A Tribute to the Late Confederate President
by Charleston News and Courier
It has become an accepted phrase to speak of Mr. Davis as "the man without a country." In a realistic sense this description was applicable to the great chieftain who has just passed away, but in the higher ideal sense it is far from accurate.
True, Mr. Davis for the last quarter-century of his life was the citizen of no country, professed allegiance to no government, was not concerned in the duties, or ambitious for the rewards which make the life of an ordinary man. He neither voted, nor was voted for. In the land of his birth he was as much apart from its politics and any share in its government as if he were a foreignor, and yet unlike a foreignor, there was no distant power to which he bore allegiance or which held him under the protecting aegis of its nationality.
Yet Mr. Davis was far from being a man without a country. His country was the Southern Confederacy. Though dead for all others, it lived for him. It was always with him. For him its glories and its sufferings could never die. The flush of its victories, the groans of its defeats renewed themselves perpetually within his mind. Its military leaders, its statesmen, its immortal armies, its patriotic people were with him ever-living realities, and the problems to be solved for their welfare and success, which had exercised his wisdom during the four years of his chieftaincy, furnished him food for study and reflection while life lasted.
The Southern Confederacy was the embodiment of the principles of liberty and the true theory of government, and of that government Mr. Davis was the chief and centre. Why should he step outside of the magic circle of that realm to become as a mere common man, a fighter for daily bread, in constant conflict with new conditions and new problems? Life is not to be measured by years alone, and the man who was the centre of the history of which Sumter, Manassas, Seven Pines, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Petersburg, and the feats of the Alabama, the Merrimac, the Tennessee, the Shenandoah, were but incidents, and who at the end of that brilliant career had suffered the martyrdom of imprisonment for two years, as the type of a whole people and nation -- that man had lived out his life. Had his years been protracted even beyond the full measure that has been meted out to him, yet must they have been swallowed up by the four years of fire which had sublimated his spirit, and made him while in this world, yet not of this world.
No, Mr. Davis was not a man without a country. As he lay on his death-bed, resting peacefully with his head upon his arm like a child in slumber, we may well imagine that Lee and Jackson appeared to him, followed by a noble company of those who wore the gray; and that with such escort -- the Starry Cross above -- his spirit peacefully crossed the river, conscious that he was ready to give account to his Maker of the cause that had been entrusted to his keeping, and which short-sighted mortals dare to call "the Lost Cause."
Mr. Davis's services to the people of the South did not end with the dissolution of the Government of which he was the head. The closing years of his life were devoted to the defence of their honor, and of the principles for which they had waged unsuccessful war. He was never silent when their character or conduct or the integrity of their motives was publicly assailed. He spoke and wrote courageously in their behalf at all times, and never at any time uttered a word that could compromise them or their cause, or that could be construed into an expression of doubt, even, as to the justice and rightfulness of their contest for independence.
When the war ended, Mr. Davis was already an old man. The cares and burdens and responsibilities of his position as President of the Confederacy had taxed his physical strength to the utmost. His prolonged confinement in prison seriously impaired his health, and when he was released, his hair had become silvery white, and he was little more than a shadow of his former self, save that his brave spirit was not quenched, and his intellect retained the force which had made him a leader among the greatest men of his country and time.
That spirit and intellect he devoted anew to the defence of his people, notwithstanding his advanced age, and when he had reached and passed the ordinary limit of useful life to most men -- the limit of threescore years and ten -- he entered upon the preparation of the great work which will stand for all time as the authoritative exposition of the Southern side of the controversy which culminated in the war between the States. Mr. Davis was seventy-three years of age when he published the Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, a work comprising 1500 pages of print, and which bears on every page the evidence of the care and industry and ability of its distinguished author, as well as the absorbing interest, which he felt in the labor that he had imposed on himself. It is the story of the Confederacy written by the President of the Confederacy, and it is of inestimable value to the people in whose behalf and for whose sake it was written. What Mr. Davis's work was intended to accomplish for the people of the Southern States is best stated in his own words at the conclusion of the book. He said:
My first object in this work was to prove, by historical authority, that each of the States, as sovereign parties to the compact of Union, had the reserved power to secede from it whenever it should be found not to answer the ends for which it was established. If this has been done, it follows that the war was, on the part of the United States Government, one of aggression and usurpation, and, on the part of the South, was for the defense of an inherent, unalienable right.
My next purpose was to show, by the gallantry and devotion of the Southern people, in their unequal struggle, how thorough was their conviction of the justice of their cause; that by their humanity to the wounded and captives, they proved themselves the worthy descendants of chivalric sires, and fit to be free; and that, in every case, as when our army invaded Pennsylvania, by their respect for private rights, their morality and observance of the laws of civilized war, they are entitled to the confidence and regard of mankind.
In asserting the right of secession, it has not been my wish to incite to its exercise: I recognize the fact that the war showed it to be impracticable, but this did not prove it to be wrong, and, now that it may not be again attempted, and that the Union may promote the general welfare, it is needful that the truth, the whole truth, should be known, so that crimination and recrimination may forever cease, and then, on the basis of fraternity and faithful regard for the rights of the States, there may be written on the arch of the Union, Esto perpetua.
These are worthy purposes, and well were they performed. The last public work of the venerable and beloved Statesman and Patriot was, if not the greatest of his works, the one which should render his memory especially dear, for all time, to the hearts of the people of the South which he loved so well, and for which he suffered so much and so long. His feeble hand was employed to the last in their defence. His strong, true voice was lifted in their vindication until it was hushed in the silence of death. The history that he wrote should be in every home in the subjugated States, and should be the pride and study of every son and daughter of the South, to the remotest generation. By it they will be judged by posterity, and in its pages "the truth, the whole truth," will stand forever as their highest title to "the confidence and regard of mankind." It is indeed at once an everlasting "rock of testimony" to the justice of their cause, to their courage and fortitude in the defence of that cause, and a noble and enduring monument to the memory of their great leader himself.
This article was extracted from A.C. Bancroft, The Life and Death of Jefferson Davis (New York: J.S. Ogilvie, 1889). Click HERE to order this book.