Shelby Foote & the End for Jefferson Davis

Shelby Foote & the End for Jefferson Davis

Historian, Shelby Foote, wrote a massive, three-volume work on the Civil War. In Volume III, Foote gave narration to the major events in Jefferson Davis's life from his arrest to the end of his life. It is poignant and well-written. I will let Mr. Foote take it from here.

August Glen-James, editor

The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and its aspirations.

On the trial of Jefferson Davis for treason, Shelby Foote writes:

“By that time, prominent Northerns—especially those in the legal profession—had seen the weakness of the government’s case against Davis and the handful of Confederates yet being held. One who saw it was the Chief Justice who would rule on their appeal in the event that one was needed, which he doubted. ‘If you bring these leaders to trial it will condemn the North,’ Chase had warned his former cabinet colleagues in July, ‘for by the Constitution secession is not rebellion.’ As for the rebel chieftain, the authorities would have done better not to apprehend him. ‘Lincoln wanted Jefferson Davis to escape, and he was right. His capture was a mistake. His trial will be a greater one. We cannot convict him of treason. Secession is settled. Let it stay settled.’ Charles O’Conor, the distinguished New York attorney who volunteered his services in Davis’s behalf, was convinced that he would eventually be freed. ‘No trial for treason on [sic] any like offense will be held in the civil courts,’ he predicted, and as for his client’s chances of being railroaded by the army, as Wirz and Mrs. Surratt had been ‘the managers at Washington are not agreed as to the safety of employing military commissions to color a like outrage upon any eminent person.’ Hoarce Greeley had come over, early on, and was saying in the Tribune that Davis should either be tried or turned loose without delay. Even so stalwart an Abolitionist as the philanthropist Gerrit Smith, a backer of John Brown, was persuaded that an injustice was in progress and was willing to sign a petition to that effect, as were others who wanted liberty for all men, black and white, by due process of law.”

[Foote’s work, Vol. 3, pp. 1035-1036]

On the thesis of his book (The Rise of the Confederate Government), Shelby Foote writes:

“Speaking slowly and distinctly, so that Varina [his wife] would not miss a word, he tugged firmly on the drawstrings of his logic for a final explication of his thesis that the North, not the South, had been the revolutionary party in the struggle, malevolent in its effort to subvert, subjugate, and destroy, respectively, the states, the people, and the Union as it had been till then. ‘When the cause was lost, what cause was it?’ He asked, and answered: ‘Not that of the South only, but the cause of constitutional government, of the supremacy of law, of the natural rights of man.’ It was by then well past midnight, and only the rhythmic [s]plash of waves on the beach came through the stillness of the dark hours before dawn. He kept on, launched now onto the last of nearly 1500 pages, restating his conviction ‘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.’ He paused, then continued.

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.

"He leaned back, sighed, and closed his eyes against the glare of lamplight. It was 4 o’clock in the morning and he was within two months of being seventy-three years old. Her pen poised above the paper, Varina looked up, ready for the next sentence. ‘I think I am done,’ he said with a tired smile.”

[Foote’s work, Vol. 3, pp. 1054]

About seeking a pardon, Shelby Foote writes:

“Still, no amount of adulation North or South could temper the former President’s resolution not to ask for pardon; not even pleas from his home-state Legislature that he do so in order to be returned to his old seat in the U.S. Senate. He did however agree to come to Jackson in March, 1884, for a ceremony staged to honor him as ‘the embodied history of the South.’ Standing in the high-ceilinged Capitol chamber where he had stood just over two decades ago, near the midpoint of the war, and told the assembled dignitaries, ‘Our people have only to be true to themselves to behold the Confederate flag among the recognized nations of the earth,’ he spoke now much as he had then: ‘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 hopes and crushed aspirations—yet I deliberately say, if it were all to do over again, I would again do just as I did in 1861.’ His hearers caught their breath at this, then applauded with all their might the fallen leader who represented, almost alone, the undefeated of which they boasted from stumps across the land, now and for years to come. Unforgiving, he was unforgiven, and he preferred it so, for their sake and his own.”

[Foote’s work, Vol. 3, pp. 1055]

A speech on the silver anniversary of Sumpter, 1886, Foote writes:

“He declined, pleading frailty, until someone thought to point out that Winnie might never know how dear he was to the hearts of his people unless he gave them the chance to show their love in public. That persuaded him. ‘I’ll go; I’ll go,’ he said, and accepted invitations from Montgomery, Atlanta, and Savannah. In late April he sat on the portico of the Alabama capitol, where he had been inaugurated twenty-five years before, and heard a eulogy pronounced by John B. Gordon, former U.S. senator and now a candidate for governor of Georgia, who also presented Winnie to the crowd, to wild applause. Next day Davis spoke briefly at the laying of the cornerstone for a monument to the Confederate dead—repeating once more his contention that the seceded states had launched no revolution; ‘Sovereigns never rebel,’ he said—then set out for Atlanta, where 50,000 veterans were assembling for a May Day reunion. He was on the platform, receiving the cheers of all that host, when he looked out beyond its distant fringes and saw a man approaching on horseback, portly and white-haired, with cottony muttonchops whiskers, decked out in Confederate gray with the looped braid of a Lieutenant General on his sleeves. It was Longstreet. Uninvited because of his postwar views— ‘The striking feature, the one the people should keep in view,’ he had said at the outset of reconstruction, ‘is that we are a conquered people. Recognizing this fact, fairly and squarely, there is but one course left for wise men to pursue, and that is to accept the terms that now are offered by the conquerers’ . . . . ‘There are some who take it for granted that when I allude to State sovereignty I want to bring on another war. I am too old to fight again, and God knows I do not want you to have the necessity of fighting again.’ He paused to let the reporters take this down, but while he waited he saw the faces of those around him, any of them veterans like himself; with the result that he undid what has gone before. ‘However, if the necessity should arise,’ he said, ‘I know you will meet it, as you always have discharged every duty you felt called upon to perform.’ . . . ‘We are now at peace,’ he said, ‘and I trust will ever remain so. . . . In referring therefore to the days of the past and the glorious cause you have served . . . I seek but to revive a memory which should be dear to you and to your children, a memory which teaches the highest lessons of manhood, of truth and adherence to duty—duty to your State, duty to your principles, duty to your buried parents, and duty to your coming children.’ That was the burden of what he had to say through the time now left him, including his last speech of all, delivered the following spring at Mississippi City, only a six-mile buggy ride from Beauvoir.

“Within three months of being eighty years old, he had not thought he would speak again in public; but he did, this once, for a particular reason. The occasion was a convention of young Southerners, and that was why—their youth. . . . ‘Friends and fellow citizens,’ he began, and stopped. ‘Ah, pardon me,’ he said. ‘The laws of the United States no longer permit me to designate you as fellow citizens. I feel no regret that I stand before you a man without a country, for my ambition lies buried in the grave of the Confederacy.’ Then he went on to tell them what he had come to say. ‘The faces I see before me are those of young men; had I not know this I would not have appeared before you. Men in whose hands the destines of our Southland lie, for love of her I break my silence to speak to you a few words of respectful admonition. The past is dead; let it bury its dead, its hopes and its aspirations. Before you lies the future, a future full of golden promise, a future of expanding national glory, before which all the world shall stand amazed. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to take your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished—a reunited country.’”

Foote’s work on the Civil War, Vol. 3, pp. 1056-1058

Foote, S. (1974). The Civil War: By Shelby Foote. Random House.