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Monday, June 16, 2014

The First & Last Confederate President

Today, Jefferson Davis is remembered by many as the enemy of the United States for his role as the first and only president of the Confederate States of America.  However, further examination reveals that his story is much more complex than that.  Jefferson Davis served the United States in several important roles, was temporarily considered delusional by his peers at the end of the Civil War for his refusal to accept defeat, suffered after his capture by the Union Army, and was an intelligent military officer with a West Point education.

The former leader of the Confederacy is our topic of discussion this week thanks to a fantastic addition to our September 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction - a London Armoury, Kerr's Patent percussion single action revolver, that was once presented by none other than Jefferson Davis himself.

Jefferson Finis Davis was born on June 3, 1808 in Fairview, Kentucky as the youngest of ten children.  He moved several times as a child, but never failed to receive a proper schooling courtesy of the income from the family's cotton plantation.  That education would take him to West Point where he would graduate in 1828, only one year ahead of Robert E. Lee.  He finished 24th in his class of 33, placing him nearly in the bottom 30% of his class.

After graduation, Davis was stationed at Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien in what was then the Wisconsin Territory.  There he would serve under future President Zachary Taylor and fall in love with his daughter Sarah Knox Taylor.  The commanding officer, knowing the hard life of Army wives, wanted better for his daughter and refused the couple's request to marry.  So Davis did what many a young man in love would do, resigned his commission on April 20, 1835 and married her against her father's wishes by June 17.

The young couple spent the next several months on property lent to them my Davis' brother Joseph.  It was the land adjacent to Joseph's Hurricane Plantation known as Brierfield, which should leave little to the imagination regarding its condition and vegetation.  However, Jefferson quickly turned it into Brierfield Plantation and began a life for himself.  The couple, now three months into their marriage, decided to visit his sister Anna in Louisiana for the summer, thinking the time in the country would be better for their health than time spent near the river.  Tragically, the couple caught yellow fever (or malaria, sources differ) and on September 15, Davis was left a widower.  He would not recover for at least a month and eventually went to Cuba in an attempt to further promote his healing.  It is said he traveled there with his only slave at the time, James Pemberton.

Having recovered adequately, Jefferson eventually returned to Brierfield and lost himself in his work to sooth the grief of having lost his young wife.  The calendar had barely turned to 1836 and Davis already owned 16 slaves and would continue to own more as the plantation thrived, up to 113 slaves by 1860.  In 1840 Davis' interest in politics would turn into involvement and, in addition to his military service, would be the second time he would serve his country.  Politics would ultimately give Davis the drive to exit his self-imposed seclusion after Sarah's death.  1845 would have Davis marry again to a 18-year old woman named Varina Howell (Davis was 37 at the time).

The 1845 wedding photograph of Davis and Howell
It would be the same year he won his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, giving more attention to the man already known for his potent and occasionally fiery speeches.  His success was to be short-lived, as Davis resigned his seat to fight in the Mexican-American War.  He would lead the 1st Regiment of the Mississippi Rifleman and served as a colonel under his former father-in-law, General Zachary Taylor.  What was undoubtedly an initially awkward assignment was turned into an opportunity by Davis who served valiantly in several battles and was injured at the Battle of Buena Vista.  General Taylor was forced to reconsider his position on Davis and is quoted as saying, "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I."  In a true showing of what could later be called very Confederate values, Davis refused an appointment to the rank of brigadier general by President James K. Polk, standing firm in the belief the right to promote militia officers belonged to the states and not the federal government.  Within the month, he accepted the offer of another appointment, Senator of Mississippi.  The seat was temporarily vacant, but the very next month (Jan 1848) he was elected to serve the remaining two years of the former governor's term.  Later that year, he was even made a regent of the renowned Smithsonian Institution and after serving his two year stint as a senator, he easily won the election to serve a full 6-year term.  It seemed the relatively young politician's stock could not rise any more rapidly.

Perhaps overly confident due to his string of successes, Davis has barely served a year in his duties when he resigned in September of 1851, to run for the office of governor of Mississippi.  He lost by less than 1,000 votes to fellow Mississippi Senator Henry Foote and was left with no political office what so ever, but the up-and-comer wouldn't have to wait long.  In 1853 he was appointed as the U.S. Secretary of War by President Franklin Pierce, likely for Davis' strong support in his Pierce's presidential campaign.  Davis was again reluctant to accept the appointment, but popular Southern opinion demanded he take the seat to ensure states' rights were heard loudly by the president even if Pierce held almost all the pro-slavery and pro-states values that the southern states could possibly have wanted of any candidate, let alone one from the North.  For four years Secretary of War Davis would work with President Pierce to make a more organized, larger, faster, and more modernized army.  An army he would have to face in less than ten years time.

After his stint as Secretary of War, Davis would be re-elected to the Senate in 1857, a time when the country's leaders had passionate beliefs and tempers like a red hot poker.  Davis personally opposed secession of states from the Union, but fought fiercely for states' rights (including that of secession) and for slavery.  He held the office until again relinquishing those duties when Mississippi seceded, calling that January 21, 1861 "the saddest day of my life."  Having earlier sent a telegram to the Governor of Mississippi requesting to, "Judge what Mississippi requires of me and place me accordingly," Davis was made a major general of the Army of Mississippi not two days after this resignation.  On February 9, the Confederacy, still in its infancy, held a constitutional convention where both Davis and a man named Robert Toombs were considered to lead as president.  Davis easily won, was elected the first Confederate President by acclamation, and was inaugurated within a fortnight.  Davis' preference would have been to serve in the army, but his political skills combined with his military history made him the overwhelming favorite to lead.

We all know how the next four years would end for Davis, but many do not know what kind of president Davis was.  Regardless of one's opinion, there are many disadvantages he faced from the get go.  As a nation he faced the disadvantages of less food production, no standing currency, and depended on trade for a great number of necessities.  As a nation at war the disadvantages were even worse: outnumbered in (white) population around 4:1, outnumbered in guns 32:1, no navy, inferior railroads, no powder mills, no shipyards, no official recognition from other countries, among others.  If Jeff Davis wasn't directly behind the 8-ball, he could barely see around it.

Besides the problems inherent in a low-industrial region highly dependent on trade, were those the president himself faced.  Davis argued regularly with his vice president, Alexander Stephens, and suffered fallings-out with other important members of his cabinet such as Toombs, and his first Secretary of War LeRoy Pope Walker, each resulting in those men leaving their positions.  Unfortunately for Davis, these were only the beginning of a merry-go-round of advisors and cabinet members.  The President himself was also far from perfect as is often criticized for not utilizing his most talented people, over utilizing those less talented, practicing poor military strategy, refusal to delegate certain military duties, extreme impatience, poor coordination among arguably some of the more talented generals in the Civil War, lackluster fund raising, and ignoring many of the plights of those living in the South.  Many of the citizens whose rights they sought to preserve were suffering from food shortages and rampant inflation as the war progressed, which resulted in the large scale robbery, looting of stores, and a plummeting popularity.

This picture shows "Jefferson Davis And his cabinet" with "General Lee in the Council Chamber at Richmond"
L to R: "Malory," Benjamin, Walker, Davis, Lee, Regan, Memminger, Stephens, & Toombs.  This was not the original cabinet and depicts the group as it likely appeared in late 1863.
Despite the woes and disadvantages listed in the previous two paragraphs, the South enjoyed several victories in the Civil War, including several major battles such as the First Battle of Bull Run (a.k.a. "First Manassas"), Battle of Chattanooga, Battle of Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run, and others.  Fueled by their cause, excellent generals, and knowledge of the terrain, the Confederacy quickly dispelled rumors of a quick war.  However, the disadvantages and Davis' negative contributions ultimately led to the end of the Confederacy.  Almost two weeks after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, on May 5, 1865 Davis convened with his cabinet for the last time to dissolve the Confederate government.  5 days later Jefferson Davis would be captured by the Union and imprisoned for two years, despite his lifetime ailments that not only caused him pain throughout his life, but began to worsen in his less than desirable conditions.

Davis, 1885
The Union was truly in a tough spot regarding Davis' charge of treason: if he was found not guilty, then the secession was justified and if he was found guilty and hanged, he became a martyr. Between a rock and hard place, Davis was ultimately freed on bail and his case was dropped in February of 1869.  He then proceeded to live the rest of his life.  Quiet throughout most of the Reconstruction, Davis wrote his book "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government" in 1881 and enjoyed much popularity in his autumn years.  He gave many speeches commending the people of the South for their sacrifice and bravery, while also preaching reconciliation, a dedication to the Union, and visions of a prosperous future.  He would also pen "A Short History of the Confederate States of America" in October of 1889, but in November he would catch a cold that would morph into bronchitis with a possible combination of malaria.  Appearing on the edge of recovery, Davis would slip into unconsciousness and pass away on December 6, 1889 with his friends and wife Varina by his side.  He would eventually be laid to rest at the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Jefferson Davis gave plenty of ammunition to historians who wish to praise or criticize his legacy.  On one hand he was a dedicated servant to his country in several roles, an accomplished soldier, a silent sufferer despite intense health problems, and a man who stood by his principles while aiding the reconciliation of a nation.  On the other he is a slave-holder, an inadequate wartime president, a wealthy elitist, and a man who was never elected to a single position in his life nor finished a whole term to completion.  Even in this brief history of his life, it is easy to see a man whose legacy can be painted in many different shades depending on who holds the brush.

The London Armoury Kerr's Patent revolver shown above was presented by Jefferson Davis to Given Campbell on May 4, 1865, the day before the Confederacy was officially dissolved.  With little industrial might to their name the CSA (Confederate States of America) was forced to depend on a few stateside manufacturers and whatever imported arms they could get through the Union's blockade.  About 7,000 Kerr revolvers were received by the CSA, making them a rare and desirable firearms for military and Civil War collectors alike.

After Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse, Campbell was chosen by President Davis to lead his "escape team" as they fled the Union Army approaching Richmond.  Included in this lot are two journals kept by Campbell.  The first is an archival quality document - an original hand written journal kept by Campbell during the escape from Richmond!  This is truly a piece of national history that would easily earn its rightful place in any American History Museum.  The second is a microfilm transcription of Campbell's second journal, the original having been donated to the Library of Congress by Campbell's grandson.  The second is entitled, "Memorandum of a Journal kept Daily During the Last March of Jefferson Davis," and in it Campbell describes a scene of desperation as the union troops draw ever nearer to President Davis' party.  The impression is given that Davis would have had ample time and resources to escape Union forces at that time, were he only willing to be separated again from his wife and children and the larger train of wagons and ambulances.  Many options and opportunities are suggested by his escort, but none are heeded.

On May 4, Campbell writes that Davis gave him money to buy a horse and arms for a smaller escort that was to branch off from the rest.  That day, Campbell also writes that, "President Davis presented to me a pair of large revolvers, Kerr's Patent."  The whereabouts of the other pistol is unknown to this day.  A few days later, Davis commanded Campbell, after an initial refusal, to scout out ahead in order to find food, and safe crossing of the wagon train across the Alapaha River.  Campbell, wanting to stay with the president, reluctantly went ahead with another soldier of his choosing, Sgt. Minus Parcely to complete Davis' request.  They spent the night away from the group and left after breakfast the next morning to meet the party, but the party never came.  They road back further and became more anxious the entire time.  Only once they spoke to a Confederate deserter in the area, did they hear the awful news: Davis and his party had been captured by Union troops.  They immediately rode further and confirmed the story for themselves.

While one of the pistols may be lost to time, the pistol this article pertains to has nothing but an ironclad documentation since its presentation in the twilight of the Confederacy.  The pair of pistols are mentioned in Campbell's journal and the pistol shown here was then inherited by Given Campbell Jr. who held it until 1940 and its travels have been extensively documented ever since.  On the left side of the frame, the pistol has been engraved with the words, "Presented to Given Campbell by Jefferson Davis, Prest. C.S.A. May 4, 1865."  Since the pistol was presented to Campbell as the party was fleeing the Union Army, it is safe to say that the pistol was not engraved at the time it was presented.  Instead, this inscription was added later, perhaps by Campbell Sr. or another family member, who wished to permanently document the pistol's historic significance.  The style of the engraving is consistent with that of the latter 19th century.  The pistol itself remains in fine condition maintaining large portions of original bluing, crisp checkered walnut grips, and a functioning action.

This is truly a historic pistol marking the very end of days of the Civil War.  Its trove of supporting documentation ensures its authenticity, and the journal of Col. Given Campbell is in itself a museum worthy document dripping with historic significance and an exciting story to boot.  The documents included are notarized letters, original letters, transcriptions of Civil War diaries, information from the Library of Congress, death certificates, and an entire book written on Campbell.  Civil War collectors should be nearly besides themselves at the possibility of owning such an exciting piece of our nation's history.

This fascinating lot is just one of the thousands to appear in Rock Island Auction Company's September 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction.  As always there will be hundreds of superior quality collector and investment grade firearms from a pleasing variety of manufacturers such as Winchester Colt, Browning, DWM, Mauser, Remington, Smith & Wesson, Springfield, Walther, Henry, and more.  Multiple collecting genres will also be generously represented as we host a number of arms in the following categories: American military, Class III, German military, antiques, sporting arms, Civil War, European flintlocks, curiosities, and plenty of high end hunting pieces for beast or fowl.  Please stayed tuned in the coming months for more updates on the impressive pieces in this grand sale.

1 comment:

  1. We call it "The War of Northern Aggression", "The War Between The States", "Mr. Lincoln's War", but never the Civil War".