Henry Mason Mathews (March 29, 1834-April 28, 1884) was the fifth governor of West Virginia. He was born at Frankford, Greenbrier County. His father, Mason Mathews, was a merchant who served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates. The younger Mathews attended Lewisburg Academy in preparation for study at the University of Virginia, where he received A.B. and A.M. degrees. Following graduation in 1856, he studied for a year at Judge John W. Brockenbrough’s law school in Lexington, Virginia, receiving a B.L. degree with honors.
Between 1857 and the outbreak of the Civil War, Mathews practiced law in Lewisburg, where he and his young wife, the former Lucy Clayton Fry, established a residence. To supplement his income, Mathews taught history, literature, and modern languages at Allegheny College, a local school for boys. The couple had five children. When the Civil War erupted, Mathews enlisted as a private in the Confederate Army, eventually rising through the ranks to major of artillery prior to the surrender.
A popular young man with great ambition, Mathews was overwhelmingly elected to the new West Virginia Senate in 1865. He was not allowed to serve, however, due to laws that barred former Confederates from election to public office. After passage of the Flick Amendment restored the political right of ex-Confederates, Mathews was elected attorney general of West Virginia in 1872, and served from 1873 to 1877 as one of the most popular attorneys general in the history of the state. He served as a member of the 1872 West Virginia Constitutional Convention, which returned the rights of former Confederates. Mathews used his popularity as attorney general to propel himself to the governor’s mansion in 1876. As the Democratic nominee he easily defeated Republican Nathan Goff Jr. of Harrison County. Mathews was the first Confederate veteran to be elected governor, and he represented the pro-Southern, ‘‘Redeemer’’ faction of the Democratic Party. He was the first of the so-called Bourbon governors.
Governor Mathews served during difficult times. There were strikes and riots during much of his administration, including the national railroad strike of 1877 which began at Martinsburg. In his inaugural address Mathews called for peaceful resolutions of disputes and for harmony, but his call for peace was largely ignored. He had to ask President Rutherford B. Hayes for federal troops to help stop the railway strike at Martinsburg, because the state militia sympathized with the strikers. State troops had to be called out three years later to halt the Ansted mine strike in Fayette County. The Virginia Debt question, the troublesome matter of West Virginia’s contribution toward paying off the Virginia state debt at the time West Virginia left the mother state, remained an issue throughout Mathew’s term. His administration was unusual for the period, however, as he appointed representatives of both parties to important positions within his administration.
Mathews returned to Lewisburg in 1881, at the completion of his term as governor, where he practiced law and served as president of the White Sulphur Springs Company. He died unexpectedly at the age of 50, and is buried at the Old Stone Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Lewisburg.
Read Gov. Mathews’s inaugural address.
This Article was written by Donna Addkison-Simmons
Last Revised on October 08, 2010
Morgan, John G. West Virginia Governors, 1863-1980. Charleston: Charleston Newspapers, 1980.
Malone, Dumas, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.
Sobel, Robert & John Raimo, eds. Biographical Directory of the Governors of the U.S., 1789-1978. Westport, CT: Meckler Books, 1978.