James Sorley, prominent Galveston businessman and civic leader, was the collector of customs and a depository for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Sorley was the son of James Sorley and Jessy (Gillespie) Sorley of Edinburg, Scotland, and was born in that city on September 28, 1820. He was educated at Birkenhead College near Liverpool, England. At the age of fifteen he was admitted to a cotton brokers office in Liverpool. At age sixteen he came to the United States and settled in Mobile, Alabama, where he married Mary Jones Stone on March 4, 1847.
In 1851 Sorley moved to Galveston where he worked as a cotton factor and commission merchant. He soon became wealthy and began his longtime involvement in Galveston’s political and civic affairs. During his years in Galveston, Sorley helped to organize the first branch of the Howard Association in Texas and served as its president for more than thirty years. This organization aided indigent victims of Galveston’s frequent outbreaks of yellow fever. In 1854 Sorley served the city of Galveston as an alderman. In 1859 he entered into a partnership with J. C. and S. R. Smith to form Sorley, Smith & Co, which became one of the largest commission merchant firms in the South.
As the Civil War began, the first Union vessel to be seized at Galveston by the Confederacy was the USRC Henry Dodge. Sorley was so prominent in the city that the ship was renamed Mary Sorley in 1864, in honor of his wife, and put into Confederate service as a blockade runner.
In 1861 Sorley was appointed the first and only collector of customs at Galveston for the Confederate States of America by President Jefferson Davis. Sorley concurrently served as a depository for the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederate government. In this position, he was responsible for all public funds collected in the state. At times during this period, Sorley was forced to relocate his residence, business interests, and duties as collector of customs to Houston due to the impact of the Union blockade of Galveston Island and occupation of the city in late 1862. Sorley’s signature appears on many Confederate bonds and other Confederate financial documents issued during the Civil War.
In 1863 Sorley also served the Confederacy as a member of the Texas Cotton Office. This office was authorized to use special certificates to purchase half of a planter’s cotton, which was then sold to support the operations of the Confederacy (see WARTIME COTTON TRADE). That same year, after the Confederate victory at the battle of Galveston, Sorley was requested to commend Confederate Gen, John Magruder and present him with a ceremonial sword on behalf of the ladies of Texas. Thirteen years later in 1876, Sorley was selected as chairman of the executive committee responsible for moving General Magruder’s remains from his burial site in Houston for reinterment at the Broadway Cemetery in Galveston.
In August 1865 Sorley was chosen as the president of the reorganized Galveston Chamber of Commerce. He served this organization for many years and worked in many capacities. While a member of the chamber, Sorley was active in efforts to obtain funding to deepen the Galveston Bay channel entrance so it could be used by larger vessels with a greater cargo capacity.
Sorley was pardoned by the president of the United States for his activities on behalf of the Confederacy on February 10, 1866. Later that year he established a business relationship with former Confederate secret agent James D. Bulloch, who resided in Liverpool, England. During the Civil War, Bulloch had been in charge of the Confederate shipbuilding and logistics programs in Europe, which included the sale of southern cotton in support of the war effort. Sorley and Bulloch engaged in the cotton business through 1867.
In 1868 Sorley started a fire and marine insurance business and was an agent for many firms including Lloyds of London. He was also one of the promoters and organizers of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway and served as vice president and general manager for some time.
For forty years, he was a ruling elder of the First Presbyterian Church of Galveston; he had joined the church at the age of sixteen in Mobile, Alabama. At the time of his death, Sorley was president of the board of trustees of the Island City Protestant Orphans Home (see GALVESTON CHILDREN’S HOME). He was an active Mason where he held many offices, including Grand Captain General for the Grand Encampment Knights Templar of the United States from 1856 to 1859. During the 1850s Sorley had also helped organize the Grand Commandery of Texas and was a past grand commander.
James Sorley died at his home in Galveston on May 2, 1895. He was survived by his wife and four children: a daughter, Elizabeth Sorley (Mrs. W. G. Irwin); and three sons, James Sorley; Lt. Lewis S. Sorley of the United States Army; and William Sorley. Sorley was buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Galveston.