‘Greatest and noblest man of the age’ President-elect Jefferson Davis bids city farewell

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 13, 2011

Smartly dressed soldiers wearing the resplendent blue uniforms of the local militia escorted the tall, slender and handsome man from the steamboat at the Jackson Street landing. Though middle-aged, his erect bearing evidenced military training. His stride was confident, and there were streaks of gray in his sandy‑brown hair.

The date was Monday, Feb. 11, 1861, and the occasion was the first public appearance of Jefferson Davis as president‑elect of the Confederate States of America.

There had been no time on the part of local officials to plan a fitting ceremony, but news of the event had spread and there was an immense concourse of people who crowded the waterfront to greet Davis. As the troops stood at attention Robert Crump, mayor of Vicksburg, welcomed the honored guest.

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In a brief impromptu address, Davis recounted his attachment to the old Union, noting that he had worked to maintain “the constitutional equality of all States …. We have failed. You and I have resolved that our safety and honor required us to dissolve our connection with the United States.”

Only a day earlier Davis had been enjoying the tranquility of his garden at Brierfield, his plantation some 18 miles south of Vicksburg on a sweeping bend in the Mississippi River, when he received word of his selection as provisional president of the new republic.

From a prized rose bush beside the garden gate, he was helping his wife, Varina, cut slips, or shoots, for grafting. The bush had a special meaning: the magnificent pink tea with the name The Glory of France had been brought from Mrs. Davis’ parents home, The Briars, in Natchez shortly after Jefferson and Varina had married.

The serenity of the occasion was interrupted. In the distance, there was a cloud of dust along the Warrenton Road, and soon the sound of horse’s hooves were heard. A messenger had been sent from Vicksburg with a telegram for Davis. Mrs, Davis later described the scene:

“. . . when reading the telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes’ painful silence he told me, as a man might speak of a sentence of death …. He assembled the negroes and made them an affectionate farewell speech, to which they responded with expressions of devotion, and he left home next day for Montgomery.”

The job was one Jefferson Davis didn’t want and didn’t seek, but he was never one to shirk a task, so duty prevailed over his personal wishes. He immediately sent word of his acceptance, and Varina began packing his belongings. As the evening shadows deepened, she stood on the front gallery reflecting on all that was happening, and she noted that her husband “sat silent in deep thought in his library.”

It was a restless night, and dawn seemed to come too soon on the morning of Feb. 11, 1861. All the family members from nearby Hurricane and Diamond plantations and the servants gathered to bid Jefferson Davis farewell. He embraced his kin, crossed the front gallery and descended the steps, exchanging handshakes and expressions of affection and confidence with those who had gathered there for the historic moment.

He mounted his horse and started toward the landing on the river. Perhaps he glanced back as he rode through the trees and fields, but there was no turning back.

Isaiah I. Montgomery, one of Davis’ most trusted slaves, vividly remembered the occasion:

“When passengers were to take one of the big river boats they had to be rowed to that landing (Ursino, which was three miles from Brierfield). The morning Mr. Jefferson was to start for the inauguration we were late in getting away from the house. Before we had got far out on the river we heard the steamer blow at the landing. We knew we couldn’t get to the landing in time, so we headed for the upper end of an island (Hurricane Island) which lay out in the river, so as to meet the steamer when she came out from behind the island. I remember she was old Tom Leathers’ boat, the Natchez. The captain was expecting Mr. Davis on that trip, and when he found that Mr. Davis was not at the landing was looking for him. When the steamer came along Mr. Davis made a signal to her, and the captain blowed, to show that he saw us. We rowed up and Mr. Davis was taken on board.”

In later years when asked if Davis seemed impressed with the significance of the event, Montgomery replied, “Jeff Davis was a man you couldn’t tell what was in his mind …. He chatted with us just the same as usual. Said we were late, praised the oarsmen for their extra efforts, and said what good time we were making.”

As soon as the word spread in Vicksburg, celebrating began, and when the Natchez came into view cheer after cheer went up from the crowd, and cannons boomed a welcome announcing “a new era in the history of nations,” James M. Swords, editor of the Vicksburg Evening Citizen, wrote. He felt the ceremonies greeting Davis — the salute of cannon fire, the rattle of musketry, a military escort, music and an official welcome —were “commensurate with the occasion” for “the greatest and noblest man of the age.”

No doubt the editor was caught up in the excitement and emotions of the moment in his adulation of Davis, but the senator from Warren County, who had been a congressman, military hero and cabinet secretary, was one of the most respected and popular men on the American political scene. His visits to northern cities such as Boston drew immense crowds of admirers to hear him speak, and Bowdoin University in Maine bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate. He earned the admiration of such men as former President John Quincy Adams who predicted that Davis was “no ordinary man. He will go far.”

It really would have been no surprise if in 1861 he had been going to his inauguration as president of the United States, for it appeared politically that he was destined for that job. Perhaps it was prophetic that his niece Caroline, when an adolescent and long before her uncle entered public life, predicted that one day he would be president. Years later, at the 1860 Democrat Party Presidential Convention, he received the votes of the Massachusetts delegation on all 56 ballots — though he was not running.

With the Democrats split several ways, there were four national candidates for the presidency in 1860, and Davis was well aware that Lincoln would be elected unless the Democrats united. Davis asked all three nominees if they would withdraw in favor of someone behind whom they could unite. Sen John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party and Vice President John Breckinridge of the Southern Democrats agreed to drop out of the race, but Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois refused.

Vicksburg residents were usually Whig in sentiment, and they chose Bell over Breckinridge — 861 votes to 580. Douglas garnered only 83 votes — but that was 83 more than Lincoln received.

Davis had been a reluctant secessionist. He left the Senate when there was no hope for reconciliation and came home, offering his services to the state and was made a general. He had no desire to lead the new nation.

In Montgomery, where delegates from the seceded states met to form a government, several names were mentioned. When it came time to vote, Jefferson Davis was the unanimous choice.

In his maiden speech at Vicksburg, he said, “I hope that our separation may be peaceful. But whether it be so or not, I am ready, as I have always been, to redeem my pledge to you and the South by shedding every drop of my blood in your cause.”

Perhaps it was flattering to be chosen for such an important position, but Davis told the throng that the greatest honor was the spontaneous gathering of the citizens, “those who have known me best and longest — my old friends and neighbors.” As he made his way to the carriage that would take him to the train, bells rang and the cheering crowd often halted his progress, delaying the time for the train to depart.

The Evening Citizen reported that, “as soon as he was on board, the train moved off slowly, bearing our distinguished and honored friend toward the scene of his coming labors at Montgomery …. All expressed their gratification at the handsome demonstration made to the first President of the new Republic.”

Editor Swords called Davis “a statesman, a scholar, and a soldier…eminently fitted by the grasp and character of his mind, his studies, his temperament, and his unsullied integrity” to be president.

Vicksburg had good reason to be proud, and a spontaneous outpouring of the people was the finest tribute that could have been made.

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