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“Panic has seized the country,” writes Confederate President Jefferson Davis

“Panic has seized the country,” writes Confederate President Jefferson Davis

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Confederate President Jefferson Davis writes to his wife, Varina, of the desperate situation facing the Confederates.

“Panic has seized the country,” he wrote to his wife in Georgia. Davis was in Charlotte, North Carolina, on his flight away from Yankee troops. It was three weeks since Davis had fled the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, as Union troops were overrunning the trenches nearby. Davis and his government headed west to Danville, Virginia, in hopes of reestablishing offices there. When Confederate General Robert E. Lee was forced to surrender his army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, Davis and his officials traveled south in hopes of connecting with the last major Confederate army, the force of General Joseph Johnston. Johnston, then in North Carolina, was himself in dire straits, as General William T. Sherman’s massive force was bearing down.

Davis continued to his wife, “The issue is one which it is very painful for me to meet. On one hand is the long night of oppression which will follow the return of our people to the ‘Union'; on the other, the suffering of the women and children, and carnage among the few brave patriots who would still oppose the invader.” The Davises were reunited a few days later as the president continued to flee and continue the fight. Two weeks later, Union troops finally captured the Confederate president in Georgia. Davis was charged with treason, but never tried. In 1889, he died at age 81.

“Panic has seized the country,” writes Confederate President Jefferson Davis - HISTORY

Sunday, April 23, 1865 : U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles orders all Mississippi River vessels be searched for Jefferson Davis. Cavalry troops skirmish near Henderson, North Carolina and with Wilson’s Raiders at Munford’s Station, Alabama. Major General Horatio G. Wright (US) leads a Federal expedition from Burkeville and Petersburg to Danville and South Boston, Virginia, and captures 500 prisoners and the few remaining Confederate railroad locomotives, cannons, and other military stores.

Now on the run with his cabinet Confederate President Jefferson Davis writes to his wife, Varina, of the desperate situating facing the Confederates. “Panic has seized the country,” he wrote to his wife in Georgia, “The issue is one which it is very painful for me to meet. On one hand is the long night of oppression which will follow the return of our people to the ‘Union' on the other, the suffering of the women and children, and carnage among the few brave patriots who would still oppose the invader.”

Monday, April 24, 1865 : Federal troops continue their hunt for the conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth along with David Herold arrive at Port Conway, Virginia. In Maryland, authorities arrest Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set Booth’s broken leg. Lincoln’s body lies in state in New York. President Andrew Johnson (US) refuses the terms of surrender proposed for Confederate Joseph E. Johnston, because it included certain rights to all Southerners under the US Constitution. President Johnson (US) demands the troops under General Joseph E. Johnston (CSA) must unconditionally surrender within 48 hours or face further retaliation.

Tuesday, April 25, 1865 : General Grant meets with General Sherman (US) and orders him to resume hostilities against Johnston (CSA) until a proper surrender had been negotiated. General Joseph E. Johnston (CSA) informs Confederate President Jefferson Davis that he would have to surrender to Sherman regardless of what terms were laid down. General Joseph E. Johnston (CSA) and General Sherman continue their peace talks.

Lincoln’s funeral train continues its journey on its way to Springfield, Illinois and is met by vast crowds. Conspirators Booth and Herold are traced to the farm of Richard H Garrett, south of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. The Confederate steamer, CSS Webb is captured and burned on the Mississippi River near New Orleans. The crew escapes but later is captured as well.

Wednesday, April 26, 1865 : Twelve days after shooting of the President of the US, soldiers surround the Garrett barn in the early morning hours. Conspirator, David Herold surrenders, but assassin, John Wilkes Booth refuses and troops light the barn on fire. Booth is shot in the neck. He is shot, probably by a federal trooper, but possibly by his own hand. Booth dies at sunrise.

The Confederate cabinet members meet in Charlotte, North Carolina and plan to flee across the Mississippi. Confederate Attorney General George Davis returns home instead. Agreeing to the same terms as Lee, General Johnston surrenders the Army of Tennessee (CSA) and all remaining Confederate forces still active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida – it is the largest surrender of the war (89,270 soldiers). Sherman even provides Johnston’s men with 10 days of food rations and transportation to their homes. P. G. T. Beauregard (CSA) surrenders at Durham Station, North Carolina. Although (CSA) President Jefferson Davis is firmly set against surrender, and many commanders (including Forrest in Alabama and Kirby-Smith in Texas) still know nothing of either surrender, the loss of both Lee’s and Johnston’s armies – the largest remaining forces – essentially means that the Civil War has ended.

Thursday, April 27, 1865 : In Bolivar, Tennessee 17 year old Sally Wendel Fentress comments in her journal on the Lincoln assassination: “Saw a paper this evening continuing a letter from John Wilkes Booth in which he intimated his intention of doing some desperate act in revenge for the tyranny practiced upon the people of the South. His name should be written on the highest pinnacle of fame for that one deed. He has sacrificed more than any of his contemporaries, sacrificed his profession which brought him twenty thousand a year, home, friends, family, all for ridding the world of the most consummate villain under the sun.”

Approximately 1800 former Union prisoners die as the steamer Sultana blows up in the Mississippi, River. Confederate Treasury Secretary, G.A. Trenholm resigns. The body of Booth is autopsied and positively identified on the U.S.S. Montauk . He is later interred at the Washington Artillery. On the boat, other conspirators including David E. Herold are imprisoned.

Friday, April 28, 1865 : President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train arrives in Cleveland, Ohio, where over 50,000 mourners view his coffin. Jefferson Davis continues to move further away from Federal forces.

Saturday, April 29, 1865 : On the Cumberland River near Eddyville, Kentucky the USS Moose captured a Confederate raiding party numbering about 200 Confederates under the command of Brig. General Abram Burford.


Varina Anne Banks Howell was born in 1826 at Natchez, Mississippi, the daughter of William Burr Howell and Margaret Louisa Kempe. Her father was from a distinguished family in New Jersey: His father, Richard Howell, served several terms as Governor of New Jersey and died when William was a boy. William inherited little money and used family connections to become a clerk in the Bank of the United States.

William Howell relocated to Mississippi, when new cotton plantations were being rapidly developed. There he met and married Margaret Louisa Kempe (1806–1867), born in Prince William County, Virginia. Her wealthy planter family had moved to Mississippi before 1816. [1] She was the daughter of Colonel Joseph Kempe (sometimes spelled Kemp), a Scots-Irish immigrant from Ulster who became a successful planter and major landowner in Virginia and Mississippi, and Margaret Graham, born in Prince William County. Margaret Graham was illegitimate as her parents, George Graham, a Scots immigrant, and Susanna McAllister (1783–1816) of Virginia, never officially married. [2] [3]

After moving his family from Virginia to Mississippi, Joseph Kempe also bought land in Louisiana, continuing to increase his holdings and productive capacity. When his daughter married Howell, he gave her a dowry of 60 slaves and 2,000 acres (8.1 km 2 ) of land in Mississippi. [4] William Howell worked as a planter, merchant, politician, postmaster, cotton broker, banker, and military commissary manager, but never secured long-term financial success. He lost the majority of Margaret's sizable dowry and inheritance through bad investments and their expensive lifestyle. They suffered intermittent serious financial problems throughout their lives. [5]

Varina was born in Natchez, Mississippi as the second Howell child of eleven, seven of whom survived to adulthood. She was later described as tall and thin, with an olive complexion attributed to Welsh ancestors. [6] (Later when she was living in Richmond as the unpopular First Lady of the Confederacy, critics described her as looking like a mulatto or Indian "squaw".) [7]

When Varina was thirteen, her father declared bankruptcy. The Howell family home, furnishings and slaves were seized by creditors to be sold at public auction. [8] Her wealthy maternal relatives intervened to redeem the family's property. It was one of several sharp changes in fortune that Varina encountered in her life. She grew to adulthood in a house called The Briars, when Natchez was a thriving city, but she learned her family was dependent on the wealthy Kempe relatives of her mother's family to avoid poverty. [ citation needed ]

Varina Howell was sent to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for her education, where she studied at Madame Deborah Grelaud's French School, a prestigious academy for young ladies. [9] Grelaud, a Protestant Huguenot, was a refugee from the French Revolution and had founded her school in the 1790s. [9] One of Varina's classmates was Sarah Anne Ellis, later known as Sarah Anne Dorsey, the daughter of extremely wealthy Mississippi planters. (After the Civil War, Dorsey, by then a wealthy widow, provided financial support to the Davises.) [ citation needed ]

While at school in Philadelphia, Varina got to know many of her northern Howell relatives she carried on a lifelong correspondence with some, and called herself a "half-breed" for her connections in both regions. [10] After a year, she returned to Natchez, where she was privately tutored by Judge George Winchester, a Harvard graduate and family friend. She was intelligent and better educated than many of her peers, which led to tensions with Southern expectations for women. [8] In her later years, Varina referred fondly to Madame Grelaud and Judge Winchester she sacrificed to provide the highest quality of education for her two daughters in their turn. [ citation needed ]

In 1843, at age 17, Howell was invited to spend the Christmas season at Hurricane Plantation, the 5,000 acres (20 km 2 ) property of family friend Joseph Davis. Her parents had named their oldest child after him. Located at Davis Bend, Mississippi, Hurricane was 20 miles south of Vicksburg. Davis was planning a gala housewarming with many guests and entertainers to inaugurate his lavish new mansion on the cotton plantation. (Varina described the house in detail in her memoirs.) During her stay, she met her host's much younger brother Jefferson Davis. Then thirty-five years old, Davis was a West Point graduate, former Army officer, and widower. He worked as a planter, having developed Brierfield Plantation on land his brother allowed him to use (but retained possession of.) [ citation needed ]

Jefferson Davis was a 35-year-old widower when he and Varina met. His first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of his commanding officer Zachary Taylor while he was in the Army, had died of malaria three months after their wedding in 1835. Davis mourned her and had been reclusive in the ensuing eight years. He was beginning to be active in politics.

Shortly after first meeting him, Howell wrote to her mother:

I do not know whether this Mr. Jefferson Davis is young or old. He looks both at times but I believe he is old, for from what I hear he is only two years younger than you are [the rumor was correct]. 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, which offends me yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself. The fact is, he is the kind of person I should expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward. [11]

In keeping with custom, Davis sought the permission of Howell's parents before beginning a formal courtship. They initially disapproved of him due to the many differences in background, age, and politics. Davis was a Democrat and the Howells, including Varina, were Whigs. In her memoir, Varina Howell Davis wrote that her mother was concerned about Jefferson Davis's excessive devotion to his relatives (particularly his older brother Joseph, who had largely raised him and upon whom he was financially dependent) and his near worship of his deceased first wife. The Howells ultimately consented to the courtship, and the couple became engaged soon after. [ citation needed ]

Their wedding was planned as a grand affair to be held at Hurricane Plantation during Christmas of 1844, but the wedding and engagement were cancelled shortly beforehand, for unknown reasons. In January 1845, while Howell was ill with a fever, Davis frequently visited her. They became engaged again. When they married on February 26, 1845 at her parents' house, a few relatives and friends of the bride attended, and none of the groom's family.

Their short honeymoon included a visit to Davis's aged mother, Jane Davis, and a visit to the grave of his first wife in Louisiana. The newlyweds took up residence at Brierfield, the plantation Davis had developed on 1,000 acres (4.0 km 2 ) loaned to him for his use by his brother Joseph Davis. Their first residence was a two-room cottage on the property, and they started construction of a main house. It became a source of contention.

Soon after their marriage, Davis's widowed and penniless sister, Amanda (Davis) Bradford, came to live on the Brierfield property along with her seven youngest children. Her brothers decided that she should share the large house which the Davises were building, but they had not consulted Varina Davis. It was an example of what she would later call interference from the Davis family in her life with her husband. Her brother-in-law Joseph Davis proved controlling, not only of his brother, who was 23 years younger, but of the even younger Varina during her husband's absences. At the same time, her parents became more financially dependent on the Davises, to her embarrassment and resentment. Their youngest son, born after her own marriage, was named Jefferson Davis Howell in her husband's honor.

The couple had long periods of separation from early in their marriage, first as Jefferson Davis gave campaign speeches and "politicked" (or campaigned) for himself and for other Democratic candidates in the elections of 1846. He was also gone for extended periods during the Mexican War (1846–1848). Varina Davis was put under the guardianship of Joseph Davis, whom she had come to dislike intensely. Her correspondence with her husband during this time demonstrated her growing discontent, with which Jefferson was not particularly sympathetic.

Jefferson Davis was elected in 1846 to the U.S. House of Representatives and Varina accompanied him to Washington, D.C., which she loved. She was stimulated by the social life with intelligent people and was known for making "unorthodox observations". Among them were that "slaves were human beings with their frailties" and that "everyone was a 'half breed' of one kind or another." She referred to herself as one because of her strong family connections in both North and South. [12] The Davises lived in Washington, DC for most of the next fifteen years before the American Civil War, which gave Varina Howell Davis a broader outlook than many Southerners. It was her favorite place to live. But, as an example of their many differences, her husband preferred life on their Mississippi plantation. [13]

Soon he took leave from his Congressional position to serve as an officer in the Mexican–American War (1846–1848). Varina Davis returned for a time to Brierfield, where she chafed under the supervision of her brother-in-law, Joseph. The surviving correspondence between the Davises from this period expresses their difficulties and mutual resentments. After her husband's return from the war, Varina Davis did not immediately accompany him to Washington when the Mississippi legislature appointed him to fill a Senate seat.

Ultimately the couple reconciled. She rejoined her husband in Washington. He had unusual visibility for a freshman senator, because of his connections as the son-in-law (by his late wife) and former junior officer of President Zachary Taylor. Varina Davis enjoyed the social life of the capital and quickly established herself as one of the city's most popular (and, in her early 20s, one of the youngest) hostesses and party guests. The 1904 memoir of her contemporary, Virginia Clay-Clopton, described the lively parties of the Southern families in this period with other Congressional delegations, as well as international representatives of the diplomatic corps. [14] [15]

After seven childless years, in 1852 Varina Davis gave birth to a son, Samuel. Her letters from this period express her happiness and portray Jefferson as a doting father. The couple had a total of six children:

  • Samuel Emory Davis, born July 30, 1852, named after his paternal grandfather he died June 30, 1854, of an undiagnosed disease. [16]
  • Margaret Howell Davis, born February 25, 1855. [17] She married Joel Addison Hayes, Jr. (1848–1919), and they lived first in Memphis, Tennessee later they moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado. They had five children, including a daughter named after her mother Margaret was the only Davis child to marry and raise a family. She married Joel Addison Hayes in Memphis on New Year's Day, 1876. She, her husband and family moved to Colorado Springs in 1885, where they soon became leading members of local society. Many of J. Addison and Margaret Hayes' descendants still reside in the area. She died on July 18, 1909 at the age of 54 and is buried with the Davis family at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. [18]
  • Jefferson Davis Jr., born January 16, 1857. He died in Memphis, Tennessee of yellow fever at age 21 on October 16, 1878, during an epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that caused 20,000 deaths. [19]
  • Joseph Evan Davis, born on April 18, 1859, died at the age of five due to an accidental fall on April 30, 1864. [20]
  • William Howell Davis, born on December 6, 1861, was named for Varina's father he died of diphtheria on October 16, 1872. [21] was born on June 27, 1864, two months after Joseph's death. Known as the "Daughter of the Confederacy", she died at age 34 on September 18, 1898, of gastritis. After her parents had opposed her marriage in the late 1880s to a man from a Northern, abolitionist family, she never married. [22]

The Davises were devastated in 1854 when their first child died before the age of two. Varina Davis largely withdrew from social life for a time. In 1855, she gave birth to a healthy daughter, Margaret (1855–1909) followed by two sons, Jefferson, Jr., (1857–1878) and Joseph (1859–1864), during her husband's remaining tenure in Washington, D.C. The early losses of all four of their sons was a source of enormous grief to both the Davises. [ citation needed ]

During the Pierce Administration, Davis was appointed to the post of Secretary of War. He and President Franklin Pierce formed a personal friendship that would last for the rest of Pierce's life. Their wives developed a strong respect, as well. The Pierces lost their last surviving child, Benny, shortly before his father's inauguration. They both suffered Pierce became dependent on alcohol and Jane Appleton Pierce had health problems, including depression. At the request of the Pierces, the Davises, both individually and as a couple, often served as official hosts at White House functions in place of the President and his wife.

According to diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, in 1860 Mrs. Davis "sadly" told a friend "The South will secede if Lincoln is made president. They will make Mr. Davis President of the Southern side. And the whole thing is bound to be a failure." [23]

Jefferson Davis resigned from the U.S. Senate in 1861 when Mississippi seceded. Varina Davis returned with their children to Brierfield, expecting him to be commissioned as a general in the Confederate army. He was elected as President of the Confederate States of America by the new Confederate Congress. She did not accompany him when he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama (then capital of the new country) to be inaugurated. A few weeks later, she followed and assumed official duties as the First Lady of the Confederacy.

Davis greeted the war with dread, supporting the Union but not slavery. She was known to have said that:

the South did not have the material resources to win the war and white Southerners did not have the qualities necessary to win it that her husband was unsuited for political life that maybe women were not the inferior sex and that perhaps it was a mistake to deny women the suffrage before the war. [12]

In the summer of 1861, Davis and her husband moved to Richmond, Virginia, the new capital of the Confederacy. They lived in the Presidential mansion during the remainder of war (1861–1865). "She tried intermittently to do what was expected of her, but she never convinced people that her heart was in it, and her tenure as First Lady was for the most part a disaster," as the people picked up on her ambivalence. [24] White residents of Richmond freely criticized Varina Davis some described her appearance as resembling "a mulatto or an Indian 'squaw'." [7]

In December 1861 she gave birth to their fifth child, William. (Due to her husband's influence, her father William Howell received several low-level appointments in the Confederate bureaucracy which helped support him.) The social turbulence of the war years reached the Presidential mansion in 1864, several of the Davises' domestic slaves escaped. James Dennison and his wife, Betsey, who had served as Varina's maid, used saved back pay of 80 gold dollars to finance their escape. Henry, a butler, left one night after allegedly building a fire in the mansion's basement to divert attention. [ citation needed ]

In spring 1864, 5-year-old Joseph Davis died in a fall from the porch at the Presidential mansion in Richmond. A few weeks later, Varina gave birth to their last child, a girl named Varina Anne Davis, who was called "Winnie". The girl became known to the public as "the Daughter of the Confederacy" stories about her and likenesses of her were distributed throughout the Confederacy during the last year of the war to raise morale. She retained the nickname for the rest of her life. [ citation needed ]

When the war ended, the Davises fled South seeking to escape to Europe. They were captured by federal troops and Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Phoebus, Virginia, for two years. Left indigent, Varina Davis was restricted to residing in the state of Georgia, where her husband had been arrested. Fearing for the safety of their older children, she sent them to friends in Canada under the care of relatives and a family servant. Initially forbidden to have any contact with her husband, Davis worked tirelessly to secure his release. She tried to raise awareness of and sympathy for what she perceived as his unjust incarceration.

After a few months Varina Davis was allowed to correspond with him. Articles and a book on his confinement helped turn public opinion in his favor. Davis and young Winnie were allowed to join Jefferson in his prison cell. The family was eventually given a more comfortable apartment in the officers' quarters of the fort.

Although released on bail and never tried for treason, Jefferson Davis had temporarily lost his home in Mississippi, most of his wealth, and his U.S. citizenship. In the late 20th century, his citizenship was posthumously restored. The small Davis family traveled constantly in Europe and Canada as he sought work to rebuild his fortunes. [ citation needed ] Davis accepted the presidency of an insurance agency headquartered in Memphis. The family began to regain some financial comfort until the Panic of 1873, when his company was one of many that went bankrupt. In 1872 their son William Davis died of typhoid fever, adding to their emotional burdens. [ citation needed ]

While visiting their daughters enrolled in boarding schools in Europe, Jefferson Davis received a commission as an agent for an English consortium seeking to purchase cotton from the southern United States. He returned to the US for this work. Varina Davis remained in England to visit her sister who had recently moved there, and stayed for several months. The surviving correspondence suggests her stay may have been prompted by renewed marital difficulties. Both the Davises suffered from depression due to the loss of their sons and their fortunes. [25]

She resented his attentions to other women, particularly Virginia Clay. Clay was the wife of their friend, former senator Clement Clay, a fellow political prisoner at Fort Monroe. During this period, Davis exchanged passionate letters with Virginia Clay for three years and is believed to have loved her. In 1871 Davis was reported as having been seen on a train "with a woman not his wife", and it made national newspapers. [25] Still in England, Varina was outraged.

For several years, the Davises lived apart far more than they lived together. Davis was unemployed for most of the years after the war. In 1877 he was ill and nearly bankrupt. Advised to take a home near the sea for his health, he accepted an invitation from Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a widowed heiress, to visit her plantation of Beauvoir on the Mississippi Sound in Biloxi. A classmate of Varina in Philadelphia, Dorsey had become a respected novelist and historian, and had traveled extensively. She arranged for Davis to use a cottage on the grounds of her plantation. There she helped him organize and write his memoir of the Confederacy, in part by her active encouragement. She also invited Varina Davis to stay with her. [26]

Davis and her eldest daughter, Margaret Howell Hayes, disapproved of her husband's friendship with Dorsey. After Varina Davis returned to the United States, she lived in Memphis with Margaret and her family for a time. [ citation needed ] Gradually she began a reconciliation with her husband. She was with him at Beauvoir in 1878 when they learned that their last surviving son, Jefferson Davis, Jr., had died during a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. That year 20,000 people died throughout the South in the epidemic. During her grieving, Varina became friends again with Dorsey. [ citation needed ]

Sarah Dorsey was determined to help support the former president she offered to sell him her house for a reasonable price. Learning she had breast cancer, Dorsey made over her will to leave Jefferson Davis free title to the home, as well as much of the remainder of her financial estate. Her Percy relatives were unsuccessful in challenging the will. [26]

Her bequest provided Davis with enough financial security to provide for Varina and Winnie, and to enjoy some comfort with them in his final years. [26] When Winnie Davis completed her education, she joined her parents at Beauvoir. She had fallen in love when at college, but her parents disapproved. Her father objected to his being from "a prominent Yankee and abolitionist family" and her mother to his lack of money and being burdened by many debts. Forced to reject this man, Winnie never married. [27]

Dorsey's bequest made Winnie Davis the heiress after Jefferson Davis died in 1889. In 1891, Varina and Winnie moved to New York City. After Winnie died in 1898, she was buried next to her father in Richmond, Virginia. Varina Davis inherited the Beauvoir plantation. [28]

After her husband died, Varina Howell Davis completed his autobiography, publishing it in 1890 as Jefferson Davis, A Memoir. [29] At first the book sold few copies, dashing her hopes of earning some income.

Kate Davis Pulitzer, a distant cousin of Jefferson Davis and the wife of Joseph Pulitzer, a major newspaper publisher in New York, had met Varina Davis during a visit to the South. She solicited short articles from her for her husband's newspaper, the New York World. In 1891 Varina Davis accepted the Pulitzers' offer to become a full-time columnist and moved to New York City with her daughter Winnie. They enjoyed the busy life of the city. White Southerners attacked Davis for this move to the North, as she was considered a public figure of the Confederacy whom they claimed for their own. [30]

As Davis and her daughter each worked at literary careers, they lived in a series of residential hotels in New York City. (Their longest residency was at the Hotel Gerard at 123 W. 44th Street.) Varina Davis wrote many articles for the newspaper, and Winnie Davis published several novels. [ citation needed ]

After Winnie died in 1898, Varina Davis inherited Beauvoir. In October 1902, she sold the plantation to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for $10,000. She stipulated the facility was to be used as a Confederate veterans' home and later as a memorial to her husband. The SCV built barracks on the site, and housed thousands of veterans and their families. The plantation was used for years as a veterans' home.

Since 1953 the house has been operated as a museum to Davis. Beauvoir has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The main house has been restored and a museum built there, housing the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. [ citation needed ]

Varina Howell Davis was one of numerous influential Southerners who moved to the North for work after the war they were nicknamed "Confederate carpetbaggers". Among them were the couple Roger Atkinson Pryor and Sara Agnes Rice Pryor, who became active in Democratic political and social circles in New York City. After working as an attorney, Roger Pryor was appointed as a judge. Sara Pryor became a writer, known for her histories, memoirs and novels published in the early 1900s. [ citation needed ]

In the postwar years of reconciliation, Davis became friends with Julia Dent Grant, the widow of former general and president Ulysses S. Grant, who had been among the most hated men in the South. She attended a reception where she met Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college. In her old age, Davis published some of her observations and "declared in print that the right side had won the Civil War." [12]

Later years Edit

Although saddened by the death of her daughter Winnie in 1898 (the fifth of her six children to predecease her), Davis continued to write for the World, She enjoyed a daily ride in a carriage through Central Park. [ citation needed ]

She was active socially until poor health in her final years forced her retirement from work and any sort of public life. Davis died at age 80 of double pneumonia in her room at the Hotel Majestic on October 16, 1906. She was survived by her daughter Margaret Davis Hayes and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. [ citation needed ]

Varina Howell Davis received a funeral procession through the streets of New York City. Her coffin was taken by train to Richmond, accompanied by the Reverend Nathan A. Seagle, Rector of Saint Stephen's Protestant Episcopal Church, New York City which Davis attended. She was interred with full honors by Confederate veterans at Hollywood Cemetery and was buried adjacent to the tombs of her husband and their daughter Winnie. [31]

A portrait of Mrs. Davis, titled the Widow of the Confederacy (1895), was painted by the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947). It is held at the museum at Beauvoir. In 1918 Müller-Ury donated his profile portrait of her daughter, Winnie Davis, painted in 1897–1898, to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused extensive wind and water damage to Beauvoir, which houses the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library. The home was restored and reopened on June 3, 2008. Varina Howell Davis's diamond and emerald wedding ring, one of the few valuable possessions she was able to retain through years of poverty, was held by the Museum at Beauvoir and lost during the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. It was discovered on the grounds a few months later and returned to the museum. [32]

Defend History. Tear Down the Confederate Statues.

After the Civil War, Edward Virginius Valentine returned from Europe to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia—the former Confederate capital—and began using his training in classical sculpture to enshrine the myth of the Lost Cause. Over the next few decades Valentine made a career of sculpting monuments to defenders of slavery, building tributes to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, among others. And he made the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond—unveiled on Monument Avenue in June 1907 by Davis’ last remaining child and toppled in June 2020 by protesters against systemic racism after the death of George Floyd.

Over the past few months, protesters have spray-painted, damaged, torched, and toppled symbols of white supremacy around the country. Critics have decried the acts as shameful attempts to erase the country’s history. The president demanded that protesters who took down a Confederate monument in Washington, DC, be “immediately arrested.” But the destruction of our cultural legacies is itself part of our cultural legacy, reaching back to ancient history. It is as old as the act of honoring false gods.

Deconstructing the Design and Demolition of Confederate Monuments

The Symbolism

Valentine, working with an architect, made the monument “overwhelmingly tall” and depicted Davis in a “heroic” pose, delivering his famous 1861 speech about quitting the US Senate to the join the Confederacy. Like all the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, it was erected during an era when white Southerners were rewriting the story of the Civil War. According to the propaganda of the Lost Cause, the Confederates hadn’t betrayed their country they’d fought gallantly for the principle of states’ rights. And Davis wasn’t the treacherous leader of a failed state that had rebelled to protect slavery he was a hero fighting a tyrant in vain to protect a “way of life.” But how to show all that? Valentine, and other artists, looked to a previous empire: Rome.

Behind Davis is semicircle of Doric columns, like those used in the Colosseum and the Parthenon. An angelic female figure hovers above him, intended to be an allegorical figure of the South, harkening back to the classical images of gods. This is purposeful. As public historian Lyra Monteiro explains in her forthcoming book on the invention of “white heritage” in the early United States, the white landowners of this time saw the Greeks and Romans as their racial ancestors. W.E.B. Du Bois notes in Black Reconstruction that planters “threw Latin phrases” into their speech to cultivate an air of gentility, an affectation that reached a grim pinnacle with John Wilkes Booth supposedly yelling “sic semper tyrannis” after shooting President Lincoln.

More importantly, Rome’s own history of slavery was central to the defense of American chattel slavery. In his famed Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson is at pains to distinguish between the “white” slaves of antiquity and the enslaved Africans in the Americas. The ancient slaves went on to become great artists and scientists due to the inherent characteristics of their race, Jefferson argues. The inferior Black souls that built and toiled on his Monticello—including, presumably, his own progeny—would never reach such heights. “The past,” Monteiro writes, “becomes an important proving ground to verify the immutability of racial categories, and the inevitability of the hierarchical structure of contemporary society.”

Art was joined to the effort to create a racial and cultural identity out of some imagined classical patrimony. American sculptors traveled to Europe to study the ancient Greek statuary that scientists like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach were using to define the normative white body in their “empirical” racial hierarchical system. Valentine’s own masterpiece was the sculpture Andromache and Astyanax, depicting an incident in The Iliad. This was the heyday of Neoclassicism. An elegant vision of history was summoned to prettify a brutish present. “The ‘classical’ generally is what gets created to explain what whiteness is, and that’s why it happens at the same time as colonization,” Monteiro says. “It’s to justify why they are who they are.”

Inscribed in the very design of the Jefferson Davis monument was the project of rationalizing the racial order.

The Iconoclasm

The ritualistic destruction of statues that some find sacred isn’t new, nor was it always considered barbaric. In antiquity, most of the great Mesopotamian, Persian, and Greek civilizations routinely destroyed the art and architecture of their enemies during war, a symbolic act of regime change. “Castrating a statue of a king showed that he will no longer have heirs,” explains Bailey Barnard, a doctoral student in ancient Greek art at Columbia University, who specializes in the history of iconoclasm. “Hacking out the eyes and ears of a king meant that he couldn’t see his people.” In 612 BCE, conquering Babylonians rubbed away the faces of Assyrian kings depicted on stone reliefs.

In 480 BCE, when the Persians ransacked the Acropolis, the Athenians coped with their defeat by turning ritualistic iconoclasm into a way of demarcating the civilized from the savage. “[S]uch iconoclastic activity came to be seen as a paradigmatic example of ‘Oriental’ impiety and violence,” writes art historian Rachel Kousser. The stereotype was cemented in the art of the Parthenon, where images of ransacking Persians sat atop the columns. Says Barnard: “This set up the East-West dichotomy of civilized, not-iconoclastic people against Eastern barbaric, iconoclastic people.” Looters, you might say. Thugs.

The Anglo-Western “descendants” of classical antiquity inherited the values around the preservation and destruction of art. In the so-called Age of Enlightenment, museums, populated with collections from ancient Greece and Rome, sprouted up as slavery spread throughout the New World. These were sites of preservation and celebration, redoubts of “civilization” built to contrast with the “savagery” without.

The masses weren’t always pleased with the public art in their cities. In July 1776, a group of radical agitators—sorry, revolutionaries—called the Sons of Freedom pulled down a statue of King George III in New York, beheaded it, and melted down the body for bullets. The outcry in Europe was swift. One scandalized British officer sent the statue’s head to back to England as proof of the “infamous disposition of the ungrateful people of this distressed country.” According to a political cartoon of the event drawn by a German artist, the ungrateful and distressed people ripping down King George were none other than enslaved Africans. It was an early instance of homegrown iconoclasm, then as now decried by the ruling class.

The System

In Belgium, people are forcing down statues of King Leopold II, acknowledging the atrocities he committed in the colonial Congo. In California, statues of Saint Junipero Serra, who founded the mission system there that led to the enslavement and displacement of Indigenous peoples, are being toppled. Monuments to Christopher Columbus, that harbinger of New World colonialism, are coming down, too. Blows are being struck against tokens of white supremacy around the world.

But iconoclasm can be a tricky thing in a country still grounded in the principles of the Enlightenment. In San Francisco, a statue of Ulysses S. Grant was torn down, as was a statue of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg in Madison, Wisconsin. Sympathetic liberals thought this was going too far, but they were missing the larger reckoning underway. “We’re basically populating our landscapes with able-bodied white men on pedestals. It almost doesn’t even matter who they are,” Monteiro points out. “It’s a message of ‘I am in power, and you are not.’” It is white supremacy, too, to center the heroism of Grant and Heg at the expense of the enslaved people who were the principal agents of their own liberation. Pulling down monuments throws open the question not just of who gets celebrated but of who gets to decide, and how, and on whose behalf.

The plinths left behind by these felled monuments are a negative space daring us to fill them with something new. In some places, this is already beginning to happen. Just this week, in Bristol, England, a statue of Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid went up where a statue of slaver Edward Colston had once stood. Importantly, it was a guerrilla installation, unapproved by the city. The aesthetics of the piece were still beholden to some of the old cultural frameworks—a heroic individual, towering over the group—but the transgression of putting it up at all sent its own message: The time has come for the unauthorized story. A day later city officials removed the statue.

The iconoclasm of the past few months is a war on the inevitability and immutability embodied by the monuments. The ease with which they have come down reminds us that whiteness itself is artificial and impermanent. Something made by humans can be brought down by humans, too. “Dismantling the statues is not erasing history,” Barnard says. “It’s an act that shows how we can dismantle a system.”

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Confederate History Is American History

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for. After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

So said New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu on his city’s removal from Lee Circle of its statue of Robert E. Lee, the last remaining of four New Orleans’ statues long ago erected in honor of the city’s Confederate past.

One suspects that if terrorism really resulted in the building of statues, the British would not presently be patrolling the streets of London with machine guns and armored vehicles. Combined with Landrieu’s complaint that no one had ever built a monument to a slave ship, one also suspects that the mayor has as little understanding of the purpose of statues as he does of the tactics of terrorism.

Had Southerners so admired it, they could presumably have somewhere erected a monument to slavery: a pair of shackles forged of iron, perhaps even a slave ship, as Landrieu now seems to be suggesting. If they had intended their statuary to be a symbol of terrorism “as much as burning a cross on someone’s lawn”, the simplest choice would have been to erect a statue of a burning cross. Indeed, had Southerners anywhere raised monuments to slavery or to the terrorism of the Klan, they would have been rightly condemned for doing so. Instead, in an odd twist, if any society seems poised to build monuments to slavery or memorials to the era of burning crosses, it would be ours, obsessed as we are with systems and institutions, with slavery and oppression.

But Southerners did not build monuments to slave ships any more than they built monuments to terrorism or slavery, for the same reason that professional basketball teams today dedicate statues to men like Bill Russell and Michael Jordan while no one cares to commemorate the three-point shot or erect monuments to the injustice of technical fouls. People build monuments to great men and heroic deeds, not to hierarchical social structures or demeaning systems of labor.

Questioned as to why he kept a portrait of Lee in his office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated that, “From deep conviction, I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s calibre would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities, including his devotion to this land as revealed in his painstaking efforts to help heal the Nation’s wounds once the bitter struggle was over, we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained. Such are the reasons that I proudly display the picture of this great American on my office wall.”

Lee has long been honored by North and South for the same reasons: because he was one of the best men America has ever produced, and because his character was confirmed by the crucible that most proves a man: the crucible of battle. This mutual recognition of Lee was true from the very beginning, with Union General Joshua Chamberlain ordering his men to salute Lee’s surrendering army at Appomattox. It was, Chamberlain said, “Honor answering honor.”

“Under a pious predilection to those ancestors,” said British statesman Edmund Burke, “your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom, beyond the vulgar practice of the hour: and you would have risen with the example to whose imitation you aspired. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”

History may for historians be an impartial search for truth, a neutral standard used to measure every figure. For nations and peoples, however, history can never be a neutral endeavor. It is a search for the best of our very own because it can help bring out the best in the rest of us. We respect our greatest ancestors because they teach us to respect ourselves and our potential, because their best traits become for us a standard of virtue and wisdom for imitation. We don’t erect statues to common men, because we would never stop building or to ships and institutions, because there is nothing there to emulate or to sinless men, because we would never have anything to build.

The most salient point of these memorials, though, is not the purpose for which they were erected, but the identity of those who erected them, not only in New Orleans, but everywhere else around the country: they were raised not by the citizens of the Confederacy during its brief existence in the 1860s, but by citizens of the United States ever since.

The Hebrew prophets of old condemned the rich and powerful of their own time, putting themselves and their lives at risk. The moralizers of today, on the other hand, love to attack the Confederacy, a dead and defenseless thing and no threat at all to anyone. Even so, and perhaps without even realizing it, the attack on the Confederate States seamlessly shifts into an attack on the legitimacy of the United States as well.

For the statue of Lee in New Orleans wasn’t dedicated by citizens of the Confederacy during its brief existence in the 1860s, but by the will of American citizens on the occasion of Washington’s birthday in 1884. The statue of Lee that now stands in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol was raised by American citizens in the 1900s. The statue of Lee on his horse at Lee Park in Charlottesville was chiseled by Americans in the 1920s. A portrait of Lee hung in the Oval Office thanks to President Eisenhower in 1960. Lee’s American citizenship was restored by a 407-10 vote of the U.S. Congress and signed by President Ford in 1975.

Whatever the taint of the Confederacy, the taint of the monuments to its men and memory lies with this country, with the United States, with us, and not to a different country from the distant past. Indeed, Landrieu noted that New Orleans was “America’s” largest slave market that “America” was “the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched” that American courts “enshrined ‘separate but equal’.” In Landrieu’s public charge of slavery and white supremacy, the sole defendant isn’t only the Confederacy it is a multi-count indictment in which the United States is co-conspirator.

Once the Confederate heroes have been declared anathema, is there any hope for the America that has since honored their memory? When Mayor Landrieu tells us that Lee’s statue was a form of “terrorism”, an intended reminder of “who was still in charge”, then doesn’t the nation that honored him become anathema, too? How else does heresy work?

Forget Confederate General Robert E. Lee of the 1860s. What place can there be for the American presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford, who praised him in the 1960s and 70s? Forget Confederate president Jefferson Davis. What place can there be for the American president Jimmy Carter, who in 1978 honored him and restored his American citizenship? Indeed, when former president Andrew Jackson was recently praised by the current president of the United States, the backlash against Jackson’s status as a slaveholder and Indian fighter was nearly universal, and the condemnation of both presidents crossed two centuries. How long can it be before the victor of the Battle of New Orleans sees his statute come down in that city? And when it does, won’t the United States of 2017 and the president it elected be found complicit as well?

Despite Landrieu’s complaint that, “Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place,” the statue he just tore down was an example of deep and old wounds that had healed just fine. Honoring the heroes and the war dead of the Confederacy was for our nation a symbol of American reconciliation, part of the basis for the nation that we had again become. It was proof of our nationhood that we could slaughter each other across gruesome battlefields and again shake hands as brothers. Today’s iconoclasm proves only national disintegration, that even in our imaginations we cannot shake hands across time with our own ancestors, that the magnanimous peace forged by the Civil War combatants has been disregarded, and that now both North and South are being routed and forced to flee from the battlefield.

Landrieu listed all the old inhabitants of New Orleans:

. . . . the Choctaw, Houma Nation, the Chitimacha . . . . Hernando de Soto, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the Acadians, the Islenos, the enslaved people from Senegambia, Free People of Color, the Haitians, the Germans, both the empires of France and Spain. The Italians, the Irish, the Cubans, the south and central Americans, the Vietnamese . . . .

It was as if he were running through the roll call of the General Assembly of the United Nations, but many of them posed in some way or another a mortal threat to New Orleans’ status as an American city. What made New Orleans part of the United States was that the English-speaking peoples conquered or assimilated all the rest of them, imposing on them their language and their laws, their political institutions and their national allegiances.

We have been schooled to recognize the blessings of our geography, of the two oceans that have shielded us from the trials and tribulations of the Old World. But we for some reason forget that the near unquestioned peace we inherited came to us only because our victories in the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries cleared the field of our competitors.

Our statues do indeed tell us who is in charge of a city. For 130 years, the statues of Lee and other Confederates have been the statues of Southern reconciliation. They told the people of New Orleans that they belonged to a United States into which had been folded the sacrifices and greatness of Southerners past and present. In a larger sense, the New Orleans monuments to men like Lee (and Jackson) were monuments to the shared nationhood of the men who created a nation and conquered a continent, and tearing them down is today an aftershock of a revolution in identity and has always in history been a symbol of the seizure of power. Whatever the stated intention, the fact that Lee has come down—and that Jackson, we must all recognize by now, cannot be far behind—is a testament to the fact that the old battles for control of North America are starting to be waged all over again.

Quentin B. Fairchild is an attorney who writes from Florida. His articles have appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, the Florida Weekly, the Fort-Myers News-Press, Chronicles, and The Daily Caller.


Judah Philip Benjamin was born on August 6, 1811, in St. Croix of the Danish West Indies (today the United States Virgin Islands), a colony then occupied by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. His parents were Sephardi Jews who married in London, Philip Benjamin (who had been born on the British colony of Nevis) and the former Rebecca de Mendes. [1] Philip and Rebecca had been shopkeepers and migrated to the West Indies in search of better opportunities. [2] Judah, the third of seven children, was given the same name as an older brother who died in infancy. Following a tradition adhered to by some Sephardi, he was named for his paternal grandfather, who performed the brit milah, or circumcision ceremony. The Benjamins encountered hard times in the Danish West Indies, as normal trade was blocked by the British occupation. In 1813 the Benjamin family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where they had relatives. Philip Benjamin was not financially successful there, and around 1821 moved with his family to Charleston, South Carolina. That city had the largest Jewish community in the United States and a reputation for religious tolerance. Benjamin was learned in his faith but not a successful businessman Rebecca earned money for the family by operating a fruit stand near the harbor. [3] Phillip Benjamin was a first cousin and business partner of Moses Elias Levy from the West Indies. Levy also immigrated to the United States, in the early 1820s. [4]

Judah and two siblings were boarded with relatives in Fayetteville for about 18 months after the rest of the family moved to Charleston. He attended the Fayetteville Academy, a well-regarded school where his intelligence was recognized. [5] In Charleston, his father was among the founders of the first Reform congregation in the United States. It developed practices that included shorter services conducted in English rather than in Hebrew. Benjamin was ultimately expelled from that community, as he did not keep the Sabbath. The extent of Judah's religious education is uncertain. The boy's intelligence was noted by others in Charleston, one of whom offered to finance his education. [6]

At the age of 14, in 1825, Benjamin entered Yale College, an institution popular among white Southerners Vice President John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, was among its alumni. Although Benjamin was successful as a student at Yale, he left abruptly in 1827 without completing his course of study. The reasons for this are uncertain: In 1861, when Louisiana left the Union and Benjamin resigned as a U.S. senator, an abolitionist newspaper alleged that he had been caught as a thief at Yale. He considered bringing suit for libel but litigation was impractical. In 1901, his sole surviving classmate wrote that Benjamin had been expelled for gambling. One of his biographers, Robert Meade, considered the evidence of wrongdoing by Benjamin to be "too strong to be ignored", but noted that at the time Benjamin left Yale, he was only 16 years old. [7]

After a brief return to Charleston, Benjamin moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. According to Rabbi Bertram W. Korn's volume on that city's Jews, he "arrived in New Orleans in 1828, with no visible assets other than the wit, charm, omnivorous mind and boundless energy with which he would find his place in the sun". [8] After working in a mercantile business, he became a clerk for a law firm, where he began to read law, studying as an apprentice. Knowledge of French was important in practicing law in Louisiana, as the state's code was (and is still) based on French and Spanish law. To earn money, he tutored French Creoles in English he taught the language to Natalie Bauché de St. Martin on the condition that she teach him French. In late 1832, at age 21, he was admitted to the bar. [9]

Early the following year, Benjamin married Natalie, who was Catholic and from a wealthy French Creole family. [9] As part of her dowry, she brought with her $3,000 and two female slaves, aged 11 and 16 (together worth about $1,000). [10] Even before the marriage, Natalie St. Martin had scandalized New Orleans society by her conduct. William De Ville, in his journal article on the Benjamin marriage contract, suggests that the "St. Martin family was not terribly distraught to be rid of their young daughter" and that "Benjamin was virtually suborned to marry [Natalie], and did so without hesitation in order to further his ambitions". [11]

The marriage was not a success. By the 1840s, Natalie Benjamin was living in Paris with the couple's only child, Ninette, whom she raised as a Catholic. [a] Benjamin would visit them annually. While a senator, in the late 1850s he persuaded Natalie to rejoin him and expensively furnished a home in Washington for all three to live in. Natalie and their daughter soon embarked again for France. Benjamin, publicly humiliated by his failure to keep Natalie, consigned the household goods to auction. [12] There were rumors, never substantiated, that Benjamin was impotent and that Natalie was unfaithful. [13]

Benjamin's troubled married life has led to speculation that he was gay. Daniel Brook, in a 2012 article about Benjamin, suggests that early biographies read as though "historians are presenting him as an almost farcically stereotypical gay man and yet wear such impervious heteronormative blinders that they themselves know not what they write". [14] These conjectures were not given scholarly weight until 2001, when in an introduction to a reprinting of Meade's biography of Benjamin, Civil War historian William C. Davis acknowledged "cloaked suggestions that he [Benjamin] was a homosexual". [14]

Within months of his admission to the bar, Benjamin argued his first case before the Supreme Court of Louisiana and won. Still, clients were slow to come in his first years in practice. He had enough free time to compile and publish, with Thomas Slidell, the Digest of the Reported Decisions of the Superior Court of the Late Territory of Orleans and the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana in 1834, which required the analysis of 6,000 cases. The book was an immediate success and helped launch Benjamin's career. When Slidell published a revised edition in 1840, he did so alone, as Benjamin was too busy litigating cases to participate. [15]

Benjamin became a specialist in commercial law, of which there was a great deal in New Orleans' busy river port—a center of international commerce and the domestic slave trade. By 1840, the city had become the fourth largest in the United States and among the wealthiest. Many of the best lawyers in the country practiced commercial law there, and Benjamin successfully competed with them. In one case, he successfully represented the seller of a slave against allegations that the seller knew the slave had incurable tuberculosis. Although Benjamin tried some jury cases, he preferred bench trials in commercial cases and was an expert at appeals. [16]

In 1842, Benjamin had a group of cases with international implications. He represented insurance companies being sued for the value of slaves who had revolted aboard the ship Creole in 1841, as they were being transported in the coastwise slave trade from Virginia to New Orleans. The rebels had sailed the ship to Nassau in the Bahamas, a British colony, where those who came ashore were freed, as Britain had abolished slavery in 1834. The owners of the slaves brought suit for $150,000 against their insurers, who declined to pay. Benjamin made several arguments, the most prominent of which was that the slaveowners had brought the revolt on themselves by packing the slaves in overcrowded conditions. [17]

Benjamin said in his brief to the court:

What is a slave? He is a human being. He has feelings and passion and intellect. His heart, like the heart of the white man, swells with love, burns with jealousy, aches with sorrow, pines under restraint and discomfort, boils with revenge, and ever cherishes the desire for liberty . Considering the character of the slave, and the peculiar passions which, generated by nature, are strengthened and stimulated by his condition, he is prone to revolt in the near future of things, and ever ready to conquer [i.e. obtain] his liberty where a probable chance presents itself. [17]

The court ruled for Benjamin's clients, although on other grounds. Benjamin's brief was widely reprinted, including by abolitionist groups. Historian Eli Evans, Benjamin's biographer, does not believe that the argument in the Creole case represented Benjamin's personal view rather, he was an advocate for his clients in an era when it was usual to write dramatically to distract attention from the weaker points of a case. Evans finds it remarkable and a testament to Benjamin that he could be elected to office in antebellum Louisiana, a slave society, after writing such words. [17]

State politician Edit

Benjamin was a supporter of the Whig Party from the time of its formation in the early 1830s. He became increasingly involved in the party, and in 1841 ran unsuccessfully for the New Orleans Board of Aldermen. [18] The following year, he was nominated for the Louisiana House of Representatives. He was elected, though the Democrats alleged fraud: Whig supporters, to obtain the vote at a time when the state had a restrictive property qualification for suffrage, acquired licenses for carriages. A voter did not have to demonstrate that the carriage existed, but his license had to be accepted as evidence of ownership by election officials. The Democratic press blamed Benjamin as the strategist behind this maneuver. In 1844, the legislature voted to hold a constitutional convention, and Benjamin was chosen as a delegate from New Orleans. [19] At the convention, Benjamin successfully opposed counting a slave as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of representation in state elections, as was done in federal elections. His position prevailed, and slaves were not counted at all for electoral purposes in Louisiana state elections. According to Evans, his "tact, courtesy, and ability to find compromises impressed the political elders in all corners of the state". [20]

Rabbi Myron Berman, in his history of Jews in Richmond, describes the attitude of antebellum white Southerners toward Jews:

Hidden beneath the free and easy relationships between Jew and Gentile in the antebellum South was a layer of prejudice that derived from historic anti-Semitism. The obverse of the picture of the Jew as the Biblical patriarch and apostle of freedom was the image of the Judas-traitor and the Shylock-materialist who preyed on the misfortunes of the country. But the high incidence of Jewish assimilation, the availability of the black as a scapegoat for social ills, and the relative absence of crises—economic and otherwise—were factors which repressed, at least temporarily, the latent anti-Jewish feeling in the South. [21]

By the early 1840s, Benjamin was wealthy from his law practice and, with a partner, bought a sugar cane plantation, Bellechasse. [22] This purchase, and the subsequent construction of a grand house there, advanced Benjamin's ambitions the planter class controlled Louisiana politics and would trust only a man who also owned substantial land and slaves. The Benjamin marriage was by then failing, and he hoped in vain that his wife would be content at the plantation. Benjamin threw his energy into improving Bellechasse, importing new varieties of sugar cane and adopting up-to-date methods and equipment to extract and process the sugar. He purchased 140 slaves to work the plantation, and had a reputation as a humane slaveowner. [23]

Benjamin scaled back his involvement in politics in the late 1840s, distracted by his plantation and law practice. [24] His mother Rebecca, whom he had brought to New Orleans, died in 1847 during a yellow fever epidemic. [25] In 1848, Benjamin was a Whig member of the Electoral College he voted for fellow Louisiana planter, General Zachary Taylor, who was elected U.S. President. [26] He and other Louisianans accompanied President-elect Taylor to Washington for his inauguration, and Benjamin attended a state dinner given by outgoing president James K. Polk. [27] In 1850, Millard Fillmore, who succeeded Taylor after his death earlier that year, appointed Benjamin as judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. He was confirmed by the Senate, but he declined the appointment as the salary of $3,500 was too small. [28] The following year, Benjamin assisted the United States Attorney in New Orleans in prosecuting American adventurers who had tried to spark a rebellion against Spanish rule in Cuba, but two trials both ended in hung juries. [26]

Mexican railroad Edit

Benjamin became interested in strengthening trade connections between New Orleans and California, and promoted an infrastructure project to build a railroad across the Mexican isthmus near Oaxaca this would speed passenger traffic and cargo shipments. According to The New York Times, in an 1852 speech to a railroad builders' convention, Benjamin said this trade route "belongs to New Orleans. Its commerce makes empires of the countries to which it flows." [29] Benjamin lobbied fellow lawmakers about the project, gained funds from private New York bankers, and even helped organize construction crews. In private correspondence he warned backers of problems project workers suffered yellow fever, shipments of construction materials hit rough seas, and actions or inaction by both U.S. and Mexican officials caused delays and increases in construction costs. Backers had invested several hundred thousand dollars by the time the project died after the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. [29]

Election to the Senate Edit

Benjamin spent the summer of 1851 abroad, including a visit to Paris to see Natalie and Ninette. He was still away in October 1851, when the Whigs nominated him for the state Senate. Despite his absence, he was easily elected. [30] When the new legislature met in January 1852, Benjamin emerged as one of the leading Whig candidates for election to the U.S. Senate seat that would become vacant on March 4, 1853. As the Louisiana legislature, responsible for electing the state's senators, [b] met once in two years under the 1845 constitution, it was not scheduled to meet again before the seat became vacant. Some Whig newspapers thought Benjamin too young and inexperienced at forty, despite his undoubted talent, but the Whig legislative caucus selected him on the second ballot, and he was elected by the two houses over Democrat Solomon W. Downs. [31]

The outgoing president, Fillmore, offered to nominate Benjamin, a fellow Whig, to fill a Supreme Court vacancy after the Senate Democrats had defeated Fillmore's other nominees for the post. The New York Times reported on February 15, 1853, that "if the President nominates Benjamin, the Democrats are determined to confirm him." [32] The new president, Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, also offered Benjamin a place on the Supreme Court. Pierce Butler suggested in his 1908 biography of Benjamin that the newly elected senator likely declined these offers not only because he preferred active politics, but because he could maintain his law practice and substantial income as a senator, but could not as a justice. [33] As an advocate before the U.S. Supreme Court, Benjamin won 13 of his first 18 cases. [34]

Judah Benjamin was sworn in as senator from Louisiana on March 4, 1853, at a brief meeting called just prior to President Pierce's inauguration. These new colleagues included Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, and Sam Houston of Texas. The slavery issue was in a brief remission as much of the country wished to accept the Compromise of 1850 as a final settlement. When the Senate was not in session, Benjamin remained in Washington, D.C., conducting a lucrative practice including many cases before the Supreme Court, then conveniently located in a room of the Capitol. His law partners in New Orleans took care of his firm's affairs there. About this time Benjamin sold his interest in Bellechasse, lacking the time to deal with plantation business. [35]

Spokesman for slavery Edit

Benjamin's view that slavery should continue was based in his belief that citizens had a right to their property as guaranteed by the Constitution. As Butler put it, "he could no more see that it was right for Northern people to rob him of his slave than it would be for him to connive at horse stealing". [36] He avoided the arguments of some that the slaves were inferior beings, and that their position was ordained by God: Evans ascribes this to Benjamin not being raised as a slaveowner, but coming to it later in life. [37] Benjamin joined in a widespread view of white Southerners that the African American would not be ready for emancipation for many years, if ever. They feared that freeing the slaves would ruin many and lead to murders and rapes by the newly liberated of their former masters and mistresses. Such a massacre had been feared by Southerners since the Haitian Revolution, the violent revolt known as "Santo Domingo" in the South, in which the slaves of what became Haiti killed many whites and mulattoes in 1804 while gaining independence from French control. [38] When the anti-slavery book Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, Benjamin spoke out against Harriet Beecher Stowe's portrayal. He said that slaves were for the most part well treated, and plantation punishments, such as whipping or branding, were more merciful than sentences of imprisonment that a white man might receive in the North for similar conduct. [39]

In early 1854, Senator Douglas introduced his Kansas–Nebraska Bill, calling for popular sovereignty to determine whether the Kansas and Nebraska territories should enter the Union as slave or free states. Depending on the outcome of such elections, slavery might spread to territories closed to it under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In the debate over the bill, Benjamin defended this change as returning to "the traditions of the fathers", that the federal government not legislate on the subject of slavery. He said that the South merely wished to be left alone. The bill passed, [40] but its passage had drastic political effects, as the differences between North and South that had been settled by both the 1820 and 1850 compromises were reopened. [41] The Whig Party was torn apart North from South, with many Northern Whigs joining the new Republican Party, a group pledged to oppose the spread of slavery. Benjamin continued to caucus with the remains of the Whig Party through 1854 and 1855, [42] but as a member of a legislative minority, he had little influence on legislation, and received no important committee assignments. [43]

In May 1856 Benjamin joined the Democrats, stating they had the principles of the old-time Whig Party. [44] He indicated, in a letter to constituents, that as Northern Whigs had failed to vote to uphold the rights granted to Southern states in the Constitution, the Whigs, as a national party, were no more. [45]

At a state dinner given by Pierce, Benjamin first met Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, whose wife Varina described the Louisiana senator as having "rather the air of a witty bon vivant than of a great senator". [46] The two men, both ambitious for leadership in the South and the nation, formed a relationship that Evans describes as "respectful but wary". [32] The two had occasional differences when in 1858, Davis, by then a Mississippi senator, was irritated by Benjamin's questioning him on a military bill and suggested that Benjamin was acting as a paid attorney, the Louisianan challenged him to a duel. Davis apologized. [47]

Benjamin, in his speeches in the Senate, took the position that the Union was a compact by the states from which any of them could secede. Nevertheless, he understood that any dissolution would not be peaceful, stating in 1856 that "dreadful will be the internecine war that must ensue". [48] In 1859, Benjamin was elected to a second term, but allegations of involvement in land scandals and the fact that upstate legislators objected to both of Louisiana's senators being from New Orleans stretched the contest to 42 ballots before he prevailed. [49]

Secession crisis Edit

Benjamin worked to deny Douglas the 1860 Democratic presidential nomination, feeling he had turned against the South. Douglas contended that although the Supreme Court, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, had stated Congress could not restrict slavery in the territories, the people of each territory could pass legislation to bar it. This position was anathema to the South. Benjamin praised Douglas's opponent in his re-election bid, former congressman Abraham Lincoln, for at least being true to his principles as an opponent of the expansion of slavery, whereas the senator considered Douglas to be a hypocrite. Benjamin was joined in his opposition to Douglas by Senator Davis the two were so successful that the 1860 convention was not able to nominate anyone and split into Northern and Southern factions. The Northerners backed Douglas while Southern delegates chose Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Despite their agreement in opposing Douglas, Benjamin and Davis differed on some race issues: in May, Benjamin voted for a bill to aid Africans liberated by U.S. naval vessels from illegal slave ships, in order to return them to their native continent from Key West. Davis and many other Southerners opposed the bill. [50] [51]

Between June and December 1860 Benjamin was almost entirely absorbed in the case of United States v. Castillero that was tried in San Francisco during the latter part of that period. [52] The case concerned a land grant by the former Mexican government of California. Castillero had leased part of his land to British mining companies, and when American authorities ruled the grant invalid, they hired Benjamin he spent four months in San Francisco working on the case. [53] [54] The trial began in October, and Benjamin gave an address lasting six days. The local correspondent for The New York Times wrote that Benjamin, "a distinguished stranger", drew the largest crowds to the courtroom and "the Senator is making this terribly tedious case interesting". [55] Benjamin sailed for New York once the case was submitted for decision in early November. The court's ruling, rendered in January 1861, was substantially for the company but, not satisfied, it appealed. It lost the case entirely to an adverse decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, three justices dissenting, the following year. Benjamin was by then a Confederate Cabinet officer, and could not argue the case. His co-counsel filed his brief with the court. [56]

By the time Benjamin returned to the East Coast, the Republican candidate, Lincoln, had been elected president, and there was talk, in Louisiana and elsewhere, of secession from the Union. The New Orleans Picayune reported that Benjamin favored secession only in the last resort. On December 23, 1860, another Louisiana periodical, the Delta, printed a letter from Benjamin dated the eighth stating that, as the people of the North were of unalterable hostility to their Southern brethren, the latter should depart from the government common to them. He also signed a joint letter from Southern congressmen to their constituents, urging the formation of a confederation of the seceding states. [57] According to a letter reportedly written by Benjamin during the crisis, he saw secession as a means of obtaining more favorable terms in a reformed Union. [58]

With Southern opinion turning in favor of secession, Benjamin made a farewell speech in the Senate on December 31, 1860, to a packed gallery, desirous of hearing one of the South's most eloquent voices. They were not disappointed Evans writes that "historians consider Benjamin's farewell . one of the great speeches in American history". [59] Benjamin foresaw that the South's departure would lead to civil war:

What may be the fate of this horrible contest none can foretell but this much I will say: the fortunes of war may be adverse to our arms you may carry desolation into our peaceful land, and with torch and firebrand may set our cities in flames . you may do all this, and more, but you never can subjugate us you never can convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power you never can degrade them to a servile and inferior race. Never! Never! [59]

According to Geoffrey D. Cunningham in his article on Benjamin's role in secession, "Swept up in the popular cries for independence, Benjamin willingly went out with the Southern tide." [60] He and his Louisiana colleague, John Slidell, resigned from the U.S. Senate on February 4, 1861, nine days after their state voted to secede from the Union. [61]

Attorney General Edit

Fearful of arrest as a rebel once he left the Senate, Benjamin quickly departed Washington for New Orleans. On the day of Benjamin's resignation, the Provisional Confederate States Congress gathered in Montgomery, Alabama, and soon chose Davis as president. Davis was sworn in as provisional Confederate States President on February 18, 1861. At home in New Orleans for, it would prove, the last time, Benjamin addressed a rally on Washington's Birthday, February 22, 1861. [62] On February 25, Davis appointed Benjamin, still in New Orleans, as attorney general the Louisianan was approved immediately and unanimously by the provisional Congress. [63] Davis thus became the first chief executive in North America to appoint a Jew to his Cabinet. [64]

Davis, in his memoirs, remarked that he chose Benjamin because he "had a very high reputation as a lawyer, and my acquaintance with him in the Senate had impressed me with the lucidity of his intellect, his systematic habits, and capacity for labor". [65] Meade suggested that Davis wanted to have a Louisianan in his Cabinet, but that a smarter course of action would have been to send Benjamin abroad to win over the European governments. [66] Butler called Benjamin's appointment "a waste of good material". [67] Historian William C. Davis, in his volume on the formation of the Confederate government, notes, "For some there was next to nothing to do, none more so than Benjamin." [68] The role of the attorney general in a Confederacy that did not yet have federal courts or marshals was so minimal that initial layouts for the building housing the government in Montgomery allotted no space to the Justice Department. [68]

Meade found the time that Benjamin spent as attorney general to be fruitful, as it allowed him the opportunity to judge Davis's character and to ingratiate himself with the president. [66] Benjamin served as a host, entertaining dignitaries and others Davis had no time to see. [68] At the first Cabinet meeting, Benjamin counseled Davis to have the government buy 150,000 bales of cotton for shipment to the United Kingdom, with the proceeds used to buy arms and for future needs. His advice was not taken, as the Cabinet believed the war would be short and successful. [65] Benjamin was called upon from time to time to render legal opinions, writing on April 1 to assure Treasury Secretary Christopher Memminger that lemons and oranges could enter the Confederacy duty-free, but walnuts could not. [69]

Once Virginia joined the Confederacy, the capital was moved to Richmond, though against Benjamin's advice—he believed that the city was too close to the North. Nevertheless, he traveled there with his brother-in-law, Jules St. Martin the two lived in the same house throughout the war, and Benjamin probably procured the young man's job at the War Department. Although Alabama's Leroy Walker was Secretary of War, Davis—a war hero and former U.S. War Secretary—considered himself more qualified and gave many orders himself. When the Confederates were unable to follow up their victory at the First Battle of Manassas by threatening Washington, Walker was criticized in the press. [70] In September, Walker resigned to join the army as a brigadier general, and Davis appointed Benjamin in his place. [71] Butler wrote that Davis had found the cheerfully competent Benjamin "a most useful member of the official family, and thought him suited for almost any post in it." [72] In addition to his appointment as War Secretary, Benjamin continued to act as Attorney General until November 15, 1861. [73]

Secretary of War Edit

As War Secretary, Benjamin was responsible for a territory stretching from Virginia to Texas. It was his job, with Davis looking over his shoulder, to supervise the Confederate Army and to feed, supply, and arm it in a nascent country with almost no arms manufacturers. Accordingly, Benjamin saw his job as closely tied to foreign affairs, as the Confederacy was dependent on imports to supply its troops. Davis had chosen a "defensive war" strategy: the Confederacy would await invasion by the Union and then seek to defeat its armies until Lincoln tired of sending them. Davis and Benjamin worked together closely, and as Davis came to realize that his subordinate was loyal to the Confederacy and to Davis personally, he returned complete trust in Benjamin. Varina Davis wrote, "It was to me a curious spectacle, the steady approximation to a thorough friendliness of the President and his War Minister. It was a very gradual rapprochement, but all the more solid for that reason." [74]

In his months as War Secretary, Benjamin sent thousands of communications. [75] According to Evans, Benjamin initially "turn[ed] prejudice to his favor and play[ed] on the Southerner's instinctive respect for the Jewish mind with a brilliant performance." Nevertheless, Benjamin faced difficulties that he could do little to solve. The Confederacy lacked sufficient soldiers, trained officers to command them, naval and civilian ships, manufacturing capacity to make ships and many weapons, and powder for guns and cannon. The Union had those things and moved to block the South's access to European supplies, both by blockades and by buying up supplies that the South might have secured. Other problems included drunkenness among the men and their officers and uncertainty as to when and where the expected Northern invasion would begin. [76] Also, Benjamin had no experience of the military or of the executive branch of the government, placing him in a poor position to contradict Davis. [77]

Judah P. Benjamin, the dapper Jew,
Seal-sleek, black-eyed, lawyer and epicure,
Able, well-hated, face alive with life,
Looked round the council-chamber with the slight
Perpetual smile he held before himself
Continually like a silk-ribbed fan.
Behind the fan, his quick, shrewd, fluid mind,
Weighed Gentiles in an old balance.

An insurgency against the Confederacy developed in staunchly pro-Union East Tennessee in late 1861, and at Davis's order, Benjamin sent troops to crush it. Once it was put down, Benjamin and Davis were in a quandary about what to do about its leader, William "Parson" Brownlow, who had been captured, and eventually allowed him to cross to Union-controlled territory in the hope that it would cause Lincoln to release Confederate prisoners. [79] While Brownlow was in Southern custody, he stated that he expected, "no more mercy from Benjamin than was shown by his illustrious predecessors towards Jesus Christ". [77]

Benjamin had difficulty in managing the Confederacy's generals. He quarreled with General P.G.T. Beauregard, a war hero since his victory at First Manassas. Beauregard sought to add a rocket battery to his command, an action that Benjamin stated was not authorized by law. He was most likely relaying Davis's views, and when challenged by Beauregard, Davis backed Benjamin, advising the general to "dismiss this small matter from your mind. In the hostile masses before you, you have a subject more worthy of your contemplation". [80] In January 1862, Stonewall Jackson's forces had advanced in western Virginia, leaving troops under William W. Loring at the small town of Romney. Distant from Jackson's other forces and ill-supplied, Loring and other officers petitioned the War Department to be recalled, and Benjamin, after consulting Davis, so ordered after he used the pretext of rumored Union troop movements in the area. Jackson complied but, in a letter to Benjamin, asked to be removed from the front or to resign. High-ranking Confederates soothed Jackson into withdrawing his request. [81]

The power of state governments was another flaw in the Confederacy and a problem for Benjamin. Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown repeatedly demanded arms and the return of Georgian troops to defend his state. North Carolina Governor Henry T. Clark also wanted troops returned to him to defend his coastline. [82] After Cape Hatteras, on the North Carolina's coast, was captured, Confederate forces fell back to Roanoke Island. If it fell, a number of ports in that area of the coast would be at risk, and Norfolk, Virginia, might be threatened by land. [83]

General Henry A. Wise, commanding Roanoke, also demanded troops and supplies. He received little from Benjamin's War Department that had no arms to send, as the Union blockade was preventing supplies from being imported. That Confederate armories were empty was a fact not publicly known at the time. Benjamin and Davis hoped that the island's defenses could hold off the Union forces, but an overwhelming number of troops were landed in February 1862 at an undefended point, and the Confederates were quickly defeated. [84] Combined with Union General Ulysses S. Grant's capture of Fort Henry, the site of the Battle of Fort Henry, and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, it was the most severe military blow yet to the Confederacy, and there was a public outcry against Benjamin, led by General Wise. [85]

It was revealed a quarter-century after the war that Benjamin and Davis had agreed for Benjamin to act as a scapegoat, rather than to reveal the shortage of arms. [86] Not knowing it, the Richmond Examiner accused Benjamin of "stupid complacency." [87] Diarist Mary Chestnut recorded that "the mob calls him Mr. Davis's pet Jew." [88] The Wise family never forgave Benjamin, to the detriment of his memory in Southern eyes. Wise's son, Captain Jennings Wise, fell at Roanoke Island, and Henry's grandson John Wise, interviewed in 1936, told Meade that "the fat Jew sitting at his desk" was to blame. [86] Another of the general's sons, also named John Wise, wrote a highly-popular book about the South in the Civil War, The End of an Era (1899) in which he said that Benjamin "had more brains and less heart than any other civic leader in the South. The Confederacy and its collapse were no more to Judah P. Benjamin than last year's birds nest." [86]

The Confederate States Congress established a special committee to investigate the military losses, and Benjamin testified before it. [89] The Secretary of State, Virginia's Robert M. T. Hunter, had quarreled with Davis and resigned, and in March 1862, Benjamin was appointed as his replacement. Varina Davis noted that some in Congress had sought Benjamin's ouster "because of reverses which no one could have averted, [so] the President promoted him to the State Department with a personal and aggrieved sense of injustice done to the man who had now become his friend and right hand." [90] Richmond diarist Sallie Ann Brock Putnam wrote, "Mr. Benjamin was not forgiven. this act on the part of the President [in promoting Benjamin], in defiance of public opinion, was considered as unwise, arbitrary, and a reckless risking of his reputation and popularity. [Benjamin] was ever afterwards unpopular in the Confederacy, and particularly in Virginia." [91] Despite the promotion, the committee reported that any blame for the defeat at Roanoke Island should attach to Wise's superior, Major General Benjamin Huger, "and the late secretary of war, J.P. Benjamin." [92]

Confederate Secretary of State Edit

Throughout his time as Secretary of State, Benjamin tried to induce Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy—no other nation was likely to do so unless these powerful states led the way. The protection this would bring to the Confederacy and its foreign trade was hoped to be enough to save it. [93]

Basis of Confederate foreign policy Edit

By the 1850s, cheap Southern cotton fueled the industries of Europe. The mills of Britain, developed during the first half of the 19th century, by 1860 used more cotton than the rest of the industrialized world combined. Cotton imports to Britain came almost entirely from the American South. According to an article in The Economist in 1853, "let any great social or physical convulsion visit the United States, and England would feel the shock from Land's End to John O'Groat's. The lives of nearly two million of our countrymen . hang upon a thread." [94]

In 1855, an Ohioan, David Christy, published Cotton Is King: or Slavery in the Light of Political Economy. Christy argued that the flow of cotton was so important to the industrialized world that cutting it off would be devastating—not least to the Northern United States, as cotton was by far the largest U.S. export. This became known as the "King Cotton" theory, to which Davis was an enthusiastic subscriber. [95] Benjamin also spoke in favor of the theory, though Butler suspected he may have "known better", based on his firsthand knowledge of Europe. [92]

When war came, Davis, against Benjamin's advice, imposed an embargo on exports of cotton to nations that had not recognized the Confederate government, hoping to force such relations, especially with Britain and France. [96] As the Union was attempting to prevent cotton from being exported from Confederate ports by a blockade and other means, this played to a certain extent into the hands of Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William H. Seward. [97] Additionally, when the war began, Britain had a large surplus of cotton in warehouses, enough to keep the mills running at least part-time for a year or so. Although many prominent Britons believed the South would prevail, there was a reluctance to recognize Richmond until it had gained the military victories to put its foe at bay. Much of this was due to hatred of slavery, though part of it stemmed from a desire to remain on good terms with the U.S. government—due to a drought in 1862, Britain was forced to import large quantities of wheat and flour from the United States. [98] Also, Britain feared the expansionist Americans might invade the vulnerable Canadian colonies, as Seward hinted they might. [99]

Appointment Edit

Davis appointed Benjamin as Secretary of State on March 17, 1862. He was promptly confirmed by the Confederate Senate. A motion to reconsider the confirmation was lost, 13–8. [100] According to Butler, the appointment of Benjamin brought Davis little political support, as the average white Southerner did not understand Benjamin and somewhat disliked him. [101] As there was not much open opposition to Davis in the South at the time, Benjamin's appointment was not criticized, but was not given much praise either. Meade noted, "the silence of many influential newspapers was ominous. [Benjamin's] promotion in the face of such bitter criticism of his conduct in the war office caused the first serious lack of confidence in the Davis government." [102]

Meade wrote that, since the Secretary of State would have to work closely with Jefferson Davis, Benjamin was likely the person best suited to the position. [102] In addition to his relationship with the President, Benjamin was very close to the Confederate First Lady, Varina Davis, with whom he exchanged confidences regarding war events and the President's health. "Together, and by turns, they could help him over the most difficult days." [103]

For recreation, Benjamin frequented Richmond's gambling dens, playing poker and faro. He was incensed when British correspondent William Howard Russell publicized his gambling, feeling that it was an invasion of his private affairs. He was also displeased that Russell depicted him as a losing gambler, when his reputation was the opposite. [104]

Early days (1862–1863) Edit

The Trent Affair had taken place before Benjamin took office as Secretary of State: a U.S. warship had in October 1861 removed Confederate diplomats James Mason and James Slidell (Benjamin's former Louisiana colleague in the U.S. Senate) and their private secretaries from a British-flagged vessel. The crisis brought the U.S. and Britain near war, and was resolved by their release. [105] By the time of Benjamin's appointment, Mason and Slidell were at their posts in London and Paris as putative ministers from the Confederacy, seeking recognition by the governments of Britain and France. With difficult communications between the South and Europe (dispatches were often lost or intercepted), Benjamin was initially reluctant to change the instructions given the agents by Secretary Hunter. Communications improved by 1863, with Benjamin ordering that dispatches be sent to Bermuda or the Bahamas, from where they reached the Confederacy by blockade runner. [106]

As a practical matter, Benjamin's chances of gaining European recognition rose and fell with the military fortunes of the Confederacy. When, at the end of June 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee turned back Union General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in the Seven Days Battles, ending the immediate threat to Richmond, Emperor Napoleon III of France favorably received proposals from Benjamin, through Slidell, for the French to intervene on the Confederacy's behalf in exchange for trade concessions. Nevertheless, the Emperor proved unwilling to act without Britain. [107] In August 1862, Mason, angered by the refusal of British government ministers to meet with him, threatened to resign his post. Benjamin soothed him, stating that while Mason should not submit to insulting treatment, resignation should not take place without discussion. [108]

The bloody standoff at Antietam in September 1862 that ended Lee's first major incursion into the North gave Lincoln the confidence in Union arms he needed to announce the Emancipation Proclamation. [109] British newspapers mocked Lincoln for hypocrisy in freeing slaves only in Confederate-held areas, where he could exercise no authority. British officials had been shocked by the outcome of Antietam—they had expected Lee to deliver another brilliant victory—and now considered an additional reason for intervening in the conflict. Antietam, the bloodiest day of the war, had been a stalemate they read this as presaging an overall deadlock in the war, with North and South at each other's throats for years as Britain's mills sat empty and its people starved. France agreed with this assessment. [110]

The final few months of 1862 saw a high water mark for Benjamin's diplomacy. [111] In October, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, expressed confidence in Confederate victory, stating in Newcastle, "There is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army. They are making, it appears, a navy, and they have made what is more than either—they have made a nation." [112] Later that month, Napoleon proposed to the British and Russians (a U.S. ally) that they combine to require a six months' armistice for mediation, and an end to the blockade if they did so, it would likely lead to Southern independence. [113] The proposal divided the British Cabinet. In mid-November, at the urgings of Palmerston and War Secretary George Cornewall Lewis, members decided to continue to wait for the South to defeat Lincoln's forces before recognizing it. [114] Although proponents of intervention were prepared to await another opportunity, growing realization among the British public that the Emancipation Proclamation meant that Union victory would be slavery's end made succoring the South politically infeasible. [115]

Benjamin had not been allowed to offer the inducement for intervention that might have succeeded—abolition of slavery in the Confederacy, and because of that, Meade deemed his diplomacy "seriously, perhaps fatally handicapped". [116] The Secretary of State blamed Napoleon for the failure, believing the Emperor had betrayed the Confederacy to get the ruler the French had installed in Mexico, Maximilian, accepted by the United States. [117]

In Paris, Slidell had been approached by the banking firm Erlanger et Cie. The company offered to float a loan to benefit the Confederacy. [c] The proposed terms provided a large commission to Erlanger and would entitle the bondholder to cotton at a discounted price once the South won the war. [118] Baron Frederic Emile d'Erlanger, head of the firm, journeyed to Richmond in early 1863, and negotiated with Benjamin, although the transaction properly fell within the jurisdiction of Treasury Secretary Memminger. The banker softened the terms somewhat, though they were still lucrative for his firm. Benjamin felt the deal was worth it, as it would provide the Confederacy with badly needed funds to pay its agents in Europe. [119]

Increasing desperation (1863–1865) Edit

The twin rebel defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in early July 1863 made it unlikely that Britain, or any other nation, would recognize a slaveholding Confederacy staggering towards oblivion. [120] Accordingly, in August, Benjamin wrote to Mason telling him that as Davis believed the British unwilling to recognize the South, he was free to leave the country. [121] In October, with Davis absent on a trip to Tennessee, Benjamin heard that the British consul in Savannah had forbidden British subjects in the Confederate Army from being used against the United States. The Secretary of State convened a Cabinet meeting, that expelled the remaining British consuls in Confederate-controlled territory, then notified Davis by letter. Evans suggests that Benjamin's actions made him the Confederacy's acting president [122] —the first Jewish president. [123]

Benjamin supervised the Confederate Secret Service, responsible for covert operations in the North, and financed former federal Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson to work behind the scenes financing operations that might undermine Lincoln politically. Although efforts were made to boost Peace Democrats, the most prominent actions proved to be the St. Albans Raid (an attack on a Vermont town from Canada) and an unsuccessful attempt to burn New York City. [124] In the aftermath of the war, these activities led to accusations that Benjamin and Davis were involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, as one Confederate courier, John H. Surratt, who had received money from Benjamin, was tried for involvement in the conspiracy, though Surratt was acquitted. [125]

As the Confederacy's military fortunes flagged, there was increasing consideration of what would have been unthinkable in 1861—enlisting male slaves in the army and emancipating them for their service. In August 1863, B. H. Micou, a relative of a former law partner, wrote to Benjamin proposing the use of black soldiers. Benjamin responded that this was not feasible, principally for legal and financial reasons, and that the slaves were performing valuable services for the Confederacy where they were. [126] According to Meade, "Benjamin did not offer any objections to Micou's plan except on practical grounds—he was not repelled by the radical nature of the proposal". [127] A British financial agent for the Confederacy, James Spence, also urged emancipation as a means of gaining British recognition. Benjamin allowed Spence to remain in his position for almost a year despite the differences with Confederate policy, before finally dismissing him in late 1863. [128] Despite official neutrality, tens of thousands from British-ruled Ireland were enlisting in the Union cause Benjamin sent an agent to Ireland hoping to impede those efforts and Dudley Mann to Rome to urge Pope Pius IX to forbid Catholic Irish from enlisting. The Pope did not do so, though he responded sympathetically. [129]

In January 1864, Confederate General Patrick Cleburne, of the Army of Tennessee, proposed emancipating and arming the slaves. Davis, when he heard of it, turned it down and ordered it kept secret. Evans notes that Benjamin "had been thinking in similar terms for much longer, and perhaps the recommendation of so respected an officer was just the impetus he needed." [130] The year 1864 was a disastrous one for the Confederacy, with Lee forced within siege lines at Petersburg and Union General William T. Sherman sacking Atlanta and devastating Georgia on his march to the sea. [131] [132] Benjamin urged Davis to send the secretary's fellow Louisianan, Duncan Kenner, to Paris and London, with an offer of emancipation in exchange for recognition. Davis was only willing to offer gradual emancipation, and both Napoleon and Palmerston rejected the proposal. [133] Benjamin continued to press the matter, addressing a mass meeting in Richmond in February 1865 in support of arming the slaves and emancipating them. A bill eventually emerged from the Confederate Congress in March, but it had many restrictions, and it was too late to affect the outcome of the war. [134]

In January 1865, Lincoln, who had been re-elected the previous November, sent Francis Blair as an emissary to Richmond, hoping to secure reunion without further bloodshed. Both sides agreed to a meeting at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Benjamin drafted vague instructions for the Southern delegation, led by Vice President Alexander Stephens, but Davis insisted on modifying them to refer to North and South as "two nations". This was the point that scuttled the Hampton Roads Conference Lincoln would not consider the South a separate entity, insisting on union and emancipation. [135]

By March 1865, the Confederate military situation was desperate. Most major population centers had fallen, and General Lee's defense of Richmond was faltering against massive Union forces. Nevertheless, Benjamin retained his usual good humor on the evening of April 1, with evacuation likely, he was at the State Department offices, singing a silly ballad of his own composition, "The Exit from Shocko Hill", a graveyard district located in Richmond. [136] On April 2, Lee sent word that he could only keep Union troops away from the line of the Richmond and Danville Railroad—the only railroad still running out of Richmond—for a short time. Those who did not leave Richmond would be trapped. [137] At 11:00 pm that night, the Confederate President and Cabinet left aboard a Danville-bound train. Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory recorded that Benjamin's "hope and good humor [was] inexhaustible . with a 'never-give-up-the-ship' sort of air, referred to other great national causes which had been redeemed from far gloomier reverses than ours". [138]

In Danville, Benjamin shared a room with another refugee, in the home of a banker. [139] For a week, Danville served as capital of the Confederacy, until word came of Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House. With no army to shield the Confederate government, it would be captured by Union forces within days, so Davis and his Cabinet, including Benjamin, fled south to Greensboro, North Carolina. Five minutes after the train passed over the Haw River, Union cavalry raiders burned the bridge, trapping the trains that followed Davis's. [140]

Greensboro, fearing wrathful reprisal from the Union, gave the fugitives little hospitality, forcing Benjamin and the other Cabinet members to bunk in a railroad boxcar. Davis hoped to reach Texas, where rumor had it large Confederate forces remained active. [141] The Cabinet met in Greensboro, and Generals Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston sketched the bleak military situation. Davis, backed as usual by Benjamin, was determined to continue to fight. The refugee government moved south on April 15. With the train tracks cut, most Cabinet members rode on horseback, but the heavyset Benjamin declared he would not ride on one until he had to, and shared an ambulance with Jules St. Martin and others. For the entertainment of his companions, Benjamin recited Tennyson's "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington". [142]

In Charlotte, Benjamin stayed in the home of a Jewish merchant as surrender negotiations dragged. Here, Benjamin abandoned Davis's plan to fight on, telling him and the Cabinet that the cause was hopeless. When negotiations failed, Benjamin was part of the shrunken remnant of associates that moved on with Davis. The party reached Abbeville, South Carolina on May 2, and Benjamin told Davis that he wanted to separate from the presidential party temporarily, and go to the Bahamas to be able to send instructions to foreign agents before rejoining Davis in Texas. [143] According to historian William C. Davis, "the pragmatic Secretary of State almost certainly never had any intention of returning to the South once gone". [144] When he bade John Reagan goodbye, the postmaster general asked where Benjamin was going. "To the farthest place from the United States, if it takes me to the middle of China." [145]

With one companion, Benjamin travelled south in a poor carriage, pretending to be a Frenchman who spoke no English. He had some gold with him, and left much of it for the support of relatives. He was traveling in the same general direction as the Davis party, but evaded capture whereas Davis was taken by Union troops. Benjamin reached Monticello, Florida, on May 13 to learn Union troops were in nearby Madison. Benjamin decided to continue alone on horseback, east and south along Florida's Gulf Coast, pretending to be a South Carolina farmer. [146] John T. Lesley, James McKay, and C. J. Munnerlyn assisted in hiding Benjamin in a swamp, [147] [148] before eventually transporting him to Gamble Mansion in Ellenton, on the southwest coast of Florida. [d] [150] From there, assisted by the blockade runner Captain Frederick Tresca, he reached Bimini in the Bahamas. His escape from Florida to England was not without hardship: at one point he pretended to be a Jewish cook on Tresca's vessel, to deceive American soldiers who inspected it—one of whom stated it was the first time he had seen a Jew do menial labor. The small sponge-carrying vessel on which he left Bimini bound for Nassau exploded on the way, and he and the three black crewmen eventually managed to return to Bimini. Tresca's ship was still there, and he chartered it to take him to Nassau. From there, he took a ship for Havana, and on August 6, 1865, left there for Britain. He was not yet done with disaster his ship caught fire after departing St. Thomas, and the crew put out the flames only with difficulty. On August 30, 1865, Judah Benjamin arrived at Southampton, in Britain. [151]

Benjamin spent a week in London assisting Mason in winding up Confederate affairs. He then went to Paris to visit his wife and daughter for the first time since before the war. Friends in Paris urged him to join a mercantile firm there, but Benjamin felt that such a career would be subject to interference by Seward and the United States. Accordingly, Benjamin sought to shape his old course in a new country, resuming his legal career as an English barrister. [152] Most of Benjamin's property had been destroyed or confiscated, and he needed to make a living for himself and his relatives. [153] He had money in the United Kingdom as he had, during the war, purchased cotton for transport to Liverpool by blockade runner. [154]

On January 13, 1866, Benjamin enrolled at Lincoln's Inn, and soon thereafter was admitted to read law under Charles Pollock, son of Chief Baron Charles Edward Pollock, who took him as a pupil at his father's direction. [155] Benjamin, despite his age of 54, was initially required, like his thirty-years-younger peers, to attend for twelve terms, that is, three years. According to Benjamin's obituary in The Times, though, "the secretary of the Confederacy was dispensed from the regular three years of unprofitable dining, and called to the bar" on June 6, 1866. [156]

Once qualified as a barrister, Benjamin chose to join the Northern Circuit, as it included Liverpool, where his connections in New Orleans and knowledge of mercantile affairs would do him the most good. In an early case, he defended two former Confederate agents against a suit by the United States to gain assets said to belong to that nation. [154] Although he lost that case (United States v Wagner) on appeal, he was successful against his former enemies in United States v McRae (1869). [157] He had need of rapid success, as most of his remaining assets were lost in the collapse of the firm of Overend, Gurney and Company. He was reduced to penning columns on international affairs for The Daily Telegraph. [154]

According to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "repeating his Louisiana progress, Benjamin made his reputation among his new peers by publication". [153] In an early representation, he wrote a complex governing document for an insurance firm that other counsel had declined despite the substantial fee, due to the early deadline. After brief study, Benjamin wrote out the document, never making a correction or erasure. [154] In 1868, Benjamin published A Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property, With Reference to the American Decisions, to the French Code, and Civil Law. This work, known for short as Benjamin on Sales, became a classic in both Britain and America, and launched his career as a barrister. [156] It went through three editions prior to Benjamin's death in 1884 [158] an eighth edition was published in 2010. [159] Today Benjamin's Sale of Goods forms part of the "common law library" of key practitioner texts on English civil law. [160]

In 1867, Benjamin had been indicted in Richmond, along with Davis, Lee, and others, for waging war against the United States. The indictment was soon quashed. Davis visited London in 1868, free on bail, and Benjamin advised him not to take legal action against the author of a book that had angered Davis, as it would only give the book publicity. [161] Benjamin corresponded with Davis, and met with him on the former rebel president's visits to Europe during Benjamin's lifetime, though the two were never as close as they had been during the war. [162]

Benjamin was created a "Palatine silk", entitled to the precedence of a Queen's Counsel within Lancashire, in July 1869. [154] There was a large creation of Queen's Counsel in early 1872, but Benjamin was not included it was stated in his Times obituary that he had put his name forward. Later that year, he argued the case of Potter v Rankin before the House of Lords and so impressed Lord Hatherley that a patent of precedence was soon made out, giving Benjamin the privileges of a Queen's Counsel. As he became prominent as a barrister, he discontinued practice before juries (at which he was less successful) in favor of trials or appeals before judges. In his last years in practice, he demanded an additional fee of 100 guineas (£105) to appear in any court besides the House of Lords and the Privy Council. [156] In 1875, he was made a bencher of Lincoln's Inn. [163]

In 1881, Benjamin represented Arthur Orton, the Tichborne claimant, before the House of Lords. Orton, a butcher from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, had claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, a baronet who had vanished some years previously, and Orton had perjured himself in the course of defending his claim. Benjamin sought to overturn the sentence of 14 years passed on Orton, but was not successful. [164]

In his final years, Benjamin suffered from health issues. In 1880, he was badly injured in a fall from a tram in Paris. He also developed diabetes. He suffered a heart attack in Paris at the end of 1882, and his doctor ordered him to retire. [163] His health improved enough to allow him to travel to London in June 1883 for a dinner in his honor attended by the English bench and bar. He returned to Paris and suffered a relapse of his heart trouble in early 1884. [165] Natalie Benjamin had the last rites of the Catholic Church administered to her Jewish husband before his death in Paris on May 6, 1884, and funeral services were held in a church prior to Judah Benjamin's interment at Père Lachaise Cemetery in the St. Martin family crypt. His grave did not bear his name until 1938, when a plaque was placed by the Paris chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. [166]

Benjamin was the first U.S. senator to profess the Jewish faith. In 1845, David Yulee, born David Levy, the first cousin of Judah Benjamin’s father, had been sworn in for Florida, but he renounced Judaism and eventually formally converted to Christianity. [167] As an adult, Benjamin married a non-Jew, was not a member of a synagogue, and took no part in communal affairs. He rarely spoke of his Jewish background publicly, but was not ashamed of it. Some of the stories told of Benjamin that touch on this subject come from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, [168] who referred to an address Benjamin delivered in a San Francisco synagogue on Yom Kippur in 1860, though whether this occurred is open to question as Wise was not there and it was not reported in the city's Jewish newspaper. [169] One quote from Senate debate that remains "part of the Benjamin legend", according to Evans, followed an allusion to Moses as a freer of slaves by a Northern senator, hinting that Benjamin was an "Israelite in Egyptian clothing". [170] Benjamin is supposed to have replied, "It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate hand of deity, amidst the thunderings and lightnings of Mount Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain." However, this anecdote is likely apocryphal as the same exchange between British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (a converted Jew) and Daniel O'Connell took place in the House of Commons in 1835. [171] [170]

Edgar M. Kahn, in his journal article on the 1860 California sojourn, wrote, "Benjamin's life is an example of a man's determination to overcome almost insurmountable barriers by industry, perseverance, and intelligent use of a remarkable brain." [172] This brilliance was recognized by contemporaries Salomon de Rothschild, in 1861, deemed Benjamin "the greatest mind" in North America. [173] Nevertheless, according to Meade, "he was given to quixotic enthusiasms and was sometimes too cocksure of his knowledge." [174] Ginsburg said of Benjamin, "he rose to the top of the legal profession twice in one lifetime, on two continents, beginning his first ascent as a raw youth and his second as a fugitive minister of a vanquished power." [153] Davis, after Benjamin's death, deemed him the most able member of his Cabinet, and said that the lawyer's postwar career had fully vindicated his confidence in him. [174]

According to Brook, "in every age, a heroic sage struggles to rescue Benjamin from obscurity—and invariably fails." [14] Benjamin left no memoir and destroyed his personal papers, by which "the task of future researchers and historians was made exceedingly difficult and laborious". [175] After his death, Benjamin was rarely written about, in contrast to Davis and other Confederate leaders. Part of this was due to Benjamin depriving his potential biographers of source material, but even Davis, in his two-volume war memoir, mentions him only twice. [176] Evans suggests that as Davis wrote the books in part to defend and memorialize his place in history, it would not have been characteristic of him to give much credit to Benjamin. [177] Davis, in the midst of postwar business struggles, may have resented Benjamin's success as a barrister, or may have feared that allegations of involvement in Lincoln's assassination would again be made against the two men. [178] Brook concurs that Benjamin's postwar success, that began as Davis lay in prison and other Confederates struggled for survival, may have soured Southerners towards the former secretary, but that anti-Semitism was also likely a factor. "For the guardians of Confederate memory after Reconstruction, Benjamin became a kind of pet Jew, generally ignored, but then trotted out at opportune moments to defend the segregated South against charges of bigotry." [14]

Those writing on Jewish history were reluctant to glorify a slaveowner, and reacted to Benjamin's story with "embarrassed dismay". [176] This was especially so in the two generations following 1865 when the question of the Civil War remained an active issue in American politics. [176] It was not until the 1930s that Benjamin began to be mentioned as a significant figure in the history of the United States, and in the chronicle of the Jews there. [179] Nevertheless, Tom Mountain, in his 2009 article on Benjamin, points out that Benjamin was respected in the South as a leader of the rebel cause for a century after the Civil War, and that Southern schoolchildren who could not name the current Secretary of State in Washington knew about Benjamin. [123] Reform Rabbi Daniel Polish noted in 1988 that Benjamin "represent[ed] a significant dilemma [in] my years growing up as a Jew both proud of his people and with an intense commitment to the ideals of liberalism and human solidarity that I found embodied in the civil rights movement." [14]

Berman recounts a story that during the Civil War, Benjamin was called to the Torah at Beth Ahabah synagogue in Richmond. However, there is no proof of this, nor does Benjamin's name appear in any surviving record of the Jews of that city. "But whether or not Benjamin practiced Judaism overtly or contributed to Jewish causes, to the Jews of the South, he was a symbol of a coreligionist who was a man among men". [180] According to Evans, "Benjamin survives, as he willed it: a shadowy figure in Civil War history". [181] Kahn noted that Benjamin "is epitomized as a foremost orator, lawyer, and statesman, without a peer at the bars of two of the world's greatest nations". [172] Meade questioned whether Benjamin's character can ever be fully understood:

We can easily prove that Benjamin was the only genius in the Confederate cabinet. We can demonstrate that his career, with its American and English phases, was more glamorous than that of any other prominent Confederate. But we are still confronted by one perplexing problem: Judah P. Benjamin was an enigmatic figure—the most incomprehensible of all the Confederate leaders. Lee, Jackson, even Jefferson Davis, are crystal clear in comparison with the Jewish lawyer and statesman. The acrimonious debate about his character began before the Civil War and has not ceased to this day. [182]

Jefferson Davis chosen to lead Confederacy, Feb. 10, 1861

On this day in 1861, a telegram arrived at Brierfield, Jefferson Davis’ Mississippi plantation, informing him that on the previous day, breakaway delegates meeting in Montgomery, Ala., had chosen him as the provisional president of the newly formed Confederate States of America.

The former congressman and senator from Mississippi had resigned his Senate seat when Mississippi voted to secede from the Union. Earlier, he had served as secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Anticipating a possible call for his services, Davis had sent a telegram to Mississippi Gov. John Pettus in which he wrote: “Judge what Mississippi requires of me and place me accordingly.”

As the Civil War loomed, Davis summed up his views on slavery: “We recognize the negro as God and God's Book and God's Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him: Our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”

At the constitutional convention in Montgomery, Davis drew support from six of the seven Confederate states. He was formally inaugurated on Feb. 18 on the steps of the Alabama state Capitol.

His wife, Varina, later wrote of her husband’s first reaction to the news: “Reading that telegram, he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes he told me like a man might speak of a sentence of death.”

Davis said of the office: “I have no confidence in my ability to meet its requirement. I think I could [better] perform the function of a general. … Upon my weary heart was showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers, but beyond them I saw troubles innumerable. We are without machinery, without means, and threatened by powerful opposition but I do not despond and will not shrink from the task before me.”

From Divorce to Blackface: A Short History of Political Taboos

In early 1861, several forts in Confederate territory remained in Union hands. Davis sent a commission to Washington with an offer to pay for any federal property on Southern soil, as well as the Southern share of the national debt. President Abraham Lincoln refused to meet with the commissioners, although brief informal discussions did take place with Secretary of State William Seward.

Davis remained president of the Confederacy until — with the defeat of secessionist states in the Civil War — its government was dissolved on May 5, 1865. Five days later, he was captured by Union forces in Georgia, charged with treason and imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia for two years before being released on bail paid partly by abolitionist Horace Greeley.

He died at age 81 in New Orleans in 1889. Shortly before he passed away, Jefferson said: “The past is dead let it bury its dead. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling. Make your place in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished — a reunited country.”


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The U.S. Removed Over 160 Confederate Symbols in 2020—but Hundreds Remain

After a white supremacist massacred nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church in 2015, activists and authorities across the United States launched a renewed push to remove Confederate memorabilia from public and civic centers. More recently, writes Aaron Morrison for the Associated Press (AP), mass protests against racial injustice sparked by a white police officer’s killing of black Minneapolis man George Floyd have prompted similar efforts to revisit public works honoring slaveholders, the Confederacy and other controversial figures.

Thanks in large part to this widespread racial reckoning, 2020 proved to be a record year for removing and replacing traces of the Confederacy. As the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced in a statement this week, at least 168 Confederate symbols in public spaces—including statues, institution names, plaques and markers—were removed or renamed last year.

The Montgomery, Alabama–based nonprofit began compiling a running list of Confederate symbols around the country in 2015. The latest statistics represent a year-end update to the SPLC’s Whose Heritage? project, which tracks public Confederate symbols across the United States and, in particular, the American South.

All but one of the 168 removals took place after Floyd’s death in May, report Neil Vigdor and Daniel Victor for the New York Times. Per the report, 94 of the symbols were monuments to Confederate leaders that have since been placed in storage or moved to museums—a divisive issue in and of itself. (For comparison, just 58 Confederate monuments were removed from public view between 2015 and 2019.)

Out of all U.S. states, Virginia removed the most Confederate symbols (71) in 2020. North Carolina removed 24, while Texas and Alabama removed 12 each.

� was a transformative year for the Confederate symbols movement,” says SPLC Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks in the statement. “Over the course of seven months, more symbols of hate were removed from public property than in the preceding four years combined.”

A statue of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis is loaded onto a tow truck after protesters pulled it down in Richmond, Virginia, on June 10, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / AFP / Getty Images)

Still, the SPLC notes, at least 2,100 Confederate symbols, including 704 monuments, remain standing across the U.S. And, in some states, it may become harder to remove Confederate symbols moving forward: As Rachel Treisman reports for NPR, one investigation found that between May and October 2020, local governments in states such as Florida, Delaware and Arizona took steps to protect at least 28 Confederate monuments.

“In a number of states, it’s just impossible to have a community referendum or even for communities to make their own decisions on this,” Erin L. Thompson, an expert on art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, tells USA Today’s N’dea Yancey-Bragg. “State legislature[s] are trying to make it impossible to take down the monuments really in any other way than violently during [a] protest.”

Confederate symbols have long been associated with the Lost Cause, a racist ideology that suggests the Civil War had little to do with the institution of slavery. In reality, the SPLC noted in its 2019 report, the theory honors “a secessionist government that waged war against the United States to preserve white supremacy and the enslavement of millions of people.”

Many Confederate monuments were erected by white governments during the Jim Crow era as a way to celebrate the history of enslavement and intimidate newly enfranchised African Americans, as Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler explained in a 2018 Smithsonian magazine investigation on the costs of the Confederacy.

In the statement, Brooks says that a reckoning with this painful past is long overdue.

Jefferson Davis Inaugural Speech

Called to the difficult and responsible station of Chief Executive of the Provisional Government which you have instituted, I approach the discharge of the duties assigned to me with an humble distrust of my abilities, but with a sustaining confidence in the wisdom of those who are to guide and to aid me in the administration of public affairs, and an abiding faith in the virtue and patriotism of the people.

the beginning of our career as a Confederacy may not be obstructed by hostile opposition to our enjoyment of the separate existence and independence which we have asserted, and, with the blessing of Providence, intend to maintain. Our present condition, achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations, illustrates the American idea that governments rest upon the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish governments whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established . The declared purpose of the compact of Union from which we have withdrawn was "to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity" and when, in the judgment of the sovereign States now composing this Confederacy, it had been perverted from the purposes for which it was ordained, and had ceased to answer the ends for which it was established, a peaceful appeal to the ballot-box declared that so far as they were concerned, the government created by that compact should cease to exist. In this they merely asserted a right which the Declaration of Independence of 1776 had defined to be inalienable of the time and occasion for its exercise, they, as sovereigns, were the final judges, each for itself. The impartial and enlightened verdict of mankind will vindicate the rectitude of our conduct, and He who knows the hearts of men will judge of the sincerity with which we labored to preserve the Government of our fathers in its spirit. The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the States, and which has been affirmed and reaffirmed in the bills of rights of States subsequently admitted into the Union of 1789, undeniably recognize in the people the power to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of government. Thus the sovereign States here represented proceeded to form this Confederacy, and it is by abuse of language that their act has been denominated a revolution. They formed a new alliance, but within each State its government has remained, the rights of person and property have not been disturbed. The agent through whom they communicated with foreign nations is changed, but this does not necessarily interrupt their international relations.

Sustained by the consciousness that the transition from the former Union to the present Confederacy has not proceeded from a disregard on our part of just obligations, or any failure to perform every constitutional duty, moved b! no interest or passion to invade the rights of others, anxious to cultivate peace and commerce with all nations, if we may not hope to avoid war, we may at least expect that posterity will acquit us of having needlessly engaged in it. Doubly justified by the absence of wrong on our part, and by wanton aggression on the part of others, there can be no cause to doubt that the courage and patriotism of the people of the Confederate States will be found equal to any measures of defense which honor and security may require.

An agricultural people, whose chief interest is the export of a commodity required in every manufacturing country, our true policy is peace, and the freest trade which our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest, and that of all those to whom we would sell and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon the interchange of commodities. There can be but little rivalry between ours and any manufacturing or navigating community, such as the Northeastern States of the American Union. It must follow, therefore, that a mutual interest would invite good will and kind offices. If, however, passion or the lust of dominion should cloud the judgment or inflame the ambition of those States, we must prepare to meet the emergency and to maintain, by the final arbitrament of the sword, the position which we have assumed among the nations of the earth. We have entered upon the career of independence, and it must be inflexibly pursued. Through many years of controversy with our late associates, the Northern States, we have vainly endeavored to secure tranquility, and to obtain respect for the rights to which we were entitled. As a necessity, not a choice, we have resorted to the remedy of separation and henceforth our energies must he directed to the conduct of our own affairs, and the perpetuity of the Confederacy which we have formed. If a just perception of mutual interest shall permit us peaceably to pursue our separate political career, my most earnest desire will have been fulfilled. But, if this be denied to us, and the integrity of our territory and jurisdiction be assailed, it will but remain for us, with firm resolve, to appeal to arms and invoke the blessings of Providence on a just cause.

As a consequence of our new condition and with a view to meet anticipated wants, it will be necessary to provide for the speedy and efficient organization of branches of the executive department, having special charge of foreign intercourse, finance, military affairs, and the postal service.

For purposes of defense, the Confederate States may, under ordinary circumstances, rely mainly upon their militia, but it is deemed advisable, in the present condition of affairs, that there should be a well-instructed and disciplined army, more numerous than would usually be required on a peace establishment. I also suggest that for the protection of our harbors and commerce on the high seas a navy adapted to those objects will be required. These necessities have doubtless engaged the attention of Congress.

With a Constitution differing only from that of our fathers in so far as it is explanatory of their well-known intent, freed from the sectional conflicts which have interfered with the pursuit of the general welfare it is not unreasonable to expect that States from which we have recently parted may seek to unite their fortunes with ours under the government which we have instituted. For this your Constitution makes adequate provision but beyond this, if I mistake not the judgment and will of the people, a reunion with the States from which we have separated is neither practicable nor desirable. To increase the power, develop the resources, and promote the happiness of a confederacy, it is requisite that there should be so much of homogeneity that the welfare of every portion shall be the aim of the whole. Where this does not exist, antagonisms are engendered which must and should result in separation.

Actuated solely by the desire to preserve our own rights and promote our own welfare, the separation of the Confederate States has been marked by no aggression upon others and followed by no domestic convulsion. Our industrial pursuits have received no check. The cultivation of our fields has progressed as heretofore, and even should we be involved in war there would be no considerable diminution in the production of the staples which have constituted our exports and in which the commercial world has an interest scarcely less than our own. This common interest of the producer and consumer can only be interrupted by an exterior force which should obstruct its transmission to foreign markets-a course of conduct which would be as unjust toward us as it would be detrimental to manufacturing and commercial interests abroad. Should reason guide the action of the Government from which we have separated, a policy so detrimental to the civilized world, the Northern States included, could not be dictated by even the strongest desire to inflict injury upon us but otherwise a terrible responsibility will rest upon it, and the suffering of millions will bear testimony to the folly and wickedness of our aggressors. In the meantime there will remain to us, besides the ordinary means before suggested, the well-known resources for retaliation upon the commerce of an enemy.

Experience in public stations, of subordinate grade to this which your kindness has conferred, has taught me that care and toil and disappointment are the price of official elevation. You will see many errors to forgive, many deficiencies to tolerate, but you shall not find in me either a want of zeal or fidelity to the cause that is to me highest in hope and of most enduring affection. Your generosity has bestowed upon me an undeserved distinction, one which I neither sought nor desired. Upon the continuance of that sentiment and upon your wisdom and patriotism I rely to direct and support me in the performance of the duty required at my hands.

We have changed the constituent parts, but not the system of our Government. The Constitution formed by our fathers is that of these Confederate States, in their exposition of it, and in the judicial construction it has received, we have a light which reveals its true meaning.

Thus instructed as to the just interpretation of the instrument, and ever remembering that all offices are but trusts held for the people, and that delegated powers are to be strictly construed, I will hope, by due diligence in the performance of my duties, though I may disappoint your expectations, yet to retain, when retiring, something of the good will and confidence which welcome my entrance into office.

It is joyous, in the midst of perilous times, to look around upon a people united in heart, where one purpose of high resolve animates and actuates the whole-where the sacrifices to be made are not weighed in the balance against honor and right and liberty and equality. Obstacles may retard, they cannot long prevent the progress of a movement sanctified by its justice, and sustained by a virtuous people. Reverently let us invoke the God of our fathers to guide and protect us in our efforts to perpetuate the principles which, by his blessing, they were able to vindicate, establish and transmit to their posterity, and with a continuance of His favor, ever gratefully acknowledged, we may hopefully look forward to success, to peace, and to prosperity.

President Jefferson Davis, Confederate States of America

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