The Truth About Jefferson Davis

Jefferson_Davis

This piece originally appeared in Southern Partisan magazine in 1983.

Rosemont Plantation, the childhood home of Jefferson Davis, is nes­tled in the gently rolling hills of southwest Mississippi. Carefully restored, the Davis family home is shaded by moss-hung oaks and catalpa trees, surrounded by lush vegetation and warmed by newly-greened memories of the past. It is the last place on earth one would expect to collide with one of those anti-Davis myths, born of Yankee fury and hatred, still restlessly and unaccountably alive.

In the company of two friends, I visited Rosemont on a May after­noon so adorned by a fresh breeze and an obliging blue sky that it could have been gift-wrapped.

We were welcomed at the door of the two-story wooden home into the early 19th century by a Rosemont guide, a cheerful woman in period costume. Well-trained for her role, she showed us through the house, distinguishing with nice attention to historical detail between those items of furniture that were Davis-owned and those that were period pieces of another origin.

She knew the house and everything in it intimately, answered questions steeped in obscurity and gave a flawless performance as a guide.

However, a casual comment about an antebellum shawl, draped over a chair, led to a digression about the capture by Union soldiers of Jefferson Davis near Irwinsville, Georgia. Our guide, leaving the safe harbor of memorization for the rougher sea of improvisation, told us that Davis had been captured wearing a “lady’s garment.”

Asked if she meant a shawl, she said firmly that the President of the Confederacy was clothed “in a dress” as a disguise to aid in his escape. “This,” she said, “is what we have learned.”

This was not at all what they had learned, as a later discreet con­versation with a Rosemont office employee disclosed. The employee, stunned by what the guide had said, promised that corrective action would be taken at once.

The late scholar Hudson Strode has put the capture story together with such detailed research and convincing accuracy that one would think that the “lady’s dress” myth would be forever buried, North and South, and particularly at a Davis shrine. But, alas!

I do not mean by this vignette to condemn the work at Rosemont. Curator Ernesto Caldeira and lawyer Percival Beacraft, who bought the place in 1971, have done a superb job of making Rosemont a valuable and historic shrine. I mention the matter only to underscore the magnitude of misunderstanding that clouds Jefferson Davis’ place in American history.

Considered even casually, the “dress” myth had about as much credibility as the one that had Davis masterminding the assassina­tion of President Lincoln, and yet that story gained wide acceptance. President Andrew Johnson, in an official proclamation, accused Davis of complicity in Lincoln’s murder.

One of Varina’s dresses might have fit the Union midget general, Ulysses S. Grant (five feet, one when he entered West Point) but never could have covered the more heroic Davis proportions. He was more than six feet tall. Nor would a man of Davis’ dignity have, under any circumstances, dressed in drag, not even to escape a shameful and certain death.

Strode’s careful reconstruction of the capture has Davis awak­ened by gunfire and rising “fully dressed in the gray suit in which he had slept. . . .” Strode continues: “In the semi-darkness, he grabbed a waterproof sleeveless raglan which was similar to his, though it happened to be his wife’s. As he strode off, Varina impulsively took off her dark shawl and threw it about him.” When an armed trooper ordered him to halt and surrender, Davis dropped the shawl and waterproof and advanced on the man, with escape in mind. Varina interfered, and it was all over. Of such stuff, fatuous myths are made.

Other misconceptions about Jefferson Davis abound. The argu­ment that a better man could have led the Confederacy to victory is specious in the extreme. The North had many times the manpower of the overmatched South and vastly more resources.

Grant, a failure as a merchant, a railroad executive, a farmer and as President of the United States, at least knew what any schoolboy knows: if you have more men and materiel, you are likely to win in the slaughterhouse that is warfare.

Other misjudgments branded Davis as austere, inflexible and impatient. Historian Bruce Catton has answered such charges: “It may well be that at Richmond he made enemies out of men who would have been his supporters if he had been more flexible; yet his very inflexibility, in the impossible job that was given him, was one of his strengths.” He might have added that in a time of crisis and conflict, flexibility can dissolve into weakness and sap the strength that is needed for victory.

Jefferson Davis’ role as President of the Confederacy is so familiar to so many that it would be repetitious to go into it in extensive detail in this brief appreciation. What does need some explication is his  earlier career as an American patriot.

Certainly it was as a patriot that in 1853 he accepted from President Franklin Pierce a position in his cabinet as secretary of war. Ever reluctant to leave the peace and quiet of his Brierfleld plantation, Davis resisted the appointment to the last. The Nichols biography of Franklin Pierce said that it required “all of Pierce’s per­suasive powers to prevail upon him (Davis) to enter the cabinet.”

During his four years as head of the War Department, Davis insti­tuted additional courses in the humanities at West Point to establish an officer class of genuinely educated men.

As a military man, he was spectacularly innovative. He intro­duced an improved system of infantry tactics that may have helped Union soldiers a few years later: he substituted iron for wood in gun carriages, secured rifled muskets and real rifles and introduced the famed Minie ball. He beefed up coastal defenses, formed a medical service and took charge of surveys and routes for a military railway across the continent.

Pierce admired Davis more than any other member of the cabi­net. When Davis left the executive branch of government in 1857 to serve once again as United States Senator from Mississippi, Pierce wrote to him as follows: “I can scarcely bear the parting from you. You have been strength and solace to me for four anxious years and never failed me.”

Davis was equally effective as a United States Senator. In fact, the impact of his influence in the Congress of his time was felt in Biloxi, Mississippi, more than a century after he left that body.

In August of 1969, Hurricane Camille devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, causing considerable damage at Beauvoir, Davis’ last home, maintained to this day as a shrine and tourist attraction.

Many valuable documents suffered water damage. Specialists from the Smithsonian Institution appeared on the scene as volun­teers to help restore those documents. A Mississippian, assisting in the Beauvoir clean-up, asked one of the Smithsonian men what brought them to the disaster scene.

The expert in document restoration said he was there to repay an old debt. Had it not been for Jefferson Davis, he said, the Smithsonian might not be in existence today.

It is certainly true that as a young congressman Davis worked diligently for establishing the Smithsonian Institution in line with the bequest from the British scientist, James Smithson. His interest in it never flagged.

Varina wrote proudly to her mother in 1854: “Jefferson Davis was one of the most active of the fourteen regents of the recently established Smithsonian Institution and always enjoyed entertaining the distinguished American and foreign scientists who met in annual convocation.”

As a Senator, he did not subscribe to the theory that the spoils belong to the political victor. He worked to put in place federal regu­lations that later became the formal Civil Service system that we know today.

This young Kentucky-born, Mississippi-reared Senator created interest in Panama by urging the purchase of what is now the Canal Zone to build a railway that would foster commerce and make U.S. coastal defenses more secure.

The nationalism that he embraced in his earliest days in the Senate began to wane, however, when developments led him to direct his energies to the defense of slavery. He argued that the states alone could exclude slavery from the territories and that the Missouri Compromise line should be extended to the Pacific.

As the catastrophe-to-come became ever more apparent, Jefferson Davis became ever more the champion of state sovereignty, the defender of the South.

After Mississippi seceded in January of 1861, Davis made his farewell address to the Senate. He apparently believed that many Northerners were in sympathy with the Southern cause, as indeed many were. Carl Sandburg wrote in A Lincoln Preface as follows: “In all essential propositions the Confederacy had the moral support of powerful, respectable elements throughout the North.” Sandburg estimated that in a Northern electorate of four million, “probably more than a million voters believed in the justice of the cause of the South as compared with the North.”

To his colleagues in the Senate, Davis said:

I am sure I feel no hostility toward you, Senators from the North. 1 am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well: and such, I am sure, is the feeling of the people 1 represent. I, therefore, feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope and they hope for peaceable relations with you, though we must part. They may be mutually beneficial to us in the future, as they have been in the past, if you so will it. The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country, and if you will have it thus, we will invoke the God of our fathers. We will vindicate the right as best we may.

When he finished, there was a stillness on the Senate floor. Davis lingered in Washington for a week to recover from a bout with neuralgia and may have even hoped that he and other Southern sen­ators would be arrested as “traitors.” Rumors to that effect were current. Davis wrote that such arrests and trials “might not be an undesirable mode of testing the question of the right of a state to withdraw from the union.” The Supreme Court was generally favor­able to the doctrine of States’ Rights. So the possibility of such a trial makes for interesting speculation.

But speculation is no substitute for reality. War came, Americans faced one another in some of the most viciously fought battles in his­tory, and the land was spattered with blood.

With the war raging around him, Jefferson Davis took the reins of a loose confederation of states and with great administrative genius created a postal system, a currency, a foreign policy, an army, a navy and a constitution. His hastily formed nation was sadly lacking in powder mills and rolling mills and had little industry of any kind. Its harbors were mostly blocked by federally-controlled forts, and it faced a young and vigorously growing nation with ten times the resources for waging war.

It stands as one of history’s most remarkable achievements that Davis fashioned a government and a fighting unit which held the North at bay for four long years during which time victory was in sight on more than one occasion.

From the single standpoint of trying to mobilize against vastly supe­rior forces, Davis’ position in 1861 was similar to Winston Churchill’s in the early days of World War II. Neither had much to work with. Both stretched what resources they had to their absolute limits.

Davis and Churchill were unalike in most respects except that each was, as Clement Attlee so aptly said of Churchill, “a layer cake.” Davis’ layers included the educated man of the 18th century, steeped in the classics; the contemporary man of the 19th; and that “curious layer” Attlee spoke of that placed him, through foresight, a century ahead of his time. Jefferson Davis’ public utterances and papers are liberally sprinkled with examples of a sure ability to penetrate con­temporary problems and propose for them solutions that were many years ahead of his time.

Davis saw the American hemisphere as a unit and foresaw the time when a good neighbor policy with Latin American nations would be in the best interests of the United States. He also saw advantages in trade with China. Few others did until Richard Nixon acted in the seventies. Trade with China has grown since then from $300 million in 1977 to $5.5 billion.

With remarkable foresight Davis envisioned a time when labor and management would be at each other’s throats in America and had a plan to prevent it. Of this, he wrote:

The old war between capital and labor has called forth the best intellects of Europe. It has disturbed commerce, overthrown governments, produced anarchy and crept from the wreck without solving the problem. With us, the contest is in its incipient state, and happily it may be that something can be done to check its growth. Decisions should be based on something like a cooperative principle of industrial partnership, in which the wages of the employees should be measured by the profits of the corporation. If in this manner, a community interest could be established, the welfare and con­tentment of both would seem to be a possible result.

It was an accurate assessment. Corporations of today with profit sharing plans are rarely, if ever, shattered by serious labor strife.

In 1887, a movement was getting off the ground in Texas toward national prohibition, or as H.L. Mencken has described it, “Our 13 years of horror.” Jefferson Davis foresaw its dangers to state sover­eignty. He understood the impossibility of legislating good sense and morality. Writing that year to former Texas Gov. F.R. Lubbock, Davis said:

Reared in the creed of democracy, my faith in its tenets has grown and I adhere to the maxim that the world is governed too much. To destroy indi­vidual liberty and moral responsibility would be to eradicate one evil by the substitution of another. The abuse, and not the use, of stimulants, it must be confessed, is the evil to be remedied. If it has proved the wooden horse in which many a disguised enemy of state sovereignty as the guardian of indi­vidual liberty was introduced, then let it be a warning that the progressive march would probably be from village to state and from state to the United States.

The “noble experiment” he warned against came as he predicted and brought with it a wave of crime and alcohol abuse the likes of which the nation had never experienced.

Jefferson Davis also had a vision of what America should be. Although his own ambition, as he said, “lies buried in the grave of the Confederacy,” he knew that the urgent need of the post-war days was a reunited country. He shared that vision with a group of young men at Mississippi City, just a few miles from Beauvoir, in March of 1888.

He said in part:

Before you lies the future—a future full of golden promise; a future of expanding national glory, before which all the world will stand amazed. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to take your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished—a reunited country.

It was his last public address. He must have given sober thought to those utterances, and he must have felt deeply that the wounds suffered by the country he loved so much and served so well must be healed.

The lives of all public figures in America are carefully studied. Few escape that microscopic inspection without damage. Richard Nixon’s paranoia and disregard of the law have been well-publi­cized; John F. Kennedy’s revealed promiscuity was of such magni­tude that R. Emmett Tyrrell was moved to write that it “places a new dimension on the naming of that vast cultural palace in Washington, D.C., the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts;” Agnew’s kickback operations in Baltimore and Grant’s Indian trade scandals were black marks on their careers, and in recent years we have seen more than one congressman drunk in public places and others arrested for making homosexual advances. No one came under more scrutiny than Jefferson Davis. Yet his life was lived without a tinge of scandal, although he had many enemies who willed it otherwise.

Those enemies had their finest chance to discredit him during his period of imprisonment at Fort Monroe. Secretary of War Stanton knew that Davis would be popular with West Pointers so he cast around for a jailer, suitably tough and without links to the military academy.

He found the right man for the job—Nelson A. Miles, a former clerk in a Massachusetts crockery shop whose ambition and single­ness of purpose helped him climb over others to the rank of Brevet Major General.

From the security measures Miles took to ensure that Davis would not escape, one would have thought that the Army had on its hands a kind of Hercules, capable of shaking the pillars of the huge old fort, known for its impregnable construction as “The Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.”

Davis was guarded by 70 soldiers, two of whom paced incessantly within the cell that housed him. Every two hours, there was a noisy changing of the guard. Every 15 minutes, the officer of the day was required to check the cell.

But that wasn’t enough. Incredibly, Miles ordered leg irons for his famous prisoner. To Davis’ credit, he physically resisted the degrada­tion. Strode tells us that it required four soldiers to hold Davis while the shackles were put in place by a blacksmith. In a written report, the captain in charge of the procedure told General Miles that Davis “showed unnatural strength” in the attempt to fight off his captors.

Davis later wrote that he regretted the resistance, explaining that it resulted from what he construed at the time as “a right and duty.” Few of us today would share those regrets.

In Davis’ earliest days of agony at Fort Monroe, he was deprived of essential medical care, given poor rations to be consumed without knife or fork, and made to suffer sleepless nights under the constant­ly shining light.

The New York Herald crowed editorially, “No more will Jeff’n Davis be known among the masses of men. He is buried alive.”

And so he was for two years until sanity returned to Washington, and he was set free. The doctors who treated him and a number of his captors are on record praising the courage, integrity and sense of honor he showed during his confinement.

The character and moral fiber of a people can be injured when there is a lack of integrity, honor and courage among their leaders. As President of the Confederacy, Davis gave Southerners a legacy of integrity by discharging his duties with the same dedication and sense of personal honor that he brought to his duties as a member of the United States Senate, as a military officer and as secretary of war.

His entire life was one of service to his country and to the Confederate cause in which he believed so deeply. If the rewards for that service were the defeat of the South, his arrest, imprisonment and the obliteration of the cause he championed, out of the rubble of those tragedies his achievements have erected an enduring monu­ment on a secure foundation. Jefferson Davis was one of the most remarkable men in the annals of American history.

About Robert McHugh

Robert McHugh was a journalist and friend of H.L. Mencken. He edited a collection of Mencken's essays titled, "The Bathtub Hoax and Other Blasts & Bravos," following Mencken's death. He was the only journalist invited to Mencken's funeral. McHugh worked in Iowa, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Baltimore. He spent his later years as the editor of the Biloxi Herald. More from Robert McHugh

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