Remembering Fort Monroe’s most famous prisoner

The Virginian-Pilot
© December 6, 2009


This Army post was a Union stronghold during the Civil War, but one day a year, the halls of its museum are filled with more gray than blue.

As they’ve done for years, a few dozen members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans gathered Saturday to memorialize the most famous prisoner ever held within the fort’s thick stone walls: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

Davis died 120 years ago today, on Dec. 6, 1889. He had spent almost two years at the fort after his capture in May 1865 – a month after the Civil War ended. For 4-1/2 months, Davis was locked in Casemate No. 2, a room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a large American flag on one wall, a reminder of his foe’s victory.

Now part of the Casemate Museum, the room contains a reproduction of the cot Davis slept on, the shelf where he kept his pipe, a Bible, table and chair. The 35-star flag, now under glass, is the same one Davis looked at.

"Standing in this room, you really get a feel for the tyranny and oppression," said Mark Johnson, commander of the Norfolk County Grays, Camp 1549. Johnson wore modern clothing Saturday. But many in attendance, including an eight-man color guard and a Robert E. Lee look-alike, dressed in Confederate garb.

The invocation was given by a drawn, haunted-looking man in gray with a beard halfway down his chest who seemed as if he stepped from the pages of a history book.

The tone was somber – mournful, almost. Multiple speakers referred to Davis being tortured at Fort Monroe. But how the man referred to as "our one and only president" was treated while in custody depends upon whom you ask.

Participants talked of Davis in iron shackles, lights burning round the clock, kept awake by the treads of guards whose every step in steel-toed boots echoed across the wood floor.

Casemate Museum curator Paul Morando and historian David Johnson contend Davis was not mistreated.

A comprehensive new interpretation of Davis’ time at Fort Monroe, the first update in almost 40 years, provides a more nuanced picture. The displays, which went up last week, debunk various myths about Davis’ captivity and treatment and might not sit well with Southern sympathizers.

Davis was shackled for five days soon after arriving at Fort Monroe, the exhibit notes. The shackles were taken off after a Union doctor recommended removing them and they were never again used.

Davis’ initial quarters in the Casemate were "unbearably humid," the exhibit notes, and for two months that summer, he could not leave the cell, which had a window overlooking the moat. But he soon was allowed to walk around the grounds with a guard.

By October 1865, Davis had been moved out of the fort to a four-room apartment in a building that no longer exists. His wife was allowed to join him, and for the rest of his captivity he was permitted to walk the grounds – unguarded – during daylight.

To his proud and loyal supporters, though, Davis’ captivity still rankles. With Fort Monroe passing from federal to state hands in two years, they want to make sure his story is not forgotten.

"The war goes on," said Frank Earnest Sr. of Virginia Beach. "The war against us."

Earnest, chief of heritage defense for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told about 40 people at the ceremony that Pope Pius IX sent Davis a crown of thorns to symbolize his suffering.

Phil Carpenter of the Eastern Shore was the keynote speaker. He talked as if he really were the man he portrayed – Lee, commanding general of the Confederate Army.

Mentioning Lee’s shared experience with Davis at West Point – both graduated in 1829 – he described his friend as "rambunctious, energetic, a hellion. He enjoyed a good time. He enjoyed a good drink."

Carpenter stepped out of character toward the end of his talk.

"I feel almost as if the walls are closing in with emotion," he said, his voice catching. "To look out that window and see the water go by, knowing he saw the same thing – it’s tough."

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