William Bowen CAMPBELL, sixteenth governor of the state of Tennessee lived his active life in the days when there were more statemen and fewer politicians. Everyone in Tennessee, who pretends to know anything of the history of the state, knows that Governor CAMPBELL was a public man of the former variety. A soldier, born and bred, inspired with a love of his country that made him forget all minor matters in the one great fact that it was his duty to stand by his country in all difficulties, he was one of the few men who had the courage to stand against secession when the whole South was inflamed by the question. Many men at this time, who did not believe in secession, fought for it nevertheless and made a pretense of believing in it because they were simply too afraid to do otherwise, but Governor CAMPBELL was not that kind of man. His convictions were unalterable, and no man could frighten him from his stand. Such a man could not fail to win the respect of everyone, even though they opposed him.
William Bowen CAMPBELL was born on Maskers Creek in Sumner county, Tennessee, on the 1st of February, 1807. His father was David CAMPBELL. His grandfather was Capt. David CAMPBELL, who was a soldier in Gen. William CAMPBELL’s regiment, during the Revolutionary War. Campbell Station in East Tennessee was named for Captain CAMPBELL. David CAMPBELL’s wife, whose maiden name was Catherine BOWEN, was a remarkable woman, of that type which we have all learned to revere, a gentlewoman of the old school. A lover of books, a worshipper of the truth, with a strong mind and great nobility of character she instilled into her son all the believes that had made her the woman she was. Above all she was a true lover of her country and she transmitted this devotion in an intensified form to her son.
Governor CAMPBELL was reared on the farm, being the eldest of six children. His mother was his earliest teacher, but as he grew older tutors were employed, and under James HAMILTON and Peter HUBBARD he became a proficient student. When he was seventeen years of age his father met with business reverses and the son showed the stuff from which he was made by dropping his books and taking up the maul and axe. The next two years were spent in clearing land, and then the boy went to Abingdon, Virginia where he entered the law office of his uncle, David CAMPBELL, who was subesquently governor of Virginia. He also attended a course of lectures given by the Hon. St. George TUCKER, of Winchester, Virginia. Under such tutelage he made rapid progress, and in 1830 he returned to Tennessee and engaged in the practice of law at Carthage.
His ability was pronounced and from the first he made a brilliant success. In 1831 he was elected attorney general and removed to Sparta, White county, Tennessee. For four years he filled this office, and in 1835 he returned to Carthage to take up his profession once more. He was elected to the legislature from Smith county during this same year and served in that body until 1836 when a call was issued for volunteers to be sent against the Creek and Seminole Indians, who were committing depredations on the frontiers of Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Governor CAMPBELL resigned from the legislature immediately and was the first to put his name on a list of volunteers. He was elected captain of the company thus formed, which was part of the regiment commanded by Col. William TROUSDALE. Governor CAMPBELL led his company through a campaign of seven months, taking part in a number of battles and skirmishes, among them being the battle of Wahoo Swamp and the engagement that took place near the forks of the Withalacochee river. After the Indians had been sufficiently punished the company returned home, his first experience as a soldier having been a good preparation for later ones.
He was a Whig in politics and shortly after his return home, in 1837, he became a candidate for Congress, his opponent being Gen. William TROUSDLE, who had been his regimental commander in the war in Florida. Governor CAMPBELL was elected by a handsome majority, and was twice reelected, serving six years in in all. He then retired to private life and once more took up his law practice.
It was shortly after this that he was elected major general of his military district, for already mutterings of war were being heard among the Rio Grande. When the war did break out in 1846, Tennessee was called upon to furnish twenty-four hundred volunteers. The spirit of the state, and indeed the whole South, was shown by the fact that something like thirty thousand men answered this call, but not one-tenth of them could be received. In May of that year the First Tennessee Regiment of Volunteers was organized in Nashville, and William B. CAMPBELL was elected colonel. Shortly afterwards he was on his way at the head of his command to Mexico. They traveled by boat down the Mississippi, thence across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Rio Grande to Camargo where General TAYLOR organized his army for the advance on Monterey. The battle that resulted in the capture of Monterey is a fact well known to students of history, and it was in this fierce attack that the First Tennessee Regiment won the sobriquet of “The Bloody First.”
In 1847 Colonel CAMPBELL returned from Mexio and in 1848 he was unanimously elected by the legislature as judge of the circuit court. He was now a well known man throughout the state and a man of great personal popularity. In 1851 he was nominated for governor by the Whig party, his opponent being Gov. William TROUSDALE. He was elected and served two years, refusing to again become a candidate. Retiring from public life for a time he now became a member of a firm of cotton merchants in New Orleans and later was president of the Bank of Middle Tennessee, which was located at Lebanon, whither he moved in 1853. It was impossible for him to keep out of public life, however, especially in the stirring decade that preceded the outbreak of the Civil war. In the campaign of 1860, Governor CAMPBELL supported Bell and Everett, and in 1861 he canvassed the state speaking against secession. His influence was a powerful one, and his eloquence as a speaker had a tremendous effect on the people to whom he spoke. In 1862 he was unanimously elected to preside over a mass meeting of citizens representing various counties of the state, which was held in Nashville. One can not fully appreciate what this means unless one can realize the bitter feelings, the tenseness of the situation, when the nerves of every man were strained to the breaking point. To prside over any kind of a meeting in those days took a man of the strongest character who commanded men simply by the power of hsi personality. In August, 1865, he was elected to Congress and won an enviable repuation in the Thirty-ninth congress, during the days which were really more trying than those of the war, and when such a man as Governor CAMPBELL was invaluable.
In 1835 he married Frances A. OWEN, a daughter of John OWEN, of Carthage, Tennessee, and his wife had seven children, as follows: Mary C., who married Dr. D.C. KELLEY; Margaret H., who married James S. PILCHER; Fanny A. who became the wife of J.W. BONNER; William B., who died in youth; Joseph Allen CAMPBELL; J. Owen CAMPBELL; and Lemuel R. CAMPBELL. Governor CAMPBELL died in 1867, on the 19th of August, at his home near Lebanon, Tennessee, and his wife died in 1864.
Source: Hale, Will T, and Dixon L. Merritt. A History of Tennessee and Tennesseans: The Leaders and Representative Men in Commerce, Industry and Modern Activities. Chicago: Lewis Pub. Company, 1913. Volume 4, pg. 851-853.