Jefferson Davis, Statesman (Part 4)

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Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Not All Warriors: 19th Century West Pointers Who Gained Fame in Other Than Military Fields, by William Baumer, Jr. (published 1941).

(Continued from Part 3)

In the spring of 1863 Davis’s problem of continuing the war on two military fronts necessitated a reappraisal of the military policies concerning them. The Mississippi was of vital necessity to the South as its loss meant the splitting off of three states and the deprivation of men and supplies. The question arose as to whether the main effort of the Confederacy should have as its objective the saving of the Mississippi with its fortress at Vicksburg. Other Southerners saw the major policy as an invasion of the North, following up the victory at Chancellorsville. In men and munitions the South’s strength was sorely strained and only in success lay the hope of a favorable peace. While pondering the problem as to whether Lee in the East or Joe Johnston in the West would make the great effort to save the Confederacy, Davis left the army at rest. He was quite ill and conferences were often held at his home. Lee had put forward his idea of an invasion toward Gettysburg and a conference was held on May 15. The meeting hinged on whether aid should go to the Mississippi, or whether the North should be invaded. Davis deferred to Lee’s plan, abandoning his own program for detaching troops from the Army of Northern Virginia to relieve Vicksburg. True enough, a few men were sent from Beauregard in Charleston and a few from Alabama to the army in the West. Maurice said that in June Davis was eager to give Lee greater powers, but did not know how to accomplish his purpose. He proposed to place him in command of all troops in the East but Lee rightly said that he could not operate in such a manner. Realizing the President’s need, Lee might at this time have proposed his own advancement to Commander-in-Chief, the position that Davis gave to him later in the war. Lee made his preparations for invasion, hinging his success upon encouragement from the “rising peace party in the North.” Maurice stated succinctly: “The President’s confidence in Lee made him approve the plan for the invasion of Pennsylvania, but he never seemed to have grasped that this was the Confederacy’s last throw for victory, and he did not give Lee the support which the army of Northern Virginia might have received…”

In the meantime Davis wrote to Lee about his troubles in Mississippi and other points and said that General J. E. Johnston did not, as Lee thought advisable, attack Grant promptly while he was investing Vicksburg. Davis, fearing the result would be as Lee anticipated, expended effort there equal to his furtherance of Lee’s invasion of the North. Davis telegraphed to General Pemberton “to hold both Vicksburg and Fort Hudson as it is necessary to our connection with trans-Mississippi.” At the same time he wrote to his older brother Joseph, an apology for the slowness of his generals in the West. Davis felt that he was not getting cooperation from “bald, quiet Joe Johnston, little Scotch dominie of a General.”

As a result he detailed instructions to him, commanding that with Pemberton he should join forces, as that would be the only means of saving Vicksburg. Johnston replied that he was cut off from Pemberton, and Davis said sadly that he had moved too late, though he did not accept Joe Johnston’s excuses. History was now in the making, for Vicksburg and Gettysburg fell within three days of each other, two fatal blows to the Confederacy.

The great strain of working out the decision to invade the North while leaving Vicksburg insufficiently guarded proved too much for Davis’s health. But greater than physical pain was the intellectual defeat, for he felt that, “He had not de vised a means to win his Congress, his military men or his people.” Lee too, had given his all and in a letter a month later, thanked Davis for his help and asked that he be allowed to resign so that someone else might take his place. Davis in reply admitted the propriety of Lee’s conclusion, which was similar to Albert Sidney Johnston’s, that a military leader who had lost the confidence of troops and nation should be relieved, but the Confederate head asked quite rightly where he could find a new Commander of greater ability.

The focus of battle moved to the mid-section in eastern Tennessee, where Bragg with Longstreet alongside fought the great battle of Chickamauga. Though the Confederate troops were near to victory, the Union General Thomas, called the “Rock of Chickamauga,” overcame the great Southern drive. Bragg was thereupon removed from command and even Davis’s loyal support gave way “for the good of the service.” On October 14, a few weeks after the battle, Davis thanked the Army of Tennessee for its glorious victory, and though he had removed Bragg, he staunchly stood by General Pemberton. Jefferson Davis had a loyalty to his subordinates, whether Pemberton or Bragg. He had made an attempt to save Bragg by visiting his camp a month before the battle of Chickamauga, on Missionary Ridge. But this only brought further criticism of Bragg. Unfortunately he had never elicited confidence from his subordinates and eventually had to be re moved. Davis “took him upstairs” to Richmond as military advisor for the South’s military efforts. With these actions the year came to a close with the South facing only sadder days.


With the arrival of the new year, Davis still insisted that the South might win. He held to his slavery theories and continued his leadership of the Army and Navy. On January 9, 1864, he warned General Maury, General Joseph E. Johnston, and General Leonidas Polk of his Western army that “Admiral Farragut is preparing to attack Mobile, and will try to rush by the Forts as was done at New Orleans.” By springtime Davis was concerned over General Johnston’s detailed plan for the operations of the Army of Tennessee. General Pendleton, who had been dispatched by the Confederate President on a mission to Johnston, found that the latter was bent on moving into Tennessee. Davis soon received news which showed the error of Pendleton’s report. The enemy began its advance in May and General Johnston began retreating “until he was finally brought to the suburbs of Atlanta.” Convinced that Johnston intended to give up Atlanta without a battle, Davis relieved him of command. Meanwhile the military situation nearer Richmond was as grave. Efforts were made to induce Davis to arm the slaves as soldiers, but he refused such a plan. Again it was the old states’ rights doctrine which hampered Davis, for he insisted that the states alone had the right to control slavery. Upon questioning by General Polk as to how to deal with captured negro soldiers of the Union Army, Davis answered: “If the negro soldiers are escaped slaves, they should be held safely for recovery by their owner. If otherwise, inform me.”

That Jefferson Davis was the cement holding the Confederacy together, was amply illustrated by the testimony of two Union envoys sent by Lincoln to Richmond. Davis, during their conversation, asserted that peace could be gained if the South were given self-government. Furthermore, Davis refuted their argument that the majority ruled, averring that history has never proved any such theory. The two Federals, when reporting to Lincoln, stated that “Davis was the power which held the Confederacy to its hard task of unequal warfare. There can be no peace so long as Mr. Davis controls the South. Ignoring slavery, he himself states the issue — Union or Disunion.”

The Northern armies under Grant were twenty-five miles from Richmond in the siege of Petersburg in June. Tired of his administrative details, Davis found a certain relief in daily visits to Lee. Here again he was the soldier and in Lee saw the centering of command faculties which brought decision. Events continued to go badly in the South as Sherman forged ahead in his long march to the sea.

Though Davis knew Johnston was an able general he could not as usual bring himself to agree on continued retreat. As soon as he learned that Johnston intended to surrender Atlanta, Davis consulted Lee about his removal, naming Hood as the substitute. Lee, as usual, refused to take the decision from Davis, and reminded: “It is a grievous thing to change the commander of an army…if Johnston abandons Atlanta, I suppose he will fall back on Augusta. This loses us Mississippi and communication with trans-Mississippi… Hood is a good fighter, …I have a high opinion of his gallantry, earnestness, and zeal. General Hardee has more experience in managing an army.” The removal of the Scotch dominie General became a matter of bitter controversy. The removal of Johnston pleased only the Northern Commanders. Johnston defended himself in a series of articles long after the war, claiming that Davis knew nothing of the terrain nor the situation confronting the Army before Atlanta.

After Hood had been defeated at Atlanta, giving up the city to Sherman, Davis in a hurried visit addressed the army. With its resolution revived, Hood led it off to cut Sherman’s communications. Continuing on a tour of the South, Jefferson Davis tried his voice on the people of Georgia. Though severely denounced for Hood’s failure the stubborn President could still say at Macon “that the cause was not lost.”

Back in Richmond the pressure of defeat continued. Farragut’s ships had shattered the defenses of Mobile; Thomas had defeated Hood at Nashville; and Sherman had reached the sea.


By March of 1865 the bill authorizing 300,000 negro troops was passed by the Confederate Congress despite the infringement of States’ Rights. Furthermore, Davis had lost his slight hold on Congress. Again and again his favored measures were defeated. The criticism of Davis and the blame for the fall of Atlanta continued in increasing volume. The determination of Congress to compromise his military direction brought in a bill for the selection of a General-in-Chief. Prior to the passage of the bill. Davis took the power into his own hands, giving the supreme military command to General Lee, and again appointing Johnston to head the Army of the West. But it was too late.

Soon after his appointment as General-in-Chief, Lee found himself in a pincers between Sherman’s army marching north and Grant’s army moving south. Evacuation of Richmond was necessary. Davis did not argue with Lee about retreat but impressed upon the military leader that “faith in the possibility was still winning our independence…” Having removed his family from Richmond, Davis awaited the inevitable. The President was apprised of the desperate situation around Richmond while attending church one Sunday. With quiet dignity he left the edifice and walked to his office, where he directed the removal of the Government to Danville. Despite the pressure of administrative duties, Davis still found time to write Lee warning that Sherman, according to rumor, was coming to Danville for a troop concentration.

Simultaneously Lee was preparing for surrender at Appomattox. When news of the surrender on Palm Sunday reached Davis, he moved quickly to Greensboro, North Carolina. While fleeing, he wired General Johnston to bring his army there. On April 15, he met Johnston and Beauregard in secret. Knowing that Federal cavalry were near, Davis planned to take the remnants of the army and the remainder of the Confederate treasury to Texas where he intended to continue the fight. Upon being asked his views of the war by Davis, General Joseph E. Johnston said: “Our people are tired of the war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight.” Accounting the odds against them and noting the increased desertion among his men, Johnston completed his bitter remarks. After General Beauregard had concurred in his brother officer’s statement Davis asked Johnston what he proposed. Johnston, contrary to the opinion held by Davis, claimed that Sherman would treat with him for a peaceful surrender. Without waiting to learn of Johnston’s conclusion of the proposed agreement between himself and Sherman, Davis left to search for his wife and family before continuing his journey to Texas.

The death of Lincoln had put a different light on the status of the head of the Confederate States. Davis had received a letter from his wife stating her plans for flight. In addition she brought to him the great strength and confidence which he needed at this time. She stated simply: “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, have been the only beneficiary of them. Now I am but claiming the privilege for the first time of being all to you…” At Washington, Georgia, — the proposed meeting place — Davis with his few traveling companions found that Mrs. Davis had become alarmed and moved on. Though catastrophe had befallen Davis he had no idea that President Andrew Johnson had issued a proclamation offering $100,000 reward for his arrest, presumably because evidence had been uncovered connecting the Southern leaders with the atrocious murder of Abraham Lincoln.

A few days later Davis caught up with his wife’s party and they traveled on together. Federal troops seemed all about but Davis insisted on continuing the journey to Texas until actually confronted by a Northern trooper who covered Davis with his carbine.

He learned for the first time of the price on his head. He was brought to Macon, Georgia, and delivered to General Wilson, who had been a cadet at West Point when Davis was Secretary of War. Wilson stated that however petulant Davis may have been when captured, he had regained composure when delivered to him. The Confederate head spoke kindly of his old West Point friend, and feelingly of Lee. He also referred to Mr. Lincoln with “respect and kindness.” By ship Davis was next conveyed to Fortress Monroe for imprisonment.

McElroy, in his biography of Davis, rightly called him the “scapegoat.” Charles A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, was present to see that the confinement order was carried out in full. He reported that Davis “bore himself with a haughty attitude…his features were composed and his step firm.” Furthermore, Dana reported that the prisoners were secure because each one, Davis and Clay, occupied inner casemate rooms with heavily barred windows. Besides, a sentry in front of the door and an officer had the duty of checking each prisoner every 15 minutes. Davis, with indomitable spirit, settled down to two years of prison life and took not too kindly to the treatment of his jailers. When at first Jefferson Davis asked a sentry which way the embrasure faced he received no answer; nor was any answer forthcoming upon repeated questioning. Then it was said Davis threw up his hands and his bitter laugh echoed: “I wish my men could have been taught your discipline!” Dr. John J. Craven, in his book The Prison Life of Jefferson Davis, spoke highly of Davis’s conduct, and said that the iron shackles were a severe trial. The prisoner refused to believe that there were orders placing him in irons. He called for the Commanding Officer, Major General Sherman Miles, but the sentry only answered, “Those are my orders.” About this time, Dr. Craven was called in upon an illness of Davis. The prisoner asked for tobacco and also asked of the officer of the day whether the Secretary of War or General Miles had put him in irons. Davis calmed as he smoked his meerschaum, evincing only by his smile that the deprivation of tobacco had been a severe cause for complaint. Even when he complained that the sentry’s walk disturbed his thoughts he added cheerfully “that it was by this — touching his pipe — he hoped to become tranquil.” Meanwhile Mrs. Davis appealed to Horace Greeley, the famed New York City newspaper publisher, asking that he attempt to gain an early trial for her husband. Judge Shea of New York was unwilling to set an early trial unless satisfied that the charge against Davis of starvation of and cruelty to Northern prisoners was untrue. As the Confederate records were in Canada, Judge Shea visited Montreal and there convinced himself that Davis was guiltless of “indifference to the welfare of prisoners.” Greeley gave considerable time to securing an early trial. O’Connor, a prominent lawyer of New York, volunteered his services as defense counsel.

Congress, in the following year, appointed a committee to discover the facts in Davis’s case, and to “recommend his trial by a commission or the courts.” Mrs. Davis was attempting to gain mercy from President Johnson until justice was brought to her husband; and Greeley was using all his influence to bring about a speedy trial. Jefferson Davis was never tried by any court and yet was released in 1867, nearly two years after his incarceration. Out on bail, Davis moved to Canada but the climate was too severe for his weakened condition. Leaving the fishing and the many Southern refugees, he returned to his plantation, to find it a neglected, pillaged estate. For a time, owing to the generous people of Memphis, he was President of the Southern Life Insurance Company. He declined the honorarium of a house for his services and maintained his independence of spirit. The company failed to prosper and Davis wound up its affairs with heavy losses to himself and stock holders. Returning again to Mississippi he spent his time quietly preparing himself for the distasteful task of writing his great apologia, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. As the years passed he encountered less and less criticism of his Presidency and the people of the South began to look upon him as an elder statesman. Rather bitterly he lived out four score years. His sons had died and though his daughters and wife lived on they were ill much of the time.

Davis had never been pardoned as Lee had been nor was his citizenship recognized. Nevertheless on several occasions he spoke out disparagingly of the Federal Government. In an address to the Army of Tennessee he said that he could not praise President Hayes who had removed the Federal troops from the South, because he regarded him as “an usurper, never lawfully chosen President…” General Johnston, too, had kept up the old controversy over his removals by Davis from military command, emphasizing their unreasonableness so that Davis felt called upon finally to answer him. The ex-President’s words were not calculated to bring reconciliation with his former West Point schoolmate. At his home in Beauvoir, Mississippi, Davis, with grief and the “storm of calumny” about him, wrote his Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Stricken with bronchitis he sank rapidly in December, 1889, dying in New Orleans. In 1893 the body was taken to Richmond, where services were held at the old Confederate Capitol, before he was laid to rest in Hollywood Cemetery on the banks of the James. Since that day Davis has consistently gained stature as a high-principled political soldier who followed a lost cause with unswerving faith.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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