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Civil War Men and Women: Glimpses of Their Lives Through Photography

Using a photographic portrait of Lieutenant John Summerfield Lanier from the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs as an entry point, this essay highlights the life and experiences of an individual combatant.

John Summerfield Lanier: A Fraternity Pioneer is Surrendered at Port Hudson

By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.

Lieutenant John Summerfield Lanier of Co. K, 14th Mississippi Infantry Regiment and Confederate Army in uniform with sword. Between 1861 and 1863. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division.

Lieutenant John Summerfield Lanier of Co. K, 14th Mississippi Infantry Regiment and Confederate Army in uniform with sword. Between 1861 and 1863. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division.

“Having thoroughly defended this position as long as I deemed it necessary, I now surrender to you my sword, and with it this post and its garrison,”1 stated Maj. Gen. Frank Gardner.2 With these words, spoken to his Union counterpart on the morning of July 9, 1863, the forty-eight day siege of the Mississippi River stronghold of Port Hudson, Louisiana, was officially over. About 5,500 of Gardner’s men became prisoners, including one of the general’s most capable staff officers, 2nd Lt. John Lanier.

The loss of Lanier deprived the Confederate army of a military educated soldier at a time when career officers were much in demand. Born in Huntsville, Alabama, Lanier’s life began with a tragedy. His father, wealthy plantation owner John Augustus Lanier, died five months before the birth of his son. His widowed wife, Mary Ann, raised Lanier and an older brother, James, Jr., in Huntsville and later Columbus, Mississippi.

Lanier grew up and at age 16 entered the University of Nashville in the fall of 1855. Two years later he transferred to the Georgia Military Institute,3 where he earned degrees in civil engineering and the arts in 1858.

Had his life story ended here, he might have been best remembered for his pioneer role in establishing two chapters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, one on each campus where he studied. According to a fraternity historian, Lanier met with serious resistance by the faculty of the Georgia Military Institute, but eventually won them over.4

After he graduated, Lanier returned home to Mississippi and established himself as a planter.5 He may be the same John Lanier credited with owning 43 men, women and children in the slave schedules of the 1860 federal census.

The war began a year later, and Lanier promptly enlisted as a private in the Columbus Riflemen, a locally raised outfit that became Company K of the 14th Mississippi Infantry.6 His tenure with the company was brief. Less than two weeks after he joined the Riflemen, he was discharged to accept an appointment as second lieutenant in the Confederate States Army. In July 1861 he received orders to report to Memphis, Tennessee, for duty as an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk. An Episcopal bishop uneducated in the military arts, Polk likely relied on the superior knowledge of Lanier and other staffers.7

By March 1862, Lanier served as Polk’s acting assistant adjutant general. A month later, he was recognized in the general’s official report for his service during the Battle of Shiloh—the same fight that took the life of his older brother, James, who had joined he Confederate army as a surgeon.

Franklin Gardner, CSA, born N.Y.C. Between 1860 and 1870. Civil war photographs, 1861-1865. Prints & Photographs Division.
Franklin Gardner, CSA, born N.Y.C. Between 1860 and 1870. Civil war photographs, 1861-1865. Prints & Photographs Division.

He was later assigned to the staff of Maj. Gen. Gardner, who had led a brigade in Polk’s corps and took command of the defenses of Port Hudson in early 1863. After Gardner surrendered the city and its garrison, Lanier was taken into custody and spent the rest of the war in prison, confined for the majority of his captivity—about two years—at New Orleans and later at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. Federal authorities released him in June 1865 after he signed the oath of allegiance.8

Lanier headed for New Orleans and married Annie Chambers about a month after gaining his freedom. She was the daughter of a West Pointer.9 They began a family that grew to include seven children.10 In the fall of 1866 they moved to East Feliciana Parish, a county bordering Mississippi. Lanier resumed his pre-war agricultural pursuits and started a cotton plantation. In 1873 he won election as clerk of his parish’s district court, a position he held for 15 years. Active in politics as a Democrat, he became chairman of the state party’s central committee in 1888. He served as registrar of lands for Louisiana from 1892 to 1896.

Lanier belonged to several fraternal orders, including the Masons and the Knights of Pythias. He also maintained a deep connection to his Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers, and participated in fraternity events in Louisiana.

On a July day in 1900, he suffered a stroke and died. He was 61. His wife, three sons and a daughter survived him.11

Notes

  1. The Union commander, Brig. Gen. George L. Andrews (1828-1899), refused the sword. "Fortification and Siege of Port Hudson." Southern Historical Society Papers 14 (1886): p. 344. (Return to Text)
  2. Franklin Gardner (1822-1873) of New York was appointed to West Point from Iowa and graduated with the Class of 1843. He distinguished himself during the Mexican American War, where he earned two brevets, in the Seminole War, and in service on the frontier. He left the U.S. army in 1861 with the rank of captain to accept a lieutenant colonel’s commission in the Confederate army. He commanded a cavalry brigade at the Battle of Shiloh, and soon after advanced to major general and leadership of a brigade in Polk’s corps. In early 1863 he took command of Port Hudson, and successfully held out until the fall of Vicksburg compelled him to surrender. He was a prisoner of war for a short time. After his exchange he served in Mississippi. He became a planter after the war. (Return to Text)
  3. Established in Marietta, Georgia, in 1851, the Georgia Military Institute was burned by Union troops in November 1864. The Georgia legislature made several unsuccessful attempts to reestablish the school after the war. (Return to Text)
  4. “Pioneer Days of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.” The Record of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (December 1897), pp. 362-364. (Return to Text)
  5. Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Louisiana, Vol. 1, p. 533. (Return to Text)
  6. The Columbus Riflemen were also known as the Columbus Rifles. (Return to Text)
  7. Leonidas Polk (1806-1864) briefly attended the University of North Carolina, which had been founded by his father and others, and transferred to West Point, where he graduated with the Class of 1827. Six months after graduation, Leonidas resigned from the army and entered the Episcopal ministry. He was ordained a deacon in 1830 and advanced to bishop. After the war started, his friend and West Point classmate Jefferson Davis offered him a major general’s commission, which he accepted. Davis intended the appointment as symbolic. Polk did not view his new role in this way. He became an active military leader, although considered by many as less practical and more theoretical as a soldier. Charged with defending the Mississippi River, he occupied Columbus, Kentucky, in September 1861. This move violated the border state’s neutrality. Polk went on to fight in several major battles, including Perryville, Kentucky, where he served as second-in-command to Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg. Polk later called for Bragg’s removal as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Bragg retaliated by ordering Polk to be court-martialed for failing to respond to an order to attack at Chickamauga. President Davis rescinded the charge and reinstated Polk. About six months later, on June 14, 1864, he was killed after being struck by an artillery shell during a conference with generals Joseph E. Johnston and William J. Hardee at the Battle of Pine Mountain, Georgia. (Return to Text)
  8. Federal authorities transferred Lanier from Johnson’s Island to Point Lookout in March 1865, and the following month to Fort Delaware, where he signed the oath. John S. Lanier military service record, NARA. (Return to Text)
  9. Joseph Nicholson Chambers (1799-1874) was appointed from Maryland to West Point and graduated with the Class of 1818. He resigned five years later. (Return to Text)
  10. Times-Democrat, New Orleans, La., July 17, 1900. (Return to Text)
  11. Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Louisiana, Vol. 1, p. 533. (Return to Text)