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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 312

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This is the grave of the traitor Jefferson Davis.

Unfortunately born in 1808 in Kentucky, Davis’ family moved when he was a child, first to Louisiana and then to Mississippi. The family was upwardly mobile and managed to acquire land and slaves and send Davis, the youngest of 10, to school. That culminated in an appointment to West Point in 1824. He graduated toward the back of his class and was assigned to troops under the command of Zachary Taylor. He didn’t do too much of note and was actually on leave during the Black Hawk War, though he did return in time to escort Black Hawk to prison.

Davis resigned from the military when he married Taylor’s daughter. Taylor did not approve of the marriage, in part because he didn’t want his daughter living the life of a soldier’s wife, but he didn’t still like it even after Davis resigned. However, she died at the age of 21 of yellow fever after they visited Davis’ sister, who lived on a plantation in Louisiana. Davis nearly died as well but, sadly, he lived. He traveled to Havana to recuperate. I never figured on Cuba as a place to recover from yellow fever, but hey, 19th century medicine.

Now, I have to quote the Wikipedia entry on what Davis did next:

For several years following Sarah’s death, Davis was reclusive and honored her memory. He spent time clearing Brierfield and developing his plantation, studied government and history, and had private political discussions with his brother Joseph. By early 1836, Davis had purchased 16 slaves; he held 40 slaves by 1840, and 74 by 1845.

What better way to honor your dead wife than buying humans as slaves! I have no idea if this is accurate, but I’m going with it!

Davis first got involved in politics in 1840 at the local level. He was surprised that people were interested in him and it took him awhile to embrace it, but by 1844, he was one of the biggest supporters for James Polk in Mississippi. He was then elected to Congress himself in 1845 in what I guess was a special election.

In 1846, Polk invaded Mexico in an unjust war to steal land in order to expand slavery. Davis was very excited to volunteer for it. He did, but he and Polk made a deal. He would stick around Congress long enough for a key tariff vote and Polk would authorize that his regiment could use a specific rifle made in Mississippi that was not normal military issue. Winfield Scott, leading the military during the war, went ballistic, but Davis won out and the Davis and Scott would basically hate each other forever. Davis resigned from Congress and fought at some of the war’s key battles. He was wounded in the foot at Buena Vista: unfortunately, the bullet didn’t find his head. In the aftermath, Polk offered Davis a federal commission as a brigadier general, but, in a sign of how extreme his politics already were, Davis declined because he said that militia commissions were the responsibility of states and thus Polk was engaging in an unconstitutional act. Not sure what the eyeroll emoji for 1848 would have been, but this would have been a good time to use it.

Upon his return to Mississippi, Davis was appointed to the Senate following the death of the incumbent. His main platform was to steal more of Mexico than the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo would do. There was a strong argument by expansionist such as Davis to steal all of Mexico, but because Mexicans didn’t fit int the black-white racial binary of American culture, other racists decided against it because they couldn’t see enslaving Mexicans, nor granting them equality. This was why New Mexico did not become a state until 1912, even though it had enough people in 1848. There just wasn’t room for Spanish-speaking Mexicans in the United States’ vision of itself. So when Davis proposed a bill that would have swallowed up most of what is today northeastern Mexico into the United States, it failed to pass the Senate.

This would not stop Davis’ expansionist vision. In 1849, Narciso López offered Davis command of his filibustering expedition to annex Cuba, but Davis turned it down because he didn’t think it was appropriate for a senator. It could have also had to do with the fact that the idea was half-baked at best and was a total disaster in practice. Davis left the Senate in 1850 to run for governor of Mississippi but he narrowly lost the race. A radical on states rights, Davis was close to New Hampshire’s drunken doughface Franklin Pierce and supported him in the 1852 election. Pierce repaid him by naming him Secretary of War.

Davis’ main goal in the Cabinet was to further his southern nationalist ambitions. In short, as Americans prepared to build a transcontinental railroad, Davis was determined it would run in the South to give it power over the North. To make that happen, Davis felt that the U.S. needed to steal more Mexican land. This became the Gadsden Purchase, which forced Mexico to give up the area from Yuma to the New Mexican bootheel, including Tucson, for money. In 1857, after Pierce left office, Davis returned to the Senate. During these years, he argued both for the Union and for the right of states to leave the Union anytime they wanted. He really didn’t believe the South was ready to take on the North from a military or industrial perspective; his time as Secretary of War had convinced him of this. But when Mississippi seceded, Davis committed treason in defense of slavery and resigned from the Senate. Davis was then named president of the Treason States because of his experience in both politics and the military.

Luckily for those of us who did not commit treason in defense of slavery, Davis was a pretty bad president. He, like most southerners, valued military action over politics and really wanted to lead troops. Because of that, he intervened all the time in military decisions, was politically ineffective, played favorites with generals, and was completely indifferent to how the war affected everyday white southerners, leading to much more resistance as the war went on than the southern elites, who believed themselves born to rule and poor whites born to follow, imagined could happen. He never was close to Robert E. Lee, who despite all his horrible faults was at least good at his job. Rather, Davis wanted to be the ultimate commander of southern troops and constantly interfered. Davis himself made choices in military operations that spread southern troops too thin and, because he was not very interested in governance, did not set up the structure to force different generals to work together effectively. He did not have the personal bravery to settle disputes between his generals that hamstrung the military. Moreover, his governance over everyday white southerners was summed up during the Richmond food riots, when he threatened to shoot white women who were demanding food supplies if they did not disperse. Davis was all about states rights before the war and then in 1861, suddenly discovered the glorious power of coercion around the draft and procuring supplies. But the states’ rights rhetoric was so strong that governors in Georgia and North Carolina did not play along and resisted the draft directly, severely undermining the war effort at first.

Davis wanted to continue the war after Lee surrendered to Grant. Plans were made for a government-in-exile from Havana. Finally, he dissolved the government in May 1865 in Georgia and was captured soon after, despite being dressed as a woman, although his wife disputed this, saying she had just thrown a shawl over him. Davis was then imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia. You can visit the cell today. Nelson Miles, commander of the fort, before he became known for his genocide against Native Americans, initially shackled Davis’ foot to the floor and hung a huge US flag in the cell so he would have to look at it. But, already choosing reconciliation over justice, his imprisonment conditions were soon made easier and he was allowed to walk around the fort at will. He should have been hanged, but it’s pretty easy to see why Reconstruction did not work given how ready the North was to let bygones be bygones with white southern extremists, even by 1866.

Davis stayed two years in prison, before northerners such as Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Gerrit Smith, who a decade earlier was raising money for John Brown’s raid, raised his bail and got him free. Then the Johnson administration, now fully on board with white supremacy, decide not to pursue the prosecution in 1869. Sigh. In the aftermath, Davis tried to regain his lost fortune, which was of course originally in human property, but without too much success. He was involved in a lot of business ventures, most of which went nowhere. He also engaged in a long court battle to regain his plantation, which was technically owned by his late brother and which had been divided up among the slaves who had lived there. He finally won that battle in 1881.

By the mid-1870s, Davis was all-in on the growing Lost Cause nostalgia, giving speeches on how the South never would have surrendered if it anticipated the horrors of Congressional Reconstruction, by which he meant black people having civil rights. After a wealthy Louisiana plantation widow deeded Davis her land, he moved there and wrote his memoirs, which also went far to establish the Lost Cause nostalgia that dominated memories of the war for a century and which continue to have too much power today. He already was downplaying the role of slavery in the war and talking about northern industrial oppression and other lies that rewrote history to support current southern talking points. He spent the rest of his life engaging in this manure, defending his reputation against those who attacked him, from PGT Beauregard to a young Theodore Roosevelt who had compared him to Benedict Arnold, and giving other speeches about brave Confederates fighting northern oppression.

Finally, Davis died in 1889. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. He was initially buried in New Orleans, but his widow asked that he be removed to Richmond in 1893. Sorry I couldn’t get closer to the grave, but they were doing some maintenance work around it and there was fencing preventing anyone from getting closer.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions. And what is a better use of your donations than the worst of all Americans. Speaking of such things, this is a good time to explain just what I am doing with your donations because I have a special request. Basically, unless you request me visiting a specific person, I am using these resources to take advantage of specific opportunities I wouldn’t be able to have otherwise and then seeing some graves too. For instance, a valued commenter who will remain anonymous unless they want to volunteer themselves asked me to give a talk at their DC-area school this spring. I then used your donations to extend that trip for a few days and travel to Richmond and environs, seeing such lovely people as Jefferson Davis. Well, I have another opportunity in the same area that perhaps you will want to help me out on. I have an offer to speak about my new book at the Baltimore Book Festival next month, which will probably be filmed by C-SPAN, and will get some good publicity. But there’s no money to make it happen, from the press or the festival. So for the rest of the week, I am going to discuss some of the many graves in the general Maryland-DC area that I could visit if you choose to help this happen. You would be ensuring the future of this series, helping publicize my book, and getting the message of labor history out to the public. It’s like taking your donations and tripling the impact. I have to decide what I am going to do by the end of the week, so any donations this week will fund this trip, if I can get enough to make it happen.

Thus, if you would like me to visit the National Cathedral in Washington and visit Woodrow Wilson, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I think you want this to happen, as Wilson is one of the most complex figures in American history. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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