Bill Kirby

Online news editor for The Augusta Chronicle.

Augusta orphan found fame in Washington then vanished

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Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.

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Life magazine cover of Sen. Hamilton Lewis taken by Margaret Bourke-White
Life magazine cover of Sen. Hamilton Lewis taken by Margaret Bourke-White
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– Thomas More

Let me tell you about the most famous Augustan that you’ve probably never heard of.

James Hamilton Lewis (1863-1939) was a lawyer, a soldier and one of the few men in history to represent different states in Congress.

His debating skills were so formidable the nation’s newspapers (including this one) reported these clashes like boxing matches. His dress and sense of style were considered newsworthy and social columns described his wardrobe in detail.

“Ham” Lewis was an ally of Woodrow Wilson, a key supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and a mentor to a young senator named Harry Truman.

His photograph on the cover of Life magazine taken by the famous Margaret Bourke-White (Erskine Caldwell’s wife) is considered so iconic, it is sold today as a poster. When he died, his body laid in state in the U.S. Senate.

Not bad for an alumnus of Houghton School on Greene Street, who today seems to have vanished from the history books. That’s too bad because it’s a great story.

Lewis’ beginnings were tragic. His mother was pregnant with him when she left Augusta to go to Virginia and tend to his war-wounded father, Confederate Maj. John Cable Lewis. She died in Danville, Va., giving birth to a son who would never know her nor a father who didn’t recover enough to care for him.

This didn’t seem to stop young Hamilton, who was brought back to Augusta and raised by relatives in the post-war South. He attended St. James Methodist on Greene Street and studied at nearby Houghton.

He left Augusta for the University of Virginia, then went into law. He married Rose Douglas, of Sylvania, Ga., served in the Spanish American War, moved to Seattle, ran for Congress and won. Then he moved to Chicago, ran for U.S. Senate, and won again – one of the few to be sent to Washington from two different states.

He is often quoted for his advice to freshman senator Truman, who showed up awestruck in 1935.

“Harry, don’t start out with an inferiority complex,” Lewis said. “For the first six months you’ll wonder how in hell you got here. After that you’ll wonder how in hell the rest of us got here.”

When he died, his death was front-page news. He was buried in Arlington, Va., at a newly constructed mausoleum next to the famed national cemetery.

Then he seems to vanish, not only from the American political consciousness, but from his grave.

This is the lingering mystery of Hamilton Lewis.

Several references report his remains “were moved to an unknown location.” Where and why are not provided.

Political historians, the U.S. Senate history office, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Army and even the Illinois Historical Society don’t know where he is.

The mausoleum – despite several prominent burials – went out of business half a century ago. Many of its graves were moved to other sites in Arlington, but none have a record of Lewis.

Nearby Arlington National Cemetery might have found a spot for the war veteran and senator, but they have no record of him, either.

There’s probably a lesson here for the men and women we send to Washington today full of talent, charm and wisdom.

There might be a lesson for the rest of us, too.


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