James Gaven Field (1826–1902)


James Gaven Field was attorney general of Virginia (1877–1882) and a Populist party leader. Born in Culpeper County, he taught school briefly and worked in California before returning to Virginia to study law. He served as the commonwealth’s attorney of Culpeper County (1860) before volunteering for the Confederate army at the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865). He was wounded but remained with the Army of Northern Virginia until the surrender at Appomattox. An active Baptist and member of the Conservative Party, he continued to practice law and was appointed attorney general in 1877, arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Ex Parte Virginia (1879), that Congress could not require local officials to allow African Americans on trial juries. Unable to secure a nomination for reelection, Field retired to Albemarle County, although he stayed active in Democratic Party politics. In the 1890s he became a prominent agricultural reformer and presided over the Populist party state convention in 1892. The national convention nominated him for vice president, losing in the general election to Grover Cleveland. Continuing to support Populist candidates in subsequent years, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902. He died in Albemarle County in 1902.

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.

The Battle at Cedar Mountain

In September 1860, when he owned half a dozen slaves, Field became commonwealth’s attorney of Culpeper County. The following April, after Virginia seceded from the Union, he enlisted in a local volunteer company (later Company B, 13th Virginia Infantry Regiment) and marched to Harpers Ferry, 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 A. P. Hill (who was distantly related to Field’s wife) and fought at the Battle of Williamsburg that spring. At the Battle of Cedar Mountain, near his home in Culpeper, on August 9, of that year, Field was severely wounded and later had his left leg amputated below the knee. 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.

Political Career

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.

Raleigh T. Daniel

On August 28, 1877, following the death of Attorney General Raleigh T. Daniel, who had received the Conservative Party nomination for a second term, the party’s executive committee nominated Field in Daniel’s place. The governor 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 Ex Parte Virginia, decided in 1879. Field and an assistant counsel argued that Congress did not have authority under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 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 Readjuster Party, pledging to reduce and refinance the state’s antebellum public debt, won control of the General Assembly. Field was on friendly terms with the leader of the Readjusters, William Mahone, 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.

He Did Not Think So In '92.

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 brevet Union general. 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.

Later Years

William Jennings Bryan's 1896 Presidential Campaign

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 Republicans, 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.

February 24, 1826
James Gaven Field is born in Culpeper County.
James Gaven Field leaves Virginia for California, where he works as the pay clerk of an army officer.
September—October 1849
James Gaven Field works as an assistant to the secretary of the California constitutional convention.
Autumn 1850
By this time James Gaven Field has returned to Virginia from California.
April 19, 1852
James Gaven Field is admitted to the bar in Culpeper County.
June 20, 1854
James Gaven Field and Frances E. Cowherd are married in Albemarle County.
September 1860
James Gaven Field becomes the commonwealth's attorney of Culpeper County.
April 1861
James Gaven Field enlists in a Virginia volunteer company.
March 23, 1861
James Gaven Field is promoted to major in the Confederate army effective this date.
August 9, 1862
James Gaven Field, a Confederate officer, is severely wounded at the Battle of Cedar Mountain.
September 1863
James Gaven Field becomes the chief quartermaster of the Third Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.
James Gaven Field serves as moderator of the Shiloh Baptist Association.
January 1872
James Gaven Field is appointed a major general of the reorganized volunteer Virginia militia.
Spring 1877
State officials hire James Gaven Field and other attorneys to recover money the government believes it is owed as a bondholder and guarantor of loans made to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company.
April 1877
Frances Cowherd Field, the wife of James Gaven Field, dies.
August 28, 1877
James Gaven Field receives the Conservative Party nomination for attorney general after the death of the incumbent, Raleigh T. Daniel.
August 29, 1877
The governor appoints James Gaven Field interim attorney general after the death of Raleigh T. Daniel.
James Gaven Field serves as moderator of the Shiloh Baptist Association.
James Gaven Field wins election as president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
March 1, 1880
In Ex Parte Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules constitutional a provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that prevents anyone from being disqualified from jury service by reason of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
James Gaven Field wins election as president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
August 1881
Philip W. McKinney defeats James Gaven Field for the Conservative Party nomination for attorney general.
February 2, 1882
James Gaven Field and Elizabeth R. Logwood marry in Lynchburg.
James Gaven Field withdraws from a campaign for the Democratic nomination to the Senate of Virginia.
James Gaven Field withdraws from a campaign for the Democratic nomination to the Senate of Virginia.
June 1892
James Gaven Field presides over a meeting of the new People's Party of Virginia, or populists.
July 5, 1892
The Populist party, meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, nominates James Gaven Field to run for vice president.
November 8, 1892
Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, defeats the Republican Benjamin Harrison and the Populist James B. Weaver for president.
James Gaven Field advocates the impeachment of President Grover Cleveland.
James Gaven Field and other Populist leaders create a coalition with Republicans. In the next two years they will do the same with Democrats.
James Gaven Field supports William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, for president.
James Gaven Field runs as an Independent for one of Albemarle County's two seats in the constitutional convention but quickly withdraws.
May 18, 1902
James Gaven Field dies at his Albemarle County home.
  • Moore, John H. “James Gaven Field, Populist Candidate for the Vice-Presidency.” Papers of the Albemarle County Historical Society 11 (1950–1951): 19–36.
  • Moore, John H. “James Gaven Field: Virginia’s Populist Spokesman.” Virginia Cavalcade 9 (spring 1960): 35–41.
  • Tarter, Brent. A Saga of the New South: Race, Law, and Public Debt in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. James Gaven Field (1826–1902). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/field-james-gaven-1826-1902.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "James Gaven Field (1826–1902)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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