A Civil War Biography

John Smith Preston

Preston was born at Salt Works, the family's large plantation near Abington, Virginia on 20 April 1809. He graduated from Hampden-Sidney College in 1824 then studied law at the University of Virginia and Harvard College. In 1830 he married Caroline Hampton of Columbia, South Carolina, the daughter of Wade Hampton, the Revolutionary War general. Preston initially established a law practice in Abington before relocating to Columbia. He was engaged in sugar planting in Louisiana and established a large plantation near Baton Rouge.

A distinguished orator, Preston was praised for his 1848 address welcoming the Palmetto regiment back from the war with Mexico. He was chairman of the Democratic convention that met at Charleston in May 1860. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, Preston, an ardent secessionist, as a commissioner to Virginia, in February 1861 made an eloquent plea in favor of Virginia withdrawing from the Union.

He joined the Confederate army and as a lieutenant colonel was attached to the staff of Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard who commended Preston for his efficiency at First Manassas. He was then assigned as an assistant adjutant general in South Carolina where one of his duties would have been to supervise the prison camp in Columbia. He also performed recruiting duties. In April of 1863 he was promoted to colonel.

On 30 July 1863 he was assigned as superintendent of the Bureau of Conscription, the position he held until 17 May 1865 when the position, along with the Confederate government ceased to exist. Following the war, Preston, who had been promoted to brigadier general on 10 June 1864, fled to England where he remained until 1868.

Always unreconstructed, he incurred the severe criticism of the Northern press when he delivered the commencement at the University of Virginia, during which he made a fervent assertion of the right of secession. Preston's last appearance as an orator was at the dedication of the Confederate monument in Columbia. Preston died 1 May 1881 in Columbia.

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