Suffering from a nasty bacterial infection, the insomnia induced by a lamp kept lit in his cell at all hours, and the very real possibility of being hanged by a kangaroo court, Jefferson Davis drew strength during his postbellum imprisonment from a certain slender little volume that was once renowned throughout Christendom – the The Imitation of Christ. The Imitation is a famous devotional work composed by 15th -Century Rhenish theologian Thomas a Kempis, and thanks to the scholarship of historians such as the late Felicity Allen we know that while confined President Davis relied upon this book like a secret weapon. Certainly the book’s approach to religion seems apropos to Davis’s predicament, as it counsels the reader to prefer the Kingdom of Heaven over prosperity, popularity, or any other fickle and unreliable worldly goods; as the title suggests, it enjoins the reader to imitate Christ.
Evidently Davis was especially moved by a section entitled “Of the Day of Eternity and of the Miseries of This Life,” for in November 1865 he wrote in it the words Great comfort in this. When we open to this section today, we find an extended prayer, a profession of longing for Christ, Whose blessed, heavenly realm above stands in stark contrast to the troubled earth below.
When will there be lasting peace, peace for ever safe and never to be disturbed, peace both within and without, peace that in every way stands unchanged? Good Jesus, when shall I stand in your sign and see you? When shall I gaze upon the glory of your kingdom? When will you be all in all to me? Oh, when shall I be in that kingdom of yours which you have made ready from all time for those you love? Here I have been left behind in enemy territory, a poor outcast in a land where every day there is fighting, every day disasters most dire. Comfort me in this my exile; assuage my grief; it is to you that I sigh with all my longing […]
Thomas a Kempis went on to remind Davis then, in 1865 – just as he reminds us, today, after the iconoclastic blows struck in 2018 against Kentucky heritage – that the most important struggles occur neither on the battlefield nor in the halls of legislatures, but within individual human hearts. I, poor piece of humanity, the pilgrim laments, am the theatre of civil war, a burden to myself.
That said, in light of cultural struggles it is worth contrasting such expressions of Christian piety with the more up-to-date activist spirituality expressed by the North in songs like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Where Unionist zealots then and now aim to conquer and reform the South in their own image, Davis sought throughout his life – by the grace of God – to conquer and reform himself. He is an especially fascinating figure not just because he was a deeply religious man, but because his experience connects the War Between the States with other foundational conflicts of modernity. As a boy, Davis was educated by Dominican friars in Springfield, Kentucky, in Washington County, at the Thomas Aquinas College, an institution established by priests who had themselves been driven from Europe by the atheistic French Revolution.
Is it merely a coincidence that a man like Davis would in later memoirs compare the highhanded behavior of the Lincoln administration to that of Maximillian Robespierre? Maybe. Is it a coincidence that Lincoln would, on the occasion of his re-election, receive an effusive letter of congratulations from a then-obscure political theorist named … Karl Marx? Maybe.
Then again, maybe not.
Of course there have been Southerners who wished that Davis had been a little less devout and meditative, and a little more pragmatic and fierce – a little less the gentleman, so to speak, and thus more open to the idea of ruthlessly waging a total war against the North instead of a primarily defensive one. Some might have agreed with Gilbert Mastern, the well-meaning but brutally pragmatic fictional planter from Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, who exclaims, “What we want now they’ve got into this is not a good man but a man who can win, and I am not interested in the luxury of Mr. Davis’s conscience.” In hindsight we can see Mastern’s point. Yet no one, however learned in military matters, can know for sure what would have happened – it is perfectly plausible that a more aggressive and offensive military policy would have accomplished nothing against superior Northern numbers and superior Northern manufacturing except to tarnish Southern honor.
In any case, whatever his limitations may have been, there can be no doubt that President Davis possessed several virtues that are scarcer than hen’s teeth in our own day, such as fidelity, tenacity, and integrity. He did his duty insofar as he always kept faith with his people. He refused to listen to offers of amnesty, because to accept amnesty would be to concede that he and his people had committed some sort of crime by seceding. As even a pro-Union historian unsympathetic toward him admits, to the day he died Davis “never forsook his commitment to the cause of Southern independence.”
Actually, even though he has long since passed on, Davis to this day defends the Southern cause by way of his two-volume magnum opus The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. In this magisterial work he aimed at two goals, the first being “to show that the Southern States had rightfully the power to withdraw from a Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered; that the denial of that right was a violation of the letter and spirit of the compact between the States.” The second and no less important purpose was “to show by the gallantry and devotion of the Southern people, in their unequal struggle, how thorough was their conviction of the justice of their cause; that, by their humanity to the wounded and captives, they proved themselves the worthy descendants of chivalric sires.”
Rather than linger upon the argumentative, political dimension of Davis’s work, it might be better to consider a charged passage wherein Davis pays tribute to Confederates from his native Kentucky, who defied Union occupation of their state by enrolling under the Stars & Bars.
“Space would not suffice,” writes Davis,
for a complete list of the [Kentucky] refugees who became conspicuous in the military events of the Confederacy; let a few answer for the many; J.C. Breckinridge, the late Vice-President of the United States, and whose general and well-deserved popularity might have reasonably led him to expect in the Union the highest honors the states could bestow; William Preston, George W. Johnston, S.B. Buckner, John H. Morgan, and a host of others, alike meritorious and alike gratefully remembered. When the passions of the hour shall have subsided, and the past shall be reviewed with discrimination and justice, the questions must arise in every reflecting mind. Why did such men as these expatriate themselves, and surrender all the advantages which they had won by a life of honorable effort in the land of their nativity? To such inquiry the answer must be, the usurpations of the general government foretold to them the wreck of constitutional liberty.
Over a hundred years later we are still waiting for “the passions of the hour” to finally subside, and for the arrival of a critical mass of reflecting minds. We will probably have to keep waiting for a while longer. But Davis’s point is well taken.
And if expressions like “the usurpations of the general government” and “the wreck of constitutional liberty” strike the reader as somewhat dry and abstract, Davis made his meaning even more vivid for us through an extended quote from the aforementioned John C. Breckinridge, who in 1861 made the following report from Bowling Green:
Every day foreign armed bands are making are making seizures among the people. Hundreds of citizens, old and young, venerable magistrates, whose lives have been distinguished by the love of the people, have been compelled to fly from their homes and families to escape imprisonment and exile at the hands of Northern and German soldiers, under the orders of Mr. Lincoln and his military subordinates. While yet holding an important political trust, confided by Kentucky, I was compelled to leave my home and family, or suffer imprisonment and exile. If it is asked why I did not meet the arrest and seek a trial, my answer is, that I would have welcomed an arrest to be followed by a judge and jury; but you well know that I could not have secured these constitutional rights. I would have been transported beyond the State, to languish in some Federal fortress during the pleasure of the oppressor.
Commenting upon Breckinridge’s remarks, Davis sharply retorts to those who saw the war as a crusade for the Union: “While artfully urging the maintenance of the Union as a duty of patriotism, the Constitution which gave the Union birth was trampled under foot, and the excesses of the Reign of Terror which followed the French Revolution were reenacted in our land, once the vaunted home of law and liberty.” If anything, it was in defiance of what they perceived as radical lawlessness that Breckinridge and Davis took their respective stands, the former as a general, the latter as chief executive.
All this should help those people who wonder why the rest of Kentucky waited till the war was over to join the losing side. Instead of uncritically relying upon Northern and German ideologues, we might try turning to some of Kentucky’s own sons for the answer. Part of said answer lies in the fact that a man only makes being “on the right side of history” his first and foremost priority if he is not only an atheist but a coward to boot. If Kentucky Confederates had priorities very different from those who now reinvent the Gospel to fit the progressive winds of political-correctness, that is because theirs was a very different faith.
The preceding is modified from an address given to the Breckinridge Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the occasion of Confederate Memorial Day, observed in Kentucky on Davis’s birthday.