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