Clint Johnson on Jefferson Davis: The intentionally forgotten man

Sunday, Jun. 8, 2008

Next year the nation will celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday with great fanfare, but the birthday of the man who shared the title of president at the same time as Lincoln just passed with virtually no notice.

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, turned 200 on June 3.

Davis was a respected congressman from Mississippi who left his seat to fight in a faraway war in Mexico. He was wounded and refused to leave his men to fight alone. That won him accolades in the Northern press, which viewed him as a war hero. Davis continued his service to the nation as secretary of war and developed the idea of the transcontinental railroad. In 1860 he was one of the nation’s most respected U.S. senators. In 1861 Davis reluctantly agreed to lead the Confederate States of America.

Davis’ 30-year service to the United States is buried because it conflicts with the four years he spent leading the Confederacy.

Lincoln and Davis never met, and had Lincoln lived, the last thing he would have wanted to do was meet the man he had defeated in four years of war. While it is politically correct today to call Davis a traitor because he was the Confederate president, Lincoln never would have put Davis on trial for that charge.

The evidence is in the history of what Lincoln said and did when he knew the Confederacy was in its last days.

In late March 1865 Lincoln told Union Gens. Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman and Admiral David Porter that he wanted Davis to escape the country.

A few days later Lincoln told his Cabinet the same thing. Starting on April 3, Lincoln knew where Davis was for 11 days (Danville and Greensboro) before he was assassinated, but he never issued an arrest order for Davis.

Why wouldn’t Lincoln want to put Davis on trial and blame him for the deaths of 320,000 Northern soldiers?

Lincoln’s post-war plan was for the South to come back into the United States without any period of punishment or "reconstruction." The key to implementing that plan was not having Davis around to legally question the South’s right to secede from the United States. The South had always maintained that the Union was a voluntary association of states, while Lincoln maintained that the Union was unbreakable.

Had Lincoln captured Davis as a political prisoner, Davis would have been tried in a federal court. His defense would have been that secession was Constitutional. Lincoln did not want to take the chance that secession, unmentioned in the Constitution, could be declared legal by the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Lincoln was assassinated, his plans died with him, and the rush for revenge took over the hearts and minds of his Cabinet. Under orders from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Davis was captured, imprisoned and shackled inside his military prison cell, all mistakes that would thwart the plans of President Andrew Johnson’s administration to do something with Davis.

According to a post-war autobiography of Treasury Secretary Hugh McCullough, Johnson’s Cabinet listened in shock at a mid-May 1865 meeting when Attorney General James Speed announced that Davis had done nothing illegal by leading the Confederacy. As Lincoln had recognized, secession was not the same thing as treason, defined in the Constitution as helping a foreign government against your own government.

Davis was imprisoned for two years while the Johnson administration tried to find a crime Davis had committed. They never did.

In December 1867, Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase met in private with Davis’ attorneys and told them he would free Davis if they argued before him in federal court that Davis had been punished enough by not being able to hold any future public office under provisions of the 14th Amendment. When the U.S. attorney general realized the chief justice was on Davis’ side if the case went on to the Supreme Court, he dropped all charges against Davis rather than face the prospect of the highest court in the land blaming the Civil War on the North and not the South.

The final irony in all this was that Davis had the best lawyers in the nation working for him — all of them Yankees and most of them New Yorkers (!!).

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