This is not the fate to which I invited you when the future was rose-colored for us both.”
Jefferson Davis wrote those words to his wife, Varina, as he sat in a small dark cell in 1865. Only four years earlier he had been acclaimed by his Southern constituents as the first President of the Confederate States of America. What circumstances led to his capture, what were the charges against him which caused his imprisonment, how did the legal case against him proceed, and, how did he spend the rest of his life?
In early April, 1865, the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, was expected to fall to Union troops within weeks, if not days. To protect his wife and children from harm, he directed that a special armed escort accompany her on a journey further south where they might be safe. Davis and his political entourage abandoned the capital few days later on a different course, but with some hope for intersecting with Varina’s group over the next few weeks. Davis was not ready to give up the fight to maintain the Confederate cause, and he planned to re-organize Southern Armies in South Carolina or Georgia. Then later, as he became convinced that the troops in those states could not re-form into an effective fighting force, he decided to head for Texas where a large Confederate Army was still in place.
First, however, he was determined to meet with his wife before he veered further west. Davis and Varina had been able to exchange messages by using dedicated couriers who travelled between the groups; therefore, Davis knew it was only a matter of time before he could meet with his wife, and then they could plan on the safest location for her and the children.
After almost five weeks on the run, on May 9, 1865, their two groups met near Irwinsville, Georgia. There husband and wife retired to a tent, a far cry from the Presidential mansion, or in fact, any of the homes the two had enjoyed throughout their lives. Early the next morning, Union soldiers surrounded the encampment, and an officer yelled for Davis to surrender. His wife later said that he considered trying to escape into the dark woods, but quickly realized the futility of such an attempt. So, in their last private moments, he told his wife that he might be executed on the spot, but believed she would be treated courteously by the Union officers; and then, he surrendered.
He was quickly restrained and moved away from the tent, but was not harmed. And, as he expected, his wife was treated respectfully and informed that her husband was alive; but was a prisoner. Davis was then transported to the federal prison at Fort Monroe in Virginia, where he would await his fate.
And, he would wait for two long years.
The public masses, both north and south, were eager to get any news of the captured Confederate President, and newspapers and pamphleteers rushed copies out, some more than once in a day. Since the Union administration was tight-lipped about his capture, his condition, or the plans for any trial, the papers were full of speculation. Some, in an attempt to damage Davis’s reputation, falsely reported that he had tried to flee his captors disguised in his wife’s clothes.
Davis considered himself a head-of-state and, as such, believed he should have been given a certain degree of respect by his jailers; but he was not. Once he was at Fort Monroe, he again anticipated execution, perhaps after the formality of a quick trial, but he still expected the same result. He was ill, coughed continually, and had little appetite. Understanding the anger in the North towards him, especially considering the assassination of President Lincoln, he assumed his fate was already decided. As the days turned into weeks, he heard nothing from the guards or administrators about a trial, so, he was left to awaken each day not knowing if it might be his last.
At first, he was kept in isolation, but, over time, he was moved to a larger, more comfortable cell, his food improved, he was provided with a bible, and was permitted to write and receive letters. Davis was aware that other confederate officials had also been arrested and imprisoned, including Vice President Alexander Stephens; but they were all released within months. Then, in May 1866, a year after his capture, in a humanitarian gesture never fully explained, his wife and a daughter were permitted to take up residence with Davis in officer’s quarters within the Fort. Their other children were left with relatives in Georgia and later in Canada. For the next year, the prisoner and his family were treated respectfully; but still they were unsure of what would be his fate. Would he continue to be in limbo, or would there be a trial; and, if so, would his sentence be prison or death? It is unlikely that he considered acquittal, or even release on bail, as a possibility.
But, actually, nothing definitive had been decided about Jefferson Davis. The opinions among the leaders of the Federal Government, including President Johnson, and even in the general public, were deeply divided about what to do with their prisoner. Execution was favored by some (of course after a quick trial for history’s sake), others supported a long prison sentence, and some opposed any public trial which would give Davis a forum to argue that secession was legal. In fact, Salmon Chase, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, had already said that, while secessionists committed crimes against federal property, their acts were not treasonous under the Constitution.
In the last year of his incarceration, numerous articles were written which were sympathetic to Davis’s situation, some by Varina, which began to change public opinion in his favor and which caused lawyers and judges to question the legal processes. After two years, and many petitions on his behalf to federal courts and to President Johnson, a judge ruled that Davis was entitled to a bail hearing. Bail was set at $100,000.00 (similar to about $4 million today) and an unusual group combined to sign the bond agreement (meaning they would pay if Davis failed to show for a trial); including Horace Greely and Garret Smith each an avowed Unionist and abolitionist, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, a wealthy northern industrialist. The motives of those who sought Davis’s release were varied but most simply wanted to put the Civil War behind the country and move toward reconciliation of North and South.
By May, 1867, Davis was free on the bail bond, but still under threat of criminal charges. Several motions were made in Federal Court in early 1868 which might have led to a trial, but the impeachment and trial of President Andrew Johnson, which began on February 14 and ended on March 26 (with acquittal) delayed the case. Then, in December 1868, a District Court in Washington DC, which could have heard any trial, requested that the U.S. Supreme Court review the case. On Christmas Day, 1868, President Johnson, fearing that a decision might favor Davis, but also wanting to move on with re-construction without the focus on Davis, issued an unusual pardon for all Confederate officials, specific only to the charge of treason, (leaving them open to other criminal charges) and instructed the Justice Department to drop the treason case against Davis. Over time, Johnson issued full and complete pardons for hundreds of Confederate officials who applied, but Davis refused to request a pardon. After all of that time, there was no trial, no acquittal or conviction, and no pardon; therefore, Davis remained in a type of legal and political no-man’s-land. Some called him a person without a country.
And he was broke!
His plantation in Mississippi, which had been owned by his brother, was in ruins and his investments in Confederate enterprises and bonds were worthless. He needed a job; and fortunately for Davis, there were admirers who were in a position to help.
From 1868 until 1877, Davis was offered several positions with businesses which hoped to gain from an association with him. He was a popular figure in Canada and Great Britain and explored mercantile opportunities there, but nothing seemed to work out; likely because those enterprises needed business from the Northern states, where Davis was not respected. In 1869, he had his best opportunity for a career in business when he became the president of a life insurance company in Memphis; however, that company failed in the 1873 financial panic. Former Confederate officials referred him to opportunities as a college president of the University of the South in Tennessee and at, what is now, Texas A&M, but the salaries for those positions were not sufficient to support his family’s life-style.
Several acquaintances encouraged Davis write his memoirs, but he usually said that he did not feel comfortable writing and that even if he did, he was not sure there was an audience for his message. He did accept a few assignments from periodicals to commemorate specific events, but he considered writing a chore and was usually only paid about $250.00 or less for each article. But by, 1875, Davis was ready to commit to writing a memoir and several factors had caused him to change his mind. He had not been healthy since the start of the Civil War and his two-year imprisonment worsened several chronic conditions. He also realized that his own mortality was on the horizon and he did want to tell his version of history. And, finally, he needed the money.
Writing his memoirs was not a linear task. The process took several twists including a change of publishers but, by 1877, he had developed the outline of what would become a two-volume work. The memoir would cover two basic themes. First, he intended to explain his reasons for the formation of the Confederacy, which was very important to Davis. Second, he would cover his assessment of the battle strategies and the Generals who led the effort, which was not as important to Davis, but was very important to the publishers who thought that would sell more books. Woven through those two themes would be a reverence for the “cause” for which so many Confederates fought (and so many died). In fact, the original working title for the book was Our Cause, but that did not survive early editing.
In 1877, Sarah Anne Dorsey, a wealthy widow who had known Davis for years, invited him to stay at her estate and plantation called Beauvoir, near Biloxi, Mississippi. As a writer herself, Mrs. Dorsey believed that she could help Davis with his memoirs through not only her encouragement, but also her editing and composition skills. Aware of Davis’s dire financial situation, she offered to deed to him a small home on the estate and, when Davis balked at the charitable gesture, agreed to sell him the property for a relatively bargain price and carried back a three-year contract. Then to assure that Davis (and/or his surviving family) would not be financially inconvenienced if she died before him, she left her entire estate to him or, if he died earlier, to his daughter. Some biographers have tried to suggest that Davis and Mrs. Dorsey were more than friends, pointing out that Varina seldom stayed at the estate; however, most historians consider that idle speculation. The fact is that Varina Davis enjoyed a more urban and socially active life-style than was available at Beauvoir (or, for that matter, than would have been enjoyed by her husband). And, it was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that they chose to live apart.
Earlier, Varina had only occasionally resided in Memphis, when her husband worked there at the life insurance company; but instead, she spent long periods in England and travelled throughout Europe as the guest of wealthy friends. Some historians believe that Varina extended her European stay in 1871 for a deeply personal reason. Jefferson Davis had evidently become infatuated with Virginia Clay, the wife of a former Confederate official, and while there is no evidence the two were unfaithful, their conduct was noticed by mutual friends and, as always happens, the gossip reached Varina. Her only public reaction was to simply stay in Europe, and then later in other American cities, and to avoid Memphis; however, we do not know what her private reactions may have been.
In any case, after the Civil War, long separations were the norm for Jefferson Davis and Varina; and both husband and wife seemed to adapt to that style of living arrangement.
By 1881, Davis was again struggling with his memoirs, when an editor, William Tenney, was sent by the publisher to assist Davis. The two men worked well together, which was remarkable since Davis did not usually work well with anyone, and by 1881, the two-volume “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” was published. The book became a mainstay in many Southern households and also sold reasonably well in the Northern states. Also, Mrs. Dorsey had died in 1879, leaving him the Beauvoir estate and several other valuable parcels, and he considered that as home for the rest of his life.
Davis’s money problems were over.
He also found that he enjoyed writing, especially to promote the validity of secession and of the Lost Cause, which was a (flawed) rationale for the formation of the Confederacy. He wrote another book in 1889 called “A Short History of the Confederate States of America” which included additional anecdotes provided by other former Confederate officials. Varina edited a version of that last memoir in 1890.
Davis became gravely ill in November 1889 while on a steamboat on the Mississippi River and intended to return home to Beauvoir. Varina was notified and, concerned about her husband, managed to meet with the riverboat near New Orleans. His doctors, however, deemed him too ill to travel back to his home and he was offered a place to rest and recuperate at the home of a former Confederate officer who lived in New Orleans. He never recovered and died in his host’s home on December 6, 1889. Varina was at his side, holding his hand.
Jefferson Davis was 81 years old.
So, what is Davis’s legacy? It must first be noted that some in the South still believe the Confederate cause was noble, that a state’s right to secede was constitutional, and that Jefferson Davis deserves respect for leading the good fight against overwhelming odds. But, generally, most biographers and Civil War historians have a more nuanced view.
Certainly, for the first fifty years of his life, except for his support of slavery, he had been an exemplary citizen of the United States. He had fought courageously in the Mexican War, had been a U.S. Senator, and even Secretary of War in President Franklin Pierce’s cabinet. He had frequently argued against secession but eventually grew more frustrated with northern pressure to control slavery, which he believed was the rightful privilege for the White aristocracy in the South. But in 1860, he decided to resign from the U.S. Senate and align himself with those who supported secession. For the next five years, he led a war against the United States which caused horrific casualties and destruction, and, as a result, he was considered a traitor to many in the North. And, his overconfidence in his own abilities and unwillingness to delegate, led him to make judgement errors as the chief administrator and the Commander-in Chief while he was the President of the Confederate States of America; which caused criticism even by some Southerners. Most historians further conclude that he was misguided about the constitutionality of secession and that his commitment to slavery tarnished his legacy to those who find human bondage a travesty.
Clearly, as he said in a letter to his wife, Jefferson Davis expected a more “rose-colored” legacy.