- 22 May 2023 13:03
May 22, Monday
It is finally Jefferson Davis’s turn to move on, though he has nothing like as far to go as the others. His destination is there at hand, and the delay has been for the purpose of giving Fort Monroe’s masons time to convert a subterranean gunroom into a prison cell: strong evidence that, for him as for the others gone before, the charges and the trial to follow will be military, not civil. “In leaving his wife and children,” a witness will inform Stanton, “Davis exhibited no great emotion, though he was violently affected.” This last is clearly true, in spite of the prisoner’s efforts to conceal what he is feeling. “Try not to cry. They will gloat over your grief,” he tells Varina as he prepares to board the tug that will take him ashore. She manages to do as he asks, but then, having watched him pass from sight across the water, rushes to her cabin and gives way to weeping. It is as if she has read what tomorrow’s New York Herald will tell its readers: “At about 3 o’clock yesterday, ‘all that is mortal’ of Jeff’n Davis, late so-called ‘President of the alleged Confederate States,’ was duly, but quietly and effectively, committed to that living tomb prepared within the impregnable walls of Fortress Monroe.... No more will Jeff’n Davis be known among the masses of men. He is buried alive.”
Near sundown, Davis looks up from reading his small-print Bible, the only possession allowed him except the clothes he wears, and sees that a guard captain has entered the casemate, accompanied by two men who seem to be blacksmiths. One of them holds a length of chain with a shackle at each end, and suddenly he knows why they are there, though he still cannot quite believe it. “My God,” he says, “you don’t intend to iron me?” When the captain replies that those are indeed his orders, the prisoner rises and protests for all he is worth. “But the war is over; the South is conquered. For the honor of America, you cannot commit this degradation!” Told again that the orders are peremptory, Davis meets this as he has met other challenges in the past, whatever the odds. “I shall never submit to such an indignity,” he exclaims. “It is too monstrous. I demand that you let me see the commanding general.”
Here a certain irony obtains, unknown as yet to the captive in his cell. For it is the fort commander, Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, who, in prompt response to a War Department directive authorizing him “to place manacles and fetters upon the hands and feet of Jefferson Davis ... whenever he may think it advisable in order to render [his] imprisonment more secure,” has made the decision to shackle him forthwith, not for the reason stated, but rather because he is eager to give his superiors what they want. Miles is cruel, in this as in other instances to follow, not so much by nature as by design. Not yet twenty-six, a one-time Massachusetts farm boy who had left the farm to clerk in a Boston crockery shop, he has achieved a brilliant record in the war, suffering four wounds in the course of his rise from lieutenant to brigadier, with the prospect of still another promotion if he does well at his current post, to which he has been assigned in part because of his lack of such West Point and Old Army ties as are likely to make him stand in awe of the prisoner in his charge. That he feels no such awe he quickly demonstrates, beginning with Davis’s first full day in his care, and his reward will follow. By October he will be a major general. In a couple of years he will marry a niece of Sherman’s, and before the century is out he will succeed Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan as general-in-chief; William McKinley, himself a former sergeant, will make him a lieutenant general, and he will live until 1925, when he dies at a Washington circus performance and is buried at Arlington in a mausoleum he had built some years before. His is an American success story—Horatio Alger in army braid and stars—and part of the story is the time he spends as Jefferson Davis’s jailer, giving his superiors what he sees they want, including the fetters now about to be applied.
Davis subsides after registering his protest, and the guard captain supposes him resigned to being ironed. “Smith, do your work,” he says. But when the man comes forward, kneeling to attach the shackles, the prisoner unexpectedly grabs and flings him across the room. Recovering, the smith charges back, hammer lifted, and would have struck his assailant if the captain had not stopped him. One of the two armed sentries present cocks and levels his rifle, but the captain stops him too, instructing the four men “to take Mr. Davis with as little force as possible.” The struggle is brief, though it takes more force than they had thought would be required; Davis, the captain later reports, “showed unnatural strength.” While his helper and the sentries pin the frail gray captive to the cot, the blacksmith rivets one clasp in place and secures its mate around the other ankle with a large brass lock, “the same as is in use on freight cars.” The struggle ceases with the snap of the lock; Davis lies motionless, flat on his back, as the smith and his helper retire, their job done. Looking over his shoulder as he leaves, the captain sees the prisoner sit up, turn sideways on the cot, and with a heavy effort drop both feet to the stone floor. The clank of the chain is followed by unrestrained weeping, and the departing captain thinks it “anything but a pleasant sight to see a man like Jefferson Davis shedding tears.”
The same day Davis enters the granite bowels of Fort Monroe—President Johnson issues another presidential edict announcing that all the reunited nation’s seaports will be open to commerce, with the exception of Galveston, La Salle, Brazos Santiago or Point Isabel, and Brownsville, all along the Texas coast, and that civilian trade in all parts of the country east of the Mississippi will be resumed without restrictions. This second pronouncement, like the first, not only reflects the widespread public hope for a swift return to the ways of peace, but also serves to clear the Washington stage for still another victory celebration, a two-day Grand Review planned for tomorrow and the next day, larger in scale, and above all in panoply, than the other two combined. Meade’s and Sherman’s armies have come north from Appomattox and Raleigh, and by now are bivouacked around the capital; which gives rise to a number of problems. In addition to the long-standing rivalry between paper-collar Easterners and roughneck Westerners, the latter now has a new burden of resentment to unload. Soon after the Administration’s rejection of the original Durham Station terms that Sherman had negotiated with Johnston, the papers had been full of Stanton’s denunciation of the red-haired general who composed them, including charges that he is politically ambitious, with an eye on the Copperhead vote, and quite possibly has been seduced by Confederate gold, slipped to him out of the millions the fugitive rebel leader carried southward when Sherman obligingly called a halt to let him pass across his front. Angered by the slander of their chief, western officers no sooner reach the capital than they begin leaping on saloon bars to call for “three groans for the Secretary of War,” and the men in the ranks provoke fistfights with the Potomac veterans, whom they see as allied with Stanton if only because of proximity. Eventually Grant solves the problem, in part at least, by having the two armies camp on opposite sides of the river; yet the bitterness continues.
There is a minor skirmish at Valley Mines, Missouri.
Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.