Unexpected tributes were also unequivocal

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 23, 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 10th of a series of 11 articles about Davis as a local citizen.After leaving Brierfield on Nov. 13, Jefferson Davis was too ill to continue to Beauvoir and was taken to the home of a friend in New Orleans where he died on Dec. 5, 1889. His funeral was one of the largest in American history, attended by all Southern governors and most Confederate generals and other dignitaries, plus multitudes of the average citizens and old soldiers. Nothing was more impressive, however, than the affection shown by his former slaves.

“That I love him this shows,” the black man with tears streaming down his face told a Northern reporter, “and I can say that every colored man he ever owned loved him.”

The occasion was the funeral of Jefferson Davis in New Orleans; the man speaking was William Sanford of Vicksburg. He had been a slave on Brierfield Plantation.

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The New Orleans Times-Democrat reported, “Never was a man more loved by those who served him, and this was peculiarly notable among the negroes he owned before the war.”

A large number of his former slaves went to the funeral to pay their respects. Others, too old to travel, sent Mrs. Davis a telegram, a very moving message signed by 13 of them: “We, the old servants and tenants of our beloved master, Honorable Jefferson Davis, have cause to mingle our tears over his death, who was always so kind and thoughtful of our peace and happiness. We extend to you our humble sympathy.”

Another former slave who was far removed from the Deep South was Thornton Montgomery, who was living in North Dakota. He wrote Mrs. Davis, “My heart goes out to you in this hour of your deepest affliction. Would that I could help you bear the burden that is yours today.”

From North Carolina came a telegram from James H. Jones, a free man who had been employed by Davis during the war. Jones expressed his sorrow and lasting appreciation for Davis and referred to him as “my best friend.”

Another former slave was Miles Cooper, an old man who was living in Florida, who often sent fruit from his orchard to the Davis home at Biloxi. When he heard that Davis was ill, he was determined to go and see his old master. Unused to traveling, aged and uncertain, Cooper again and again missed his train connections on the short trip, was delayed, left behind and discouraged in every way, but he was determined and finally arrived at the home in New Orleans where Davis had been staying. The old man was told that Davis had died the day before.

The news was almost more than he could bear, and he broke down with an outburst of sobbing. He asked to be allowed to look upon the old master’s face. Only the immediate family had been allowed into the funeral parlor, but when Mrs. Davis heard that Miles Cooper had arrived, she instructed that he be taken to view the body.

“It was pitiful to hear the sobs and wails of the old man,” a New Orleans reporter wrote. “He mourned with unaffected grief for the ‘Marse Jeff’ of his youth and prayed earnestly for the welfare of those he left behind.”

Such devotion was no surprise to those who knew Jefferson Davis well. He had earned the love and respect of those who knew him regardless of their stations in life. His concern for the welfare of his black friends continued when he was no longer able or liable to care for them. When Mrs. Davis visited Vicksburg in 1866, while her husband was in prison awaiting a trial that he never received, she didn’t go to Brierfield as it was under the control of the Yankees, who had confiscated it, but many of her former servants called on her and paid their respects.

Despite her meager finances, when Mrs. Davis heard that a former slave, Uncle Bob, who was 100 years old, had been robbed by Yankee soldiers, she contributed $20 to buy provisions for him. A few years later, when Davis made a visit to Vicksburg and to Brierfield and saw the damage done to his home, he took money from his own slim funds to contribute to the care of the needy blacks who were no longer his property but were still his friends.

It is no surprise that servants such as Ellen Barnes and Frederick McGinnis remained faithful to the Davis family after they were freed. When told that Davis could not afford to hire servants, they offered themselves free and without reward. Another former slave, Robert Brown, insisted on staying with the Davis family and rode with the driver of the carriage that transported Mrs. Davis during the funeral procession.

In May 1882, after a terrible spring flood along the Mississippi, Jefferson and Varina Davis visited Brierfield and were serenaded by a brass band of which Burgess Montgomery was the leader. Mrs. Davis was so impressed that she had the band members measured for uniforms which she bought for them. The Davis Island Band often performed in Vicksburg concerts and parades.

Many years later, on Jan. 7 1895, Burgess Montgomery wrote to Mrs. Davis from his position in Washington where he was employed with by the secretary of the treasury. He reminded her of that 1882 visit and said it was an honor to serenade Jefferson Davis and that he would forever be grateful to Davis for “contributing to the needs of the many that were rendered destitute by the floods, who would otherwise have undergone severe hardship and suffering were it not for the generous and immediate aid extended them by President Davis.”

When Jefferson Davis died he was eulogized by both Southern and Northern newspapers extolling his virtues and accomplishments.

No tribute was more moving, however, than the statement made by a former slave who said through his tears, “I loved him.”

NEXT: Vicksburg remembered


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