Letters from Prison: Jefferson Davis to his Wife, 1865-1866
A printing from the manuscripts at Transylvania University
Edited with an introduction by Felicity Allen
The letters bundled here hang naturally together: All are written from one person to another, always the same persons. The place named in the dateline is invariable: Fortress Monroe, Virginia. The dates (August 21, 1865-April 23, 1866) bind these missives in a span of eight months. Then there is a little note tying them all together. All of which gives us a unity of time and space and action reminiscent of classic European drama. There is plenty of drama, for these are some of the most turbulent months in American history. We are spared tragedy by the character of the protagonist.
When our letters begin, society has been torn apart by what is now called, inaccurately, “The Civil War,” or worse, “The Rebellion”; but more aptly known as “The War for Southern Independence” or “The War of Northern Aggression”; or simply, “The War Between the States.” (How about “The Late Unpleasantness”?) Now the equally bitter, perhaps more bitter, period known as “Reconstruction” is beginning. The land war ended in either April or May of 1865, depending on whether you take for the end, the surrender of the two main Southern armies under Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston (April), or the capture of the President of the Confederate States of America (May).
President Jefferson Davis (hereafter JD) is the author of our letters. That May he was on a trip (he never would call it “flight”) from his capital, Richmond, Virginia, towards his Trans-Mississippi Department. “Mississippi” here means the River. Across it lies the vast Department – all of Texas, much of adjoining States, and some Territories. There he hoped to find a body of troops still organized enough to continue fighting for a separate country of Southern States.
Davis was capable of leading such a force himself. He was a West Point graduate (1828) and a hero of the Mexican War. As colonel of the First Mississippi Rifles, he had insisted that every man be armed with this new weapon rather than the old musket. It was the first American regiment so armed. In 1861 he had already been appointed Major General over all the Mississippi state troops when he was called to the less agreeable duty of political head for the entire nation. He had had plenty of practice for that too, having served the United States in both the House and the Senate, and in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce as Secretary of War. The commander of the Trans-Mississippi, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, wanted to keep up the fight. He held out until May 26, but on May 10 his Commander-in-Chief was captured by Union troops in Georgia— almost by accident.
The First Lady of the Confederacy, Varina Banks Howell Davis (hereafter VD), is the sole recipient of our letters and the little extra note. She had left Richmond several days before it fell to the Yankees. Her husband had insisted that she take their children to a safer place, escorted by his private secretary, Burton N. Harrison. There were four Davis children then: Margaret (Maggie or Polly), 10 years old; Jeff Jr., eight and a half; Billy, three and a half; and Varina Anne, a babe in arms, (nicknamed Pie; Piecake; Li’l Pie; L.P.; and, finally, Winnie or Winnanne). There had been two more children. The first, Samuel Emory, had died of an unknown disease before he was two years old; and Joseph Evan had fallen recently from a high balustrade behind the Confederate White House in Richmond, and died when he was five, in 1864. These children, both living and dead, occupy the thoughts of their parents all through the letters.
There was a fifth child on the road with Varina, a little orphaned mulatto of about five whom she had rescued from cruelty on a Richmond street and taken into the White House to live. VD in her wonderfully detailed history, Jefferson Davis… a Memoir by his Wife, tells how the boy called himself “Jim Limber” in his everyday clothes, but in his best suit on Sunday said he was “Jeems Henry Brooks.” The suit was for church-going. The Davises belonged to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church across from Capitol Square. The frequent BCP in the notes to our letters refers to the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. We will find JD in prison reading every day the regular church services (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer); on some days The Litany and Communion Service; and every night the wholly different set of Family Prayers designed for use at home. He uses the Tables in the front of the Book to find what Bible lessons and Psalms to read. A separate list gives him readings for feast days. The Bible passages are all in the King James Version, except for Psalms. The Psalter BCP is the earlier translation of Miles Coverdale (1549).
VD was not sure, with the world in flux around her now, what to do with her helpless little charges. Her sister, Margaret Howell, at least was there to help. VD had a vague hope of taking ship for Europe where she could get proper schooling for the children – always a foremost concern with the Davises. Her train now consisted of several mule wagons and a little covered wagon called an “ambulance,” with a number of paroled Southern soldiers riding their own horses escorting VD and also going home. Their pace, always west/southwest, was necessarily slow.
Unknown to them, JD was following their route on horseback. He had dismissed the military units who had guarded his route from North Carolina, and now had only ten men with him as he moved through middle Georgia. He had stayed in Richmond till the last moment. Then on the very last train out, he had brought as many official papers and as many officials as he could. These men kept the Confederate government going for several weeks. We meet these men and many others of the “Lost Cause” in the letters. Judah Benjamin, a true Davis friend, and the South’s last Secretary of State, came with him but soon found his rotund figure unsuited to horseback, and set out for the Gulf Coast behind wheels, planning to reach the Trans-Mississippi by boat. George Davis (Attorney General) and George Trenholm (Secretary of the Treasury) left the party for good reasons, but were captured elsewhere later. John H. Reagan (Postmaster General) and Frank Lubbock, JD’s aide-de-camp specialist on the Trans-Mississippi (governor of Texas 1861-63) were already heading homeward, yet they made a pact between them never to leave JD, but to share whatever his fate was to be.
It was to be captured. He had overtaken his wife’s little caravan only a few days before. His men fretted about the slow pace of the wagons, so he led them westward rapidly once more. Then rumors of a plan to attack the wagon train reached them. They went back to ensure the family’s safety. While they were camped for the night, Yankee soldiers surrounded them.
The soldiers were jubilant when they found they had captured the President. It meant they would get the gold promised in a proclamation by the new U. S. president, Andrew Johnson. The proclamation also announced to the world, without a shred of evidence, that JD was suspected of complicity in the murder of Abraham Lincoln which had occurred on April 14. Davis knew he was innocent. He also knew that to say so to these people now would be, in a favorite phrase of his, “worse than useless.”
These same soldiers took their prisoners, who now included the C. S. vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, and the ex-senator from Alabama, Clement Clay and his wife, Virginia, to the coast at Savannah. Then an ocean-going steamer, the Clyde, took them up the East Coast to Hampton Roads where their destination, Fortress Monroe, loomed.
Most of the prisoners were sent to other strongholds. Stephens was jailed in Boston Harbor. Burton Harrison found himself in Washington D. C. among those being tried for Lincoln’s death, then locked up at the Fort Delaware jail.
The prisoners were kept waiting on the Clyde for several days while two stone gun emplacements in the fort were turned into two little cells—one for Clay, one for Davis – complete with iron bars and guard rooms adjoining so that the prisoners would always be in sight. No one could speak to them or shake their hand, and soldiers were to pace within the little cells day and night. We can see in our letters something of the effect on them of this loss of all privacy and all contact with other people. They were entering the harrowing trial of solitary confinement. Just before Davis was taken from the Clyde to this living tomb, embracing Varina for the last time, he whispered his statement on the Proclamation: “No matter what evidence the North may adduce, remember my dying testimony to you is that I had no part in assassination.”
Clement Clay was the only other man named with Davis in the Proclamation as a conspirator, with the same price on his head. The moment he heard that the United States was trying to smear him with the death of Lincoln, Clay immediately went to the nearest army post and gave himself up. He had been about to set out for the Trans-Mississippi, but he knew he was innocent of this charge and felt compelled to say so. The post Clay found was at Macon, Georgia, the very one to which the Davis party was being escorted. Poor Clay! The soldiers seemed to be interested only in the gold offered for his capture. To make sure they got it, they said they had “arrested” him, and treated him like a dangerous criminal.
Clay and Davis were old friends from their U. S. Senate days when they represented Alabama and Mississippi. Clay had often visited and read to Davis when he was desperately ill in 1858. Clay soon lay very sick in the prison. Surely Davis remembered and wished to do the same for Clay when he wrote Varina, “I earnestly desired to be with him.”
In the original manuscripts at Transylvania University (JD’s alma mater, by the way) the next item after our letters is dated September 21, 1866 – five months after the last full letter in our set. This is a tiny triangle folded from a single small sheet of writing paper, creating its own envelope. It is addressed not to “Varina Davis,” but to “Mrs. Jefferson Davis,” and not to somewhere in Georgia, but to “Carroll Hall.” But Carroll Hall was located within Fortress Monroe! It was the quarters for artillery officers coming to learn how to manage the big guns which guarded the East Coast. The place in the dateline, for once, is not “Fortress Monroe,” it is “Prison.”
This dateline tells us so much: there have been no letters since April because Varina has won her heart’s desire, cherished through every letter, every repulse, every disappointment —she is with her husband and has a place to live within the fort. The body of the note reveals that Pie Cake is with her. So why does JD suddenly say “Prison”? Because, though Varina has worked wonders getting permission for JD to go within the fort where he pleases during the day, still at night he has to go back to his prison cell, the same small stone enclosure where he has endured all these months. Soon he will have a new wooden cell in Carroll Hall, and the next step is, the Davises will have an apartment together there and will be entertaining friends who visit. This little piece of paper allows us to pass through all the sadness in the letters knowing that, just as JD says, everything will turn out right because God is in charge. Eventually the Davises will be released, reunited with their older children, and will spend many years enjoying the quiet life they looked forward to in the letters.
Jeff and Varina Davis look out on a changing world. They look out on their society which has been blown to bits by the war. They are homeless and poor. They have lost everything material, but they still have each other and the family. They have a lot to say about that broken world. The piece by piece revelation of their relations with their servants alone would repay our reading. Only Jeff’s words are printed, and, yet, Varina’s voice is mirrored in his, they are so close. Listen to them.
Jefferson Davis’s prose is of an excellent order – strong and clear and at times beautiful. See his description of The Iliad. We allow him all his nineteenth century peculiarities: we pass over “your’s” for “yours”; we keep “myself” and “yourself” where it should be “me” and “you”; and we let innumerable comma faults slip by. It is evident even in these few letters that his style is enriched by a lifetime of reading classic works of British and American history and literature and is kept fresh by acquaintance with popular novels from Mary Shelley through Dickens and Thackery.
As editor of this series of letters, my ambition has been to present them exactly as they are in the manuscripts at Transylvania, only with such material, always set off in brackets, as identification or explanation demands for clarity. Only in the first letter have I pointed out all the rough places and the afterthoughts written between the lines in a tiny, precise script. This is because they seem to reflect his illness at the time. Any others will be indicated by “Intl.” for “Interlined,” but printed on the same line as the text. I believe this is the first printing of each of these twenty letters in its entirety, word for word as it came from the hand of Jefferson Davis. I remember as I aim at absolute accuracy the remark of A. E. Housman about his poems in this regard: “Vain hope.” Yet I hope on and check my transcriptions one more time.
I am eternally grateful to Dr. Donald Livingston for his encouragement of this project and for his immense patience. Thanks are due also for help afforded me from the keeper of the texts, B. J. Gooch, Special Collections Librarian at Transylvania, and by Michelle Rodriguez at Beauvoir. My main printed help came from the beautifully edited Papers of J.D., Vol. 12, which deals with our letters. I could not have succeeded at all without the secretarial assistance of my daughter, Mary Christine, and her husband, David Bradshaw of Lexington, Kentucky; most especially, indeed heroically offered, that of Miss Mary Neyer of Catawissa, Pennsylvania; and that of my granddaughter, Elizabeth Earnest, of Auburn, Alabama. The prayers of my friend, Christine Benagh, kept me on track. With thanks to all who helped in any way.
Felicity Allen is an independent scholar residing in Lexington, Kentucky. She is the author of Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart. (University of Missouri Press, 1999).