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In the vulnerable weeks following the end of the War and Abraham Lincoln's assassination, some in President Andrew Johnson's administration burned to exact revenge against Davis. Trumping up charges of conspiracy to murder Lincoln and treason against the Union, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered cavalry after Davis. After a chase through North and South Carolina and Georgia, Davis was captured on May 10, 1865. The former United States Senator and Mexican War hero was imprisoned for two years in Fortress Monroe, Virginia, where he was subjected to torture and humiliation-but never brought to trial. Remarkably, the Johnson administration knew Davis was innocent of all crimes before he was even arrested.
With a keen eye for the period's detail, as well as a Southerner's insight, Johnson sheds new light on Davis's time on the run, his treatment while imprisoned, his surprising release from custody, and his eventual exoneration-exposing the powerful political forces involved, and their lasting impact. Johnson draws on extensive official historical documents as well as countless archived private materials such asdiaries, letters, and private papers. With the 200th anniversary of Davis's birth in 2008, the time has never been better for a compelling account of such a defining episode of the Civil War.
The Chase, Capture, Persecution, and Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis
Copyright © 2008 Clint Johnson
All right reserved.
"Nothing Short of Dementation"
At the dismal dawning of 1865, more than one quarter of the one million men who had enlisted in the South's armies over the previous three years were dead. Another 125,000 were wounded, their shattered arms and missing legs virtually ensuring that they would be unable to return to their prewar occupations as farmers and laborers. Another quarter million Southerners were languishing in widely scattered prisoner-of-war camps like "Hell-Mira" in Elmira, New York, and "40 Acres of Hell" in Camp Douglas, outside Chicago.
Southern civilians were not faring much better. The two largest cities in Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, were slowly strangling, their communications and their food supplies being cut off by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac. The Shenandoah Valley, once the breadbasket of the Confederacy, had been burned so completely that one Union general boasted to another that a crow flying over the devastated farms would have to pack his own lunch.
The situation elsewhere in the South was even worse. Western Confederate state capitals like Nashville, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas;Jackson, Mississippi; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had been captured years earlier. Atlanta, Georgia, had been shelled into submission in the summer of 1864 and then burned to the ground when General William T. Sherman and his 63,000 angry young men left on their destructive March to the Sea. Savannah and its wealth of unshipped cotton were presented to President Lincoln as a gift at Christmas 1864 by Sherman just a few weeks earlier. Now Sherman was preparing to cross the Savannah River to unleash his battle-tested veterans in South Carolina, the state these Midwesterners blamed for starting the war.
Just up the coast from Savannah, a massive sea bombardment and land invasion force were bearing down on Wilmington, North Carolina, the war's most successful blockade-running port. Though Wilmington was still open despite four years of the smothering Union blockade, the government leaders in Richmond knew if Fort Fisher fell, the end of the Confederate nation would soon follow. That was an inevitable truth as most of the Army of Northern Virginia's supplies came ashore at Wilmington and were loaded on railroad cars for off-loading in Petersburg. If that rail line was captured south of Petersburg, then the end of the war could come quickly because the army would run out of food and ammunition.
Disaster piled upon defeat throughout the South. There seemed to be no hope that anything could be salvaged from the piles of rubble that were already there and the even larger mounds of debris that soon would be.
Yet there was one man in the South who confidently, almost cheerfully, still believed the Confederate States of America would triumph in the four-year war with the North. He was Jefferson F. Davis, the seceded nation's president.
February 6, 1865-three weeks after the capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina-an event Davis knew very well meant disaster for resupplying Lee's army, Davis gave a morale boosting speech:
Does any one who has seen the Confederate soldiers believe they are willing to fail? If so, the suspicion is most unjust! Go to our camps; go to our guarded lines; go where our pickets hold their dangerous watch, and to the posts where our sentinels tread their weary rounds, and you will find in none of those the place for grumblings and complaints. The resolutions of our soldiers exclaim with Patrick Henry, "Victory or death!"
Those who knew Davis only casually might have thought his resolute, confident attitude about winning the war was a surprisingly sunny position for the president to take. After all, Davis had stepped onto the national stage of secessionist politics in a sour mood, warning both sides of the dangers of war between the regions.
Those who knew Davis well were not at all surprised that the president truly believed the war was still winnable. He had convinced himself years earlier that the war was politically ethical, morally right, and, most important of all, absolutely legal under the U.S. Constitution. He would die believing in his cause.
* * *
From childhood, Davis had displayed one personality trait that would stay constant in his life. That quirk would continually infuriate his parents, his brothers, his sisters, his wife, his personal friends, and his political enemies. He considered it strength of character.
Everyone else found it maddening.
Once Davis made up his mind that the course he had chosen in his politics, or in his personal or business affairs was correct, he never wavered from that decision. Once his decision was made, he never changed his mind despite the best efforts of his supporters to offer their own differing opinions.
Davis not only believed he was right all the time, he also believed he was the only person he knew who was prescient about the course of history. Sometimes he was tragically correct.
For at least three years preceding the opening of the war, Davis believed that a war between the North and the South was inevitable unless both sides listened to a voice of reason. He firmly, if humbly, believed that he was the one to voice those warnings, and if his voice was ignored, there would be hell to pay.
In an 1858 speech in Faneuil Hall to the citizens of Boston Davis hinted at civil war if the federal government continued to trample on the sanctity of states' rights. Throughout the speech Davis coyly suggested that Massachusetts political heroes like Samuel Adams and John Hancock had invented the concept that states were the primary political unit in the nation. Such a view was in accordance with his belief that the Constitution was an instrument designed to govern a voluntary Union of all states.
Davis cleverly explained his bedrock belief in states' rights over federal control of those states by reminding the Bostonians that Massachusetts Governor Hancock once refused to call on President George Washington who was visiting the state. Hancock believed that the nation's president should defer to the assumed power of the state governor he was visiting and that Washington should have called, hat in hand, on him.
Davis warned that any action based on the belief that the federal government was superior to the states' power would have dire consequences.
Skillfully working in references that it was in Faneuil Hall that Massachusetts' political leaders had plotted secession from England, Davis said:
Thus, it is that the peace of the Union is disturbed; thus it is that brother is arrayed against brother; thus it is that the people come to consider, not how they can promote each other's interests, but how they can successfully make war upon them.
Firebrands on both sides ignored the warnings from Davis, the best known and most popular in the North of all the Southern senators. Nearly three years after his widely reported Boston speech, the debate between the states' rights advocates for the South and the unbreakable Union advocates for the North ended in December 1860 when South Carolina left the Union. Starting in January 1861, six other Deep South states followed South Carolina out of the Union, just as Davis had predicted.
After Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union, Davis assured his Senate colleagues in his January 21, 1861, resignation speech that people in the South "hope for peaceful relations with you, though we must part." Knowing his suggestions had been ignored in the past, Davis also gravely warned that "the reverse will bring disaster on every part of the country."
For days after leaving Washington on January 22, 1861, all Davis could think about was the coming calamity of war. After arriving in the capital city of Jackson, the governor of Mississippi appointed him major general of volunteers and suggested that the purchase of 75,000 muskets would be sufficient to defend the state.
Davis scoffed: "We will need all and many more than we can get, I fear."
After accepting visitors in his hotel room who were confident of a successful, peaceful severing of ties with the Union, Davis wailed to his wife, "God help us, war is a dreadful calamity even when it is made against aliens and strangers. They know not what they do!"
When the seceded states planned their constitutional convention for early February in Montgomery, Alabama, Davis must have known, even before leaving Washington, that his name would be brought up as a potential president for the proposed "confederacy" of slaveholding states. As a humble but true Mexican War hero, a popular United States Secretary of War in the Franklin Pierce administration, a former congressman, and most recently a widely respected senator, Davis was one of the most government-experienced Southerners on the national scene.
But Davis had always been a reluctant politician. He hated shaking hands and meeting common voters. He hated the backslapping and the toasting to other politicians' health. He hated the backroom dealing and trading of votes to get bills passed and money appropriated. He hated everything about nineteenth-century politics except making laws and protecting the South's interests.
With the secession of Mississippi and his resignation from the Senate, Davis was suddenly free of public service for the first time in more than fifteen years. He no longer had to participate in the grubbiness he detested, which almost certainly would be a part of the forming of the new nation. He had never expressed any interest in even discussing how to form this new country, nor had he asked any of the Mississippi delegates to the secession convention to put his name into nomination. He did not even ask them to keep him informed. In fact, Davis gave a letter to one delegate specifically stating that he did not think himself suited for the job as president in the event his name came up for nomination.
His name did come up. Davis was the only presidential candidate seriously discussed after former United States senator Robert Toombs from Georgia made a spectacle of himself openly drinking to excess at the convention hotel. The Mississippi delegate whom Davis had asked to discourage his nomination never took Davis's letter from his vest pocket. After former United States senator Alexander Stephens from Georgia was nominated for the vice president's slot, Davis was unanimously nominated and elected by the delegates to a single six-year term as president on February 9, 1861.
Davis had not told anyone he wanted the job. He had not campaigned for it. He had done everything he could to avoid being considered for it. Yet as he had feared, his career as the most famous and successful of Southern politicians in the late 1850s had doomed him to fill the slot.
A courier who had ridden hard from Montgomery with an important letter in his satchel found Davis on February 10 tending his rose garden at Brierfield, one of the Davis family's plantations near Vicksburg, Mississippi. The man handed Davis a sealed telegram.
For the fleeting instant it took Davis to unfold the paper, he must have hoped that the message agreed with his own belief that the Confederacy did not need the services of a perpetually ill, fifty-three-year-old man who had already served his previous nation for nearly two decades. But knowing the firebrands who were taking the Southern states out of the United States, they would demand something of its most famous politician. Davis held out hope that he would be offered a generalship in the still-forming army. And, if he were to take that post, he wanted to do more than recruit and train militia. He wanted a field command, something that would take him back to the thrill of leading men under fire.
When Davis read the telegraph's few lines congratulating him on his unanimous election to the post of president of the Confederate States of America, his hands quivered and his face darkened. Davis looked so stricken with grief that his wife, Varina, thought that the message had informed her husband of a death in the family.
Varina remembered: "After a few minutes of painful silence, he told me, as a man might speak of a sentence of death. As he neither expected nor desired the position, he was more depressed than before."
Despondent but ever certain that a man did not shirk from duty thrust upon him, Davis departed for Montgomery the day after receiving the telegram. He would take the job that he did not want. He would take the job that would quickly make him one of the most hated men in the United States and the Confederate States.
* * *
Now, four years into his single six-year term, Davis felt virtually alone. His instincts were right. Though his cabinet still supported him-at least in cabinet meetings and in their public statements-Davis's political adversaries, newspaper editorial writers, his personal friends, and the common citizens of the Confederacy had begun to question his leadership.
Frustrated with the president's insistence that he act as chief war strategist as well as commander in chief, the Confederate Congress had begun to challenge Davis more vigorously on war planning. For the first time, Confederate Congress passed a law forcing Davis to name a general in chief. That was a war measure the United States had passed more than a year and a half earlier with the appointment of Grant to direct war strategy on all fronts.
Davis, who fancied himself a military expert since he had graduated from West Point and had served under fire, resisted the legislation. He finally accepted the law when his friends in the Confederate Congress watered it down so that he could still make such an appointment himself rather than leave it to Congress to name its own favorite person to such an important position. Davis wisely chose the only commander who had been able to stand up to Grant's continuous, yearlong onslaught, Robert E. Lee.
Lee was an acceptable choice to Davis's critics. Newspaper editorial writers, always among the most fierce of Davis's political critics and who normally mocked his military acumen, breathed a sigh of relief that Davis had not chosen his best friend, General Braxton Bragg. The Richmond Examiner published a headline in October 1864 when it learned Davis had appointed Bragg to the defense of Wilmington, North Carolina: "Bragg Is Going To Wilmington. Good-bye Wilmington." In the body of the article the newspaper expanded on its headline with: "General Bragg's presence wherever he has controlled, has been felt as a disaster, an omen of impending evil like a dark, cold, dreary cloud."
In some ways, it was remarkable that Davis had not chosen Bragg. He might have slotted Bragg into the position just to spite his political enemies, who had objected to his leadership style since his inauguration four years ago. Davis fought back against them by ignoring them, doing the opposite of what they wanted, or wasting his time by often writing them long, complicated letters condemning them for their complaints.
Davis could strike back at the political elites who had nominated him to run the government that they now complained about, but he had no power other than speeches to influence what the average Southern citizen thought of him and his conduct of the war.
John B. Jones, a clerk in the Confederate War Department, never had the ear of Davis, but he had the common man's pulse on what the public felt about the chief executive as the end of the Confederacy was becoming apparent to all but its president. Jones kept a diary for most of the war where he made observations about all he saw happening around his little desk.
On December 17, 1864, Jones noted that a wild rumor was circulating in the streets that Davis had died. He wrote: "Alas for President Davis's government! It is now in a painful strait." He ended the day's entry with a final comment about the rumor he personally discounted: "His death would excite sympathy," but he also noted that Davis's "enemies are assailing him bitterly, and attributing all our misfortunes to his incompetence."
Jones believed that so many men in high positions now hated the president that they were considering a coup against him. On Christmas day Jones wrote that "a large number of the croaking inhabitants censure the President for our misfortunes and openly declare for General Lee as Dictator." On New Year's Eve, Jones wrote again of the supposed plot:
It can only be done by revolution and the overthrow of the Constitution. Nevertheless, it is believed many executive officers, some high in position, favor the scheme.
Excerpted from PURSUIT by CLINT JOHNSON Copyright © 2008 by Clint Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 29, 2009
As much as I enjoy histories of the Confederacy, I could not get past the fact that this book feels like it is written by a 4th grader. The verbage and sentence structure are atrocious. And most damning, there isn't a single citation of any kind within the text to support anything the author states. Overall, it reads as a string of poorly written emotional suppositions by an author who provides no factual evidence what-so-ever.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 2, 2008
I bought this book on the spur of the moment, but couldn't put it down once I started to read. I thought I knew a lot about the war, but I truly learned things I had never read about before. It was a pleasure to read, I wish school books were more in line with the way this book was written.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.