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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,009

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This is the grave of George Davis.

Born outside of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1820, Davis grew up as part of the slaver elite. His father was a big-time planter and so slavery was part of his life from the moment he was born. He had every intention on it being there until the moment he died too, but it didn’t turn out that way. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1838, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1840. He went into corporate law. I think this is an important point. Part of the ridiculous mythology about the antebellum South–something that has had such long legs that we used to see some of it in comments from older leftists at this site although not in the year or so I think–is that the South was anti-capitalist and the Civil War had aspects of a capitalist war on a non-capitalist state. This is flat out absurd and simply does not compute with the historical record. First, many slavers in the South had serious investments in northern factories. Second, many northern factory owners had serious investments in southern plantations. Cotton connected the world. The slaveholders invented or improved upon many early aspects of capitalist ways, such as marketing and record-keeping. Historians have explored this for the last 15-20 years in deep detail. There are entire books and edited volumes on the innovations of slaver owners to capitalism. These slavers also invested in their own region. Davis was a big railroad lawyer. No, there weren’t as many railroads in the South as in the North, but per capita it wasn’t much of a difference, if any. The South wanted to be as connected to global markets through modern technology as the North did. And they were. Davis was a player in this, providing his expertise to North Carolina railroads as a lawyer and becoming wealthy on his own through this. Moreover, since had capital gains through things other than owning humans–though he most certainly owned a lot of humans–he had money after the war and never lost his fortune because there was lots of work to be done reestablishing and expanding the railroad system during Reconstruction, something northern capital was happy to help with since it was already doing that for decades before the war.

As a railroad lawyer, it’s not surprising that Davis became a Whig. Internal improvements was definitely his kind of thing. But the Whig Party had little play in the South after Tyler and Polk made Texas annexation and stealing half of Mexico to expand slavery required positions to be politically viable in the South. The Whigs were founded on the principle of never talking about slavery. That became impossible after 1844. So by the time of the Civil War, he was the kind of guy who wanted to keep the Union together if possible, but only if the North gave everything the South wanted. He was a big John Bell guy in the 1860 election based on that point. Then after Lincoln’s election, he was part of the attempt to come to some sort of compromise, based on Bell’s campaign principles. Lincoln rightfully rejected this out of hand. After all, one of the points that Lincoln rejected was throwing the Missouri Compromise out the window and opening up all territories to slavery. Why would he accept that? So at that point, Davis went all in on committing treason in defense of slavery.

Davis was appointed to the Treason Senate in 1861, this was a two-year term, staggered so that the Senate would reflect that of the U.S. But he was not sent back after those two years. Jefferson Davis liked him though, so in 1864, he named him Attorney General, thus leading the legal fight for treason. But honestly, this position was minor in the Confederacy. The fake nation had a lot more on its plate than setting up legal niceties. There never was a Confederate Supreme Court, as its treasonous founders had planned. So he was twiddling his thumbs mostly.

After the Civil War, Davis was one of those traitors who fled the nation, thinking he would face real punishment. Like every high Confederate official, he should have been executed. But the North quickly wanted to forget what the Civil War was about and revert to its general pre-Civil War pro-Southern positions. So Davis fled to the Bahamas and England, leaving his children (he was widowed by this time) with his extended family. But he didn’t make it. He was captured in Key West. Should have been shot there too. Instead, he was imprisoned at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. By the end of 1865, Andrew Johnson was all in on rehabilitating the traitors to reestablish unquestioned white supremacy in this nation. So he pardoned Davis as he pardoned most of the leading Confederates, early in 1866.

Davis returned to North Carolina and his railroad work. He never really suffered at all for his treason, minus those few months in prison. He did get involved in politics again right away, trying to build a political party to support Andrew Johnson and get him elected on his own in 1868. That didn’t go anywhere though after an initial convention to organize it. He was offered the position of chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1878 but turned it down because he made so much more money on his railroad work. He mostly stayed out of the political spotlight during these years, basically claiming that with the fall of the Confederacy, he had no politics anymore. That of course wasn’t really true, but he did not see himself as a man with any political ambitions. So he never gave a public speech after 1889 and died in 1896, at the age of 75.

Now, Davis is a minor but not unimportant figure in the history of treason in defense of slavery. But North Carolina white supremacists, trying to create the Lost Cause myth around their treason, went all-in on making Davis the paragon of white manhood in the years after his death. This might be because there were fewer North Carolinians at the center of the traitorous power structure than there were for other states. It was after all more divided politically during the war than much of the South. But Davis was the man for those nostalgia generators. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (how is this organization still around?–really the women who join this are the worst people in the world) even had a statue built to him in Wilmington in 1911. Talk about something that should be melted down. But at the very least, the city took it down in 2020. Good for them. What possible purpose is a statue to George Davis serving to anyone but the most unreconstructed racists, by which I mean the entirety of the North Carolina Republican Party, in 2020?

Thanks to the overwhelming dominance of Confederate nostalgia during the mid-20th century, Davis had a World War II ship named for him.

George Davis is buried in Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the Treason Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Judah Benjamin, who did escape to Europe after the war, is in Paris and Thomas Watts is in Montgomery, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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