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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
Vol. 16 No. 1/2 (Apr.‑Jul. 1923), pp1‑19

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.


[image ALT: A head-and‑shoulders portrait of a man of about thirty, with wavy hair and a wistful air to him, wearing an early‑19c frock coat, a high-necked white shirt and a cravat. It may be a portrait of Jefferson Davis.]

Jefersonº Davis.
Supposed picture of Jefferson Davis in early manhood.

p1 The Northwestern Career
of Jefferson Davis

By M. M. Quaife

To the career of Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy in the greatest Civil Wara1 the world has yet witnessed, much study has been given, and it might reasonably be supposed that little information concerning his life remains to be disclosed. Yet his numerous biographers have all passed lightly over one important period, covering half a dozen years of his early manhood, and the little they have set down is of questionable validity. To this lost chapter in his career my paper is devoted.

The reason for the lost chapter's existence is simple enough. Davis was born in Kentucky, his mature life was passed as a citizen of Mississippi, and he is commonly remembered as the leader of his section in the war for the destruction of the Union.a2 In short, his career seems wholly identified with the south, and all of his biographers have been southern men.b That he spent five years following his graduation from West Point in the Northwest, chiefly at the army posts of Fort Crawford and Ft. Winnebago is, of course, well known to them. But written records pertaining to this period of his life are few and scattered; while the biographers, far removed from the scene, have been ignorant alike of the local geography and the local lore which has been handed down. Thus handicapped, they have passed lightly over this period in Davis' life, contenting themselves for the most part with more or less accurate repetition of the narrative recorded by Mrs. Davis in her two-volume Memoir of her husband.

My own study promises no novel or startling revelations. From the vantage point of familiarity with the local geography and access to the local sources of information, however, I have endeavored to assemble and correlate critically what is yet to be known of Davis' life in the Northwest — with what success, must be left to the judgment of my readers.

Over the life of Davis prior to his advent in the Northwest we may pass with but few words. He was born in Christian, p2now Todd County, Kentucky in June, 1808; three years later his family removed to southwestern Mississippi, and until he was sixteen years of age Davis lived alternately in these two states. Several of these years were spent in school in his native state, the last two or three as a student of Transylvania University at Lexington. In the summer of 1824, which may be taken as marking the close of his boyhood, Davis was appointed to a cadetship at West Point. Thereupon he left unfinished his course at Transylvania and went to the military academy, where he graduated in the spring of 1828. After a vacation of several months, spent in Mississippi, the young soldier repaired to Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, then the western headquarters of the United States Army, and from here he was shortly ordered to Fort Crawford, Michigan Territory, whose site is better known to the present generation as Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

The principal reliance of Davis' biographers for the period of his northwestern career which was thus initiated has been the material set forth by Mrs. Davis in the first 160 pages of her Memoir. Since I shall have much to say about this work, it will be well to take some account of it here. For that portion of her husband's life on which she wrote from personal knowledge, the author was fitted, presumably, to speak with authority. She first became acquainted with Davis in December, 1843,1 over ten years after the termination of his northwestern career, at the beginning of which in 1828 she had been but an infant. For the period of his life before her marriage,2 therefore, Mrs. Davis drew upon various writings left by her husband, on the recollections of certain of his old-time friends, and on her own remembrance of things she had heard him relate during their thirty years together. The numerous gaps in the story which still remained she endeavored to fill in as best she might by resorting to various printed sources of information.

The work produced by these methods is of uneven value and highly inaccurate and confusing.3 The portions of it which p3reproduce the writings of Davis himself are, of course, of prime importance, but even these have been handled in such fashion that the reader is frequently at a loss to know what to make of them. As for the author's contribution, she had little knowledge of the geography involved and less, if possible, of the sequence of events. Events of 1832 are jumbled indifferently with those which actually occurred in 1827, and the author's pen wanders from the forests of Wisconsin to the parched prairies of the Southwest and back again without even knowing, oftentimes, that such a seven-league journey has been taken. Mrs. Davis was, indeed, aware to some extent of the shortcomings of this portion of her work, and on one occasion she conscientiously apologizes for it, characterizing it as "very mixed and at times nearly unintelligible;" pleading, in extenuation, that with the meager sources of information at her command she could do no better.4 To subject such a narrative to critical analysis is as needless as it would be ungracious;5 but unfortunately those who have since assumed to write of Davis' career have been less mindful of the defects of the Memoir than was Mrs. Davis herself; in the general absence of other sources it has been made the quarry even of trained historians, and hence has become a fruitful source of error about the early years of the man whose career it was written to memorialize.

We will have occasion to return to Mrs. Davis' narrative, but having gained some conception of its character we may endeavor to consider in due order the events of Davis' northwestern career. The Prairie du Chien to which he came near the close of 1828 was a straggling village, already of considerable antiquity, with a nondescript population in which were represented all degrees of social development from sheer savagery to a highly cultured civilization. Fort Crawford, built in 1816 and abandoned for a period of several months during 1827 and 1828, but regarrisoned following the Winnebago War of the latter year, was a decaying structure of logs commanded p4by Colonel Willoughby Morgan of the First U. S. Infantry. From time immemorial Prairie du Chien had been a natural center for trade and intercourse among the red men, and between them and the whites. It was, therefore, a place of considerable commercial and governmental importance. In the summer of 1829 it was the scene of a notable Indian treaty, to conclude which hundreds of white and red skins assembled, for the second gathering of its kind within the space of four years. These things aside, it was a veritable frontier of civilization, the life at which for the cultivated West Point officers must have been dull to the point of distraction.

Caleb Atwater, who visited Prairie du Chien in 1829 as one of the commissioners to negotiate the treaty of that year, protests feelingly against the practice of the War Department of keeping officers continuously on the frontier. All, he thought, who had been there ten years or longer ought instantly to be relieved. For them and their wives, who reared families and maintained the processes of civilization in these isolated posts under every conceivable discouragement, Atwater has only words of warmest praise and admiration. The testimony of Latrobe, the English traveler, and Charles Fenno Hoffman, the New York author and editor, both of whom visited Fort Crawford about the close of Davis' stay there, is of similar purport to that of Atwater. That Davis did his part during his first sojourn at Fort Crawford in upholding this reputation of the officers' circle for social cheer and charm may safely be taken for granted; that he performed creditably the duties which fell to him as a junior officer of the garrison may also be presumed. But his stay at Fort Crawford was soon interrupted, and saving certain stories of a reminiscent character which were handed down as family tradition and found their way into print at various times subsequent to the Civil War, we have practically nothing concerning him that certainly pertains to this period.

The Winnebago outbreak of 1827 had opened the eyes of the authorities at Washington to the fact that the existing garrisons in the Northwest (Fort Armstrong, on Rock Island, Fort Snelling, near modern St. Paul, and Fort Howard at Green Bay) were inadequate to control the vast extent of p5country west of Lake Michigan and north of St. Louis. The forts at Chicago and Prairie du Chien were regarrisoned, therefore, and it was determined in addition to build a new fort at the Fox-Wisconsin portage in the heart of the Winnebago country. Accordingly, in September, 1828, Major David E. Twiggs led three companies of troops from Green Bay to the Portage, and began the erection of temporary quarters.6 We learn from a letter written by this officer on December 29, following that nothing had as yet been done toward erecting the permanent quarters, although considerable lumber and other material had been gotten out. Presumably the work of construction was prosecuted the following season, for Major Twiggs, in the letter alluded to, expressed confidence in his ability to complete the work in November, 1829, and Mrs. Kinzie, who came to the fort to reside in the autumn of 1830, seems to have found the structure complete.7

To Fort Winnebago late in 1829, according to Mrs. Davis and Professor Dodd,8 came Jefferson Davis for a stay which extended until some time in the year 1831. In several of the biographies Davis is represented as the builder of the fort, and this is cited as an evidence of his ability, and of its early recognition by his commanding officer. The fact is clear, however, that whatever credit attaches to the building of Fort Winnebago belongs to Major Twiggs, who was in command of the post from the beginning. Equally clear is the part taken by Davis in the enterprise. A subordinate officer of the garrison (he was a brevet lieutenant at the time) he had the immediate oversight of a party of soldiers which was sent out to procure logs for the work. Davis himself in 1872, in response to an p6inquiry from his old-time friend, Senator George W. Jones of Dubuque, wrote a clear and interesting account of his share in the work, in a letter which seems to have eluded the search of all his biographers.9 "In 1829," it states, "I went to Fort Winnebago and was put in charge of the working parties to obtain material for the construction of blockhouses, barracks and stores. Gen. (then Capt.) W. S. Harney was sent with his company to the pine forest high up the Wisconsin River, another party was sent to the maple, ash, and oak forest on the Baraboo River, both parties used the whip saw, and being among wild Indians were, doubtless, objects of wonder. When the timber procured on the Wisconsin was brought down to the portage of the Wisconsin and Fox, the former river was so full that its waters overflowed its banks, and ran in a broad sheet into the Fox River. Taking advantage of the fact, we made rafts suited to the depth of the water and floated the lumber across to the site of the fort, on the east bank of the Fox River."

Of the life at Fort Winnebago during the years Davis was stationed there many records have been preserved. The garrison circle numbered during the next two years a surprisingly large proportion of men who like Davis won distinction after years. Buried in this obscure wilderness post they little foresaw as they raised their voices in the chorus of Benny Havens, the old West Point melody,

In the army there's sobriety,

Promotion's very slow

the opportunities for promotion and fame that the Mexican and Civil Wars would open to them.

Perhaps the most interesting description of life at Fort Winnebago in this period is the one contained in Mrs. Kinzie's book, Wau Bun. The author, a talented New England woman, came as a bride to the place in 1830 and the contents of her book, which was published a quarter of a century later, chiefly pertain to her three years' residence here. But little is said by Mrs. Kinzie which directly concerns Davis; one interesting p7item, however, describes the furniture which had been fashioned under his direction for the rooms of the officers' quarters. In the sleeping room was a huge bedstead, "of proportions amply sufficient to have accommodated Og, the king of Bashan, with Mrs. Og and the children into the bargain." More interesting still was a three-compartment structure of marvelous architecture which had been designed to supply the absence of clothespress, china closet, and storeroom. In honor of its projector this was christened by those who used it a "Davis."

A question of some interest, in view of the character of certain stories set afloat in Wisconsin thirty years later, pertains to Davis' personal habits and conduct. "There was some drinking and much gambling "at Fort Winnebago" writes Mrs. Davis, "but Mr. Davis never did either." If Davis actually told his young wife this, the recording angel, let us hope, has long since forgiven him. More to the point is the statement of Turner, the historian of the fort:10 "I have heard it remarked by those who knew him here that he had no liking for the amusements which officers, as well as private soldiers, resort to relieve the tedium of camp life; but that he was ever engaged, when not in active service, in some commendable occupation."

More interesting still is a suggestion contained in the diary of Rev. Cutting Marsh,11 the missionary to the Stockbridge Indians "Wrote to Lieut. Davis Fort Winnebage.º Contents of t(he) letter: First, t(he) bill of the Bibs &c. Secnd. urged t(he) importance of his inquiring whether he could not do something for t(he) moral renovation of t(he) soldiers at t(he) Ft. Love & gratitude to t(he) Sav(ior) should induce it immediately. Although alone, he should not feel a sufficient excuse for declining to make an effort. David went alone against his foe, & t(he) defier of the army of Israel, but in t(he)º name of t(he) Ld. of hosts, & he conquered. God has something without doubt for you to do in thus bringing you, as you hope, to t(he) knowledge & to t(he) acknowledgement of t(he) truth as it is in Jesus. It was but a few years ago when Christians began to make t(he) inquiry respecting seamen p8as a very few do now respecting our military posts, and behold t(he) results!"

The reply of Davis to this Macedonian call is not a matter of record, but Mrs. Kinzie makes it clear that of religious interest or observance at Fort Winnebago there was very little. Recently from the East and an enthusiastic church-woman, she vainly endeavored to persuade the inmates of the garrison to assemble on Sunday for religious service. "I approached the subject cautiously," she writes, "with an inquiry to this effect:

'Are there none among the officers who are religiously disposed?

'Oh, yes,' replied the one whom I addressed, 'there is S––––– when he is half tipsy he takes his Bible and Newton's Works, and goes to bed and cries over them; he thinks in this way he is excessively pious.' "

From Fort Winnebago Davis made numerous journeys to surrounding points. One of the first of these was the logging assignment up the Wisconsin, in connection with which a local tradition still persists that he rode one of the first rafts of logs ever piloted through the surging waters of the famous dells of the Wisconsin. One Wisconsin pioneer recalled in old age that Davis made many journeys to Dodgeville to attend social gatherings and asserted that for nearly half a century he was well-remembered by the older residents of the place.12 An excursion that is better authenticated led him to Chicago in the autumn of 1829. In after years Davis looked upon himself as the discoverer of the Four-Lakes Country, and believed that his was the first old journey to be made by white men between the Fox-Wisconsin portage and Chicago.13 A member of the Fort Dearborn garrison at this time was Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.David Hunter. Looking out from the fort one morning in 1829 where now swirls the greatest tide of humanity borne by any bridge in the world, Hunter perceived on the north side of the river a white man. Wondering who the stranger could be, he entered a small canoe, intended for but a single person, and paddled across to interview him. It proved to be Davis, and inviting him to lie down in the bottom of the canoe Hunter ferried him across to the posts. The passage of time was to p9work a strange transformation in the relations between the occupants of that little boat in this voyage across the placid Chicago. In May, 1862, Hunter, now a Major-general in command of the Department of the South, issued an order emancipating the slaves in the states of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, and he followed this up by organizing the first negro regiment for service in the Civil War. Davis, as president of the Confederacy, responded with a proclamation of outlawry against Hunter, threatening in the event of his capture by the Confederate forces to put him to death as a felon. Again the hand of time moved on, and the spring of 1865 witnessed the spectacle of Davis manacled in a dungeon, charged with instigating the assassination of President Lincoln, while Hunter served as president of the military commission which sat in judgement on the Lincoln conspirators.

Precisely when Davis' stay at Fort Winnebago terminated and his second sojourn at Fort Crawford began, seems impossible certainly to determine. The clearest evidence I have found on this point is supplied by Davis himself in the letter of 1872 to his friend George W. Jones of Dubuque which has already been alluded to. In this he states that at the outbreak of Indian hostilities in 1831 he joined the command of General Gaines at Rock Island, and after the treaty of that year was ordered to Prairie du Chien. The campaign referred to occurred in June, 1831, when General Gaines with ten companies of regular compelled Black Hawk's band to abandon their village at the mouth of Rock River and agree to withdraw permanently to the west side of the Mississippi. The campaign ended with the signing of the treaty on the last day of June, yet the diary of Cutting Marsh, from which we have quoted above, places Davis at Fort Winnebago on July 25 of this year. A possible explanation of the conflicting evidence would be that after the close of Gaines' brief campaign Davis returned to Fort Winnebago for a short time before being transferred to Fort Crawford.14

Subsequent to the campaign with Gaines, apparently in the summer or autumn of 1831,15 Davis was dispatched by p10Colonel Taylor to the lead mines at Dubuque to take charge of a difficult situation. A large number of miners had crossed to the west side of the river and in defiance of the prohibition of the government had staked out many claims while the land still belonged to the Indians. Another officer, Lieut. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George Wilson, had been sent down with a squad of soldiers to evict the trespassers but the latter were numerous and determined and the officer was compelled to retire without accomplishing anything. In this posture of affairs Davis was dispatched with a larger body of soldiers to eject the miners from the country. Although Davis had the requisite force at his command, he chose to employ persuasion. In the first public address of his life, according to Mrs. Davis he informed the miners that the command must be obeyed. He explained, however, that their eviction was but temporary, and as soon as the requisite arrangements could be made for the extinction of the Indian title they would be free to return. Meanwhile, he volunteered to secure to each man the lead or claim he had staked out, by exerting his influence to this end with Captain Legate, the United States superintendent of the lead mines. This sensible program met the approval of the squatters, who withdrew peaceably to the east side of the river.16 Davis remained at Dubuque for some time, watching over the miners and the Indians. In a conversation with Charles Aldrich of the Iowa Historical Society, almost at the close of his life, he recalled by name many of the early settlers of Dubuque and related various interesting incidents connected with his service there.

With the spring of 1832 Davis secured a furlough from his regiment for the purpose of paying a somewhat extended visit to his former home and relatives in Mississippi. Before he had time to depart, however, the invasion of Illinois by Black Hawk began; the garrison at Fort Crawford was called into the field, of course, and Davis was with it throughout the campaign, serving in the capacity of adjutant to Colonel Taylor. Pushing up Rock River, the regulars reached Dixon about the middle of May, whence Davis was despatched to Galena to assist in bringing order out of the confusion which had been precipitated p11there in connection with the efforts of militia officers to organize the miners for military service. Returning to Dixon from this service, Davis remained there with his command until June 27, when the northward advance of the army was resumed. The followers of Black Hawk, outnumbered and famishing, were now only seeking to escape their pursuers; the retreat led over the present site of Madison, across the beautiful University grounds, and on to the Wisconsin River on the western border of Dane County. Here the warriors were overthrown and Black Hawk fought a rear-guard engagement, known as the battle of Wisconsin Heights. Although but a small affair, it was the first engagement Davis ever witnessed, and the generalship displayed by the red leader made a great impression upon his mind. Over half a century later, with his mind stored with the experiences of the Mexican and Civil Wars, he described it as "the most brilliant exhibition of military tactics that I ever witnessed — a feat of most consumateº management and bravery, in the face of an enemy of greatly superior numbers." "Had it been performed by white men," he continued, "it would have been immortalized as one of the most splendid achievements in military history."17 This characterization more than confirms the modest claim of Black Hawk, made in writing his biography, that "whatever the sentiments of the white people in relation to this battle, my nation, though fallen, will award to me the reputation of a great brave in conducting it."

The pursuers again caught up with their quarry on the bank of the Mississippi. This time an armed steamboat lay in the river to prevent the Indians from crossing and in the battle of Bad Axe, fought on August 2, Black Hawk's band was practically annihilated. This action ended the war, and the next day the regulars descended the river to Prairie du Chien. Here Black Hawk was shortly delivered to Colonel Taylor by some Winnebago Indians, in whose country he had sought refuge after the overthrow at Bad Axe. The task of conveying the prisoner to Jefferson Barracks was committed by Colonel Taylor to Davis. At Galena a crowd of sightseers boarded the boat, intent on gloating over the fallen foe. But Davis interposed to protect him from this humiliation, winning p12thereby a dignified tribute of gratitude from Black Hawk when he composed his autobiography a year or two later.

At Jefferson Barracks Black Hawk was committed to prison for a brief time, and then taken on an extended tour of the East, in the course of which he seems to have become something of a social lion. Davis returned to Fort Crawford, whence, at some time during the autumn, apparently he was sent to Yellow River, a few miles away, to assume control of a detachment of soldiers engaged in getting out lumber for use at Fort Crawford. This assignment and the one of 1829 at Fort Winnebago comprise the sum of Davis' lumbering experiences in the Northwest, concerning which many inaccurate and extravagant statements have been made. Their general tenor is conveniently summarized in the statements made on the subject by Mrs. Davis in the Memoir. Of the first experience, she says that in the spring of 1829 her husband was sent from Fort Crawford to the vicinity of modern Menominee on the Red Cedar River,18 to cut logs for repairing the fort. Amid many perils the work was prosecuted throughout the winter. At one time the men took to headlong flight when an Indian war party swept into view. One canoe landed, and a warrior came within 12 feet of the spot where Davis lay concealed. Thus, in constant peril, with the threat of death hurtling forth from behind every tree or bush,19 the work was carried on. When the raft was made, the oxen and outfit were placed upon it for the descent to Prairie du Chien; but the swift stream sucked the raft into a side current of the Chippewa, where it was broken up and several of the oxen were drowned. Hence the place gained the name of "Beef Slough," famous in the logging annals of Wisconsin at a later day. For a portion of the narrative Mrs. Davis cites a newspaper clipping by "a western historian whose name was not revealed."20

p13 The second lumbering exploit is attributed to the Yellow River, whither Davis was sent in 1831 to superintend the building of a sawmill to be used in getting out timber for the further work of construction at Fort Crawford. He built a "rough little fort," and conciliated the neighboring red men to such an extent that he was adopted into their tribe and given the name of Little Chief. The winter was extremely cold, and Davis was often wet to the skin for hours. The exposure brought on pneumonia, and for months he lay at this isolated place, directing the work as best he might, while emaciated by disease to such an extent that Pemberton, his negro slave, would carry him like a child from the bed to the window.

Such, briefly summarized is Mrs. Davis' account of her husband's career as a lumberman in the Northwest. It has been accepted without question by Dodd, who in certain respects has ventured to elaborate upon it.21 Despite these respectable authorities, however, it may be confidently stated that Davis' actual lumbering career bore but slight resemblance to the one described by them. It is to be observed that Mrs. Davis describes two distinct experiences, one on the Red Cedar River in 1829, the other on Yellow River in 1831. Davis himself, in his letter to George W. Jones in 1872, has likewise described two lumbering experiences. The first of these on the Wisconsin River in 1829, getting out logs from Fort Winnebago — we have already noted. Of the second experience he says; "after the treaty of that year (1831) (I) was ordered to Prairie du Chien and subsequently up the Yellow River, where we (the government) had a sawmill to cut lumber at (for) Fort Crawford. Pine logs were obtained on the Chippewa and rafted to the mill on Yellow River; oak logs were cut around the mill and the lumber of both kinds rafted and boated to the landing at Prairie du Chien. To this extent was I a "lumberman" in Wisconsin, being then in the U. S. army, and stationed so far beyond the populous regions; the soldiers were the operators, and as an officer my duties were to direct their labor and exercise the other functions belonging to our relation with each other."

p14 This recital is sufficiently clear-cut except for one somewhat puzzling detail. The designation Yellow, as applied by pioneers to a river, is not very distinctive. Wisconsin boasts no less than three streams of this name, while a fourth enters the Mississippi from the west a few miles above Prairie du Chien. On what Yellow River did Davis pursue the lumberman's calling? Of the three Wisconsin streams, one flows into the Wisconsin about fifty miles above Portage; one into the Chippewa a considerable distance above the Red Cedar; and one into the St. Croix, far into the Northwest. With the last of these Davis has never been associated by any one, and it may therefore be eliminated from our problem. Mrs. Davis' ignorance of the geography of the region spared her the trouble of identifying the stream her husband made famous, and she merely speaks of it as "Yellow River"; while Dodd, drawing from her narrative a fairly obvious inference, identifies it as the tributary of the Chippewa. A. J. Turner, the historian of Fort Winnebago, on the other hand, identifies it as the tributary of the Wisconsin. More recently than any of these, Mr. C. E. Freeman, a careful local historian of Menominee, comes forward with the assertion that it was neither Chippewa nor Wisconsin tributary, but the Iowa stream near Prairie du Chien.22

[image ALT: A summary map of Wisconsin.]

Map showing the location of threeº streams called "Yellow River."

The implications from Freeman's conclusion (which to me seems convincing) are fairly obvious. Davis was never on the Chippewa, nor its tributary, the Red Cedar. Mythical therefore become the many statements concerning the arduousness and dangers of his logging exploits in this region. The adoption into the tribe, the danger of massacre, the pulmonary attack and the nursing of faithful Pemberton, if not equally mythical, must all alike be ascribed to some other time and place than the Yellow River, for Davis was here but a scant half dozen miles away from the sheltering walls of Fort Crawford. If these things were ever in fact related by Davis to his wife, she has failed to state correctly the place and occasion of their occurrence.

The lumbering detail on Yellow River in the autumn and winter of 1832‑33 was, so far as our present knowledge goes, p15Davis' last assignment at Fort Crawford. On March 2, 1833, Congress passed a bill which provided for the organization of a dragoon regiment for service on the western frontier: two days later Davis was commissioned a captain in the new regiment and he shortly set out for Kentucky to recruit a company. On the completion of his mission he repaired to Jefferson Barracks, the appointed rendezvous of the regiment, whose headquarters were presently established at Fort Gibson in modern Muskogee County, Oklahoma. The colonel of the regiment, it is of interest to note, was Henry Dodge of Wisconsin, one of the popular heroes of the Black Hawk War. By him Davis was appointed to the responsible post of adjutant of the regiment. After a year and a half of service, nominally at Fort Gibson but much of the time in the field,23 Davis resigned his commission to marry and take up the life of a planter in Mississippi. His intended bride was Sarah, the second daughter of Colonel Taylor, whose heart he had won while stationed at Fort Crawford.c

Over this courtship and marriage the tongue of gossip has hardly yet ceased to wag. Although Davis would seem from every point of view to have been an eligible suitor for Miss Taylor's hand, her father, for some reason now unknown, sternly opposed their union.24 The lovers persisted in their intentions, however, and when in June, 1835, Davis left the service he journeyed to Louisville, where Miss Taylor was visiting, and there at the home of her aunt, Colonel Taylor's sister, the two lovers were married.

The sequel of the union proved tragic enough. The young couple journeyed to Mississippi where on land adjoining his older brother's estate Davis had planned to make his home. Both were soon seized with fever, however, and on September 15, while the husband lay desperately ill, the bride passed p16away, singing in her last delirium snatches of a favorite song which she had learned in happier days. Her body rests in a neglected tomb a few miles from Baton Rouge, Louisiana; in the outskirts of Louisville, not far from the scene of her marriage, in a rude tomb in an unkempt, lonely cemetery,d rest the bones of her distinguished father; while far removed from both the bride he loved and the father he estranged the body of Davis reposes at beautiful Hollywood in Richmond, in the capital of the Confederacy he labored so enthusiastically to establish.

The circumstances of Davis' marriage, taken in conjunction with his later career as head of the southern Confederacy, were such as to give rise in the Northwest to an infinity of rumor and tradition concerning the union. Practically all of this body of tradition reflects severely upon Davis' honor, the charges and innuendoes ranging from tales of mere elopement to cowardly libertinism and home-wrecking.25 That all of these stories originated after the events of 1861 is a fairly safe generalization. That they may one and all be relegated to the realm of myth is a generalization equally safe. Miss Taylor married Davis with the knowledge, though without the approval, of her father, at the home of his sister and in the presence of his brother and other close relatives. In a letter to her mother, written on the morning of her wedding day, the bride thanks her father "for the liberal supply of money sent me," and acknowledges his "kind and affectionate" letter. Two months later, in the last letter ever written to her mother, the "best respects" of Mr. Davis are proffered. The bride was a woman of legal age, and however painful may have been the situation created by her father's attitude toward Davis there p17was nothing in it of dishonor to the latter. Mythical, therefore, are all the stories of homewrecking and elopement, told even yet in Wisconsin;26 even as the stories from the same period of southern soldiers sending Yankee fingers and toes home to their sweethearts as souvenirs, or those of more recent vintage of German soldiers cutting off the hands of Belgian children are mythical.

In this connection the moment seems opportune to deny once for all the entire crop of stories and legends concerning the supposed infamous conduct of Davis during his years as an army officer in the Northwest. The scandalous tales that are even yet occasionally retailed, particularly in Wisconsin,27 about him are alike of the stuff of which dreams are composed. How then, it may be asked, are we to explain their origin. The answer is not far to seek. They are all a consequence of the passions and distorted judgements bred in four years of bitter warfare, in which Davis was the leader of the section against which the Northwest found itself aligned. In the recent World War governments engaged systematically in the business of propagating misinformation and to this branch of the service is assigned by some enthusiasts the major credit for the outcome of the conflict. The American Civil War witnessed no such systematic organization of propaganda; but since the dawn of history war has ever been the prolific parent of untruth, and to this unhappy condition our Civil War afforded no exception.28 Whatever may be our judgement with respect to the political views and public acts of Davis, there is no room for doubt that in the matter of private character p18and personal conduct he was a high-minded and chivalrous gentleman.29

It remains to note one final act in the tragedy of Davis' life wherein the Northwest played a leading role. The Civil War came on in 1861, due as much to his influence as that of any other living man, and the pioneer region whose first civilized beginnings he had witnessed three decades before poured a host of blue-clad soldiers into the Southland to render abortive his dream of a new nation which should spring from the disruption of the United States. In the spring of 1865 the desperate struggle drew to its dreary close, and the president of the Confederacy fled southward, a fugitive in the land of his birth. The pursuit of the fleeing ruler was led by a detachment of the First Wisconsin cavalry, whose colonel came from Madison, Wisconsin, whose site Davis believed himself to have discovered in 1829. A detachment of Michigan men p19shared in the final capture, all alike hailing from that region which had been known during the years of his residence in it as Michigan Territory, and all obeying the orders of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.the silent man from Galena to whom, next to President Lincoln, was due the preservation of the Union. This closing scene in the drama of the Confederacy possesses a broad historical significance. Davis' presidential career was terminated by soldiery from a section of the new Northwest which thirty years earlier he had known as an empty wilderness; so, too, it was the exuberant vigor and determination of this new Northwest, the creation almost wholly of Davis' mature lifetime, which, thrown into the military scale of the Civil War, doomed the Confederacy and rendered the hopes and schemes of its founders an evanescent dream.


The Author's Notes:

1 The author, who was the second wife of Davis, was seventeen years of age at their time of this first meeting.

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2 They were married in February, 1845, when Davis was almost thirty-seven years of age, and the bride eighteen.

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3 My remarks are applied only to the early portion of the Memoir covering the years prior to Mrs. Davis' personal acquaintance with her husband. Even the more scholarly of his biographers (of whom Professor Dodd is the chief example) have failed to take account of the scholarly tenuosity of this portion of the Memoir, and of the difference in authority with which Mrs. Davis writes of these early years as compared with the later ones. In making these observations I purposely waive the question, which I think might fairly be raised of the extent to which the Memoir is actually the product of Mrs. Davis' pen, rather than that of some unnamed collaborator.

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4 Memoir, I, 143‑44.

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5 For the evidence in support of my general characterization of it, I refer the reader to the first 160 pages of the Memoir itself.

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6 A convenient summary of the history of Fort Winnebago is given by Andrew J. Turner in Wis. Hist. Colls., XIV, 65‑102.

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7 Mrs. John H. Kinzie, Wau Bun, The Early Day in the Northwest (New York, 1856).

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8 Other evidence points to a somewhat earlier date for Davis' transfer to Fort Winnebago. General David Hunter in 1881 told John Wentworth that he first saw Davis at Chicago in October, 1829, the latter having come from Fort Winnebago in search of deserters. Fergus Historical Series, No. 16, 28. Davis himself says in a letter to James D. Butler in 1885, preserved in the Wisconsin Historical Library: "Fort Winnebago had been occupied but a short time before my arrival there and I think nothing was known to the garrison about the Four Lakes before I saw them." In the same letter he fixes this date as "the summer of 1829." Both Hunter and Davis, speaking after the lapse of half a century, may easily have been mistaken in such a matter as a date; but in line with their recollection is the clear testimony (to be noted later) that Davis aided in getting out logs for the construction of the Fort, and this work seems to have been carried out in the season of 1829.

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9 This letter, written January 5, 1872 I have found printed in the Milwaukee Sentinel of February 3, 1891 and there credited to the Le Mars (Iowa) Sentinel. The editorial introduction states that about twenty years before, an article had appeared in the Dubuque Times entitled "Jeff Davis the first lumberman in Wisconsin." Jones evidently sent a copy of this to Davis with the request that he comment on its accuracy, and the letter before us is his response to this request. The remainder of its contents will be noted farther on in this article.

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10 Wisconsin Historical Collections, XIV, 75.

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11 This diary is preserved in the Wisconsin Historical Library at Madison.

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12 John Wentworth in Fergus Historical Series No. 7, 26.

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13 Letter to James D. Butler, cited above.

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14 Another explanation is possible — that Marsh, who was not himself at Fort Winnebago wrote to Davis in ignorance of the fact that he had been called into active service and was, therefore, no longer at the fort.

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15 It is possible that the episode I am about to describe should be assigned to the autumn of 1832 rather than 1831; I have found nothing which conclusively fixes the date.

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16 For this account I have drawn on Davis' own statements as presented in Mrs. Davis' Memoir, and on those made by George W. Jones in the Davis Memorial Volume (Richmond, 1890), 48‑49.

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17 Interview with Charles Aldrich, reported in Midland Monthly, V, 408‑9.

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18 The Red Cedar is a tributary of the Chippewa; Menominee is upwards of 300 miles above Prairie du Chien.

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19 The extreme peril of living on the northwestern frontier is a pronounced obsession with Mrs. Davis. Wandering Indians, even in times of peace, would occasionally commit acts of violence against whites; but the chief danger to travelers proceeded not from the Indians but from the physical obelisks encountered. The visitor to the Chicago loop is probably in at least as great danger at the hands of gunmen as was the traveler in the Northwest a century ago from the Indiana.

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20 Mrs. Davis' account agrees fairly closely with several preserved in Wisconsin local histories, and appears, indeed, to be based upon these.

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21 Others have not hesitated to claim far more. In an address before the National Wholesome Lumber Dealers' Association in Chicago in 1902, R. L. McCormick, a lumberman and president of the Wisconsin Historical Society, described Davis as "the first lumberman on the Mississippi."

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22 See his careful study, "Two Local Questions," in the Menominee Dunn County News, October 14, 1909.

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23 The history of the Dragoon Regiment is told by Louis Pelzer, Marches of the Dragoons in the Mississippi Valley (Iowa City, 1917).

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24 Various explanations of this attitude have been advanced, none of them adequate. A more plausible surmise, as it seems to me, is that some now forgotten garrison intrigue was responsible for it. Such discord between the officers of the frontier posts were painfully common; Davis, himself, though honored by Dodge with the appointment to the post of adjutant of the Dragoon Regiment, was soon on such terms with his colonel that the latter was eager to fight a duel with him. Letter to George W. Jones quoted by Pelzer, Marches of the Dragoons, 28.

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25 As illustrative of this type of accusation may be noted the story of Judge Joseph T. Mills in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Nov. 10, 1885. Mills came to Fort Crawford to serve as tutor in Colonel Taylor's family about the year 1834. "More unfortunate than Lord Ullen," he says of Colonel Taylor, "when he saw the wild water run over his child, and he was left lamenting, the heart-broken father knew Lieut. Davis as a professional libertine, unprincipled and incapable of sincere affection for Knox unless he counted the money to which she was an heir presumptive." Mills weaves a narrative, wholly fanciful, of the elopement from Prairie du Chien under the guise of Miss Taylor's going on an innocent fishing excursion to Cassville. Of Mrs. Taylor he adds: "I do not know that she ever saw her daughter again, in whom her happiness and life were wrapped up. She mourned as Mother Ceres did for Prosperineº and Jefferson Davis in her view was just as villainous and malignant as the 'gloomy Dis.' "

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26 Within a year or so I have listened to an old resident of Prairie du Chien relate how the window at Fort Crawford through which Miss Taylor climbed on the night of her elopement with Davis had often been pointed out to him in boyhood by his parents and others of the generation preceding his own.

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27 I allude to such stories as the one recorded in N. Matson's Reminiscences of Bureau County (Ill.) (Princeton, 1872), 110‑15. Similar recitals are found in the Milwaukee Sentinel Nov. 10, 1895, and Nov. 8, 1869, as well as here and there in various Wisconsin local histories.

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28 Even today the character of President Lincoln is depicted to southern school children as little short of infamous. See, for example, the sketch of his life prepared expressly for their use by Mildred L. Rutherford, Historian General of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, entitled Jefferson Davis the President of the Confederate States and Abraham Lincoln the President of the United States, 1861‑1865 (n. p. 1916).

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29 While preparing this paper my attention was called to the following contribution to the point in question among the Morgan L. Martin papers in the Wisconsin Historical Library. Undated and unsigned, the manuscript is in Mr. Martin's hand, and it seems apparent from the contents was written about the year 1880. The writer was for a generation one of the leading citizens of Green Bay and Wisconsin:

"It has become so common to read newspaper articles abusive of the private character of Jefferson Davis, that one who has known him well for a period covering his brief service in the United States Army and his subsequent career as a civilian, desires to correct some of the mis-statements which seem to have gained credence. The more semblance of authenticity is given to some of these articles, because for a time in his early manhood Davis was a resident of Wisconsin, where at that time he was well known — a brief statement of fact may help to dispel that illusion.

"Jefferson Davis graduated at West Point and joined the 1st Regiment of U. S. Infantry, a portion of which was stationed at Fort Winnebago, in 1828. The notorious Twiggs was in command and many of the officers were Southern men, who, with him embraced the heresies of the Calhoun school of politicians. Davis had just then attained majority and remained at that post, where his private character was unexceptionable, until transferred to the new Regiment of Dragoons under Col. Dodge. Zachary Taylor was at the time in command at Prairie du Chien and there the marriage of Davis and Miss Jefferson (Sarah) Taylor took place against the remonstrance and without the previous consent of the lady's father. Many years afterwards, when the veteran Taylor and his son-in‑law were thrown together on the battle field of Mexico, each displaying distinguished gallantry in sustaining the honor of our National flag, they became reconciled and were thenceforth warm friends.

"Jefferson Davis was never stationed at Green Bay and was never here, except on a brief visit to his West Point friends and associates of the 5th U. S. Infantry, during the winter of 1829. He was always regarded as a generous, high-toned, brave, and chivalrous gentleman. A brilliant political career, as member of both branches of Congress, and as Secretary of War, after acquiring distinction as a soldier during the Mexican War, should at least relieve him from the base charge of being considered a common thief.

"The writer of this article, though condemning unqualifiedly the heresies of Southern politicians, which claimed the sovereignty of the States, denied the unity of our nation and culminated in rebellion against its authority, cannot refuse to admit the unblemished private character of the rebel chief, whom he has known and admired as soldier and citizen for the past fifty years until the estrangements resulting from the late Civil War."


Thayer's Notes:

a1 a2 A reminder that the commonly so‑called "Civil War" was not a civil war — the South didn't want to take charge of the government of the United States any more than George Washington wanted to take charge of the government of Great Britain — but a war for Southern independence on one side, and to prevent it on the other.

Normally I'd let "Civil War" slide (after all, it's in very common use to mean the War between the States and everyone knows what's being referred to), but in the next paragraph Prof. Quaife goes out of his way to mischaracterize the war as being "for the destruction of the Union" — a gross historical inaccuracy. The States of the South didn't seek to destroy the Union, but just to run themselves as it suited them (as misguided and reprehensible as the perpetuation of slavery surely was); the Union of course continued just as much a Union with those States out of it who no longer wanted to be part of it, as it had been before.

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b Jefferson Davis has since found some Northern biographers, among them fellow West Pointer Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Morris Schaff of Massachusetts, who fought for the North in the War between the States, but at 82 published his sympathetic and conciliatory Jefferson Davis: His Life and Personality (1922).

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c For a lighter account of Davis's time in the Northwest, see "Lieutenant Jefferson Davis", in The Palimpsest, 4:346‑357.

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d In 1926, a few years after this article was published, President Taylor's remains were moved to an elegant little mausoleum: see the photos (and some interesting details) at Find-a‑Grave.


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