Gatlinburgs John H. Reagan
John Henninger Reagan was born on Oct. 8, 1818 in present-day
Gatlinburg, Tenn. to Timothy R. and Elizabeth Lusk Reagan. Like
most East Tennessee families, the Reagans made their living
by farming and trade. Both sides of John Reagans family
had came to America before the Revolutionary War and had settled
in the Smoky Mountain region.
John Reagan proved himself to be an able youth growing up in
the Tennessee backwoods hunting and fishing. As he reached his
adolescent years, however, financial hardship fell on the family
and their sons education had to end in order for the family
to survive. The ever-resourceful youth decided he would provide
for his own education and began working on his own to pay for
John held a variety of jobs to pay for his schooling and started
studying law. During his time as a student, he worked as a tanner,
farm laborer, a mill over-seer, and eventually as a salesman.
Around the age of 20, Reagan saw opportunities drying up in
Tennessee and began hearing talk of Texas and the numerous opportunities
available to an enterprising individual. With just enough to
make the trip, the Tennessean joined the mass migration from
the state to the New Republic of Texas.
Reagans study of law allowed him admittance to the bar.
Reagan became a deputy surveyor of public lands in 1839 to 1843
and began to establish his practice. Although Reagan focused
his efforts on the job and his law practice, he directed most
of his energy farming property he had acquired for his service.
The charismatic Tennessean quickly distinguished himself in
the new state and rose to prosperity. In 1847, he was elected
to the Texas House of Representatives and left the post when
he won the election to serve as the District Judge of Texas
where he served five years out of a six year term. He again
left office with a year remaining to run for a seat in the U.S.
House of Representatives. In 1857, Reagan became the Democratic
Representative elected to Congress from the State of Texas.
He distinguished himself early on in his term in the House.
The Tennesseans upbringing and his efforts in helping
secure Texas Independence made him an ardent supporter of the
States Rights issues that were beginning to dominate national
politics. His reputation had grown through the years and he
was considered one of the most respected members of Congress.
In 1861, he left his Congressional seat to serve as a member
of the Secession Convention of Texas and voted for the young
state to join the Confederate cause. Reagan was the voice of
reason in the Texas Convention. While many on both sides thought
the war would only last a few short months, the Tennessean noticed
the character of the men who were abdicating their positions
to join the Confederate cause and saw a different picture.
Reagans experience and wisdom shown through when he voiced
his belief that a war could in fact last for years and provisions
needed to be made for that possibility. He was joined in that
belief by long-time friend and Confederate President Jefferson
Davis, who saw a man of incredible ability in Reagan.
Reagan was immediately elected as Texass representative
to the provisional Congress of the Confederacy. With states
seceding left and right, then-President Lincoln began withdrawing
federal operations from the seceded states. Maintaining communications
in the Confederarcy became a primary goal of the Davis Administration.
In March 1861, President Jefferson Davis appointed Reagan Postmaster
General of the Confederacy. For many people, this was seen as
a minor post of little significance and beneath the skills of
Reagan, but the Tennessean realized the significance of an efficient
mail delivery system.
In June 1861, the United States Post Office ceased all delivery
in the seceded states and forced the Confederate Post Office
to begin official operations.
Three months earlier Reagan had been given the order by President
Jefferson Davis to make the governmental body self-sustaining
a point that was also laid out in the Constitution of
the Confederate States of America. In addition, President Davis
directed Reagan to meet with Confederate Railroad tycoons and
assure their support in transporting not only mail, but other
needed supplies to the seceded states. President Davis was so
impressed with Reagans performance he also put the office
in charge of telegraph operations, which were just starting
to become a factor in American communications.
Reagan realized what would have to be done and used his organizational
abilities to ensure communications and transportation within
the CSA would remain a serviceable infrastructure. His primary
responsibility and focus had to remain on reorganizing the postal
delivery system and making it work without government funding.
The postal rates he established to move the mail were very simple
and efficient. It cost $.05 per 1/2 ounce under 500 miles, $.10
per 1/2 ounce over 500 miles, and $.02 for "drop letters"
"Drop letters" were mail that was left at the post
office and picked up later at the same location. Circulars included
business flyers and newspapers, which provided a steady stream
of income for the office.
The Confederate Government contracted the printing of postage
stamps for the new office. In fact, more than 6 million stamps
were printed for the Confederate Postal Service by Southern
printers and the De La Rue Company in London, England. The stamps
conformed to the new rates established by Reagan and bore the
images of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew
Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Since the CSA had no postal treaties established with foreign
governments or the Union government, Reagan had to become creative
in order to ensure their delivery into the proper system. Since
there was no funding for the office, everyone, including President
Jefferson Davis, had to pay their own postage on letters and
every additional service provided by the Post Office also carried
Reagan constantly kept abreast of Union occupations and adjusted
mail rates according to the risk of delivery. When the Mississippi
River was taken by the North in 1863, Reagan charged a higher
rate to ensure the mail could be smuggled across the River and
placed back into Confederate channels for delivery.
Reagan became one of the most watched men in the War Between
the States by Union and international governments. His brilliant
ability to operate the Confederate Post Office under the most
miserable and trying of conditions impressed people in the highest
ranks of power. His delivery service rivaled the Norths
and aggravated Union Generals, who would often find the mail
service continuing in cities after they had been supposedly
captured and operations shut down.
Reagan became one of President Jefferson Davis most loyal
and trusted Cabinet Officers. As the war began breaking down
for the South, Reagan continued making adjustments in the delivery
service and maintained his offices primary functions.
On April 2, 1865, the Confederate Capitol of Richmond was ordered
evacuated. President Davis and his Cabinet Officers packed what
they could and began making their way south towards Georgia.
They hoped to get into the Trans-Mississippi region where southern
resistance was still strong. During the journey, Confederate
cabinet members began splitting off from the Davis group and
heading out on their own to avoid being captured with the Confederate
President. The Union had offered an outrageous reward for his
capture and Union leadership was turning southern cities inside
out looking for him or word of where he might have fled.
On May 10, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured
outside the small town of Irwinville, Ga. The only Cabinet member
caught with him was Gatlinburg resident and Confederate Postmaster
General John. H. Reagan, who had loyally remained by his Presidents
side throughout his exodus to safety. With Union anger running
rampant following the assassination of President Lincoln, Davis
was severly mistreated and paraded like a show pony through
the cities on his way north to Fort Monroe, Va. where he would
remain chained in a damp cell for two years.
Although captured and transported with the President, John Reagan
escaped the brunt of the Union fury and was released from prison.
In Richmond, the Union Army was occupying the southern Capitol
buildings and seizing Confederate documents. What they found
about the Confederate governments operations was pretty
much expected except for one glaring thing.
Governmental agencies in both North and South were bankrupt
due to the heavy expense of financing the war and couldnt
perform even basic civic functions. That is all but the Post
Office of the Confederate States of America. Reagan did more
than break even during the war. His office was the only one
on both sides of the War Between the States that actually showed
a modest profit.
The Gatlinburg native returned to his home in Texas and managed
to weather the Reconstruction politics that practically tore
the state apart. He restarted his law practice and began working
Reagan once again became a leading member of his community and
helped the state reorganize its government. He served as a member
of the States Constitutional Convention in 1875 and helped
author the new Texas Constitution. That same year, he was returned
to his old seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and remained
there 13 years leaving it when he won election to the
United States Senate in 1887. It was a bitter-sweet victory
for the Senator. In December of that year, his long-time friend
and former CSA President Jefferson Davis died on a business
journey while in New Orleans.
Reagan was interviewed by newspapers throughout America and
Europe on the passing of Davis. He summed up his former President
in words that spoke well of his character in office and would
become a principal description of Jefferson Davis. John Reagan
revealed Davis had reluctantly taken the position of President
when the war started, but, when asked to serve, Davis felt he
had no other option but to join his fellow countrymen in the
Southern cause. Among one of the most remembered questions was
when Reagan was asked what Jefferson Davis motives were
for his participation in the war.
"To secure a government that should be friendly to the
people," said Reagan. " He was an intense believer
in the doctrine that the States should control absolutely their
As in the past, Senator Reagan went on to again become a leading
figure in American politics. He assisted in the passage of numerous
important legislative bills including co-authoring the federal
act that established the Interstate Commerce Commission.
In 1891, he surprised everyone when he suddenly chose to resign
his seat in the U.S. Senate. During the war and since entering
political life, Reagan had watched the railroad industrys
incredible expansion in America and realized the potential of
bringing American goods out of the heartlands and to the export
cities that were booming especially with the advent of
newly created refrigerated freight cars. The potential was such
that America could quickly become a world economic power.
The only problems with the railroad industry, however, was the
fact it was controlled mainly by federal regulations, which
had led to rampant corruption among industry leaders and government
officials wanting to control it. Farmers, who were becoming
the nations principal source of wealth, were being taken
advantage of in ways that threatened the agricultural industries
of numerous states.
To fight the railroads, farmers, who had tired of paying outrageous
shipping fees, formed entire political parties to fight them
in Washington, D.C, but were unsuccessful because of the money
railroad companies could throw around in the city and influence
elected officials. State governments had watched the unsuccessful
efforts to reform the railroad industry and, in frustration,
many decided to take matters into their own hands and form state-level
railroad commissions to fight the fees mega-sized companies
were charging farmers. Because of the reputation of industry
executives to influence politicians, the farmers were very leery
of the new commissions.
The efforts were deemed so important to American economic growth
that Senator John Reagan didnt think twice about abdicating
his Senate seat when the Texas Governor tapped him for the position
of Director of the Texas Railroad Commission. The Governor told
Reagan he was the only person with the reputation for integrity
that could be trusted to make the system work and have the confidence
of the people. Reagan once again found himself working on the
side of the underdog. He implemented simple state regulations
on railroads and managed to bring the companies under control
in Texas. His work and regulations gained immediate attention
and became a subject of study by other state governments. Reagan
soon found himself becoming a spokesman of sorts for state regulation
It was in that capacity that John Reagan traveled to the State
of Tennessee. Through the years, he had kept in touch with his
family members in Sevier County and decided to return to the
Smoky Mountains in order to see them again. Knoxville newspapers
accompanied him on the journey home. Reagan was welcomed as
a returning hero by Sevier County leaders. The crowd who lined
the street to see Gatlinburgs most famous native son was
reported by the newspapers to be "one of the biggest in
East Tennessee and most assuredly the biggest ever seen in Sevier
Reagan spent time with his family and wandered his old childhood
haunts in Sevier County. In 1903, at the age of 85, John H.
Reagan finally retired from public life. He returned to his
home near Palestine, Texas on March 6, 1905. In honor for his
service to a Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America,
the United States, and the State of Texas, a day of mourning
was declared and the entire Texas State Legislature left Austin
to attend his funeral.
Reagans tenure as Confederate Postmaster General set new
standards for postal service in America and many of his policies
were quietly adopted.
Today the Confederate postage stamps issued during the War Between
the States are a prized collectors item.In 1929, August Dietz
published the definite work on the topic entitled: "The
Postal Service of the Confederate States of America." He
also founded The Confederate Stamp Alliance in 1935 to aid in
the preservation and collection of Confederate postage stamps.
The organization publishes a bi-monthly journal "the Confederate
Philatelist" and offers numerous services to members, including
Confederate Authentication Services to guard against frauds
and forgers. The organization recently held its annual convention
in Sarasota, Floridas National Stamp Convention. The most
noted experts on the subject today are retired Air Force Officers
Colonel John L. Kimbrough, M.D. and Conrad L. Bush. Both Dr.
Kimbrough and Bush collect and exhibit CSA postage stamps in
addition to writing numerous articles on the subject. The organization
also has a web site at www.members.aol.com/jlkcsa/, which can
answer questions and supply other information regarding Confederate
As with a lot of Tennessee historical figures, information was
hard to come by on John Reagans life. Special thanks for
this story has to go to the Tennessee Division of the Sons of
Confederate Veterans and Brigade Commander Jerry Cumberland
of the Simonton-Wilcox Camp. Sevier County History teacher Dean
Schneitman also assisted as did the Texas Historical Commission.
There have been a couple of biographies written on John Reagan.
In 1906, Reagans memoirs were published and reprinted
in 1968 under the editorial direction of W.F. McCaleb. A biography
on Reagan written by B.H. Proctor was published in 1968. Both
are out of print, but copies may be found in the local libraries.
In addition, The United Daughters of The Confederacy published
a brief biography on him in 1950.
While there are numerous schools and other public buildings
in Texas that bear John Reagans name, not one exists in
the State of Tennessee or Sevier County. A Tennessee Historical
Commission marker in Gatlinburg on the side of Mayfields
Dairy Store is the only thing that mentions Reagans brilliant
life and career. There have been many efforts in the past with
different organizations to correct the oversight, but all have
fallen short in doing so. The efforts continue, however, and
maybe one will succeed in finally bringing recognition to Gatlinburgs
most famous native son.