Alabama Secretaries of State

William Wallace Screws

photo of Alabama Secretary of State William Wallace Screws


Secretary of State: 1878-1882


William Wallace Screws, editor, lawyer, Secretary of State for Alabama, postmaster and Confederate soldier, was born February 25, 1839, at Jernigan, Barbour, now Russell County, died August 7, 1913, at his country place near Coosada, Elmore County, and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Montgomery; son of Benjamin and Mourning Jones (Drake) Screws, both of Nash County, N.C., who removed to Barbour County in the early history of the State, the former a merchant at Glenville, circuit clerk, and a powerful factor in ante-bellum politics in his section of the State; grandson of John Screws and wife, who was a Miss Whitehead, and of James and Nancy (Arrington) Drake, all of Nash County, N.C. Major Screws' ancestors, on both lines, were English. The Drakes and Arringtons went to North Carolina from Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively.


He received his early education in Glenville, then Barbour, now Russell County, among his teachers being Alpheus Baker, later a distinguished Confederate general. He made a good record in Latin, Greek, and English literature, but left school at sixteen years of age, financial reverses of his father depriving him of the college course for which he had been trained. He went to Montgomery in early manhood and read law under Thomas H. Watts, afterwards Governor of Alabama and Attorney General of the Confederacy, and was admitted to the bar in the circuit court of Montgomery County, June 15, 1859, entering immediately upon the practice of the profession, under special statute owing to his not being of age. In 1906, he received the honorary degree of LL. D. from the University of Alabama.


In the epoch-making campaign of 1860, he supported the Bell and Everett ticket, standing for the preservation of the Union, and the maintenance of the rights of the south under the constitution. He served as Secretary of State from 1878 to 1882, continuing his editorial work, however, upon The [Montgomery] Advertiser. During President Cleveland's first administration he held a position in the Library of Congress and during the second Cleveland administration was postmaster of Montgomery from July 1, 1893 to November 15, 1897.


Although opposed to secession Major Screws was one of the first young men in Alabama to volunteer for military service, following the State's withdrawal from the union, and left Montgomery with the "True Blues" for Fort Barancas, near Pensacola. Afterwards he enlisted in Hilliard's legion, and was in service in Tennessee and Kentucky, participating, September, 1863, in the battle of Chicamauga. Upon the reorganization of the legion into the 59th and 60th regiments, he was made first lieutenant of Co. E, 59th regiment. Under command of General Longstreet he took part in the siege of Knoxville and minor engagements. He went from Tennessee to Petersburg, Va., with Gracie's brigade, Bushrod Johnson's division, and with the troops under General Beauregard aided in repulsing General Butler's movements against the Confederate capital. In May, 1864, he was wounded at Drewry's Bluff. Later he took part in the battles about Petersburg, 1864, and was on siege duty and in various engagements, until the evacuation, April 2, 1865. Four days later he was captured at Sailor's Creek and taken to Johnson's Island, Lake Erie, from which he was released until June 19, 1865. He returned to Alabama, making a brief visit to his old home in Glenville, then went to Montgomery where he resumed his permanent residence. He received his title of major by reason of his service on the staff of Gen. Thomas T. Holtzclaw in the Alabama state troops.


Major Screws manifested a talent for writing while still a country youth, in Glenville, contributing letters of a political and controversial character to the press, during 1852 and later. While a soldier in the Confederate Army he sent frequent letters to The Advertiser from the scenes of strife that so strongly convinced the owner and editor of that paper, Samuel G. Reid, of his abilities that upon the restoration of peace he offered his correspondent a position on the editorial staff. Major Screws had returned to Montogmery with the intention of making the law his life's work, but Mr. Reid's overtures, accompanied with an offer to sell a half interest in the paper to the young soldier for a few hundred dollars, and his own time to discharge the debt, definitely changed the course of his life. His editorial connection with The Advertiser covered a period of forty-eight years and during this almost half century, his pen was always wielded for conservative government, white supremacy and in behalf of every movement tending to the educational, civic, religious and political welfare of the state and the nation. In 1885, Frank P. Glass became associated with Major Screws in the conduct and control of The Advertiser, the former giving his talents to the business department, while Major Screws continued in control of the editorial policies. Following the announcement of his death statesmen aand publicists all over the nation expressed high praise of Major Screws. Col. Hilary Herbert, a life long friend, Secretary of the Navy under President Cleveland, paid a tribute that epitomized the expression of all: "Controlling the great central organ of the Democratic party, Wallace Screws occupied the most difficult position in his state for nearly half a century. This was the most eventful period inthe history of Alabama. Self government and preservation of white civilization were at stake. The God in whom the great Christian editor always trusted mercifully lengthened out his life until the battle was won, and now that our faithful servant has died at his post, the impartial verdict of history will be that while in the heat of conflict others won wider fame, Wallace Screws was the most useful citizen of his day. Others reaped honor and the emoluments of office that were the fruits of his labor. Gov. Thomas G. Jones said on hearing his distinguished fellow citizen was dead: "No man ever lived in Alabama who labored more unselfishly for the good of the State or set a finer example in his career of devotion to the things that make for the uplift of man. His convictions always marked out his pathway, whether it was followed by few or many, and he never hesitated to differ with and argue against the opinions of the majority, if he felt them wrong or believed that their success would not redound to the good of society. He felt that his position as the head of a great newspaper was a sacred trust, and not a mere personal possession."


He was a Democrat; a Royal Arch Mason; Knight Templar, and a member of the council of Royal and select master. He was an Episcopalian, at the time of his death being senior warden of St. John's church, and had served as a member of every council of the diocese of Alabama from 1885, with two exceptions, until his death; delegate to the general conventions of the Protestant Episcopal Church at Boston, 1904, Richmond, 1907, and Cincinnati, 1910. Author: in addition to his editorial writings in The Advertiser, he contributed a history of Alabama journalism to the Memorial Record of Alabama, vol.2, pp.158-235.


Married: April 25, 1867, in Montgomery, to Emily Frances, daughter of Judge William and Mary (Ware) Holt, both of Augusta, Ga. Judge Holt was an officer in the War of 1812, first mayor of the city of Augusta, and for many years judge of the superior court of the Augusta circuit. Children: 1. William Wallace, jr.; 2. Elizabeth Walton, deceased, m. Robert Newton Pitts, physician; 3. William Joseph Holt; 4. Benjamin. Last residence: Montgomery.


Owen, Thomas McAdory, History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography. Spartanburg: The Reprint Company Publishers, 1978 (1921), IV, 1515-17.