Merchant, financier. Trenholm was born on February 25, 1807, in Charleston, the son of William and Irene Trenholm. His father was a merchant, and his mother was the daughter of the Comte de Greffin, a French landowner on the island of San Domingue (now Haiti). Following the death of his father, a teenaged George Trenholm left school and went to work for John Fraser & Company, a well-established and respected Charleston firm that specialized in trading Sea Island cotton. Displaying a remarkable talent for business, Trenholm advanced rapidly, becoming a partner in Fraser & Company as well as a prominent business leader in the city. By the early 1850s Trenholm was the senior partner in the firm, which had become the leading commercial house in Charleston and one of the most prominent in the entire South, with branches in New York (Trenholm Brothers) and Liverpool, England (Fraser, Trenholm, & Company). The success of the firm made Trenholm an immensely rich and influential businessman whose diversified interests included warehouses, ships, wharves, hotels, plantations, and slaves. He represented Charleston in the General Assembly four times during the 1850s and 1860s (1852–1855, 1860–1863). In 1828 he married Anna Lee Holmes. They had thirteen children.
When the Civil War began, Trenholm placed the ample financial and transportation resources of Fraser & Company at the disposal of the Confederate government. The firm’s Liverpool branch became the overseas depository for the Confederate treasury, from which it advanced credit to purchasing agents and arranged for the payment and shipment of vital supplies to the South. Early in the war, when most Southern leaders favored withholding cotton from the market in the belief that it would force Britain to recognize southern independence, Trenholm urged Confederate leaders to ship as much cotton as possible in exchange for weapons, ammunition, and other war materials. Trenholm’s shipping interests played a vital role in running the Union naval blockade of the Southern coast, an activity that earned Trenholm justifiable praise for his patriotism as well as substantial profits for his company.
Throughout the first years of the war, Trenholm was a valued adviser to the Confederate secretary of the treasury, Christopher Memminger, a fellow Charlestonian and close friend. When Memminger resigned in June 1864, President Jefferson Davis appointed Trenholm to the post. As secretary, Trenholm urged that the Confederate government strengthen its financial position through direct taxation, reducing the supply of paper currency in circulation, and purchasing its own line of blockade-runners rather than continuing to rely on private shippers. Despite receiving Davis’s endorsement, Trenholm’s recommendations were rejected by the Confederate Congress. He continued in his position, however, doing what he could to counter the rapidly deteriorating state of Confederate finance. When Davis and his cabinet fled Richmond in April 1865, Trenholm remained in the city until finally resigning his position on April 27.
Shortly after his resignation, Trenholm was imprisoned by federal authorities for several months before being paroled by President Andrew Johnson in October 1865. Pardoned the following year, Trenholm set about to rebuild his business empire. Although forced to declare bankruptcy in 1867, he soon thereafter regained a large measure of his former wealth through the creation of a new cotton brokerage firm, George A. Trenholm & Son, and timely investments in the state’s postwar phosphate mining boom. In 1874 he was returned to the General Assembly, one of the few Democrats elected that year. He died in Charleston on December 9, 1876.
Loy, Wesley. “10 Rumford Place: Doing Confederate Business in Liverpool.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 98 (October 1997): 349–74.
Nepveux, Ethel Trenholm Seabrook. George Alfred Trenholm and the Company That Went to War. Charleston, S.C., 1973.
Todd, Richard Cecil. Confederate Finance. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1954.
Wise, Stephen R. Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running during the Civil War. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.