John Wayles Jefferson

Dates Alive: 1835-1892

Family: Hemings-Eston

Occupation: Hotelkeeper; Army officer; Cotton merchant

John Wayles Jefferson, the oldest child of Eston Hemings and Julia Isaacs Jefferson, lived as an African American in southern Ohio until the age of fifteen, when his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, changed their surname from Hemings to Jefferson, and thereafter lived as white people. He operated a restaurant and the city’s oldest hotel until the Civil War, when he joined the 8th Wisconsin infantry regiment as its major. Over three years of arduous campaigns in Mississippi and Louisiana he rose to the rank of colonel, at one time commanding the whole regiment. When he encountered an acquaintance from his Ohio years, he begged him “not to tell the fact that he had colored blood in his veins, which he said was not suspected by any of his command.”

After the war, John Wayles Jefferson settled in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was a prominent citizen, plantation owner, and wealthy cotton broker. He never married and died in Memphis, described in an obituary as “a model man.”


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“I Have Been Almost Completely Exhausted”

HAINES’ BLUFF, in rear of Vicksburg, May 21, 1863.                  Dear Brother:—I hasten to drop you this line; I…
“I Have Been Almost Completely Exhausted”

In 1863 Lt. Col. John Wayles Jefferson writes his brother Beverly Jefferson during the siege of Vicksburg.

“HAINES’ BLUFF, in rear of Vicksburg, May 21, 1863.

                 Dear Brother:—I hasten to drop you this line; I cannot write much, as I have no time or spirits. Since the 2nd of May up to yesterday (excepting two days I was in Jackson, Miss.,) I have been continually on the March and fighting the rebels. I had not until to-day changed my clothes or had a decent meal for nineteen days. We marched around Vicksburg on the Louisiana side 90 miles, crossed the river at Grand Gulf, marched about 170 miles in a roundabout way to Jackson, Miss. Our brigade charged the rebel works at Jackson, and were the first troops in the town. Four days before this we met the rebels at Mississippi Springs, and had a hard skirmish but whipped them (I am speaking about our regiment and our brigade); we have had a number of other battles. At Jackson Major General Sherman made me Provost Marshal of the town, had also charge of all the prisoners and was ordered to destroy five million dollars worth of rebel property. We are now in the rear of Vicksburg, and in sight of the city. We have been fighting for four days, and have them surrounded. Their entrenchments and breastworks are awful to attack. Their works were stormed to-day by part of our army, and to-morrow all the army will attack the works at 9 a. m. We are losing a great many men, and there will be an awful slaughter to-morrow.  We have captured 81 cannon, 10,000 stands of small arms at the different battles (not Vicksburg). I was ordered to turn over 5,500 prisoners in my charge to-day, and that is why I am here. Will return to my regiment in one hour which is only five miles distant. We just lived on what we could pick up during the past three weeks, and I have been almost completely exhausted from hunger, loss of sleep and fatigue. Vicksburg will be ours in a day or two, but it has and will cost as many thousand lives.

I write this hoping you may get it in season.

Yours &c.                       

J. W. JEFFERSON.” (Weekly Wisconsin Patriot, 13 June 1863)

“Glory! Glory!”

Vicksburg is ours. Glory!  Glory!  Glory!  I have just returned from the city and actually saw the heads, hides and…
“Glory! Glory!”

Lt. Col. John Wayles Jefferson reports the long-awaited surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.

“Vicksburg is ours. Glory!  Glory!  Glory!  I have just returned from the city and actually saw the heads, hides and entrails of mules which the rebels have been subsisting on for days.  We all feel so joyful today. Even the poor sickly soldiers in the hospitals seem to revive, and look well again. Congress, at its next session, must be petitioned to add 24 hours to the 4th of July, making it 48 hours long, because hereafter we cannot possibly get done celebrating the day in 24 hours.” (Wisconsin State Journal, July 1863)