Two Southern Presidents in History

It was Wednesday, April 19, 1865. The Confederate States of America lay prostrate under the twin plagues of starvation and despair. Richmond had fallen and Lee’s surrendered Army of Northern Virginia was heading home. Four years of near constant fighting had depleted the South’s resources and killed a generation of its sons. On the military front, General William T. Sherman had completed his march through Georgia to the sea and was heading north to link forces with the main Union army under General U. S. Grant. Once combined, Union forces would be poised for complete victory. The worst dreams of John C. Calhoun were on panoramic display from Richmond to Atlanta to Vicksburg.

The President of the dying country, Jefferson Davis, with a few remaining Confederate officials, was on horseback flight to the Deep South. His goal was to continue the fight with what remaining troops and treasure he could muster. The small party managed to stay a day ahead of pursuing Union cavalry and Davis maintained at least the form of government: sending orders, holding cabinet meetings and issuing policy statements. “I announce to you, fellow countrymen,” Davis proclaimed, “that it is my purpose to maintain your cause with my whole heart and soul.” For a man with chronic health problems, Davis was bearing the hard riding quite well; his stamina maintained by his belief that the South’s cause was not yet lost with Joe Johnson’s small army still in the field, a renewed offensive or guerrilla efforts west of the Mississippi could extend the conflict to the point of negotiated settlement. If the South’s ultimate success was now a matter of will, Jefferson Davis possessed that characteristic in abundance. “I did not think we should despair,” Davis would later write. In such spirit, Davis arrived this April morning in Charlotte, North Carolina. As he dismounted, he was handed a telegram from Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge.

President Lincoln was assassinated in the theatre in Washington on the night of the 11th inst.

The telegram informed additionally of the wounding of Secretary of State William Henry Seward, but Davis’ attention was drawn to the death of Lincoln. His death meant the Presidency of the United States had devolved on the Vice President, a Southern Unionist, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. The import of this transition was clear. The war, Davis said, had now “shrunk into narrow proportions,” for while Lincoln had been a “relentless” enemy, Davis knew Andrew Johnson to be the “embodiment of malignity  toward the Southern people.” He knew further Johnson’s “malignity” went past the Southern people and directly to Davis.

In May, 1846, American forces under the command of the Brevet Brigadier General Zachary Taylor routed Mexican troops in the first heavy fighting of the Mexican War. Electrifying in itself, the victory was enhanced when the odds against Taylor were factored. Outnumbered two to one, the inexperienced Americans inflicted casualties at the rate of seven to one. The victory was the most magnificent since Andrew Jackson’s at New Orleans and made Taylor a national hero.

As the news reached Washington, D.C., Congress was quick to position itself in the glow of Taylor’s popularity. A resolution praising the General’s conduct and the performance of his troops was presented in the House of Representatives. One of many speaking on behalf of the resolution was Jefferson Davis, a freshman congressman from Mississippi, West Point graduate and the General’s former son-in-law by virtue of his marriage to Taylor’s late daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Although new to Congress, Davis’ rhetorical ability was established in the

House chamber, and the gallery was full of eager listeners as he rose to speak. Davis did not disappoint.

“Seldom, sir, in the annals of military history has there been [a victory] in which desperate daring and military skill were more happily combined.” As he spoke, a related topic occurred to him. A few weeks earlier, Congressman William Sawyer had delivered a speech criticizing military science and training. Joined by several other House members, Sawyer’s objective was to cut military funding, downsize the army and eliminate West Point. Seizing this moment to respond to the attacks, Davis began a defense of military academies and training. “Arms, like every occupation, requires to be studied before it can be understood.” Thus it was not Taylor alone who produced victory, but the training of forces and military science. Facing Sawyer and his allies, Davis asked them to consider if a “blacksmith or a tailor could have secured the same results” as Taylor’s troops. Satisfied he had sufficiently praised Taylor, defended his profession and protected future military appropriations, Davis ended his remarks.

Shortly thereafter, another newcomer to the House took the floor. His face flush with anger, his voice ringing with indignation, Congressman Andrew Johnson undertook a defense of the working class he perceived demeaned by Davis’ reference to blacksmiths and tailors. This “invidious distinction” Johnson railed, came from the “illegitimate swaggering, bastard, scrub aristocracy” of which Davis was both member and spokesman. A tailor by trade, Johnson considered himself a member of the insulted class and reminded the House that Jesus Christ was the son of a carpenter and Adam a tailor who sewed fig leaves together.

Stunned by the rebuke, Davis rose to explain and apologize. “[I] merely said that scientific education was as necessary in the art of war as was the proper training in any other occupation or profession.” His remarks, Davis continued, were meant not to degrade any profession, but to point out the necessity for military training to produce victorious results. Johnson was unmoved. In his eyes, Davis had singled out two professions and held them up to ridicule. Slightly exasperated, Davis took to the floor two days later to offer a lengthy explanation of his logic. Claiming he was “incapable of wantonly wounding” any man’s feelings, Davis laboriously explained again that tactics must be acquired, hence the need for military academies and education. Apologizing to Johnson, and any others who took offense, Davis proffered that no trades were “less useful or honorable than others.” His effort failed. Twenty years before the two men would stand on opposite sides at the center of American History, Jefferson Davis had made an enemy in Andrew Johnson.

The two men could not have been more different. Born to a moderately well-to-do family, Jefferson Davis was raised, in large part, by his devoted older brother, the successful and wealthy planter, Joseph Davis. Young Jeff was sent to the finest private schools and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1828. Following service in the infantry, he married General Taylor’s daughter in 1835 and returned home to Mississippi. Davis had, by this time, acquired the traits of intellect, loyalty and remoteness which so shaped his public persona. An early sense of humor was purged by the untimely death of his young bride three months after their marriage. Overcome with grief, Davis was taken in by his faithful brother Joseph and allowed a slow recuperation. Restored to emotional health, Davis resumed his ascent in Southern society, built his own plantation and married the future First Lady of the Confederacy, Varina Howell. Davis was a voracious reader who studied the classics and political philosophy while managing his growing estate. An admirer of South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, Davis was by breeding and education a states’ rights Democrat and loyal to the culture and philosophy of the ante-bellum South. A logical candidate for public office, he was elected in his first try for Congress in 1845.

The future 17th President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, was the son of a different South. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, Johnson had neither the luxuries nor the benefits of wealth or station. Apprenticed to a tailor at age 14, uneducated  and poor, he ran away to Tennessee to make his own way. He opened a tailor shop which became a forum for discussion among local citizens. It was here that Johnson discovered he possessed a knack for debate and decided to enter the political arena. Popular with his neighbors, he moved quickly through a succession of local offices before being elected to Congress in 1846. Congressman Johnson worked, studied and read more than most of his colleagues in an effort to make up for his lack of formal education. This studious nature led some to believe him shy and humble, but Johnson possessed an assurance, bordering on arrogance, which emanated from his self-appointed role as spokesman for the common man in this age of Andrew Jackson.

His philosophy was that of the poor farmer and laborer, not of the upper class. Always conscious of his background, Johnson’s attitude was industrious and vigilant, yet also touchy and petulant. These traits led Johnson to rise to the defense of the mechanics he deemed insulted by Jefferson Davis. Separated by culture, bearing and education, the two Southerners found themselves in the years following their altercation in the House on opposite sides of a host of issues.

Davis sponsored a bill to construct a transcontinental railroad; Johnson attacked it as unconstitutional and wasteful. Davis proposed a federal slave code for territories; Johnson assailed it as divisive. In 1850, Johnson introduced compromise measures similar to Henry Clay’s more famous legislation; Davis vehemently opposed all such proposals. These differences were based as much on philosophical and political differences as on personal enmity, yet both men eyed the other with distrust. Their differences came to final full expression in the secession crisis of 1860. Reminiscent of Andrew Jackson’s attitude during the Nullification Crisis of 1830, Johnson rose in the Senate to “swear by our God. . . that the Constitution shall be saved and the Union preserved.” Secession, Johnson uncompromisingly judged, is treason. Davis, the political heir to John C. Calhoun, responded in form: “Secession… is to be justified upon the basis that the States are sovereign.” The paths thus defined, the two men headed toward their respective destinies.

Johnson traveled back to Tennessee to plead the Union cause. Met by hostile crowds, he was fortunate to escape with his life. (Ironically, it was Jefferson Davis, now Confederate President, who ordered  Southern partisans to spare Johnson’s life, fearing him more as a martyr than an adversary.) Heralded in the North, Johnson was later appointed Military Governor of Tennessee and then rewarded by Lincoln with the second spot on the 1864 Republican Union ticket. Lincoln’s death propelled Johnson past the summit of his ambition to the leadership of the victorious North. Davis’ well known path, to Mississippi thence the leadership of the Confederacy, now placed him in Charlotte holding Breckinridge’s telegram. If he felt any apprehension as to his future well being, as memories of his old adversary filled his mind, he remained silent. It is certain, however, that Davis realized the tailor was now in position to impose punishment of his choosing on the planter. He could not realize how far Johnson had already moved to fulfill that expectation.

Upon Lincoln’s death, Johnson was visited by the leadership of the Radical Republicans and queried over his policy toward the conquered South and its leaders. The group left rejoicing as Johnson assured them that “treason must be made infamous and punished.” Johnson acted on this sentiment by immediately issuing a proclamation naming Davis a co-conspirator in the death of Lincoln, (and offering $100,000 for his arrest) despite having no evidence as to Davis’ complicity. Johnson’s initial conduct won the praise of Ben Wade, radical Republican Senator from Ohio, who no doubt believed Lincoln’s death removed the last formidable obstacle to total subjugation of the South.

Union calvary at last caught up with Jefferson Davis in Georgia on May 10, 1865. Unable to escape or force his captors to shoot him, Davis reluctantly surrendered. As he was transported north, he learned of Johnson’s proclamation. Outraged at the lie, exhausted in body and drained in spirit, he exhibited a rare public show of emotion. Johnson, he bitterly declared, was a “miserable scoundrel” who knew the proclamation contained no truth as to his involvement in the conspiracy. Davis spoke for the entire South, as well as himself, when he proclaimed, “I preferred Lincoln.” As Davis was led to Fort Monroe, there to be shackled and tormented by his jailer, he had little reason to expect leniency from the government of Andrew Johnson.

In the flurry of activity after the war, Johnson acquiesced to the witch hunt which led, in part, to the jailing of Dr. Samuel Mudd for setting the leg of John Wilkes Booth and the hanging of Mary Surratt for owning the boarding house in which the Lincoln conspiracy was hatched. Military tribunals were allowed to satisfy the blood thirst of the radicals by exercising civil authority. Far from Lincoln’s admonition to let the South “up easy,” Northern radicals seemed intent on establishing the South as a government-occupied agricultural colony. In this whirlwind of despotism, there occurred a slight, but perceptible, change in Andrew Johnson. He allowed a federal indictment of Davis and ignored initial reports of mistreatment in prison; but, almost as quickly, lifted the restrictions imposed on Davis at Fort Monroe. Johnson cordially received Varina Davis at the White House and allowed her to plead her husband’s case. Word was conveyed that Davis would be pardoned upon request. Johnson ignored the clamor of the radicals to bring about Davis’ trial and kept silent as Davis was released on bond in 1867. Johnson did not come full circle from the altercation of 1846. He left Davis alone.

Surprising as his conduct may appear, Johnson’s change was the result of the convergence of diverse forces. Northern sentiment had been aroused in favor of Davis when reports of his mistreatment at Fort Monroe surfaced. Dr. John J. Craven, who tended the jailed Davis, published The Prison Life of Jefferson Davis in 1866 starkly outlining the sadistic treatment accorded Davis.

Craven’s book shocked the collective conscience of decent Northerners and their hue and cry did not go unnoticed in Washington, D.C.

Apart from benevolent concerns, there were legal considerations. Davis longed for a trial, if for no other reason than to argue the constitutionality of secession, and had assembled a brilliant legal team; New Yorkers Charles O’Conner and Judge George Shea; Virginia attorneys Robert Ould, John Randolph Tucker and James Lyons. All agreed a trial would expose hypocrisy and cynicism in Union policy and possibly vindicate the constitutional issues raised by the recent war. More and more influential Northerners saw the case against Davis as a legal non starter. If humanitarian concerns precluded Davis’ prolonged imprisonment or prompt execution, legal considerations prevented his trial.

Above all these matters hovered the ongoing split between Johnson and the radical Republicans. Although nominally a member of their party by virtue of his connection with Lincoln, Johnson was still a Jacksonian Democrat dedicated to the same principles which brought him into politics 25 years earlier. As he perceived those principles under attack, his old animosity toward Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy in general faded to insignificance. His war was now against the radicals, and he fought it with gusto. He vetoed a bill extending the power of the Freedman’s Bureau to restrict the voting rights of white Southerners; a civil rights bill containing military rule, disfranchisement of former rebels, and unrestricted Negro suffrage; and the Tenure of Office Act, requiring Senate approval for Presidential removal of executive appointment. As his defiance grew, the radicals resolved to “kill the beast” and began impeachment proceedings. Once again, Andrew Johnson felt he was doing battle to preserve the Constitution. This battle lasted three months, and at its end, Johnson was acquitted by one vote. Thus forces beyond the control of Jefferson Davis worked to divert his old adversary to other fights. Following the impeachment ordeal, with his term coming to an end, Johnson issued a blanket pardon for all Confederates, including Davis, in 1868. The long struggle between Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis had reached an anticlimatic finish.

The last days of these two warriors were remarkably similar as both fought for the vindication of history. For Johnson the fight took him back into the political arena. Always popular in his home state, he returned to Tennessee and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1875. His return to the Senate in March, 1875, was marked by flowers on his desk and oratory saluting his courage. Time had diminished the stature of the radicals, and Johnson’s unyielding defiance at their onslaughts was now more admirable.

For Jefferson Davis there could be no ultimate triumph for there would never be a permanent Confederate States of America. Yet, as years passed, his stature in the South grew large as memories of his faithful service and tortured imprisonment turned aside self-serving attacks on his administration. He outlived most of his contemporaries and became a living memorial to the Lost Cause. In the eyes of the South, Davis was a hero; even the North granted some begrudging respect.

Both men were called traitors; both patriots. Both achieved successes and suffered failures on levels of which most only dream. Both had personality traits worthy of respect and disregard. Both were lifted up and brought down by the waves of historical conflict. Both suffered intense emotional ordeals because of their principles. Both ended their days seeking vindication of their courses. Their paths crossed and conflicted often as they moved inexorably to their destinies.

This article was originally printed in the 2nd Quarter 1994 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.

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