Union general’s wife curious about husband’s classmate

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 20, 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 seventh of a series of 11 articles about Davis as a local citizen.After the War between the States, Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe in Virginia where he was greatly mistreated. He was charged with treason but never brought to trial, for he had been taught at West Point that secession was legal. After being released he came to Vicksburg for a brief visit, traveled some, then settled for a time in Memphis before moving to Biloxi where he wrote, “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.” He often returned to Warren County to tend to business at Brierfield.

Although it was a very warm evening in the late spring of 1875, the young woman was almost shivering from nervousness when she entered the dining room at Shamrock, the old Porterfield mansion, which stood just south of where the railroad tracks divide Oak and Mulberry streets in Vicksburg today.

The evening that Frances Roe had dreaded became the event in her memoirs that made the deepest impression on the Northern woman, who with her husband, Faye, lived in the occupied city of Vicksburg during the last phase of military occupation, or reconstruction.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

The Roes — he was an Army officer and a West Point graduate — boarded at the Porterfield home and were treated like members of the family by Julia Porterfield and her daughter. Another guest in the house, who stayed for three weeks, caused Mrs. Roe’s anxiety. She expected a confrontation over the South’s efforts to gain independence. She feared the other guest would be abrupt and unfriendly, even discourteous.

“I was afraid of something unpleasant coming up,” she wrote, “for although Mrs. Porterfield and her daughter were women of culture and refinement, they were also rebels to the very quick ….” and they never failed to remind her that their kinsman was “President” Davis.

Mrs. Roe found that she had nothing to fear — “nothing whatever.” As Mrs. Roe and her husband, who wore his very best Union Army uniform, waited, Mrs. Porterfield escorted the “tall, thin old man” into the dining room. The president was described as “a courtly gentleman of the old Southern school,” who never referred to the war and who, “if he noticed the blue uniform at all, did not take the slightest interest in what it represented. His composure was really disappointing.” Davis first greeted Mrs. Roe and then turned to her husband, whose hand he grasped cordially and firmly.

“There was more in that meeting than a stranger would have known of,” Mrs. Roe recalled. “In the splendid dining room where we sat, which was 40 feet in length and floored with tiles of Italian marble, as was the entire large basement, it was impossible not to notice the unpainted casing of one side of the window, and also the two immense patches of common gray plaster on the beautifully frescoed walls, which covered holes made by a piece of shell that had crashed through the house during the siege of Vicksburg. The shell itself had exploded outside near the servants’ quarters.

Every evening after supper the two men would sit on the columned gallery and smoke and talk about incidents which had occurred when each was a student at West Point. One of the columns near where they sat had been partially shattered by a shell from a Union gunboat, and in one white marble column a piece of shell was still embedded. Roe’s father had been in the Union Navy and had “boldly done his very best toward the undoing of the Confederacy,” Mrs. Roe wrote.

In the scenario, Mrs. Roe saw a lesson. “By his never-failing, polished courtesy to that father’s son even when sitting by pieces of shell and patched-up walls, the president of the Confederacy set an example of dignified self-restraint, that many a Southern man and woman — particularly woman — would do well to follow.”

Not all of Mrs. Roe’s recollections were complimentary. In a self-righteous tone she imagined that Davis was deeply moved by “seeing the Federal Blue under such friendly circumstances” and thought that his good manners were a sign that he was “broken in spirit, admitting in dignified silence his defeat and disgrace” and described his actions during the war as misguided and treasonous. She wondered if he regretted his life and felt that “He certainly would not have been satisfied with it.”

Mrs. Roe’s account of her Vicksburg stay was printed in 1981 by the University of Nebraska Press in “Army Letters from An Officer’s Wife.”

Mr. Davis was too much of a gentleman to have written his impressions of Mrs. Roe.

NEXT: A last visit to Vicksburg


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