Jefferson Davis Doesn’t Deserve Any Monuments

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis (Wikipedia)

Communities across the U.S have recently started removing public monuments dedicated to the Confederacy because white supremacists have adopted them as favored symbols. There’s also a growing recognition that most Confederate monuments weren’t erected to honor the sacrifices made by Confederate soldiers, but were built as part of a longstanding historical revisionist campaign, called the Lost Cause, to rewrite history in order to portray the  Confederacy in a favorable manner.

There are a lot of different types of Confederate monuments scattered across the country. Those located on Civil War battlefields or graveyards, for example, are mostly historical, and they should not be removed. But there are many that glorify the Confederacy, like the monuments dedicated to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and they don’t deserve to be maintained.

Davis, like many other Confederate politicians and soldiers, served his country honorably before the Civil War. He was born in 1808 in Kentucky and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1828 and then was stationed on the frontier at Fort Crawford, in modern day Wisconsin. He resigned from the army in 1835 and eventually settled down to run a plantation in Mississippi with many slaves.

He got involved in local Democratic Party politics and was was elected by Mississippi voters to the U.S House of Representatives in 1845. But he resigned from Congress when the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846. He raised and commanded a volunteer regiment from Mississippi and led his unit in the important American victories at the 1846 Battle of Monterrey and the 1847 Battle of Buena Vista, where he was wounded in the foot.

The governor of Mississippi recognized Davis’s war service by appointing him to the state’s vacant U.S. Senate seat in late 1847 and he subsequently won elections to stay in that office. But he resigned the Senate in 1851 to run for the governorship of Mississippi as a candidate opposed to the Compromise of 1850,  which he thought was unfair to the slave states. He lost by a narrow margin but remained active in politics and in 1853 newly elected President Franklin Pierce, a fellow Democrat, appointed Davis to be the U.S. Secretary of War.

In 1853, during his tenure as the secretary of war, Davis helped persuade Pierce to make the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico to acquire the land needed to build a southern transcontinental railroad. (Something many Southerners wanted.) He also helped to modernize the U.S. Army.

After Pierce lost his presidential reelection campaign, Mississippi voters once again elected Davis to the U.S. Senate. When he assumed office in 1857 the issue of slavery was tearing the country apart, largely as a result of the Supreme Court’s controversial Dred Scott decision.

Many Southern leaders, including Davis, were vocal proponent of states’ rights. They believed that each state was sovereign, and that the national government derived all of its authority from the states, so every state had the right to unilaterally secede from the U.S. Their affection for states’ rights was generated by a desire to preserve the economic institution slavery, so they were alarmed when  Republican anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected U.S. president in the fall of 1860. Lincoln didn’t propose to abolish slavery in the South, only to prohibit it from being allowed in any new states. But Southern leaders believed that slavery had to expand in order to survive, so why should they until they were injured before they seceded?

Davis cautioned Southerners against seceding over the issue of slavery because he didn’t think the North would allow it, and he doubted the South could defeat the North in a war. But then his home state of Mississippi seceded in January 0f 1861. The Mississippi state government issued A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union which stated:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

Note: Mississippi didn’t officially ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, until February 7, 2013.

After Mississippi seceded, Davis resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate and returned to Mississippi, ending his loyalty to the United States. He offered his services to the state’s governor, but his political opinions were so well known across the South that at the Confederacy’s constitutional convention in Montgomery, Alabama, in February, 1861, he was enthusiastically elected president of the Confederate States of America.

Jefferson Davis coin, 1861
Popular coin in 1861

The U.S. Civil War started when Confederate forces, with Davis’s approval, started bombarding the Union garrison of Fort Sumter  in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12 because they refused to surrender their fort. Subsequently, on April 15 U.S. President Abraham issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 troops to put down the insurrection.

Davis responded on April 29 with a speech to the Confederate congress wherein he said the Confederacy was ready for a fight. The long speech included a defense of slavery:

In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of the wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people;

Davis presumed that European countries would take the Confederacy’s side in the war because they’d want to protect their access to the South’s cotton, and he sent emissaries to Europe to solicit their help. But despite the success of the Union’s naval blockade at stopping most Southern cotton exports, no foreign government officially recognized the Confederacy.

In July of 1862 Congress passed the Militia Act, which allowed African-Americans to join the Union army – and thousands did. Then that September President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all of the slaves in the Confederate states effective January 1, 1863. Davis responded by issuing a proclamation of his own in December. It declared that the Union officers commanding black troops were to be considered criminals and executed if captured. As for the black troops, Davis ordered that, “all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” In other words, put into slavery or executed.

The Confederacy’s subsequent refusal to recognize captured black Union troops as legitimate prisoners of war prompted Lincoln to suspend all military prisoner exchanges with the South in the summer of 1863. This undoubtedly contributed to the number of deaths among Union soldiers at the infamous Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia.

In January 1864 Davis received a petition signed by several Confederate army officers that called for a law allowing the emancipation and enlistment of slaves into the Confederate army to help solve their serious manpower shortage. Davis declined to show it to the Confederate Congress and told the officers to drop the matter.

But Davis grew desperate as the Civil War progressed it and became obvious that the South was facing defeat. In March of 1865 he supported the passage of legislation that allowed the Confederate Army to enlist free black men and slaves that were granted their freedom by their masters so they could go fight for the Confederacy. Almost nothing came from it, despite Southern newspaper propaganda that thousands of blacks were enlisting.

On April 3, 1865, Davis and his government were forced to flee the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, to avoid capture by Union troops. Subsequently, on April 9 Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his 28,000 man Army of Northern Virginia, without Davis’s approval, after they had been surrounded by Union forces at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

Then on April 14 Confederate terrorist John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died from his wound the following day. Davis received a telegram informing him of Lincoln’s assassination on April 19 while he was on the run in North Carolina. He is reported to have feared the vengeance of the North when he said, “I fear it will be disastrous for our people.”

On April 20 Robert E. Lee wrote a letter to Davis explaining why he’d been forced to surrender his army. Lee also recommended against resorting to a guerrilla war to continue the fight against the Union, as the South no longer had any chance of achieving independence. “To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace,” Lee wrote.

Jefferson Davis monument - New Orleans
Jefferson Davis monument, New Orleans, LA (Natalie Burgess)

Davis, however, refused to give up. The Confederacy’s largest remaining army, commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston, was encamped nearby. Johnston had realized further resistance was futile after learning of Lee’s surrender. He knew the Union troops that had defeated Lee would now be turned against him, and he was already being pursued by a large Union army under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Johnston met with Sherman at Bennet Place, near Durham, North Carolina on April 17. The following day they signed surrender papers that included some political concessions that Davis had insisted upon. But on April 24 U.S. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant arrived and informed Sherman the agreement had been rejected in Washington, D.C., because the political concessions were unacceptable. Upon learning of the rejection, Davis instructed Johnston to disband his infantry and escape with his mounted troops to continue the fight. But Johnston ignored him and on April 26 he agreed to a revised surrender agreement that was solely focused on military issues, ending the war for more than 89,000 Confederate soldiers. This led to the eventual surrender of the remaining Confederates armies across the South. Davis considered Johnston’s surrender to be a traitorous act and kicked him out of what little remained of the Confederate army on May 2.

Davis was till on the run when Union soldiers finally captured him in Irwinville, Georgia, on May 10. He was imprisoned and indicted for treason. But he still didn’t give up. He welcomed his impending trial because he thought it would allow him to prove in court that states had the right to secede. But his trial kept getting delayed so Davis was bailed out of prison after two years by prominent Northerners who believed that, just like anyone else, he deserved a speedy trial. Davis remained under indictment, however, until Lincoln’s successor, Southern Democratic President Andrew Johnson, pardoned all former Confederates on Christmas Day 1868.

Republican Ulysses S. Grant assumed office in 1870 and made Reconstruction in the South a priority. Davis lived in the South during the  Reconstruction Era, which lasted until 1877. He didn’t publicly comment on the situation, but he privately complained that Republican control of the former Confederate states was unjust, especially because of the Union Army’s enforcement of civil rights for blacks, as he believed that white people were superior. He ended his public silence in 1881 with the publication of his book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. He said he wrote it for the purpose of “setting the righteous motives of the South before the world.” It was a defense of the old Southern way of life, and it made him very popular at Lost Cause events across the South. He made public statements in support of national unity, but he never admitted that anything he believed in was wrong, and he never expressed any remorse for his part in starting the Civil War before he died in 1889.

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