Serving as mayor during a most tumultuous period in Atlanta history, James M. Calhoun is a citizen of note buried at historic Oakland Cemetery.
James Calhoun was born in Calhoun Settlement, Abbeville District of South Carolina in 1811. His parents were of Scotch-Irish ancestry and prolific, parenting 10 children. James’ father William was the first cousin of the famous South Carolinian and U.S. vice president, John C. Calhoun. William was a farmer of substance who emphasized to his children the value of education.
When his parents died in 1821, James went to live with his oldest brother, Dr. Ezekiel N. Calhoun, a respected physician in Decatur, Ga. In Decatur, John continued his education, attending David Kiddoo’s Decatur Academy. In the spring of 1831 he began studying law in the office of Hines Holt. James was admitted to the bar in 1832, and became well-respected in the legal community.
James temporarily suspended practice in 1836 to join the military, and was commissioned captain. In July, while temporarily in command of the battalion, Calhoun was engaged in a bloody battle with Creek Indians near Ft. McCrary in Stewart County, Ga. In this battle James defeated and pushed his enemy a great distance, eliciting warm praise from his men and superiors. Eventually becoming a colonel in the DeKalb Volunteer Cavalry Company, James would always be known as “Col. Calhoun.”
In 1837 James was elected to the state legislature as a Whig. In 1850 he was elected as a delegate to the state convention to consider Congress’ compromise measures. James actively participated in the passage of resolutions favorable to those measures. In 1851, he was elected to the state senate, and in late 1852 bought property on Washington Street in Atlanta, living there for many years.
Fulton County was created from DeKalb County in 1853, and many of the lawyers moved to Atlanta, the new county seat. James was elected to the state senate from Fulton County in 1855 and 1856. In 1859, he was one of the vice presidents of the convention of the Constitutional Union Party that nominated Bell and Everett for U.S. president and vice president, respectively. James felt strongly that the U.S. must stay united; his party fought to keep the slave laws in place, but to keep the Union strong, compromising with abolitionists on new states as they were admitted.
On Jan. 2, 1861, all communities in Georgia voted to elect delegates to the state secession convention to be held in Milledgeville. Atlanta was assigned three delegates, and the city was voting to send either immediate secession candidates or cooperationists. James unsuccessfully ran to represent the cooperationists, and by a narrow margin Atlanta elected to send secession candidates.
In 1861 Jared Whitaker was elected Atlanta mayor and served part of the year, but Gov. Brown needed Whitaker to be commissary general of the Georgia State Troops, so he resigned the office. Alderman Thomas Lowe succeeded Whitaker, completing the term but declining to run for election.
James won the election and became the Civil War mayor of Atlanta, being re-elected three times. It was his duty to surrender the city to members of Gen. Sherman’s army on Sept. 2, 1864. When the federal order to expel citizens was issued on Sept. 7, James authored a long and remonstrative letter to Sherman, pointing out the hazards of dislocating a population with winter coming and no place to go. Upon reading Calhoun’s pleas, Sherman answered with a rambling dialogue that boiled down to “war is cruelty and cannot be refined…”. Calhoun watched Atlanta’s evacuation, saw buildings torn down for materials to build military buildings and saw all devastated by fire and destruction by Union troops.
James died on Oct. 1, 1875. He was married to Miss Emma Eliza Dabney of Jasper County, Ga., and they had eight children. One of his sons, William Lowndes Calhoun served as Atlanta mayor from 1879 to 1881, and now lies on the plot adjacent to his mother and father, beneath the soil of historic Oakland Cemetery.