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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: A Man of Many Faces-Part II

Jefferson Davis: A Man Without A Country

By Tom Morrow

One of the most complex Americans in history was a soldier, a patriot, a statesman, and then a traitor. Such is a description that would fit Jefferson Davis.

Davis was sworn in as Provisional President of the Confederate States of America on Feb. 18, 1861, on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.

Davis was the first choice because of his strong political and military credentials. He wanted to serve as commander-in-chief of the Confederate armies but said he would serve wherever directed. His wife Varina Davis later wrote that when he received word that he had been chosen as president, “Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family.”

Davis faced the most important decision of his career: to prevent reinforcement at the Union’s Fort Sumter or to let it take place. He and his cabinet decided to demand that the Federal garrison surrender and, if this was refused, to use military force to prevent reinforcement before the fleet arrived. Anderson did not surrender. With Davis’s endorsement, Beauregard began the bombarding of the fort in the early dawn of April 12, beginning hostilities between the North and the South.

When Virginia joined the Confederacy, Davis moved his government to Richmond in May 1861. Davis was elected to a full six-year term on Nov. 6, 1861, and was inaugurated on Feb. 22, 1862.

At the start of the war, nearly 21 million people lived in the North compared to 9 million in the South. While the North’s population almost was entirely white, the South had an enormous number of black slaves and people of color.

Most historians sharply criticize Davis for his flawed military strategy, his selection of friends for military commands, and his neglect of home-front crises. In the end, historians have determined Davis contributed to the South’s defeat.

On April 14, Lincoln was shot, dying the next day. Davis expressed regret at the U.S. President’s death. He later said he believed Lincoln would have been less harsh with the South than his successor, Andrew Johnson. In the aftermath, Johnson issued a $100,000 reward for the capture of Davis and accused him of helping to plan Lincoln’s assassination. As the Confederate military structure fell into disarray, the search for Davis by Union forces intensified.

President Davis met with his Confederate Cabinet for the last time on May 5, 1865, in Washington, Georgia, and officially dissolved the Confederate government. Davis and his wife Varina Davis were captured by Union forces on May 10 at Irwinville. Georgia.

On May 19, 1865, Davis was imprisoned in a casemate at Fortress Monroe on the coast of Virginia. Irons were riveted to his ankles at the order of General Nelson Miles. Davis was allowed no visitors, and no books except the Bible. In 1866, Davis was indicted for treason while imprisoned. Soon after, General Miles was transferred and Davis received better treatment. He was never tried and was released after two years.

In 1881, Davis completed a memoir entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. By the late 1880s, he began to encourage reconciliation, telling Southerners to be loyal to the Union.

On Nov. 6, 1889, Davis left Beauvoir to visit his Brierfield plantation. He embarked on a steamboat in New Orleans during a sleety rain and fell ill during the trip. According to Fenner, just when Davis again appeared to be improving, he lost consciousness on the evening of Dec. 5 and died at 12:45 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 6, 1889.

Although initially laid to rest in New Orleans in the Army of Northern Virginia tomb at Greenwood Cemetery, in 1893 Davis was reinterred in Richmond.

The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library was established at Beauvoir in 1998. For some years, the white-columned Biloxi mansion that was Davis’s final home had served as a Confederate Veterans Home.

The birthday of Jefferson Davis is commemorated in several states as is the birthday of Robert E. Lee in 1973. Finally, a movement arose to restore Jefferson Davis’s U.S. citizenship. This was accomplished with the passing of the U.S. Senate Joint Resolution 16 on Oct. 17, 1978. In signing the law, President Jimmy Carter referred to this as the last act of reconciliation of the Civil War. Ironically, of all the recent protesting of Confederate memorials and statues, little ire has been inferred upon any of Jefferson Davis’ memorials.


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