Reading, Writing, and History:Jeff Davis: The Man Behind The Image

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Jefferson Davis: Private Letters, 1823–1889 , selected and edited by Hudson Strode. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 580 pp. $7.50.

In its long gallery of memorable men, American history contains no figure quite like that of Jefferson Davis. Here is the tragic hero incarnate, the man who endured and lost a struggle more than life size, his own defeat embodying a defeat shared by many others, until at last his unwavering endurance is about all that is remembered of him. His ordinary human qualities get flaked away, we look at stoicism and courage until it begins to seem that there is nothing else to look at, and the man takes on a marble-statue quality that is essentially bloodless. Most of the time we look in vain for the warm, passionate man who existed somewhere behind the struggle. The resulting image is admirable but it seems to be without warmth.

This is not simply because Davis, as president of the Southern Confederacy and embodiment of the Lost Cause, was by the very nature of things destined to survive as an abstraction. After all, Robert E. Lee is a tragic hero from the same epoch, and although Lee has a certain graven-image quality of his own he is nevertheless remembered with abiding affection and has a warm place in America’s memory. Davis was different. He locked himself in behind a self-control so complete that it seemed to lock everyone else out. He could win deep devotion from others, as his relationship with Lee proves, and he could also win deep hatred, as in his relationship with General Joseph E. Johnston; yet we think of him as an iceberg, forgetting that neither love nor hate is ordinarily inspired by the frigid. Perhaps it is about time for us to take a longer look at him.

The means for doing this are at hand in an excellent and fascinating book, Jefferson Davis: Private Letters, 1823–1889, selected and edited by Hudson Strode. Culling through a vast stack of letters, most of which have never been made public before, Mr. Strode lets Davis speak for himself from his early youth to the final years of his life, and the man thus speaking and spoken for emerges as someone quite unlike the legendary person we usually see. The austere integrity and the aloof dignity are still there, but as we read these letters—most of them exchanged by Davis and his devoted wife, Varina Howell Davis—we suddenly realize that this man had both warmth and tenderness in an extraordinary degree. He had qualities, in short, that were rarely shown to outsiders, and it was simply his fate to become so completely a public man that most other people had to be and remain outsiders. His private life existed within an opaque barrier. Now the barrier comes down.

One of his problems apparently was the fact that during the eventful war years he was miscast.

As a planter and a spokesman for the Deep South, Davis had been active in politics before secession, both in the Senate and in a presidential Cabinet, but he was a West Pointer with combat experience in war and he seems, underneath everything, to have thought of himself as a soldier. In January, 1861, when he resigned from the United States Senate, he quietly dedicated himself to the service of the emerging Confederacy, but he believed that what would be required of him would be to lead troops in the field. He wrote to a Northern friend at this time, saying: “Civil war has only horror for me, but whatever circumstances demand shall be met as a duty and I trust be so discharged that you will not be ashamed of our former connection or cease to be my friend.”

Shortly after this he was notified that he had been made president of the new Confederate government. The news came to him when he and Mrs. Davis were in the rose garden of Davis’ Mississippi plantation, and Mrs. Davis said that as he read the telegram he took on an expression that made her feel that some dreadful calamity had taken place, and when he told her what the telegram said he spoke “as a man might speak of a sentence of death.” His concept of duty compelled him to accept, but this was not the role he had wanted, and years after the war he wrote of the presidency that “notwithstanding my years of political service I had no fondness for it, and felt always a distaste for its belongings.”

What sort of general Davis would have made, if his fate had given him that part, is of course beyond telling, although considering everything it seems likely that he might have done very well. But he was obviously not ideally fitted to be the chief political leader of a brand new country which contained as many divisive factions and clamorous personalities as the Confederate government did. To fight and win an all-out war, this government dedicated to an extreme states’ rights position had to become centralized, with almost dictatorial powers vested in the executive. To accomplish this without estranging some of the most vocal and determined leaders of the South called for a suppleness, a political agility, and a flair for compromise that Davis never pretended to possess.