James Lawson Kemper (1823–1895)


James Lawson Kemper was a Confederate general during the American Civil War (1861–1865), who later served as governor of Virginia (1874–1877). Kemper volunteered in the Mexican War (1846–1848), but returned to his civilian life as a lawyer. He served five terms in the Virginia House of Delegates (1853–1863), including time as Speaker of the House (1861–1863). There he garnered a reputation for honesty and attention to duty. Kemper volunteered for service in 1861, and with his promotion in June 1862 became the Confederacy’s youngest brigade commander. Badly wounded at Gettysburg in July 1863, Kemper oversaw the Virginia Reserve Forces for the remainder of the war. He helped found the Conservative Party during Reconstruction (1865–1877). Soundly defeating the Republican candidate in the 1873 gubernatorial race, Kemper found himself, as governor, at odds with previous supporters over his progressive stance on civil rights, prison reform, and public school improvements. Still suffering from his wound, Kemper retired to his law practice, and died in Orange County in 1895.

Early Life

Kemper was born in Madison County on June 11, 1823. He entered Washington College, in Lexington, at age sixteen, and was greatly influenced by the college president, Henry Ruffner, acquiring liberal views on education and slavery. Kemper took advantage of a course on military instruction offered at neighboring Virginia Military Institute. At his own school he joined the “Cincinnati Cadets” and the Washington Literary Society, honing his debating and public speaking skills. Among his classmates were future Virginia governor John Letcher and future Confederate general John D. Imboden.

Kemper graduated in June 1842, read law with Judge George W. Summers in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), and was admitted to the state bar in October 1846. Driven by duty and ambition, Kemper was commissioned a captain of volunteers in the Mexican War, departing from Old Point Comfort in February 1847. His reputation for earnest industry followed him back to Madison County, where he opened a law office in August 1848. Not a social figure, Kemper nevertheless wooed and married Cremora “Belle” Cave, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a prominent local planter in July 1853. That same year he won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, which he held for almost a decade. A Jacksonian Democrat, Kemper earned an image as friend of the farmer and common workingman.

Antebellum Politics

In 1855, as a delegate to the state Democratic convention, Kemper threw his support to Henry A. Wise for governor; Wise won the nomination and election. The next year Wise appointed Kemper to the Board of Visitors at Virginia Military Institute, where he served as board president from 1857 until 1858. Kemper’s keen interest in military affairs led him to propose the reorganization of Virginia’s militia, which the General Assembly approved in March 1858. Public support for defense rose with fears of slave insurrection after John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859. Ignoring the Unionist sentiments of his old schoolmate John Letcher, who had just been elected governor, Kemper sponsored legislation in December 1860 for a secession convention. The Virginia Convention began meeting in February 1861 and voted to leave the Union in April.

War Years

With the coming of the war Kemper once again volunteered for military service. Commissioned a colonel in the 7th Virginia Infantry in May 1861, Kemper was promoted to brigadier general after the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks (1862) and commanded a brigade in George E. Pickett‘s Virginia division. He balanced his field duties while serving as Speaker of the House.

Kemper’s commendable soldiery came to an end on the third day at Gettysburg, when, during Pickett’s Charge, he caught a minié ball in the thigh at Cemetery Ridge. Taken prisoner, Kemper was exchanged in September 1863 for Union general Charles K. Graham. Still suffering from paralysis of the left leg, Kemper was declared unfit for active duty. He was nevertheless promoted to major general in September 1864 and commanded the Virginia Reserve Forces until May 2, 1865, when he was paroled in Danville.

Postwar Politics

After the war, the pragmatic Kemper returned to Madison and tried his hand at business, hoping to lure northern capital to Virginia by brokering land speculation. He became a bankruptcy lawyer, partnering with former classmate and fellow Confederate general John Imboden. Kemper’s reentry into state politics came in 1867 as one of the founders of the state Conservative Party, a mix of former Democrats, Whigs, and the nativist Know-Nothings (so-named because members of the party were supposed to reply “I know nothing” when asked about the semi-secret party’s activities) intent on opposing the Radical Republicans, then in power. In 1869 Kemper became aligned with the powerful railroad man and former Confederate general William Mahone when he backed Mahone candidate Gilbert C. Walker for a local House seat—and Walker won.

Intense and complex, Kemper lost his wife, Belle, in 1870 when she died during the birth of their seventh child. Kemper then devoted himself to public service. In 1872 he ran unsuccessfully as the Conservative candidate for the Seventh Congressional District. A vigorous speaker and campaigner despite continual pain, Kemper ran against Republican Robert W. Hughes in the gubernatorial race of 1873, supported by former Confederates Jubal A. Early, Fitzhugh Lee, and John Singleton Mosby. Former ally Henry Wise scorned moderation of any kind, however, and refused to endorse him. Kemper won the contest by more than 25,000 votes and kindled a hope among Conservatives that Republican rule was over.

Kemper’s administration was dominated by the issue of the state war debt, with Funders desiring to pay off the money, and Readjusters hoping to avoid paying full measure to the hated Republicans dominating state and national politics. Kemper favored repayment and strict enforcement of civil rights as guaranteed in the new state constitution. A critical moment came on March 12, 1874, when Kemper vetoed a General Assembly bill transferring control of Petersburg’s city government from elected Republican officials to a board of commissioners appointed by a city judge. Kemper’s veto was sustained by the Virginia Senate. Although Kemper termed the effort “in violation of the very spirit of a republican form of government,” his contemporaries were outraged by what they viewed as a Conservative’s betrayal: Kemper was burned in effigy.

Kemper continued to pursue his goals of prison reform and an increase in the number of state schools, despite crippling budget shortages. Prior to the dedication of a statue to Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in Capitol Square in 1875, Kemper agreed to let a black militia unit participate in the festivities. Jubal Early hotly protested, but Kemper wrote back “the programme is fixed; all Hell can’t change it.”

Kemper attacked budget issues personally, cutting back costs at the Governor’s Mansion. A widower with six children, he marked his time at the home with simple entertainments and he reduced staff, using his eldest son Meade as a secretary. At the end of his term Kemper left Richmond trailing a train of children, personal papers, “ponies, pet goats, a pack of dogs, and other animal life his family cherished.”

Selling the Madison homestead in 1878, Kemper moved his family to Walnut Hills, his last home, near Orange Court House, Virginia, and resumed his law practice. He lived, as he noted, a life of “quietude,” suffering increasing pain and eventual paralysis of his left side. Kemper died on Sunday, April 7, 1895.

June 11, 1823
James Lawson Kemper is born in Madison County.
June 1842
James Lawson Kemper graduates from Washington College in Lexington. While there he takes a Virginia Military Institute course in military instruction and joins the Washington College "Cincinnati Cadets" and Washington Literary Society. His graduation speech is titled "The Need of a Public School System in Virginia."
June 1845
James Lawson Kemper receives a master's degree from Washington College in Lexington.
October 1846
James Lawson Kemper is admitted to the Virginia bar.
February 1847
James Lawson Kemper is commissioned a captain of Virginia Volunteers; he arrives in Mexico two weeks after Battle of Buena Vista, stays another fifteen weeks, and achieves a reputation for industry and devotion to duty.
August 1848
James Lawson Kemper returns to Madison County after service in the Mexican War and opens a law office.
James Lawson Kemper wins seat in the Virginia House of Delegates, and will serve for five terms.
July 4, 1853
James Lawson Kemper marries sixteen-year-old Cremora "Belle" Cave.
A delegate to the state Democratic gubernatorial nominating convention, James Lawson Kemper supports Henry A. Wise, who wins the nomination and the election.
Governor Henry A. Wise appoints James Lawson Kemper to the board of visitors of the Virginia Military Institute; Kemper serves as board president from 1857 until 1858.
March 1858
The General Assembly passes James Lawson Kemper's state militia-reorganization proposal.
December 1860
Ignoring the Unionist opinions of the newly elected governor, John Letcher, James Lawson Kemper sponsors legislation for a secession convention, which meets beginning in February.
James Lawson Kemper serves as the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.
May 1861
James Lawson Kemper is commissioned colonel of the 7th Virginia Infantry.
June 1862
James Lawson Kemper is promoted to brigadier general following the Battle of Seven Pines—Fair Oaks.
July 3, 1863
At Pickett's Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg, James Lawson Kemper is seriously wounded and taken prisoner while leading a charge near the stone wall at Cemetery Ridge. He is shot through the thigh with a minié ball, which stays lodged at the base of his spine and proves a lifelong, debilitating presence.
September 22, 1863
Taken prisoner at Gettysburg, James Lawson Kemper is exchanged for Union general Charles K. Graham.
September 19, 1864
James Lawson Kemper is promoted to major general; unable to return to active duty, he commands the Virginia reserve forces.
May 2, 1865
Confederate general James Lawson Kemper is paroled at Danville.
1865—early 1870s
James Lawson Kemper tries his hand at business, courting northern capital with southern properties. He becomes a bankruptcy lawyer, partnering with former Confederate general John D. Imboden.
August 1865
James Lawson Kemper's mother-in-law purchases a Madison County house for Kemper and his family.
December 1867
James Lawson Kemper is active in founding the Virginia Conservative Party, offering opposition to the Radical Republicans and the new state constitution.
James Lawson Kemper purchases his Madison County home from his mother-in-law.
June 1869
James Lawson Kemper backs the William Mahone—sponsored candidate Gilbert C. Walker for his local House of Delegates seat; Walker wins.
September 1870
Belle Kemper, wife of James Lawson Kemper, dies at age thirty-three of complications from the birth of their seventh child.
After an unsuccessful run as the Conservative candidate for the Virginia Seventh Congressional District, James Lawson Kemper supports the Horace Greeley—Benjamin Brown U.S. presidential ticket.
James Lawson Kemper runs as the Conservative candidate for Virginia governor against Radical Republican nominee Robert W. Hughes, with backing from former Confederates Jubal Early, Fitzhugh Lee, John Singleton Mosby, and William Mahone—but not from Henry A. Wise. Kemper wins by a huge margin of more than 25,000 votes.
March 12, 1874
Governor James Lawson Kemper vetoes a bill to transfer Petersburg's city government from the elected officials to a board of commissioners appointed by a city judge. The bill's aim is to wrest power from the Radical Republican—African American voting bloc. Kemper's veto is upheld by the Virginia Senate.
Governor James Lawson Kemper struggles with the Virginia state war debt, which he believes should be repaid, and breaks ties with William Mahone and his political base of Readjusters. Kemper works for prison reform and tax-supported schools despite the grim economy.
Governor James Lawson Kemper urges a tax on alcohol. Personally austere, he greatly reduces staff and expenditures at the Governor's Mansion.
October 1877
At Governor James Lawson Kemper's last major public reception, he hosts President Rutherford B. Hayes to open the state fair in Richmond.
James Lawson Kemper sells his Madison County home.
Widower James Lawson Kemper moves his family to Walnut Hills, his last house near Orange County Court House, and resumes his law practice despite increasing physical infirmities, which include constant pain and partial paralysis.
April 7, 1895
James Lawson Kemper dies and is buried in Orange County.
  • Harrison, Kathy Georg, and John W. Busey. Nothing But Glory: Pickett’s Division at Gettysburg. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 2001.
  • Jones, Robert R. “James Lawson Kemper, Native Son Redeemer,” in The Governors of Virginia, Edward Younger, James Tice Moore, eds. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1982, pp. 69–79.
  • Riggs, David F. 7th Virginia Infantry, The Virginia Regimental History Series. Lynchburg, Virginia: H. E. Howard, Inc., 1982.
  • Woodward, Harold R., Jr. Major General James Lawson Kemper C.S.A.: The Confederacy’s Forgotten Son. Natural Bridge Station, Virginia: Rockbridge Publishing Company, 1993.
APA Citation:
Coski, John. James Lawson Kemper (1823–1895). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/kemper-james-lawson-1823-1895.
MLA Citation:
Coski, John. "James Lawson Kemper (1823–1895)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 15 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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