Following the arrest and imprisonment of Governor Charles Clark, Mississippi was for the third time without a chief executive. In the confusion after the Civil War, Mississippi was under martial law until June 13, 1865, when President Andrew Johnson appointed William Sharkey as provisional governor of the state. The responsibility for restoring order and gaining the re-admission of Mississippi could not have fallen to a better qualified individual.
Sharkey was born in Tennessee in 1797 (or 1798 according to some sources), and came to Mississippi with his family in 1803. He had a highly successful law practice in Vicksburg and, after serving briefly in the state legislature, was elected chief justice of the Mississippi High Court of Errors and Appeals, a position he held for eighteen years. After leaving the bench, Sharkey served briefly as the American counsel to Cuba and compiled the Mississippi Code of 1857.
Sharkey was a member of the Whig Party and a strong unionist. He was one of the very few Mississippi political leaders who did not support the Confederate States of America, even after it had been formed and the Civil War had begun. Because of his loyalty to the Union, Sharkey was named provisional governor of Mississippi following the surrender of the Confederate military forces.
President Johnson adopted a conciliatory policy toward the southern states and moved quickly to restore them to the Union. He directed Governor Sharkey to call a constitutional convention to declare the Ordinance of Secession null and void and to abolish slavery. President Johnson also directed Governor Sharkey to hold a general election for state officials in October. In that election, Benjamin Humphreys was elected governor, but Governor Sharkey did not yield the office to him until December.
Following the October general election, the Mississippi Legislature appointed Governor Sharkey to the United States Senate. That same legislature also passed a set of laws known as the Black Codes, which defined the status of Mississippi’s former enslaved peoples. The laws were harsh and gave the freedmen virtually no civil or constitutional rights.
Because of the Black Codes, and because the Mississippi Legislature refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the United States Congress refused to seat Senator Sharkey and Mississippi’s congressional delegation in December 1865.
President Johnson’s lenient plan of Reconstruction was eventually replaced in 1867 by the congressional plan that imposed certain political restrictions on southern Whites but extended the suffrage to Mississippi’s former enslaved peoples.
Governor Sharkey did not take an active role in the Reconstruction of Mississippi after he left office in December 1865. He continued his law practice in Jackson until his death in Washington, D. C., on March 30, 1873. Sharkey County is named in his honor.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 71.
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form II. 649-658.