Preston, William B. (Secretary of the Navy)

Born: 1805-11-29 Montgomery County, Virginia

Died: 1862-11-16 Montgomery County, Virginia

Born at the Preston family's Smithfield Plantation, William B. Preston graduated from Hampden-Sydney College in 1824, and began studying law at the University of Virginia in 1825 and then briefly in Charleston, South Carolina. After being admitted to the bar in 1826, Preston began pursing politics as a Whig - serving two non-consecutive terms in the Virginia House of Delegates (1830-32 and 1844-45) and another in the Virginia Senate (1840-1844). Following Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, Preston proposed a measure for gradual emancipation in Virginia that narrowly failed.

Preston was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1846, where he met Abraham Lincoln. When Preston's term ended in 1849, Zachary Taylor appointed him secretary of the Navy and he remained in that office until Taylor's death the following year and Millard Fillmore's rise to the presidency. Preston returned to his plantation to pursue life as a slaveholding planter.

With the arrival of the secession crisis, Preston again became active politically, and was a delegate to Virginia's secession convention in February 1861. He initially opposed secession but on April 8, the convention appointed him a member of a three-man delegation to meet with Lincoln and discern his policy toward the already-seceded states. During the ensuing meeting, Lincoln voiced his commitment to enforcing federal authority. Thus, on April 16, at a secret session of the convention, Preston himself proposed a new ordinance of secession which passed, resulting in the state's secession on April 17. Under the new Southern Confederacy, Preston served as a congressional representative from July 1861 to February 1862 and then as a senator from February 1862 until his death. He died at Smithfield Plantation.

Peter Wallenstein, "Preston, William Ballard," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17:850-51; William A. Link, Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 239-42; Gravestone, Preston Cemetery at Springfield Plantation, Blacksburg, VA.