also participated in several business ventures and an attempt to build a railroad in Culpeper County. During the spring of 1877 state officials hired Field and other attorneys to recover money the government believed it was owed as a bondholder and guarantor of loans made to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company.
On August 28, 1877, following the death of Attorney General, who had received the Conservative Party nomination for a second term, the party’s executive committee nominated Field in Daniel’s place. The appointed him to the vacant position the next day. Field won decisively against little opposition in the November election. He served until January 1, 1882. Among other duties Field represented Virginia in state and federal courts, concluded his work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal debts, and provided advisory opinions to public officials. Of the four cases that he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, the most important was , decided in 1879. Field and an assistant counsel argued that Congress did not have authority under the to the to require that local or state judges include African Americans on trial juries. A majority of the Court rejected Field’s contention that the conduct of state trials was a right that the Constitution still reserved to the states and ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment authorized Congress to force states to allow African Americans to serve.
During Field’s term as attorney general, the new, pledging to reduce and refinance the state’s , won control of the General Assembly. Field was on friendly terms with the leader of the Readjusters, , and probably favored some measure of debt readjustment. When the Conservative Democratic State Convention met in August 1881, Philip W. McKinney, a future governor, defeated Field for the nomination for attorney general. On February 2, 1882, one month after Field left office, he married Elizabeth R. Logwood in Lynchburg. They resided on a plantation that he owned in Albemarle County and had three sons. Field continued to be active in the renamed Democratic Party. He withdrew from campaigns for nomination to the Senate of Virginia in 1885 and 1886.
During the 1870s Field began to take part in agricultural reform organizations. Early in the 1890s he suddenly emerged as a prominent member of the Farmers’ Alliance of Virginia, which included agricultural reformers and in some instances political radicals. The leadership of the Virginia alliance was composed of men engaged in large-scale commercial agriculture, rather than the hard-pressed small farmers who gave the alliance a more zealous radicalism in other parts of the South and the Great Plains. They proposed regulation of railroads and markets and currency inflation through increased coinage of silver. When alliance members and other reformers met in Richmond in June 1892 as members of the new People’s Party of Virginia, or Populists, Field presided and was selected to attend the party’s national convention in Omaha. In the early hours of July 5 the national convention nominated Field, by then a Democrat again and sometimes misidentified as a former Confederate general, for vice president on the ticket headed by the veteran reformer James B. Weaver, a sometime Republican from Iowa and former. Field campaigned in the southern and border states and in support of the party’s radical reform platform.
At a mid-July speech in Gordonsville, in Orange County, he compared the revolutionary impulse of Populism with the American Revolution of 1776 and advised his audience to “Read your Bibles Sunday and the Omaha platform every day in the week.” Weaver and Field received more than a million votes, about 8.5 percent of the total, and won twenty-two electoral college votes in six western states. In Virginia the Populists fared poorly except in the economically depressed south-central counties of the state. Field received very few votes in his native Culpeper County.
Remaining active in the Populist party for the next eight years, Field advocated the impeachment of President Grover Cleveland in 1893, attended state and national conventions, served on the party’s national committee, and was mentioned as a candidate for governor in 1897. He and other Populist leaders joined Mahone in 1895 in a coalition with, and he made similar overtures to the Democrats in 1896 and 1897. In 1896 the Democrats and the Populists both nominated William Jennings Bryan for president on a reform platform, and Field supported Bryan in 1900 when the Democrats again nominated him. In the spring of 1901, by which time the Populist party was dead, Field announced himself as an independent candidate for one of Albemarle County’s two seats in the state constitutional convention that met later that year, but he withdrew from the race within a few days.
Field died at his Albemarle County home on May 18, 1902, and was buried in Citizen’s Cemetery (later Fairview Cemetery), in Culpeper County.