The American Civil War 150th Anniversary – Davis’s Birthday, 1862

Three generations of the Davis family, late 1880s

Three generations of the Davis family, late 1880s, at Beauvoir, Mississippi. Left to right: Varina Howell Davis Hayes [Webb] (1878-1934), Margaret Davis Hayes, Lucy White Hayes [Young] (1882-1966), Jefferson Davis, unidentified servant, Varina Howell Davis, and Jefferson Davis Hayes (1884-1975), whose name was legally changed to Jefferson Hayes-Davis in 1890. (Library of Congress)

Everybody is a product of their times, and as a late 20th and early 21st century American, I feel uncomfortable about this photograph of three generations in Jefferson Davis’s family.

It may make you feel the same way, and like me, you might find it problematical to say specifically why the image bothers you. Our reasons for discomfort might be totally different, too.

Jefferson Davis still stirs people that way. There are schools, counties and parishes, parks, and highways named after him, and yet no one seems to know who the man actually was. One can fairly easily find Davis biographies that give an overall positive slant or a negative one, and both sorts have truth in them, but who was Jefferson Davis, really?

The biography

The dates are simple and here are just a few of the notable ones, per the timeline at Rice University’s website on Jefferson Davis:

June 3, 1807 or 1808: Born in Christian County at a site that’s now in Fairview, Kentucky.

July 1, 1828: Graduates from West Point.

November 4, 1845: First elected to Congress from Mississippi.

February 23, 1847:
Wounded during the Mexican War.

March 7, 1853: Becomes US Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce.

February 18, 1861: Inaugurated as provisional president of the Confederate States of America.

May 6, 1862: Baptized into the Episcopal Church.

May 22, 1865: Incarcerated at Fort Monroe.

April 8, 1869:
Attends the enthronement of the Bishop of London Bishop at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

November 20, 1869:
Elected president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company (and resigns in 1873)

February 19, 1879: Agrees to buy Beauvoir on the Mississippi Coast (where the above picture was taken, years later).

December 11, 1889: Funeral and internment in New Orleans.

May 27, 1893: Body is removed from the vault at Metairie Cemetery to be reburied in Richmond.

May 28, 1893: Funeral train leaves New Orleans en route to Richmond.

May 29, 1893: Body lies in state in the Alabama and Georgia capitols; and in Raleigh the following day.

May 31, 1893: Body arrives in Richmond where 75,000 people witness the procession to Hollywood Cemetery where body buried after a 21-gun salute.

These dates tell us little of the actual man, though. What were his thoughts? How did he act on them, and why?

When I tried to research the highlights of his life directly for this post, I kept getting distracted by other interesting things like his paternal grandparent’s service in the American Revolution; his education; the Egg Nog riot at West Point; Davis’s military service; his connections with or campaigning for men – Zachary Taylor, James Polk and Franklin Pierce – who would be US presidents; and other aspects of his social, political and military careers. This was all before the Confederacy even began. It just got more complicated after that.

In his early years, Jefferson Davis seems to have turned up incidentally at most of the exceptional times in early 19th century America. Later, as a politician he would, of course, have more say in the direction of his career, but he still often seemed to be at the leading edge of current events and not always intentionally. In contrast, Abraham Lincoln was born on the periphery and only through his own considerable efforts and ambitions did he become first educated, then prominent, and eventually US president.

Something about Jefferson Davis’s actions and values stirred people strongly. Zachary Taylor, for example, whose daughter married Davis against her father’s will, first liked, then really disliked Davis, but ultimately would say that his daughter had been a better judge of men than he was. Eventually all of America would either worship or revile Jefferson Davis.

It was, Gerald Linderman says in Embattled Courage (see the side bar for a link), “a day of simpler assumptions, when one’s actions were thought to be the direct extension of one’s values.” There was something about the man that we today find difficult to comprehend: he served, perhaps, as a catalyst and was, as well, a natural focus of attention.

The leadership part was only incidental (after his early military career); perhaps that is precisely why so many independent-minded Americans were moved to give Davis their allegiance and to put their future in his hands. He seemed the opposite of a George III – or a Lincoln. The result radically altered the path of American history up to that point, and afterwards, became so much a part of American life that traces of the great times are constantly being discovered by new generations today.

For example, thanks to the mobile and highly technological society that America is today, this former New Englander/New Yorker found herself in West Central Alabama during that historic 2005 hurricane season. When I could get back on the Internet after the loss of power and other disruptions that Katrina caused when it passed over us, one of the first Associated Press stories I read said that Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s home on the Mississippi coast during the later years of his life, had sustained damage, but that the folded Confederate flag that was draped over his statue’s arm there had not been moved out of place during the storm.

It was a surprisingly good piece of news to me that day, not because I’m a believer in the Lost Cause (I’m not), nor because my ancestors fought for the Confederacy during the war (as an adoptee, I don’t know where they were or what side[s] they took in the War Between the States), but just because.

The Confederacy, the war, the difficult times and slow healing afterwards – it all happened, and Jefferson Davis, as Confederate president, is perhaps the predominant symbol of it, although after the war, for a time, General Lee was held foremost in the public’s affections. Modern America was born out of that crucible. We are all glad not to have lived through the entirety of those times, but let’s face it: many of us have our favorite points somewhere between secession and Appomattox Courthouse where we would very much have wanted to be present.

We would be greatly diminished if any of that were taken away forever. It is important that we always remember the horrors and the other ugly realities, but equally so, may the heroes on both sides stand forever in the positions the struggles gave them in American history – and their flags, too!


I have given up any idea of trying to do a traditional biography of him this year. However, the television documentary “Jefferson Davis: An American President,” sounds like it might be the short, fairly objective biography of Jefferson Davis that is sorely needed. (Of note, someone wisely recommended Shelby Foote’s three-volume series on the Civil War to me when I inquired about this, but I am saving that for later on, after April 2015 when this introductory Civil War series is over – it’s really just note taking, after all – and the time comes to look at things in depth.)

Insightful glimpses

Jefferson Davis had an ability to distill the essence of situations and ideas. For example, in volume II of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Davis neatly described the May 31-June 1, 1862, battlefield and the disposition of both Union and Confederate troops in one paragraph:

The Chickahominy … is a deep, sluggish, and narrow river, bordered by marshes, and covered with tangled wood. The line of battle extended along the Nine-mile road, across the York River Railroad and Williamsburg stage-road. The enemy had constructed redoubts, with long lines of rifle-pits covered by abatis, from below Bottom’s Bridge to within less than two miles of New Bridge, and had constructed bridges to connect his forces on the north and south sides of the Chickahominy. The left of his forces, on the south side, was thrown forward from the rear; the right was on its bank, and covered by its slope. Our main force was on the right flank of our position, extending on both sides of the Williamsburg road, near to its intersection with the Nine-mile road. This wing consisted of Hill’s, Huger’s, and Longstreet’s divisions, with light batteries, and a small force of cavalry; the division of General O. W. Smith, less Hood’s brigade ordered to the right, formed the left wing, and its position was on the Nine-mile road. There were small tracts of cleared land, but most of the ground was wooded, and much of it so covered with water as to seriously embarrass the movements of troops.

You have to read multiple descriptions of the chaotic Seven Pines/Fair Oaks battle to appreciate just how simple and elegant Davis’s words here are.

Davis also succinctly put into words, during his farewell speech to the US Senate in 1861, the principle that the South was fighting for. Other men, Alexander Stephens, for instance, also discussed it, but I was impressed by the way Jefferson Davis summed it up:

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi to her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. That Declaration of Independence is to be construed by the circumstances and purposes for which it was made. The communities were declaring their independence; the people of those communities were asserting that no man was born—to use the language of Mr. Jefferson—booted and spurred to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal—meaning the men of the political community; that there was no divine right to rule; that no man inherited the right to govern; that there were no classes by which power and place descended to families, but that all stations were equally within the grasp of each member of the body politic. These were the great principles they announced; these were the purposes for which they made their declaration; these were the ends to which their enunciation was directed. They have no reference to the slave; else, how happened it that among the items of arraignment made against George III was that he endeavored to do just what the North has been endeavoring of late to do – to stir up insurrection among our slaves? Had the Declaration announced that the negroes were free and equal, how was the Prince to be arraigned for stirring up insurrection among them? And how was this to be enumerated among the high crimes which caused the colonies to sever their connection with the mother country? When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable, for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men—not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three-fifths.

Today we “know” he was wrong, but only because – as I see it now, anyway – no one, North or South, was interested in uncovering the objective verdict of history on the revolution, threescore and 18 years previously, that had founded the United States of America. I think the Civil War was a clash over two different visions of why the American Revolution had been fought and won.

Jefferson Davis’s side lost.

If Sidney Johnston hadn’t been killed at Shiloh and had instead routed Grant, Sherman, and the others, leading tens of thousands of Confederates to the Tennessee River and beyond; if Joe Johnston had led the Army of Northern Virginia to unequivocally drive McClellan’s forces away from Richmond in that May 31-June 1 battle and immediately thereafter right off the peninsula and back to Washington; if all the “if’s” had worked out and the South had indeed won its independence, with all that would have implied for the future – what would we “know” today, I wonder.


People were wrong and right back then, just as people are today. We moderns, though, don’t shed blood over our differing views and dreams for this country; in this, we right the worst wrong of the 1860s. However, our troubled racial scene today shows that we are also missing out on the full benefits that could be obtained from the greatest right of those times: the ending of slavery.

We prefer nowadays to walk a bland middle line. A little more passion would be a welcome thing.

Look again at that picture of three generations in the Davis family, for the people in it ultimately called this land home during a span of time that began 24-25 years after the end of the Revolutionary War and went all the way to the year of Super Bowl IX and the release of the Altair 8800 (three years before Jefferson Davis’s citizenship would be restored, effective from Christmas 1868).

All in all, it is quite a momentous image, worth sharing and thinking about on June 3rd, Jefferson Davis’s birthday. It contains the reflection in human eyes of so much American history.

It also reflects the American South with its emphasis on continuity of generations and family closeness, as well as the seemingly universal human need to have “the other” nearby in a position of dependence, even (in this case) when that individual is legally considered free and a whole person, rather than a slave and three-fifths of a human being for the political benefit of her masters. And perhaps it also provides a two-dimensional morality tale, set adrift in time and space, for those of a purely Yankee persuasion.

The truth is so much more complicated all around. And it is the truth, they say, that will set you free.

Who is the man in that picture? Perhaps it would be better to ask who we are today and what really is the nature, the promise, the reality and the future of this country that has passed through many storms in history in order that we may call it home today.

Beauvoir after Hurricane Katrina

Beauvoir in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina (Source: Shawn Rossi at It has since been restored.

Categories: American Civil War

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