Friday, February 25, 2022

George Washington and Jefferson Davis

   There is no doubt that George Washington, the “Father of His Country,” was an inspiration to many in the Southern Confederacy. Washington appeared in the center of the Confederate seal, the $50 note (first series and second series), and on some Confederate bonds. Jefferson Davis used Washington’s birthday – February 22 – when he was inaugurated as the first permanent president of the Confederate in Richmond in 1862.

   While Washington, who died in 1799, and Davis, born in 1808, never met, Davis was well aware of the legacy that Washington left behind. Davis spent many years while serving in the U.S. House, as Secretary of War, and in the US Senate, living in the city named for the first president. How frequently did Davis pass by Greenough’s sculpture of George Washington as Davis passed through the Capitol Rotunda? Davis actually attended the unveiling of the Washington statue in 1856.[1]

   It is not really clear when and to what extent Davis studied the life of Washington. It is clear that it was something he did throughout his life. On June 28, 1845, Davis took to the stage in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to eulogize the recently deceased Andrew Jackson. Davis compared the character of Jackson to that of “the wisest, greatest of them all, the immortal Washington.”[2] In a letter to Malcolm D. Hayes, August 18, 1849, Davis told Malcolm the “Fanatics and demagogues have inflamed popular passion; it has been fed by sectional pride, and we have to meet the evil which Washington deprecated…”[3] Of course, Washington had spoken against political parties in his Farewell Address in 1796.

   Debate arose in the U.S. Senate in January 1850 regarding buying a corrected copy of Washington’s Farewell Address. While Davis had supported the purchase of two other manuscript collections, he was not in favor of this purchase. In his opinion, the “value of the Farewell Address is twofold: first, for the opinions contained in it; and next, the authority from which they are derived.”[4]

   In a campaign speech in Fayette, Mississippi, July 11, 1851, Davis broached the subject of Washington and the right of secession. Davis, according to a newspaper editor, believed that the “Declaration of Independence recognized the right of secession under circumstances of oppression and injustice. [Davis] wanted to see the man who would come forward with arguments to show that if a country has a right to secede from an oppressive government, as did the United States did from Great Britain, why States had no right to secede from the federal government under similar circumstances. How could the colonies have greater power than the States?” Washington was a Federalist in line with Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. He supposedly told Edmund Randolph in 1795 that if the United States dissolved, he would join the North. [5] “Whilst that great and good man who always opposed State coercion, Gen. Washington,” Davis continued, “in his farewell address discountenanced the perversion of power in the sovereign acts of a State, but he left it to this degenerate race to discover that treason could be committed by a sovereignty.” Davis then explored the threat of Kentucky to secede over free navigation of the Mississippi in 1795. “Did President Washington seek to turn the sword against Kentucky[?]  No, he had used the sword on the battle field. . . He knew its value-its uses and its abuses. . . Did he. . . threaten to coerce, and to force into submission? No, he called upon a friend, Col. Ellis, and proceeded at once to give Kentucky her request, by a negotiation with Spain, which secured to Kentucky, that which made peace and gave satisfaction.”[6]

   In a report to President Franklin Pierce, regarding the condition of the various militia regiments in the various states, Davis, advocating militia reform, actually quoted Washington, who believed that militia reform was “abundantly urged by its own importance.”[7] In June of 1860 Davis learned that several Mississippians in Washington, D.C. were in the process of having a cane made from wood at Mount Vernon to present to Davis.[8] Once the Southern states broke from the Union, there were comparisons made by many people, comparing Davis to Washington. One such comparison came from Florida’s David Yulee on February 13, 1861.[9] Another came from Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who wrote on June 26, 1861, “We require now. . . that you should appear in the position Genl. Washington occupied during the revolution.”[10] This opinion would continue through 1863. Henry S. Foote wrote Davis in August 1863 that Southern people considered Davis “a second Washington.”[11] In December 1862, Sarah E. Yancey, the wife of William L. Yancey, sent Davis George Washington’s spyglass as a gift.[12] In October 1864, as Davis was passing through Columbia, South Carolina, a group of young boys serenaded Davis with “May you live long Sir an honor to your Country and bright example to the world like Washington was.”[13]

   Davis and Alexander Stephens used the George Washington equestrian statue in Richmond as the site of their inauguration in February 1862. Since so many compared Davis to Washington, the pageantry was obvious.[14] It would be natural for Confederate leaders to adopt George Washington. He was a son of Virginia, and almost ninety years earlier, had led a group of thirteen independent colonies towards victory over the most powerful nation in the world. Henry “Light Horse” Lee, another famous Virginian, had declared Washington “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen” at his death. Davis undoubtedly knew that story and wanted to follow in the steps of Washington.

[1] Jefferson Davis Papers, 6:liii

[2] Jefferson Davis Papers, 2:272.

[3] Jefferson Davis Papers, 4:28

[4] Jefferson Davis Papers, 4:60.

[5] Wood, Revolutionary Founders, 59.

[6] Jefferson Davis Papers, 4:207-09.

[7] Jefferson Davis Papers, 6:90.

[8] Jefferson Davis Papers, 6:665

[9] Jefferson Davis Papers, 7:40.

[10] Jefferson Davis Papers, 7:213.

[11] Jefferson Davis Papers, 9:356.

[12] Jefferson Davis Papers, 10:112.

[13] Jefferson Davis Papers, 11:81.

[14] Richmond Dispatch, February 22, 1862.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

The Sea Wolf of the Confederacy Slips into Portland, Maine.

   Naval activities during the war are stories that capture the attention of many. Often-repeated stories include the battle between the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor in March 1862, the CSS H. L. Hunley sinking the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor in February 1864, the cruises of the CSS Alabama, and the CSS Shenandoah. Another interesting naval event that is not mentioned as frequently involves the crew of the CSS Archer sailing into the port at Portland, Maine, and capturing the USS Caleb Cushing.

   Lt. Charles W. Read has been referred to as the “Sea Wolf of the Confederacy.” Born not far from Yazoo County, Mississippi, in 1840, he graduated last in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy and served on board the USS Powhatan as a midshipman before resigning on February 4, 1861. Joining the Confederate navy, he was appointed acting midshipman on April 13, 1861. Read saw much of the war. He commanded batteries on Ship Island, Mississippi, dueling with the USS Massachusetts; and he was executive officer on board the CSS McRae and assumed command when the captain was wounded at the battles of Fort Jackson and St. Phillip. In February 1862, Read was promoted to lieutenant and served on board the CSS Arkansas, then commanded a shore battery at Port Hudson, Louisiana. In October 1862, he joined the crew of the CSS Florida, and after the brig Clarence was captured, was given independent command. He then went on to capture the barks Tacony on June 12 and later the Archer. The latter was captured on June 24, 1863, off the coast of Portland, Maine.[1] 

Charles W. Reed

   Between June 12 and June 26, Read captured at least nineteen vessels, including the Tacony and the Archer. Five of these ships were bonded. The Archer was re-captured, and the others were burned. While the North’s attention was mostly diverted by the disappearance of the Army of Northern Virginia from the front at Fredericksburg, many in the North were watching the reports of “pirates” in newspapers. One New York newspaper reported on June 15 that six merchant vessels had recently been captured, three of which were captured forty-fives miles off Cape Charles. The New York Tribune editor taunted the Navy with “This Rebel cruiser Tacony in a few hours makes her appearance under the very nose of the Yankees and frightens them half to death.”[2]

   The New York Chamber of Commerce asked the U.S. Navy to provide convoys for American ships heading out to sea. The Mayor of New York wanted the frigate Roanoke sent to New Your City to be used in the defense of the town. Others wanted a price put onto the heads of Read and his crew and privateer licenses granted to individuals  would seek out Read. In Boston, an insurance company offered a price of $10,000 for the capture of the Tacony.[3]

   Read mounted one cannon, a howitzer, on the Tacony, and continued moving north. With the Federal navy in pursuit, Read transferred his crew and cannon to the captured Archer. On June 26, the Archer was in the Gulf of Maine. With the assistance of two captured fisherman, Read sailed into the Portland Harbor. In Portland Harbor, Read found the Caleb Cushing. Built in 1853 in Somerset, Massachusetts, the cutter was one 100 feet in length and had a single 32-pound cannon. Read and his crew captured the cutter in the dark. It took thirty minutes to haul the anchor up using the windlass. Due to the tide being out, the Caleb Cushing had to be towed out of the harbor. As dawn broke, it was discovered that the Caleb Cushing was missing. By 11:00 am, the Forest City, Casco, and the Chesapeake set out to pursue the Caleb Cushing. Later that day, the Federals caught up with the Confederates. Read’s men had found only five shots (one account says eight) for the 32-pounder. After firing his fifth shot and realizing that he could not out-run the smaller ships, Read set the Caleb Cushing on fire and abandoned ship, taking the Caleb Cushing’s small boats. A white flag was produced, and the Confederates were captured.[4]

   Read was incarcerated at Fort Warren, in Massachusetts, then paroled and exchanged in September or October 1864. He went on to command two James River batteries, then the torpedo boat squadron on the James River. In April 1865, he took command of the William H. Webb which moved from Shreveport, Louisiana to the Mississippi River. As he went, he cut telegraph lines and slipped through three Union fleet districts before being disabled and captured. He was again imprisoned at Fort Warren where he took the Oath of Allegiance and was released. After the war, he captained a fruit schooner in the Caribbean and became a pilot in New Orleans. He died in Meridian, Mississippi, in January 1890. A marker at his grave proclaims him a “Naval Hero of the Confederacy.”  The monument, dedicated in 2000, goes on to state that the raid up the coast to Portland, Maine, and the capture of the Caleb Cushing, was “the most brilliant, daredevil naval action of the war.”[5]


[1] Foster, “Charles W. Read,” Encyclopedia of the Confederacy, 4:1308-10.

[2] New York Times, June 15, 1863. Articles also appeared in the Buffalo Weekly Express, New York Daily Herald, New York Tribune, Boston Evening Transcript, etc.

[3] Jones, Confederate Corsair, 119.

[4] Jones, Confederate Corsair, 4-14; Mirza, Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks, 77.

[5] Clarion-Ledger, July 13, 2000.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Confederate Escort Companies

   At first glance, the title, “Confederate Escort Company,” might seem suggestive. But in reality, the escort companies that hovered around the headquarters of various generals probably served more of a utilitarian service than one providing comforts. Yet the role of Confederate escort companies is a topic that seems to slip through the cracks of Confederate history.

   What exactly would an escort company be? Where they simply there to ride around with a general, keeping him safe, or did they perform some function? Escort Companies likely served as scouts, guides, and couriers for their commanding officers. Probably the most famous two, or at least the two most documented, are the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, who served in the Army of Northern Virginia, and Forrest’s Escort Company, under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

   The men of the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, also known as Lee’s Body Guard, were recruited in the last half of 1862. Some members of the battalion were conscripts. Prior to that date, various cavalry companies were dispatched to headquarters to serve as couriers and guides. Cavalry commanders complained that their regiments were operating with fewer and fewer men. Richard Ewell had a company in mid-1862 known as Ewell’s Body Guard. This was the core unit of what became the 39th Battalion, which eventually numbered four companies. These men did just about everything. They escorted prisoners to Richmond, escorted new conscripts to their regiments, relayed messages between telegraph stations and headquarters, drove headquarters wagons, and delivered messages. You can learn more by checking out my book, Lee’s Body Guard, here

Nathan Bedford Forrest

   Forrest’s Escort Company was made up of men recruited by Nathan Bedford Forrest. Much of this company came from Bedford County, Tennessee, and was likewise recruited in mid-1862. Montgomery Little, who raised the company, was the first captain. Unlike the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, Forrest’s Escort Company was a front-line fighting unit and was engaged with Forrest at places like Trenton, Tennessee, in December 1862. The Escort Company, like their command, was often in the thick of the fighting. At least 25 members of the company were killed during the war. A great resource on this command is Michael Bradley’s Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Escort and Staff.

   Another escort company with perhaps less information available is Shockley’s Escort Company, formed from students at the University of Alabama in 1864. The company numbered over 100 students and was created in mid-1864. They originally served as the escort company for General Gideon J. Pillow, but after the battle of LaFayette, Georgia, they transferred and served as an escort company under Brig. Gen. Daniel W. Adams, in the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Most of the company was captured on April 1, 1865. The rest surrendered on May 10, 1865, at Gainesville, Alabama. William Hoole wrote History of Shockley’s Alabama Escort Company in 1983.

    There are other commands that served as escorts throughout the war. Detailed histories of these groups seem to be lacking. In January 1863, Bolen’s (Kentucky) cavalry company was listed as an escort company to Brig. Gen. John Adams, Fourth Military District, in the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. (OR, vol. 24, pt 3, 613)

Company A, 7th Tennessee Cavalry, under Capt. W.F. Taylor, was listed as Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Lee’s escort on August 20, 1863 – Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. (OR, Vol. 30, pt. 4, 515.)

On December 31, 1863, the Army of Tennessee, Joseph E. Johnston commanding, listed the following escorts: (OR, Vol. 31, pt. 3, 889

1st Louisiana Cavalry – army headquarters

Raum’s (Mississippi) Cavalry Company – Hardee’s Corps

Merritt’s (Georgia) Cavalry Company – Cheatham’s division

Vandyke’s (Tennessee) Cavalry Company – Stevenson’s Division

Sanders’s (Tennessee) Cavalry Company – Cleburne’s division

Boydstum’s (Georgia) Cavalry Company – Walker’s Division

Lenoir’s (Alabama) Cavalry Company – Hindman’s division

Foules’s (Mississippi) Cavalry Company – Breckinridge’s division 

This is a topic that deserves much more research, especially in the Army of Tennessee and the Trans-Mississippi Department.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Et Tu Dahlgren?: The Plot against Jefferson Davis

   Plots to kill political leaders are nothing new. Julius Caesar, Caligula, Pope John VIII, William II, Henry VI and many others have all fallen victim to their own people in some form or fashion. Jefferson Davis was no different. John B. Jones, the famous war clerk, wrote on August 16 that Davis rode through the streets of Richmond every day, with not even aides accompanying him. “[I]t is incredible that he should be ignorant of the fact that he has some few deadly enemies in the city.”[1] Mary Chesnut made that same observation on December 10, 1863. Walking with Varina Davis toward the Executive Mansion, they encountered the President riding alone. “Surely that is wrong,” Chesnut wrote. “It must be unsafe for him, when there are so many traitors, not to speak of bribed negroes.”[2]

   In 1887, Davis was interviewed on the matter of attempts on his life. The article, originally appearing in a Baltimore newspaper, appeared nationwide. When asked on the matter, Davis said: “While the Confederate Government was at Montgomery, Ala., in 1861, I received an anonymous letter from Philadelphia, the substance of which was that the Governor of Pennsylvania had released a noted desperado from the Penitentiary upon the condition that he would go to Montgomery and assassinate me, with the promise of a reward of $100,000 if he succeeded. That after release the man stated that he could not probably succeed alone, and gave the name of another convict of character like his own with whose assistance he felt sure of success, and that the second convict was released to accompany the first.” 

   Davis went on to describe other events. “Once he discovered a man watching him behind a brick wall surrounding his residence,” and Davis followed the man. “The man ran and apparently escaped through the barn…” On another occasion, while “riding out to visit the defensive works around Richmond, accompanied by Col. Wm. Preston Johnson, a pistol ball, evidently intended for ‘business,’ passed just between them. This shot came from an apparently vacant house. Subsequent search revealed an armed man under the floor. He was sent to Gen. Lee by Mr. Davis’ orders, with an explanatory note, and the hope he would be ‘put in the front line to stop a ball intended for a better man.’ On another occasion, in the suburbs of Richmond, a shot was fired at the President of the Confederacy from behind a high wall.” While traveling via railroad on another occasion, Davis was approached by a woman who informed the President of an overheard conversation in which a group was planning to place obstructions on the track. A detachment of Confederate troops was “sent who found the obstructions, and some United States soldiers secreted in a barn near the place where the train was expected to be wrecked.” [3]

   The former president made no mention of an attempt to burn the Executive Mansion in Richmond. War Department Clerk John Jones did. He noted that on the night of January 21-22, 1864, someone tried “to burn the President’s mansion. It was discovered that fire had been kindled in the wood-pile in the basement. The smoke led to the discovery, else the family might have been consumed with the house.” Jones blamed the Black population for the fire. He wrote on January 22 that “one of the servants of the War Department” was under arrest for “participating in it.”[4] The Richmond Dispatch also reported on the event. Someone broke into the “President’s storeroom,” stealing various items, and then setting the room on fire.[5]

   One event that Davis made mention of in his 1887 interview, and a quite famous episode of the War, is the Dahlgren Raid in late February 1864. The raid was billed as an effort to liberate Federal prisoners being held in Richmond, and to destroy lines of communications and supplies. There has been much written on this event, and to summarize, the raid was a failure. Found on the body of a dead Federal colonel on the outskirts of the city, Ulric Dahlgren, were papers stating that after the prisoners on Belle Island were freed, they were to “burn the hateful city, and…not allow the Rebel leader, and his traitorous crew to escape.” This, of course, produced an uproar in the Southern press. Many in the Confederate cabinet favored hanging those Federal cavalrymen caught during the raid. A photographic copy of the documents was made and sent by Robert E. Lee to Federal commander George Meade. Lee asked if this was now official Federal policy, and Meade said no. The debate over the authenticity of the papers continues.[6]

   Any time there are covert activities during a war, the truth of these activities remains difficult to obtain. William Cooper writes in his biography of Jefferson Davis, that Davis, in a private letter, “disputed the accuracy of the published account [in the Baltimore newspaper], leaving the question of real threats unanswered.”[7] After 160 years, that is probably the best we can do.

[1] John, Clerk, 2:16.

[2] Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, 503.

[3] St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 10, 1887.

[4] Jones, Clerk, 2:133.

[5] Richmond Dispatch, January 22, 1864.

[6] Furgurson, Ashes of Glory, 253-255.

[7] Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American, 429.