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"Secretary of Interior, 1857-1861, Confederate secret agent in Canada, U.S. Representative from Mississippi. Birthplace stands 100 yds. southeast."Jacob Thompson played a little remembered role in the Civil War. Appointed a Confederate ambassador to Canada, he operated a spy network and helped orchestrate several failed schemes to attack the United States from across the Great Lakes.
The son of Nicholas and Lucretia Van Hook Thompson, he was born on May 15, 1810, in Leasburg. In 1831 he graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina and subsequently read law with Judge John M. Dick of Greensboro. Admitted to the bar in 1835, Thompson decided to settle with his brother, Dr. James Young Thompson, in Pontotoc, Mississippi. He later moved to Oxford, Mississippi, and married Catherine Jones.
In 1837, Thompson failed in a bid for attorney general of Mississippi, but was elected to the United States Congress, where he served as chairman of the Public Lands and Indian Affairs committees from March 4, 1839, until March 3, 1851. In 1857 President James Buchanan appointed Thompson the Secretary of the Interior, a post he held until 1861 when he resigned upon learning that the Star of the West was sent to Fort Sumter.
Thompson entered the Confederate army, and although never formally a member of any regiment, he accepted a commission as a lieutenant colonel and operated as an aide-de-camp, first to Gen. Pierre Beauregard at the Battle of Shiloh and then as inspector general for Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton during the Vicksburg Campaign. He also became the inspiration for one Confederate unit, Company K, 19th Mississippi Infantry, known as the “Jake Thompson Guards”.
Elected to the Mississippi legislature in 1863, he was sent the following year to Canada by the Confederate government as a secret agent. He cooperated with the “Sons of Liberty,” a organization of Copperheads in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois sympathetic to the South in an effort to release Confederate prisoners held near the Great Lakes. Thompson also encouraged a plan to burn several northern cities including New York. He was charged with complicity in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, and after the war lived in Canada and Europe.
Thompson returned to the south in 1868, settling near Memphis, Tennessee. In 1876 he was sued for sums stolen from the Indian funds in the Department of the Interior during his administration but a Congressional committee found him innocent. He died at his home in Tennessee in 1885. Novelist William Faulkner used Thompson for the basis of a character, Jason Compson, in The Sound in the Fury.
J. F. H. Claiborne, Mississippi as a Province, Territory, and State, I (1880)
P. G. Auchampaugh, James Buchanan and His Cabinet (1926)
J. F. Bivins, “Life and Character of Jacob Thompson,” Publications of the Historical Society of Trinity College, 2nd series (1898)
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
(Roxboro, N.C.) Courier-Times, November 19, 1964
William A. Tidwell, April ’65: Confederate Covert Action in the American Civil War (1995)
Related Themes: C.S.A., Confederate States of America, Confederacy
North Carolina Civil War Historical Markers.