The opportunity had surpassed my expectations. My employer, the public television station and PBS affiliate in Memphis, WKNO, was holding a reception promoting and celebrating the return of Ken Burns’ acclaimed television series, The Civil War.”
I had arrived at the reception a bit early in the hope of speaking with the guest of honor for the evening. I recently had developed a special interest in the Civil War years, having happened upon a review of a book about a prominent figure of the period, Jefferson Davis. The review interested me, so I had obtained the book…and found it enthralling
Suddenly, there I was, speaking about my discovery with our honored guest, the renowned author, Shelby Foote, whose marvelous, smooth voice with rolling tones of the American South, was a highlight of the PBS television series.
Shelby Foote was gracious and attentive. While I cannot recall his exact response to my expressed interest in the life and career of Jefferson Davis, what he said to me was close to the following quote in the introduction to the very book I was reading:
“‘The strangest thing to me,’ writes Shelby Foote, who for years has been working on a history of the War Between the States, ‘is how human and warm Davis turns out to be. My admiration for him is virtually unbounded.’”
The book to which I have been referring is a sympathetic biography of the Confederate President by Hudson Strode. A measure of that sympathy is probably noticeable in Strode’s reference to The War Between the States, rather than The Civil War.
In this paper I come not to praise Jefferson Davis, but to share some of the high drama that played out in the life of this man; drama that is generously sprinkled with sheerest coincidence. Three such coincidences are particularly poignant.
We might start things with a pop quiz about dramatis personae of the American Civil War (or War Between the States.)
Question 1: What American served his country as President during that war, who was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1808? Ah, I’m sure some of you are aware that Lincoln was born in Kentucky, not Illinois. However, Lincoln is not the correct answer to my question, and here is Coincidence ONE!
Lincoln was, indeed, born in a log cabin in Kentucky, but in 1809. Jefferson Davis was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1808. Perhaps you did not know that the President of the Confederate States of America was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, not quite one hundred miles from the Kentucky log cabin birthplace of the President of the United States of America during the Civil War.
How might history be different had the Davis family moved north, say, to Indiana and then Illinois and had the Lincoln family moved south, say, to Mississippi?
There is no Question 2 at this point, but more coincidences await us.
Early Life and Education
Jefferson Davis was born to Samuel and Jane Davis, the youngest of ten children. His four brothers received names from the Bible; Joseph, Samuel, Benjamin and Isaac, but Jeff’s parents departed from scripture to name him Jefferson, for the red-headed President then in office, and gave him the middle name of Finis, no doubt in the fervent hope that this child was the last. He was.
By the time Jeff was weaned, says Shelby Foote in Volume One of his Civil War narrative, the Davis family had moved to Bayou Teche in Louisiana. However, the unhealthy climate, especially with the prevalence of malaria, occasioned yet another move. This time it was to Mississippi. Jeff may have escaped the dreaded Louisiana mosquito with this departure from the bayous, but the insect was to pay a tragic visit to him years later.
Jeff’s education began at a nearby wooden school at age 5, but Samuel Davis had been impressed by the reputation of a Dominican school in Kentucky. The Davis family was Baptist, but the friars of St. Thomas Aquinas were extraordinary educators and without telling Jane Davis of his intentions to get her son to Kentucky, Samuel, setting aside fears that Jeff would be subjected to Catholicism, arranged for Jeff to depart with a friend, Major Hinds, and his family, who were embarking for Kentucky. Major Hinds was pleased to take Jeff as company for his own seven-year old. Jeff departed on the 700 mile journey to Kentucky, riding his pony. His mother was to be told later.
One of the most memorable events of Jeff’s life occurred on the way to his new school. Major Hinds had fought beside Andrew Jackson at New Orleans and he had received an invitation from Jackson to stop and rest at The Hermitage in Nashville. “Old Hickory” was a national hero of whom Jeff had heard much. He, Major Hinds’ son, Howell and Andrew Jackson. Jr. enjoyed each other’s company and were urged by “Old Hickory” to contests of running, jumping and pony races. However, General Jackson discouraged wrestling, which could lead to a fight. Jeff was to learn later that Old Hickory was famous for vivid profanity, but during this stay the lad was impressed by General Jackson’s propriety, his saying of grace at meals, and his “unaffected and well-bred courtesy.” The experience was so enjoyed by the travelers and the gracious Rachel and Andrew Jackson that the brief stay stretched to two weeks. Jefferson Davis marked this experience as one of the very most important of his life. He had met the day’s leading hero and the future President of the United States.
Jefferson Davis enjoyed his education at St. Thomas and it stood him in good stead. The British-born friars offered excellent education in English and Latin. He was so impressed with the dedication of the Dominicans that at one point he determined to be instructed so as to become Catholic. The members of the order gently suggested that he might wish to wait for such a momentous step. He did decide to wait and some years later severed his Baptist ties to become Episcopalian.
By the time Jeff had reached age ten, his mother insisted that he come home. Upon his return and as Jeff’s carriage neared his home, he asked to be allowed to walk the rest of the way, thinking to play a prank on whomever he encountered. His mother was sitting on the family’s porch. Jeff, having put on some inches since he left home, called out, asking if anyone had seen any stray horses in the area. His mother responded, “No, but I have spotted a stray boy!” She flew to him with great joy.
By the time he was 13, Jeff was considered ready for college. Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky was an excellent school with an enrollment larger than Harvard’s. When Jeff’s namesake became discouraged in the founding of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson counseled, “We must send our children for education to Transylvania (Kentucky) or Cambridge (Harvard). The latter will return them to us as fanatics and tories, and the former will keep them to add to their population.” He preferred Kentucky over any other state, ”because she has more flavor of the old cask than any other state.” (Of course, Jefferson had not been afforded the joys of Tennessee Jack Daniel’s at that time.) Jeff Davis distinguished himself at Transylvania. At the commencement in 1824, Jeff gave an address on “Friendship” that the local newspapers praised, reporting that Davis’s “On Friendship” made friends of the hearers.
While Jeff was at Transylvania, he received word that his father had had financial reverses and had lost most of his holdings. His father died soon after. Three days after his father’s death, Jeff accepted an appointment as a cadet at the United States Military Academy.
West Point and Military Service
The career of Jefferson Davis at West Point was not that of a distinguished cadet. He had a number of demerits for absence after hours, revels in the local tap rooms and the playing of practical pranks. It is noteworthy that the cadet to whom Davis was to be commander-in-chief in later years had gone through West Point with not a single demerit. His name? Robert E. Lee.
In 1832 Lieutenant Jeff Davis had been assigned to western Illinois, where troubles with Native Americans were requiring the presence of army troops. The famous chief Black Hawk was having his realm shrunk, his grounds diminished, and the cagey, crafty leader would occasionally raid settlements in order to feed his people. Jeff felt some sympathy for the chief because of regular encroachment on Indian lands by settlers. When word spread that Black Hawk had sought the help of the British in Canada and was brandishing a British flag, Illinois sent militia to northwestern Illinois in a call to arms. One young Illinois’ captain (with no military experience and who had to borrow a horse to go to war) led his troops in a difficult crossing of the Henderson River. Despite Colonel Zachary Taylor’s order against the unnecessary firing of arms, the militiamen, by way of celebration of the river’s crossing, began wanton firing of weapons. The young captain was subjected to minor disgrace and made to wear a wooden sword. Less than a month later, some of this very captain’s men broke into an officer’s quarters, making off with four bucketsful of whiskey, and became too drunk to follow marching orders the next morning. As poet Carl Sandburg tells us, the captain was again sentenced to wear the wooden sword for two days. The captain was Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson Davis, although assigned to this area, was on extended leave in Mississippi at the time, returning approximately a month and a half later. At that time Black Hawk, despite masterful tactics and maneuvers, had suffered a massacre of his people at a little river called Bad Axe.
On August 27, 1832, Jeff saw Black Hawk brought in before Colonel Zachary Taylor. The old Indian wore a resplendent suit of white deerskins, and his prominent Roman nose gave his face distinction. Jefferson Davis took charge of Black Hawk and forty other prisoners. Hudson Strode tells us in his biography:
“As Lieutenant Davis proceeded down the river with his famous prisoner of war, he treated the Indian “with all the consideration and courtesy due a fallen warlord.” Black Hawk later wrote in his memoirs, “(We were) under the charge of a young war chief, who treated us all with much kindness. He is a good and brave young chief with whose conduct I was very much pleased (and this is the beginning of COINCIDENCE, 2!) Black Hawk continues “….people crowded around our boat to see us, but the war chief would not permit them to enter the apartment where we were, KNOWING WHAT HIS FEELINGS WOULD HAVE BEEN IF HE HAD BEEN PLACED IN A SIMILAR SITUATION, THAT WE DID NOT WISH A GAPING CROWD AROUND US.” COINCIDENCE 2 is completed toward the end of this account.
While serving in the Midwest area, Jeff became enamored of the beautiful daughter of the colonel commanding his unit. Jeff requested the hand of the colonel’s daughter, Knox, whose portraits disclose a beautiful girl. The colonel wanted no part of a son-in-law who was likely to make a career of the military, and refused to give his blessing. Jeff was totally smitten, writing to her, “By my dreams I have been lately almost crazed, for they were of you.” So ardent was his love that he resigned his commission and the couple were married in Louisville, Kentucky, at the home of the bride’s aunt, without the presence of or the blessing of the marriage by her father, but with his consent. The newlyweds were given by Jeff’s brother an 800 acre plantation in Davis Bend, Mississippi. Before the first crop, however, Jefferson Davis became ill with malaria, and Knox became ill the following day. At first it appeared that the young husband’s illness was more severe than his wife’s, but her fever spiked sharply and, when Jeff was helped into her room, he held her. She died in his arms.
This, then is COINCIDENCE #3. Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederate States of America, was married to Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor, future and twelfth President of the United States of America.
Politics and Government Service
In 1845, Davis was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He did not act as a freshman representative, going headlong into speeches in the House. After one address to his colleagues, he was offered fulsome congratulations by former President of the United States, John Quincy Adams. To others the former Executive said, “…that gentleman is no ordinary man. He will make his mark yet, mind me.” However, Jeff resigned his seat to fight in the Mexican War under the command, again, of Zachary Taylor. Jeff, now a colonel, distinguished himself as war hero, when the unit he led saved the day at Buena Vista. Having formed his troops into a unique V formation that fit the terrain, he strengthened his unit and broke the back of an outnumbering Mexican cavalry charge. Zachary Taylor, a general by this time, is reported to have said to Colonel Davis after the battle of Buena Vista, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”
Within sixty days of that battle the governor of Mississippi had appointed Jefferson Davis to the United States Senate. There Jeff fought hard for expansion of slavery into the western territories. He lost in this fight and resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate to oppose a long-time enemy, who was sympathetic to the Union, in a race for Governor of Mississippi. Jefferson Davis suffered a devastating loss. He was through, he thought, and came home to plant cotton.
Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire was elected President of the United States. He had admired Jefferson Davis and selected the Mississippian to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of War. As Shelby Foote observes in his Civil War Narrative, “Whatever his reasons, Pierce chose well. Davis made perhaps the best Secretary of War the country ever had. He strengthened the army, renovated the Military Academy and came out strong for a Pacific Railway through Memphis or Vicksburg, financed by federal appropriation.” He no longer seemed to champion secession, but believed (things) might best be accomplished within the union.
Franklin Pierce had attended Bowdoin College in Maine. Bowdoin was a prime center of learning and had as alumni Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jeff was a popular speaker in Maine, whose message was one of preference for national union. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree by Bowdoin
College. But he was roundly assaulted by strong southern states’ rights advocates, who felt that his conciliatory messages weakened Southern resolve.
When Jefferson Davis bid his colleagues in the United States Senate goodbye, because Mississippi had seceded from the Union, his speech was passionate with disappointment that Americans were splitting their bonds. “I see now around me some with whom I have served long. There have been points of collision, but whatever of offense there has been to me, I leave here. I carry with me no hostile remembrance.”
He stressed that secession did not signify enmity. To those with whom he had sharply disagreed in the Senate, “I now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well.” Jefferson Davis sat. He put his head in his hands. Writes Shelby Foote, “Some in the gallery claimed his shoulders shook. He was weeping, they said.”
But the carnage came. His government fell. Jefferson Davis was arrested and taken to Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he suffered the humiliation of being shackled with ball and chain. Now, here is the conclusion of Coincidence TWO. Hudson Strode says, “Black Hawk was transferred to Fortress Monroe in Virginia, where three decades later, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was displayed to jeering crowds.” The President of the Confederate States of America was made to suffer the very humiliation that Black Hawk was spared, due to the compassion and decency of that very President.
Jefferson Davis shed his share of tears. The loss of his beloved Knox had been devastating. He was fortunate to meet and marry a worthy and comforting helpmate in Varina Davis. But another familiar, but disastrous loss came to him in October, 1878. The loss was once more the result of the bite of a mosquito. His son, Jeff, Jr., became the fatal victim, but not in Louisiana or Mississippi and not of malaria. He died in Memphis of yellow fever.
At age 80, Jefferson Davis must have been immensely gratified and refreshed to learn from Bowdoin College, that despite efforts to nullify it or to withdraw it, his honorary degree from Bowdoin was still intact and in good standing.
On occasion I have thought that the high drama in the life of Jefferson Davis could be the subject of a musical on the order of “Les Miserables.” Here was a man of extraordinary talent and his share of foibles, caught in the sweep of history, having been born in a log cabin in Kentucky, as was caught in that mighty sweep another man of considerable talent and foibles, born less than one hundred miles away and one year later.
The title of the musical might be, “March to Autumn.
Cooper, William J., Jr., Jefferson Davis, American, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000
Davis, William C., Jefferson Davis, The Man and His Hour, Harper Collins, 1991
Eaton, Clement, Jefferson Davis, The Free Press, New York, 1977
Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, Fredericksburg to Meridian, Random House, New York, 1963
Merriam Webster’s Biographical Dictionary
Strode, Hudson, Jefferson Davis, American Patriot, 1808 – 1861, Harcourt Brace and World, Inc., 1955.