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THE GENTLEMAN FROM
Thirteen-year-old Jefferson Davis was tired of school. The bright, well-read boy returned from Wilkinson Academy, a few miles from his cotton plantation in Mississippi, put his books down on the table firmly, and told his father, whom he feared, that he would not return. His father eyed him carefully, shrugged, and told him he agreed with his decision. He could not be idle, though, Samuel Davis said, and if his youngest son was not going to live a life in which he worked with his intellect, then he had to live a life in which he worked with his hands.
The next morning, Samuel Davis awakened his son just after dawn. Giving him one of the large, thin cloth bags their slaves used for picking cotton, Sam Davis took young Jeff out to the cotton fields. There he put him in a long line of slaves, all of whom knew the boy and were surprised to see him, and told him he was going to pick cotton to support the family. The boy glowered back at him, and then Sam Davis rode off. Dust filled the early morning air as Sam Davis disappeared down the road toward the house.
The sun was hot that day, but Jefferson did not complain of it at dinner. The next day was even hotter. Each time Sam rode by to see his son toiling in the field with the slaves, he smiled a bit to himself. The boy's hands hurt from the picking and sweat stuck to his shirt. Picking cotton is monotonous, repetitive, and, for novices, painful to the fingers and wrists. The boy and the slaves performed the same actions all day long, under a scorching sun, a few miles from the Mississippi River. The planter's son worked just like a slave, was treated like a slave, and, among the crew of black laborers, felt like a slave. He did not like it. The morning of the third day, he was no longer in the line in the cotton field. Instead, he was back sitting in a classroom at Wilkinson Academy, his books open, taking notes.
The end of the American Revolution and the formation of a new nation began a trek across the Appalachian mountains and over the green saddle of the Cumberland Gap for thousands of American families in search of broader freedom on the frontier and opportunities they felt to be lacking in the new states. They pressed on, over creeks and through thick woods, battling the elements and trying to live peacefully among Indians as they moved.
Samuel Davis was among the first to leave the East in pursuit of a better life. The son of a Philadelphia merchant who fought in the revolution, Sam Davis had the reputation of a fine horseman, a productive farmer, and a community leader in Georgia. In 1793 he packed up his growing family and two slaves and headed first to Kentucky, where he farmed for nearly a decade and where Jefferson, his tenth child, was born in 1808, and then moved on to Mississippi.
It was there, amid the cotton fields, magnolia trees, and the sweet smells of the poplar groves, that Jefferson Davis spent his boyhood. The Davis plantation grew into a marginally profitable farm during Jefferson's early years. Surrounded by four loving brothers and five sisters, he talked easily with the slaves on his plantation and the free men who labored there as well, often wrestling with the slaves for sport. Jefferson learned to hunt and fish from his brother Isaac, a dozen years older, and all in all enjoyed a childhood typical of a boy growing up on a small slave plantation in the South.
His relations with his mother were good ("There was so much for me to admire and nothing to remember save good," he said of Jane Davis), but his relations with his father were stormy. Sam Davis worked hard on the plantation and spent most of his days in the fields or in the nearby towns. The only time Jefferson saw his father was in the evening, at the dinner table or afterward in the living room. He remembered Sam as a cold, aloof man who disciplined his children harshly.
At the root of the problems between Samuel Davis and his tenth and youngest child, Jefferson, was age. At fifty-two, he was too old to bring up Jeff as he had his other children: the gap between the young boy and his father was enormous. Jeff, like his brothers and sisters, fell victim to Sam Davis's strict rules and quick punishments. Orphaned on the early death of his own father, Evan, Sam Davis had no real experience at fathering to give any of his children, especially his last. He made up his own rules of deportment, rules devised to fit his sour personality and busy life. Two of the greatest crimes in the Davis household were refusal to eat whatever meal was served and refusal to go to bed whenever Sam decided it was bedtime. Punishment was long confinement to one's bedroom. These are hard rules for young boys, particularly for young Jefferson, who was headstrong and stubborn almost from birth. He railed against his father's attempts at discipline: apparently he was ordered to his room so many times that the punishment was etched forever in his memory. He frequently complained about it as an adult, charging that confinement to a room was "incomprehensible cruelty" to children.
It was the punishments, and the walls of his room, that Jefferson remembered, and never any praise that came from his father. Jeff was shut out by his father, and from his earliest years his self-esteem eroded from lack of paternal praise or nurturing. Sam insisted, as well, that whatever he said was correct and that his children had to abide by his decisions. There was no discussion and certainly no argument. "My father was a silent, undemonstrative man," wrote Jefferson. "He was usually of a grave and stoical character and of such sound judgment that his opinions were a law to his children." Later in life, the only praiseworthy thing he could say about his father was that he knew how to ride horses well. Like many children, however, Jeff would grow up to be just like his father, a cold, aloof man who had difficulty getting along with people who did not agree with him.
When Jefferson turned nine, his parents decided to send him away to boarding school, hopeful that the boy, who everyone said was unusually intelligent, could receive a fine education that would prepare him for life as a planter or in a profession. He was sent off to St. Thomas, Kentucky, for two years and then spent five years at a local school. During that time, as Jeff mastered Latin and literature, his beloved brother Joseph, twenty-four years older than he, moved to Natchez to pursue business opportunities and became one of the wealthiest men in the state. Joseph, outgoing and loving, soon replaced Sam as the father figure in young Jeff's life.
Jefferson, who always studied hard, did well at his different schools. Most of them were run by harsh headmasters, whose strict rules further cemented his own view that men had to be tough, rigid, and inflexible in order to succeed. Along with his father and tough military figures, his headmasters were Jefferson's role models.
St. Thomas was run by strict brothers from the Dominican order of the Catholic church. The headmaster, Brother Richard Miles, ran his school, which owned slaves, in military fashion. Rules were enforced, classes demanding, and teacher-student relations very formal. Jeff spent two long years there, and the headmaster, who whipped students, became a harsh role model for him. Sam wanted him closer to home, so he enrolled him in Jefferson College, in Mississippi, where instructors also hit students. He soon left the college. Jefferson, memories of boys being hit clear in his mind, returned home to attend the newly opened Wilkinson Academy. Students there told family and friends that Davis seemed to have a deep need to be liked by others. At sixteen, he was a master at Latin and Greek and well read in history and literature. An outstanding student, Jefferson Davis was ready for a university.
He went to Transylvania College, in Lexington, Kentucky, a school with tight rules and iron discipline at which the headmaster and teachers still disciplined students with wooden paddles. The program of study was extremely difficult: Students had to pass demanding courses in Latin, Greek, surveying, ancient history, philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, writing, and speaking.
Jeff Davis began to show the same authoritarian tendencies as his father and his headmasters. Students who knew him at Transylvania later said that by the age of sixteen or seventeen he had become taciturn, tough, and unbending. He was often frustrated by his own lack of perfection and by all the imperfection and laziness he saw in others. He seemed much older than his age, with the personality of a man of thirty, and always seemed, despite a certain buoyancy at social events, unable to relax in the company of others. He was always tight, formal, distant. Those traits would be permanently instilled in him when he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Davis originally wanted to study law at the University of Virginia. His decision to go to West Point was greatly influenced by his brother Joseph, who secured an appointment for him at the end of his junior year at Transylvania, the same year his father died. Joseph urged him to accept the appointment immediately and forgo his final year at the Lexington college. Jefferson waffled, but then decided his brother, whom he so much admired, probably knew what was best for him. Joe promised him that if he did not like West Point after a year, he could transfer somewhere else.
Run by Sylvanus Thayer, a tough disciplinarian, West Point combined rigorous studies with a disciplinary code in which almost every irregular act counted as an infraction to be marked against a student's record. Just living at the academy was difficult. Students were not permitted to sleep in standard beds. They had to sleep on mattresses on the hard floors of the dormitories. Talking was not permitted at meals. Students were not allowed to play cards, to smoke or chew tobacco, to drink any alcohol, or even to read novels or magazines in their rooms.
Even the taciturn and distant Davis, used to hard rules at his boarding schools, found West Point difficult. From time to time the stubborn student tried to bend the rules of the military academy, but invariably wound up being punished. Thayer had ruled that any student who piled up two hundred infraction points had to be dismissed. Davis came close, accumulating 137 demerits. Davis was also almost dismissed for drinking, barely surviving a court martial.
He had little admiration for cadets from the Northern states ("You cannot know how pitiful they generally are," he wrote his brother). Students who knew him well at West Point admired his diligence and intellect but wondered about his ability to function in any arena, such as the army, politics, or business, where social and political relations were important—relations instructors at West Point tried hard to teach the army's future officers. Said one fellow student: "His [Davis's] four years at West Point ... instead of inculcating in him the pliancy and assumed cordiality of the politician, was to develop a personality of the reverse order."
Jefferson Davis, who never did get to study law in Virginia, finally graduated in 1828, ranking an unimpressive twenty-third in a class of thirty-three, and immediately went into the army. He was twenty.
He was a fine-looking soldier. He walked almost regally, with his chin tilted slightly into the air, looking like a knight from a Sir Walter Scott novel in a U.S. Army uniform. If anyone perfectly fit the description of the Southern cavalier, the wealthy, aristocratic, brave, and bold warrior in uniform, which began to appear in so much literature at that time, it was Jeff Davis. He was sent by the army to the Iowa area to start his seven-year enlistment. His army life was not much different from that of other brand-new second lieutenants just out of the academy. He went on routine patrols, helped engineers build sawmills and warehouses, and kept track of various storehouse inventories at military installations. Since he was in a western state, he took part in sporadic Indian fighting, like many other soldiers. Once again Davis came under the authoritarian leadership of a gruff, tough disciplinarian who would be another disciplinarian father figure and model for him—Colonel Zachary Taylor. The rugged Taylor, who would gain fame as "Old Rough and Ready" in the Mexican War and afterward become president, was already a grizzled veteran when Davis was assigned to his command. Taylor, forty-eight years old in the summer of 1828, had been in the army since 1808. Thinking Davis had a future in the army, Zachary Taylor took him under his wing.
The highlight of Davis's early military career came in the Black Hawk War. While he took part in no battles, in a bizarre stroke of fate Davis wound up capturing Chief Black Hawk himself. The army had learned that Black Hawk was hiding on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Zachary Taylor, seeking publicity for his protégé, sent Davis's regiment to look for him. As they rode up the riverbank near the island, the Sauk and Fox chief emerged from a wood on the eastern bank of the river and, spotting the soldiers in their camp, immediately surrendered. With the fabled chief his prisoner, Davis then served as Black Hawk's jailer on a riverboat for more than a week. The Indian and the West Pointer earned each other's respect during hours of long talks on the boat as it drifted down the Mississippi, and Black Hawk later referred to the young lieutenant as "a good and brave young chief." The capture of the chief, a stroke of great good fortune for a young lieutenant, gained Davis considerable publicity and fostered the legend that he was a military genius.
From 1832 to 1834, Davis spent much of his time keeping peace between the Indian tribes and the settlers in the area. He tried his best to prevent skirmishes between mine workers and Indians and built a solid reputation as a soldier. He tolerated the army, but did not love it, and often toyed with the idea of resigning. He had personal difficulties, too. He never seemed happy about his lot in the army. He once became so angry that several officers junior to him at West Point had been promoted over him that he fired off a nasty letter of complaint to the War Department. Davis's hotheadedness, and fear of what always amounted to nonexistent threats, resulted in a second court martial in 1835 when he acted disrespectfully to an officer he did not like.
He also had to deal with Zachary Taylor. The gruff commander had taken a liking to the young West Pointer. His daughter Sarah took an even greater liking, and the two began a secret affair, right under her father's roof. Taylor, while he approved of Davis, did not want Sarah to marry a soldier. He knew all too well what a difficult life the army was for a young married couple.
The growing hostility between Taylor and Davis was sharpened further after the 1835 court martial. Taylor ordered his daughter to break off with Davis, but she refused. She was in love with the dashing young lieutenant, and he was completely smitten with her, sending her long and romantic letters. "Sarah, whatever I may be hereafter, neglected by you I should have been worse than nothing. Shall we not soon meet, to part no more? Often I long to lay my head upon that breast which beats in unison with my own, to turn from the sickening sights of worldly duplicity and look into those eyes, so eloquent, of pity and love," he wrote the girl.
The temperamental Davis, angered at Taylor's attitude and obsessed with his daughter, rode home and sought advice from Joseph. Like everyone else, his older brother was captivated by the charms of Sarah Taylor.
Joe urged his young brother to leave the army and told the star-crossed young lovers to get married right away. They did, on June 17, 1835. Then, in a burst of magnanimity, Joe gave him as a wedding gift nearly 2,000 acres of land right next to his own plantation, Hurricane, and let him use a cabin which had been on it for several years as an office in the fields. Jeff and Sarah lived at Hurricane while Jeff worked the plantation. Knowing he needed good labor to make the plantation successful, Joseph took his younger brother by riverboat to New Orleans where they bought ten slaves. Joined by some of Joseph's slaves, they cleared Jeff's plantation, which he named Brierfield, after its many brier bushes.
Everyone who met the slender, attractive Sarah, from wealthy planters to the slaves of Brierfield, said she was a perfect match for Jeff. Their acquaintances foresaw decades of happiness for the couple, and a deep friendship between the two brothers. Sarah was a bright and witty girl, a perfect mate for Jeff Davis, but she was also a pleasant and cheerful woman who loved children and would be a Wonderful mother.
Then, as it did for so many in the South in the hot, close, sticky lazy summer months, tragedy struck. Jeff Davis and his twenty-one-year-old bride came down with malaria. A deadly disease then, since there was no cure, malaria was carried by the hundreds of millions of mosquitoes that inhabited the Deep South in the hottest weeks of the summer, most abundantly near rivers and in the lowlands. Jeff Davis and his wife were bitten at the same time, probably as they slept together. Within days they were passing in and out of delirium as they battled for their lives in separate bedrooms. Meanwhile Joseph, his wife Eliza, and the slaves of Hurricane rushed in and out of their rooms with doctors, nurses, and all the help and medicine money could afford. Jefferson Davis, drenched in sweat by a fever that climbed ever higher, tossed and turned in his bedroom. Yet his strong young body, toughened by years in the army, was able to fight off the disease. Sarah, thin and frail and not used to Southern summers, was not. Her fever never broke; Sarah died on September 15, with her barely conscious young husband at her side, desperately holding her hand as she slipped away.
Crushed by the loss of his beautiful young bride, Jeff Davis took months to recover physically from his own malaria (he recuperated that winter in Cuba, with its soft tropical breezes and warm weather, longtime slave James Pemberton at his side). When he was healed, doctors discovered that he had an eye affliction, which they blamed on either the malaria or pneumonia in the army. Davis would never admit that he had made a fatal mistake in bringing Sarah to Mississippi in the hot summer, which he knew was a risk.
Back and well, finally, in the spring of 1836, Davis, twenty-eight years old, realized that his young bride's death had taken away all his interest in the outside world and made him a prisoner of grief. He had no desire to return to the army nor any interest in another profession. Shutting the gates of Brierfield against the world, he began years of isolation. Davis never disguised, and never explained, the isolation and melancholy or the years of unconquerable grief. All he could say was: "Thereafter I lived in great seclusion on the plantation in the swamps of Mississippi."
As a means of recovering from his broken heart, Davis plunged into the work of turning Brierfield into a profitable cotton plantation. The harder he worked, the less he felt his sadness. Aided by James Pemberton, who had raised him from childhood and had probably saved his life when he was wracked with pneumonia while in the army, Davis occupied himself with the development and management of Brierfield.
Brierfield comprised nine hundred acres of reasonably good land on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River about thirty miles south of Vicksburg. The 1850 census valued it at $25,000. About 450 acres were eventually planted; the other 450 served as a wooded area, a site for a home Jeff Davis later built, long rows of cabins for the growing slave community (Brierfield was home to seventy-two slaves in 1850 and 106 in 1860), and a variety of storehouses for corn and other crops, plus the small shops, such as a blacksmith's, which dotted most of the larger Southern plantations. He continued to live in Joseph's house at Hurricane, a devastated bachelor incapable of seeing women socially or rejoining the social world of Mississippi.
Neither Brierfield nor Hurricane was a plantation typical of Mississippi or most of the Southern states. The large majority of Mississippians were not successful planters, but small farmers with no slaves (only twenty percent owned slaves). The average Southern small farmer lived very much like the subsistence farmers north of the Ohio River and in the Middle Atlantic states.
The most unusual aspect of Brierfield Plantation was not its land but its slaves. Jefferson, at the suggestion of his brother Joseph, was exceedingly good to his slaves. Joseph had pioneered master-slave relations at Hurricane with innovative tactics that left many of his neighbors aghast. The Davis brothers never whipped their slaves or meted out other physical punishment. Instead, they set up a slave-run courthouse, the Hall of Justice, on the plantation. There a jury of slaves decided the guilt or innocence of slaves accused of transgressions. Slaves were not given nicknames, as they were at most plantations, but selected their own names. Many were given permission to travel throughout the area alone, and some were even encouraged to read. Slaves with skills in reading and math were given key jobs in running the plantation, which usually went to whites, such as supervision of livestock, cotton inventory, and the purchase of foods and supplies. Slaves did not live on rations, but were permitted to grow their own food and, if that was not enough food, to take some from the plantation's sales quotas. Creative slaves were urged to spend time on arts and crafts and permitted to sell their work to other slaves and even to nearby planters. Jeff Davis became so close to his slaves, particularly James Pemberton, that he often dined with them as an equal, bestowing on his favorites, such as Pemberton, cigars. His wife, brother, and business associates said that the wealthy planter and his favorite slave were "devoted friends."
The liberal policies of the Davis brothers worked. Hurricane was enormously profitable, and so, too, after a few years, was Brierfield. The well-treated slaves worked hard for their masters, who were probably the most liberal in the state, perhaps in the entire South. Records in the 1850s show that when the popular Davis was at Brierfield, monthly profits were much higher than when he was away and white overseers ran the plantation.
Most planters refused to let their slaves step beyond the boundaries of the plantation, but Davis sent his on errands all over Mississippi, confident they would return. On a given day, he might send a slave to Vicksburg to retrieve a horse and buggy and another to deliver business papers to Natchez. He often left work orders on his library table for slaves to pick up, read, and carry out just as any middle manager would. Slaves were asked to go into town, unescorted, on errands. None ever tried to escape. Some remained with him for years, and many stayed with the family long after the Civil War. Sam Charlton was purchased by Jeff Davis in the mid-1830s and remained with him, as a slave and freedman, until 1880.
Jeff Davis was very concerned about the happiness and welfare of the slaves at Brierfield. He had a particular hatred of harsh overseers whom he caught beating any slave or heard had punished a slave severely. Overseers did not last very long at Brierfield: Davis, at the first evidence of violence, fired them. Davis's wrath was not directed only at violence, but at negligence as well. He returned to Brierfield on a Sunday morning in 1857 to discover that a slave girl's child was dying because the overseer and his wife, in a hurry to dismiss them, had given the child an overdose of quinine and calomel. He fired the overseer within an hour.
The Davises cared for slaves like their own children. He spent hours walking and riding around his plantation to chat with slaves and their families, always inquiring about their health and welfare, addressing them by their first names and always showing special concern for the children. He made certain that good clothing was available to them, bought wedding dresses for slave women about to marry, and paid for lavish parties at his slaves' weddings. Davis engaged a dentist from Vicksburg to visit Brierfield periodically to care for the slaves' as well as his own family's dental problems. He paid a local Methodist minister to visit Brierfield weekly to lead prayer services for the slaves. He spent considerable time supervising the personnel at the hospital he ran for slaves at the plantation, which employed a full-time nurse, and kept track of medicines to be given to all slaves seasonally. If a slave was sick and the nurse could not help, he brought in other nurses or women in the area who had medical skills. If they failed to cure him, he had other slaves take the ailing slave to a doctor in Vicksburg.
When all else failed, Davis sent the slaves to Dr. Samuel Cartwright, his personal physician in New Orleans. In 1859, when Julia Ann Allen, the tiny daughter of Hagar Allen, one of his most trusted slaves, came down with rheumatism, he was unsure that his physician was in town and, to make certain she received proper care, sent the little girl to the home of his brother-in-law, who cared for her until the doctor returned. Family and friends in New Orleans often cared for any sickly slaves Davis sent to the city for expert care and would nurse them back to health there after the visits to Cartwright. When Julia Ann Allen arrived, the little girl mistakenly thought that her trunk had been put on the steamer from Vicksburg (it had not). Friends then insisted, to an irritated captain, that workers search the entire boat for the trunk.
Davis often described the slaves as "the people" when discussing them with outsiders and, with others or within the gates of Brierfield, almost always referred to them by their first names. He referred to the slave children as his own, in 1857 writing about illnesses that "the children have suffered throughout the summer." The slaves, in turn, enjoyed the personal affection of Davis and returned it, always gathering about him whenever he arrived and constantly inquiring about his wife and children, his brother Joe, and other relatives, sometimes grabbing at Davis's knees and threatening to pull him down.
White friends in Mississippi scoffed at the treatment of the Davis slaves and referred to them as the "Davises' free Negroes" and joked, when hoop skirts for wealthy women became popular, that Jeff Davis and his brother Joe would have to plant their cotton rows wider so that the women slaves wearing the latest fashions they bought for them would have room to walk. Whites who knew Jefferson Davis in Washington derided his habit of bowing to any blacks, freed or slave, who bowed to him first.
Jefferson Davis liked and respected his slaves as much as he did nearby planters and friends and appreciated their admiration of him and members of his family. This underlined his feeling that there was nothing morally wrong with slavery in the Southern states. How bad could slavery be, he wondered, if his own slaves, the slaves he saw and talked to every day, were so content with their lives and had such an attachment to him and his family?
Spending most of his time at Brierfield, he traveled little in the South. The barbaric conditions slaves faced on other plantations escaped him. For example, to earn money in lean years, some planters sold husbands to one planter and wives to another. Children were sometimes sold off to traveling slave traders and carried hundreds of miles away, where they were sold to someone else. Slave women begged nearby masters to buy their children so they could visit them. One woman who lost her son in a sale wrote: "I don't want a trader to get me. Albert [her son] is gone and I don't know where. I am heartsick."
Slaves worked long hours and were vulnerable to diseases because their diets consisted of low levels of protein and nutrients. Thousands died from pneumonia, diptheria, malaria, cholera, and smallpox. Many unfree women suffered from menstrual illnesses because of unsanitary plantation conditions. Slave women forced to work in the cotton and tobacco fields while pregnant had an inordinately high number of miscarriages. Black women were sometimes molested by their white owners or the owners' sons.
Many slaves complained of cruel physical treatment. Some were beaten by drunken owners and some murdered. Many were whipped as punishment and to maintain discipline on the plantation. Most had few clothes to wear, regardless of the weather.
No other issue, of course, was to figure so prominently in Jeff Davis's life and in the life of the nation in the coming years as slavery. The man who at one time would own over one hundred slaves certainly believed in the system. Davis felt that slavery "is a common law right to property in the service of man; its origin was Divine decree—the curse upon the graceless sons of Noah."
From 1836 until 1843, Jefferson Davis was content to rummage through the vast library in his brother Joseph's home, where books were jammed into bookshelf spaces and seemed ready to tumble out onto the floor, and spend almost all his time away from the plantation reading works of philosophy, history, and politics. After dinner, the two brothers would sit opposite each other in the large library at Hurricane and define and redefine what their views were on national, state, and local politics. Years of reading had convinced both men that the strengths of the nation were the principles of Thomas Jefferson and the concepts of states' rights and national expansion, whether through purchase (the Louisiana Territory); annexation (Texas); or in war (New Mexico and Arizona). Joseph was a firm believer in the slave system and easily convinced his younger brother of its merits. (Joseph once wrote Jefferson that he approved wholeheartedly of a politician's warning to Kentuckians uncertain about slavery that if the slaves were freed, "330,000 half starved, ragged, dirty thieving niggers" would flood Kentucky and take away the jobs of all the white men there.)
Jeff Davis did not develop any thirst for the political arena in those years and seemed content to live as a gentleman farmer. Tucked away in his library nook at Brierfield, he seemed content, except for constant sickness, which made his mood increasingly sour. As late as 1840, five years after Sarah's death, he considered himself a wealthy planter without ambition. He wrote a friend that "I am living as retired as a man on the great thoroughfare of the Mississippi can be, and just now the little society which exists hereabout has been driven away by the presence of the summer's heat...."
His life was changed forever by two events in 1843. The first was a letter from a leader of the Mississippi Democratic Party, who begged him to run for Congress after its candidate quit the race. The second occurred at his brother's annual plantation Christmas party when, for the first time, Jefferson Davis, thirty-five, met Varina Howell, of Natchez, only seventeen. She was a bright and perceptive young woman who was taught by her own tutor. Varina was well read and a very political young woman, another oddity among the belles of Natchez. She read the National Intelligencer, a political newspaper, every day. Her glossy, thick black hair, long, smooth face, large dark eyes, large mouth, gave her an exotic, sultry look. She liked Jefferson right away. "[He] is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself," she said in a letter to her mother, and was astonished that he "was refined and cultivated.... and yet he is a Democrat!"
After just one meeting, Varina noticed something unusual about Davis. "He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion," she wrote, and joked: "He is the kind of person I should expect to rescue me from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward."
Varina Howell was a complex woman. She was five feet ten inches tall and attractive, with a graceful walk and an olive complexion. She was a very intelligent woman who cared deeply for those she loved. Her greatest strengths were an iron will, a tough exterior which deflected most criticism, and a fiercely independent nature. She was a woman who believed in her man, stood by him, and encouraged him to go as far as he could go in his career. She had no intention of permitting her man to dominate her, though. She was her own woman, an individualist who firmly believed that a woman could be right on an issue just as often as a man, and that marriage was not based on love alone, but on a negotiated relationship between a man and a woman in which neither dominated. She also believed that a much older husband should not view his much younger bride as a daughter or schoolgirl. Varina's attitude was radically different from that of most well-bred young women in the South, the belles held in such high esteem that they were permitted to do little. Varina was not going to let her husband run their relationship or their home; that fierce independence would create great problems in her marriage.
Jeff Davis fell deeply in love with Varina Howell, feeling like a schoolboy again as he carefully weighed everything she did or said. Varina, uncertain of her feelings at first, may have worried that he would become a father figure, not a husband. She came to love him. She wrote him often, putting pressed flowers or locks of her hair in the pages of her letters. Davis hid them in a secret spot at Hurricane where no one could find them and, late at night, when everyone was asleep, would read and reread them.
He wrote passionate love letters to the young Varina. He once told her that her letter "came to dispel my gloomy apprehensions, to answer the longings of love," and that "I have to be with you every day and all day," and that she should never read by candle at night because it would "punish your angel eyes."
Eight long years after Sarah's death, Jeff Davis seemed to love Varina Howell with the passion he had had for Sarah. "Your spirit is with me. I feel its presence. My heart is yours. My dreams are of our union. They are not dreams, for I will not wake from them," he wrote her during their courtship.
Varina would become extremely attached to Jefferson, worrying constantly about his precarious health and his obsessive need to work himself into exhaustion. She accompanied him nearly everywhere. She went with him on trips to different Southern cities. When he was sent to Congress, she traveled to Washington, arriving after an incredibly uncomfortable three-week trip which included a stagecoach ride so bumpy that one passenger had his ribs broken by the jostling on the roads. She would miss Jefferson when he was gone, even though she complained often about the forays into politics or the army which took him away from her. She wrote: "[Politics] meant long absences, illness from exposure, misconceptions, defamation of character, everything which darkens the sunlight and contracts the happy sphere of home."
On his trips to New Orleans and other cities, Jefferson would make friends with influential men in the Democratic Party. They saw him as another member of the club—a wealthy slaveowner like themselves. He had reached middle age, shared the concerns of most cotton planters, had an attractive wife, and a wealthy brother who could fund campaigns, and was a hero of the Black Hawk War. At the urging of Joseph, now fifty-nine, Jefferson attended the Mississippi Democratic State Convention in 1843. People got to know him there, and when the party's congressional candidate withdrew with less than two weeks left in the race, Davis was asked to run. He had done nothing to get the nomination except let people know he was available.
Davis jumped into the short campaign and managed, in just ten days, to debate former congressman Seargent Prentiss, one of the Whigs' top public speakers, twice. Prentiss won the debates, but Davis did well. The brand new politician could not speak as eloquently as Prentiss, and certainly not as long (Prentiss spoke for over three hours at their first meeting and Davis for just thirty minutes), but Davis impressed those who were there.
"Mr. Davis's friends anticipate for him a proud and honorable career, should a sphere for the display of his talents once be presented," said James Ryan, the editor of the Vicksburg Daily Sentinel, who heard him speak at a rally in front of the two-story Vicksburg Court House. Later, in 1844, when Davis was a presidential elector, Ryan told readers that although he lacked passion, Jeff Davis was "highly intellectual."
He lost the race, as everyone expected he would but he did much better than projected, capturing 43 percent of the vote, winning one of the five counties in the district and coming within just eleven votes of taking the largest. He also impressed Democratic Party officials, who were pleased that the planter from Brierfield had agreed to be their candidate in their time of need.
The newspapermen he privately despised seemed to like him. "He is dignified, with a bold and noble countenance, commanding great attention, using chaste and beautiful language, giving no just ground for offense, even to his opponents who are, at the same time, withering under his sarcasm at every sentence," wrote the editor of the Macon (Mississippi) Jeffersonian.
One year later, he was asked by local Democrats to be their congressional candidate at the state convention. Davis, again not seeking office but graciously accepting a draft, won the nomination after intense balloting, and then embarked on his first complete political campaign.
That campaign (Mississippi did not choose its congressmen by district, but statewide as at-large representatives) showed the many sides of Jefferson Davis. In just a year, he had become an accomplished public speaker, if not a great one, who could hold the attention of a crowd. He relied on logic and reasoned arguments, backed up with piles of statistics, and not emotion. He pleaded for fair tariffs, more independence for Southern planters, river improvements, and the annexation of Texas to strengthen the South politically ("daily we are becoming weaker," he said of the North-South power struggle in Congress). He complained bitterly that the North had all the military power and all the navy "whilst there stand the cape and keys of Florida unprotected, through which flows the whole commerce of the South and West...."
Editors of Democratic papers were impressed by him. "[He] left behind him fame as an orator and statesman," wrote one. Although at first he appeared wooden, as he had in 1843, he rapidly warmed up to a crowd, even when he had to follow a long-winded Whig orator. Davis, the sophisticated planter, stumped as well as any candidate that fall, making several dozen speeches up and down the state. He campaigned for a tariff to help American workers, advocated expansion of American territories, and expressed the fervent wish that Texas, Oregon, and California would join the Union as states. He favored a national bank and an independent treasury system that would safeguard moneys in federal institutions instead of in state and local banks.
That first campaign showed other things, too, dark things. Davis did not accept press criticism well. He did not shrug off the arrows of the opposition newspapers as part of the political game, as did so many others. He took critical editorials, even in Whig papers, as insulting personal attacks. Instead of plunging ahead with his campaign, Jeff Davis spent hours defending himself in public against attacks which no one else took seriously.
He became sick again, as well. The campaign carried him through much of Mississippi. Many of his speeches were made at outdoor rallies, and his stumping carried him to numerous open-air receptions and barbecues. The exposure irritated his sensitive eye, which soon became red and inflamed and ached constantly. "He looks very badly," Varina wrote during early September. Davis and his doctors blamed his condition on a combination of recurring malaria and the pneumonia which had made him so ill in the army. The symptoms, however, indicate a viral herpes, some scholars suggested, perhaps contracted before his marriage. It would impair him throughout his life.
Herpes simplex of the eye, the disease that afflicted Davis, is usually contracted by men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five through sexual relations. It causes hundreds of tiny black growths to appear all around the eye and severely inflames and infects the eyelids and cornea. The disease produces a film which covers the cornea and causes blindness. A harmful side effect is the general weakening of the entire muscular system, usually forcing victims to stay in bed. The disease usually persists for between four and six weeks and then goes away. It is reactivated by stress, exposure to sunlight or wind, or a high fever.
Davis would contract it whenever he was outside working in Brierfield's cotton fields or on the campaign trail or when he was under stress. It recurred several times a year. There was no cure for it, and men had it all their lives. Doctors could only scrape the cornea, to restore some eyesight until the inflammation went down, and bathe the entire area with a solution of mercury chloride and iodine ointment.
Davis won the election easily. He spent the following weeks wrapping up his business as a planter and packing for the move to the nation's capitol. Davis moved gracefully into the political and social world of Washington, D.C. He cut an impressive figure in Washington, quickly defining the gentlemen planter from the South, and, in his case, a very well-read one, too, a man as knowledgeable on his Plato as his cotton bales. He began to impress everyone.
Jeff Davis was not only refined, but appeared so. He was one of the best-dressed congressmen in Washington, sporting dark frock coats and suits and favoring bright white shirts. His custom-made suits looked splendid on his tall, thin frame. The new congressman plunged into his job, working himself into exhaustion most days. He continued to suffer from the eye inflammation and, in winter, earaches. Varina fretted over his often fragile condition. "He has not been well since we arrived here," she wrote her mother. "He sits up until 2 or 3 at night, until his eyes lose their beauty even to me. They look so red and painful."
He was assertive. Freshman congressmen rarely spoke in the House, but Davis delivered a major address denouncing nativist Americans who opposed immigration. His attack on the nativists, a growing political force whom few openly criticized, was hailed by congressmen, North and South. He said: "We must either make naturalization easy or we must withhold it entirely. For if we admitted foreigners, yet denied them the enjoyment of all political rights, we did but create enemies to our government and fill our country with discontented men."
Davis was careful. A month later he delivered another major speech calling for the expansion of the Union to the shores of the Pacific, including Oregon, but, in a long, drawn-out, and very logical speech, urged Congress not to go to war with England, which also claimed Oregon. He had studied the nation's military and found it sadly wanting and unlikely to do well in an international conflict. He favored negotiations rather than war. He felt strongly that the year 1845 was not a time for war. "My constituents need no such excitements [war] to prepare their hearts for all that patriotism demands," he said.
He was soon viewed as a bright, informed political leader who, with the backing of the Mississippi Democrats, would probably be in the House for many years and perhaps become its speaker. He seemed to have an unlimited future in Congress. Many began to see in Jeff Davis the kind of intellectual that moderate people could follow as North and South continued to argue over slavery and sectionalism. He seemed a potential national figure, like Henry Clay, who could serve as an ameliorating sectional bridge. His time in Congress would not be long, however: there was Mexico.
In late April, 1846, Mexican troops, angered by the U.S. occupation of Texas, its former territory, crossed the Rio Grande and attacked an American force commanded by Davis's former father-in-law, Colonel Zachary Taylor. Numerous U.S. troops were killed and, within days, the United States declared war on Mexico. Congressmen spent the months of May and June hailing the war, but Jefferson Davis was not among them. Incensed that foreign forces had attacked the U.S. Army, and eager, perhaps, to get back into what appeared to be a good fight, he quit Congress and enlisted in a Mississippi volunteer company and was off to the war.
"I felt my services were due to the country and believed my experience might be available in promoting the comfort the safety and efficiency of the Mississippi Regiment ... I could not delay until the close of the Congressional session," he told Mississippians in an open letter to the state.
The 913 men of the First Mississippi Volunteers, who knew him as a popular congressman, a former army lieutenant from West Point, and a hero of the Black Hawk War, elected him colonel of the regiment. He soon angered most of them by hard, relentless drills which he thought were needed to whip them into shape for combat. That came soon enough. On September 21, Davis led the Mississippi Volunteers, with a group of Tennesseans moving at the same time, in a charge on the fort of La Tenera, one of the forts protecting the town of Monterrey. Davis and his men took the fort as the Mexicans fled, and Davis, hot in pursuit, singlehandedly captured twenty Mexican soldiers. His regiment suffered ten killed and forty-four wounded in the battle. The next day Davis and his men occupied a second fort and cleared Monterrey of snipers in house-to-house fighting, the thin Mississippi congressman bravely leading the mop-up. The Mexicans surrendered the following day, and Taylor, impressed with Davis's courage, named him one of the commissioners to work out a surrender agreement.
Back on furlough, in Mississippi, Davis was promptly hailed a hero, even though many in his regiment grumbled that they found him overbearing. After two months at home, he caught up with the army in February at Buena Vista, where he encountered General Santa Anna, who had become infamous in the United States for massacring Davy Crockett and 186 freedom fighters at the Alamo, in San Antonio, Texas, eleven years before.
At a critical juncture in the battle of Buena Vista, when the Mexicans seemed likely to overwhelm Taylor's forces, Davis spotted a group of Mexican soldiers heading toward a plateau which would give them decisive field position. He rode back to his regiment and ordered it to charge, then led 370 Mississippi volunteers against a force of nearly four thousand trained Mexican soldiers. "The moment seemed to me critical," he said, "and the occasion to require whatever sacrifice it might cost to check the enemy."
Halfway across the field toward the plateau Davis was shot in the foot. Ignoring the blood and pain (he used a handkerchief to wrap it while he stayed in the saddle), he continued to lead his men.
Later that day, Davis was caught by surprise when over two thousand Mexican cavalry charged his position. Standing in the open with untrained men and unable to muster a large enough force for an adequate defense, the quick-thinking Davis, still bleeding badly from his shattered foot and nearly immobile on his horse, organized his men and a nearby regiment into a right angle, from which they fired a withering, crosscutting volley at the Mexicans as they readied to charge. Several dozen of the enemy were killed and wounded as the entire Mexican cavalry, surprised by the ad hoc maneuver, fled across the plateau.
Jeff Davis was cited for "highly conspicuous bravery" by General Taylor. A soldier who followed him, watching his foot bleed badly in the charge, said that "he could infuse courage into the bosom of a coward, and self-respect and pride into the breast of the most abandoned. He could lead them into hell." Even the enemy had high praise for him, one Mexican general noting "the flashing sword of Davis" at Buena Vista. As a final touch, Davis played the humble soldier, content merely to serve his country, and turned down a promotion to general by a gushing President James Polk.
Jefferson Davis, his foot still mending, returned home to Mississippi a much-publicized war hero, hailed for his courage under fire and for his ability to lead men in battle by newspapers throughout the country, North and South. Only Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott received more publicity than Davis. The two generals' notoriety pushed Scott to the top of the military and enabled Taylor to become president two years later. Because he was a congressman turned patriot-soldier, Jeff Davis probably was mentioned in the newspapers more than an unknown but talented young army colonel named Robert E. Lee, whose exploits in the Mexican War had also been impressive. The dashing West Pointer Davis, the captor of Black Hawk in 1832, had done it again, helping Old Rough and Ready rout the Mexicans in 1846. He was a congressman who performed brave deeds—offering his life for his country—while other politicians merely gave speeches.
Davis's bravery at Buena Vista and Monterrey had cemented forever in the minds of Southerners the image of Jefferson Davis as a military legend, even though his heroism there was, in reality, that of a minor battlefield commander and not a strategist. He returned home in triumph. The governor of Mississippi showed his appreciation for his battlefield heroism by appointing him to fill an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate. Davis returned to Washington as a national hero who, better than anyone else, truly represented the South and its people, a man who, people whispered, might be president someday.
But Jeff Davis was troubled. The war, and his role in it, had further convinced him that his decisions were always the right ones and that his view was always correct. His role as the commander of a regiment stiffened the truculence of his personality and strengthened in him the notion that he was without question the best person to lead whatever group he belonged to, whether it was a regiment, a plantation, or a political body.
His strong-willed wife, Varina, resented the very close relationship her husband had with his older brother and married sisters. Joseph often argued with her and was highly critical of her father and brothers. Then Jeff told her he was going to redesign the main house at Brierfield so that his sister Amanda, a widow, could move in with her children. Shortly thereafter, Jeff Davis rewrote his will, leaving Varina only one-third of his estate and giving the other two-thirds to his sisters Amanda and Anna, a scheme Varina believed involved the hidden hand of his brother Joseph.
Varina exploded. Unfortunately, she said, women in the South, no matter how independent or educated, were wholly dependent on their husbands for their lifestyle, finances and, in the event of their husbands' deaths, an estate. They had no other source of livelihood. For Jefferson to give away two-thirds of his estate to his sisters and move his sister and her family into Varina's home was too much to bear. Davis shouted at her that she had no right to be so critical of him and wondered why he ever tolerated the independent thinking of such a young girl in the first place. Why didn't she know her place like all the other women who lived on plantations?
The two argued back and forth for two months, without any resolution. They were cold and aloof toward each other. Varina's resentment of Joseph and the sisters grew daily. Davis hoped that she would restrain herself, but she would not. He told his wife he didn't need that kind of turmoil on the eve of his departure for Washington to take his seat in the Senate. He would go alone. Varina stayed home, and the marriage headed toward divorce.
Davis arrived in Washington in early December, alone, and took a room in Gadsby's Hotel. Publicly, he was seen as a genuine war hero. As he hobbled about Washington on a single crutch, people gratefully held the door for him.
Privately, he was a steaming cauldron. His wrath toward Varina grew within. Finally, on edge about his wife and wondering how she could disobey him so frequently, he got into an argument at the hotel with his fellow senator from Mississippi, Henry Foote. The argument over slavery grew more intense, and suddenly Davis, unable to stand Foote's refusal to agree with him, lurched across the room and punched the senator. Before anyone realized what was happening, Jeff Davis beat up Foote. Others in the room, most of them congressmen, managed to pull him off before he injured Foote critically, but Davis broke free and threatened to kill him. Another senator grabbed Davis and punched him, and Davis punched him back, pushed him to the floor, and beat him repeatedly with his fists.
Neither senator pressed charges against Davis, and neither insisted on a duel, as they might have. Others who had been present dismissed the encounter as a holiday affray probably brought on by too much spiked punch. They had to have known, from that night on, regardless of the reason Davis snapped, whether it was the argument or his deep anger at Varina, that Jefferson Davis had a dark and sinister side. Yet they ignored it then, and they would ignore it later.
|Author to Reader|
|1||The Gentleman From Brierfield Plantation||3|
|2||A Humble Man||25|
|3||Jefferson Davis: War Hero and Rising Political Star||51|
|4||Abe Lincoln: Master Politician||73|
|5||Jefferson Davis: Secession||95|
|7||Jefferson Davis Takes Office||120|
|8||Lincoln Takes Office||135|
|9||Fort Sumter: War||151|
|10||Abe Lincoln at War: 1861||165|
|11||Jefferson Davis at War: 1861||186|
|12||The Lincolns at Home||207|
|13||The Davises at Home||224|
|14||Abraham Lincon at War: 1862||243|
|15||Abraham Lincoln: Emancipation||265|
|16||Jefferson Davis at War: 1862||279|
|17||Abraham Lincoln at War: 1863||296|
|19||The Plot to Kidnap Abraham Lincoln||333|
|20||Jefferson Davis at War: 1863||349|
|21||Jefferson Davis: Emancipation||369|
|22||Abraham Lincoln at War: 1864-1865||378|
|23||Jefferson Davis at War: 1864-1865||398|
|24||Abraham Lincoln: Final Days||419|
|25||Jefferson Davis: Final Days||427|