Fisher, George Purnell

Life Span
Dickinson Connection
Class of 1838
    Full name
    George Purnell Fisher
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Slave State
    Thomas Fisher (father), Nancy Owens Fisher (mother), Eliza A. McColley (wife, 1840), George P. Fisher, Jr. (son), Charles Fisher (son), Virginia Fisher (daugther), Annie Fisher (daugther)
    Dickinson (Carlisle College)
    Other Education
    Mount St. Mary's College, Emmitsburg, MD
    Attorney or Judge
    Relation to Slavery
    White non-slaveholder
    Church or Religious Denomination
    Taylor Administration (1849-50)
    Fillmore Administration (1850-53)
    Lincoln Administration (1861-65)
    Grant Administration (1869-77)
    US House of Representatives
    State legislature
    State supreme court
    Union Army
    Household Size in 1860
    Children in 1860
    Occupation in 1860
    Wealth in 1860
    Marital status in 1860

    George Purnell Fisher (Congressional Biographical Directory)

    FISHER, George Purnell, a Representative from Delaware; born in Milford, Sussex County, Del., October 13, 1817; attended the public schools of Kent County and Mount St. Mary’s College, Emmitsburg, Md.; was graduated from Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., in 1838; studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1841 and commenced practice in Dover, Del.; member of the State house of representatives in 1843 and 1844; secretary of state in 1846; confidential clerk to Secretary Clayton in the Department of State at Washington in 1849; appointed by President Taylor a commissioner to adjudicate claims against Brazil, and served from 1850 to 1852; attorney general of Delaware 1857-1860; elected as a Unionist to the Thirty-seventh Congress (March 4, 1861-March 3, 1863); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1862 to the Thirty-eighth Congress; appointed by President Lincoln on March 11, 1863, a judge of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, which position he resigned when appointed district attorney for the District of Columbia, serving until 1875; returned to Dover; appointed by President Harrison on May 31, 1889, First Auditor of the Treasury Department and served until March 23, 1893; died in Washington, D.C., February 10, 1899; interment in Oak Hill Cemetery; reinterment in the Methodist Cemetery, Dover, Del.
    “Fisher, George Purnell,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774 to Present,

    George Purnell Fisher (Dickinson Chronicles)

    George Purnell Fisher was born in Milford, Delaware on October 13, 1817 to Thomas Fisher (twice high sheriff of Kent County) and his third wife Nancy Owens Fisher. He went to schools in the county, attended St. Mary's College in Baltimore, Maryland briefly in 1835 and then enrolled at Dickinson College with the class of 1838. A Methodist at the Methodist sponsored college, he was a member of the Belles Lettres Society before graduating with his class. Studying afterwards in the law, he joined the Dover law firm of John M. Clayton, a family friend, and combined his studies with tutoring the young Clayton children. He was called to the Delaware bar in April 1841 and began practice in Dover.

    Fisher became involved very swiftly in state politics. He served as clerk of the state senate in 1843 and then was elected to the state house as representative for Kent County. Governor Joseph Maull, a Democrat, named him as secretary of state for Delaware on March 5, 1846 and Maull's successor, William Temple, reappointed him. His old mentor, John Clayton, became United States Secretary of State and took Fisher to Washington with him as his confidential clerk. This expanded his experience to diplomacy, aiding his chief in the framing of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, signed on April 19, 1850, that calmed Anglo-American tensions in central America that the idea of a trans-Nicaragua canal had raised. President Taylor also sent him to South America as a commissioner of claims in a dispute with Brazil between 1850 and 1852.

    Fisher tended to impress those in authority who observed him - beyond his talents he was over six foot tall and had a military bearing. In July, 1850, when Zachary Taylor died suddenly, he served as temporary private secretary to the incoming Millard Fillmore, until the new president's son took up the permanent appointment. Following his time in Washington, the American Party Governor, Peter Foster Causey, appointed him in March 1855 to a five year term as the attorney general of Delaware. As the Civil War loomed, he was elected against the odds to the United States Congress as a Unionist in the pivotal 1860 election and served from 1861-1863. Meanwhile, he also helped organize the military effort in his state, being named as the colonel of the 1st Delaware Cavalry. In Washington, D.C., he had caught the eye of President Lincoln, who took him as a confidant and advisor concerning Delaware. Lincoln enlisted Fisher and his fellow Dickinsonian from the state, Nathaniel Smithers, in his plan for gradual and compensated emancipation of Delawware slaves in 1862. The plan - to free ten percent of slaves per year with compensation - saw bills written in both houses of the legislature but defeated as too cautious by members committed to abolition.

    When Fisher was defeated as a Republican in the 1862 election, Lincoln appointed him as one of the four justices to the new Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. He was confirmed on March 11, 1863 and served in that post till May 1870. Ironically, his most famous case involved the trial of John Harrison Surratt, one of the accused assassins of his friend Abraham Lincoln. The trial opened on June 10, 1867 and ended in a hung jury and Surratt's release but Fisher won widespread praise for his conduct of a difficult trial. In May 1870, he left the bench when another president who had taken him as a confidant, Ulysses S. Grant, appointed him as the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. He was in that post until 1875 when he returned to Delaware. Fisher returned to his last public service when President Benjamin Harrison named him on May 31, 1889 to a four year appointment as the first auditor of the United States Treasury. On March 23, 1893, the seventy-four year old Fisher returned at last to Delaware to resume private life in retirement.

    Fisher married Eliza A. McColley of Milford in 1840 and the couple had two boys and two girls. George Purnell Fisher died after a short illness in Washington D.C. on February 10, 1899 and is buried in the Methodist Cemetery in Dover Delaware. He was eighty-one years old.
    John Osborne and James W. Gerencser, eds., “George Purnell Fisher,” Dickinson Chronicles,

    George Purnell Fisher, Dickinson College & State Department (Woods, 1905)

    George Purnell Fisher was born at Milford, Delaware, October 13, 1817. At the age of seventeen he entered the sophomore class at Dickinson College, where he graduated in July, 1838. Having decided upon the profession of law, he entered the office of Hon. John M. Clayton. He was admitted to the bar in April, 1841; settled at Dover and soon acquired a large clientage for a young man. When John M. Clayton became Secretary of State under President Taylor, Fisher entered into public life by becoming Clayton's confidential clerk. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty was negotiated while Fisher was Secretary Clayton's clerk; hence he was in close personal relation with Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer, the British Minister. At one of the conferences at Washington, a house in the rear took fire, and Bulwer, Clayton and Fisher rushed out and helped the firemen with the crude appliances of that day to put the fire out. They then returned to their work, wet, grimy and smoked.
    Henry Ernest Woods, ed., The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1905), 59: lx.

    George Purnell Fisher, Civil War (Woods, 1905)

    In March, 1855, Mr. Fisher was appointed Attorney-General of the State of Delaware for the term of five years. In 1860 he was elected to Congress where he served from March, 1861, to March, 1863, the stormy period of the first two years of the civil war. He was active in securing to the Federal cause Delaware's contingent of troops, and gave largely of his time and means to enlist and equip the Delaware regiments. President Lincoln conceived a warm feeling and had a high regard for Mr. Fisher. On the abolition of the old courts and the creation of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, he appointed Fisher one of the justices of that court upon the expiration of his congressional term. As a judge, Mr. Fisher displayed great aptitude and ability, and was most favorably considered by his associates and by the public. He presided at the trial of John H. Surratt for participation in the assassination of President Lincoln.
    Henry Ernest Woods, ed., The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1905), 59: lx-lxi.

    George Purnell Fisher, Post-Civil War (Woods, 1905)

    In May, 1870, Judge Fisher resigned his place upon the bench, and was appointed by President Grant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. At the end of five years he resigned this office and returned to his home in Delaware, with no intention of again entering public life. In June, 1889, however, the position of First Auditor of the Treasury was tendered him by President Benjamin Harrison. This position he accepted and held until the change of administration in 1893. He then returned to the home of his childhood, lived quietly in his extensive library, and devoted the last years of his life to reading and literary pursuits. He was one of the most agreeable of men. His mind was so well stored with reminiscence and general information that it was a treat to both old and young to be in his company and listen to his entertaining and instructive conversation. His generous Christian spirit and honesty of purpose endeared him to all who came within the range of his friendship. After a short illness, he died in the City of Washington, February 10, 1899, aged eighty-one years.

    In 1840 Mr. Fisher married Eliza A. McColley, who survives him with four children — George P. Fisher, Jr., a lawyer in Chicago, Charles Fisher, Miss Virginia Fisher, and Mrs. Annie Fisher Cahoon. He was a devoted and exemplary husband and father, and has left in each stricken heart the impress of his own pure and useful life.
    Henry Ernest Woods, ed., The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1905), 59: lxi.

    George Purnell Fisher (Dictionary of American Biography)

    At Washington in 1861, he soon won the high regard of Lincoln, becoming the almoner of federal patronage in his state and helping to prepare a bill to carry out Lincoln’s plan of gradual emancipation in Delaware. The project failed, but Fisher’s efforts so impressed Lincoln that, on the abolition of the old courts and the creation of a supreme court for the District of Columbia, he appointed Fisher as one of the four justices, on Mar. 11, 1863, eight days after his congressional term had expired. Fisher is said to have displayed great ability on the bench and was praised especially for his conduct, in January 1867, of the first trial of John H. Surratt for participation in Lincoln’s assassination. In May 1870 he was appointed by President Grant as United States attorney for the District of Columbia, but five years later he returned to Delaware. He was recalled to public life by President Benjamin Harrison in June 1889 to serve as first auditor of the treasury, a position which he held until the change of administration in 1893. The last years of his life he devoted to reading and literary pursuits, dying after a brief illness at Washington.
    Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931), 3: 409.

    George Purnell Fisher (Essah, 1996)

    The Republican position as defined by Fisher promised benefit including financial gain, an end to the Civil War, and removal of all free blacks through colonization. Contrary to Democratic assertions regarding the high cost of emancipation, Fisher believed that abolition of slavery would save the national government the expense of the Civil War. It cost less to support compensated emancipation in Delaware, argued Fisher, than the expenditure for half a day of warfare. Were the national government to provide Delaware what it cost to fund the war for half a day, it “will not only pay for all the slaves at full prices, but will leave a margin to provide a fund for the removal…not only of the freed slaves, but the entire negro population, and colonize them in any country provided for them by the General Government.”
    Patience Essah, A House Divided: Slavery and Emancipation in Delaware, 1638-1865 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996), 166.

    George Purnell Fisher (New York Times)


    WASHINGTON, Feb. 10. – Georg Purnell Fisher died here to-day, aged eighty-one years. He was a native of Delaware, where in his younger days he held several important offices. In 1849 he came to Washington, where he since resided. In his capacity of Associate Judge of the District Supreme Court he presided at the trial of John H. Surratt, one of the men charged with complicity in the assassination of President Lincoln. Later Judge Fisher was District Attorney and First Auditor of the Treasury. At the beginning of the civil war he raised a regiment, but was elected to Congress by the Union Party of Delaware. The body will be buried at Dover, Del.
    "George Purnell Fisher Dead," New York Times, February 11, 1899, p. 5.
    Chicago Style Entry Link
    Lore, Charles B. The Life and Character of George P. Fisher. Wilmington: The Historical Society of Delaware, 1902. view record
    How to Cite This Page: "Fisher, George Purnell," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,