A True Estimate of Abraham Lincoln
and Vindication of the South
by Mildred Lewis Rutherford
George Shea, in a letter to the New York Tribune, said, "Mr. Horace Greeley received a letter from Mrs. Jefferson Davis June 22, 1865, imploring him to bring about a speedy trial of her husband upon the charge of assassination of President Lincoln, and the suppressed cruelties at Andersonville Prison."(1) A public trial was prayed in order that the accusations might be publicly met, and her husband speedily vindicated. Charles A. Dana, Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary of War, said in the New York Sun:
Mr. Greeley came to my residence and placed the letter in my hands, saying he personally did not believe the charge of complicity in the assassination of Lincoln to be true, and that Mr. Davis could be released.
We called Mr. Greeley’s attention to the charge against Mr. Davis of cruel treatment of Union soldiers at Andersonville.
There was a general opinion among the gentlemen of the Republican party that Mr. Davis did not by thought or act participate in a conspiracy against Mr. Lincoln, and none were more emphatic than Mr. Thaddeus Stevens.
The only remaining charge, then, was the cruel treatment of the Andersonville prisoners, so at the suggestion of Mr. Greeley, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Stevens, I went to Canada to examine the official archives of the Confederate States. From these documents, not meant for public eyes, but used in secret session, it was evident that Mr. Davis was not guilty of that charge. I reported this at once to Mr. Greeley.
On November 9, 1866, this notice, evidently written by him, appeared in The Tribune:
"Eighteen months have nearly elapsed since Jefferson Davis was made a state prisoner. He has been publicly charged with conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln and $100,000 offered for his capture upon this charge. The capture was made, and the money paid, yet no attempt has been made by the government to procure an indictment on this charge. He has been charged with the virtual murder of Union soldiers while prisoners of war at Andersonville — but no official attempt has been made to indict him on this charge.
A great government may deal sternly with offenders, but not meanly; it cannot afford to seem unwilling to repair an obvious wrong.
It was not Jefferson Davis or any subordinate or associate of his who should now be condemned for the horrors of Andersonville. We were responsible ourselves for the continued deterioration of our captives in misery, starvation and sickness in the South.
Of the charge of cruelty to our prisoners so often brought against Mr. Davis, and reiterated by Mr. Blaine in his speech in the United States Senate, we think Mr. Davis must be held altogether acquitted.(2)
Through the courtesy of General John C. Breckenridge, Judge Shea was allowed to examine the records of the Confederacy, especially those in regard to the care of and exchange of prisoners. This was taken from Judge Shea’s report:
These secret sessions show that Mr. Davis strongly desired to do something which would secure better treatment of his men in Northern prisons; and would place the war on the footing of war waged by people in modern times, and divest it of a saving character. Mr. Davis never did yield to the continued demand for retaliation.
Another source stated:
The stories which have been so sediously spread of the barbarity and cruelty of the Confederates to all wounded Union men ought to be set at rest by the printed statements of the eleven Union surgeons, just released, who have come back from Richmond, where they were sent after their capture on the field of Bull Run, with the most distinct testimony that the Confederates treated their prisoners with humanity. Who are the miscreants who assert that the rebels burned the wounded in hospitals and bayoneted them as they lay helpless on the battlefield?(3)
Jefferson Davis needs no other vindication than the fact that the United States authorities dared not bring him to trial as a traitor or rebel but left his case in the hands of the Supreme Court on a technical point and there it remains today. Judge Joseph Holt paid large sums for witnesses to testify against President Davis. When the committee met to investigate the charges, the witnesses swore Conover had told them to swear to the falsehoods.
Jefferson Davis was accused of being arrested in woman’s dress. Those who arrested him testified to the falsity of this charge. I have the affidavits of these Union men. The Federal authorities, upon receiving General Wilson’s telegram, ordered the woman’s clothes to be produced. They never were able to do it:
I am no admirer of Jeff Davis — I am a Yankee, full of Yankee prejudices, but I think it is wicked to lie. I was with the party that captured Jeff Davis; I saw the whole transaction from the beginning. I now say that Jeff Davis did not have on at the time he was taken any such garment as is worn by women. He did have over his shoulders a water proof article of clothing, something like a haveloch. He was not in the least concealed. He wore a hat and did not carry a pail, bucket or kettle of any kind. I defy any person to find a single officer or soldier who was present at the capture to say that he was disguised in woman’s clothes, or that his wife acted in any way unlady-like or un-dignified on that occasion.(4)
Jefferson Davis was accused of using his office as Secretary of War under President Pierce to arm the South for war. However, the official documents show that arms were taken from arsenals in the South during his term of office to strengthen the western forts. The utter unpreparedness for war in the Southern states proves that the South had no share of the arms that had previously been distributed.
He was accused of taking large sums of gold belonging to the Confederacy from Richmond when that city fell. However, the Confederate treasurer testified to the disposition of all gold that belonged to the Confederate government and President Davis received none. When arrested, the President had no gold — only a small amount in Confederate bills upon his person or in his possession.
Mrs. Cheney, in her history published in 1894, said, "Davis had to live in a box car as he passed through the South as no one cared enough for him to give him hospitality." On the contrary, there was not a Southern home but would have esteemed it a great honor to have had him as a guest.
The misrepresentations have been endless, but not one has touched the character of the man to blur it, and these calumnies like a boomerang have already reacted upon many preferring them. Ridpath, the historian — one who had been one of John Brown’s ardent defenders — one who had never been able to see any good in Jefferson Davis — after knowing him face to face, and after being welcomed as a guest at Beauvoir, said, "Jefferson Davis was the ideal embodiment of sweetness, goodness and light."
To me it has always been the greatest enigma that one who, in his political life, had rendered so many services of value to the United States government when Secretary of War under President Pierce, should have been arrested, imprisoned, manacled, refused a trial, denied citizenship, forced to twenty years of martyrdom just because he stood by the Constitution of the United States as he had been taught to do at the Military Academy under United States authority.
Dr. Craven, his prison physician, gave this testimony: "The more I saw of him the more I was convinced of his sincere religious convictions. He impressed me more with the divine origin of God’s Word than any professor of Christianity I ever met." Did his Christianity extend to forgiveness of his enemies? A Northern man, Ridpath, the historian, also a guest at Beauvoir, testified that during his visit he never heard one word of bitterness toward any man from Jefferson Davis. A quotation from a speech made to the Mississippi Legislature on 10 March 1884 will in itself suffice to answer this question:
Our people have accepted that decree; it therefore behooves them, as they may, to promote the general welfare of the Union, to show to the world that hereafter as heretofore, the patriotism of our people is not measured by lines of latitude and longitude, but is as broad as the obligations they have assumed and embraces the whole of our ocean-bound domain. Let them leave to their children’s children the good example of never swerving from the path of duty, and preferring to return good for evil rather than to cherish the unmanly feeling of revenge.
Would one think from this that President Davis regretted the stand he took in 1861? Never! Hear him again in that same speech:
It has been said that I should apply to the United States for a pardon; but repentance must precede the right of pardon, and I have not repented. Remembering, as I must, all which has been suffered, all which has been lost, disappointed hope, and crushed aspirations, yet I deliberately say, if it were to do over again, I would do just as I did in 1861.
Would one say while stressing loyalty to the Union and to the national flag, President Davis meant that our children should be taught to forget the things for which their fathers fought? Not at all! Hear him again:
Never teach your children to admit that their fathers were wrong in their effort to maintain the sovereignty, freedom and independence which was their inalienable birthright. I cannot believe that the causes for which our sacrifices were made can ever be lost, but rather hope that those who now deny the justice of our asserted claims will learn from experience that the fathers builded wisely and the Constitution should be construed according to the commentaries of those men who made it.
Not one could touch the character of Jefferson Davis morally — pure in thought, pure in speech, pure in life, and pure in religious professions. His mistakes were of the head, not the heart. Why is it that such a character as this is not oftener held up by ministers of the Gospel, public speakers, and teachers for the youth of our land to emulate?
1. 24 January 1876.
2. Charles A. Dana, New York Sun.
3. William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, page 163.
4. Testimony of James H. Parker, Elburnville, Pennsylvania; copied from Portland Argus (Maine).