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  • Writer's pictureJill Newmark

A Run for Virginia Lieutenant Governor

Candidate Joseph Dennis Harris

Joseph Dennis Harris, better known as J.D. Harris, served as an acting assistant surgeon during the war primarily at hospitals in Virginia that served Freedmen and Black soldiers. Harris’s handwritten “Sketch Autobiography,” part of his military application, describes his background, his time spent in Haiti, and his medical education and experience.

During the Civil War, Harris served primarily at Balfour Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. Not everyone was happy with Harris’s presence in Portsmouth, though, despite his good reputation. A letter to the editor of the Christian Recorder in early July 1864 said, Portsmouthians were terribly startled, and with eyes extended, mouth opened, hair on end and hands in pockets, they could be seen in groups, talking very low. ‘There’s a nigger doctor in Portsmouth, in the capacity of a U.S. Surgeon.’ It was too much: A negro M.D. on sacred soil? They could not stand it. Some of them tried to die, others went in search of the last ditch, while Surgeon Harris, with an ability that is second to no surgeon in this department, is rendering invaluable service, to the sick and wounded soldiers.”

After the war in 1869, Harris pursued a political career in Virginia running for Lieutenant Governor on a Republican ticket with Henry Horatio Wells who was acting as the provisional governor appointed by the military.

Broadside of Republican Candidates, 1869 - Courtesy Library of Virginia

When Harris was put on the ticket, it was thought by some that his “nomination will secure the entire State for the colored vote of the State for the party.[1]” Some believed “the time had come for black men,” and that every election would now have a black man on the ticket.[2] Those opposing his nomination used fear to dissuade voters from casting their vote for Harris, saying, “If the Wells ticket be elected, ‘Dr. Harris’ takes the position of Lieut. Governor, to preside over the Senate of the State. And if Wells should die, or be elected to the Senate of the U.S.—for which, it is said, he has aspirations, ‘Dr. Harris’ becomes Governor of Virginia!”[3] The general election in which Harris was nominated, was the first in which African American men voted. Harris lost the election by 20,468 votes.[4]

Learn more about Joseph Dennis Harris in Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons. Order today at Amazon, Southern Illinois University Press and use SIUP20 for a 20% discount, and other fine bookstores.

© Jill L. Newmark, 2023

[1] Alexandria Gazette, March 11, 1869. [2] Alexandria Gazette, March 12, 1869. [3] Alexandria Gazette, May 24, 1869. [4] J.D. Harris entry, Encyclopedia Virginia,

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