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

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His years in American politics had always been rather special. He had never had the rough-and-tumble experience of workaday politics at the courthouse and statehouse level—the kind of experience that was such an enormous asset to his opposite number, Abraham Lincoln—and as the war grew harder and put a constantly increasing strain on the fabric of the Confederacy this lack was a profound handicap. His relations with the Confederate congress became progressively worse. His everlasting efforts to muster manpower and industrial resources to oppose the overpowering Federal forces met increasing opposition from men who believed that the only hope was to give up things like the military draft and rely entirely on the old volunteer spirit and on purely inspirational leadership. In the end, the political house collapsed just as the military house collapsed, and when full night came down, a large and outspoken section of the Southern leadership considered that the defeat was mostly Davis’ fault.

Richmond had to be given up, at last, the dream of an independent nation had to be given up with it, and Davis was a fugitive looking vainly for a place where a dispossessed Confederate president could dig in his heels and make a stand. There was no such place. Lee had surrendered, and so had Johnston, and Davis finally saw that his chief care now was not for a defeated cause but for his wife and children. To Varina, as he moved hopelessly across the Carolinas late in April of 1865, he wrote as follows:

… I have prayed to our Heavenly Father to give me wisdom and fortitude equal to the demands of the position in which Providence has placed me. I have sacrificed so much tor the cause of the Confederacy that I can measure my ability to make any further sacrifice required, and am assured there is but one to which I am not equal—my wife and children. How are they to be saved from degradation of want is now my care.

Varina bore up under all of this with a stout heart, and as the final shadows were falling she made light of her own predicament: “It is surely not the fate to which you invited me in brighter days, but you must remember that you did not invite me to a great Hero’s home, but to that of a plain farmer. I have shared all your triumphs, been the only beneficiary of them, now I am but claiming the privilege for the first time of being all to you now these pleasures have passed for me.”

It did no good. Davis was captured in southern Georgia and was taken up to Fort Monroe for imprisonment. Here his captors began to overplay their hand. They accused Davis of having had a hand in Lincoln’s assassination, for a time they put leg irons on him, they kept guards and bright lights in his cell—and slowly, bit by bit, Southerners who had felt that Davis was responsible for their defeat began to see him as a martyr. It came very slowly, and after a year in prison Davis sent Varina this anguished letter: “Next to the consciousness of rectitude, it is to me the greatest of earthly consolations to know that those for whom I acted and suffer, approved and sympathize. It is common in cases of public calamity, for those who feel the infliction, to seek for some object on which to throw the blame, and rarely has it happened that the selection has been justly or generously made.”

In the oddest way, Davis at last regained his liberty.

He had adjusted himself to the idea that he might have to die as a traitor, and he wrote: “Oftentimes, the question occurs to me, would the spirit of vengeance be satiated by my sacrifice so that my family and countrymen would then be left in peace. If so, I trust my past life will bring others to the conclusion that is embodied in the mental answer I have so often made, and that those who would mourn me longest would least expect or desire me to shrink from the purchase.” But by the spring of 1867, when it was obviously time either to bring the man to trial or to release him, there had been a change, and although the radical Republicans now controlled the federal government it began to be clear that the last thing these people wanted was to convict Davis of treason.

The theory on which Lincoln had fought the war was that the Southern states had never actually left the Union. They could not leave it, because the Union was unbreakable; individuals might be in rebellion, but the states could not be and had not been. Now the radicals had a different notion: the states had done it, by doing it they had committed suicide, and so the government in Washington could treat them as conquered provinces and could impose on them any sort of rule it saw fit to impose. But if, in the middle of all this, the government hanged an individual for treason, it would be going back to the earlier theory, and the states as states would be relieved of guilt. Accordingly, in the middle of May, 1867, Davis was freed.