Elliott: The colorful career of Judge Lewis Shepherd

Elliott: The colorful career of Judge Lewis Shepherd

April 20th, 2014 By Sam D. Elliott in Opinion Columns

At the turn of the 20th century, the best known lawyer in Chattanooga was Lewis Shepherd. Born in Hamilton County in 1846, he was educated at Burritt College in Van Buren County and H. W. Alderhoff's Institute on Lookout Mountain. Soon after the Civil War, Shepherd returned to Chattanooga and became the youngest member of the bar. He rose to District Attorney General and later served in the Tennessee General Assembly, resigning because he didn't enjoy "serving with men with less intelligence than his wife's mule." A lawyer's lawyer, he left a Circuit Court judgeship because he was "born to be an advocate, not a referee." Shepherd was the first dean of the Chattanooga College of Law, which was eventually absorbed into Grant University, later the University of Chattanooga.

One of the pillars of Shepherd's prestige in turn-of-the-century Chattanooga was his service in the Confederate Army. Accounts of his service which were published in his lifetime indicate that young Shepherd joined the Army in 1861 and was first posted on guard duty in East Tennessee to protect railroad lines against Unionist guerrillas. He later participated in the Mill Springs campaign in early 1862 and Braxton Bragg's raid into Kentucky in the fall of 1862. Shepherd fought with Bedford Forrest at Chickamauga, helping capture a Federal hospital, and later participated in Wheeler's Raid in October 1863. Having become part of the 5th Tennessee Cavalry sometime in 1863 or 1864, Shepherd was captured and sent to Camp Morton, Ind., before being exchanged in February 1865. He gamely rejoined the Confederate army and served with Brig. Gen. John C. Vaughn as an escort for Confederate President Jefferson Davis during his flight from Richmond, Va.

Decades later, Shepherd related a sensational story relative to the gold and silver specie that accompanied Davis on his flight, some of the specie belonging to the Confederate government and some to various Richmond banks. When Davis's party reached Washington, Ga., in May 1865, it was concluded the wagon train of money was impeding their escape. The money belonging to the rebel government was divided among the troops then present, each man getting $26.50. The Richmond bankers decided to turn to the Federal authorities to protect their money. Shepherd related how a number of the men of Vaughn's brigade heard of this wagon train of money, intercepted it and made off with enormous sums. According to Shepherd, he knew of men who made it to Kansas City as well as Texas and California and used the monies to build great fortunes. A story published in the Confederate Veteran magazine in 1917 left it to its readers to determine whether Shepherd's account was feasible.

In 1906, Shepherd was appointed to assist in the representation of Ed Johnson, a black man who was falsely accused of raping a white woman. Shepherd conducted Johnson's defense in as effective a manner as possible given the public outcry and bias shown by the court and the jury. In his final argument, he lambasted both the judge and the prosecution and accused Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp, a fellow Confederate veteran, of not seeking justice but re-election. And when Johnson was convicted, Shepherd, alone among his defense lawyers, advocated an appeal, contemptuous of a threatened lynch mob. Shepherd cooperated with Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, the two black lawyers who stepped forward to press Johnson's federal appeal. And when a lynch mob took Ed Johnson's life, Shepherd was one of the few white people who went to Johnson's funeral, although he showed insensitivity at another point in participating in a mock seance "contacting" Johnson.

As a final twist, when the United States Supreme Court cited Sheriff Shipp, other officers and citizens of Chattanooga of violating the court's order that Johnson not be disturbed, Shepherd represented nine accused members of the lynch mob that took Johnson's life, the first time he appeared before that eminent tribunal.

Shepherd died at age 72 in 1917 in the midst of trying a lawsuit. The Chattanooga Times observed that Shepherd's last wish was satisfied: "to go to his reward straight from the courtroom."

Sam D. Elliott is a local attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon, chairman of the Tennessee Historical Commission and the author or editor of several books and essays on the Civil War. For more information, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.