The highest ranking Texan in the Confederate government, John Henninger Reagan, proved to be a crucial figure in nineteenth century politics. A leading Texas Democrat, he served not only as Postmaster General of the Confederacy, but also as a United States Congressman both before and after the Civil War.
Born in Sevier County, Tennessee, in 1818, Reagan studied briefly at Southwestern Seminary in Maryville before moving to Natchez, Mississippi, to manage a plantation. This experience provided few opportunities for advancement, however, and Reagan moved to Nacogdoches, Texas, in 1839 in hopes of finding more rewarding work. Shortly after his arrival, he took up arms in the Cherokee War and fought to rid the local area of hostile Indians. Reagan then worked as a surveyor, scout, and justice of the peace. While serving in these various positions, he also found time to study law and eventually set up his own practice in the small hamlet of Buffalo, Texas, in 1846.
Reagan’s success in the legal field opened opportunities in the world of politics, and he won election to the Second Legislature of Texas in 1847. He took sides on controversial reapportionment and land issues, but lost a bid for the state Senate in 1849. Reagan was not out of public service for long, though. In 1852, he won election to serve as judge of the Ninth Judicial District of Texas, and his popular stance against the Know-Nothing party helped him win re-election in 1856.
The following year, Reagan ran for and won a seat in the United States Congress. His 1857 election placed him in Washington during a crucial period, as the nation struggled to deal with the debate over slavery. Reagan pursued a pro-Unionist position until John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859. Following that event and the Abraham Lincoln's successful bid for the presidency in November 1860, Reagan threw his support to the South.
With secession fever sweeping Texas, Reagan resigned his seat in the U.S. Congress on January 15, 1861 and took part in his state’s secession convention fifteen days later. Although he could not convince then-governor Sam Houston to support secession, Reagan did ultimately vote with the majority of his colleagues to secede from the Union. Shortly thereafter, Reagan was sent as a state representative to the Confederate capital of Montgomery, Alabama, where he was asked by the new Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, to serve in his cabinet as postmaster general. Reagan accepted and served in this position throughout the war, doing his best to make sure the Confederate postal system functioned until the fall of Richmond in 1865. When Richmond was evacuated, Reagan fled with the rest of the Confederate cabinet and was captured along with Jefferson Davis in rural Georgia.
After the war, Reagan spent six months in federal prison before he was released and allowed to return to Texas. Upon his return, he found his home state in turmoil. Republicans controlled the governorship and legislature, and the strain of Reconstruction was being felt by most people in the state. Reagan fought the Republicans tooth and nail, and he served a key role in the removal of Republican governor Edmund Davis in 1875. In fact, that year proved to be a crucial one for Reagan, as he was also elected to his former congressional seat and participated in the drafting of the new Texas constitution.
Based on his record in the U.S. House of Representatives, Reagan won election to the United States Senate in 1887, but he resigned his post after four years to serve as chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, a position he held until 1903. He also helped to establish the Texas State Historical Association in Austin in 1897. Reagan died at his home in Palestine on March 6, 1905.