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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: Reflections on the Imprisonment of Jefferson Davis

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reflections on the Imprisonment of Jefferson Davis

Remarks before the Confederate Memorial Committee of the District of Columbia Confederate Cemetery and Monument
Jackson Circle, Arlington National Cemetery
June 8, 2008

By Thomas Moore

It’s a privilege and a pleasure to be here with my fellow Southerners on this auspicious day to celebrate our proud heritage and to honour our heroes. Considering the brutal heat and humidity before summer is even “official,” I must say you are heroes for coming, and I won’t abuse your gallantry by keeping you too long. But rain or shine, heat or cold, we’d better make the most of this opportunity while we can. Given the relentless attacks on all Confederate symbols and the despicable lie that equates our Flag with the swastika and characterises our Confederate ancestors as proto-Nazis, we may not be able to hold this ceremony in the future or place the Flag on the graves of our dead.

I can’t help but wonder what the sculptor of this splendid monument – the largest at Arlington National Cemetery, by the way -- might think about being called a Nazi. Some of you are here for the first time, so let me say a word about the monument and its creator before I proceed to reflect on the imprisonment of President Jefferson Davis, an extraordinary Southern hero whose birth on June 3, 1808 we celebrate in this Bicentennial Year, and to whom I’m proud to have a distant connection. My great-great grandmother was Sarah Jane Davis, the President’s niece.

The monument behind me was sculpted by a Virginian who fought with the Corps of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute at the Battle of New Market in May 1864. Just boys really, averaging only 17, they were mobilized to accompany seasoned but woefully outnumbered veterans to stop Union General Franz Sigel’s threat to the strategically vital Shenandoah Valley. The cadets were intended only to be part of the Confederate reserve, but at the critical moment in the battle, when the Federals were on the cusp of victory, General Breckinridge had no choice. “Put the boys in,” he ordered, “and may God forgive me.” Without hesitating, the cadets charged and turned the tide, saving their beloved Valley. Ten were killed or died later of wounds, and two dozen more were wounded, of the 200-plus engaged.

That valiant cadet who fought at New Market and who would today be called a Nazi by the apostles of Political Correctness was Moses Jacob Ezekiel. Yes, he was a Jew, the first to enroll at VMI, and was deeply proud of both his Southern and Sephardic heritage. During his career as one of the world’s most celebrated sculptors, he was knighted by the crowned heads of Europe and had every prize and honour heaped upon him which the fine arts can bestow. Yet before he died – and he is buried right over there, at the base of his magnificent work – this is what he asked to be inscribed on his grave marker; not his knighthood, not his many prizes and awards, but this one thing he regarded as his highest honour: “Sergeant of Company C, Battalion of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.”

I’m sure Sir Moses Ezekiel would agree, there is no more fitting place in which to honour President Jefferson Davis, “…martyr of the South, who bore alone a nation's sorrow and a nation's chains.” Like many other leaders of the War of Secession, the true nobility of his character was more fully demonstrated after the War than during the conflict. Prison often brings out the true mettle of a man or woman, especially when it’s for unjust reasons.

Davis comes down to us in the pages of history as austere and seemingly aloof. He doesn’t quite endear himself to us like other leading Confederates; lacking, for example, the colorful panache of Stuart, the appealing eccentricities of Jackson, the grave winsomeness of Lee. But he was a man of deep subterranean currents, truly a man of sorrows. He knew much tragedy and hardship in his life even before he was called upon by history to bear almost alone the harsh retribution of a victorious North -- not so much for the sin of rebellion but for the misfortune of losing; for until the passage of arms made the question moot in a practical sense at least, most Americans believed in the right of a State to secede. Recall that many States, North and South, had made the right of withdrawal a condition of their ratification of the Constitution and joining the Union. Recall that the New England States had threatened to do secede when the War of 1812 broke out and jeopardized their maritime trading interests.

Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in Christian County (now Todd County) Kentucky, scion of an illustrious American family. His father, Samuel Emory Davis, served in the Revolutionary War and participated in the siege of Savannah. Three of his older brothers served in the War of 1812, two under General Andrew Jackson.

Davis believed in the Union and was a strong defender of the Constitution. But his interpretation was consistent with what the Founders believed, including the sovereignty of the States. He became equally convinced that "The people of the States now confederated...believe that to remain longer in the Union would subject them to continuance of a disparaging discrimination, submission to which would be inconsistent with their welfare, and intolerable to a proud people. They therefore determined to sever its bounds and established a new Confederacy for themselves."

He was one of the most accomplished and successful statesmen that America has ever produced, and had the tragedy of the War Between the States not intervened in his career, who knows -- Davis’ character and gifts might have made him President of the United States.

A graduate of West Point, he served with credit in the Black Hawk wars, and married Sara Knox Taylor, daughter of his commander, Zachary Taylor. Because Taylor feared his daughter’s marriage to a junior officer was unpromising, Davis resigned his commission and moved to his plantation in Mississippi. But three months later both newlyweds contracted malaria, and Sara died. Davis was devastated. He spent the next eight years as a recluse, farming and studying law and statecraft. Ten years after his first wife's death, he married Varina Howell. This marriage was ostensibly a happy one, and the Davis’ had three sons and two daughters. Yet his encounter with personal tragedy grew with the death of their son Joseph, killed in a fall at the Confederate White House in Richmond in 1864.

When the Mexican War began in 1845, Davis resigned his seat in the House of Representatives, raised a Mississippi volunteer regiment, and fought with great distinction. After the conflict in Mexico, Davis was elected to the U.S. Senate, where his colleagues made him chairman of the military affairs committee. In 1853 President Franklin Pierce appointed him Secretary of War. Ironically, he became the best war secretary of the 19th Century, fighting to modernize the very army that a decade later would invade his own Southland. A man of great vision, he was the first to suggest the transcontinental railroad to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, first to suggest the Panama Canal Zone, and he had the wisdom to appoint Robert E. Lee Superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point.

Mississippi seceded in 1861 and Davis resigned from the Senate to return home. When the Confederate government was formed in February 1861, Davis was the obvious choice for President, although he had opposed secession -- for prudential reasons, not on principle. In later years he wrote of the great misgivings he felt on learning he’d been elected President of the new country. He would have much preferred to serve in uniform; and with his unparalleled military experience, no doubt would have made a fine battlefield commander. But however reluctant, he followed the path of duty and accepted the role history thrust on him.

After the War some laid the blame for the Confederacy's defeat on Davis. Some historians still do. But this is – was -- a short-sighted and even petulant attitude, flowing of a human need to assign blame to somebody. Given the disparities of population and the all the vital resources of war (except valour and leadership), it’s likely no one could have produced a different outcome. Yes, he made mistakes, but no one could have done a better job than Davis. Though in ill health and constant physical pain, he worked tirelessly. At the war's end he was captured, was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe at Hampton Roads, Virginia; and became the scapegoat for Northern hatred. He was kept in brutal conditions in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep, and even put in leg irons. This indignity was totally unnecessary, since he was closely confined and guarded night and day by a sentinel pacing in his cell. And though in bad health and further weakened by ill treatment, he fought fiercely when his jailers came to put the shackles on him, and it took three strong soldiers to fix them on him. Looking back from our vantage point in the pageant of human folly and injustice, I suppose we should consider Davis fortunate he wasn’t water-boarded.

As is often the case, the harsh treatment by the US Government only generated sympathy for President Davis, even in the North, where there were – and are, let us not forget – many people of good will. The Pope even sent him a crown of thorns in prison. But perhaps more important than this moral encouragement was the medical care of the prison doctor, John Craven, whose ministrations may have saved his life. Also, a leading member of the New York bar, Charles O’Conor, offered to defend Davis free of charge. Not all Northerners agreed with the Radical Republicans and their war of aggression against the South, and O’Conor was willing to put the case for the South embodied by Jefferson Davis before the tribunal of history. In the event, he never got the chance. After two years President Davis was released, never having been charged or given the trial he knew would vindicate him and the Southern cause.

Time hasn’t permitted me to do more than summarize the spiritual, physical, and intellectual powers of this remarkable Southerner. But in this Bicentennial Year I urge you to do your own study of the man. Mrs. Felicity Allen of Alabama spent more than 20 years writing what I regard as the best biography, Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart, which I heartily commend to your reading. I also recommend a splendid new book released just in time for the Davis Bicentennial by Clint Johnson: Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution and Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Mr. Johnson shows that President Lincoln did not want to imprison President Davis, but rather wanted him to escape. Lincoln, his successor, Andrew Johnson, and their cabinets feared that putting Davis on trial for treason would give him the chance to prove before the U.S. Supreme Court that secession was -- and may I say, still is -- constitutional.

Pursuit also disposes of the lie that Davis was dressed in women’s clothes when captured, as the government claimed and newspapers like the New York Times reported. Johnson catalogs the abuses the government inflicted on Davis while he was held at Fortress Monroe, trying to break him physically and psychologically – which they notably failed to do. And the government manufactured false evidence against Davis in an attempt to frame him for the assassination of President Lincoln. Johnson also reveals how U.S. Chief Justice Salmon Chase secretly met with Davis’ attorneys to keep his case from going before the entire Supreme Court. Chase feared that Davis could prove that the 620,000 deaths suffered by both sides in the War were the result of Federal aggression, not the Confederate “rebellion,” falsely so-called.

Davis died in 1889 in New Orleans, having won the heart of all Southerners, even his former critics, by his suffering and stalwart conduct in prison, and by his skillful defense of their claims; for example, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. This book was an immense achievement and is still the most masterly apologia of the cause that so many Confederates died for. Davis’ funeral was attended by thousands of mourners, and more tens of thousands of Southerners lined the railroad tracks in tribute as his body was brought from the Deep South to join other southern heroes in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Well, then, what does all this mean to us today? You’ve had a thumbnail sketch of President Davis’ career, but what does it signify? I’ll let a Northern man speak in partial answer to the question.

Back in the day when Southern heroes were also honoured as American heroes, Representative James R. Mann, Republican floor leader in Congress from Illinois, said this of Davis in a floor speech in 1913 in support of the Lincoln Monument bill:

Mr. Speaker: It is now nearly half a century since the War of the States closed and Abraham Lincoln passed beyond. There has been a lapse of time which ought to permit us to survey the situation with little bias and little passion. I have put the War of the States behind me as a great conflict which was probably inevitable. There were patriots on both sides, gallant men in opposition. I would erect a memorial to Abraham Lincoln on the farther side of the Washington Monument... And across the Potomac River, joining the then Confederate States with the Union -- aye, Mr. Speaker, in the course of years not far distant I would construct a … memorial to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States. When we have done that, we have shown the world that the hearts of all Americans beat in the present as in the past with respect and love for their leaders on both sides. We can afford to forget the animosities and the passions in the peace that passeth all understanding.

These magnanimous words by a leading Congressman from the North illustrate what is sometimes called the Grand Bargain, a kind of social truce that emerged between North and South at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century. It was in this same period that this great monument was emplaced here at Arlington and that saw the founding of the SCV and the UDC.

By then the anger of the War had cooled. Under this truce the North agreed to stop demonizing the South and acknowledge the South had been sincere and honourable in The War, though misguided in trying to break up the Union. They agreed that the courage and dedication of the Southern armies were worthy of praise, and Confederate heroes like Davis and Lee and Jackson were esteemed as American heroes.

In exchange for a modicum of respect, for being allowed to erect our Confederate monuments, fly our flags, display our symbols, and publicly honour our heroes, the South conceded it was best for the Union not to have been broken up. We became loyal, patriotic Americans, giving our full energies to building the whole country. We paid our taxes and sent our sons to fight America’s wars. We went along with the burgeoning American empire because that is what the powers decreed for us.

The South has kept this bargain many times over. No part of the country has been more loyal and more patriotic than the South. The Stars and Stripes fly more widely throughout the South than in any other region. In every war from 1865 to the present, Southern men have served bravely, representing a disproportionate share of the enlisted ranks and officer corps -- and of the dead and wounded.

But I don’t have to tell you -- the Grand Bargain has been cynically broken, even while we Southerners are expected to continue living up to it. As Dr. Clyde Wilson, our most distinguished Southern historian, has said, “Our Confederate heritage is being banished to a dark little corner of American life labeled ‘Slavery and Treason.’ The people who seek to destroy our heritage are not folks we can win over by presenting historical evidence and assuring them we are good, loyal Americans free of hate. They could not care less about truth or heritage. We are not in an argument over the interpretation of the past. Our very identity as Southerners -- today and tomorrow, as well as yesterday -- is at stake.”

The Grand Bargain has been broken, but not by us; and we need to understand fully what this signifies. The end of the truce means that the aggressive, destructive Jacobin spirit unleashed upon us in 1861, held in check for a time by the gallantry of Southern arms, and then restrained in part by the social truce of the late 1890’s and early 1900’, now seeks its long-deferred final triumph. Think of it as a delayed cultural mopping-up exercise by the Regime, or as the final round of a deadly, long-term struggle in which the War of 1861, Reconstruction, and the Great Depression and New Deal were the preceding rounds.

When Lee’s gaunt survivors marched down the lane at Appomattox to stack arms, General Joshua Chamberlain, that gallant Northern gentleman, was in command of the escorting Federals who received the surrender. Full of admiration and moved to his depths by the spectacle of such a worthy foe finally brought to bay, he gave the order to present arms. The salute was symbolic of the respect such men had earned despite the enmity of four years of bitter conflict. What does it tell us about America today that that simple gesture of respect has been withdrawn; and that now, the finest body of men who ever marched – and their Flag – are equated with the Nazi swastika and most despicable armies that ever marched?

The Grand Bargain has been broken, and in a most aggressive and implacable manner. The relentless campaign of hatred, vilification, and elimination of all things distinctly Southern from the public sphere tells the tale. Moreover, this campaign is not an inconsequential matter. It tells us our culture is marked for extinction. And if our culture is destroyed, the liberty that sprouted and flourished in its soil, the personal freedoms it sustains, will not be far behind.

The attempt to exterminate our history, our heritage, and our heroes gives us a clear picture and warning of the nature of the official Regime and its cohorts of professional South-haters. A truly free and open republic would feel no need to engage in such acts; it would respect the undeniable virtues enshrined in our proud history and heritage. The buzzwords of today’s Regime are tolerance, diversity, and multi-culturalism. If these were true sentiments instead of lies, they would include us. Davis and Lee and Jackson and Forrest and our symbols would be honoured instead of denigrated.

This elimination of disapproved facts down the Orwellian memory hole is one of the chief hallmarks of totalitarian regimes. The campaign against Southern history and identity has ominous parallels; for example, Stalin, who went to extraordinary lengths to expunge the names and images of his one-time colleagues and later rivals like Kirov and Trotsky from the pages of books and newspapers. Or Adolf Hitler, who had the ancestral village of his natural grandfather razed and tried to eliminate its very memory (from a fear the man was Jewish). The Jacobins of the French Terror, Mao Tse-Dong and the Red Chinese, and the Khmer Rouge all engaged in this most common behaviour of despots: warring against history and erasing memory. It recalls to us the words of Czech writer Milan Kundera: “The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

A people rich in memory, we Southerners understand this truth: we are what we remember. The SCV and UDC have always understood this, too; both explicitly and instinctively, in our hearts. This has been the SCV mission ever since Stephen D. Lee’s charge to the old veterans, to keep alive in the collective heart of the South the memory of the cause and the worthiness of its heroes and its symbols.

In like manner, the UDC has the mission “to collect and preserve the material necessary for a truthful history of The War Between the States, to protect, preserve, and mark the places made historic by Confederate valor… and to honor the memory of those who served and those who fell in the service of the Confederate States of America …” To its lasting credit, it was the UDC that raised the funds for this magnificent monument, and presided over its unveiling in 1914 and its presentation to the American people by President Woodrow Wilson. And many years later, when it became necessary to raise funds for its refurbishment, the SCV stepped up to that responsibility.

For the most part we Southern patriots have carried out this mission faithfully. But I must lament that today, too many individual Southerners and supposedly pro-South groups display a deep inner need to be respectable, to win the approval of the elites, the academicians and intellectuals, the information media, corporate leaders, and the political establishment – what I collectively refer to as “The Regime.” But this mindset cedes the moral high ground to the growing ranks of the South-haters. It leaves us defenceless against the blatant hostility, contempt, and lies heaped upon our symbols, our history, and our ancestors who deserve only respect, and thus by implication heaped upon us. I can speak only for myself, but these circumstances require me, as a matter of honour and good sense, to re-evaluate my relationship to the American political, educational, and cultural establishment, keeping in mind it was they who picked this fight, not I.

Southern heritage organisations have a serious responsibility, because as Jefferson Davis wisely observed, "A question settled by violence, or in disregard of law, must remain unsettled forever." The continued existence of the SCV and UDC is not justified if all we concern ourselves with is whether the uniform buttons of the 54th Virginia were inscribed with “CSA” or the State seal. No, we have bigger issues to confront as part of our continuing purpose. The question of a just, limited, and constitutional government under a system of checks and balances, and the question of whether individual liberty will survive in America, are still before us. Today they are more pressing than ever. They were not settled by the War, only driven underground, as it were. They are life-and-death questions, and it has fallen to us to ensure they are answered affirmatively in our generation.

I fear we Southerners have the defects of our virtues. Southern loyalty, patriotism, and obedience have been subverted to the enabling of Empire, “aggressive abroad and despotic at home,” in the prophetic letter of Robert E. Lee to England’s Lord Acton. For let me remind you -- an empire is not just a polity that imposes its will overseas. Lee and Lord Acton understood its aggression is also directed internally at its own citizens – or should I say, subjects. An empire is inevitably despotic at home.

Examples of this growing despotism are legion, though time doesn’t permit me to enumerate them. The U.S. government today has arrogated powers to itself that the British people even refused to grant King George III at the time of the Revolution. Like King George, the Executive Branch claims the authority to ignore laws it doesn’t like. It claims the power to seize American citizens and detain them indefinitely without benefit of legal counsel or benefit of judicial review, an unprecedented challenge to the principle of habeas corpus, the foundation of Magna Carta and all the liberties that we inherited from England’s long struggle for political liberty.

Congress has unleashed on us the so-called Patriot Acts, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and other new laws that give sweeping, unaccountable powers to an all-powerful central government. Congress has come up with a new and even worse way to expand the domestic "war on terror," now aiming at dissidents of all types that have no possible connection to terrorism.

When you allow yourself to raise such troubling issues, to speak or even think independently for yourself, you inherently challenge this despotism. This is why the myrmidons of the Regime hate the legacy that we commemorate here today -- because they fear it. Why? They know, perhaps better even than we Southerners ourselves, what it stands for. To them the ancient truths and virtues that Davis, Lee, and our Confederate ancestors embodied are the chief obstacles to their dream of dominion, of Empire, of the New World Order.

In the secret places of its darkened heart, the Regime knows this and fears, for it also knows its grip is failing. Every Empire in history has eventually collapsed from its own greed and folly and hubris – from the Babylonians of old to the Soviets of our time. The American Empire is going the same way. Every day your own observations bring you the evidence that can’t be ignored unless you’re sunk deep in denial: America is bankrupt financially and economically, over-extended and failing militarily, hollowed out and rotten spiritually and culturally. And as for politically – well, I hardly need say a word. I simply refer you to the squalid spectacle of the Presidential campaign. No possible outcome in November bodes well for our liberty or our peace or our prosperity. The Presidential election tells me we’re no longer a democracy, much less a republic.

Of course, the Regime goes to great length to maintain the outward forms if not the essence of a republic, just like the Roman emperors kept up the illusion of the republic long after Rome had become an utter tyranny. The monstrous emperor Caligula, one of the worst, even had his horse Incitatus elected to the Senate. Unlike us Americans, at least the Romans got the benefit of the entire horse!

As America’s economic and physical security continues to vanish; arrogant, overweening Government will increasingly step in with more dictatorship, more tyranny. Faced with unraveling and loss of control, the Regime knows that our history, and the example of men like Jefferson Davis somehow have the mystical power to stiffen spines, to fill the disheartened with new courage, to instill a vision of liberty.

Jefferson Davis suffered cruelly for the principles he cherished. Let us hope that we Southerners of today, committed to the same principles of liberty, which after all, are not uniquely Southern but universal and timeless, may succeed in restoring them to our country without having to pay such a price. But if not, may we show the same courage and fortitude as Davis and our Confederate ancestors, whose blood and sacrifice endowed their struggle with the power to move and inspire like no other, after the passage of all the long years. And if we are called upon to suffer imprisonment – no longer such a far-fetched possibility -- or if it’s simply abuse, ridicule, insult, humiliation, or loss of position and livelihood to the scourge of Political Correctness, let us take what comfort we can from the motto which is also a most fitting tribute to Jefferson Davis: Deo vindice. Let God vindicate.

Thomas Moore is the author of THE HUNT FOR CONFEDERATE GOLD


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