For a man with lifelong poor health, Jefferson Davis managed to live till eighty-one.
The Three Careers of Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was a quintessential Southerner of the early nineteenth century: one who easily and capably gravitated into three distinct careers. West Point trained, he was a capable and effective army officer. Had he not been elected President of the Confederate States of America, he no doubt would and could have served as a high ranking general for the southern army. His wife Varina later wrote that she believed her husband would have been much happier with a field command than as President of the CSA.
Davis was also a successful planter. Resigning military life in lieu of civilian opportunities for wealth was common. Jefferson Davis’ Brierfield estate, thrived. By the beginning of the Civil War, he was considered one of the wealthiest planters in Mississippi.
Davis easily gravitated to political life, another career common to prosperous Southern gentlemen. His voice was mellifluous in an age where oratory was a career in itself. Elected to Congress in the mid 1840s, his ability to sway an audience was substantial. He was in line to become a spokesman and leader of Southern issues.
The Complex Reputation of Jefferson Davis
No question about it, Jefferson Davis was a difficult man with few close friends. Many people disliked him. Most people respected him, however, and his personal integrity would always be above reproach. No one was harder on Jefferson Davis than he, himself.
What he was not, however, was a rabble-rouser. Despite his close attachment to John C. Calhoun (who died in 1850), Davis was a staunch Unionist. He was opposed to secession and said so many times. It was a sad event for him when Mississippi followed South Carolina out of the Union in 1861. Nevertheless, he believed the states had a “right to secede” and it was this core belief that would sustain him.
Those who knew Davis, realized that he was a man who once he made up his mind, could not be induced to change it. He could never quite understand an “honest difference of opinion.” His unfailing courtesy masqueraded as icy indifference, or perhaps vice versa. This intransigence and cold reserve would prove disastrous both personally and politically. Even though he had been elected CSA President without opposition, by the waning days of the Civil War, half of the South disliked him and/or blamed him for their failures.
Jefferson Davis, Martyr
It may have been Lincoln who was assassinated, and claimed by the ages as our Martyred President, but it is truly Jefferson Davis who had the soul of the martyr.
Captured a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Davis was imprisoned in Fortress Monroe, and put in chains in a damp cell. He was in his late fifties and had been in poor health for decades. He was obviously no threat to anyone, and the chains, while perhaps symbolic, were unnecessary. True to form, he did not complain. It would fall to his wife Varina to campaign for his “humane” treatment, which included allowing her and their baby “Winnie,” less than a year old, to join him for the better part of two years in the casement prison.
Davis was not a man to moan and groan, rather to forebear and suffer in silence. Instead he focused what little energies he had left on finding employment and providing for his still-young family. It would not be easy at his age, his health condition, and his past. He had lost everything – except his dignity.
Resurrection and The Lost Cause
The Civil War was a seminal moment in American history, for both the North and South. Parades were held, books were written, songs were sung, speeches were made, banquets and dinners hosted, military reunions, celebrations and memorial services were scheduled with regularity.
In the South, about a decade and a half after the War had ended, and pockets of strife had either begun to heal or fester, The “Lost Cause” was born. Sociologists and historians simplify it by saying it was the Southern way of promoting the valor, the sacrifice, the bravery and gallantry of their soldiers, and the inner resolve and strength on their homefront. It is as good a way to explain it as any. But in the complexities of human nature, the South needed to believe in something positive, or good, or worthwhile about themselves despite their loss, despite their despair and despite their continued economic struggles.
Thus more parades, more celebrations, more occasions to create reason to cheer themselves. For the soldier, any soldier, any age, battle ranks high in the pinnacles of their lifetime. The bands-of-brotherhood are among the strongest of ties.
Stonewall Jackson-The-Hero was now dead for two decades; General Lee-the-Revered was dead for one. Other generals of lesser note were trotted out from place to place to wave the Stars and Bars, eat barbecue and sip a julep. Then they re-discovered a legitimate “star”: Jefferson Davis, now well into his seventies, white haired, but still straight as an arrow, with his unfailing courtesy (the ice was forgotten) and his overwhelming dignity which never left him.
He was invited to be a guest and to make some appropriate remarks. His oratory was still powerful, and his focus on the valor, the sacrifice, the bravery and gallantry and inner resolve was exactly what his “countrymen” wanted to hear and needed to believe. Now he was invited everywhere, and as long as his health held out, he was happy to go.
He was finally personally popular.
Davis, William C. – The Lost Cause: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy – University Press of Kansas, 1996
Johnson, Clint – Pursuit – Citadel Press, 2008
Swanson, James – Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis – William Morrow, 2010