President Rough and Ready

I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.

Zachary Taylor is the first of the forgotten presidents of that decade of forgotten presidents, the 1850s.  He was our last President to be older than the Constitution, Taylor having been born in 1784.  The second President to die in office, he served from March 4, 1849 to July 9, 1850.  The second elected Whig President, he was also the second elected Whig President to die in office and the last Whig to be elected President.  His early death in office left a raft of might have beens in his wake.

Taylor was born on November 24, 1784 to Richard and Sarah Taylor.  His father had served in the Continental Army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  Born into an aristocratic Virginia family, Taylor spent his childhood on the Kentucky frontier where his parents immigrated in 1785,  his father owning 8000 acres in the dark and bloody ground.  His formal education was sparse, with his mother teaching him to read and write.

In 1808 he joined the Amy as a Second Lieutenant in the Seventh Infantry.  In 1810 he married Margaret Smith.  They would remain together until Zachary Taylor’s death and have six children.  Taylor’s military career was not meteoric but it was steady, with him participating in America’s conflicts from the War of 1812 to the Mexican War.  He was something of a military Zelig, always showing up where the tiny US Army saw fighting.  He developed a reputation as a solid officer and a good commander of troops.  In the casual way of the Army during the period, Taylor had substantial periods of leave during the frequent periods of peace time, spending it buying and developing plantations in Kentucky, the Mississippi Territory and Louisiana.  Like most men of this period in American history, the children of veterans of the Revolution, Taylor was an ardent patriot and nationalist, although he avoided politics and did not vote.

During the War of 1812 he fought successfully aginst the Indian allies of the British and received a brevet promotion to Major, perhaps the first brevet promotion in the history of the US Army.

In 1819 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.  In 1832 he was promoted to Colonel and took command of the First Infantry Regiment, which he led in the Black Hawk War.

The Black Hawk War gained Taylor a son in law. Young Lieutenant Jefferson Davis escorted Black Hawk to prison, and Black Hawk noted in his memoirs how kind Davis had been to him, and how he shielded him from curiosity seekers.

Marrying the daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, of Zachary Taylor, who opposed the marriage, he resigned his commission in the Army in 1835. With the help of his brother Joseph he became a planter in Mississippi on 1800 acres owned by Joseph.  The land was called Brierfield, because it was covered with briers and brush.  Tragedy struck the newlyweds immediately with both of them contracting yellow fever.  Both sick in bed, Davis summoned up the energy to walk to his wife’s room, just in time to see her die. She was 21.  He barely survived, and the bout with yellow fever began his life long struggle with ill health.  A much more sober and serious Jefferson Davis emerged from this terrible crucible.  Taylor blamed Davis for the early death of his daughter and the two men were estranged for years.

From 1837-1840 Taylor participated in the Seminole War.  After the Battle of Lake Okeechobee, Taylor was promoted to Brigadier General, although his claims to victory in that fight were belied by his heavier casualties than the badly outnumbered Seminole force.  He also earned the nickname of Old Rough and Ready for his prowess on the battlefield and his casual garb, Taylor often wearing civilian clothes.  As one admiring soldier said, he looked like an old farmer.

After the treaty of annexation with Texas, Taylor was placed in command of what he named the Army of Occupation, which was sent to the disputed border of Texas and Mexico.  He jumped over the heads of other more senior generals, because these generals were Whigs and Taylor was known to be apolitical, a factor important to President Polk, a Democrat.  In the initial battles of Palo Alta and Resaca de la Palma, on May 8 and 9, 1846, Taylor and his small force emerged victorious, and he became a household name throughout the US, receiving a promotion to Major General.  He rejected any notion of his running for political office as an insane idea.  His force reinforced by volunteer regiments he moved on Monterrey.

Taylor was victorious in the hard fought siege of Monterrey in September of 1846. Grant who served under Taylor during this period of the Mexican War wrote this assessment of him decades later:

General Taylor was not an officer to trouble the administration much with his demands but was inclined to do the best he could with the means given to him. He felt his responsibility as going no further. If he had thought that he was sent to perform an impossibility with the means given him, he would probably have informed the authorities of his opinion and left them to determine what should be done. If the judgment was against him he would have gone on and done the best he could with the means at hand without parading his grievance before the public. No soldier could face either danger or responsibility more calmly than he. These are qualities more rarely found than genius or physical courage. General Taylor never made any great show or parade, either of uniform or retinue. In dress he was possibly too plain, rarely wearing anything in the field to indicate his rank, or even that he was an officer; but he was known to every soldier in his army, and was respected by all.


The war in northern Mexico then entered a quiet phrase which was shattered in February of 1847 by a Mexican offensive.


On February 23, 1847  Taylor and his Army of 4500 men were assaulted by Santa Anna, the Mexican dictator leading a force of 16,000 troops.  The battle was a see-saw affair with the larger Mexican force launching assault after assault against the smaller American Army at the mountain pass of Buena Vista.  Jefferson Davis and his men of the Mississippi Rifles broke an attacking Mexican column under General Ampudia by launching a flank attack during which Davis was wounded in the foot.  A second attack was beaten off by the Mississippians and the 3 Indiana forming an inverted V.  The Mexican force, 2000 men, charged into the V and were shattered by the murderous cross-fire.

At the end of the day the Mexicans had enough and left the field of battle to the victorious Americans.  Davis and his Mississippians were national heroes after Buena Vista.  In his official report Taylor wrote:   The Mississippi riflemen, under Colonel Davis, were highly conspicuous for their gallantry and steadiness, and sustained throughout the engagement the reputation of veteran troops. Brought into action against an immensely superior force, they maintained themselves for a long time unsupported and with heavy loss, and held an important part of the field until reinforced. Colonel Davis, though severely wounded, remained in the saddle until the close of the action. His distinguished coolness and gallantry at the head of his regiment on this day, entitle him to the particular notice of the government.  The highest accolade for Davis no doubt was when General Taylor came to him after the battle and said, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

The last major action fought by Taylor during the War, the against the odds victory at Buena Vista, cemented Taylor’s reputation as a national hero, the greatest since Andrew Jackson.

Taylor’s resistance to running for office was worn down by the establishment of political clubs throughout the nation supporting him.  That support was only enhanced by the fact that he said little on the political issues of the day, but eventually it became clear that his beliefs were those of a moderate Whig.  Although a slave holder, he thought that it was folly to attempt to spread slavery into lands in the West which were not suited for the plantation system, and the very idea of secession was anathema to him.

At the Whig national convention in 1848,   Taylor,  was nominated for the presidency.  The Whigs had won the presidency in 1840 with a war hero of the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison, and they suspected they could repeat this formula of victory with Taylor, a war hero of the Mexican War.  Millard Fillmore was placed on the ticket for balance.  Taylor was a slave holder and a Southerner.  Fillmore was a New Yorker and assumed to be anti-slavery because he had opposed admission of Texas as a slave state when he was serving in Congress.  Ironically, Taylor, a slave holder, believed that the territories taken from Mexico were not suited for slavery, and wanted the states formed from this area to be free states.  Fillmore was much more willing to make concessions to the South on this and other points.

Taylor and Fillmore beat Democrats Cass and Butler in the fall, by five percentage points and an electoral vote tally of 163-127.  Fillmore delivered the state of New York with its 36 votes to the Whigs, which made the difference between victory and defeat.

The issue that would dominate the presidencies of both Taylor and Fillmore was slavery.  The victorious war with Mexico had brought in vast new territories, and the question of whether slavery should be allowed in this new portion of the Union threatened to destroy the Union.  Taylor held to his position that slavery was not suited for these new territories and that Congress should grant admission to new states that wished to be admitted as free states.  When talk of secession arose Taylor made clear that to preserve the Union he would raise an army, lead it and hang any secessionist that he caught with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.

On July 4, 1850 Taylor had a busy day attending several Independence Day celebrations and a fund raising event for the Washington Monument.  The day was hot and Taylor drank a lot of ice milk and ate a great deal of raw fruit.  Unsurprisingly he came down with a gastric ailment thereafter.  Physicians treated him with the best medicine of the time, which often weakened or finished off the poor patients subject to it:  Taylor was dosed with ipecac, calomel, opium, and quinine at 40 grains per dose (approximately 2.6 grams), and bled and blistered.  Several of Taylor’s cabinet members came down with similar symptoms.  The 65 year old Taylor died on July 9, 1850.

In hindsight an analysis of Taylor’s death is pretty straightforward.  The White House had a tainted water supply with raw sewage running into it.  This probably killed three presidents:  Harrison, Polk (who died shortly after his term in office) and Taylor.  Cholera was the big killer in 19th century urban centers until sewers were installed, and Taylor likely died of some variant of that bacterial infection.

As President Fillmore was immediately confronted with the crisis over slavery.  He embraced the compromise of 1850, which Taylor had rejected, which involved admitting California as a free state, allowing New Mexico to organize as a territory, abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia and passage of a new Fugitive Slave Act to be enforced by Federal marshals.  The Fugitive Slave Act was immensely unpopular in the North.  Fillmore was accused of betraying the anti-slavery cause, and Northern Whigs coined the phrase, “God save us from Whig Vice-Presidents!”, a reference to the fact that the only other elected Whig president, William Henry Harrison, had died in office and John Tyler of Virginia who succeeded him had  been anathema to the Northern Whigs.

Since Taylor had opposed what became known as the Compromise of 1850, some abolitionists claimed, without any evidence, that pro-slavery advocates had poisoned the president.  Although rumors abounded, no official investigation ever took place.  With Taylor’s death, the Compromise of 1850 postponed the Civil War for a decade.  Whether the Civil War could have been avoided or been successfully fought by Taylor, are two of many might have beens caused by the death of Taylor.   His death had a significant impact on the history of the country, although how much of an impact will reside forever in the realm of speculation.

In the 1980s the late Clara Rising, a former University of Florida professor, became convinced that Taylor had been poisoned with arsenic.  She obtained consent from a descendant of Taylor to have Taylor’s body exhumed to test for arsenic.  Armed with that consent Rising convinced a Kentucky court in 1991 to order the exhumation of Taylor’s body from its resting place at the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Lousville, Kentucky.  The tests were duly performed and came back negative for arsenic poisoning.  Old Rough and Ready’s remains were returned to their resting place and conspiracy theorists attacked the results, hard-core conspiracy theorists being ever immune to concepts like facts and evidence.


A nationally obscure politician in Illinois, although one of the most important Whigs in that Democrat state, Abraham Lincoln, gave a lengthy eulogy to the deceased President:

At Chicago, July 25th, 1850

GENERAL ZACHARY TAYLOR, the eleventh elected President of the United States, is dead. He was born Nov. 2nd, [2] 1784, in Orange county, Virginia; and died July the 9th 1850, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, at the White House in Washington City. He was the second [3] son of Richard Taylor, a Colonel in the army of the Revolution. His youth was passed among the pioneers of Kentucky, whither his parents emigrated soon after his birth; and where his taste for military life, probably inherited, was greatly stimulated. Near the commencement of our last war with Great Britain, he was appointed by President Jefferson, a lieutenant in the 7th regiment of Infantry. During the war, he served under Gen. Harrison in his North Western campaign against the Indians; and, having been promoted to a captaincy, was intrusted with the defence of Fort Harrison, with fifty men, half of them unfit for duty. A strong party of Indians, under the Prophet, brother of Tecumseh, made a midnight attack on the Fort; but Taylor, though weak in his force, and without preparation, was resolute, and on the alert; and, after a battle, which lasted till after daylight, completely repulsed them. Soon after, he took a prominent part in the expedition under Major Gen. Hopkins against the Prophet’s town; and, on his return, found a letter from President Madison, who had succeeded Mr. Jefferson, conferring on him a major’s brevet for his gallant defence of Fort Harrison.

After the close of the British war, he remained in the frontier service of the West, till 1818. He was then transferred to the Southern frontier, where he remained, most of the time in active service till 1826. In 1819, and during his service in the South, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1826 he was again sent to the North West, where he continued until 1836. In 1832, he was promoted to the rank of a colonel. In 1836 he was ordered to the South to engage in what is well known as the Florida War. In the autumn of 1837, he fought and conquered in the memorable battle of Okeechobee, one of the most desperate struggles known to the annals of Indian warfare. For this, he was honored with the rank of Brigadier General; and, in 1838 was appointed to succeed Gen. Jessup in command of the forces in Florida. In 1841 he was ordered to Fort Gibson to take command of the Second Military department of the United States; and in September, 1844, was directed to hold the troops between the Red River and the Sabine in readiness to march as might be indicated by the Charge of the United States, near Texas. In 1845 his forces were concentrated at Corpus Christi.

In obedience to orders, in March 1846, he planted his troops on the Rio Grande opposite Mattamoras. Soon after this, and near this place, a small detachment of Gen. Taylor’s forces, under Captain Thornton, was cut to pieces by a party of Mexicans. Open hostilities being thus commenced, and Gen. Taylor being constantly menaced by Mexican forces vastly superior to his own, in numbers, his position became exceedingly critical. Having erected a fort, he might defend himself against great odds while he could remain within it; but his provisions had failed, and there was no supply nearer than Point Isabel, between which and the new fort, the country was open to, and full of, armed Mexicans. His resolution was at once taken. He garrisoned Fort Brown, (the new fort) with a force of about four hundred; and, putting himself at the head of the main body of his troops, marched forthwith for Point Isabel. He met no resistance on his march. Having obtained his supplies, he began his return march, to the relief of Fort Brown, which he at first knew, would be, and then knew had been besieged by the enemy, immediately upon his leaving it. On the first or second day of this return march, the Mexican General, Arista, met General Taylor in front, and offered battle. The Mexicans numbered six or eight thousand, opposed to whom were about two thousand Americans. The moment was a trying one. Comparatively, Taylor’s forces were but a handful; and few, of either officers or men, had ever been under fire. A brief council was held; and the result was, the battle commenced. The issue of that contest all remember—remember with mingled sensations of pride and sorrow, that then, American valor and powers triumphed, and then the gallant and accomplished, and noble Ringgold fell.

The Americans passed the night on the field. The General knew the enemy was still in his fort; and the question rose upon him, whether to advance or retreat. A council was again held; and, it is said, the General overruled the majority, and resolved to advance. Accordingly in the morning, he moved rapidly forward. At about four or five miles from Fort Brown he again met the enemy in force, who had selected his position, and made some hasty fortification. Again the battle commenced, and raged till toward nightfall, when the Mexicans were entirely routed, and the General with his fatigued and bleeding, and reduced battalions marched into Fort Brown. There was a joyous meeting. A brief hour before, whether all within the fort had perished, all without feared, but none could tell—while the incessant roar of artillery, wrought those within to the highest pitch of apprehension, that their brethren without were being massacred to the last man. And now the din of battle nears the fort and sweeps obliquely by; a gleam of hope flies through the half imprisoned few; they fly to the wall; every eye is strained—it is—it is—the stars and stripes are still aloft! Anon the anxious brethren meet; and while hand strikes hand, the heavens are rent with a loud, long, glorious, gushing cry of victory! victory!! victory!!!

Soon after these two battles, Gen. Taylor was breveted a Major General in the U.S. Army.

In the mean time, war having been declared to exist between the United States and Mexico, provisions were made to reinforce Gen. Taylor; and he was ordered to march into the interior of Mexico. He next marched upon Monterey, arriving there on the 19th of September. He commenced an assault upon the city, on the 21st, and on the 23d was about carrying it at the point of the bayonet, when Gen. Ampudia capitulated. Taylor’s forces consisted of 425 officers, and 9,220 men. His artillery consisted of one 10 inch mortar, two 24 pound Howitzers, and four light field batteries of four guns—the mortar being the only piece serviceable for the siege. The Mexican works were armed with forty-two pieces of cannon, and manned with a force of at least 7000 troops of the line, and from 2000 to 3000 irregulars.

Next we find him advancing farther into the interior of Mexico, at the head of 5,400 men, not more than 600 being regular troops.

At Agua Nueva he received intelligence that Santa Anna, the greatest military chieftain of Mexico, was advancing after him; and he fell back to Buena Vista, a strong position a few miles in advance of Saltillo. On the 22nd of Feb., 1847, the battle, now called the battle of Buena Vista, was commenced by Santa Anna at the head of 20,000 well appointed soldiers. This was Gen. Taylor’s great battle. The particulars of it are familiar to all. It continued through the 23d; and although Gen. Taylor’s defeat seemed to be inevitable, yet he succeeded by skill, and by the courage and devotion of his officers and men, in repulsing the overwhelming forces of the enemy, and throwing them back into the desert. This was the battle of the chiefest interest fought during the Mexican war. At the time it was fought, and for some weeks after, Gen. Taylor’s communication with the United States was cut off; and the road was in possession of parties of the enemy. For many days after full intelligence of it, should have been in all parts of this country, nothing certain, concerning it, was known, while vague and painful rumors were afloat, that a great battle had been fought, and that Gen. Taylor, and his whole force had been annihilated.

At length the truth came, with its thrilling details of victory and blood—of glory and grief. A bright and glowing page was added to our Nation’s history; but then too, in eternal silence, lay Clay, and Mc’Kee, and Yell, and Lincoln, and our own beloved Hardin.

This also was Gen. Taylor’s last battle. He remained in active service in Mexico, till the autumn of the same year, when he returned to the United States.

Passing in review, Gen. Taylor’s military history, some striking peculiarities will appear. No one of the six battles which he fought, excepting perhaps, that of Monterey, presented a field, which would have been selected by an ambitious captain upon which to gather laurels. So far as fame was concerned, the prospect—the promise in advance, was, “you may lose, but you can not win.” Yet Taylor, in his blunt business-like view of things, seems never to have thought of this.

It did not happen to Gen. Taylor once in his life, to fight a battle on equal terms, or on terms advantageous to himself—and yet he was never beaten, and never retreated. In all, the odds was greatly against him; in each, defeat seemed inevitable; and yet in all, he triumphed. Wherever he has led, while the battle still raged, the issue was painfully doubtful; yet in each and all, when the din had ceased, and the smoke had blown away, our country’s flag was still seen, fluttering in the breeze.

Gen. Taylor’s battles were not distinguished for brilliant military manoeuvers; but in all, he seems rather to have conquered by the exercise of a sober and steady judgment, coupled with a dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible. His rarest military trait, was a combination of negatives—absence of excitement and absence of fear. He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared.

In connection with Gen. Taylor’s military character, may be mentioned his relations with his brother officers, and his soldiers. Terrible as he was to his country’s enemies, no man was so little disposed to have difficulty with his friends. During the period of his life, duelling was a practice not quite uncommon among gentlemen in the peaceful avocations of life, and still more common, among the officers of the Army and Navy. Yet, so far as I can learn, a duel with Gen. Taylor, has never been talked of.

He was alike averse to sudden, and to startling quarrels; and he pursued no man with revenge. A notable, and a noble instance of this, is found in his conduct to the gallant and now lamented Gen. Worth. A short while before the battles of the 8th and 9th of May, some questions of precedence arose between Worth, (then a colonel) and some other officer, which question it seems Gen. Taylor’s duty to decide. He decided against Worth. Worth was greatly offended, left the Army, came to the United States, and tendered his resignation to the authorities at Washington. It is said, that in his passionate feeling, he hesitated not to speak harshly and disparagingly of Gen. Taylor. He was an officer of the highest character; and his word, on military subjects, and about military men, could not, with the country, pass for nothing. In this absence from the army of Col. Worth, the unexpected turn of things brought on the battles of the 8th and 9th. He was deeply mortified—in almost absolute desperation—at having lost the opportunity of being present, and taking part in those battles. The laurels won by his previous service, in his own eyes, seemed withering away. The Government, both wisely and generously, I think, declined accepting his resignation; and he returned to Gen. Taylor. Then came Gen. Taylor’s opportunity for revenge. The battle of Monterey was approaching, and even at hand. Taylor could if he would, so place Worth in that battle, that his name would scarcely be noticed in the report. But no. He felt it was due to the service, to assign the real post of honor to some one of the best officers; he knew Worth was one of the best, and he felt that it was generous to allow him, then and there, to retrieve his secret loss. Accordingly he assigned to Col. Worth in that assault, what was par excellence, the post of honor; and, the duties of which, he executed so well, and so brilliantly, as to eclipse, in that battle, even Gen. Taylor himself.

As to Gen. Taylor’s relations with his soldiers, details would be endless. It is perhaps enough to say—and it is far from the least of his honors that we can truly say—that of the many who served with him through the long course of forty years, all testify to the uniform kindness, and his constant care for, and hearty sympathy with, their every want and every suffering; while none can be found to declare, that he was ever a tyrant anywhere, in anything.

Going back a little in point of time, it is proper to say that so soon as the news of the battles of the 8th and 9th of May 1846, had fairly reached the United States, Gen. Taylor began to be named for the next Presidency, by letter writers, newspapers, public meetings and conventions in various parts of the country.

These nominations were generally put forth as being of a noparty character. Up to this time I think it highly probable—nay, almost certain, that Gen. Taylor had never thought of the Presidency in connection with himself. And there is reason for believing that the first intelligence of these nominations rather amused than seriously interested him. Yet I should be insincere, were I not to confess, that in my opinion, the repeated, and steady manifestations in his favor, did beget in his mind a laudable ambition to reach the high distinction of the Presidential chair.

As the time for the Presidential canvass approached, it was seen that general nominations, combining anything near the number of votes necessary to an election, could not be made without some pretty strong and decided reference to party politics. Accordingly, in the month of May, 1848, the great Democratic party nominated as their candidate, an able and distinguished member of their own party, on strictly party grounds. Almost immediately following this, the Whig party, in general convention, nominated Gen. Taylor as their candidate. The election came off in the November following; and though there was also a third candidate, the two former only, received any vote in the electoral college. Gen. Taylor, having the majority of them was duly elected; and he entered on the duties of that high and responsible office, March 5th, 1849. The incidents of his administration up to the time of his death, are too familiar and too fresh to require any direct repetition.

The Presidency, even to the most experienced politicians, is no bed of roses; and Gen. Taylor like others, found thorns within it. No human being can fill that station and escape censure. Still I hope and believe when Gen. Taylor’s official conduct shall come to be viewed in the calm light of history, he will be found to have deserved as little as any who have succeeded him.

Upon the death of Gen. Taylor, as it would in the case of the death of any President, we are naturally led to consider what will be its effect, politically, upon the country. I will not pretend to believe that all the wisdom, or all the patriotism of the country, died with Gen. Taylor. But we know that wisdom and patriotism, in a public office, under institutions like ours, are wholly inefficient and worthless, unless they are sustained by the confidence and devotion of the people. And I confess my apprehensions, that in the death of the late President, we have lost a degree of that confidence and devotion, which will not soon again pertain to any successor. Between public measures regarded as antagonistic, there is often less real difference in its bearing on the public weal, than there is between the dispute being kept up, or being settled either way. I fear the one great question of the day, is not now so likely to be partially acquiesced in by the different sections of the Union, as it would have been, could Gen. Taylor have been spared to us. Yet, under all circumstances, trusting to our Maker, and through his wisdom and beneficence, to the great body of our people, we will not despair, nor despond.

In Gen. Taylor’s general public relation to his country, what will strongly impress a close observer, was his unostentatious, self-sacrificing, long enduring devotion to his duty. He indulged in no recreations, he visited no public places, seeking applause; but quietly, as the earth in its orbit, he was always at his post. Along our whole Indian frontier, thro’ summer and winter, in sunshine and storm, like a sleepless sentinel, he has watched, While we have slept for forty long years. How well might the dying hero say at last, “I have done my duty, I am ready to go.”

Nor can I help thinking that the American people, in electing Gen. Taylor to the presidency, thereby showing their high appreciation, of his sterling, but unobtrusive qualities, did their country a service, and themselves an imperishable honor. It is much for the young to know, that treading the hard path of duty, as he trod it, will be noticed, and will lead to high places.

But he is gone. The conqueror at last is conquered. The fruits ofhis labor, his name, his memory and example, are all that is left us—his example, verifying the great truth, that “he that humbleth himself, shall be exalted” teaching, that to serve one’s country with a singleness of purpose, gives assurance of that country’s gratitude, secures its best honors, and makes “a dying bed, soft as downy pillows are.”

The death of the late President may not be without its use, in reminding us, that we, too, must die. Death, abstractly considered, is the same with the high as with the low; but practically, we are not so much aroused to the contemplation of our own mortal natures, by the fall of many undistinguished, as that of one great, and well known, name. By the latter, we are forced to muse, and ponder, sadly.

“Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud”

So the multitude goes, like the flower or the weed,

That withers away to let others succeed;

So the multitude comes, even those we behold,

To repeat every tale that has often been told.

For we are the same, our fathers have been,

We see the same sights our fathers have seen;

We drink the same streams and see the same sun

And run the same course our fathers have run.

They loved; but the story we cannot unfold;

They scorned, but the heart of the haughty is cold;

They grieved, but no wail from their slumbers will come,

They joyed, but the tongue of their gladness is dumb.

They died! Aye, they died; we things that are now;

That work on the turf that lies on their brow,

And make in their dwellings a transient abode,

Meet the things that they met on their pilgrimage road.

Yea! hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,

Are mingled together in sun-shine and rain;

And the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,

Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.

‘Tis the wink of an eye, ’tis the draught of a breath,

From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.

From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud.

Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

A few thoughts on this eulogy:

  1.  It is striking how the vast majority of the eulogy was taken up by Lincoln’s account of Taylor’s military accomplishments.  Well, but for his success as a general, no one would have considered Taylor for the White House.  Lincoln had to lavish attention and praise on the aspect of his life that made Taylor a national figure.
  2. Some political calculation may have played into Lincoln’s reciting the martial accomplishments of Taylor.  Lincoln had opposed the Mexican War while in Congress, an unpopular stance in Illinois.  Celebrating a victorious general of that war was perhaps Lincoln’s way of running with the foxes and hunting with the hounds.
  3. For a non-military man Lincoln showed some insight into his assessment of Taylor.  “Gen. Taylor’s battles were not distinguished for brilliant military manoeuvers; but in all, he seems rather to have conquered by the exercise of a sober and steady judgment, coupled with a dogged incapacity to understand that defeat was possible. His rarest military trait, was a combination of negatives—absence of excitement and absence of fear. He could not be flurried, and he could not be scared.”  It is striking that a similar assessment could have been made later about Ulysses S. Grant, the General chosen by Lincoln to win the  Civil War.  Perhaps Lincoln was reminded of Taylor in picking Grant, Grant of course vastly admiring Taylor, down to Taylor’s informality in military dress, a trait Grant copied.
  4. Lincoln’s eulogy comes to a sudden halt after Taylor was elected president.  For a eulogy of a president this seems odd, until one recalls that for most Whigs the Taylor administration was a vast let down.  Taylor had been resolutely non-political throughout his life, never casting a ballot until 1848.  He announced prior to his nomination by the Whigs, that his unspoken political beliefs had been those of the Whig Party throughout most of his adult life, but that he in some sense remained a Jeffersonian Democrat-Republican.  After he was elected, Taylor was completely indifferent to the economic policies supported by the Whigs.  He regarded it as a waste of time to revive a National Bank, he thought the tariff should be for revenue rather than to protect native industries, and he would not fight for federal funds for state internal improvements.  Economics were always the binding force of the Whig party, and once Taylor turned his back on these policies, Whigs had nothing to acclaim about the administration.
  5. In light of his future career it is stunning that Lincoln said nothing about Taylor’s, a slave holder, opposition to extending slavery into southwestern lands seized from Mexico and his willingness to use military force against secession, and his threat to hang every secessionist he could get his hands on.  Of course Lincoln’s hero, Henry Clay, was busily now patching together the Compromise of 1850 that Taylor could no longer oppose, and Lincoln was in favor of these efforts.
  6. Lincoln turns the eulogy into a meditation on death at the end.  A commonplace theme for a eulogy for his time of course, but also reflective of the melancholy that was never far from Lincoln.  Lincoln ends the eulogy with a poem written by William Knox, who died at age 36, a gloomy, turgid poem that Lincoln was so fond of reciting that some students of Lincoln mistakenly thought he had written it, although it has not a scintilla of Lincoln’s style.

We give the last word to Lincoln, the man who would finish the unfinished work of President Taylor who was determined to maintain the Union.



Published in: on February 21, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on President Rough and Ready  
Tags: , , ,

Rising to the Occasion



MAAB: Perhaps to be a teer is to see in new ways.

Star Trek the Original Series, Friday’s Child


I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.

I have a great appreciation for Presidents who do better than one might expect.  Washington was a Virginia Planter and an amateur soldier who with his rag tag forces defeated the mightiest empire on Earth and as President established endless good precedents to those who followed him.  Lincoln, prior to his election, had no executive experience other than running shakily a two man Springfield law firm but won the greatest war in our nation’s history.  Chester A. Arthur was a machine politician catapulted into office by the assassination of President Garfield.  Surprising everyone, perhaps especially himself, he turned in a first class performance as Chief Executive.

Arthur first saw the light of day on October 5, 1829 into a large family, the fifth of nine children.  Seven of his siblings would live to adulthood.  His father was a Free Will Baptist preacher and an outspoken abolitionist, a position sometimes uncongenial to the congregations which he served, which led to frequent moves for the growing family.  Always a good student, Arthur enrolled in Union College in Schenectady, New York and studied the classics.  He was an ardent Whig in his politics and a supporter of the Fenian movement, wearing a green coat to show his backer of Irish independence.  After his graduation he taught school while studying law part time.  In 1854 he joined the law firm of Erastus D. Culver in New York City.  Culver was a family friend and an abolitionist.

On July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, a schoolteacher and a Church organist was running late for Church.  She boarded a streetcar owned by the Third Avenue Railroad Company at the corner of Pearl and Chatham streets in New York city.  So far, so humdrum.  However, Miss Graham was black and the Third Avenue Railroad Company banned blacks from riding on their streetcars.  The conductor told her to get off and she refused.  He then attempted to physically remove her, and she resisted.  Finally, a policeman was summoned and he removed her from the train.

The case became a cause celebre in New York City, with Horace Greeley giving the incident maximum publicity.  Miss Graham sued the streetcar company, and was represented by newly minted attorney Chester A. Arthur.  In his charge to the jury hearing the case, Judge William Rockwell gave them the following instruction: ” Colored persons if sober, well behaved and free from disease, had the same rights as others and could neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence.”

The Jury found in her favor, and awarded her damages of $225.00, the equivalent of at least $5,000.00 in today’s money.  By comparison, a Union private in the Civil War was paid $14.00 per month, and $50.00 per month was considered a good wage for a skilled workman at this time.

The next day the Third Avenue Railroad Company announced that it would no longer ban blacks from riding its streetcars.  By 1861 all New York public transit was desegregated.  This was not the only civil rights case in which Arthur was involved, an aspect of his life played up in his campaign biography in 1880.


In 1856 he met the love of his life, Nell Herndon, a Virginian visiting New York City.  Born in 1837, her father, Commander William Herndon, a noted American naval officer, became in death a national hero in 1857.  Captain of the SS Central America, a mail steamer, which lost power in a hurricane in September 1857, he arranged the transfer of 152 women and children onto another vessel.  Refusing all entreaties to save his own life, he went back to his ship to share the fate of the remaining 400 passengers and crew.  The ship sank on September 12, with all hands lost, the largest maritime disaster in US history.  In 1859 Nell and Arthur were married.  They had three children.  The oldest child,  William Arthur, would die at the age of two of a brain hemorrhage, his father blaming himself, irrationally but understandably, for his death.  Their other two children lived into adulthood.

While he was practicing law Arthur switched to the new Republican party and began to rise through the ranks of the party.  A supporter of William Morgan when he ran for Governor of New York in 1859, Arthur was awarded with the patronage post of Engineer-in-Chief of the New York state militia.  With the coming of the Civil War he was a Brigadier General of the State militia.  With his usual hard work Arthur made sure the New York volunteer regiments were well supplied.  He toured the front lines in Virginia and helped hasten on reinforcements for the New York regiments.  He received plaudits for his efforts.  Arthur asked for a combat command but was refused by Morgan who found him too useful acting as Quartermaster for the New York regiments.  When Democrat Horatio Seymour won election as Governor, Arthur was relieved from his duties in January 1863 and spent the rest of the War practicing law.

Following the War he continued his rise in the New York Republican party, becoming associated with the conservative faction of the party led by Congressman Roscoe Conkling.  In 1868 Arthur became chairman of the Republican Party executive committee for New York City.  In 1872 President Grant, at the recommendation of Conkling, appointed Arthur Controller of the New York Port, a lucrative patronage appointment which controlled a thousand jobs and came with a salary of fifty thousand dollars a year, the equivalent of what the President of the United States was paid, and  equal to $1,104,653.72  in today’s currency.

As Controller Arthur was efficient, honest and popular with his subordinates.  However the enormities that were common at the time he participated in.  All subordinates did have to contribute a percentage of their pay to the local Republican party, and places were filled based on political affiliation, a system common throughout the nation since the spoils system was developed by the Democrats under Jackson.  Arthur held the job until 1878 using his political influence to defeat potential replacements, including Theodore Roosevelt’s father.  In 1879 he became Chairman of the New York State Republican Executive Committee.  He was now a power to be reckoned with in New York and a powerful player in the national Republican party.

The year 1880 dawned bleakly for Arthur with his beloved wife dying suddenly at age 42 of pneumonia.  He never really got over her death.  He expressed guilt that business and political activities had taken him away from her so frequently.  When he was President gossips noted that fresh flowers were put before the photograph of a woman each day.  The tongues of the gossips were stilled when it was noted that the photograph was of the late Nell Arthur.  Arthur dedicated a stained glass window in her memory at Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Washington.  He could view it from the window of his office in the White House.

1880 was a presidential election and the Republican party was divided between Stalwarts, led by Roscoe Conkling, and Half-Breeds led by Senator James G. Blaine of Maine.  The main issue dividing the factions was civil service reform with the Half-Breeds in favor of it.  Former President Grant was friendly with the Stalwarts and badly wanted to run for a third term.  At the Republican Convention Grant was the front runner but could not get enough ballots to seal the nomination.  Blaine was a close second, and so it went for thirty-six ballots.  Eventually Senator James Garfield of Ohio emerged as a compromise candidate, a moderate Half-Breed.  Garfield expected the election to be close and picked Arthur as his running mate to mollify the Stalwarts.  The Democrats picked General Winfield Scott Hancock, perhaps the best corps commander in the Army of the Potomac in the Civil War.  The election was a squeaker, Garfield nationally having a margin of 7000 votes.  Arthur’s assistance in New York State was decisive with the Republicans gaining victory there by only 20,000 votes.  Garfield would have gone down to electoral defeat but for the victory in New York.  Arthur was now ready to be one of the many forgotten Vice-Presidents, when fate intervened.

James Garfield, the second president to die at the hands of an assassin, in one way resembled Lincoln.  Like Lincoln he rose from poverty.  Unlike Lincoln he was college educated, enjoyed swift political success, and had an extensive military record, rising to Major General during the Civil War.  Also unlike Lincoln he had little time in office, being shot on July 2, 1881, during his first year in office.  He lingered in ever increasing pain until September 19, 1881.  He doubtless would have survived if modern medicine had been available.  He died as a result of a massive infection caused perhaps by the unsuccessful efforts of his doctors to probe his wound with un-sterilized instruments and fingers in a fruitless effort to find the assassin’s bullet which had lodged in his abdomen.  His weight also plunged, intravenous nourishment being more than eighty years in the future.

No doubt it irritated, to say the least, Garfield when he learned that his assassin was a disappointed office seeker.

Born in 1841, Charles Julius Guiteau had failed at everything he turned his hand to: college, member of a commune, newspaper publisher, law, theology and marriage.  With such a record of failure it was inevitable that he would turn to politics.  Supporting Garfield in the 1880 election, he wrote a speech in favor of Garfield that may have been delivered twice.  When Garfield was elected, Guiteau convinced himself that he was responsible for electing Garfield.  Along with hordes of other office seekers he went to Washington where he unsuccessfully requested that he be named consul in Paris although he could not speak French and had no diplomatic experience.

Outraged, Guiteau purchased a revolver and stalked the President, finally ambushing him as he was entering the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station.  After shooting Garfield Guiteau shouted,  “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. … [Chester A.] Arthur is president now!”  The reference was to the Stalwart faction of the New York Republican Party that opposed Civil Service reform that Garfield supported.

During the long death of Garfield, Arthur kept his distance, not wanting to seem like a vulture waiting for the poor man to die.  After his death Arthur announced that he would do his best to follow the policies of Garfield, and to the astonishment of virtually everyone he did just that.  With strong support by the President a Civil Service Reform bill passed Congress in 1883 and was signed into law by Arthur.  From an opponent of civil service reform he was now the number one booster for it.

Throughout his tenure he fought for civil rights for blacks but faced a Congress where Democrat opposition doomed the new civil rights bills he called for after the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

After the Civil War the Navy was left to rot.  Arthur began the long road back by getting Congress to approve funds for three steel cruisers, four monitors and an armed steam dispatch vessel.

In regard to Indians Arthur supported a move to an allotment system where private land would be given to each Indian family rather than the reservation system.

On the vexing problem of the governmental surplus (yes, you read that correctly), Arthur proposed a reduction in tariffs which lowered prices for American consumers.  After a tough fight, Arthur signed a tariff reduction bill in March of 1883.

Arthur ran an honest administration free from scandal, something that was quite refreshing.  Mark Twain noted, “It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.”

Arthur did all this while effectively under a death sentence.  Shortly after he became President he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment now known as nephritis.  There was no effective treatment for the condition in Arthur’s time, and death usually followed after a long and painful illness.  In spite of this in 1884 he was interested in running for a term of his own but the tide ran strongly in the party for James C. Blaine who went down to defeat to Grover Cleveland in the fall, the first time the Democrats won the Presidency since Lincoln.

At the end of his term, Arthur had twenty months to live.  He resumed the practice of law with his old law firm, but his ill health limited his involvement with the firm beyond an “of counsel” status.  He died on November 18, 1886 at age 57.  In a tragedy for historians, he ordered burned almost all of his personal and public papers on November 16.

He is now one of our more obscure presidents.  He deserved better from history, but perhaps that is how he wanted it.



Published in: on February 15, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Rising to the Occasion  
Tags: ,

An American President

Wonder how Jefferson Davis
Feels, down there in Montgomery, about Sumter.
He must be thinking pretty hard and fast,
For he’s an able man, no doubt of that.
We were born less than forty miles apart,
Less than a year apart–he got the start
Of me in age, and raising too, I guess,
In fact, from all you hear about the man,
If you set out to pick one of us two
For President, by birth and folks and schooling,
General raising, training up in office,
I guess you’d pick him, nine times out of ten
And yet, somehow, I’ve got to last him out.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.

Jefferson Davis, first and last president of the Confederacy, was captured by Union cavalry near Irwinville, Georgia one hundred and fifty-five years ago this Spring.  Secretly he was happy about this turn of events.  He expected to be tried for treason and looked forward to defending himself on Constitutional grounds.  Instead, he will spend two years incarcerated, and then be released on bail, never to have his day in court.  He would have the misfortune to survive the War for almost a quarter of a century, and to become involved in many querulous debates with former Confederates who sought to blame him for the loss of the War.  Far better for Davis if he had been killed by the Union troopers and died, the martyr of the Lost Cause.  Instead, he was fated to endure the worst fate for a loser of a great historical turning point:  a long life in which to play the role of scapegoat.

Robert E. Lee I think had it right when he said that he could think of no one who could have done as well as Davis as President.  A great man who almost led his nation to victory, Davis had the misfortune to be opposed by a greater man leading a stronger nation.  In response to his critics, he produced a two volume turgid defense entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), published, ironically, by a New York publishing house.  At 1500 pages it is one of the great unread books of American history, the province of only the most obsessive of Civil War scholars, although Oscar Wilde, strangely enough, proclaimed it a literary masterpiece, although even he admitted that he skimmed the military portions.   In recent decades Davis, who had his slaves run his plantation along with their own court system, has been often portrayed as a devil stick figure, as if he had invented slavery, a sort of anti-Lincoln.  This is ahistoric rubbish.  Davis was a fascinating, and often contradictory, man and the scholarship devoted to him has been sadly lacking.  The man who came so close to changing the course of the nation deserves better from the servants of Clio.

Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, a little over six months before the birth of his great adversary Abraham Lincoln, in Christian County Kentucky.  His parents were Samuel and Jane Davis.  He was the youngest of ten children, and, his mother being in her 49th year, his parents gave him the middle name Finis in the expectation, or hope perhaps, that he would be the last of their children.

His father had fought in the Revolution, a fact that Jefferson Davis always took pride in.  The family moved to Louisiana in 1810, and then in 1811 in Mississippi.  With the help of his oldest son Joseph, already an established planter and lawyer in Mississippi, Samuel Davis became a prosperous planter in Mississippi, although in 1820 his fortunes began to decline.

His father made certain that Davis was well-educated by the standards of the day.  As a boy Davis studied at the Saint Thomas School at Saint Rose Priory, a Dominican school in Kentucky.  He went on as a teenager to study at Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi and at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.  One anecdote Davis told about his father involved Jefferson running away from school.  His father said that was fine but that he would have to pick cotton with the field hands.  After two days of that Jefferson decided that school wasn’t so bad after all, a conclusion his father intended he would reach.  Davis was shattered when his father died when he was 16, on July 4, 1824. but his eldest brother Joseph quickly became a second father for Jefferson, a fact that Jefferson acknowledge gratefully throughout his life.  The mother of Davis would live until 1845, and he cherished her in life and her memory after death.  Davis, unlike Lincoln, was blessed with a happy home life as a child, and all his life was extremely close to his siblings.

Prior to his death, his father arranged for an appointment to West Point for his son.  Contrary to his later image, Davis was something of a hell raiser at West Point, of course allowance should be made for how young he was, beginning his studies at West Point when he was 16.  He amassed a considerable pile of demerits at West Point, and was confined to quarters after his involvement in the Egg Nog Riot of Christmas 1826.  He graduated 23 out of a class of 33, and generally made a favorable impression on his instructors and his fellow cadets.

After graduation he served in the Black Hawk War, although there is no evidence that he and Lincoln ever met during that conflict, the legend that he swore Lincoln into Federal service during the war being a myth. He escorted Black Hawk to prison, and Black Hawk noted in his memoirs how kind Davis had been to him, and how he shielded him from curiosity seekers.

Marrying the daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, of General Zachary Taylor, who opposed the marriage, he resigned his commission in the Army in 1835. With the help of his brother Joseph he became a planter in Mississippi on 1800 acres owned by Joseph.  The land was called Brierfield, because it was covered with briers and brush.  Tragedy struck the newlyweds immediately with both of them contracting yellow fever.  Both sick in bed, Davis summoned up the energy to walk to his wife’s room, just in time to see her die. She was 21.  He barely survived, and the bout with yellow fever began his life long struggle with ill health.  A much more sober and serious Jefferson Davis emerged from this terrible crucible.

Davis, through immense hard work by himself and his slaves, made Briefield a successful plantation.  The number of slaves on the plantation grew from 40 to 113 by 1861.  His slave James Pemberton, acted as overseer on the plantation.  To a large extent the slaves ran the plantation.  Offenses were punished by a slave court, with Davis leaving himself the power to mitigate the severity of the punishments.  By the standards of the time, Davis was an enlightened master, a view supported by the recollections of his former slaves after the Civil War.  For himself, Davis had no moral qualms about slavery.  He held that masters had a duty to treat their slaves with kindness, and he believed that education could eventually be a path to liberty for individual slaves, but he expressed no anti-slavery beliefs, and did not believe that the institution would end in the foreseeable future.

In 1840 he began to be involved in Democratic politics in Mississippi.  In 1844 he served as a Presidential elector and was elected to Congress.  He had taken full advantage of the library of his brother Joseph, and became well read in regard to the founding documents of the Country, particularly to the Constitution.

In 1844 he married Varina Howell, converting her from Whig to Democrat during their courtship.  They would have six children,  only two of whom, daughters, survived beyond their father’s death, and only one of whom, a daughter, left descendants.  That type of mortality was not uncommon in the 19th century, as demonstrated by the Lincolns, who lost three of four sons before adulthood.

During his term in the House, the main issue was the Mexican War.  In many ways Davis never ceased to be a military man, always retaining a fascination for all things martial.  Thus it was only natural that Davis, resigned from Congress and raised a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, which he led as colonel.

On July 21, 1846, the regiment sailed from New Orleans to join the army of Zachary Taylor, his reluctant former father in law, in northern Mexico.  After the daughter of Taylor died, relations between the men had remained cool thereafter.

Davis had armed his regiment with 1841 percussion rifles, the latest technology, with much more reliable percussion caps substituted for flint locks.  Davis’ men during the war would use the rifles with such deadly skill that ever afterwords the rifles became known as 1841 Mississippi percussion rifles.

Davis and his men participated in the siege of Monterrey in September of 1846.  The war in northern Mexico then entered a quiet phrase which was shattered in February of 1847 by a Mexican offensive.

On February 23, 1847  Taylor and his Army of 4500 men were assaulted by Santa Anna the Mexican dictator leading a force of 16,000 troops.  The battle was a see-saw affair with the larger Mexican force launching assault after assault against the smaller American Army at the mountain pass of Buena Vista.  Davis and his men broke an attacking Mexican column under General Ampudia by launching a flank attack during which Davis was wounded in the foot.  A second attack was beaten off by the Mississippians and the 3 Indiana forming an inverted V.  The Mexican force, 2000 men, charged into the V and were shattered by the murderous cross-fire.

At the end of the day the Mexicans had enough and left the field of battle to the victorious Americans.  Davis and his Mississippians were national heroes after Buena Vista.  In his official report Taylor wrote:   The Mississippi riflemen, under Colonel Davis, were highly conspicuous for their gallantry and steadiness, and sustained throughout the engagement the reputation of veteran troops. Brought into action against an immensely superior force, they maintained themselves for a long time unsupported and with heavy loss, and held an important part of the field until reinforced. Colonel Davis, though severely wounded, remained in the saddle until the close of the action. His distinguished coolness and gallantry at the head of his regiment on this day, entitle him to the particular notice of the government.  The highest accolade for Davis no doubt was when General Taylor came to him after the battle and said, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

Davis was appointed to the US Senate by the Governor of Mississippi upon the death of Senator Jesse Speight.  He took his seat on December 5, 1847, and would serve in that body until 1851 when he resigned from that body to run for Governor of Mississippi, a race he lost.   During his service he was noted for his interest in military affairs, and his defense of slavery.  He opposed the Compromise of 1850, following in the footsteps of the dying John C. Calhoun, Senator from South Carolina, who Jefferson viewed as something of a mentor.

During the administration of Franklin Pierce, a close friend who Davis had served with in the Mexican War and in the Senate, Davis was Secretary of War.  Davis made many reforms in the Army, helping to modernize equipment, enlarge the size of the Army, improve instruction at West Point, and in general helped improve the US Regular Army.  One of his initiatives makes for an interesting footnote in American history.

Since the 1830s the idea had been discussed about the formation of a Camel Corp in the US Army for use in desert regions of the country.  Following the Mexican War and the acquisition of large desert regions in the southwest the idea was taken more seriously in Washington.  Secretary of War Davis got behind the idea, and on March 3, 1855 Congress appropriated $30,000.00 for the purchase of camels.  In January of 1856, some 21 camels were purchased in Turkey.  The camels arrived in Indianola, Texas on May 14, 1856.  A second shipment of 41 camels arrived in the US at

Indianola on February 10, 1857.

The camels saw non-combat service in the Southwest until the onset of the Civil War.  The reviews of the utility of the camels were generally positive, although it was noted that horses and mules tended to be spooked by the camels.  With the onset of the Civil War the experiment came to an end.   (Jefferson Davis’ name being so closely associated with the Camel Corp probably didn’t help its prospects for survival in the Union Army.)  Most of the camels were sold to private owners, with some escaping into the desert.  Feral camels were spotted in the American west until 1941.   A comedy film in 1976, Hawmps, recalled the formation of the Camel Corp.

Elected to the Senate in 1856, a more moderate Davis than in his previous Senate service appeared.  Still an advocate of slavery, Davis emphasized that the rights of the South could be successfully defended within the Union.  While believing in secession in theory, he opposed it in practice, and was regarded now as a Southern moderate.  Like Lincoln who was criticized by abolitionists in the years leading up to the Civil War as being too moderate on the question of slavery, fire eating secessionists looked with suspicion on Jefferson Davis.  It was this perception of moderation that caused Benjamin Butler, to the intense embarrassment of both men during the Civil War, to initially support Jefferson Davis for President at the 1860 Democratic convention, before shifting his support to John C. Breckinridge.  Even after South Carolina left the Union in December 1860 Davis still continued to oppose secession.  After Mississippi voted to secede, for Davis the die was cast.


On January 21, 1861 Davis formally resigned from the Senate.  Although he had never been a fire eater, eager for secession, now that it had come he accepted it, and stood behind the decision of Mississippi:

I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the State of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people, in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course, my functions are terminated here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce that fact to my associates, and I will say but very little more. The occasion does not invite me to go into argument; and my physical condition would not permit me to do so, if it were otherwise; and yet it seems to become me to say something on the part of the State I here represent on an occasion as solemn as this. It is known to Senators who have served with me here that I have for many years advocated, as an essential attribute of State sovereignty, the right of a State to secede from the Union. Therefore, if I had thought that Mississippi was acting without sufficient provocation, or without an existing necessity, I should still, under my theory of the Government, because of my allegiance to the State of which I am a citizen, have been bound by her action. I, however, may be permitted to say that I do think she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act. I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counseled them then that, if the state of things which they apprehended should exist when their Convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted.

I hope none who hear me will confound this expression of mine with the advocacy of the right of a State to remain in the Union, and to disregard its constitutional obligation by the nullification of the law. Such is not my theory. Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are, indeed, antagonistic principles. Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligations, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other states of the Union for a decision; but, when the States themselves and when the people of the States have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.

A great man who now reposes with his fathers, and who has often been arraigned for want of fealty to the Union, advocated the doctrine of nullification because it preserved the Union. It was because of his deep-seated attachment to the Union — his determination to find some remedy for existing ills short of a severance of the ties which bound South Carolina to the other States — that Mr. Calhoun advocated the doctrine of nullification, which he proclaimed to be peaceful, to be within the limits of State power, not to disturb the Union, but only to be a means of bringing the agent before the tribunal of the States for their judgement.

Secession belongs to a different class of remedies. It is to be justified upon the basis that the states are sovereign. There was a time when none denied it. I hope the time may come again when a better comprehension of the theory of our Government, and the inalienable rights of the people of the States, will prevent any one from denying that each State is a sovereign, and thus may reclaim the grants which it has made to any agent whomsoever.

I, therefore, say I concur in the action of the people of Mississippi, believing it to be necessary and proper, and should have been bound by their action if my belief had been otherwise; and this brings me to the important point which I wish, on this last occasion, to present to the Senate. It is by this confounding of nullification and secession that the name of a great man whose ashes now mingle with his mother earth has been invoked to justify coercion against a seceded State. The phrase, “to execute the laws,” was an expression which General Jackson applied to the case of a State refusing to obey the laws while yet a member of the Union. That is not the case which is now presented. The laws are to be executed over the United States, and upon the people of the United States. They have no relation to any foreign country. It is a perversion of terms — at least, it is a great misapprehension of the case — which cites that expression for application to a State which has withdrawn from the Union. You may make war on a foreign state. If it be the purpose of gentlemen, they may make war against a State which has withdrawn from the Union; but there are no laws of the United States to be executed within the limits of a seceded State. A State, finding herself in the condition in which Mississippi has judged she is — in which her safety requires that she should provide for the maintenance of her rights out of the Union — surrenders all the benefits (and they are known to be many), deprives herself of the advantages (and they are known to be great), severs all the ties of affection (and they are close and enduring), which have bound her to the Union; and thus divesting herself of every benefit — taking upon herself every burden — she claims to be exempt from any power to execute the laws of the United States within her limits.

I well remember an occasion when Massachusetts was arraigned before the bar of the Senate, and when the doctrine of coercion was rife, and to be applied against her, because of the rescue of a fugitive slave in Boston. My opinion then was the same that it is now. Not in a spirit of egotism, but to show that I am not influenced in my opinions because the case is my own, I refer to that time and that occasion as containing the opinion which I then entertained, and on which my present conduct is based. I then said that if Massachusetts — following her purpose through a stated line of conduct — chose to take the last step, which separates her from the Union, it is her right to go, and I will neither vote one dollar nor one man to coerce her back; but I will say to her, Godspeed, in memory of the kind associations which once existed between her and the other States.

It has been a conviction of pressing necessity — it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us — which has brought Mississippi to her present decision. She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races. That Declaration is to be construed by the circumstances and purposes for which it was made. The communities were declaring their independence; the people of those communities were asserting that no man was born — to use the language of Mr. Jefferson — booted and spurred, to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal — meaning the men of the political community; that there was no divine right to rule; that no man inherited the right to govern; that there were no classes by which power and place descended to families; but that all stations were equally within the grasp of each member of the body politic. These were the great principles they announced; these were the purposes for which they made their declaration; these were the ends to which their enunciation was directed. They have no reference to the slave; else, how happened it that among the items of arraignment against George III was that he endeavored to do just what the North has been endeavoring of late to do, to stir up insurrection among our slaves? Had the Declaration announced that the negroes were free and equal, how was the prince to be arraigned for raising up insurrection among them? And how was this to be enumerated among the high crimes which caused the colonies to sever their connection with the mother-country? When our Constitution was formed, the same idea was rendered more palpable; for there we find provision made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the equality of footing with white men — not even upon that of paupers and convicts; but, so far as representation was concerned, were discriminated against as a lower caste, only to be represented in the numerical proportion of three-fifths. So stands the compact which binds us together.

Then, Senators, we recur to the principles upon which our Government was founded; and when you deny them, and when you deny us the right to withdraw from a Government which, thus perverted, threatens to be destructive of our rights, we but tread in the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence and take the hazard. This is done, not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit, but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children.

I find in myself perhaps a type of the general feeling of my constituents towards yours. I am sure I feel no hostility toward you, Senators from the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well; and such, I feel, is the feeling of the people whom I represent toward those whom you represent. I, therefore, feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceable relations with you, though we must part. They may be mutually beneficial to us in the future, as they have been in the past, if you so will it. The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country, and, if you will have it thus, we will invoke the God of our fathers, who delivered them from the power of the lion, to protect us from the ravages of the bear; and thus, putting our trust in God and in our firm hearts and strong arms, we will vindicate the right as best we may.

In the course of my service here, associated at different times with a variety of Senators, I see now around me some with whom I have served long; there have been points of collision, but, whatever of offense there has been to me, I leave here. I carry with me no hostile remembrance. Whatever offense I have given which has not been redressed, or for which satisfaction has not been demanded, I have, Senators, in this hour of our parting, to offer you my apology for any pain which, in the heat of discussion, I have inflicted. I go hence unencumbered by the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury offered.

Mr. President and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains for me to bid you a final adieu.

On February 9, 1861, Jefferson F. Davis, newly resigned US Senator from Mississippi, was chosen President of the provisional government of the Confederacy by the delegates of the Montgomery Convention.  In one sense Davis was a logical choice.  He had vast experience both in regard to military service, having served in the Mexican War and as a Secretary of War, and in government in both the US House and Senate.  He was widely regarded as the successor of John C. Calhoun as the unofficial leader of the South.  In another sense he was an odd choice.  While never doubting the right of secession, he very much doubted its wisdom.   He had argued against secession in the Mississippi legislature.  Davis is so much a symbol of the Confederacy, that it is odd to recall that he doubted the wisdom of withdrawal from the Union.

When he received the news at his plantation Briarfield that he had been chosen President, Davis, according to his wife Varina, looked as if he were a prisoner receiving a sentence of death.   Davis had no illusions that war was almost certain to come and that the South would be very much the underdog in that struggle.  Given a preference, he would have chosen to lead the troops of Mississippi.  Ever a slave to duty, he accepted the post of President of the Confederacy, a post he accurately predicted would give him little pleasure and much grief.

In his initial address to the Confederate Congress, Davis made no bones about the fact that the Confederacy had been created to protect the institution of slavery from interference by the North:



In the meantime, under the mild and genial climate of the Southern States and the increasing care and attention for the wellbeing and comfort of the laboring class, dictated alike by interest and humanity, the African slaves had augmented in number from about 600,000, at the date of the adoption of the constitutional compact, to upward of 4,000,000. In moral and social condition they had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of the wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people; towns and cities had sprung into existence, and had rapidly increased in wealth and population under the social system of the South; the white population of the Southern slaveholding States had augmented from about 1,250,000 at the date of the adoption of the Constitution to more than 8,500,000 in 1860; and the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man. With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled, the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North to the adoption of some course of action to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced. With this view the legislatures of the several States invited the people to select delegates to conventions to be held for the purpose of determining for themselves what measures were best adapted to meet so alarming a crisis in their history. Here it may be proper to observe that from a period as early as 1798 there had existed in all of the States of the Union a party almost uninterruptedly in the majority based upon the creed that each State was, in the last resort, the sole judge as well of its wrongs as of the mode and measure of redress. Indeed, it is obvious that under the law of nations this principle is an axiom as applied to the relations of independent sovereign States, such as those which had united themselves under the constitutional compact. The Democratic party of the United States repeated, in its successful canvass in 1856, the declaration made in numerous previous political contests, that it would “faithfully abide by and uphold the principles laid down in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions of 1798, and in the report of Mr. Madison to the Virginia Legislature in 1799; and that it adopts those principles as constituting one of the main foundations of its political creed.” The principles thus emphatically announced embrace that to which I have already adverted – the right of each State to judge of and redress the wrongs of which it complains. These principles were maintained by overwhelming majorities of the people of all the States of the Union at different elections, especially in the elections of Mr. Jefferson in 1805, Mr. Madison in 1809, and Mr. Pierce in 1852. In the exercise of a right so ancient, so well established, and so necessary for self-preservation, the people of the Confederate States, in their conventions, determined that the wrongs which they had suffered and the evils with which they were menaced required that they should revoke the delegation of powers to the Federal Government which they had ratified in their several conventions. They consequently passed ordinances resuming all their rights as sovereign and Independent States and dissolved their connection with the other States of the Union.

The War of course completely dominated the administration of Jefferson Davis as it did the administration of Jefferson Davis.  A few side issues before a discussion of Davis as a war president.


Prior to the Civil War, the radical fringe of the pro-slavery movement was pushing for re-opening of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, banned under federal law since 1808.  Davis, and most pro-slavery leaders opposed this effort.  When Davis was attacked by Southern firebrands prior to the War for his opposition to a renewed international slave trade, Davis stated that his concern was for the well-being of Mississippi, a state with a large slave population, rather than abolitionist concern over the well-being of slaves.

The Confederate Constitution banned the international slave trade, except with the United States:

(1) The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.

The issue came up quite early in the term of Davis as President of the CSA, when he, ever the strict constructionist, vetoed a measure in regard to the international slave trade.



EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENT, February 28, 1861.
Gentlemen of Congress: With sincere deference to the judgment of Congress, I have carefully considered the bill in relation to the slave trade, and to punish persons offending therein, but have not been able to approve it, and therefore do return it with a statement of my objections. The Constitution (section 7, article I.) provides that the importation of African negroes from any foreign country other than slave-holding States of the United States is hereby forbidden, and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same. The rule herein given is emphatic, and distinctly directs the legislation which shall effectually prevent the importation of African negroes. The bill before me denounces as high misdemeanor the importation of African negroes or other persons of color, either to be sold as slaves or to be held to service or labor, affixing heavy, degrading penalties on the act, if done with such intent. To that extent it accords with the requirements of the Constitution, but in the sixth section of the bill provision is made for the transfer of persons who may have been illegally imported into the Confederate States to the custody of foreign States or societies, upon condition of deportation and future freedom, and if the proposition thus to surrender them shall not be accepted, it is then made the duty of the President to cause said negroes to be sold at public outcry to the highest bidder in any one of the States where such sale shall not be inconsistent with the laws thereof. This provision seems to me to be in opposition to the policy declared in the Constitution – the prohibition of the importation of African negroes – and in derogation of its mandate to legislate for the effectuation of that object. Wherefore the bill is returned to you for your further consideration, and, together with the objections, most respectfully submitted.


An effort to override the veto was attempted in the Confederate Congress and failed.


Jefferson Davis was always a friend to Catholics.  In his youth as a boy he studied at the Saint Thomas School at the Saint Rose Dominican Priory in Washington County Kentucky.  While there Davis, the only Protestant student, expressed a desire to convert.  One of the priests there advised the boy to wait until he was older and then decide.  Davis never converted, but his early exposure to Catholicism left him with a life long respect for the Faith.

When the aptly named anti-Catholic movement the Know-Nothings arose in the 1840s and 1850s, Davis fought against it, as did his great future adversary Abraham Lincoln.

During the Civil War, Pope Pius wrote to the archbishops of New Orleans and New York, praying that peace would be restored to America.  Davis took this opportunity to write to the Pope.

RICHMOND, September 23, 1863.


The letters which you have written to the clergy of New Orleans and New York have been communicated to me, and I have read with emotion the deep grief therein expressed for the ruin and devastation caused by the war which is now being waged by the United States against the States and people which have selected me as their President, and your orders to your clergy to exhort the people to peace and charity. I am deeply sensible of the Christian charity which has impelled you to this reiterated appeal to the clergy. It is for this reason that I feel it my duty to express personally, and in the name of the Confederate States, our gratitude for such sentiments of Christian good feeling and love, and to assure Your Holiness that the people, threatened even on their own hearths with the most cruel oppression and terrible carnage, is desirous now, as it has always been, to see the end of this impious war; that we have ever addressed prayers to Heaven for that issue which Your Holiness now desires; that we desire none of our enemy’s possessions, but that we fight merely to resist the devastation of our country and the shedding of our best blood, and to force them to let us live in peace under the protection of our own institutions, and under our laws, which not only insure to every one the enjoyment of his temporal rights, but also the free exercise of his religion. I pray Your Holiness to accept, on the part of myself and the people of the Confederate States, our sincere thanks for your efforts in favor of peace. May the Lord preserve the days of Your Holiness, and keep you under His divine protection.


Pio Nono responded:

We have just received with all suitable welcome the persons sent by you to place in our hands your letter, dated 23d of September last. Not slight was the pleasure we experienced when we learned, from those persons and the letter, with what feelings of joy and gratitude you were animated, illustrious and honorable President, as soon as you were informed of our letters to our venerable brother John, Archbishop of New York, and John, Archbishop of New Orleans, dated the 18th of October of last year, and in which we have with all our strength excited and exhorted those venerable brothers that, in their episcopal piety and solicitude, they should endeavor, with the most ardent zeal, and in our name, to bring about the end of the fatal civil war which has broken out in those countries, in order that the American people may obtain peace and concord, and dwell charitably together. It is particularly agreeable to us to see that you, illustrious and honorable President, and your people, are animated with the same desires of peace and tranquility which we have in our letters inculcated upon our venerable brothers. May it please God at the same time to make the other peoples of America and their rulers, reflecting seriously how terrible is civil war, and what calamities it engenders, listen to the inspirations of a calmer spirit, and adopt resolutely the part of peace. As for us, we shall not cease to offer up the most fervent prayers to God Almighty, that He may pour out upon all the people of America the spirit of peace and charity, and that He will stop the great evils which afflict them. We, at the same time, beseech the God of pity to shed abroad upon you the light of His grace, and attach you to us by a perfect friendship.
” Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, the 3d of December, 1863, of our Pontificate 18.
(Signed) “.Plus IX.”


The Confederate Constitution provided for the suspension of habeas corpus:

Sec. 9 (3) The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

On February 27, 1862 the Confederate Congress vested in Davis the power to suspend Habeas Corpus.  On March 1, 1862 Davis used this power, suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus and declaring martial law in a ten-mile radius around the City of Richmond.

Davis would use this power throughout the War, especially in regions where Unionist sentiment was strong, for example in East Tennessee where martial law was imposed and the writ of habeas corpus suspended in 1862.

Confederate habeas corpus commissioners from the beginning of the War had the power outside of the normal judicial system to order the military imprisonment of civilians or to free them, without any involvement by the state or Confederate courts.

As in the North, these measures raised a fair amount of opposition.  Alexander Stephens denounced President Davis as a dictator in 1864 and returned home to Georgia, where he delivered a speech on March 16, 1864 to the Georgia legislature attacking various acts of the Davis administration, including the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

Davis was not a dictator, but rather a man at the head of a nation fighting against the odds to establish independence.  Like Lincoln, Davis was forced by circumstances to circumscribe liberties in wartime in hopes that victory would cause the need for such measures to end.

Now on to the War.

On paper the Confederacy faced enormous odds in its fight for independence.  The North had three times the white population of the South, 90% of the industrial capacity and vast agricultural resources to feed its population and military.  The North had large merchant fleets.  The banks with their financial resources were concentrated in the North.  The Confederacy v. the Union was apparently a complete mismatch.  However, the South had some key advantages.

First, the size of the Confederacy was vast:  the South could lose a lot of territory and remain a viable entity, and the Union would have to deploy large forces simply to occupy territory it conquered.

Second, most Confederates lived in rural areas and, at least in the East, made initially superior soldiers to their more urban Northern counterparts.

Third, the white South was more unified, overall, than the North.  If the North failed to win the War, life would go as normal for most Northerners.  If the South lost, its bid for independence ended, and the South would be under the rule of the North.  This created a cause that most white Southerners eagerly embraced, and fought for until a quarter past midnight.

Fourth, the Confederacy was not seeking to conquer the Union.  The Union needed to conquer the Confederacy.  The Confederacy merely needed to outlast the Union.


In the first year of the War, Lincoln and Davis faced the challenge of raising armies, dealing with the Border States and addressing the question of possible foreign recognition of the Confederacy.

In 1861 both sides raised armies and navies that dwarfed anything up to that point in American military history.  The Davis administration deserves considerable credit in arming these hosts, a much harder task for the Confederacy than for the Union.  In the only major battle of that year, First Bull Run, the Confederates thwarted the first of many drives on the Confederate capital, Richmond.

In regard to the border states, the Union kept Maryland in the Union by military occupation.  Tiny Delaware was inaccessible to the Confederacy and, in any case, was inaccessible to the Confederacy.  Kentucky was propelled into the Union camp by Confederate General Leonidas Polk, a friend of Davis, breaching Kentucky’s proclaimed neutrality by seizing the strategic town of Columbus, Kentucky on the Mississippi.  Davis regretted the move, but did not order a withdrawal as he, too, viewed the position as vital to Confederate control of the Mississippi.  In Missouri, teh Union maintained control of Saint Louis, but heavy handed Union tactics caused a guerrilla war to flare up and which would last the entire war.  This was probably the best that the Confederacy could hope for in Missouri.  The Confederates could not take Saint Louis, so tying down large Union forces to hold the State was a good second best outcome.

All in all, 1861 was a fairly good war year for the Confederacy, and the Davis administration deserves a fair amount of credit.  A possible blunder this year was in firing on Fort Sumter, which caused a groundswell of support for the Union in the North.  However it also propelled the states of North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia into the Confederacy, and without those four states, the Confederacy had not a prayer of survival in the war that was inevitable, Sumter or no Sumter.  A much more serious blunder this year was keeping Southern cotton off the market in order to coerce England and France into recognizing the Confederacy.  A wiser policy would have been to ship out as much cotton as possible while the Union blockade was still porous.

It is deeply ironic that Jefferson Davis, ever the champion of States Rights, fought for the centralization of authority in the Confederate government necessary to win the War.  He of course would have rejected any irony, arguing doubtless that losing the War would end States Rights forever.  He was bitterly opposed in his efforts at centralization by more than a few Confederate governors and members of Congress, some of whom contended that Davis was attempting to make himself a dictator.  This internal battle raged until the external War was lost.  This caused Davis to remark in 1864:  If the Confederacy falls, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a theory. 

In 1862 the Confederacy came close to sudden defeat and sudden victory.  In the East the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee drove the Army of the Potomac back from the gates of Richmond.  The appointment of Lee to this command, and the unshakable faith that Davis had in him thereafter, was the single most important decision of Davis during the War.  By the fall of 1862 France and England were seriously considering the recognition of the Confederacy.  However, the battle of Antietam, and Lincoln’s announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation rendered European recognition a Confederate dream rather than a Confederate reality.  In the West Albert Sidney Johnston, the second best general appointment by Davis, came close to giving the Union a shattering defeat at Shiloh, only to be killed on the first day, and his army defeated on the second.  In the West, the Confederacy fought against geography as well as the Union.  The numerous north-south rivers provided watery avenues deep into the Confederacy in the West.  The Confederacy simply could not compete with the naval power of the Union, as demonstrated by the seizure of New Orleans, and Grant’s use of a brown water navy to support his effort to seize the Mississippi.  Additionally the vast area of the West highlighted the fact that the Confederacy simply could not maintain more than two and a half substantial field armies.  Davis contributed to the problems in the West by raising Bragg to the command of the main field army in the West, the Army of Tennessee and giving the lackluster Pemberton of Pennsylvania command of the defense of the absolutely crucial Vicksburg.

The second year of the conflict was mixed for the Confederacy with the Confederates holding their own in the East, while the steady Confederate loss of territory was well underway in the West.  The Northern blockade was beginning to bite.  The Confederacy responded by implementing a draconian draft law to make certain they made maximum use of their limited white male man power supply.  In response to the Emancipation Proclamation, Davis used it to rally increasingly war weary Confederates.  No thought was given by him of trying to utilize the black population of the Confederacy by announcing a limited Confederate emancipation and using black slaves in the Confederate army.  Such proposals were unthinkable in 1862, and would remain so until almost the end of the  War.

In 1863 the Confederacy in the East started out on a high note of Lee’s masterpiece at Chancellorsville, followed by the defeat of the Confederates at Gettysburg.  Lee offered to Davis his resignation, and the response of Davis is the man at his best.

Often regarded as a bloodless pedant, Davis was instead a man who usually wore his heart on his sleeve, for good and ill.  A good example of this is the letter he drafted on August 11, 1863 in which he responded to the offer to resign made by General Robert E. Lee in the wake of the Gettysburg defeat:


Often regarded as a bloodless pedant, Davis was instead a man who usually wore his heart on his sleeve, for good and ill.  A good example of this is the letter he drafted on August 11, 1863 in which he responded to the offer to resign made by General Robert E. Lee in the wake of the Gettysburg defeat:

Richmond, Va., August 11, 1863.

General R. E. Lee, Commanding Army of Northern Virginia:

Yours of the 8th instant has just been received. I am glad that you concur so entirely with me as to the wants of our country in this trying hour, and am happy to add that after the first depression consequent upon our disasters in the West, indications have appeared that our people will exhibit that fortitude which we agree in believing is alone needful to secure ultimate success.

It well became Sydney Johnston, when overwhelmed by a senseless clamor, to admit the rule that success is the test of merit; and yet there has been nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings. I admit the propriety of your conclusions that an officer who loses the confidence of his troops should have his position changed, whatever may be his ability, but when I read the sentence I was not at all prepared for the application you were about to make. Expressions of discontent in the public journals furnish but little evidence of the sentiment of the army. I wish it were otherwise, even though all the abuse of myself should be accepted as the results of honest observation.

Were you capable of stooping to it, you could easily surround yourself with those who would fill the press with your laudations, and seek to exalt you for what you had not done, rather than detract from the achievements which will make you and your army the subject of history and object of the world’s admiration for generations to come.

I am truly sorry to know that you still feel the effects of the illness you suffered last spring, and can readily understand the embarrassments you experience in using the eyes of others, having been so much accustomed to make your own reconnoissances. Practice will, however, do much to relieve that embarrassment, and the minute knowledge of the country which you had acquired will render you less dependent for topographical information.

But suppose, my dear friend, that I were to admit, with all their implications, the points which you present, where am I to find that new commander who is to possess the greater ability which you believe to be required? I do not doubt the readiness with which you would give way to one who could accomplish all that you have wished, and you will do me the justice to believe that if Providence should kindly offer such a person for our use I would not hesitate to avail [myself] of his services.

My sight is not sufficiently penetrating to discover such hidden merit, if it exists, and I have but used to you the language of sober earnestness, when I have impressed upon you the propriety of avoiding all unnecessary exposure to danger, because I felt our country could not bear to lose you. To ask me to substitute you by some one in my judgment more fit to command, or who would possess more of the confidence of the army, or of the reflecting men of the country, is to demand an impossibility.

It only remains for me to hope that you will take all possible care of yourself, that your health and strength may be entirely restored, and that the Lord will preserve you for the important duties devolved upon you in the struggle of our suffering country for the independence which we have engaged in war to maintain.

As ever, very respectfully and truly,

Jefferson Davis.

In the West disaster ensued with the capture of Vicksburg on July 4.  Davis sending Longstreet’s corp to the reinforce the Army of Tennessee, help bring about Bragg’s victory at Chickamauga, a barren victory due to an inadequate pursuit, a tribute to the dysfunctional command system of a very troubled army.

Unlike Abraham Lincoln who stayed closely anchored to Washington during the entire War, Jefferson Davis, realizing that the Confederacy was losing that critical theater, made three trips to the West, in attempts to raise morale through speeches and to create unity in the fractured and fractious Confederate command structure in the West.  In each of his three trips he succeeded in the first and failed in the second.

Traveling West on October 6, 1863 his number one concern was the Army of the Tennessee.  Bragg’s failure to capitalize on his victory had been gravely disappointing to Davis, and he was now confronted with the fact that Bragg’s always bad relationship with his corps commanders had now disintegrated to open hatred, with the corps commanders sending a petition to Davis for Bragg’s removal.  Davis was going to attempt to sort all of this out personally.

At a meeting of the Corps commanders and Bragg Davis asked each of the Corps commanders if they wanted Bragg removed.  After some hesitation Longstreet said yes, followed quickly by Buckner, Cheatham and Hill.

Davis, who was always just as loyal to the incompetent Bragg as he was to the brilliant Lee kept Bragg in command as morale in the Army of Tennessee plummeted.  Longstreet was sent off on a wild goose chase to besiege Knoxville.  D.H. Hill lost his corps command.

Buckner was reduced to a division commander by Bragg and he went on medical leave to Virginia.  Only Cheatham retained his corps command.

Davis in my opinion has tended to receive quite a bit of unfair blame for the defeat of the Confederacy.  He was a hard working Chief Executive who almost led his country to victory.  However, the gravest disservice he did to the Confederacy was sustaining Bragg in command and destroying the command structure of the Army of Tennessee as a result, right before its defeat at Chattanooga.  Keeping Bragg in command ensured that the Army of Tennessee went into this great battle with a commander that virtually no one in the Army had any confidence in, and whom many hated.

The end of 1863 brought an end to a bad year for the Confederacy, with its main hope now being seeing Lincoln defeated for re-election in 1864.

In 1864 the fate of the Confederacy was in the hands of two men, Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, who Davis appointed to succeed Bragg in command of the Army of Tennessee on December 27, 1863.  There was a deep well of animosity between Davis and Johnston, for reasons which remain obscure, but Davis hoped that Johnston could stop the inexorable drive of the huge Union force under Sherman into the heart of the Confederacy.

Lee kept Grant out of Richmond and inflicted sufficient casualties on the Army of the Potomac for Grant to be denounces as a butcher throughout the South.  However, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was bled white in the process and was reduced to holding the trench lines of Richmond and Petersburg against an ever larger Union force.  In the West Johnston proved himself a master of defensive war. eluding all of Sherman’s attempts to trap his Army, and giving Sherman some sharp blows.  However, by July Sherman was approaching Atlanta and on July 17, 1864, Davis replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood, the worst command choice made by Davis during the War.

Nonetheless, the Union was exceedingly war weary, as the worst Union casualties of the War were amassed in the Spring and Summer of 1864.  In August Lincoln thought that he would likely be defeated in November.  Then the iron dice of war decided otherwise.  On August 5, 1864 Admiral Farragut took Mobile Bay, yet another nail in a blockade that was now becoming almost airtight.  In August Hood launched four futile attacks against Sherman with Sherman taking Atlanta on September 2, after Hood abandoned it to protect his supply lines.  Davis met Hood thereafter and agreed to Hood’s plan to move into Tennessee to disrupt Sherman’s supply lines and force Sherman to follow him.  The complete failure of this plan was a testament to Sherman’s skill as a general as he executed his march to the Sea and the endless Union resources that made Hood’s foray a forlorn hope from the inception of the plan.  The shattering victories of Sheridan in the Shenandoah in October ensured Lincoln’s re-election on November 8, 1864.

On November 7, 1864, the day before Lincoln’s reelection,  Jefferson Davis made his annual speech to the Second Confederate Congress.  Most of the speech was a valiant, albeit largely delusional, attempt to place a happy face on the desperate military situation confronting the Confederate States.  However, there is one section which finally brought out into the open the question of enlisting slaves in the Confederate Army.  Long rumored to be under consideration, bringing it before Congress was a testament to how bad the military prospects were for the Confederacy, the protestations of Davis to the contrary notwithstanding.  However, even at five minutes to midnight for the Confederacy, Davis still raised the proposal as a possible move in the future, not an immediate policy.  To many members of the Congress it must have seemed ironic that a War begun in defense of slavery, had now reached such a dire pass that they were being asked to liberate slaves to preserve their new nation.  Here is the portion of the speech of Davis dealing with the issue:


In this aspect the relation of person predominates so far as to render it doubtful whether the private right of property can consistently and beneficially be continued, and it would seem proper to acquire for the public service the entire property in the labor of the slave, and to pay therefor due compensation, rather than to impress his labor for short terms ; and this the more especially as the effect of the present law would vest this entire property in all cases where the slave might be recaptured after compensation for his loss had been paid to the private owner. Whenever the entire property in the service of a slave is thus acquired by the Government, the question is presented by what tenure he should be held. Should he be retained in servitude, or should his emancipation be held out to him as a reward for faithful service, or should it be granted at once on the promise of such service; and if emancipated what action should be taken to secure for the freed man the permission of the State from which he was drawn to reside within its limits after the close of his public service? The permission would doubtless be more readily accorded as a reward for past faithful service, and a double motive for zealous discharge of duty would thus be offered to those employed by the Government—their freedom and the gratification of the local attachment which is so marked a characteristic of the negro and forms so powerful an incentive to his action. The policy of engaging to liberate the negro on his discharge after service faithfully rendered seems to me preferable to that of granting immediate manumission, or that of retaining him in servitude. If this policy should commend itself to the judgment of Congress, it is suggested that, in addition to the duties heretofore performed by the slave, he might be advantageously employed as a pioneer and engineer laborer, and, in that event, that the number should be augmented to forty thousand.

Beyond this limit and these employments it does not seem to me desirable under existing circumstances to go.

 A broad, moral distinction exists between the use of slaves as soldiers in defense of their homes and the incitement of the same persons to insurrection against their masters. The one is justifiable, if necessary, the other is iniquitous and unworthy of civilized people; and such is the judgment of all writers on public law, as well as that expressed and insisted on by our enemies in all wars prior to that now waged against us. By none have the practices of which they are now guilty been denounced with greater severity than by themselves in the two wars with Great Britain, in the last and in the present century, and in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, when an enumeration was made of the wrongs which justified the revolt from Great Britain. The climax of atrocity was deemed to be reached only when the English monarch was denounced as having ‘excited domestic insurrection among us.’

The subject is to be viewed by us, therefore, solely in the light of policy and our social economy. When so regarded, I must dissent from those who advise a general levy and arming of the slaves for the duty of soldiers. Until our white population shall prove insufficient for the armies we require and can afford to keep in the field, to employ as a soldier the negro, who has merely been trained to labor, and, as a laborer, the white man accustomed from his youth to the use of arms, would scarcely be deemed wise or advantageous by any; and this is the question now before us. But should the alternative ever be presented of subjugation, or of the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems no reason to doubt what should then be our decision. Whether our view embraces what would, in so extreme a case, be the sum of misery entailed by the dominion of the enemy, or be restricted solely to the effect upon the welfare and happiness of the negro population themselves, the result would be the same. The appalling demoralization, suffering, disease, and death, which have been caused by partially substituting the invaders’ system of police for the kind relation previously subsisting between the master and slave, have been a sufficient demonstration that external interference with our institution of domestic slavery is productive of evil only. If the subject involved no other consideration than the mere right of property, the sacrifices heretofore made by our people have been such as to permit no doubt of their readiness to surrender every possession in order to secure independence. But the social and political question which is exclusively under the control of the several States has a far wider and more enduring importance than that of pecuniary interest. In its manifold phases it embraces the stability of our republican institutions, resting on the actual political equality of all its citizens, and includes the fulfillment of the task which has been so happily begun—that of Christianizing and improving the condition of the Africans who have by the will of Providence been placed in our charge. Comparing the results of our own experience with those of the experiments of others who have borne similar relations to the African race, the people of the several States of the Confederacy have abundant reason to be satisfied with the past, and to use the greatest circumspection in determining their course. These considerations, however, are rather applicable to the improbable contingency of our need of resorting to this element of assistance than to our present condition. If the recommendation above, made for the training of forty thousand negroes for the service indicated, shall meet your approval, it is certain that even this limited number, by their preparatory training in intermediate duties, would form a more valuable reserve force in case of urgency than threefold their number suddenly called from field-labor, while a fresh levy could to a certain extent supply their places in the special service for which they are now employed.

Too little and far too late.

The year 1864 ended with all hope being gone for the Confederacy. 1864 had been a personally painful one for Davis when his son Joe, five, died from a fall at the White House of the Confederacy on April 30.  Davis tried to continue working at his desk, but collapsed in tears, saying that he must spend the day with his poor boy.  It is tragic that both of the men leading a divided country through our bloodiest war, knew the pain of the death of young sons.

In early 1865 Davis rallied the supporters of the Confederacy for one last stand, with the failure of the attempt to reach a negotiated peace with the Union.  Davis was enough of a military man to understand that the situation  was hopeless, but honor required that the effort be made.

It would take a heart of granite not to feel sympathy for Joseph Johnston.  A general regarded by his Union adversaries as having the highest abilities, he was fated after his moment of glory was cut short by his wounding at Seven Pines in 1862, and his replacement in command by Robert E. Lee, to spend the rest of the War being called upon by Jefferson Davis, a man he cordially hated and who returned his hate, to retrieve bad situations that were beyond retrieval.  So it was when Davis on February 25, 1865 placed him in command of the Departments of Southern Virginia, and of North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.  Under his command to oppose Sherman he had the 12,000 men under General Hardee who had resisted the advance of Sherman across South Carolina, Wade Hampton’s 6000 cavalrymen and the 6600 men who made up the shattered remnant of his Army of Tennessee.

Johnston realized that militarily the situation was beyond hopeless, but hoped that he could delay Sherman in his invasion of North Carolina, and win enough tactical victories, that when the time came for his surrender, he and his army would receive decent terms from Sherman.  With this sense of realism, Johnston once again began the task of attempting the military equivalent of making bricks without straw or mud.

With the fall of Richmond, the end had arrived for the dream of an independent South.


On April 4, 1865 Jefferson Davis issued his last official proclamation as President of the Confederacy:


To the People of the Confederate States of America.

Danville, Va., April 4, 1865.

The General in Chief of our Army has found it necessary to make such movements of the troops as to uncover the capital and thus involve the withdrawal of the Government from the city of Richmond.

It would be unwise, even were it possible, to conceal the great moral as well as material injury to our cause that must result from the occupation of Richmond by the enemy.  It is equally unwise and unworthy of us, as patriots engaged in a most sacred cause, to allow our energies to falter, our spirits to grow faint, or our efforts to become relaxed under reverses, however calamitous.  While it has been to us a source of national pride that for four years of unequaled warfare we have been able, in close proximity to the center of the enemy’s power, to maintain the seat of our chosen Government free from the pollution of his presence; while the memories of the heroic dead who have freely given their lives to its defense must ever remain enshrined in our hearts; while the preservation of the capital, which is usually regarded as the evidency to mankind of separate national existence, was an object very dear to us, it is also true, and should not be forgotten, that the loss which we have suffered is not without compensation.  For many months the largest and finest army of the Confederacy, under the command of a leader whose presence inspires equal confidence in the troops and the people, has been greatly trammeled by the necessity of keeping constant watch over the approaches to the capital, and has thus been forced to forego more than one opportunity for promising enterprise.  The hopes and confidence of the enemy have been constantly excited by the belief that their possession of Richmond would be the signal for our submission to their rule, and relieve them from the burden of war, as their failing resources admonish them it must be abandoned if not speedily brought to a successful close.  It is for us, my countrymen, to show by our bearing under reverses how wretched has been the self-deception of those who have believed us less able to endure misfortune with fortitude than to encounter danger with courage.  We have now entered upon a new phase of a struggle the memory of which is to endure for all ages and to shed an increasing luster upon our country.

Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points, important but not vital to our defense, with an army free to move from point to point and strike in detail the detachments and garrisons of the enemy, operating on the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base and cut off from all succor in case of reverse, nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve.  Let us but will it, and we are free; and who, in the light of the past, dare doubt your purpose in the future?

Animated by the confidence in your spirit and fortitude, which never yet has failed me, I announce to you, fellow-countrymen, that it is my purpose to maintain your cause with my whole heart and soul; that I will never consent to abandon to the enemy one foot of the soil of any one of the States of the Confederacy; that Virginia, noble State, whose ancient renown has been eclipsed by her still more glorious recent history, whose bosom has been bared to receive the main shock of this war, whose sons and daughters have exhibited heroism so sublime as to render her illustrious in all times to come – that Virginia, with the help of her people, and by the blessing of Providence, shall be held and defended, and no peace ever be made with the infamous invaders of her homes by the sacrifice of any of her rights or territory.  If by stress of numbers we should ever be compelled to a temporary withdrawal from her limits, or those of any other border State, again and again will we return, until the baffled and exhausted enemy shall abandon in despair his endless and impossible task of making slaves of a people resolved to be free.

Let us not, then, despond, my countrymen; but, relying on the never-failing mercies and protecting care of our God, let us meet the foe with fresh defiance, with unconquered and unconquerable hearts.

                                                                                                Jeff’n Davis.

Davis and his cabinet initially went to Danville, Virginia after the fall of Richmond.  Upon the surrender of Lee at Appomattox he joined Johnston in North Carolina.  Determined to carry on the War he received virtually no support from any Confederate officers, the military situation being beyond hopeless.  Davis would stay in North Carolina until the end of April, eventually coming to terms with the reality that the War was lost.  He now vaguely determined to somehow get across the Mississippi and head to Mexico, and from there to go into exile to a country of his choosing.  All the while the Union forces were on the lookout for him, Washington  fearing that the War would never end so long as Davis remained at liberty.  His capture put the final seal on Confederate defeat.

In his captivity after the war, Davis was remembered by Pope Pius.  The Pope sent the imprisoned Davis his photograph with the text  from Matthew 11:28  ‘Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus.’ (Come to me all all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord.)

Davis wrote warmly in later life about the consolation that he received of this token that the Pope remembered him.  His family in its hour of need received assistance from Catholics, as his wife Varina recalled:   “No institution of my own Church offered to teach my children. One day three Sisters of Charity came to see me and brought me five gold dollars, all the money they had. They almost forced me to take the money, but I did not. They then offered to take my children to their school in the neighborhood of Savannah, where the air was cool and they could be comfortably cared for during the summer months.”

Davis never deviated from his belief that the cause of the Confederacy had been just.  He never asked for a pardon and never expressed the slightest regret for the course he had followed.  He did counsel young Southerners to forget the past and to be good citizens of the reunited nation.  Towards the end of his life he sat for an interview with a British reporter.  At the close of the interview Davis told the reporter to tell his readers that everything he did he had done out of love for America.


When Davis died at 81 in New Orleans, Catholic clergy helped officiate at this funeral.  I am sure Davis would have had no objection.

In the end, the epitaph for the career of Jefferson Davis was uttered at the beginning of the War by his great adversary:

If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten thousand angels swearing I was right would make no difference.

Abraham Lincoln


Published in: on February 17, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on An American President  
Tags: , ,

Grant on the Civil War


I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.  Today we will look at the musings of General Grant on the causes of the Civil War.  Grant was not a great president, far from it, but he was a great  general and, as this passage from his memoirs indicates. a fairly acute observer of the passing scene:



THE CAUSE of the great War of the Rebellion against the United Status will have to be attributed to slavery. For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that “A state half slave and half free cannot exist.” All must become slave or all free, or the state will go down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time, but since the war is over, reviewing the whole question, I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true.


Slavery was an institution that required unusual guarantees for its security wherever it existed; and in a country like ours where the larger portion of it was free territory inhabited by an intelligent and well-to-do population, the people would naturally have but little sympathy with demands upon them for its protection. Hence the people of the South were dependent upon keeping control of the general government to secure the perpetuation of their favorite restitution. They were enabled to maintain this control long after the States where slavery existed had ceased to have the controlling power, through the assistance they received from odd men here and there throughout the Northern States. They saw their power waning, and this led them to encroach upon the prerogatives and independence of the Northern States by enacting such laws as the Fugitive Slave Law. By this law every Northern man was obliged, when properly summoned, to turn out and help apprehend the runaway slave of a Southern man. Northern marshals became slave-catchers, and Northern courts had to contribute to the support and protection of the institution.


This was a degradation which the North would not permit any longer than until they could get the power to expunge such laws from the statute books. Prior to the time of these encroachments the great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution.


In the early days of the country, before we had railroads, telegraphs and steamboats—in a word, rapid transit of any sort—the States were each almost a separate nationality. At that time the subject of slavery caused but little or no disturbance to the public mind. But the country grew, rapid transit was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before, that the power of the National government became more felt and recognized and, therefore, had to be enlisted in the cause of this institution.


It is probably well that we had the war when we did. We are better off now than we would have been without it, and have made more rapid progress than we otherwise should have made. The civilized nations of Europe have been stimulated into unusual activity, so that commerce, trade, travel, and thorough acquaintance among people of different nationalities, has become common; whereas, before, it was but the few who had ever had the privilege of going beyond the limits of their own country or who knew anything about other people. Then, too, our republican institutions were regarded as experiments up to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it. Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.


But this war was a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future.


Published in: on February 18, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Grant on the Civil War  
Tags: ,

Grant on Pierce

You have summoned me in my weakness. You must sustain me by your strength.

President Franklin Pierce, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1853

I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.  Today we will look at a President who has vanished from popular memory.

Franklin Pierce was a doughface, the pejorative applied to Northern politicians prior to the Civil War who embraced the South’s view of slavery.  While personally opposed to slavery, where have we heard that formulation before, Pierce also opposed all efforts to restrict slavery, fearing that such efforts would merely antagonize the South and ultimately lead to civil war.  He was thrust into the Presidency as the darkest of dark horse candidates, nominated by the Democrats in 1852 on the 49th ballot, winning easily in the fall against his former Mexican War commander, Winfield Scott, the last presidential candidate of the dying Whig Party.

Historians, the few who have examined his term in office in detail, have been generally scathing about his service as President, as Pierce did nothing to halt the drift towards the civil war he so feared, with his steadfast determination to yield to the South in the face of growing Northern anger.  Perhaps fortunately for his historical reputation, Pierce ranks high on the list of forgotten presidents, his life largely going down the memory hole of the general public.  That process began during his lifetime, as the whirlwind of events that would lead to the Civil War passed him by.  Pierce perhaps sensed this himself, stating as he left office in 1857, that all he had left now to do was to get drunk.  To be fair to Pierce, few men had more to get drunk about, all three of his sons having died in childhood, his last son at eleven years of age after having been almost totally decapitated in a train accident in front of his shattered parents, just before Pierce assumed the office of President.  After his wife died in 1863, his drinking got completely out of hand and he died of cirrhosis of the liver on October 8, 1869.  President Grant, who had served with Pierce in the Mexican War made sure that the forgotten man received the honors in death that he warranted as a former President.  In his memoirs Grant went out his way to praise Pierce and we will let him have the last word on Pierce:


General Franklin Pierce had joined the army in Mexico, at Puebla, a short time before the advance upon the capital commenced. He had consequently not been in any of the engagements of the war up to the Battle of Contreras. By an unfortunate fall of his horse on the afternoon of the 19th he was painfully injured. The next day, when his brigade, with the other troops engaged on the same field, was ordered against the flank and rear of the enemy guarding the different points of the road from San Augustin Tlalplan to the city, General Pierce attempted to accompany them. He was not sufficiently recovered to do so, and fainted. This circumstance gave rise to exceedingly unfair and unjust criticisms of him when he became a candidate for the Presidency. Whatever General Pierce’s qualifications may have been for the Presidency, he was a gentleman and a man of courage. I was not a supporter of him politically, but I knew him more intimately than I did any other of the volunteer generals.

Grant reminds us that public service of a President can tell us only so much about the private man, and here endeth the lesson.


Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Grant on Pierce  
Tags: , , ,

Lincoln on Taylor


I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  However, I will keep up my tradition of writing about presidents on this day.

American presidents all fit into two broad categories:  those who had political careers and held political offices prior to their presidency and those who did not.  Only five presidents held no political office prior to being elected President:  Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Donald Trump.  Zachary Taylor, the first non-politician to become president, is now an obscure figure to most Americans, his fame in the Mexican War almost entirely forgotten by the oblivion that has largely swallowed that conflict, and his relatively brief time in office ensuring that his administration would be one of the forgotten ones in popular memory.  Ironically, one of our two most famous Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, deliver a eulogy on the death of Taylor.  Tomorrow I will comment on the obituary.  Today, I want us to focus on Lincoln’s words, as we use the eulogy as a springboard to look at “Old Rough and Ready” throughout this week.  Here is Lincoln’s eulogy:


At Chicago, July 25th, 1850

GENERAL ZACHARY TAYLOR, the eleventh elected President of the United States, is dead. He was born Nov. 2nd, [2] 1784, in Orange county, Virginia; and died July the 9th 1850, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, at the White House in Washington City. He was the second [3] son of Richard Taylor, a Colonel in the army of the Revolution. His youth was passed among the pioneers of Kentucky, whither his parents emigrated soon after his birth; and where his taste for military life, probably inherited, was greatly stimulated. Near the commencement of our last war with Great Britain, he was appointed by President Jefferson, a lieutenant in the 7th regiment of Infantry. During the war, he served under Gen. Harrison in his North Western campaign against the Indians; and, having been promoted to a captaincy, was intrusted with the defence of Fort Harrison, with fifty men, half of them unfit for duty. A strong party of Indians, under the Prophet, brother of Tecumseh, made a midnight attack on the Fort; but Taylor, though weak in his force, and without preparation, was resolute, and on the alert; and, after a battle, which lasted till after daylight, completely repulsed them. Soon after, he took a prominent part in the expedition under Major Gen. Hopkins against the Prophet’s town; and, on his return, found a letter from President Madison, who had succeeded Mr. Jefferson, conferring on him a major’s brevet for his gallant defence of Fort Harrison. (more…)

Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

Theodore Roosevelt: A Force of Nature



Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt


I have never liked Presidents’ Day.  Why celebrate all presidents when only a select few of them, like Washington and Lincoln, deserve to be celebrated?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday, which actually won’t occur until February 22.  One of the few presidents worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Washington and Lincoln is Theodore Roosevelt, and today we will look at his truly remarkable life.

I love Roosevelt as a man. He was always optimistic and led life at the charge. Whatever he did, he did with explosive energy. He was never half-hearted about anything. He was a good family man and a good husband. He loved God, his country and his family, and genuinely seemed to like most people who came into contact with him. As one of his enemies said, “Someone would have to hate him a lot, not to like him a little.”

In this look at his life we will list some of TR’s accomplishments, but I do not think that gets to the heart of the matter. Most presidents are smaller than their great office. A precious few, Washington and Lincoln for example, loom larger than the office. TR was in this class. The phrase bully-pulpit came about to describe how TR used the presidency as a giant mega-phone to get his views across to the American people and persuade them. He had a deep patriotism and a belief in the greatness of this country that resonated with the country. Some presidents debase us and some ennoble us, and none were better at ennobling us than TR. He understood that life is a grand adventure. Sometimes it is a hard adventure and sometimes a joyous adventure, but always an adventure. TR imparted this sense of wonder and grandeur to many of his contemporaries.

The complexity of TR makes writing even  a brief biography of him a challenge: scholar, historian, writer, naturalist, legislator, rancher, cowboy, hunter,  civil service commissioner, police commissioner, soldier, governor, vice-president, president, daredevil, adventurer, explorer, etc. He combined about a dozen lives into sixty brief years. (more…)

Published in: on February 16, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: ,

Washington: The Greatest American Part II

Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion.

Pope Leo XIII

With the end of the Revolutionary War Washington was looking forward to a well earned retirement from public life at his beloved Mount Vernon.

On June 8, 1783 he sent a circular letter out to the states discussing his thoughts on the importance of the states remaining united, paying war debts, taking care of the soldiers who were wounded in the war and the establishment of a peace time military and the regulation of the militia.  It is an interesting document and may be read here.   No doubt Washington viewed this as in some respects his final thoughts addressed to the American people in his role as Commander in Chief.

Washington ends the letter with this striking passage:

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.

The War having been won Washington resigned his commission to Congress in Annapolis, Maryland on December 23, 1783.  The next day he had reached his heart’s desire:  home, Mount Vernon.  Christmas the next day was probably the happiest in his life. (more…)

Published in: on February 22, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Washington: The Greatest American Part II  
Tags: , ,

Washington: The Greatest American-Part I

George Washington

by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benét

Sing hey! For bold George Washington,

That jolly British tar,

King George’s famous admiral

From Hull to Zanzibar!

No–wait a minute–something’s wrong–

George wished to sail the foam.

But, when his mother thought aghast,

Of Georgie shinning up a mast,

Her tears and protests flowed so fast

That George remained at home.

Sing ho! For grave Washington,

The staid Virginia squire,

Who farms his fields and hunts his hounds

And aims at nothing higher!

Stop, stop it’s going wrong again!

George liked to live on farms,

But when the Colonies agreed

They could and should and would be freed,

They called on George to do the deed

And George cried “Shoulder arms!”

Sing ha! For Emperor Washington,

That hero of renown,

Who freed his land from Britain’s rule

To win a golden crown!

No, no, that’s what George might have won

But didn’t for he said,

“There’s not much point about a king,

They’re pretty but they’re apt to sting

And, as for crowns–the heavy thing

Would only hurt my head.”

Sing ho! For our George Washington!

(At last I’ve got it straight.)

The first in war, the first in peace,

The goodly and the great.

But, when you think about him now,

From here to Valley Forge,

Remember this–he might have been

A highly different specimen,

And, where on earth would we be, then?

I’m glad that George was George.

I have never liked President’s Day.  Why celebrate loser presidents like Jimmy Carter and James Buchanan, non-entities like Millard Fillmore, bad presidents, like Grant, with great presidents like Washington and Lincoln?   Officially the date is still the commemoration of George Washington’s birthday and in this post we will recall the life of the greatest American who ever lived.  Ironically in the length of a blog post we will be unable to cover all of Washington’s event filled life, including his Presidency.  We will break off at the close of the Revolution and finish off on February 22, the actual birthday of the man who will always be first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of all of us who, as Americans, in many ways are his children.

Only Abraham Lincoln comes close to Washington in our American secular pantheon.  Our first president, he was also the man who led our armies to victory in the Revolutionary War, a conflict I am certain that we would have lost but for his leadership, faith and example.  In his own time, and from his days as a very young man, most people who encountered Washington assumed he was destined for greatness.  Six foot three at a time when most men were around five foot six, Washington was a literal giant for his day, weighing 220 pounds of muscle, and noted for his feats of strength.  A quiet aura of dignity and command seemed to envelop him from the first time that he put on the uniform of a Virginia militia officer.  He had a hot temper that he usually successfully controlled beneath a mask of quiet dignity, leavened by a lively sense of humor.  However, none of these explain why men and women instinctively looked to him for leadership, but they always did.  Perhaps it was simply a matter of trust.  Although the cherry tree is a myth, Washington was always known to be an honest man, and a man who could be entrusted with great tasks that he would attempt to do out of a sense of duty and not for personal aggrandizement.  Such men are very rare in history, and almost all Washington’s contemporaries realized that he was  such a rarity.

Washington of course did not appear full grown on the stage of history.  When he was born none would have expected him to have any historical significance in his life. (more…)

Published in: on February 17, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: , ,

Mister, We Could Use a Man Like Calvin Coolidge Again

A wholesome regard for the memory of great men of long ago is the best assurance to a people of a continuation of great men to come, who shall still be able to instruct, to lead, and to inspire. A people who worship at the shrine of true greatness will themselves be truly great.

Calvin Coolidge

Time for my usual Presidents’ Day rant.  Although still officially Washington’s Birthday this day has become commonly known as President’s Day.  I see no reason to honor the various incompetents, low lifes, grifters and public thieves who have too often sat in the Oval Office on the same day that should be reserved for truly great Presidents like Washington, Lincoln and Coolidge.  Coolidge?  Yep, Silent Cal was a truly magnificent President and in this post we will examine why he deserves to be ranked among the very best of our Chief Executives.

Born on the fourth of July in 1872, in Plymouth Notch in the Green Mountains of Vermont, John Calvin Coolidge, (he was always called Calvin by his family so his first name fell by the wayside) was a rock-ribbed Vermont Yankee descended from a line of Yankees that had first set foot in New England in 1630.  Thrift was not a virtue in the Coolidge family, but a way of life.  His mother died when he was twelve.  He would carry a locket with her portrait until the day he died.   “The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me.  Life was never to seem the same again.”  His beloved sister died only five years later, not the last loss of a loved one that would come to Calvin Coolidge.  Graduating from Amherst College, he took the advice of his father and skipped law school, too expensive, and became an attorney through the traditional route of “reading law” under an experienced attorney.

In 1898 he opened a law office in Northampton, Massachusetts and gradually attracted business as a transactional attorney rather than an attorney who did litigation in court.  He met his wife Grace, a teacher at a local school for the deaf, when she spied him one day in 1903 through an open window at the boarding house where he was staying.  Coolidge was shaving, and was wearing his long johns and his hat.  (He later explained to her that he used the hat to keep his unruly hair out of his eyes while he was shaving.)  In this case opposites did attract, and for life.  Grace was talkative and lively, Coolidge quiet and withdrawn.  They had a very happy marriage that was blessed by two sons.  Shortly after their marriage Grace was presented by Calvin with a sack with fifty-two pairs of hole filled socks in them.  She asked him if he had married her so she would darn his socks.  He replied no, but that he found it mighty handy that she could darn his socks!  (And she did not kill him!) (more…)

Published in: on February 18, 2013 at 5:25 am  Comments Off on Mister, We Could Use a Man Like Calvin Coolidge Again  
Tags: ,