James Lawrence Orr

Black and white photograph of James Orr.

Hon. James L. Orr. Between 1855 and 1865. Photographed by Mathew Benjamin Brady. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

(1822-1873)  Born at Craytonville, Pendleton District, Orr was the son of Christopher Orr and Martha McCann. He attended schools at Anderson and entered the University of Virginia and studied for two years. Returning to Anderson, he was admitted to the bar in 1843. In 1843, Orr married Mary Jane Marshall and they had seven children.

Orr was the editor of the Anderson Gazette. He served in the General Assembly (1844–1847), where he championed upcountry interests, supported the popular election of presidential electors, and advocated reform of the free school system. Orr served five terms in the U.S. Congress. from 1849 to 1859. Orr was an adherent of states’ rights and the right of secession. Determining that southern interests would best be protected within a strong Democratic Party, he led the National Democrats in South Carolina from 1852 to 1860 and was responsible for the state sending a delegation to the 1856 Democratic national convention.  Or was selected as Speaker of the House of Representatives.  With the rupture of the Democratic Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln, Orr supported secession as the South’s only recourse. He was a delegate to the Secession Convention, served on the committee to draft the ordinance, and was one of three commissioners sent to Washington to negotiate surrender of the Charleston forts.

Orr raised the First Infantry Regiment Rifles, known as Orr’s Rifles, and served as its colonel. In December 1861 Orr was elected to the Confederate Senate where he served until the fall of the Confederacy. A bitter critic of the Jefferson Davis administration, Orr advocated individual and states’ rights over the national interest. By 1864, believing defeat inevitable, he supported a negotiated peace.  

Orr immediately entered into Reconstruction politics and in 1865 he was a commissioner to negotiate with President Andrew Johnson for the establishment of a provisional government in South Carolina. Orr became the first popularly elected chief executive in the state’s history. He and his administration saw the establishment of a state penitentiary, the provision of artificial limbs for Confederate amputees, the reopening of South Carolina College and other schools, the rebuilding of the state’s governmental infrastructure, and passage of the controversial “Black Codes,” which Orr felt was unwise. Orr opposed ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. From 1868 to 1872 Orr served as judge of the eighth judicial circuit. His rulings were marked by leniency to debtors, and he granted the first judicial divorces in the history of the state. In August 1870, Orr joined the Republican Party in the hope of effecting reforms. As a delegate to the 1872 Republican national convention, he praised President Ulysses Grant’s Ku Klux Klan policy in South Carolina. As reward for his support and as a gesture of reconciliation with the South, Grant nominated Orr as minister to Russia. 

Orr was lauded by admirers as an astute political pragmatist, while condemned by critics as a self-serving opportunist who abandoned principles to advance his career. But despite his postwar conversion to the Republican Party, his accomplishments and reputation allowed Orr to retain the respect, if not the affection, of his fellow white South Carolinians. O