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Collins Genealogy, By Ethel (Buxton) McLean 





Richmond Times Dispatch                    May 28, 1939


Home    >    Newspaper Articles    >    Honorary Colonels of the South



That Noble Army of Southern Colonels

Who Are They? How'd They Get That Way?---

Herein Are the Facts---Sober and Otherwise

By Ben Burwell Johnston





Noah Webster, of course, was a New England Yankee--Maybe an Abolitionist, even--and any anti-Southern bias on his part is understandable, if not pardonable. But the celebrated lexicographer has been dead a long time and his successors should put away the bloody shirt of sectionalism.

In Webster's New International Dictionary (1938) this excerpt from the definition should be and hereby is challenged:

"Colonel . . . 3. A title of courtesy given to any prominent citizen. Southern U. S.

This emphatically does not apply in Virginia, as a recent interchange of statements between the office of the Governor and the office of the president of the First Families of Virginia, Inc., plainly shows.

The title of non-military colonel is not given in Virginia; it is sold. Moreover, it is not conveyed to "any prominent citizen"; it is conferred only upon persons selected by the association.

The Webster definition does not apply in Kentucky, either, although Kentucky is the happy hunting ground of more colonels than any other State. In Kentucky, since Governor Ruby Laffoon retired from office, the crop of colonels has been drastically curtailed. Just "any prominent citizen" can't be a Kentucky colonel any more because Governor A. B. Chandler is sensitive about colonels.

The Webster definition is fallacious, too, to Georgia, where, although any lawyer is likely to be called colonel, not so is any doctor, architect or manufacturer, regardless of his prominence. In Georgia, you can be a colonel in the army, or the Governor's staff, or by virtue of admission to the bar, but that's as far as the tolerance goes.

So, you see, you can't always trust the dictionary.

This colonel situation developed when the attention of Governor Price was drawn to reports that five hotel men from each State had been or were to be appointed "honorary Virginia colonels." The Governor learned, from a clipping out of a Florida newspaper, that a boniface of that State had been appointed "a colonel on the staff of the Governor of Virginia." Letters from various other sections of the country carried similar mystifying tidings.

Raymond L. Jackson, secretary of the Commonwealth, explained to all concerned that, since February 1, 1926, there have been no "honorary colonels" on the staff of the Governor of Virginia. On that date an act became effective which provides that the Governor appoint his aide-de-camp from the commissioned personnel of the National Guard. Under the national defense act, it is required that commissioned officers in the National Guard be qualified to hold rank corresponding to their own in the United States Army. It will be seen that there is no place for "honorary colonels" on the staff of the Governor.

The secretary implied, rather emphatically, that anyone who accepted "appointment" as "honorary Virginia colonel" rated nothing higher in the way of title than the good old American epithet of "sucker."

This hurt R. G. Barnhill, Abingdon hotel executive terribly. Writing as "one designated by the First Families of Virginia, Inc., to nominate for appointment outstanding men to receive the honorary commissions as Virginia colonels," Mr. Barnhill said "there is unquestionably a misunderstanding."

He knows quite well, and so does the F. F. V., Inc. he explained, that appointment of honorary colonels by the Governor had been discontinued during the administration of Governor Harry F. Byrd, and added that each person elevated to the mythical eagles had been given "all reasonable notice that the title of "Virginia colonel" offered them was not through any official source or State agency or Governor's office."

"After all," he said, "it does not appear that the conferring of such degrees or titles could be said to be the vested right of any one person or class of persons. It might also be added that the invitation plainly showed the commercial connection. . . ."

And on this note of frankness, the subject of the "colonels" of the F. F. V., Inc., may well be dropped.

The Kentucky colonel situation is a little different. A few years back, it was practically impossible for a wrestler, a band leader or just a good, two-fisted drinker to get into and out of Kentucky without being appointed a colonel on the staff of the Governor of the State. Governor Ruby Laffoon loved colonels and lots of them. He kept the official seal of the State hot, stamping commissions for his friends and acquaintances and the friends and acquaintances of his uncles and his cousins and his aunts.

Things came to such a pass that the New York Times, on January 26, 1935, said editorially:

"Kentucky colonels, it is now intimated, are to be brought under the same crop restriction rules that have worked so well in wheat, cotton and other superabundant commodities. Governor Laffoon has come to feel that 2,000 honorary colonels may be a bit too much for a State with a militia force of 2,822 men. Even in the Mexican army, the ratio is one officer to three soldiers.

"The entrance requirements for a Kentucky colonel are extremely light. Ladies, as they say on the windows of the popular-priced lunchrooms, are invited. Residence in the State is not necessary. There are said to be several hundred absentee Kentucky colonels. Perhaps that is why one hears so many people singing about their old Kentucky homes, far, far away in Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, Brazil and Czecho-Slovakia."

The famous accuracy of the Times, however, seems to have slipped a bit here, however. Either the January figure on the colonel crop is far too low or the Governor's reported change of heart was not as drastic as it seemed. Anyway, in December, the Times reported:

"7,000 Kentucky Colonels
To be left by Laffoon

"Frankford, KY., Dec. 7, (AP)--
When Governor Ruby Laffoon leaves office next Tuesday, he will leave behind him an army of about 7,000 Kentucky colonels.

"His record of appointing about 5,000 of this army is expected to stand unchallenged during the administration of Governor-elect A. B. Chandler, who as lieutenant-governor, is responsible for about 700. He has said he would stop the practice of issuing commissions wholesale.

"To criticisms of his motley army, which besides colonels, includes admirals and commodores scattered over this country and foreign parts, Governor Laffoon replies that the good will to Kentucky more than justifies the cost of 20 1/2 cents a commission, complete with blue ribbon and gold seal."

Governor Chandler's pledge not to appoint any more honorary colonels, made during the heat of his political campaign, was not unbreakable, it is regrettable to report. For a year and a half, he held to his resolution. Then he was invited to address the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels at their Derby eve banquet in 1937. Under the influence of so much pseudo-military gallantry, or something, the Governor broke down and promised to appoint "not more than 10" colonels at the next year's banquet. He explained that he was impressed by the aid given Kentucky by the colonels' organization during the flood in January and February of 1937.

It was probably a visiting Kentucky colonel who shouted from the back of the hall:

"Look out, civilians, the dam's busted!"

So far, the colonel situation, while congested, has not been complicated. From here on, however, the intricacies call for the subtleties of the legal mind. That, incidentally, is just what we have in the Georgia colonel problem.

Colonels are a problem in Georgia and have been from time immemorial. This treatise does not promise a solution but does offer several explanations, any one of which would suffice, if it were not for the others. The problem is:

Why are Georgia lawyers colonels?

Non-Georgians always have to be convinced that lawyers are colonels. Very good. The following quotation is from the stenographic report of the proceedings of the Georgia Bar Association for 1916, beginning on page 42.:

"Mr. Z. B. Rogers of Alberton: I wish to offer this resolution:

"Resolved, that this association condemns the custom of calling lawyers 'colonel,' and urges each member, the press and the public to do all they can to put an end to it.

"Mr. L. Z. Rosser of Atlanta: I would like to have a penalty attached to it, so that anybody who does it would be punished.

"Colonel A. R. Lawton of Savannah: I would like to include in that resolution all other honorary titles . . . I hope this association will take this seriously. I am a Georgian bred to the soil, and I am proud of the State of Georgia. I am sensitive to anything that can be said against the State of Georgia when it is well founded, and I am particularly sensitive to anything which justifies ridicule. We are making ourselves ridiculous by the unauthorized conferring of titles upon everybody. The most flagrant instance of it is the conferring of military titles based on membership in the bar. I would like to give this association an incident which, I think, shows the extent to which this thing has gone. I was on riot duty at a town in South Georgia (as commander of my regiment) where court was being held. An officer of one of the companies came to me and said he understood that I had issued an order that the soldiers should not go up into the courtroom while the cases were being tried. I said, "yes." He said, "I have two privates in my command for whom I should like to get permission to go into the courthouse; they are young lawyers and want the experience.' I said, "Who are they?' He said, "They are 'Colonel' Brown and 'Colonel' Robinson.' (Laughter)

"I read in a Savannah paper a dispatch from Waycross some time ago saying that 'the friends of 'Colonel' John W. Bennett are very much pleased at the promotion which has come to him by his election as second lieutenant of the Waycross Rifles.' (Laughter). It is funny, but it is ridiculous. . . We are making ourselves a laughing stock and I think it is time that this association should pass a resolution condemning the practice, and vote for it seriously." . . .

"The resolution was then put to vote and unanimously carried."

That was in 1916 and lawyers are still colonels in Georgia. But why?

Several years ago, a Georgia newspaper columnist undertook to trace the origin of the odd custom. He received this explanation from W. P. Ward, then ordinary (i. e., judge of probate court) of Coffee County:

"Our State was settled by a military man, General Oglethorpe. He gave a military coloring to all branches of the government. To begin with, the State was laid out in militia districts. The governor was himself a general. The chief prosecutor for the State was an attorney-general. The chief prosecutor for each of the various courts was a solicitor-general. Under the organization of our superior courts, lawyers are officers of the court and have certain privileges and duties. They are as much a part of the court as the judges and the solicitors-general. And the title of colonel was a natural consequence.

"Mr. Webster says an attorney-general or a solicitor-general is an officer who conducts suits and prosecutions for a nation or a state. A colonel is an officer next below a general. And I think it is clear that the term as applied to lawyers in Georgia is right and proper and not mere captious slang."

One would say that this is more interesting as rationalization than as history or etymology. However, there are other explanations. Andrew P. Rives, a gentleman of antiquarian interests, whose home was in Randolph County, Georgia, advanced this information:

"The best authority is that by an ancient law of South Carolina 'a lawyer shall be held in contempt, appearing in court without the side-arms of the colonel of militia on his person.' As late as 1856, tradition has it, an attorney from Massachusetts, so appearing in court in Charleston, was fined for contempt under this law."

Mr. Rives' inference was that Georgia must have had, at some time in its history, a similar law, or that Georgians, without authority of the law, assumed the military tradition of the adjacent state.

John McCreary, a Macon attorney, wrote:

"One explanation was given to me when I was a tyro at the bar and, without guaranteeing the truth of the story, I submit it for what it is worth.

"The story goes, that in the years before the Civil War, before there were any recreation parks or civic clubs, the young men of the State had to entertain themselves and occupy their time by membership and activities in militia companies, thereby winning fame for themselves and endearing themselves in the hearts of the ladies, pretty much as national guardsmen do today. Either the by-laws of the militia companies or the general laws of the State (I am not sure which) provided that these companies should be inspected or reviewed annually by the Governor, in person or by deputy. It being a physical impossibility for the Governor personally to inspect every militia company once a year, he delegated this duty to a subordinate who was vested with the honorary title of 'colonel of militia.' These honorary titles were distributed mainly among the political supporters of the Governor and these political supporters were for the most part members of the bar. Before long, it became a well-recognized fact that every colonel was a lawyer and it was but a short time before the public took the converse of the proposition to be true and regarded every lawyer as a colonel.

"Hence, according to the way I heard the story, the practice arose of addressing lawyers as colonel."

The last, and perhaps the most ingenious explanation, was put forward by J. Wingfield Nisbet, lawyer and student of Georgia's past. He wrote:

"The only reasonable explanation that I could ever find (and this is mere speculation) is that one of the biggest titles of the English bar was 'sergeant.' Every lawyer has read of the famous Sergeant Talfourd. And the American people, particularly in the South, tried to give their lawyers (generally the legislators) a higher standing than the English lawyers, so they called them colonels. Take this for what it is worth, if anything."

And then, of course, the hoary anecdote about the old Negro and the curious Yankee rounds up the colonel situation for all parts of the South.

This observant visitor from the North, waiting for the train to take him back home, occupied his time in extending his Southern data in conversation with the venerable baggage porter.

"Tell me," he said, "why it is that so many men in this part of the country are called colonel. I never saw so many military men in my section.

"Well, suh," said the Negro, "It's like dis. Some gemmen is kunnels on account of de wah. Some is jest natchally bawn kunnels. And some, suh, git to be kunnels effen dey's good to niggers. . . Thankee, kunnel."



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