J.D. Harris Runs for Virginia Lieutenant Governor

Broadside of Republican Candidates, 1869, Courtesy Library of Virginia (click for full-size image)

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.

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

Harris’s handwritten “Sketch Autobiography,” part of his military application, describes his background, his time spent in Haiti, and his medical education and experience.

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]


[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, https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/harris-j-d-ca-1833-1884/#heading1.

Transcription of A Sketch of Autobiography, c. 1864

A Sketch of Autobiography

I am an American by birth, the English language is therefore my mother tongue. My education is English and French or better American and French.  I have resided in Haiti, West Indies.

In the West Indies it is necessary to know something of fever.  I made it a study. But no Medical Colleges are established there and [cut extra phrase] generally those who are destined to become physicians go to France.  I returned to America.

Dr. M.L. Brooks of Cleveland, Ohio was my preceptor.  He was in charge of the Marine Hospital at that place wherein I enjoyed many advantages.

The Medical Department of the Western Reserve College or Cleveland College is established in that city and I was instructed in Chemistry by Professor Cassells, a celebrated chemist.  Dr. Kirkland was the Professor Emeritus of the Theory and Practice of Medicine and Dr. Cushing was the Professor of Surgery.  From all these gentlemen I have letters of high recommendation.  I went to Iowa.  While there I attended the lectures of the Professors at “The Medical Department of Iowa University” whose ideas of medicine are more modern than those of Western Reserve College and consequently more correct.  I took my diploma there.

From thence I came to Washington City, D.C.  I had letters of high recommendation taken to Senators Harlan and Grimes and to Representative Wilson.  Not willing just then to enter the service for three years without knowing whether it would be agreeable, I asked the position of Acting Assistant Surgeon and I was offered a place as such at either Fort Monroe or Portsmouth.  I preferred the latter.