James Baldwin Dorman (25 July 1823–4 August 1893), member of the Convention of 1861, was born in Lexington and was the son of Charles P. Dorman, a ten-term member of the House of Delegates, and Amanda Elizabeth McCue Dorman. After his mother died in September 1829, he and his two younger siblings lived with their aunt and uncle. Dorman attended Washington College (later Washington and Lee University) during the 1839–1840 academic term. He transferred to the Virginia Military Institute, where his father, who had introduced the legislation creating VMI, served on the board of visitors. Recognized at school as a powerful speaker, Dorman received a prize for declamation after his first year. In 1841, while still a cadet, he was appointed assistant professor of modern languages. After graduating in 1843 Dorman tutored privately for about a year. He studied law and recorded in his diary on 22 September 1845 that he had received his license and joined his father's legal practice.
Commissioned a lieutenant in the Virginia militia in May 1845, Dorman volunteered for service in the war with Mexico following the annexation of Texas. He joined a regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers and by September 1846 had been appointed sergeant major. His unit saw action at the Battle of Monterrey. After his discharge, Dorman resumed practicing law and in 1848 was elected to the seat his father had held in the House of Delegates. He again represented Rockbridge County in the 1849–1850 and 1850–1851 assembly sessions. Dorman chaired the Committee on the Militia Laws during all three terms. He also sat on the Committee of Schools and Colleges in his first two terms and on the Committee of Privileges and Elections in his final one. In 1849 he chaired a special committee to study the removal of free African Americans from the state. Dorman introduced a bill, passed on 11 March 1850, that provided $30,000 per year for five years to the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States (popularly known as the American Colonization Society) to assist in relocating free persons of color from Virginia to West Africa. He also sponsored legislation for the improvement of roads and waterways in the Shenandoah Valley.
In 1860 Dorman supported the presidential candidacy of Stephen A. Douglas. Following Abraham Lincoln's election as president, Dorman served on a county committee that called for a public meeting of Rockbridge citizens to discuss the sectional crisis. At the meeting held on 3 December 1860 he opposed separation from the United States. County residents met again on 21 January 1861 and nominated Dorman and his fellow Unionist Samuel McDowell Moore to represent Rockbridge at a state convention called to consider the issue of secession. On 4 February, Dorman and Moore received 1,869 and 1,838 votes, respectively, and easily defeated the two other candidates.
The Convention of 1861
Dorman focused his earliest efforts at the convention on preserving the Union. On 1 March 1861 he introduced an unsuccessful resolution calling for a plebiscite of the citizens of all the states regarding disunion. Although he owned no slaves, Dorman believed in the principle of slavery and on 18 March offered another unsuccessful proposal to amend the federal Constitution to declare that persons of African descent could not be citizens of the United States. He voted against secession on 4 April. After the attack on Fort Sumter on 12 April and Lincoln's call for troops to quell the insurrection, Dorman's sentiments changed. In a letter to a cousin, he wrote on 16 April that "Lincoln's arrogant and infamous usurpation of power" had pushed Virginia toward the Confederacy. The next day Dorman joined the majority that voted 88 to 55 in favor of leaving the Union, while his colleague Moore voted against secession. Virginia voters approved the Ordinance of Secession on 23 May, with only one negative vote cast among the 1,729 total in Rockbridge County. Dorman lost the May election for his former seat in the House of Delegates by almost a two-to-one margin. He signed the secession ordinance on 14 June and attended the two convention sessions held in June and in November and December 1861.
The Civil War
Early in March 1862 the governor appointed Dorman a major in the 3d Regiment Virginia Artillery assigned to the batteries around Richmond. In May the transfer of some of his men left his command below the number required to maintain a company, and in May 1862 he became commander of a Pulaski County camp of instruction. Late in May 1864 Dorman was ordered to muster his forces from the camp to aid in the defense of the Shenandoah Valley. By December of that year he was working at a desk in Richmond. In February 1865 Dorman was assigned to duty as an assistant adjutant general at Augusta, Georgia, where, under orders, he surrendered the city to Federal forces on 2 May 1865.
Dorman returned to his Lexington law practice after the Civil War. Long interested in internal improvements, he joined Washington College president Robert Edward Lee in 1869 in lobbying the City of Baltimore to invest in a railroad through the Valley of Virginia. After Lee's death in 1870 Dorman served on a committee charged with making recommendations for a Lee memorial in Lexington, which was dedicated in 1883. From 1871 to 1873 he served on the board of visitors of the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind, in Staunton.
Dorman defended the Funding Act of 1871, which pledged Virginia to pay off its large prewar public debt in full, but during the 1880s he supported the Readjusters, a biracial coalition seeking a partial repudiation of the state debt. In regular correspondence with United States senator William Mahone, leader of the Readjusters, Dorman made recommendations for local political appointments and sought advice in combating criticism from Lexington newspapers and community leaders. He also asked Mahone's help in securing a position for himself. On 19 January 1883 Dorman was appointed to a six-year term as clerk of the Staunton session of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, where he concurrently served as law librarian. He was reappointed on 19 January 1889.
On 23 March 1871 Dorman married Mary Louisa White Newman, a war widow with a young daughter. Their two sons did not survive infancy. Suffering protracted kidney and liver problems, James Baldwin Dorman died on 4 August 1893 at a Staunton hotel. After his funeral his body was transported to Lexington for interment in Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.
Contributed by Stephen A. Maguire
Quotation in Bruce S. Greenawalt, ed., "Unionists in Rockbridge County: The Correspondence of James Dorman Davidson Concerning the Virginia Secession Convention of 1861," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 73 (1965): 99.
This biography, with a bibliographical note, will appear in John T. Kneebone et al., eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (Richmond: The Library of Virginia, 1998– ), volume 4 (forthcoming).
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