Saturday, May 9, 2015

Jeff Davis' dilemma: Station wagon or mustang?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fifty years ago, my father burned up the transmission in his 1960 Ford station wagon while hauling five children and a camping trailer up Black Rock Mountain in Rabun County, Georgia. I'm dusting off these memories because of striking similarities to Jefferson Davis' travels on the other end of Georgia 150 years ago. Jeff and Varina Davis also had five children in a wagon, and he could almost smell the Union cavalry burning up the road behind him. —Tom Layton

To outrun the Yankees, Jefferson Davis would have to abandon his children:
Jeff Jr., 8, Maggie, 10, Billy, 4, and Winnie, 1. The Davises also had a foster child,
 Jim, 4, a freed slave who was separated from them after they were captured.
IRWINVILLE, Ga.
     As his family settled into a tent in a pine grove under a full moon on the night of May 9, 1865, Jefferson Finis Davis knew the time had come for him to make an unthinkable choice. He realized he couldn't save both his family and his country. Which way would he go?
     Would Jeff Davis take the station wagon, or a Mustang?

     Clint Johnson explained Davis' dilemma in his book Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution, and Surprising Release of Jefferson Davis:
      Davis was torn between his duty to his family and to his country.
      He knew his aides were correct that the wagons slowed the pace. If he stayed with the wagons, he stood a higher chance of being captured than if he rode ahead by himself. His methodical mind told him that if he could ride alone, he still had a chance of reaching Texas. If he found Taylor and Kirby Smith, then the Confederacy still lived. [Richard Taylor, a Confederate general in Alabama, was the son of former president Zachary Taylor and the brother of Jeff Davis' first wife. Davis had no way of knowing that Gen. Taylor had surrendered May 8. In Texas, Smith surrendered May 26.]
      But the wagons were also the only way Davis' family could escape. The children were too small, too young to ride fast horses. They had no choice but to ride in the slow wagons; leaving deep ruts cut into the mud, an obvious trail that anyone could follow with ease. He had heard the stories that unsavory characters wanted those wagons: Confederates hungry for food, and Federals hungry to bag the president of the Confederacy.
     The mind of Davis, the family man, now battled with the mind of Davis, the man who had sworn to serve the Confederacy.
     What kind of father would abandon his children to an unknown fate just to save himself from capture? What kind of husband would leave his wife armed with a pistol to protect her children while he ran away? But what kind of president would put the safety of his family above the needs of the entire Confederate nation?

     Still, if he left the armed guards with the wagons, allowing them to pose as well-meaning protectors of this refugee family, Varina and the children would be as safe as he could make them. Marauders would probably think carefully before attacking a wagon train protected by more than a dozen rifles. Federals might look at the wagon train, but if they did not find anyone matching Davis' description, they might let it pass. The Federals were looking for him, not his wife and children. As far as Davis knew, the government did not even know that his wife and children were anywhere near him.
     Davis had not worked out exactly what he would do when he went to sleep on the night of May 9. He would make his decision the next day. Three things he did were to stay dressed in his suit, to keep his horse saddled, and to put his pistols loaded in the holsters that were attached to his saddle.
     When Davis awoke at dawn on May 10, his tent was surrounded by Michigan cavalry. At almost the same moment, shooting broke out between Michigan and Wisconsin troops who each thought the other was Confederate. (Two Yankees died in this incident.) In the chaos, on the spur of the moment, Davis decided to abandon both his family and his country and tried to save himself, scurrying toward the woods, possibly accompanied by two women.
     Was the Confederate president disguised as a woman? That's how the northern cartoonists portrayed his capture. Mrs. Davis said she had thrown her raglan over his shoulders and a shawl over his head, though the stories of him wearing a petticoat make no sense if he was trying to escape.
     Gen. James Wilson telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on May 13 to tell him Davis was in custody. "The captors report that he hastily put on one of Mrs. Davis' dresses and started for the woods, closely pursued by our men, who at first thought him a woman, but seeing his boots while running, suspected his sex at once."
      Stanton, who was trying to implicate Davis in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, shared the telegram with the New York Times. Victors write history, and Davis became a laughingstock.
     He wound up being imprisoned for two years but was never charged with treason. President Johnson released him in 1867 as a goodwill gesture toward the South. Davis was reunited with his family and they returned to their homeland.
     Davis' sons all died tragically: Samuel (measles, 1854, age 2), Joseph (fell from a balcony at Confederate White House, 1864, age 5), Billy (diptheria, 1871, age 10) and Jeff Jr. (yellow fever, 1878, age 21). His daughter Maggie gave him four grandchildren. Varina Howell Davis, who was 18 years younger than her husband, outlived him by 17 years.
     Davis spent his last 12 years at Beauvoir, a stately home in Biloxi, Miss., that was nearly destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. One of Davis' great-great-grandsons became executive director of Beauvoir in 2012 but stepped down in 2014 in a dispute with the veterans' association that owns the house. Evidently, he thought it was time to curtail the display of the Confederate flag. They thought that was treasonous.
     Old times there are not forgotten.
     Frank H. Mason, an Ohio cavalryman who had pursued Davis as part of Stoneman's Raid, described him as "the Prince of Traitors" in a story published in the Cleveland Leader three weeks after the capture:
     Jeff Davis enjoys the hatred of the Southern heart. He has failed to please the people or the army. He is now cursed as the agent of their misfortune. Gen. Lee is their admiration, and could have swayed them anywhere. Jeff Davis has lost their entire confidence and incurred displeasure by disregarding their popular will. The Confederate government has never been the embodiment of the Southern purpose.
     Ulysses Grant wrote in his memoirs that President Lincoln would have been content if Davis had escaped the country:
     Mr. Lincoln, I believe, wanted Mr. Davis to escape, because he did not wish to deal with the matter of his punishment. He knew there would be people clamoring for the punishment of the ex-Confederate president, for high treason. He thought blood enough had already been spilled to atone for our wickedness as a nation. At all events he did not wish to be the judge to decide whether more should be shed or not. But his own life was sacrificed at the hands of an assassin before the ex-president of the Confederacy was a prisoner in the hands of the government which he had lent all his talent and all his energies to destroy.
     In 1978, Congress restored Jefferson Davis' U.S. citizenship. President Jimmy Carter, who was born 80 miles from where Davis was captured, said in effect that it was high time for our nation to get over the Civil War. His proclamation: 
     In posthumously restoring the full rights of citizenship to Jefferson Davis, the Congress officially completes the long process of reconciliation that has reunited our people following the tragic conflict between the States. Earlier, he was specifically exempted from resolutions restoring the rights of other officials in the Confederacy. He had served the United States long and honorably as a soldier, member of the U.S. House and Senate, and as Secretary of War. General Robert E. Lee's citizenship was restored in 1976. It is fitting that Jefferson Davis should no longer be singled out for punishment.
     Our Nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our Nation and to discredit the principles on which it was founded. Our people need to turn their attention to the important tasks that still lie before us in establishing those principles for all people. 
The Davises with daughter Maggie and three grandchildren at Beauvoir, about 1885. Jefferson Hayes-Davis, on Varina's lap, was the grandfather of Bertram Hayes-Davis, who resigned as Beauvoir's executive director in 2014 in a dispute over the Confederate flag.

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