Gaston: James Williams was a man of the world

U.S. Minister Resident to the Ottoman Empire James Williams is photographed in Schloss Miramar, a castle near Trieste, Italy.
U.S. Minister Resident to the Ottoman Empire James Williams is photographed in Schloss Miramar, a castle near Trieste, Italy.

No one could have predicted that James Williams, born in 1796 in Grainger County, Tennessee, would become a world traveler, author and Minister Resident to the Ottoman Empire. He and his brother, William Williams, moved to Chattanooga by 1850 to establish headquarters for their steamboats shipping salt and furs on the Tennessee River from Knoxville to Decatur. They began with two boats but later eliminated their competition by purchasing all the steamboats on the river.

In the early 1840s, James Williams founded and edited The Knoxville Post, but retired from the Post in 1844. In 1853, the Williams brothers joined with William D. Fulton to establish Chattanooga's first bank, the Bank of Chattanooga, at the corner of Market and Third streets. The Union occupation of Chattanooga ended the bank's activities in 1863.

James Williams married Lucy Graham of East Tennessee, and they had three children. In 1852, Williams left the Whig party and became a Democrat. He wrote a series of articles for Nashville's Union and American newspaper under the pseudonym "Old Line Whig." He caught the eye of Tennessee Gov. Andrew Johnson, later 17th president of the United States, who recommended Williams to then-U.S. President James Buchanan for a diplomatic post abroad. In his letter of April 8, 1857, to Buchanan, Johnson described Williams as "a man of great energy [who] would represent this government abroad with efficiency and signal ability, sustaining his government with appropriate dignity and honor."

Receiving no response, Johnson pressed his case with Lewis Cass, U.S. secretary of state, asking for consideration "upon personal and political grounds." The appointment was granted less than a year later.

The Buchanan administration appointed Williams as Minister Resident to the Ottoman Empire on Jan. 14, 1858. Williams presented his credentials in Constantinople (now Istanbul) on May 27, 1858. A few months later he complained in a letter to Secretary Cass that "Constantinople is the most expensive city as a residence in the civilized world," adding that a U.S. diplomat "will rue the day he left the shores of his native land on such a mission."

He remained in that post until the outbreak of the Civil War, however, terminating his service on May 25, 1861. While in Constantinople, Williams served as president of the Bible Society of Constantinople. American traveler Aaron Ward wrote that the two Williams daughters were much appreciated there. Minister Williams invited Ward to go sailing on the Bosphorus, and invited him to attend a Fourth of July picnic for 100 guests nearby.

Williams and his wife also made a voyage on the Nile into lower Egypt. Accompanying them were Lord Dufferin and his mother, Lady Dufferin, a daughter of the famous English actor Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Lady Dufferin painted a portrait of Mrs. Williams with her daughters.

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A young French nobleman with a corps of photographers assembled photograph albums for the Empress Eugenie of France, the Empress of Austria and Mrs. Williams, keeping one for his own chateau. The Swedish novelist Frederika Bremer also accompanied the party.

The Williams visited Maximilian, younger brother of the emperor of Austria, and his wife, Charlotte, at Schloss Miramar, their palace in Trieste on the Adriatic. There Maximillian and Williams paced back and forth discussing Mexico. Williams tried to talk the Austrian out of accepting the monarchy, while Maximillian tried to talk Williams into accompanying him to Mexico City.

President Abraham Lincoln replaced Williams as Minister Resident to Constantinople, whereupon Williams and his family went to London. There he secretly corresponded with Jefferson Davis and other Confederates, sold Confederate bonds to British families, and wrote for London papers. He contributed to The Index, the Confederate propaganda machine of Henry Hotze, who had Williams' book "Letters on Slavery from the Old World" (1861) translated into German. Williams also wrote "The Rise and Fall of the Model Republic," published in 1863.

During the war, Williams' Nashville property was confiscated and turned into a hospital. His property in Texas and other Southern states disappeared. Williams returned to the United States in 1866 and received a pardon from President Andrew Johnson at the White House.

He then rejoined his family in Europe where his daughter, Kate, had married Baron Harry Kavanaugh-Ballyane, an Austrian nobleman. Williams and his wife moved in with their daughter and her husband, who lived in the castle of Mali Tabor in present-day Croatia. James Williams died there in 1869. His wife, Lucy, was visiting Nashville when she died in 1877.

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit

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