From Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis: A Memoir (1890)

Mr. Davis’s apparent feebleness had been accompanied by enough increase in weight to encourage my hopes of his health improving. He never stooped, but retained his fine soldierly carriage, and always walked with a light, firm step, and with apparent ease; his voice was sweet and sonorous as ever. A slight deafness was the only evidence of age. His eyes became so strong he frequently read without glasses. His mind was wonderfully alert, and he read and enjoyed newspapers, reviews, poetry, and fiction, and remembered what he read to a wonderful degree. He talked about the topics of the day with the fresh sympathy of a young man, and made many witty and wise comments upon them. He had an immense correspondence, the answers to which he dictated to me, and seemed, except on a few occasions, not to feel the labor.

He was always ready to hear any jest or story that was told him, or to offer sympathy to those who needed it. His neighbors loved him, and he enjoyed greatly their visits. One of them especially, Major William H. Morgan, used to come and talk over the war and the news of the day, and Mr. Davis never tired of his society.

One anxiety, however, preyed upon him dreadfully, and this was his first debt. He had never owed one he could not pay on demand, and was sixty-five years old before he had a law-suit. He was a strict economist in his own person, though lavish to his family – never refusing us anything for which he thought he could pay.

Two successive overflows of our plantation on the Mississippi had plunged him deeply in debt to his commission merchant, Mr. J. U. Payne, a man inestimably dear to my husband, and one who nobility of soul had prevented him from distressing his friend either to give him security or payment. This generous consideration for Mr. Davis only enhanced his desire to pay the debt. Our good son-in-law’s health did not permit him to remain in a malarial country without imminent risk, so that we could not avail ourselves of his willingness to serve us, or of his powerful aid to extricate the estate from debt, and God had taken to himself all our sons and all my brothers; so that Mr. Davis, though too feeble for the effort, went at intervals to Brierfield, which was inaccessible, and always reached at night by the steamboats, our only means of visiting the island.

He had been for a long time very weak and unable to bear exercise, but felt it his duty to attend to his affairs. Some members of his family were visiting us, and he preferred, as his stay would be short, that I should remain with them.

He arrived at the landing at night, but had been attached on the boat with something which now appears to have been grippe, and was too ill to get off the boat, but went on to Vicksburg and returned the next day. He arrived again at night, and drove several miles home through the malarial atmosphere.

I received a telegram from a kind young man in Mr. Davis’s employment, dated November 11th, saying my husband would not have a doctor, and was in bed, and I proceeded at once to take a boat for Brierfield. We met upon the river. Captain Leathers, whom we had known, as a boy, felt an intense interest in him, and had his father’s boat hailed, and found out Mr. Davis was on board. He was asleep when I met him, but waked very soon and seemed better for meeting me. Two physicians whom we consulted at Bayou Sara declared that he had acute bronchitis complicated with grave malarial trouble.

When we reached New Orleans, before which he had suffered intensely, a cold rain was falling. Our friend, Mr. Payne, with his son-in-law, Justice C. E. Fenner, met us, with Mr. Davis’s physician and friend, Dr. Chaille, and our nephew and niece by marriage, Mr. Edgar H. Farrar and Mrs. Stamps.

It was evident we could not carry him to Beauvoir where he longed to be, and we accepted Judge and Mrs. Fenner’s kind invitation to go to them. An ambulance was sent from the Charity Hospital, containing a soft bed, spread by the hands of tender Mother Agnes, who said it was her privilege, and accompanied by four young medical students, whose fathers had all fought in our cause, and who were full of reverence and sympathy for our patient sufferer, he was borne to Judge Fenner’s house, apparently uninjured by the transfer.

In alternating hope and discouragement, surrounded by attentions lavished upon us by the whole family, such as could not have been exceeded by our own children, attended by our dear friends, Dr. Chaille and Dr. C. J. Bickham, he made a brave struggle to overcome the unseen forces to which he at last suddenly succumbed. His fortitude and patience were almost divine; he tried not to give trouble to his nurses, and offered thanks for everything. Once, when Mrs. Fenner gave him some nourishment and left the room, he remarked: “She would be charming even without her strict integrity and grace; but I am giving her trouble. When can we relieve her and go to our dear home?”

Neither of his two dutiful and devoted daughters, who, he often said, had never disobeyed or given him pain, were with their father, whose life they rendered happy by their love. Our eldest daughter, Mrs. Margaret Hayes, was with her family in Colorado, and the other had been ordered by our physician and urged by her father to take a sea voyage for her health, and was in Paris; I entreated Mr. Davis to let me telegraph for them, but he answered: “Let our darlings be happy while they can; I may get well.” Margaret came, against our advice, rendered uneasy by the press reports; but the poor child, owing to an accident on the train, reached us too late to see her father alive; at the risk of his life her husband, a much-beloved son to us, came from his sick-bed, with like result; and our daughter Varina, buoyed up by encouraging reports of her father’s improvement was kept in ignorance of his condition until his death. At his request she was forbidden to return, as she was then pronounced by her physician too feeble for the journey.

I hoped, when this memoir was begun, to portray my husband’s life even unto his peaceful bed of death, and to show how is people hung about him, eager to hear his state, and treasure every word from his lips; how gladly they seized upon the slightest hope held out by his skilful and tender physicians; and how patiently he suffered acute pain, how thankfully he received every attention offered, and how bravely he tried to live through the long weeks of physical anguish, and how, when greatly discouraged, he gently said: “I have much to do, but if it is God’s will, I must submit.” My strength was miscalculated, and this meagre account must suffice.

Buoyed up by his wonderful constitution, which had never been impaired by excesses, he rallied several times, and on December 6th was considered convalescent. Waking from sleep at daylight on that morning, he said to me: “I want to tell you I am not afraid to die.” I begged him not to speak of so dreadful a contingency, and he smiled and dropped asleep.

In the afternoon he awoke from a sound, quite sleep, with a congestive chill. A moment before he lost consciousness he gently declined the medicine that, urged by hope, I pressed upon him, in these courteous words which were his last: “Pray excuse me, I cannot take it.” In three hours his brave, true heart ceased to beat.

Floral offerings came from all quarters of our country. The orphan asylums, the colleges, the societies, drew upon their little stores to deck his quite resting-place. Many thousands passed weeping by the bier where he lay in state, in his suit of Confederate gray, guarded by the men who had fought for the cause he loved, and who revered his honest, self-denying, devoted life. His old comrades in arms came by thousands to mingle their tears with ours. The Governors of nine States came to bear him to his rest. The clergy of all denominations came to pray that his rest might be peaceful, and to testify their respect for and faith in him. Fifty thousand people lined the streets as the catafalque passed. Few, if any, dry eyes looked their last upon him who had given them his life’s service. The noble army of the West and that of Northern Virginia escorted him for the last time, and the Washington Artillery, now gray-haired men, were the guard of honor to his bier. The eloquent Bishops of Louisiana and Mississippi, and the clergy of all denominations, delivered short eulogies upon him to weeping thousands, and the strains of “Rock of Ages” once more bore up a great spirit in its flight to Him who gave, sustained, and took it again to Himself.

A few of the Grand Army of the North followed him, with respectful sympathy for his people’s sorrow. Our old slaves sent the following loving letter:

BRIERFIELD, MISS., January 12, 1890.

Beauvoir, Miss.

We, the old servants and tenants of our beloved master, Honorable Jefferson Davis, have cause to mingle our tears over his death, who was always so kind and thoughtful of our peace and happiness. We extend to you our humble sympathy. Respectfully, your old tenants and servants,

GUS WILLIAMS, and others.

Thornton Montgomery, now a man of means, the successful son of Joseph E. Davis’s old servant, Ben Montgomery, sent the following affectionate note of sympathy:

CHRISTINE, NORTH DAKOTA, December 7, 1889.

MISS VARINA: I have watched with deep interest and solicitude the illness of Mr. Davis of Brierfield, his trip down on the steamer Leathers, and your meeting and returning with him to the residence of Mr. Payne, in New Orleans; and I had hoped that with good nursing and superior medical skill, together with his great will-power to sustain him, he would recover. But, alas! for human endeavor, an over-ruling providence has willed it otherwise. I appreciate your great loss, and my heart goes out to you in this hour of your deepest affliction.

Would that I could help you bear the burden that is yours to-day. Since I am powerless to do so, I beg that you accept my tenderest sympathy and condolence.

Your very obedient servant,


Could there have been a surer testimony to Mr. Davis’s generous, just, and Christian spirit than that these negroes have given; certainly none afforded me more comfort.

The New York World, published by an Union soldier, uttered a noble eulogium upon him. The New York Sun paid an eloquent tribute to him, and ended with these words: “A great soul has passed.”

Mr. James Redpath, a life-long political opponent, thus eloquently expressed his admiration of him after having been for months domesticated with him:

“Before I had been with Mr. Davis three days, every preconceived idea of him utterly and forever disappeared. Nobody doubted Mr. Davis’s intellectual capacity, but it was not his mental power that most impressed me. It was his goodness, first of all, and then his intellectual integrity. I never saw an old man whose face bore more emphatic evidences of a gentle, refined, and benignant character. He seemed to me the ideal embodiment of ‘sweetness and light.’ His conversation showed that he had ‘charity for all and malice toward none.’ I never heard him utter an unkind word of any man, and he spoke of nearly all his more famous opponents. His manner could best be described as gracious, so exquisitely refined, so courtly yet heart-warm. The dignity of most of our public men often reminds one of the hod-carrier’s ‘store suit’ – it is so evidently put on and ill-fitting. Mr. Davis’s dignity was as natural and as charming as the perfume of a rose – the fitting expression of a serene, benign, and comely moral nature. However handsome he may have been when exited in battle or debate – and at such times, I was told, he seemed an incarnation of the most poetic conceptions of a valiant knight – it surely was in his own home, with his family and friends around him, that he was seen at his best; and that best was the highest point of grace and refinement that the Southern character has reached.

Lest any foreigner should read this article, let me say for his benefit that there are two Jefferson Davises in American history – one is a conspirator, a rebel, a traitor, and the ‘Fiend of Andersonville’ – he is a myth evolved from the hell-smoke of cruel war – as purely imaginary a personage as Mephistopheles or the Hebrew Devil; the other was a statesman with clean hands and pure heart, who served his people faithfully from budding manhood to hoary age, without thought of self, with unbending integrity, and to the best of his great ability – he was a man of whom all his countrymen who knew him personally, without distinction of creed political, are proud, and proud that he was their countryman.”

His own people poured out their sorrow in loving and eloquent words, and held meetings in his honor in every little hamlet in our Confederate country, and the great orator of the South, Senator [John Warwick] Daniel, of Virginia, said of him, in an oration not inferior to any that ever was delivered:

“He swayed Senates and led the soldiers of the Union, stood accused of treasons in a court of justice. . . .

He ruled millions and was put in chains. He created a nation, he followed its bier, and he died a disenfranchised citizen.

Though great in many things, he was greatest in that fortitude which, lifting him first to the loftiest height and casting him thence to the depth of disappointment, found him everywhere the erect and constant friend of truth. He conquered himself and forgave his enemies, but he bent to none but God. No public man was ever subjected to sterner ordeals of character and a closer scrutiny of conduct. He was in the public gaze for nearly half a century, and in the fate which at last overwhelmed the Southern Confederacy at its end, official records and private papers fell into the hands of his enemies. Wary eyes searched to see if he had overstepped the bounds which the laws of war have set to action, and could such evidence have been found, wrathful hearts would have cried for vengeance. But though every hiding-place was overhauled and a reward was ready for any who would betray the secrets of the captive chief whose armies were scattered, and whose hands were chained, though the sea gave up its dead in the convulsion of his country, there could be no guilty fact, and accusing tongues were silenced. Whatever record leaped to light, his home could not be shamed. . . .

The people of the South knew Jefferson Davis. He mingled his daily life with those who had bound up with him all that life can cherish. To his hands they consigned their destinies. Ruin, wounds, and death became their portion. And yet they declare that Davis was an unselfish patriot and a noble gentleman; that as a trustee of the highest trust that man can place in man, he was clear and faithful; and that in his office he exhibited those grand, heroic attributes which were worthy of its dignity and their struggles for independence.

“Thus it was that when the news came that he was no more, there was no Southern home that did not pass under the shadow of affliction. Thus it was that the governors of commonwealths bore his body to the tomb, and that multitudes gathered from afar to bow in reverence. Thus it was that throughout the South scarred soldiers, widowed wives, the kindred of those who had died in battle, met to give utterance to their respect and sorrow. Thus it is that that the general assembly of Virginia is now convened to pay this tribute. Completer testimony to human worth was never given, and thus it will be that the South will build a monument to record their verdict, that he was true to his people, his conscience, and his God, and no stone that covers the dead will be worthier of the Roman legend, ‘Clarus et vir fortis-simus.’”

Varina Davis

Varina Davis (1826-1906) was the wife of Jefferson Davis.


  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    A president in truth.

  • Gordon says:

    President Jefferson Davis – literally one of a kind.

    It’s not a myth that the Confederate nation was formed from nothing – no government, no economy or currency, no army, no navy, no manufactures – everything done on the fly to face a mighty and determined enemy separated only by a series rivers. That there were fatal mistakes made, administrative and battlefield, from the beginning is certainly true, all of which hurt the country’s chances to achieve independence. Maddeningly, a number occurred in moments when support for the War and the Lincoln administration waned in the north. Opportunities lost, the CSA never got second chances.

    Jefferson Davis must have made his share of mistakes, as has been forever argued, but his vision and resolve is absolutely manifest from the founding through evacuation of Richmond. Ultimate failure notwithstanding, there has never been anyone offered who seemed more qualified at the outset and with fortitude throughout to be President of the Confederate Sates of America than Jefferson Davis. We’re fortunate, as was Mr. Davis, to have Mrs. Davis corroborate with her warm and intimate memoir the scattered testimony as to his character.

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    They gave us the pill and we took it…we committed suicide…someone is ready to carve those words on a block of marble.
    Go forth and multiply…encourage your children to do so…PAY THEM TO DO SO IF YOU MUST…and then, teach your children well.

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