Jefferson Davis, An American Hero

Presented by James H. Belote
Fortnightly Club January 16, 2014

Jonas Wood was a Confederate soldier shot at the battle of Jonesboro, Georgia, on August 31, 1864. He lingered ten days, without antibiotics or pain medication, and died September 10. Jonas left behind a young wife of four years and a twenty month old boy, Robert Wood. Jonas was my great-great grandfather. Robert was my great grandfather.

I grew up with tales like these, sitting on my Grannie’s porch, until my character became stained with them much as my speech is stained with the southern dialect. But when I became a teenager, I reached some conclusions and put these stories in the attic of my brain, along with Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and Brer Rabbit. I decided history was a stack of 3 by 5 cards that people used to show their order of things was the right one, and they always wound up on top. I turned to science and science fiction, the ethics of evolving technology.

Sixty years later, my wife and I were in New Orleans, waiting for Mother’s, a popular restaurant there, to open for lunch. “Let’s go visit the Civil War Museum”, she said. “They might even have a copy of “Song of the South”. The latter was a movie made by Walt Disney in 1946 that now is considered so politically incorrect that it can only be found in Europe. I wandered in the warehouse like museum struck by the many different styles of uniforms on display and the rusty old weapons. In a back corner, I found a shrine to Jefferson Davis. Wasn’t he president of the Confederacy? He lived to the age of 81! The only other enemy of the state that even approached that was Socrates, who made it to 78. I bought a book about him, my wife picked up a copy of “Song of the South” from the stack by
the cash register, and we left for lunch.

I realized later that Jefferson Davis, and Jonas Wood, could only be understood from the Southern point of view. Those of you who have spent time in the South have heard it before. Those of you who haven’t, well, I can only ask for more tolerance than poor Walt Disney received. Jefferson Davis was born June 3, 1808 as the tenth and last child of Samuel and Jane Davis in Christian County, Kentucky. He was named after Thomas Jefferson, a man much admired by his father, who had been a Revolutionary soldier. Three of Jefferson’s brothers fought in the battle of New Orleans and one of his earliest memories was that of seeing a wound of his brother Samuel’s horse. The father, a farmer, made a living of building and selling farms. He moved more than a thousand miles and changed residencies a half dozen times during Jefferson’s childhood, finally settling in Poplar Grove, Mississippi.

Jefferson did well in school and his father resolved to see that he was well educated. Even though Jefferson was raised Baptist, St. Thomas Cllege in Kentucky, a Catholic school, was the best that could be found. Without his wife’s knowledge, who doted on Jefferson, his father sent his seven year old son on a journey of 700 miles with a friend of his, the town mayor, and some relatives. Jefferson rode a pony. The party stopped in Nashville where Jefferson met Andrew Jackson who impressed him with his southern manners. Jefferson spent two years at St. Thomas, returning home in 1818 at the age of ten years old. Local schools were no better, so Thomas was sent to Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi and then to Wilkerson County Academy.

In his early teens, Jefferson rebelled. He told his father he had enough of learning. His father told him he had to make a living with his head or his hands and gave him a job picking cotton. After two days, Jefferson told his father that learning was the “lesser of two evils” and returned to school. Jefferson entered Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky in 1823. The following year however, his father died and Joseph, an older brother, took over Jefferson’s care and would remain Jefferson’s surrogate father for the rest of his life. Joseph, already a land owner and an attorney, acquired an appointment from Secretary of War John C. Calhoun for Jefferson to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Davis spent four years, from ages 16 to 20, at West Point. He left a mixed record. For example, two miles from West Point was Benny Haven’s tavern. The tavern was strictly off-limits to cadets as were the products it sold. On the other hand, Benny’s welcomed cadets. Edgar Allan Poe, who was a classmate for less than a year called the owner “the sole congenial soul in the entire God-forsaken place”. Davis was caught with friends there and underwent a court marshal trial. He was convicted but allowed to remain because of a good record.

A more serious incident arose in the eggnog riots of 1826. Davis was in on the planning of an eggnog party on Christmas morning which swirled out of control. He was caught early and sent to his room and had the good sense to stay there. At least half of the school was involved. The director didn’t want to court-marshal half the school so only the worst offenders were charged. Davis was not among them. He graduated in 1828, twenty-third in a class of thirty-three because of his difficulty in mathematics. He had 137 demerits in his final year, ranking him 163 out of 208 students. As a contrast, Robert E. Lee the class of 1829, had no demerits during his entire stay at the academy.

Davis stayed in the army the next 6 ½ years. He served at posts in Missouri, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, rising to the rank of second Lieutenant. In 1832 at the age of 24, he fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Colonel Zachary Taylor, his commander. The love was mutual. Zachery Taylor and his wife refused to sanction the match. Colonel Taylor said he did not raise his daughter to be an army wife. They became engaged despite the family refusal. In 1835 Jefferson resigned his commission in the army. Shortly thereafter, on June 17,1835, he and Sarah Knox Taylor married in Louisville. They then traveled to Davis Bend, Mississippi where Joseph had promised to give them land. From there they traveled to Locust Grove, Louisiana in August. It was there, two
months after marriage, that they both developed malaria. Knox Taylor Davis died September 15, 1835 at 21 years of age. Jefferson after another month of illness survived but continued to have episodes of malaria the rest of his life. Later in life, Zachary Taylor would tell Jefferson that his daughter was a better judge of men than he was.

Jefferson Davis decided to be a planter. His elder brother, Joseph, who now owned 11,000 acres of farm land, gave Davis land on Davis Bend that became known as Briarfield because it was a field of briers. For the next eight years he worked. His overseer was James Pemberton, a slave who had been given to Jefferson when he was a child and who had accompanied him all his life. Jefferson Davis became a successful plantation owner. In 1843 at the age of 35, he was asked by the local Democratic association to run for a state office. It was late in the campaign and the original candidate had dropped out . The area was a Whig district and he wasn’t expected to win. He didn’t. Out of gratitude however, he was involved in other activities and gradually became interested in politics. He also met a young woman named Varina Howell. Varina was the daughter of an old friend of Joseph. She was 17 and Davis was 35 when he met her. They courted for 2 years before the wedding February 26, 1845 at Briarfield. They honeymooned in New Orleans at the St. Charles Hotel.

Because of Jefferson Davis’s political activity, he was nominated and elected to the United States Congress. He poured his energies into achieving statehood for Oregon. He also supported establishment of the Smithsonian Institute. Varina was very happy in Washington and took to the social scene readily. To her dismay, President Polk provoked a war with Mexico over the Texas border and Davis resigned his seat to fight in the war. He was appointed a Colonel, took charge of 936 men in New Orleans and proceeded to south Texas. Davis was involved in several battles and successfully directed his men at times against superior numbers. He was again under the command of Zachary Taylor and this time they became fast friends. Davis was shot in the right ankle while leading a charge
on horseback of 400 men against 4000 Mexican troops at Buena Vista. He finished the battle but had to use crutches for two years afterward and endured pain for the rest of his life. The United States won the war and with it, the rest of the West. The First Mississippi Rifles had left New Orleans with 936 men. It returned with 376.

Jefferson Davis returned home in 1847 a hero. He was appointed a Senator from Mississippi, the richest state in the union. He soon found himself in the Senate defending states rights, slavery, and how states should be admitted to the union. While he did his best to articulate his state’s views, he never argued for union dissolution. He was appointed chairman of military affairs by the Senate. Davis found on a return visit to his state that the Democratic party was badly split over compromises made in the senate that he had opposed. Rather than see the Whig party take the governorship, he resigned from the Senate and ran for governor. During his campaign, he developed Herpes of the left eye, an extremely painful disease, and had to quit his campaign for several weeks. He eventually lost the sight in his left eye. His inability to campaign also cost him the governorship by 999 votes.

While Davis was without office, he still held a great deal of prestige among his fellow Mississippians. He campaigned for Franklin Pierce for president in 1852 and after his election, was made Secretary of War, where he served the United States from 1853 to 1857. It was a break from the constant struggle for power that the Senate had become. Davis had become known for his intense obsession for detail. During this period, he reorganized and strengthened the army. He updated the weaponry. He advocated a transnational railway and successfully persuaded the Pierce administration to purchase the lower part of New Mexico from Mexico to provide a straight track. He and his wife, Varina, enjoyed their family as well as the social scene in Washington. Despite his success at the cabinet post and his recurrent health problems of malaria, Herpes of the eye, and facial neuralgia, Davis wished to return to the Senate. He returned in 1857 at the age of 49 to a new and dangerous environment. We are born with a past. Jefferson Davis’s life may be said to have began in 1789 when 55 delegates from 12 states met to set out a working agreement between them. The men, mostly planters and politicians, met behind closed doors to set up a framework that would be a balance between nationalistic feeling and states rights. The result, the Constitution, is a series of compromises. The structure of the government is one of balances. Of utmost importance to this paper was the
treatment of slaves. Slaves are never referred to as such in the Constitution. They are referred to as “property”. The Northern states had no objection to slavery except in matters of voting and taxation. Northern politicians were afraid that if the number of slaves increased, the North would come to be a minority. It was decided that each slave would count as 2/3 of a person in these two issues. It was also decided that international slave trade would cease if Congress so decided in 20 years. They did so in 1808, the year of Jefferson’s birth, and no slaves could be brought into this country after that date. The Constitution was not accepted until ten amendments were added guaranteeing rights of the individuals and the states. The Tenth Amendment specifies that all powers not assigned to the national government belong to the states and the people. There was no coercion to sign the Constitution and no barriers to withdraw from it at any time. Rhode Island was the last state to sign 2 ½ years after completion and did so because surrounding states planned to charge tariffs on goods shipped over their state lines.

Obviously, the North and South had developed into two separate cultures long before the Constitution was written. The South blessed with fertile land specialized in agriculture. With the invention of the cotton gin, making cotton a profitable exportable crop, large plantations devoted to this crop began to dominate. Because of a lack of technology, unskilled labor in abundance was required. This was supplied by the South’s paternalistic form of slavery. Because of the export trade, the South wanted low tariffs to facilitate exchange of goods. Through the 1850s, the debate in the government centered over the status of the new states in the West. Which would be “slave states”, that is, would allow southern farmers to settle and farm, using slaves they brought with them, and which would not, known as “free states”, became the focal point of the argument. The northern states were fearful that allowing southerners to settle would shift the new states to the southern block and make it more powerful.
The North, on the other hand, even before the Constitution, began to develop as a manufacturing center. They had no use for the paternalistic slave system. Blessed with a continual inflow of immigrants as a ready supply, they had economic slavery. By paying low wages, they escaped the necessity for providing shelter, food, medical care, and disability. Disease and starvation are better than armed guards in coercing workers.

As an aside, this type of economic exploitation has become standard for all advanced civilizations. Today, corporations maintain shoe and garment plantations in undeveloped countries. The starting salary for a garment worker in Bangladesh is $38 a month. For many years this has become the American Way and allows us the cheaper clothes we wear today. The dividends from the corporate stocks pay for our drinks at the country club.
If these comments on the inequality of income distribution annoy you, congratulations! You are beginning to have some insight into the dilemma of the South. They found themselves in a situation where, distasteful as it was, slave labor was not a luxury but an economic necessity and were being told they had to end it at once. When Jefferson Davis returned to the Senate, not only was the Democratic party in disarray over the free versus slave state issue but a new and radical party had arisen in the North. The Republican party, founded in 1854, was against the South in all areas of contention: tariffs, slavery and land. It was a sectional party. They had made a gains in the 1856 elections, acquiring many northern Democrats and the remnants of the Whig party. The year Davis returned, 1857, the Dred Scott decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. It declared that constitutionally Congress had no authority to bar slavery from any territory and that slaves were property. This made the situation worse. Davis toured the New England states on a speaking tour in 1858 and was well received, only to have to return to Mississippi to defend himself as not being too moderate. He continued to have recurrent attacks of illness.

1860 loomed frightfully. The Republican party had chosen Abraham Lincoln as their candidate. His qualifications gave the South little hope. A lobbyist for the railroads, he had served one term as a Whig congressman in 1846, distinguished only by being laughed off the floor when he had call President Polk a traitor. He had never served another elected office and seemed to be chosen for his hatred for slavery and the South, which he had never visited. Because of the split in the Democratic party, he received only 40% of the vote but this was enough for the electoral college to declare him President. He did not carry a single southern state.

Despite this ominous turn Davis still hoped for a compromise. The Republicans refused any accommodations and December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded. On December 26, troops were moved to Fort Sumner guarding the mouth of Charleston harbor, a provocative move. Davis gave his last speech to the Senate on January 10, 1861. He later said it was the saddest day of his life. His facial neuralgia flared and he was forced to remain in bed. On January 19, he received notice that Mississippi had seceded. He left Washington with his wife and four children. He was never to see it again. Shortly after he left, the seceding states called a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama . Davis was asked to act as the temporary head of a provisional Confederate government which he accepted. Davis was
now 53 years old. He was continuing to serve the same people he had represented in the past and despite his efforts to avoid confrontation, found himself trying to shelter them from his beloved nation that had been taken over by a radical party. Worse, the United States refused to communicate with the new nation, provoking what should have been a minor incident into a conflict and declaring war. Davis faced a situation similar to that of George Washington. He had no money, no army, no centralized capital, and a hasty organized cabinet from disparate states who want nothing more than to be left alone. On paper, the war was lost before it began. In 1860 the population of the Confederacy was approximately nine million while that of the United States was 22 million. More important, the North outnumbered the South in white males by a ratio of 3 to 1. The same year the North produced over 90% of the country’s firearms, pig iron, locomotives, cloth, boots, and shoes.

Davis fought the only war that could be conventionally fought at the time. The Confederates found themselves outnumbered at most battles. The war was defensive with very rare excursions into the Northern territory. Despite these factors, it took four years of merciless destruction for the war to end. Davis suffered personally as well. He lost his plantation and home. His family saw the death of his youngest child and had to move frequently. Davis had recurrent health problems. He was taken prisoner May 10,1865, in Georgia one month after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Davis was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe on the Chesapeake Bay. He initially was placed in irons and under constant guard. The realization that he was an ill man who would make no attempt to escape and was looking forward to his trial made surveillance more slack. Davis thought he had an adequate defense in his constitutional stand. By law he would have to be tried in Virginia where his crime was committed. Finding an impartial jury might be a problem to the prosecution. By law the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court would have to hear the case. Judge Chase, although a strong Republican, refused to take part in a trial conducted in a state under military authority, which Virginia was at the time. Finally Congress was too busy trying to impeach the acting President of the United states, Johnson, to spend time trying to hang a former President of the Confederacy. Time was on Davis’s side. His wife,

Varina, still caring for four children by herself, button-holed everyone to tell them of Davis’s plight in
prison. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune began to publish human interest stories on Davis. The Pope sent Davis a warm letter and a crown of thorns. On May 13, 1867 bail of $25,000 each was posted by Horace Greeley, Gerrit Smith (a New York Abolitionist), and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Jefferson Davis and his wife and family left immediately for a small town in Canada, returning as required for court dates. After two years and survival of President Johnson of impeachment by one vote, the government was ready to try Davis. During the interim, the Fourteenth Amendment had gone into effect. Written with Davis in mind, the third section states that no person can hold office who swore to uphold the Constitution and subsequently took part in a rebellion. This apparently nullified Davis’s contention that he was upholding the Constitution by his actions. Chief Judge Chase however pointed out that the inability to hold an office was a punishment for Davis and to try him would therefore place him in double jeopardy. The court couldn’t agree on this. Once again, the Attorney General could lose a case that would make both he and the government look like fools. The case was dropped. On Christmas day, 1869, President Johnson issued a proclamation of total amnesty for everyone, including Davis. Jefferson Davis was free after four years of uncertainty. He was 61 years old.

While many other Southerners adjusted to the new world, Davis had great difficulty. He was acutely aware of his notoriety. He would travel to England and back eight times looking for work and visiting old Confederate expatriate friends such as Judah Benjamin. He accepted a position as president of an insurance company in 1870 only to have it fold in the panic of 1873. After many legal battles, he was able to regain the title to his beloved Briarfield. It had now been turned into an island by the fickle Mississippi river. He had not changed his mind about states rights, slavery, and the Republic but he did not speak out. He said to do so would only hurt people he loved. He refused all political offices and turned down two college presidencies, working for occasional societies.

During much of this time his family remained in England. In 1877 his luck finally changed. He met a widow named Sarah Dorsey who’s husband had been a staunch Davis supporter. She made a cottage on her grounds at Beauvoir on the Mississippi coast available so that he might write his memoirs. Despite his wife’s misgivings, he convinced her to return from England with their family and live there. Things did not go well at first but eventually she and Sarah become close friends. In 1881 “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government”, a two volume set, appeared. It was a moderate success. Sarah Dorsey died of breast cancer in 1879 leaving Beauvoir to Davis.

The household was visited by Oscar Wilde in 1882 and frequently had notables and reporters as guests. As the horrors of the war were forgotten, Davis began to address reunions. He also, without success, tried to revitalize Briarfield. In his last public speech he said “Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feelings, and to make your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished – a reunified country.” In December 6, 1889 Davis quietly died after several weeks of illness. He was survived by his wife, Varina, and two daughters. During his life he had lost four sons to a fall, diphtheria, measles, and yellow fever. The Civil War caused the deaths of over 600,000 men, destroyed and impoverished over 1/3 of the nation and placed a race in a caste system called segregation that lasted almost a 100 years. My conclusions as a teenager were that the Civil War was a conflict of two fanatical minorities led by inadequate and amateurish leadership and that both sides were equally responsible for this disaster. Other nations have been able to outlaw slavery without slaughter. This inquiry has softened my judgment slightly. Abraham Lincoln did leave in place the concept of a new ideal of equality which has radically changed the nation. Davis is often compared to Lincoln to his detriment. Davis did own slaves and speak for slavery for the South. On the other hand, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and many others were slave holders. Jefferson Davis sought unity up to the time it was impossible to do so. He left us with the concepts of State’s Rights and individual freedom, that is, there is a limitation to the power government should have. After all, if you ask a government what is the limitation of their power, they will eventually say “There should be none at all!” How these concepts should be best applied are still being debated. Hopefully, we have learned to use the legal and judicial processes to solve our problems and not to treat compromise as a failure.
Thank you.