Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com
Posts tagged "Civil War"
Asker Anonymous Asks:
Who was the last president to have ever personally met a slave or freed slave?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

I have no idea. That’s a pretty difficult question to answer; in fact, it is likely impossible to accurately answer. After all, it’s entirely possible that there were people born into slavery in the United States prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment or the emancipation of all slaves who might have lived very long lives and not died until the 1950s or 1960s. The last surviving Civil War veteran whose story could be legitimately confirmed lived until 1956, so it’s likely that the last surviving former slave lived past that date since people were still being born into slavery during the Civil War (1861-1865).

Unfortunately, because of the lack of proper record-keeping, it is difficult to confirm who the last surviving American born into slavery or last living American who had been kept as a slave truly was. It’s also nearly impossible to know which President was the last person to meet a former slave, especially since such a meeting could have happened earlier in a President’s life or career, when there were more former slaves still alive.

There is also the question of slaves from other countries who might have met the President of the United States in one form of another. Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as FDR was returning home from the Yalta Conference, American Presidents and the Kings of Saudi Arabia have had many meetings and visited each other’s countries. However, it wasn’t until 1962 that Saudi Arabia officially abolished slavery in the Saudi Kingdom. In 1957, King Saud traveled to the United States on an official visit and brought with him a massive royal entourage, and many of the Saudi King’s courtiers and servants had traditionally been slaves — even up to that point of time. It’s possible that slaves attended to King Saud during that trip, and it’s also a possibility that some of the King’s slaves briefly met or came into contact with President Eisenhower. Most likely, there would not have been much of an opportunity for that to occur during such a visit, but we just don’t know the answer about the last American slave — or the last slave of any kind — to meet with the President.

Slavery still exists, in many different forms, throughout the world. The United Nations and partner organizations estimate that there are over 30 million people in some form of slavery or involuntary servitude today, in 2014. With as many people as Presidents meet or briefly come in contact with, it’s entirely possible that even recent Presidents have met with slaves or former slaves. Slavery is a continuing crisis, so Presidents didn’t get to cross that issue off of their list with the end of the Civil War, the ratification of the 13th Amendment, or the abolition of slavery as most people have traditionally seemed to recognize it within the borders of our country. 


Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne met when they were about 17 years old, long before Pierce was President of the United States or Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, at Bowdoin College in Maine. They formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives, and their devotion to each other caused controversy, especially in later years after President Pierce, a Northerner, supported Southern interests and remained close to Jefferson Davis. Many of Pierce’s friends, neighbors, and supporters deserted him, but Hawthorne never did. Hawthorne had written a campaign biography of Pierce in 1852 and Pierce appointed Hawthorne as the U.S. Consul in Liverpool — a position which required few duties from Hawthorne but provided him with a steady income to continue his writing.

In 1863, the Civil War was raging and former President Pierce was as unpopular as any ex-President in American history, with some even accusing him of treason and alleging that his longtime friendship with the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, suggested Pierce’s collusion with Davis’s cause. Despite that storm, Nathaniel Hawthorne had told some friends that he was planning on dedicating his latest book, Our Old Home, to Franklin Pierce. They were outraged. Hawthorne’s friends, neighbors, and publisher strongly urged him to reconsider, with many telling the author that the American people would soon turn against him, too, if he remained so publicly supportive of the unpopular former President who was seen by many as a traitor.

In the face of such backlash, it didn’t take Hawthorne long to decide on what to do. On July 2, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was entering its second day and Nathaniel Hawthorne sat down in his home, The Wayside, in Concord, Massachusetts and wrote:

TO FRANKLIN PIERCE,
AS A SLIGHT MEMORIAL OF A COLLEGE FRIENDSHIP, PROLONGED THROUGH MANHOOD, AND RETAINING ALL ITS VITALITY IN OUR AUTUMNAL YEARS,
THIS VOLUME IS INSCRIBED BY NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE
.

On the next page, the dedication continued with a lengthy inscription beginning:
TO A FRIEND:
I HAVE not asked your consent, my dear General, to the foregoing inscription, because it would have been no inconsiderable disappointment to me had you withheld it; for I have long desired to connect your name with some book of mine, in commemoration of an early friendship that has grown old between two individuals of widely dissimilar pursuits and fortunes. I only wish that the offering were a worthier one than this volume of sketches, which certainly are not of a kind likely to prove interesting to a statesman in retirement, inasmuch as they meddle with no matters of policy or government, and have very little to say about the deeper traits of national character. In their humble way, they belong entirely to aesthetic literature, and can achieve no higher success than to represent to the American reader a few of the external aspects of English scenery and life, especially those that are touched with the antique charm to which our countrymen are more susceptible than are the people among whom it is of native growth.

Hawthorne’s dedication ended with:
And now farewell, my dear friend; and excuse (if you think it needs any excuse) the freedom with which I thus publicly assert a personal friendship between a private individual and a statesman who has filled what was then the most august position in the world. But I dedicate my book to the Friend, and shall defer a colloquy with the Statesman till some calmer and sunnier hour. Only this let me say, that, with the record of your life in my memory, and with a sense of your character in my deeper consciousness as among the few things that times has left as it found them, I need no assurance that you continue faithful forever to that grand idea of an irrevocable Union, which, as you once told me, was the earliest that your brave father taught you. For other men there may be a choice of paths, — for you, but one; and it rests among my certainties that no man’s loyalty is more steadfast, no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE

Our Old Home was subtitled A Series of English Sketches and much of the book had been inspired (and written) by Hawthorne’s time as U.S. Consul in Liverpool, which allowed him to not only write, but to travel the English countryside. The Atlantic Monthly had published the manuscript as a serial, and editor James T. Fields was at the front of the queue demanding that Hawthorne drop any connection of the book with Pierce. Rather than scrubbing his idea of dedicating Our Old Home to Pierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne declared his undying friendship and appreciation for his friend with his inscription, in the strongest words possible. Understanding all of the accusations being made about Pierce, Hawthorne even offered a defense of his friend’s loyalty, reminding his readers that Franklin Pierce had spent nearly his entire adult life in public service and that the 14th President inherited his patriotism from his father, Benjamin Pierce, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and early Governor of New Hampshire.

To Fields, Hawthorne responded, “I find that it would be a piece of poltroonery in me to withdraw either the dedication or the dedicatory letter. My long and intimate relations with Pierce render the dedication altogether proper, especially as regards this book, which would have had no existence without his kindness; and if he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him. I cannot, merely on account of pecuniary profit or literary reputation, go back from what I have deliberately thought and felt it right to do; and if I were to tear out the dedication, I should never look at the volume again without remorse and shame.” Hawthorne stood his ground and the dedication remained once Our Old Home was published. Many others, however, did tear out the pages referencing Pierce, including Ralph Waldo Emerson who tore the dedication out of the copy he received directly from Hawthorne before allowing the book to join his personal library. It wasn’t just Our Old Home which was unpopular; Hawthorne wrote, “My friends have dropped off from me like autumn leaves,” to one of those who remained by his side.

Another who remained at his side was Franklin Pierce. In December 1863, Pierce’s long-suffering wife, Jane, died after years of lingering illnesses. Pierce was lonely when he was married — when a friend once asked him how the gregarious, fun-loving politician could marry someone with as such an opposite personality as Jane, Pierce answered, “I could take better care of her than anyone else was the reply.”. Life as a widower added to that loneliness, as well as the fact that his neighbors in Concord, New Hampshire shunned him, his political career allies had deserted him years ago, and one of his closest friends happened to be the Commander-in-Chief of the rebellious states then engaged with the Union in a bloody Civil War — Confederate President Jefferson Davis. It didn’t help that Pierce’s alcoholism was taking a severe toll on his health. But, as the dedication in Our Old Home had proven, Pierce still had Hawthorne at his side, too.

Hawthorne was at Pierce’s side in Concord, New Hampshire in December 1863 as Jane was laid to rest. Pierce was devastated by his wife’s death, and Hawthorne was disturbed by seeing Jane in her open casket — he recognized that he, too, was nearing death. Hawthorne’s health had been failing for years and he had less than six months to live. As Jane’s casket was being lowered into her grave at Old North Cemetery, the grieving former President was thankful for his friend’s presence, but clearly worried about Hawthorne’s physical condition. At Jane’s graveside, Pierce took the time to adjust Hawthorne’s collar for him to keep him warm in the cold December wind of New Hampshire.

•••
"Happy the man that has such a friend beside him, when he comes to die!" — Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (1852)

In the spring of 1864, Hawthorne continued to decline. Stomach pain plagued him chronically, but he hoped that a trip to the White Mountains would be good for his health and asked Pierce to accompany him. Hawthorne’s friends worried that he was making a mistake by traveling in his physical condition and remained bitterly opposed to Hawthorne’s continuing connection with Pierce. But Hawthorne dismissed any concerns and his wife, Sophia, was supportive of the trip. Sophia, however, warned Pierce of how ill his friend really was and wrote, “He really needs to be aided in getting in and out of carriages, because his eyes are so affected by this weakness, and his steps are so uncertain.” In her letter of May 6, 1864, Sophia continued, “I would not trust him in any hands now excepting just such gentle and tender hands as yours,” and, “God bless you fear General Pierce for your aid in this strait.”

After meeting Hawthorne in Boston, the two friends traveled to Pierce’s home in Concord to wait for the weather to improve before beginning their journey into New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Hawthorne was gaunt, weak, and clearly dying, but in good spirits as they traveled from PIerce’s home to Dixville Notch in northern New Hampshire. On May 18, 1864, Pierce and Hawthorne arrived at the first-class Pemigewasset House hotel in Plymouth, New Hampshire, about 100 miles from Dixville Notch. In the evening, Hawthorne had a bit of food and a cup of tea, fell asleep for an hour on a couch and then woke up and retired to his room. Pierce described the next few hours in a letter to Sidney Webster in 1868:

Passing from his room to my own, leaving to door open and so placing the lamp that its direct rays would not fall upon him and yet enable me to see distinctly from my bed, I betook myself to rest too, a little after ten o’clock. But I awoke before twelve, and noticed that he was lying in a perfectly natural position, like a child, with his right hand under his cheek. That noble brow and face struck me as more grand serenely calm then than ever before. With new hope that such undisturbed repose might bring back fresh vigor, I fell asleep again; but he was so very restless the night previous that I was surprised and startled when I noticed, at three o’clock, that his position was identically the same as when I observed him between eleven and twelve. Hastening softly to his bedside, I could not perceive that he breathed, although no change had come over his features. I seized his wrist, but found no pulse; ran my hands down upon his bare side, but the great, generous, brave heart beat no more.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was dead. To Webster, Pierce noted that as they were traveling by carriage to the Pemagewasset House earlier that day, Hawthorne asked him if he had read William Makepeace Thackeray’s account of death and “remarked in a low, soliloquizing tone, what a boon it would be if, when life draws to its close, one could pass away without a struggle.” Closing his letter to Webster describing Hawthorne’s final hours, he wrote, “The boon of which he spoke in the afternoon had, before morning’s dawn, been graciously granted to him. He had passed from natural sleep to that from which there is no earthly waking, without the slightest struggle, evidently without moving a muscle.”

Pierce notified Sophia Hawthorne by telegram and made arrangements for Hawthorne’s return to Massachusetts, accompanying the body of the legendary author in a solemn conclusion to their final journey together. As he was packing up their belongings, he found a pocketbook that felt empty, opened it up and found that Hawthorne carried a photograph of Franklin Pierce with him everywhere he went.

At Hawthorne’s funeral, Pierce’s friendship with Hawthorne and care of the author in his final days was overlooked by Hawthorne’s other friends, who still shunned the former President due to political differences. Pierce was heartbroken that he was passed over and not included as a pallbearer. Instead, he was pushed aside in favor of less controversial names like Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Pierce’s was treated with respect as a former President of the United States, but nothing beyond what was required for proper society. To most of the people at the funeral, Pierce wasn’t the man who Hawthorne chose to spend his final days with; to them, he was a Northern President whose Southern sympathies had led them to Civil War. To them, Franklin Pierce wasn’t Nathaniel Hawthorne’s best friend; to them, he was a close friend of Jefferson Davis at a gathering of some of the country’s most passionate abolitionists. Franklin Pierce’s closest ally at Hawthorne’s funeral was the man lying in the casket, and all he could do was sprinkle apple blossoms into the grave.

"I need not tell you how lonely I am, and how full of sorrow," Pierce wrote to his friend, Horatio Bridge, shortly after Hawthorne’s death. Still devastated by Jane’s passing and now without Hawthorne, Pierce increasingly turned to the bottle. Drinking was punishing his body, and he began to decline. By the end, on October 8, 1868, Pierce was suffering from liver failure and reportedly weighed less than 100 pounds. Hawthorne stood by Pierce until the end, Pierce accompanied Hawthorne in the author’s final hours, but in the former President’s remaining years, he was increasingly lonely. He had been able to visit his other famous friend, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, shortly before Davis was released from prison, but that was the last time they saw each other. The war, politics, and time had taken a toll on Pierce’s health and reputation, no matter his years of public service as a State Legislator, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Brigadier General in the Mexican-American War, or President of the United States. His dear friend Hawthorne had once written, "A hero cannot be a hero unless in a heroic world," and Franklin Pierce could not overcome his political failures or personal demons. In the end he died alone, but linked (or remaining in "concord"), in a way, to Hawthorne by their hometowns and final resting places — Pierce is buried in Concord, New Hampshire and Hawthorne is buried in Concord, Massachusetts.
Say to Mr. Lincoln from me that I shall at any time be pleased to receive proposals for peace on the basis of our [Confederate] Independence. It will be useless to approach me with any other.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to Northern emissaries during the Civil War, July 1864.
Mr. Buchanan’s real trouble is that he cannot use my Administration and shape his course according to his own ever varying whims, in order to promote his aspirations to the Presidency. He cares nothing for the success or glory of my Administration further than he can make it subservient to his own political aspirations…The truth is that the scheming and intriguing about the Presidential election, and especially by Mr. Buchanan, is seriously embarrassing my Administration.

James K. Polk, on his frustration with his Secretary of State James Buchanan for actively working to position himself as the leading candidate to succeed Polk as President and neglecting (in Polk’s mind) his duties in Polk’s Cabinet, personal diary entry, February 24, 1848.

From almost the beginning of his Administration, President Polk had pledged to only serve a single term and never had any intention to change his mind and seek reelection in 1848. However, Polk was almost universally dismissive — particularly in entries that he made in his White House diary — of nearly every person whose name was mentioned as a possible successor, regardless of whether they were fellow Democrats or members of the Whig Party. Polk was also adamant that members of his Cabinet refrain from partisan politics — even throughout 1848 as the Democrats were seeking a strong Presidential candidate who might be able to beat whichever former General fresh from military glory in the Mexican-American War — Zachary Taylor or Winfield Scott — was nominated by the Whigs.

Despite Polk’s efforts, Buchanan did seek the Democratic nomination in 1848, but lost to Lewis Cass, who was defeated by Zachary Taylor in the general election (Cass later served as Secretary of State when Buchanan was eventually elected President). Buchanan also unsuccessfully sought the 1852 Democratic nomination, losing out to dark horse Franklin Pierce who was suggested to the deadlocked Democratic National Convention as a compromise candidate and finally nominated after 49 ballots.

President Pierce nominated Buchanan to serve as U.S. Minister to Great Britain and being out of the country throughout the travails of the Pierce Administration and the worsening sectional crises over slavery was probably instrumental in Buchanan finally achieving his long-awaited goal of becoming President. In 1856, Pierce became the first President to be denied renomination by his own party as the Democrats turned to Buchanan instead. James K. Polk probably wouldn’t have been happy with his former Secretary of State’s election, but Polk had died just three months after leaving office in 1849. Although Buchanan had been mentioned as potential contender for the Presidency and was perhaps better qualified for the position than anyone else ever elected to the job, the nation’s troubles quickly worsened after he was sworn in and Buchanan never fulfilled the expectations many Americans had for a President with his experience. Today, he is considered one of the worst Presidents in American history.

It is hard to realize that a State or States should commit so suicidal an act as to secede from the Union. Though from all the reports I have no doubt but that at least five of them will do it. And then, with the present granny of an executive [James Buchanan] some foolish policy will doubtless be pursued which will give the seceding States the support and sympathy of the Southern states that don’t go out.

Ulysses S. Grant, on the possibility of Southern states seceding from the Union and his doubts about how (or “if”) President James Buchanan might respond, personal letter, December 1860.

Grant had not always had such a harsh opinion of the “granny of an executive”, President Buchanan. While writing his Memoirs in 1885, Grant remembered that, “In 1856…I preferred the success of a candidate whose election would prevent or postpone secession, to seeing the country plunged into a war the end of which no many could foretell. With a Democrat elected by unanimous vote of the Slave States, there could be no pretext for secession for four years…I therefore voted for James Buchanan for President.”

John Hay was one of America’s great diplomats.  He served overseas during the Administrations of Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant, worked in the State Department of Rutherford B. Hayes, and held the nation’s top two diplomatic posts — Ambassador to the Court of St. James and Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Hay also may have been one of 19th Century America’s most prolific and talented writers, an astute observer of everything and everybody.  Late in life, he and his close friend Henry Adams became such institutions of Washington, D.C. society that today the Hay-Adams Hotel is literally one of Washington, D.C.’s great institutions.

But in March 1861, the 22-year-old Hay was in the nation’s capital for the very first time, and he was there as one of the two private secretaries (along with John Nicolay) to Abraham Lincoln, who was about to be inaugurated President of a rapidly fracturing United States.  Even at that young age, however, Hay’s gifts of observation were apparent — and one of the reasons why Lincoln had brought the young man with him to Washington from Illinois.

On March 4, 1861, Lincoln was inaugurated, and Hay was nearby when Lincoln met with the outgoing President James Buchanan.  With Southern states seceding and Civil War approaching, Hay was curious to hear what advice or words of warning President Buchanan might have for his successor.  As he later wrote, “I waited with boyish wonder and credulity to see what momentous counsels were to come from that gray and weather-beaten head.  Every word must have its value at such an instant.”

Buchanan had spent decades in Washington and his Presidency had taken place in one of the most difficult moments of American history — a moment that Lincoln was now sharing.  As John Hay listened carefully, the 15th President, with his head cocked to the left to compensate for the fact that one of his eyes was nearsighted and one of his eyes was farsighted, spoke to the 16th President.  

What Buchanan said to Lincoln was memorable to Hay, albeit not very momentous:  ”I think you will find the water of the right-hand well at the White House better than that at the left.”  Hay would recall that Buchanan “went on with many intimate details of the kitchen and pantry.  Lincoln listened with that weary, introverted look of his, not answering, and the next day, when I recalled the conversation, admitted he had not heard a word of it.”



Washington, D.C. was gloomy for a multitude of reasons when Jefferson Davis returned to the nation’s capital in March 1853 to join President Franklin Pierce’s Cabinet as Secretary of War.  Sectional crises were flaring up throughout the United States over slavery and state’s rights.  The threat of secession was spoken of in boardinghouses, the halls of Congress, and the White House.  The Compromise of 1850 was hanging on by a thread and the new President was in deep mourning over the tragic loss of his only surviving child who had been killed in a railroad accident while the Pierce family was en route to Washington for the inauguration.

President Pierce is not remembered for much else besides being terribly forgettable and a poor executive during one of the nation’s most trying eras, but he put together a solid Cabinet that, to this day, is the only Cabinet to remain intact throughout an entire Presidential term.  Jefferson Davis was reluctant to accept Pierce’s appointment as Secretary of War because his intention was to make another run for Governor of Mississippi in 1853.  Initially, Davis respectfully declined Pierce’s nomination citing commercial pursuits, an urge to contribute to Mississippi state politics, family concerns, and poor health, but the insistence of the President and the need for another advocate for state’s rights in President Pierce’s administration eventually led Davis to relent and accept the position.

There was perhaps no one more eminently qualified to control the War Department in 1853 than Jefferson Davis — a West Point graduate who served many years in uniform, a Mexican War hero, a well-known and well-respected politician with Congressional connections and legislative skills, and a close friend to the new President.  Davis’s personal abilities were also ideal for the bureaucracy that the War Department of the 1850’s had become with far-flung military outposts, frequent Indian skirmishes, political generals, supply difficulties, outdated modes of thinking and strategizing, and scores of Mexican War veterans settled throughout the ever-expanding United States. 

Davis was somewhat of a visionary and his biggest asset when he was commanding troops as a soldier was his engineering and organizational ability.  As Secretary of War, Davis attacked the inefficient War Department and the disorganized U.S. military with zeal and pushed forward ideas that were ahead of his time, brilliantly creative, and sometimes totally bizarre gambles which simply did not work.  By bringing a fresh perspective and new school of thought to the Cabinet, Davis was able to modernize and shape the military into a disciplined and efficient machine.  Some of Davis’s innovations as War Secretary made a significant impact on the Army and certainly helped prepare the military of the United States for their next conflict.  Unfortunately for Davis, he was on the wrong side of that next conflict and had to face the same military that he had very recently turned into a ferocious fighting force as Secretary of War. 

Davis’s tenure in the War Department was marked by the energetic efficience and frenetic pace that was a trademark of Jefferson Davis and his work ethic.  Immediately upon taking office, Davis set out to relearn everything he knew about the nation’s military and the citizen bureaucracy which administered it.  What he found was a tangled chain of distant frontier outposts and decrepit coastal fortifications and a force of less than 10,000 men scattered throughout the now-continental United States.  The ultimate management of all commissions, paperwork, supply, maintenance, payroll, and strategic military planning landed on the desk of the Secretary of War and his War Department workforce of less than 100 men.  Davis was in a position that begged for the delegation of some responsibilities, but Jefferson Davis was not one to delegate.  Today, we would call Davis a micromanager and that’s exactly what he did as War Secretary (and later as the Confederate President). 

One impact that Davis immediately made on the War Department was his refusal to play the patronage game long used by politicians who won elections and found themselves in power.  Instead of tossing out War Department employees with differing political views and replacing them with loyal Democrats, Davis made it clear that he would retain or hire people based only on merit, not their political ideology.  This caused some issues with his fellow Democrats — especially those in Congress who relied on patronage to honor debts and earn votes — and Davis ran into problems throughout his term because of his stubborn personality and constant attempts to keep the War Department as non-political as possible.   

Disagreements with Congress is something that most, if not all, high-ranking government officials end up doing at some point during their careers and clashes with other government officials was also to be expected of a man in Davis’s position with Davis’s temperament.  For the most part, these quarrels occurred privately and passed quickly, but the public was very aware of the long and vicious battle between Jefferson Davis, the civilian administrator of the War Department and United States Army, and Winfield Scott, the highest-ranking soldier in the nation and commanding General of the United States Army.

The feud between Davis and General Scott was not a new development fueled by President Pierce’s appointment of Davis as Secretary of War.  Davis had routinely criticized Scott since the Mexican War and Scott hated Davis because of Davis’s connection to Zachary Taylor.  The top two Generals during the Mexican War, Scott and Taylor were professional rivals and strongly disliked one another personally.  Taylor felt Scott was heavily favored by Democratic President James K. Polk which allowed Scott to be in a position of command for some of the Mexican War’s most important battles, and that the General received too much credit for things that he wasn’t responsible for.  Scott, in turn, was disgusted by Taylor’s relaxed command and tendency to dress sloppily and disregard the military’s uniform code.  Although he was a Democrat, Davis was steadfastly loyal to Taylor, his former father-in-law, and openly criticized Scott on numerous occasions. 

Taylor was the Whig nominee and elected President in 1848, but died in office less than two years later clearing the path for the anti-slavery Scott to make a run at the White House in 1852.  It was that election that Franklin Pierce emerged as a dark-horse candidate and trounced Scott on election day.  Jefferson Davis campaigned hard for Pierce, speaking in towns, writing articles, gathering endorsements, and once again criticizing Scott, using his platform to not only promote Pierce but to defend the now-deceased Taylor.  In one memorable speech, Davis called Winfield Scott, “proud, petulant, vain and presumptuous”.  Scott had detested Davis before the 1852 Presidential campaign and the feeling was mutual.  Now, the two men had to work together in the same building and Scott also had to work with the man who had just defeated him for the Presidency, Franklin Pierce.

The Davis-Scott feud exploded almost immediately after President Pierce’s inauguration when Davis refused to approve a request for reimbursement of travel expenses that the General submitted and questioned Scott about fuzzy expenses from the Mexican War that were still unaccounted for.  As they argued about money and military matters, Scott packed up his command and relocated his headquarters in New York — a move he had also made when Zachary Taylor was President and which confirmed the petulance which Davis had accused him of. 

Throughout Pierce’s term, the Secretary of War and the General-in-chief of the United States Army disagreed, argued, threatened, and accused.  Scott implied that he wasn’t accountable to anyone but the President, and Davis gave Scott a civics lesson on the chain of command.  The letters between the two men grew longer and longer and were filled with more bitterness and resentment as the years passed.  Some letters were over 30 pages long and so vicious that they likely would have forced a duel if Scott was the same age as Davis.  Scott, in fact, accused Davis of trying to instigate a duel.  In response, Davis taunted Scott, noting that the old General was “unwilling to act upon the sentiment which makes a gentleman responsible to any one whom he assails.”  Basically, the Secretary of War was implying that his General-in-chief was a coward.

Because of their hatred for one another and Scott’s decision to set up headquarters in New York, Davis and the General didn’t see one another in person more than once or twice during Pierce’s Presidency.  Still, the vitriol grew more-and-more vicious.  In one of their later exchanges, Davis wrote that Scott’s “petulance, characteristic egoism and recklessness of accusation have imposed upon me the task of unveiling some of your deformities marked by querulousness, insubordination, greed of lucre and want of truth.”  Scott ended his response to that attack with a taunting “what’s next?” and followed up in one of his final letters to Davis by noting “compassion is always due to an enraged imbecile.”  Davis ended their long war of words by simply writing that he was “relieved from the necessity of further exposing your malignity and depravity.”

With so much time and energy spent attacking Winfield Scott, it’s difficult to imagine Jefferson Davis being effective at his job, but Davis was perhaps the most active and influential War Secretary in United States history other than Lincoln’s Civil War-era Secretary, Edwin M. Stanton.  Davis embedded himself in every bureaucratic and ideological process involving the military and its future.  Setting out to eliminate waste and ensure that the officers in place were the best possible choices, Davis hired people, fired people, pushed people into retirement, and was the force behind every promotion or appointment from 1853 to 1857.  Much like his opposition to political patronage and reliance on the merit system, Davis disliked the Army’s seemingly corrupt and inefficient seniority system.  This tradition, however, was too entrenched for even Davis to circumvent and the seniority system remained (and remains) in place.

What Davis excelled at as Secretary of War was acting upon his imaginative ideas about modernizing and reorganizing the military and the military’s strategic planning.  He increased the size of the military, supplied the soldiers with better materials and more technologically advanced weaponry, redesigned uniforms and equipment, and instead of being the bureaucratic brick wall that the Secretary of War normally tended to be, Davis was actually the best advocate in Washington when it came to pushing for pensions for widows and orphans of soldiers who died in service to their country.  Davis also beefed up the weapon arsenals of armories throughout the nation, improved coastal fortifications, and championed road-building on the frontier and newly-acquired territories. 

In 1853, Congress assigned the War Department the task of scouting possible routes for a transcontinental railroad and Davis savored the opportunity.  Four different engineering expeditions set out towards the Pacific surveying the topography and searching for the best possible route for a transcontinental railroad.  Davis was excited about the reconnaissance parties because he expected the surveys to reveal a Southern route which would be ideal for railroad construction.  Sectional interests surely played a part in this expectation.  Davis knew that a Southern route for the transcontinental railroad would give the South a certain amount of economic leverage over Northern interests and trade, and railroad construction would encourage further growth and settlement in the slave states, which would result in more power for those states when it came to Congressional representation.  Unfortunately for Davis, the reconnaissances didn’t give him the definitive answer about the transcontinental railroad that he had hoped for.  While a Southern route to California through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona was possible, a Northern route appeared to be just as feasible, if not more.  Political squabbles about the transcontinental railroad and the sectional crises which led to the Civil War postponed a decision on the best route until Lincoln’s Presidency, and construction on the Northern route began in the 1860’s.     

As a reformer, Jefferson Davis often tried to buck tradition and approach running the military from a new direction, so it is no surprise that he was an innovator as Secretary of War.  Thinking of the soldiers in the field and his own experiences during the Mexican War, Davis designed uniforms that allowed soldiers to handle weather conditions better and worked hard at trying to provide his men with rifles that were more accurate, lighter to carry, and faster to reload.  When war broke out in the Crimea in 1854, Davis sent a trio of officers to Europe to observe the belligerent militaries in battle and studied everything from offensive and defensive maneuvers to supply and transportation in order to provide the United States military with the ability to study new strategic tactics and military sciences from the other side of the world. 

One of Secretary Davis’s most famous innovations was the creation of the United States Camel Corps.  After the Mexican War and the Gadsen Purchase gave the United States new territories in present-day Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the military began fighting small skirmishes and wars with Indian tribes in that vast dry and arid climate.  Davis lobbied Congress for an appropriation in order to purchase camels to use as an experimental regiment.  Camels were better equipped to handle the desert climate, could go longer without water, and had the ability to not only provide transportation for soldiers, but also weaponry such as light infantry and cannon.  Some Congressmen openly scoffed at the idea, but it wasn’t a joke.  Napoleon had used camels in his Egyptian campaigns, and Arabs and Turks had long used them for military purposes.  In 1856 and 1857, several dozen camels were shipped to the United States and delivered to Texas.  For the most part, the camels worked extremely well.  They handled rough terrain better than horses and soldiers were impressed by their strength and endurance.  The problem was that camels were ill-tempered and soldiers were loyal to their horses and mules, who were less moody than the camels.  Also, the camels and horses were not able to work closely together as the camels frightened the horses when in close quarters.  Although the experimental Camel Corps continued after Davis left the War Department, the idea fell apart as the Civil War and the construction of railroads left the Camel Corps obsolete.  With the collapse of the Camel Corps, many of the camels were sold to private owners and some escaped into the desert.  As late as the 1940s, there were still reported sightings of wild camels in southern Texas.

As Secretary of War and perhaps the closest confidant of President Pierce, Davis exerted a powerful influence over the Cabinet and the government itself.  Some of his fellow Cabinet members felt that Davis and the President were too close and that Davis could do no wrong in Pierce’s eyes.  Pierce certainly entrusted Davis with many of the most important projects of his Presidency.  When Congress passed bills to expand the Capitol and construct a massive aqueduct to supply Washington, D.C. with water, Pierce ordered all construction to be handled by Davis’s War Department. 

Unsurprisingly, Davis was intimately involved with both construction efforts.  After helping to design the aqueduct, Davis made a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony where he shoveled the first piece of dirt.  With the Capitol expansion, Davis helped make decisions on some of the most intricate of details and even commissioned studies on proper acoustics for the Senate and House chambers.  Davis also closely scrutinized the design of the Liberty statue which crowns the dome of the Capitol to this day and objected to the first two proposals for Liberty’s headgear before selecting a crown of eagle feathers shaped like a helmet “without being a helmet (for that symbolizes war) and to serve as a cap without being a cap (for that belongs to manumitted slaves).”

Jefferson Davis was undoubtedly a great Secretary of War and superb manager of his governmental department.  He reorganized and modernized the military in many different ways, and helped bring innovations to the weapons the field soldiers carried and the strategies their commanders studied.  Davis worked tirelessly to improve the Army and put the best qualified men in the most important positions.  However, Davis’s term as Secretary of War also foreshadowed certain leadership deficiencies that crippled him as President of the Confederate States of America.  Davis was quick to argue and hold grudges with those that he disagreed with professionally or disliked personally.  His tendency to micromanage all aspects of his department and his inability to delegate even menial jobs to subordinates resulted in mistakes and miscalculations.  And despite his creativity and ingenuity and innovations, Davis was not progressive enough as a leader to inspire change in any other manner besides pushing his ideas through with his authority and power.  This resulted in political clashes and personality conflicts that haunted Davis and President Pierce throughout the entire Pierce Administration.

In 1856, the United States was descending towards Civil War and Franklin Pierce was unpopular even amongst his own party.  It became clear that not only would Pierce not be re-elected, but that the Democratic Party might become the first political party in American history to deny renomination to an incumbent President.  Davis was suggested by some as a potential Democratic nominee, but his loyalty to his close friend Pierce prevailed over his ambition for the highest office in the land.  Plus, it seemed impossible for any Southerner to be elected at that moment in the heavily-divided nation.  Pierce was a Northerner with Southern sympathies and he was being abandoned by his own party.  A Southerner with Southern sympathies probably had no chance.  President Pierce lost his bid at renomination and the Democrats replaced him with James Buchanan who replaced Pierce on March 4, 1857.

That same day, Jefferson Davis resigned as Secretary of War and took the oath to once again become a Senator from Mississippi.  The Mississippi State Legislature had elected Davis to the Senate and rejoining that forum gave the South a powerful voice in the sectional crisis which was dividing the nation.  The return to the Senate was marked by illness and difficult decisions, and just less than four years later, the United States dissolved into war.  

On the morning that their term ended, Jefferson Davis paid a visit to Franklin Pierce in the White House.  The men had grown very close in the previous four years.  President Pierce suffered from deep depression from his numerous family tragedies and drank heavily, but his mood was almost always brightened by paying a visit to the Davis home.  “May your days be many, your happiness great, and your fame be in the minds of posterity as elevated and pure as the motives which have prompted your official action,” Davis told the outgoing President and noted that he was saving copies of his correspondence with Pierce in order to give to his son “in remembrance of your much valued confidence and friendship for his father.”  When Davis officially tendered his resignation to the President, Pierce took his hand and warmly told Davis “I can scarcely bear the parting from you, who have been strength and solace to me for four anxious years and never failed me.”  Several hours later, James Buchanan was President, Jefferson Davis was once again a Senator from Mississippi, and Franklin Pierce was preparing to return home to New Hampshire.  Their next meeting would be nearly ten years later, in Jefferson Davis’s prison cell as Davis — also an ex-President by that time — awaited trial for treason.

The muddy waters of the mighty Mississippi River resembled a powerful waterfall that had been dyed brown and laid horizontally between the states of Mississippi and Louisiana as the raging currents tormented a steamboat in 1845.  Just days prior to leaving office, President John Tyler had annexed Texas and the new President, James Knox Polk, was at the forefront of a charge headfirst into war with Mexico with the goal of territorial expansion in order to make the United States a truly continental nation.  On the Mississippi steamboat were two men who would make a major impact on that war with Mexico and its aftermath.

It was a chance meeting.  Neither man knew that the other was on board the steamboat until they shockingly stumbled upon one another.  General Zachary Taylor, 60, was commander of the United States Army’s First Department at Fort Jessup, Louisiana.  It had been over ten years since one of his highly-regarded subordinates, Jefferson Davis, fell in love with his daughter while he was stationed at the same Wisconsin frontier fort as the Taylor family.  It had been ten years since Davis and that daughter, Sarah, eloped and were married in Kentucky.  And it had been ten years since that daughter was stricken with malaria and died just three months into her marriage.  Zachary Taylor would have been satisfied with never seeing Jefferson Davis again, but ten years later, the son-in-law he never wanted was standing in front of him on a steamboat in the middle of the Mississippi.

In the ten years since his beloved wife’s tragic death, Jefferson Davis had created a successful and quiet career as a cotton planter at his plantation, Brierfield, near Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Davis spent most of his time on his plantation, rarely heading into town, rarely visiting with guests.  His health was precarious after barely surviving the strain of malaria that killed Sarah, and his heart was broken.  Davis reclusively spent several years grieving and working and mastering the business of planting and farming and overseeing his property — property which included slaves. 

Yet Davis — a West Point graduate and former soldier — hungered for more than life on a plantation.  Davis wanted to serve his country and was interested in politics.  When he wasn’t working his plantation, Davis studied his collection of books, especially those concentrating on history, law, and political theory.  With his older brother and neighbor, Joseph Emory Davis, Jefferson launched into political discussions and his eye wandered towards political opportunities.  Davis began corresponding with local and state officials in Mississippi and his name became one of interest in Mississippi politics. 

In December 1843, Jefferson Davis met Varina Howell at his brother Joseph’s home, Hurricane plantation.  Davis was captivated by Howell’s charm and beauty, and Varina was equally impressed by Davis.  At just 17 years old, Varina was 18 years younger than Jefferson upon meeting each other and the age difference caused some difficulty for a potential romance, particularly with Varina’s parents who were barely older than Davis.  A month after meeting Varina, Jefferson proposed to her.  When he asked permission from Varina’s parents, he found the same stonewall that he faced when asking for Sarah Knox Taylor’s hand in marriage.  This time, however, it wasn’t Jefferson’s military background that caused problems; it was the age difference and the fact that Davis was an active Democrat while the Howell family were loyal Whigs.

The Howell family eventually relented and gave their blessings to the young couple.  Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell were married on February 26, 1845 at the Howell family home, The Briars, in Natchez, Mississippi.  This time, the bride’s parents were in attendance, but once again no one from the Davis family showed up for the wedding.  After the wedding, the Davises headed south to Davis’s sister’s home in Louisiana — the same home that Sarah Knox Taylor died while visiting immediately following Jefferson’s first wedding.  Davis and his second wife paid their respects at Sarah’s grave and managed not to be stricken by illness as they continued south to New Orleans and back to Brierfield.

The newlyweds faced troubles during the early years of their marriage and one of the biggest struggles was Jefferson Davis’s entry into the world of Mississippi politics.  After several years of “retirement” at Brierfield following Sarah’s death and before his marriage to Varina, Davis was ready to enter the arena and serve his state.  In 1844, Davis was selected as a Presidential elector by Mississippi’s Democratic Party and he campaigned vigorously for the election of James K. Polk, the eventual President.  His work as a Presidential elector made his name well-known in Mississippi and he was elected to his first political office as a member of the United States House of Representatives.

Just months after marrying Varina, Davis went to Washington to take his seat in the United States House of Representatives.  Davis arrived in Washington as the fever for war with Mexico was rising and he was certainly one of President Polk’s biggest supporters in Congress.  In May, Davis voted to declare war on Mexico and shortly afterwards, he was named colonel in command of the 1st Mississippi Regiment.  Resigning his seat in Congress, Colonel Davis headed home to Mississippi and assumed command of his regiment in New Orleans before they sailed to Mexico in September 1846.

The words and tone and emotions of the surprise Mississippi steamboat summit between Jefferson Davis and Zachary Taylor are lost to history, probably because their conversation was private and held in a segregated area of the boat to protect themselves from eavesdroppers.  Whatever was said mended the strain in the relationship between the two men who Sarah Knox Taylor had loved the most and a friendship, if not a familial relationship blossomed from that point forward.  Always respectful of General Taylor, the Jefferson Davis who emerged from the steamboat meeting was a loyal friend of Taylor for the rest of their lives.  Taylor, too, felt a kinship with Davis and would later write to Davis that he considered Jefferson and his brother “near and dear relatives”.

When Davis took command of the 1st Mississippi regiment about 18 months after his emotional reunion with Zachary Taylor, he found himself playing a waiting game in Mexico while other American forces moved forward in order to support, supply, and attack.  General Taylor and Colonel Davis were reunited once again at the Battle of Monterrey and Davis proved himself to be as good of a soldier as his superiors had suggested he was when he was stationed on the frontier after graduating from West Point.  Davis’s soldiers fought hard for their commander and Davis himself was a brave and active soldier. 

Not content with merely ordering his troops into battle, Davis threw himself into skirmishes and fought with daring in dangerous situations.  At the Battle of Buena Vista, Davis fought with great bravery and — with the help of future Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s artillery — played a major role in the Zachary Taylor’s Army’s victory against the Mexicans.  During the battle, Davis was shot in the foot and, severely wounded, had to be placed on his horse by soldiers.  When it was suggested that he leave the battlefield, Davis refused and despite the protestations of other soldiers, remained in the saddle until victory was certain.  When the fighting ceased, Davis was commended for his performance and his once-reluctant former father-in-law General Zachary Taylor said, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I.”

Towards the end of the war, President Polk promoted Davis to the rank of brigadier general.  Foreshadowing his arguments during secession debates and the Civil War, Davis refused Polk’s appointment, arguing that a militia appointment by the President was unconstitutional and that those powers belonged to the states, not to the federal government.  A month after declining President Polk’s commission in 1847, Davis was appointed by the Governor of Mississippi to temporarily fill a vacant seat in the United States Senate.  In 1848, Davis won an election to fulfill the remainder of the term of the Mississippi Senate seat he was appointed to.

Senator Davis quickly became very powerful in Washington.  He was a genuine war hero and a passionate defender of state’s rights.  He carried himself with effortless dignity and was considered a gentleman and honorable soldier.  Davis had great integrity and was widely respected by his fellow Democrats and his rival Whigs.  Also, Washington took notice that Jefferson Davis was extraordinarily close with the new President of the United States — even though they were from completely different political parties and held some very different opinions on the future of the United States.

James Knox Polk was extraordinarily popular and not even 50 years old on Election Day 1848, but he had committed himself to just one term as President.  Polk had orchestrated the Mexican War, prosecuted it to its conclusion, and achieved his goal of westward expansion for the United States.  Polk was reed-thin with long, straight gray hair that draped across his shoulders and deeply set, brooding eyes which were filled with melancholy and surrounded by dark rings.  An Andrew Jackson-protege from Tennessee, Polk had no friends, no hobbies, no children, and no interests besides working constantly and without vacation.  The meticulous diaries he kept during his Presidency show him to be ambitious, driven, impatient and sometimes petty, but  Polk followed through on every campaign promise he made and worked himself so hard that he died just three months after leaving office.

Polk’s single term commitment and the U.S. victory in the Mexican War opened the field up to potential Presidential candidates, but it was clear that a war hero was what the American people were hoping to elect.  In General Zachary Taylor, they found a man that they respected and admired and who epitomized leadership and strength to a growing nation.  Taylor, however, had never shown any interest in politics.  In 40 years as a soldier, Taylor had moved around dozens of times throughout the country to frontier outposts, territorial headquarters, and isolated forts.  At 62 years old, Taylor had never even voted in an election let alone stand as a candidate for election.  Both parties — Democrats and Whigs — were interested in making Zachary Taylor their candidate and both parties feared that he would join the opposition.  In the end, General Taylor declared himself a Whig — mostly because he didn’t like the way he was treated by the Democratic President Polk during the war — and in November 1848, he won a resounding victory.

Jefferson Davis was a loyal Democrat and pledged his support to his party’s candidate, Lewis Cass, but Davis did not campaign for Cass as he had in 1844 for Polk.  In a letter to Taylor, Davis outlined why he was supporting his party’s nominee and assured his former father-in-law that his support was strictly along party lines, not anything personal.  Taylor understood Davis’s political quandary and appreciated his letter, but he didn’t need Jefferson Davis to beat Lewis Cass.  In March 1849, Zachary Taylor was sworn in as the 12th President of the United States.

Throughout 1849 and 1850, Davis advised his father-in-law despite their political differences.  Davis very much wanted President Taylor to succeed and was one of his closest confidants as the nation debated the admission of states carved out of the new territory gained during the Mexican War.  Southern states were seeking to allow new states to choose their destiny and be admitted to the union as slave states, but northern states were seeking to limit slavery to the Southern states already holding slaves and to exclude the possibility of slavery in the new Southwestern territories acquired from Mexico.  Davis was a strict and passionate defender of state’s rights and slavery and was one of the leaders of the Southern fight to help slavery gain a foothold in New Mexico and Utah, if not all the way to the Pacific Ocean .

President Taylor was a slave-owner from the South — the last President to own slaves while in office — and, though he was a Whig, Southerners and Democrats hoped that he was a member of their constituency and would support their efforts to protect slavery.  However, Taylor felt that slavery had no place in the new territories and states being created from the spoils of the Mexican War that he had helped win.  Angry Southerners felt betrayed and threatened rebellion and Taylor threatened to personally lead the Army to quash any possible rebellion by his fellow Southerners, stating that he would hang rebels “with less reluctance than I had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.” 

Jefferson Davis was in complete disagreement with his former father-in-law and close friend, but they attempted to work together to find a middle ground as Congress attempted to push through compromises, measures which eventually became the Compromise of 1850.  Davis opposed the Compromise of 1850, proposing that slavery be allowed to flourish in from coast-to-coast in all states located below the Missouri Compromise Line of 1820 (36º30’ N) and demanding nationwide compliance with returning fugitive slaves to the owners that they had escaped from.  Davis was fighting a losing battle with the Compromise of 1850, but he never wavered from his beliefs and he continued working closely with President Taylor to find the best course for the preservation of the union.

On July 4, 1850, President Taylor sat through a couple hours of patriotic Independence Day speeches at the Washington Monument, which was under construction at the time.  It was a blistering hot day, but Taylor had spent hours in the heat in Mexico and didn’t seem particularly affected by it, taking a leisurely stroll near the White House with friends and family following the Independence Day festivities.  When Taylor returned to the White House, he ate a large bowl of cherries, which he washed down with iced milk.  Several hours later, he summoned his doctor, complaining of cramps. 

Over the next few days, President Taylor’s condition worsened and doctors worked frantically to help him recover.  Weakened by diarrhea and vomiting, it quickly became clear to Taylor himself that he would not survive.  At his bedside throughout the final hours was Jefferson Davis — his political opponent, the man who he didn’t want to allow his daughter to marry, his Army subordinate, his loyal friend.  Details are sketchy, but some historians believe President Taylor’s last words were spoken to Davis, “I am about to die.  I expect the summons very soon.  I have tried to discharge my duties faithfully.  I regret nothing, but I am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.”  Shortly before 11:00 PM on July 9, 1850, Taylor died at the age of 65, and was succeeded by his Vice President Millard Fillmore.

On July 13, 1850, Zachary Taylor’s funeral was held in the East Room of the White House that he had moved into just one year earlier.  The newly inaugurated President Fillmore was in attendance and Taylor’s pallbearers included such political giants as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and his opponent in the 1848 Presidential election, Lewis Cass.  Seated prominently amongst Taylor’s family was the son-in-law that “Old Rough and Ready” never wanted — Jefferson Davis.

Davis and Taylor both opposed the Compromise of 1850 for different reasons.  Davis’s opposition was due to his belief that a further restriction on slavery would result in a loss of state’s rights amongst the Southern states that already held slaves.  Taylor’s opposition was because he felt compromise would only temporarily postpone a sectional crisis that might lead to an eventual civil war.  Taylor’s successor, President Fillmore, was not opposed to compromise and following Taylor’s death, the Compromise of 1850 was pushed through Congress and signed by Fillmore.  As Taylor had predicted, it only delayed a sectional crisis which flared into the Civil War a decade later.

In 1851, Jefferson Davis resigned from the Senate to campaign for Governor of Mississippi, narrowly losing to his Senate colleague Henry Foote.  Davis and Foote were Mississippi’s two Senators, but they did not enjoy a close relationship.  On several occasions, the two men clashed violently and came close to settling their differences in a duel.  On Christmas Day 1847, a disagreement after breakfast at the boardinghouse they both roomed in resulted in Davis attacking Foote before the two men were separated by friends.  Their argument continued and Foote punched Davis, but despite his still-injured foot from the Mexican War, Davis was more imposing physically, knocked Foote to the ground and beat him senseless until he was pulled off by friends and other boarders.  Fuming, Davis threatened to kill Foote, but tensions cooled and they somewhat tolerated each other for the remainder of their service together in the Senate.

After resigning from the Senate and losing his gubernatorial bid in Mississippi, Davis was left without a political office, but he kept busy writing and speaking throughout the South.  Returning to his Brierfield and managing his plantation was something that he had looked forward to doing, and he was able to spend more time with Varina and they welcomed their first child, Samuel, in 1852.  As the 1852 Presidential race heated up, Davis wholeheartedly threw his support behind Franklin Pierce, a friend whom he had met in 1838 and a fellow veteran of the Mexican War.  Pierce was a northerner from New Hampshire, but pro-slavery.  In fact, Pierce’s support for slavery and state’s rights were so well aligned with the South that he was championed over many Southern candidates for the Democratic nomination by Southerners themselves. 

Davis energetically campaigned for Pierce against the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott, another Mexican War hero, but not quite as popular as Zachary Taylor was four years earlier.  In November, Pierce routed Scott and won the Presidency, and Davis’s support for the President-elect was not forgotten.  Davis had planned on running for Governor again in 1853, but Pierce wanted to offer him a spot in his Cabinet and Southerners urged Davis to accept so that the state’s rights voice was strong within the executive branch.  Shortly after his inauguration, President Pierce offered Davis the War Department and Davis accepted.

So, in March 1853, Jefferson Davis was 44 years old and once again a close confidant of the President of the United States.  More importantly, he was a powerful voice within the federal government for the state’s rights argument being made by the Southerners in the lead up to the Civil War.  He was also Secretary of War, in charge of one of the most important and influential departments in the entire United States government.

Over the next four years, Secretary of War Davis worked closely with President Pierce to build the War Department and modernize the United States military.  Davis built a stronger, faster, better organized force and implemented procedures and strategies never before used within the American military.  Beginning in 1853, Davis began crafting and shaping a fiercely efficient fighting force that would — in less than a decade — help destroy the rebellion that Davis was destined to soon lead.

(Thanks to Betsy for the awesome artwork!)

The term “American” has been genericized over the past two centuries, much like people classify all tissue as “Kleenex” or label all cola soft drinks as “Coke”.  “American” is the label given to the people of the United States, mostly because we “Americans” hijacked the term even though there are North Americans, Central Americans, South Americans, and Native Americans.  Technically, there have been scores of American Presidents, but only 43 men have served as President of the United States of America (Barack Obama is President #44, but don’t forget — Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, so he was #22 and #24).

However, there was one American President born within the borders of this country who also ruled as a President within the borders of this country — an American President ignored in most books on Presidential history despite leading his country during a great war.  He isn’t pictured on any currency and his face isn’t etched into Mount Rushmore, but it is etched into Stone Mountain in Georgia, and there are states that built statues of him and celebrate his birthday as a holiday.  If you go to the White House in Washington, D.C., you won’t find his portrait, but if you go the White House of Richmond, Virginia, you will find one amongst plenty of other artifacts.  His role in history is heavily debated and sometimes forgotten, but he was an American President during this country’s most difficult time period and his name was Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.

Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808 in what was then Christian County, Kentucky, but is present-day Fairview, Todd County, Kentucky.  Davis was born less than a year and about 100 miles away from where his future adversary Abraham Lincoln was born.  Davis was the tenth and final child of Samuel and Jane Davis, which is why he was likely given the middle name Finis — Latin for “the end”.  Samuel Davis served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and spent time in Georgia and South Carolina before moving to Kentucky approximately 10 years before their youngest son was born. 

Following Jefferson’s birth, the Davis family spent time moving around Kentucky and Louisiana before finally settling in Mississippi where Jefferson started school at the age of 5.  Davis entered Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky in 1823, but left to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1824 when he received an appointment from President James Monroe.

Jefferson Davis’s four years at West Point were difficult.  Samuel Davis died as Jefferson entered the military academy, and the young cadet looked to his older brother, Joseph Emory Davis, as a father figure and for financial support.  Davis also had an issue with authority and with the rigid regulations of the United States Army.  In 1828, Davis graduated 23rd out of 32 classmates and had 327 demerits on his record, including violations for insubordination, absence, inattention, neglect of duty, spitting on the floor, public drunkeness, firing his musket from the window of his room, unecessary noise, having his hair too long at inspection, and dozens of other reasons.  In comparison, the man who would later become Davis’s top General during the Civil War — Robert E. Lee — graduated the following year second in his class and had a grand total of zero demerits on his record.  While at the academy, Davis arrested twice for alcohol-related incidents — in 1825, he was court-martialed for visiting Benny Haven’s pub and on Christmas Day 1826, Davis was arrested and confined to his quarters for his part in providing the alcohol to cadets that was the catalyst for the “Eggnog Riot”.

Commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation in 1828, Jefferson Davis was assigned to frontier military posts in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, and eventually attached to the First Infantry Regiment in Fort Crawford, Wisconsin under the command of Colonel Zachary Taylor.  Taylor commanded the First Infantry during the Black Hawk War of 1832, and while Davis didn’t actually see combat during the war, he was placed in charge of escorting the captured Chief Black Hawk to prison in St. Louis, Missouri when hostilities ended.

While stationed in Wisconsin under the command of Taylor, Davis’s behavior as a soldier was better than his behavior as a cadet at West Point, yet he still found himself running into trouble and adhering to the rules and regulations of army life.  Davis squabbled with his superiors and some colleagues from time-to-time, and after a run-in with Major Richard Mason, Davis was arrested, charged with insubordination, and court-martialed in February 1835.  While the tribunal in charge of Davis’s trial found him guilty of several acts of insubordination and unbecoming conduct, they also decided that these acts did not constitute criminality and acquitted him.  Following the court-martial, Davis requested a furlough from the military for personal reasons and resigned from the Army several months later. 

Despite his troubles with Army colleagues and superiors, rules and regulations, Jefferson Davis was highly-regarded as a soldier.  Colonel Zachary Taylor had promoted him and thought well of his military abilities.  Lieutenant Colonel David Twiggs — who served with Davis at Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin — requested that Davis be assigned to his command in New Orleans in 1835, writing “I have no hesitation in saying that he is as well, if not better qualified for that duty, than any officer of my acquaintance.”  And, Brigadier General Matthew Arbuckle — the man who presided over Davis’s court-martial — reluctantly accepted Davis’s resignation from the Army, noting that Davis was “a young officer of much intelligence and great promise.”

The court-martial bruised Davis’s pride and honor as a soldier and gentleman, but it wasn’t the main reason behind his resignation.  Davis’s older brother, Joseph Emory, was a successful planter in Mississippi and Davis wanted to take advantage of business opportunities to make some money and begin a family.  Plus, Davis had fallen in love, and this love had also caused a strain with a powerful military colleague.

In Fort Crawford, Wisconsin, Jefferson Davis was second-in-command to Colonel Zachary Taylor.  Taylor — who would eventually be elected President of the United States in 1848 — liked Davis personally, considered him a skilled soldier, and felt that the young lieutenant had a great future ahead of him in the military.  At some point in 1832, Davis met Taylor’s 18-year-old daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor.  Davis and Sarah fell in love and began spending time together, but Zachary Taylor opposed of the romance.  When Davis asked permission of Colonel Taylor to take his daughter’s hand in marriage, Taylor refused and banned Davis from visiting his home as a guest.  A lifelong soldier himself, Taylor knew that Army life — especially on the frontier — was harsh and unhappy.  Although his oldest daughter had married a soldier, Taylor stated, “I will be damned if another daughter of mine will marry into the Army.  I know enough of the family life of officers, I scarcely knew my own children or they me.”

Professionally, the relationship between Zachary Taylor and his subordinate remained strong mainly because Taylor thought so highly of Davis’s abilities as a soldier.  Personally, however, there was great animosity when Taylor refused to give his blessing for Davis to marry Sarah and then forbade them to visit each other.  Davis and Sarah resorted to the help of friends in order to meet quietly within  the small confines of Fort Crawford, but their love continued to flourish.  In 1833, they became engaged and hoped that Colonel Taylor would eventually relent and give them his blessing.

He didn’t.  Taylor, in fact, promoted Davis to first lieutenant with the Dragoons at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis.  While this could have been a strategy to post Davis far away from his fiancee in Wisconsin, there is no evidence that Taylor acted in any manner that was harmful to Davis’s military career.  As he said many times, Taylor believed Davis was an exceptional soldier and the promotion to the Dragoons regiment was offered as a professional courtesy, not to further a personal vendetta.  Davis himself was honored by and happy with the promotion, and accepted his new position with zeal. 

Though separated by distance and finding themselves apart for over two years, Jefferson Davis and Sarah Knox Taylor’s love for one another did not dissipate.  They wrote letters to one another and though Davis was worried that Sarah would marry someone else, her feelings for him never weakened.  Sarah’s letters reassured him that she wanted to marry him, but Davis was almost apologetic to her because he realized that Zachary Taylor would never give them his blessing and their eventual marriage might separate Sarah from her family and friends.

It was not until after Davis resigned from the Army following his court-martial in February 1835 that he was able to reunite with Sarah.  Knowing that they could not meet in Wisconsin and finding St. Louis undesirable, Davis and Sarah were reunited in Kentucky and planned for the wedding.  Hoping to receive a last-minute blessing from her father, Sarah talked with Zachary Taylor just before she left Fort Crawford, Wisconsin on a steamboat to Louisville.  Taylor was still opposed to the marriage, but not as adamantly as he previously was. 

When Sarah’s steamboat departed Fort Crawford, Zachary Taylor wrote two letters.  The first letter was to his sister in Louisville, stating that if Sarah was determined to marry Jefferson Davis, he would accept her decision and hoped that his sister would host the wedding at her home in Louisville.  The second letter was to Sarah and was a “kind and affectionate letter” which included “a liberal supply of money”, according to Sarah.  Sarah was grateful for her father’s letter and support, but it was clear that her parents were still not pleased with her decision to marry Davis and they did not attend the wedding.  On the day of her wedding, Sarah wrote to her mother, “I know you will still return some feelings of affection for a child who has been as unfortunate to form such a connexion without the sanction of her parents; but who will always feel the deepest affection for them whatever may be their feelings toward her.”   

On June 17, 1835, Jefferson Finis Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor at Beechland, the estate of the bride’s widowed aunt near Louisville, Kentucky.  Along with the bride’s parents, nobody from Jefferson Davis’s family attended the wedding.  Sarah’s aunt, of course, hosted the wedding, but she also was grateful for the attendance of her older sister Ann and her husband, numerous cousins, and two of Zachary Taylor’s brothers.  Sarah’s cousin, Richard Taylor, served as Jefferson’s best man.

Following the wedding, the newlyweds left Louisville and may have visited St. Louis before heading to their new home near a bend in the Mississippi River in Mississippi called Davis Bend.  While the young couple got settled and started building their home at Davis Bend, they stayed with Davis’s oldest brother and the primary landowner of Davis Bend, Joseph Emory Davis and his wife.  Jefferson threw himself into the work of planting crops and beginning his career as a Mississippi planter and Sarah enjoyed her role as a wife and partner in this new life that the young couple was building together.  While she missed her family and wrote to her siblings, Sarah felt happy with her husband and hopeful about their future.  In a letter to her mother on August 11, 1835, Sarah wrote, “Do not make yourself uneasy about me, the country is quite healthy.”  It was the last sentence she ever wrote or spoke to her parents.

Shortly after Sarah sent her letter to her mother, she accompanied Jefferson on a trip south to meet Jefferson’s sister, Anna Smith, and stay at her home Locust Grove in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana.  Soon after their arrival in Louisiana, Jefferson became ill and Sarah began showing signs of sickness the very next day.  Both husband and wife were ravaged by high fevers and chills, and it quickly became clear that they were suffering from malaria.  Jefferson and his wife were quarantined in separate rooms and after several days both were suffering from delirium and near-death.  On September 15, 1835, Jefferson awoke from his state of delirium to the sound of Sarah singing her favorite song, “Fairy Bells”.  Struggling to rise from his sickbed, Davis reached the side of his beautiful, 21-year-old wife just as she died.  They had been married for only 90 days.

Sarah was buried at Locust Grove and Jefferson was devastated.  He was also gravely ill with malaria and his survival was not expected, but about a month later he had recovered enough to return home to Mississippi before traveling to Havana, Cuba to further rehabilitate his health.  For the rest of his life, Davis suffered from recurring fevers and chills that were related to the strain of malaria that sickened him and killed his wife in 1835.  For the rest of his life, Davis also grieved over the loss of Sarah Knox Taylor.  Over fifty years later, he still remembered her with great sadness and when a man found a letter written to Jefferson from Sarah and asked if Davis wished to have the letter, Davis responded by letting the man know that receiving the letter from his first love would bring him great happiness.  At the time, Jefferson Davis was 81 years old and just months away from his own death.

With Sarah gone, Jefferson Davis returned to Davis Bend to grieve and to start the life as a planter that he had envisioned spending with Sarah.  For the next decade, Davis worked hard at building his cotton plantation, Brierfield, and overseeing the slaves that worked it.  For the next decade, as he focused on commercial pursuits and tried to move past the tragedy of losing Sarah, Jefferson Davis was virtually a recluse, rarely leaving his plantation or hosting visitors.  The quite “retired” life of a planter was all that interested Davis and all that he saw for his future.

While Jefferson Davis was devastated over the loss of his wife, his former commander Zachary Taylor was devastated over the loss of his daughter.  Taylor’s fears about Sarah living the harsh life of a military wife didn’t come to fruition, but the bigger nightmare of his daughter’s death was realized instead.  Taylor harbored resentment towards Davis for taking his daughter from him, and for not taking care of her properly once they were married.  Taylor continued his successful military career as Davis grew as a plantation owner, and by the 1840’s the United States and it’s thirst for expansion had the country headed towards war with Mexico, and one of the nation’s top generals was Zachary Taylor. 

Soon, the duty of defending his country that had been instilled in Jefferson Davis while he was a cadet at West Point and a soldier on the frontier, led him to join the forces heading to war with Mexico. 

Soon, Jefferson Davis would be reunited with his former commander, his former father-in-law, and the future President of the United States — Zachary Taylor. 

Soon, Jefferson Davis’s quiet life as a Mississippi planter would be interrupted by war, duty, and war once again.

The honest, simple-hearted soldier had not added prestige to the Presidential office. He himself knew that he had failed…that he ought never to have been made President. He combined great gifts with great mediocrity.
Woodrow Wilson, on Ulysses S. Grant, 1902.
Through all his awkward homeliness, there is a look of transparent genuine goodness, which at once reaches your heart and makes you love and trust him.
James Garfield, writing in his diary about meeting President-elect Abraham Lincoln in Ohio when Lincoln’s train journey to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration took him through Columbus, 1861.

On April 9, 1865, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant of the United States Army and General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate States of America’s Army of Northern Virginia gathered along with their officers in the parlor of the home of Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. After four bloody, tragic years and several punishing months that saw General Lee’s movements shadowed at every turn by General Grant’s Army, the venerable Confederate commander realized that further resistance was futile and began the long process of healing the broken nation by surrendering his beloved Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant.

When dramatic, world-changing events in history take place, we rarely get firsthand accounts from the principals involved. Fortunately for us, Ulysses S. Grant spent the last weeks of his life putting the finishing touches on his autobiography, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (BOOKKINDLE), which spotlight many of the most important moments of the Civil War through the eyes of one of that war’s biggest heroes. Grant finished writing his book just a few days before he died in 1885, but what’s most amazing about Grant’s Memoirs is that, nearly 130 years later, they remain one of the most readable books ever written by an American President. Grant’s insight into the proceedings at Appomattox are valuable because it isn’t secondary material from a journalist, or the memories and a junior officer with opinion and prejudices that might cloud reality. Instead, the Memoirs are Grant’s remembrances of a monumental event in American History, and Grant’s honesty — for better and worse — has rarely been challenged.

In the Memoirs, Grant remembers suffering from a blinding migraine headache in the hours before his meeting with General Lee as representatives attempted to set conditions for the meeting between the two generals. As Grant later wrote, when an officer brought a note to from Lee that confirmed the Confederate general’s interest in meeting and setting terms for surrender, “the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.”

As Grant prepared to meet Lee at Wilmer McLean’s home, the Union commander almost certainly thought about the vast differences between him and his Confederate counterpart. Lee was 15 years older than Grant, and while they both attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, their records couldn’t have been more different. Lee wanted nothing more than to be a great career soldier, graduated 2nd in his class, and made it through four years at West Point without a single demerit. Grant had dozens of demerits, many of which came from refusing to attend church services, and graduated 21st out of 39 cadets in his class. That he graduated at all was an accomplishment in Grant’s eyes. As he later wrote, “A military life had no charms for me, and I had not the faintest idea of staying in the Army even if I should be graduated.”

After the men graduated from West Point (Lee in 1829, Grant in 1843), they embarked on military careers that took them to very different places, but on April 9, 1865, General Grant was thinking about the first time he had actually met General Lee. Their paths had crossed in the Mexican War (1846-1848) when they served together for some time under General Winfield Scott. Later in life, Grant was particularly outspoken about the injustice of the Mexican War, but he fought bravely during his time in Mexico under General Scott and, especially, under General Zachary Taylor. Grant and Lee were both decorated for their service in Mexico, along with many fellow junior soldiers whose names would become famous in the North and South during the Civil War. In his Memoirs, Grant wrote about his memories of his earlier meeting with Robert E. Lee, but doubted Lee would remember him:

"I had known General Lee in the old army, and had served with him in the Mexican War; but did not suppose, owing to the difference in our age and rank, that he would remember me; while I would more naturally remember him distinctly, because he was the chief of staff of General Scott in the Mexican War."

Ulysses S. Grant wouldn’t make it easy for General Lee to recognize him, either. One of the only positives to come out of the Mexican War for Ulysses S. Grant was his admiration of Zachary Taylor, who was Grant’s commanding general for most of the war. Taylor — later the 12th President — was nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready” and remembered fondly by his soldiers for his casual, comfortable manner. General Taylor was a sloppy dresser who often wore an odd mix of military dress and civilian clothing, loved to shade his face a large sun hat, and was unorthodox in almost every manner. While Grant may not have been a good student at West Point, he had no problem picking up on the lessons he learned from General Taylor. Robert E. Lee was always impeccably dressed, much like his Mexican War commander, General Winfield Scott. In fact, Grant’s comparison of Scott and Taylor would just as easily work with Lee and Grant:

"I had now been in battle with two leading commanders conducting armies in a foreign land. The contrast between the two was very marked. General Taylor never wore uniform, but dressed himself entirely for comfort. He moved about the field in which he was operating to see through his own eyes the situation. Often he would be without staff officers, and when he was accompanied by them there was no prescribed order in which they followed. He was very much given to sit his horse side-ways — with both feet on one side — particularly on the battlefield. General Scott was the reverse in all these particulars. He always wore all the uniform prescribed or allowed by law when he inspected his lines; word would be sent to all division and brigade commanders in advance, notifying them of the hour when the commanding general might be expected. This was done so that all the army might be under arms to salute their chief as he passed. On these occasions he wore his dress uniform, cocked hat, aiguillettes, sabre and spurs. His staff proper, besides all officers constructively on his staff — engineers, inspectors, quartermasters, etc., that could be spared — followed, also in uniform and in prescribed order. Orders were prepared with great care and evidently with the view that they should be a history of what followed…But with their opposite characteristics both were great and successful soldiers; both were true, patriotic and upright in all their dealings. Both were pleasant to serve under — Taylor was pleasant to serve with. Scott saw more through the eyes of his staff officers than through his own. His plans were deliberately prepared, and fully expressed in orders. Taylor saw for himself, and gave orders to meet the emergency without reference to how they would read in history."

While Robert E. Lee was not insufferable like Winfield Scott, he was still, even after several brutal weeks of fighting, dressed in a way that would have led any outside observer to believe he was receiving the surrender on that day. The messages that Grant and Lee had exchanged that day had resulted in a meeting quicker than Grant had expected, so the Union general was wearing his usual battlefield dress as he prepared to meet the dashing General Lee. In his Memoirs, Grant acknowledges feeling a bit self-conscious about his “rough garb”. “I was without a sword,” Grant remembered, “as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier’s blouse for a coat, with (only) the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was.” If the war had been decided with a fashion contest between Grant and Lee, we’d all be singing “Dixie”. According to Grant:

"General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events, it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form."

Upon entering McLean’s home, Grant and Lee shook hands and the officers who accompanied the two generals were silent. Grant, who had been elated earlier to meet with Lee and bring the war to a close, found himself feeling “sad and depressed”. “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.” Grant had so much respect for Lee that simply meeting him face-to-face in such a moment left the Union general nervous. As they sat in the silent and still parlor of Wilmer McLean’s home, Grant tried to break the ice by mentioning their previous service — on the same side — in Mexico. To Grant’s surprise, Lee remembered him well:

"We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years’ difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting."

General Lee didn’t forget, however. Lee steered the conversation back towards the terms of his army’s surrender. Grant’s initials “U.S.” had gained him the nickname of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant throughout the war, but the truth was that he didn’t have a template for the conditions required of his vanquished opponents. Grant was aware of President Abraham Lincoln’s hope for a smooth reconciliation as the country began healing in the wake of the Civil War. With this in mind and his deep respect for General Lee’s leadership, Grant set terms so generous that Lee was surprised. Lee’s soldiers would have their names recorded, surrender any weapons that were supplied by the Confederate government, and take an oath to not take up arms against the United States. After doing that, they would be free to return to their homes peacefully and without threat of prosecution for insurrection or treason. When Lee mentioned that most of the horses in his army were the personal property of the soldiers who rode them, Grant allowed soldiers to take any horses or personal belongings back home with them. Grant even allowed the defeated Confederate soldiers keep their sidearms. When General Lee saw the generous terms set forth by General Grant, he was astonished. With emotion, he thanked Grant for his generosity, telling the Union commander, “This will have a very happy effect on my army.”

With the surrender signed, General Lee mentioned to Grant that many of his soldiers had gone without food except for dried corn for several days and were in bad shape. Grant immediately authorized enough food to feed 25,000 men and gave orders to a nearby quartermaster to provide Lee’s army with as much food as they needed for their return to their homes. After exiting the McLean home, Lee climbed on to his beloved horse, Traveller, and observers noted that Lee, for the first time anyone could remember, looked as if he was having a hard time controlling his emotions. Grant was preparing to mount his horse, Cincinnati, when the two generals locked eyes once more. In a show of deep respect, Grant removed his hat and saluted Lee — and every Union soldier in proximity followed their commander’s example. Lee raised his hat and saluted Grant and rode off.

Shortly after Grant and Lee parted ways, the news of Lee’s surrender began to spread throughout the Union encampments. Union soldiers began cheering and firing salutes while their defeated Confederate opponents were well within earshot. Grant immediately ordered an end to the celebration. “The Confederates were now our prisoners,” wrote Grant, “and we did not want to exult over their downfall.”

The next day, General Lee sent a brief, but eloquent, order to his Army of Northern Virginia in which he acknowledged that they had “been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources” and that he was “determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen”. Lee’s order informed the men of their freedom to return to their homes, and closed by thanking his soldiers for their service and bidding them “an affectionate farewell.” Before Grant returned to Washington, D.C. on April 10th for a meeting with President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the Union commander stopped by where Lee’s army had set up camp. Grant and Lee sat atop their horses between the lines of their respective armies and talked for nearly an hour, both generals expressing their hope that the Confederate armies still in the field in pockets of the South would follow Lee’s lead so the nation could begin the difficult work of healing. Within a few hours, they were on their way home, heading in opposite directions, Grant to the North and Lee to the South.

Robert E. Lee died in 1870, and despite the cause that most people think he fought for (Lee abhorred slavery; the State of Virginia came before the Union in Lee’s mind), the Confederacy’s commanding general has largely become an American hero throughout the entire country. Maybe it was due to Lee’s support of the abolition of slavery or maybe it is because Lee is considered an American ideal of an honest and honorable warrior with quiet strength, but somehow Lee has made it to the Pantheon of American leaders that Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson will likely never reach. In the last five years of his life, General Lee served as the president of Washington College in Lexington, Virginia — a school that was renamed Washington and Lee University after Lee’s death.

Grant lived until 1885, but his later life was a bit more star-crossed than Lee’s. Grant turned down a request to accompany President Lincoln to the theater less than a week after Appomattox. Lincoln was killed that night. Grant feuded with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, after the Civil War, and sought the Presidency himself in 1868. Grant served two terms as President (1869-1877), and his Administration was riddled with corruption, although Grant himself was not personally corrupt. Grant’s reputation as President has begun to improve over the past few years due to his work on the only meaningful Civil Rights legislation passed until the mid-20th Century. After his Presidency, Grant went on a 2-year-long world tour with his wife and was greeted around the world by adoring fans interested in seeing an American President who also happened to be the hero of the Civil War. In 1880, Grant sought an unprecedented third term as President, but narrowly lost the Republican nomination to James Garfield. Sadly, Grant’s finances were liquidated by crooked financial partners in the 1880’s and he was forced to sell historic artifacts from his Civil War service in order to survive. In 1884, Grant was diagnosed with throat cancer, and became determined to make money for his wife’s benefit in case of his death. Mark Twain signed a deal with Grant to write his Memoirs, and Grant finished the book just a few days before his death in July 1885. Grant’s book was a critical and commercial success, and left his wife with financial stability.

We have so much information on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee that we can piece together nearly every aspect of their lives, and often in their own words. Few Americans have affected the lives of so many people while also having such an influence on one another. There are hundreds of books about Grant, Lee, the Civil War, and dozens of combinations of subjects featuring those two great military leaders and their times. What most people don’t know is that Appomattox wasn’t the last time Grant and Lee saw each other.

On May 1, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant welcomed the president of Washington College, Robert E. Lee, to the White House. Lee had considered inviting President-elect Grant to visit Washington College before Grant was inaugurated, but Lee didn’t want to make a request that his busy former adversary felt obligated to accept. After Grant was inaugurated in March 1869, he learned of Lee’s interest in visiting with him, and the President invited Lee to the White House. Unfortunately, there are no definitive answers to what was said between President Grant and General Lee. They two men only spent about 15 minutes together, and one observer suggested that there was a bit of sadness when the two men saw each other. Perhaps it was because of what they put each other through five years earlier, but perhaps it was the fact that the two former generals were older and in much different places.

What’s remarkable about the short meeting is that Robert E. Lee may have been the only American in history to visit the White House after being stripped of his citizenship. A bill to restore General Lee’s American citizenship was passed by Congress in 1975 — 110 years after the Civil War ended — and President Gerald Ford signed off on the restoration of Lee’s citizenship in a ceremony at Arlington House, the home that Lee lived in before it was occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War and turned into a National Cemetery.

After just fifteen minutes on May 1, 1869, President Grant and General Lee once again parted ways. We don’t know what they said or how they felt or what they thought as they parted. The two men who had been such a huge part of each other’s lives would never see each other again. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Grant and Lee could come together at all after chasing each other throughout the country and killing thousands of Americans while trying to destroy each other. It’s a tribute to the two men that they were living in a country still needing time to heal, and they stepped forward — leading the way just like they did while waging war — to model for Americans how to wage peace.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Did Grant and Lee ever meet after Appomattox?? Either socially or at an official function? Thanks!
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Yes, Grant and Lee had one brief encounter after Appomattox, when Grant was President, and I wrote about it in an essay that I titled “Grant and Lee" becomes I’m obviously a creative genius.  Here’s the part about their post-Appomattox encounter:

We have so much information on Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee that we can piece together nearly every aspect of their lives, and often in their own words.  Few Americans have affected the lives of so many people while also having such an influence on one another.  There are hundreds of books about Grant, Lee, the Civil War, and dozens of combinations of subjects featuring those two great military leaders and their times.  What most people don’t know is that Appomattox wasn’t the last time Grant and Lee saw each other.

On May 1, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant welcomed the president of Washington College, Robert E. Lee, to the White House.  Lee had considered inviting President-elect Grant to visit Washington College before Grant was inaugurated, but Lee didn’t want to make a request that his busy former adversary felt obligated to accept.  After Grant was inaugurated in March 1869, he learned of Lee’s interest in visiting with him, and the President invited Lee to the White House.  Unfortunately, there are no definitive answers to what was said between President Grant and General Lee.  They two men only spent about 15 minutes together, and one observer suggested that there was a bit of sadness when the two men saw each other.  Perhaps it was because of what they put each other through five years earlier, but perhaps it was the fact that the two former generals were older and in much different places.

What’s remarkable about the short meeting is that Robert E. Lee may have been the only American in history to visit the White House after being stripped of his citizenship.  A bill to restore General Lee’s American citizenship was passed by Congress in 1975 — 110 years after the Civil War ended — and President Gerald Ford signed off on the restoration of Lee’s citizenship in a ceremony at Arlington House, the home that Lee lived in before it was occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War and turned into a National Cemetery.

After just fifteen minutes on May 1, 1869, President Grant and General Lee once again parted ways.  We don’t know what they said or how they felt or what they thought as they parted.  The two men who had been such a huge part of each other’s lives would never see each other again.  Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Grant and Lee could come together at all after chasing each other throughout the country and killing thousands of Americans while trying to destroy each other.  It’s a tribute to the two men that they were living in a country still needing time to heal, and they stepped forward — leading the way just like they did while waging war — to model for Americans how to wage peace.