Governor John Jones Pettus has the distinction of serving the shortest term of governor in the state’s history. He served for five days between the resignation of Henry Foote on January 5 and the inauguration of his successor, John J. McRae, on January 10, 1854. Governor Pettus is best known, however, as the governor who took Mississippi out of the Union in 1861.
Pettus moved to Kemper County as a small boy from his native state of Tennessee, where he was born in Wilson County on October 9, 1813. In 1846-1848, Pettus represented Kemper County in the Mississippi House of Representatives. He was then elected to the state senate in 1848 and was named president of the senate in 1854.
As the country’s sectional crisis worsened during the 1850s, Pettus became identified as a “fire-eater,” a term that described the South’s strong supporters of secession. His election by a large majority in 1859 was an indication that secession was becoming more popular with the people of Mississippi. In his inaugural address, Governor Pettus predicted that the growing sectional animosity would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery and the loss of the South’s enormous financial investment in the enslaved labor system. He believed that secession and the establishment of a southern confederacy would be the South’s only way of maintaining slavery and he called on other slave states to prepare for the possibility of secession.
After the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, the state of South Carolina seceded from the Union and invited other southern states to join her in the formation of a southern nation. Mississippi, under the leadership of Governor Pettus, followed South Carolina out of the Union on January 9, 1861, and along with five other slave states established the Confederate States of America on February 4, 1861, at Montgomery, Alabama.
During the summer of 1861, hundreds of militia units were formed throughout the state and by the fall of the year, after the first Battle of Bull Run, many of those local units were enrolled in the army of the Confederacy. Governor Pettus was also re-elected in the fall of 1861 with only token opposition.
In 1862, during the early stages of the Vicksburg campaign, Governor Pettus was forced to move the state capital to Enterprise, and then back to Jackson. When his second term expired in October 1863, Governor Pettus joined the Confederate Army. After General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Governor Pettus refused to surrender and settled in Arkansas where he continued to resist federal military authorities until his death on January 28, 1867.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi
Dubay, Robert W. John Jones Pettus: Mississippi Fire-eater (Jackson, 1975)
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 66.
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form II, 410-419.