An American Hero
In only a few days the bicentennial birthday of one of the most important figures in American History will be upon us. It is the bicentennial birthday of a man who was a war hero, soldier, and statesman, who served in some of the most difficult of circumstances and today is seldom remembered.
The man to whom I refer was born on June 3, 1808 in Fairview, Kentucky, moved in 1810 as a child with his family to what is today St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana before again moving, in 1812, to Woodville, Mississippi, the state he would forever regard as his home.
His father Samuel, a wounded veteran of the Revolutionary War who named his son after a prominent patriot of the Revolution, wanted his son to be educated so he sent the young man to Transylvania College in Kentucky in 1821 and then to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Upon graduation in 1828 the young man served in the then wilderness of the upper Midwest where he met and married Miss. Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of his commanding officer, and future U. S. President, Col. Zachary Taylor.
The young soldier resigned his commission and returned home with his young wife. However tragedy was to befall the young couple only three months later. During a visit to his sister’s home near St. Francisville, Louisiana they both contracted malaria, and the disease claimed Sarah’s life. She is now buried in the Louisiana State Historic Site of Locust Grove Cemetery in East Feliciana Parish.
The young widower was devastated by the loss and spent most of the next ten years in relative seclusion developing his plantation he named Briarfield near Vicksburg, Mississippi. He then met Miss. Varina Howell whom he married in 1845 at her parent’s home, The Briars, in Natchez, Mississippi. Shortly after his wedding he was urged to enter politics and was promptly elected to the U. S. House of Representatives from Mississippi. However, his stay in Washington was brief as soon after he arrived in 1846 the Mexican War broke out and the new congressman returned to Mississippi, where the governor appointed him to be the colonel of Mississippi’s volunteers known as the Mississippi Rifles.
During the Battle of Buena Vista the Mississippi Rifles held a critical portion of the battlefield when their colonel was wounded. However he continued to lead the Mississippi Rifles and they were pivotal in winning the battle. The wounded Colonel returned to Mississippi to recover and was welcomed as a national hero for his bravery at Buena Vista. Soon after returning, Mississippi’s governor appointed him to fill an open seat in the US Senate and the wounded war hero once again found himself in Washington serving his state and country.
He remained in the Senate until he was convinced to resign to run for the office of governor of Mississippi-a race he lost. However, soon afterward, a friend with whom he had served in the House of Representatives, Franklin Pierce, was elected President and asked his friend from Mississippi to return to Washington to be the new Secretary of War. The former soldier, Representative and Senator agreed and served as Secretary of War in the Pierce Administration until President Pierce left office on March 4, 1858. This was not the end of public service for this recent Secretary of War, as he had been elected to serve Mississippi once again in the United States Senate.
These were trying times as the sectional differences between North and South were daily growing greater. Then, when the crisis came in 1862 and Mississippi seceded from the Union, its newest Senator, who did not advocate Secession, gave his famous “Farewell Address” to the Senate after which he left the Senate, and Washington, forever.
However providence was not finished with this gentleman. The representatives of the seceded Southern States met in Montgomery, Alabama in February of 1861 and created a new nation, The Confederate States of America, and called upon the soldier and statesman from Mississippi to serve in an office he was not seeking, that of the Presidency of the Confederacy.
The next four years were the most trying in our history and the new President of the Confederacy strove not only to build and lead the new Confederacy, but to do so while engaged in warfare with an adversary that was larger, more populous, better armed and financed and which much more industry than the new Confederacy. He strove in this endeavor, along with the southern people, until April 1865 when he was forced to evacuate the capitol, Richmond, Virginia. He attempted to travel to the area west of the Mississippi River to continue the South’s fight for independence but was captured in Georgia and the held in cruel captivity for two years, not allowed to see his wife or children, while awaiting a trial on the charge of treason.
This was a trial that was never to happen as even the most radical of the Radical Republicans that controlled Washington, and were clamoring for a trial of the Confederate President and other leaders of the Confederacy, came to see that it was in their interest to see to it that the trial never occurred. Why would they follow this course? Perhaps the words of Salmon P. Chase, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, to Radical Republican US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton hold the answer.
Chase said to Stanton “If you bring these leaders to trial, it will condemn the North; for by the Constitution, secession is not rebellion…His capture was a mistake. His trial will be a greater one. We can not convict him of treason.” Thus the Radicals in control of the US Government came to realize that if they went to trial they were very liable to lose in court everything that they had won on the battlefield.
Eventually the former President of the Confederacy was released from prison and spent the remaining years of his life traveling and writing. He wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government at his home, Beauvoir, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He passed away on December 6, 1889 in New Orleans and was given one of the largest funerals ever seen in the South- even to this day. He was laid to rest in Metairie Cemetery but four years later his remains were moved to Richmond, Virginia and reentered in Hollywood Cemetery.
Who was this husband, father, soldier, war hero, author, Representative, Senator, Secretary of War and finally President of the Confederacy? He was Jefferson Davis.
There will be remembrances for President Davis throughout the year as a celebration of the bicentennial of this phenomenal man’s birth. One of the largest events will take place at his last home, Beauvoir, in Biloxi, Mississippi on Tuesday June 3. Beauvoir was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina but has been restored to its 1880s appearance, when President Davis lived there, and will hold its grand reopening/ Jefferson Davis Birthday Celebration on that day. (www.beauvoir.org)
Another large memorial will be held June 7 at Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview, Kentucky. Here one will find a 351 foot tall obelisk, the largest concrete obelisk in the world, which was erected in 1924 in memory of Jefferson Davis, on the property where Jefferson Davis was born.