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

April 2024
8min read

When he was reunited with his wife in 1867, Davis' face showed the strains of four years of war and two in prison. For a man of warmth and tenderness who had never wanted the responsibilities of high political office, it had been a cruel ordeal.

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.

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.

He joined Varina in Canada, went thence to England—and began to look about for a job. What does the president of a nonexistent nation do for a living, when he has a wife and children to support? For a full decade this was a problem. For a time Davis served as president of an insurance company in Tennessee. He was a fish out of water, and he confessed to Varina that there was a great difference “between a man of business and a Soldier, or a Planter, or a Senator, or a Cabinet Minister, or a President, or even an exiled representative of an oppressed people.” It came hard, because this man’s pride was strong, and he wrote frankly: “I have compounded with my pride for the material interest of my family, and am ready to go on to the end as may best promote their happiness,”

Unfortunately, the end of this venture was not far off. The Panic of 1873 Put the insurance company in deep trouble. Davis resigned, returned to London, thought for a time that he had a connection as American representative of a British business firm but found that the British businessmen at last grew frightened because of “a secret dread of displeasing the Yankees.” He came back to the United States, dabbled for a time in a company preparing to exploit mineral deposits in Arkansas, spent several years in the fruitless attempt to organize a Mississippi Valley association designed to promote direct trade between the valley states and England, saw it fail at last because that same “secret dread” afflicted British capitalists … and finally, late in the 1870s, settled down at Beauvoir in Mississippi, on the gulf coast, to write his memoirs.

This book, a two-volume affair called The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, came out in 1881. It did not make a fortune for him—the North, where American books were mostly reviewed and bought, was not yet ready to admit that the one-time Confederate president had anything to say that anybody needed to listen to—but Davis found himself able to support his family, and in his final years he got a measure of peace and happiness. The climax came in 1886 and 1887, when Davis appeared in public at the dedication of Confederate monuments in Montgomery, Atlanta, Savannah, and Macon. Suddenly, and apparently quite unexpectedly, he found himself the hero of the South. He was no longer the president who had failed to win the war: he was the man who had kept the faith, who had endured years of imprisonment, who had behaved with dignity and integrity during the time that followed, who in his book had stood firmly by the cause he had led—and, all in all, he was again the man he had been at Montgomery in 1861, when crowds stood to cheer the very sight of him.

Davis died in 1889. On the day of his death his daughter Winnie, in Paris, knowing that he was ill but not realizing that he was so near the end, sent him a letter closing with these words:

… when I am away from you I can only think, and think, and love you for your goodness and tenderness, with which you covered me as with a cloak all through my childhood, screening my faults and answering my unreasonable questions with always an honest reply, the rarest thing given to a child in the world. And so I will end by saying, as I began, “My darling father.” Good night.

Need it be repeated? There was a warm and tender human being behind the reserved individual who set so much store by “the consciousness of rectitude.”

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