The Real Jefferson Davis

The Real Jefferson Davis

Landon Knight
Landon Knight

Author: Knight, Landon
The Real Jefferson Davis



Jefferson Davis
(From a photograph taken in 1865)
The Real
Jefferson Davis

“Where once raged the storm of battle now bloom the gentle flowers of peace, and there where the mockingbird sings her night song to the southern moon, sweetly sleeps the illustrious chieftain whom a nation mourns. Wise in council, valiant in war, he was still greater in peace, and to his noble, unselfish example more than to any other one cause do we owe the indellible inscription over the arch of our union, ‘Esto perpetua.’”
Copyright, 1904,
Battle Creek, Mich.


To My Wife
Is dedicated this little volume in appreciation of that innate sense of justice which has ever loved and followed the right for its own sake.


I Birth and Education 11
II Service in the Army 21
III His Life at Briarfield 29
IV First Appearance in Politics 35
V Enters Mexican War 41
VI The Hero of Buena Vista 45
VII Enters the Senate 49
VIII Becomes Secretary of War 53
IX He Re-enters the Senate 59
X Still Hoped to Save the Union 67
XI President of the Confederacy 75
XII His First Inaugural 79
XIII Delays and Blunders 85
XIV The Bombardment of Sumter 91
XV Conditions in the South 97
XVI The First Battle 101
XVII A Lost Opportunity 105
XVIII The Quarrel with Johnston 111
XIX The Battle of Shiloh 115
XX The Seven Days of Battle 121
XXI Butler’s Infamous Order 28 125
XXII Mental Imperfections 131
XXIII Blunders of the Western Army 135
XXIV Davis and Gettysburg 139
XXV The Chief of a Heroic People 145
XXVI Sherman and Johnston 151
XXVII Mr. Davis’ Humanity 155
XXVIII General Lee’s Surrender 161
XXIX The Capture of Davis 167
XXX A Nation’s Shame 173
XXXI Efforts to Execute Mr. Davis 177
XXXII Indictment of Mr. Davis 183
XXXIII Why Davis Was Not Tried for Treason 187
XXXIV Freedom—Reverses—Beauvoir 193
XXXV Death of Mr. Davis 199



Jefferson Davis Frontispiece
Jefferson Davis’ Birthplace, at Fairview, Ky. 15
Where Jefferson Davis Boarded While in Lexington 17
Transylvania College at Lexington 19
Jefferson Davis at Thirty-five 31
Briarfield, Jefferson Davis’ Home 33
The Room in the Briars in Which Jefferson Davis Was Married 37
General Taylor and Colonel Davis at Monterey 43
The Charge of Colonel Davis’ Regiment at Buena Vista 47
Jefferson Davis as United States Senator in 1847 51
Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War 57
The Capitol at Richmond 77
Interior of Fort Sumter after the Surrender 93
Henry Clay Addressing the Senate on the Missouri Compromise 99
Edward Ruffin 103
Robert Toombs 107
General Joseph E. Johnston 111
Generals Lee, Jackson and Johnston 113
C. G. Memminger 119
The Site of the Prison Camp on the James River Below Richmond 133
On the Field of Cold Harbor Today 137
The Battle of the Crater 143
Mr. and Mrs. Davis in 1863 147
The Davis Children in 1863 153
The Famous Libby Prison as It Appeared at the Close of the War 157
The Surrender of Lee 163
Richmond as Gen. Weitzel Entered It 169
The Davis Mansion 195
The Davis Monument at Richmond 201



For four years Jefferson Davis was the central and most conspicuous figure in the greatest revolution of history. Prior to that time no statesman of his day left a deeper or more permanent impress upon legislation. His achievements alone as Secretary of War entitle him to rank as a benefactor of his country. But notwithstanding all of this he is less understood than any other man in history. This fact induced me a year ago to compile a series of magazine articles which had the single purpose in view of painting the real Jefferson Davis as he was. Of course, the task was a difficult one under any circumstances, and almost an impossible one in the restricted scope of six papers, as it appeared in The Pilgrim. However, the public according to these papers an interest far beyond my expectation, I have decided to revise and publish them in book form.
This work does not attempt an exhaustive treatment of the subject but, as the author has tried faithfully and without prejudice or predilection to paint the soldier, the statesman, the private citizen as he was, he trusts that this little volume may not be unacceptable to those who love the truth for its own sake.
L. K.
Akron, Ohio, Aug. 16, 1904.

The Real Jefferson Davis

I. Birth and Education

Almost four decades have passed since the surrender at Greensboro of Johnston to Sherman finally terminated the most stupendous and sanguinary civil war of history. Few of the great actors in that mighty drama still linger on the world’s stage. But of the living and of the dead, irrespective of whether they wore the blue or the gray, history has, with one exception, delivered her award, which, while it is not free from the blemish of imperfection, is nevertheless, in the main, the verdict by which posterity will abide. The one exception is Jefferson Davis. Why this is so may be explained in a few words.
Occupying, as he did, the most exalted station in the government of the seceding states, he became from the day of his accession to the presidency, the embodiment of two diametrically opposite ideas. The loyal people of the North, disregarding the fact that the Confederacy was a representative government of limited powers, that a regularly elected congress made the laws, often against the judgment of the chief executive, that many of the policies most bitterly condemned by them were inaugurated against his advice, transformed the agent into the principal and visited upon him all of the odium attaching to the government that he represented. Nay, more than this. The bitter passions engendered in the popular mind by the conflict clothed him with responsibility, not only for every obnoxious act of his government, but, forgetful of the history of the fifty years preceding the Civil War, saddled upon him the chief sins of the very genesis of the doctrine of secession itself. Thus confounded with the principles of his government and the policies by which it sought to establish them, the acts for which he may be held justly responsible have been magnified and distorted while the valuable services previously rendered to his country, were forgotten or minimized, and Jefferson Davis as he was disappeared, absorbed, amalgamated, into the selfish arch traitor intent upon the destruction of the Union to gratify his unrighteous ambition.
The masses of the Southern people, on the other hand, holding in proud remembrance the gallant soldier of the Mexican War and deeply appreciative of his able advocacy of principles which they firmly believed to be sacredly just, regarded their chief magistrate as the sublimation of all the virtues inherent in the cause for which they fought. When the Confederacy collapsed, the indignities heaped upon its chief, his long imprisonment and the fact that he alone was selected for perpetual disfranchisement added the martyr’s crown to the halo of the hero, thus creating in the South an almost universal mental attitude of affection and sympathy, which was as fatal to the ascertainment of the exact and unbiased truth of history as were the rancor and bitterness that prevailed at the North. That this prejudice and predilection still exist cannot be doubted. But time has plucked the sting of malice from the one and has dulled the romantic glamor of the other sufficiently to enable us to examine the events that gave birth to both with that calm and dispassionate criticism which subrogates every other consideration to the discovery of truth. I do not underestimate the difficulties that beset the self-imposed task, but to the best of my humble ability and free from every motive except that of portraying the impartial truth, I shall endeavor to delineate the life of the real Jefferson Davis.

Jefferson Davis’ Birthplace, at Fairview, Ky.
Contrary to the belief still somewhat prevalent, Jefferson Davis was not descended from a line of aristocratic progenitors, but sprang from the ranks of that middle class which has produced most of the great men of the world. About the year 1715 three brothers came to this country from Wales, and located in Philadelphia. The younger, Evan Davis, eventually went to the colony of Georgia and there married a widow by the name of Williams. The only child of that union, Samuel Davis, enlisted at the age of seventeen as a private soldier in the War of the Revolution. Later he organized a company of mounted men and at its head participated in most of the battles of the campaign that forced Lord Cornwallis out of the Carolinas. At the close of the war he married Jane Cook, a girl of Scotch-Irish descent, of humble station, but noted for strength of character and great personal beauty, and they settled on a farm near Augusta, Ga. In 1804 Samuel Davis removed with his family to southwestern Kentucky to engage in stock raising and tobacco planting, and there, in a modest farmhouse, which was then in Christian County and not many miles from the cabin where a few months later Abraham Lincoln opened his eyes upon the light of the world, Jefferson Davis was born, June 3, 1808. The spot is now in Todd County, and upon it stands the Baptist church of Fairview. While he was still an infant, the hope of there better providing for a numerous family caused his father to seek a new home on Bayou Teche in Louisiana. The country, however, proved unhealthful, and he remained but a few months. He finally bought a farm near Woodville in Wilkinson County, Miss., where he spent the remainder of his long life, poor, but respected and esteemed as a man of fine sense and sterling character.

Where Jefferson Davis Boarded While in Lexington
Jefferson Davis’ first tuition was at a log schoolhouse, near his home, but the educational advantages of that time and place were so meager that when seven years old he was sent to a Catholic institution known as St. Thomas’ College, and there, under the guidance of that truly good man and priest, Father Wallace, afterward Bishop of Nashville, his education really began. After some years in this school, he entered Transylvania University, at Lexington, Ky., then the principal collegiate institution west of the Alleghanies and famous many years thereafter as the alma mater of a distinguished array of soldiers and statesmen. In November, 1823, when in his senior year at Transylvania, through the efforts of his brother, Joseph Davis, he was appointed by President Monroe a cadet at West Point. The following year he entered that institution and after pursuing the customary course of four years, was graduated in July, 1828, with a very low class standing.

Transylvania College at Lexington
He was then in his twenty-first year. The period in which the principal foundations of character are laid had passed. What this important period of life had developed is, therefore, both interesting and instructive. Fortunately, this information is obtainable through evidence which is conclusive. More than a half score of his classmates at Transylvania and at West Point, who subsequently played important parts in the history of the country, have left us their impressions of Jefferson Davis during that period of his life. This information is supplemented by his instructors at both institutions. All of this testimony was recorded previous to the occurrence of any of the later events in his life which might have biased the judgment, and all of the witnesses corroborate each other. Without entering into any extended discussion of this evidence, we may safely conclude from it that in his youth he was one of those peculiarly normal characters whose well-ordered existence leaves but little material for the biographer. Few inequalities and no excesses are discoverable. He seems to have possessed one of those refined natures that abhor vice and immorality of every kind. While he made no pretensions to piety, and, apparently selected no associations with this view of avoiding contamination, his moral character was without a blemish. Nor was he, as has been represented, haughty, impulsive and domineering, but, on the contrary, his nature seems to have been remarkably gentle and his bearing free from pretensions of every kind. He had opinions, and his convictions were strong, but he neither reached them hastily nor maintained them with arrogance. He was serious, somewhat reserved, always cheerful, sometimes gay. In his manner he was thoroughly democratic, but free from any suggestion of demagoguery. He was slow to anger, easily mollified, without malice and possessed in a remarkable degree that ingenuous and credulous nature which a long and eventful life never impaired and which was responsible, in no small degree, for many of the fatal mistakes of later years. If at this time he possessed any of those mental powers which later in life won the admiration even of his enemies, he gave no indication of the fact. He was an indifferent student, always somewhat deficient in mathematics, and never particularly proficient in any other branch, impressing those who knew him best as an ordinary youth of fair capacity and of about the attainments requisite to pass the examinations.

II. Service in the Army

Thus equipped by nature and education, Jefferson Davis was commissioned, upon leaving West Point, a second lieutenant, and was assigned to duty with the First Regiment of Infantry at Fort Crawford. The life of a second lieutenant on a frontier post in time of peace, unless under exceptional circumstances, is not likely to provide many incidents of a nature to illuminate his character, test his higher capacity or to greatly interest posterity. The circumstances in this case were not exceptional, and during the next seven years there was nothing in the career of Lieutenant Davis worthy of preservation that cannot be recorded in few words. It was the most barren period of his life. At Fort Crawford, at the Galena lead mines and at Winnebago he was employed in the police duty that our army at that time performed on the frontier which consisted chiefly of building forts and trying to preserve the peace between the Indians and encroaching settlers. In the performance of all of the duties to which he was assigned, he acquitted himself creditably and earned the reputation of being a conscientious, intelligent and efficient officer. At one time during this service an opportunity to win distinction seemed imminent. Black Hawk, driven to desperation by the continuous encroachment of the pioneers upon the hunting grounds of his people, formed what was then believed to be a powerful coalition of all of the Indian tribes of the Northwest. But the coalition soon fell to pieces, and the war, with its few slight skirmishes, turned out to be nothing more serious than an Indian raid, which was speedily terminated. An incident happened at the beginning of these troubles which, in the light of subsequent events, is perhaps, worthy of preservation. The governor of Illinois called out the state forces and mobilized them at Dixon. General Scott sent there from Fort Snelling two lieutenants of the regular army to muster them into service. One of them was Lieutenant Davis and the other was the future major who so gallantly sustained the fire of Beauregard’s heavy guns against the old walls of Fort Sumter. Among the captains of the companies to be mustered in was one who was hardly the ideal of a soldierly figure. He was tall, awkward and homely, and was arrayed in a badly fitting suit of blue jeans, garnished with large and resplendent brass buttons. He presented himself and was sworn in and thus probably the first time in his life that Abraham Lincoln ever took the oat

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