Brother’s home lured young couple to Warren County

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jefferson Davis BicentennialThis year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis, who was born in Fairview, Ky., on June 3, 1808, and at the age of 2 moved with his parents to Rosemont Plantation near Woodville, Miss. In 1835, Davis moved to Warren County where he spent the most productive years of his life. This is the first of a series of 11 articles about Davis as a local citizen.Much of the land was covered with trees and underbrush, and the open areas were engulfed in briars. The young couple surveying their new domain laughingly called it “Brierfield.”

It was the summer of 1835. Jefferson Davis had brought his bride, Sarah Knox Taylor, to Davis Bend in south Warren County where they would make their home.

It was Davis’ third visit to the land in a curve of the Mississippi River, which could then be reached by road from Warren County. His brother Joseph owned much of the land, almost 7,000 acres, which he had bought in 1818 and where he built his home, Hurricane. It was 10 years later, in June 1828, when his younger brother, Jeff, who had just graduated from West Point Military Academy at the age of 20, first went to Davis Bend.

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The land, now privately owned, is still part of Warren County, although an 1867 change of course by the Mississippi resulted in land access only from Louisiana to the west.

After a visit with his brother, Jefferson Davis returned to the North where he planned to pursue a career in the Army. His assignments included Illinois and Wisconsin. It was there, at Prairie du Chein on the Wisconsin frontier, that he met Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of the commander, Zachary Taylor — then a colonel and later a general and president of the United States.

The couple fell in love, but Col. Taylor disapproved of the match. He had nothing personal against Davis, though they had their differences. Life in the Army had been rough on his family, and Gen. Taylor didn’t want his children to endure the same hardships with their families. (It mattered not — his three daughters all married military men and his only son became a general.)

In early 1835, Jefferson Davis took a leave and again visited his brother at Hurricane. They discussed Jeff’s future. The Army held little hope of advancement for him, so he contemplated resigning. Being out of the military might also placate Col. Taylor. Joseph Davis made his brother an offer: He would give him a large part of Davis Bend for a plantation and help him get started. It wasn’t entirely a gift, for Joseph Davis was indebted to his younger brother for his part of their father’s estate.

Jefferson Davis went back north, wrote a letter of resignation from the Army, effective the last of June 1835, and he and Knox, as she was known, planned their wedding, though her father still refused to give his approval. They had waited two years, so with or without his blessing they decided to marry. The ceremony was near Louisville, Ky., at the home of Col. Taylor’s oldest sister on June 17, 1835. Though the Col. and Mrs. Taylor did not attend, his brothers did and his nephew served as best man.

Despite his objections, Col. Taylor did provide his daughter with a liberal trousseau, and she told her father of her new husband, “Some day you will see his rare qualities as I do.”

The couple left immediately by steamboat for their new home in Mississippi. They would live at Hurricane with Joseph and his wife, Eliza, until they could build their own home on Brierfield.

On Aug. 11, 1835, Sarah Knox Taylor Davis wrote her mother, “Do not make yourself uneasy about me; the country is quite healthy.” With malaria a constant threat during the summer months, the couple decided to go to his sister Anna’s plantation home, Locust Grove, inland from St. Francisville, La. Away from the river, it was thought, would be healthier than Davis Bend.

At Anna’s, both contracted malaria, experiencing chills and fever. For a time it appeared Jefferson Davis would not live, but then his wife took a turn for the worse. They were in adjoining rooms when he heard his bride deliriously singing a song from their courtship, “Fairy Bells.” Davis managed to get to her room, where he held her in his arms as she died. She was buried in the family cemetery near the house, and he watched the service from the window. It was Sept. 15, 1835. At 21, she had been a bride of only three months.

Slowly Jefferson Davis recovered, and when he was able to travel he went to Cuba, then to New York, and then to Washington to see an old friend. He had neither the strength nor the desire to begin life alone at Brierfield, but he eventually made his way south where he began the task of clearing and building.

The back-breaking, hard work was the therapy Davis needed. He worked with his slaves, clearing the land for planting. In the evenings he relaxed at Hurricane, enjoying his brother’s fine library and discussing with him the events of the times.

After a few years Davis built his house, the first one on Brierfield Plantation. He gradually acquired a library stocked with English classics. He especially liked Bryon, Burns and Sir Walter Scott. He became quite a Bible scholar, and though a member of no church at the time, he often attended Episcopal services in the plantation church at Hurricane. At night he often had long conversations with James Pemberton, a slave who was Brierfield’s overseer, the two usually enjoying cigars. Cornbread was Davis’ favorite staple. He liked simple fare and always began supper with soup.

For seven years after his return to Warren County, he remained a recluse. Only once did he leave, to make a visit to his college friend George Jones, who represented Iowa in Washington.

On July 24, 1840, he wrote his friend Sen. William Allen of Ohio, “I am living as retired as a man on the great Mississippi can be ….”

His monastic life, however was destined to end.

NEXT: The first campaign.


Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.