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June 15th, 2012
Bartee Haile: Jeff Davis could have been first Texas A&M president

This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE

On Jun. 14, 1875, Gov. Richard Coke offered Jefferson Davis, former head of the defunct Confederacy, the presidency of Texas’ new agricultural and mechanical college.

The governor warmly wrote, “The State of Texas and all her people ask that you come and live with and be one of us, and make your home and resting place, after a long and eventful public service, among a people who will never cease to love and honor you.”

Old Jeff Davis had not always been held in such high esteem by southerners, especially during the last dreadful days of the Confederate collapse. Many blamed him for the disaster that left Dixie in ruins and under the Yankee boot, but two terrible years behind bars turned the scapegoat into a hero.

Although he was only a few miles from the Appomattox courthouse, President Davis did not receive the news of Lee’s surrender until the next afternoon. Accompanied by his family and the remnants of the Rebel regime, he quickly boarded a southbound train.

Davis ran out of tracks in North Carolina but not invincible resolve. Refusing to admit defeat, he headed west with a vague plan to carry on the futile fight.

But the $100,000 price on his head made escape impossible. On May 10, 1865, the same day the eight “Lincoln conspirators” went on trial, Davis and his entire entourage were captured in Georgia. Among those taken into custody were two Texans: Francis Lubbock, a former governor, and John Reagan, the only member of the Confederate cabinet who stuck by his president.

The captives were dragged aboard a federal gunship at Savannah for transfer north. On the dock a Union soldier yelled to a gray-clad counterpart, “Hey, Johnny! We’ve got your president!” The Reb retorted, “And the Devil’s got yours!”

Davis was still at sea, when the northern press began to howl for his head. “Jeff Davis must be tried for treason,” demanded Harper’s Weekly. “If convicted, he must be sentenced. If sentenced, he must be executed.”

When the ship steamed up Chesapeake Bay, Davis presumed Washington was his destination and a show trial his fate. But on May 20 the vessel suddenly dropped anchor at Hampton Roads, Virginia in the ominous shadow of Fort Monroe.

Forty-eight hours later, Davis and Clement Clay, his closest friend and advisor, were taken ashore. As the despondent Mrs. Davis watched from the ship’s railing, the pair disappeared inside the dreary dungeon.

Davis was at the mercy of war secretary Edwin Stanton, a Radical Republican obsessed with a vindictive desire to implicate the captive in the plot to murder Lincoln. Taking complete charge of the prize catch, Stanton sent one of his lackeys, a 26 year old general named Miles, to supervise the detention.

The sadistic jailer relished the duty and devoted every waking hour to making life miserable for Davis. Heavy shackles were fastened to his ankles, and two guards under strict orders to stay silent paced his cell. A lamp burned night and day robbing the exhausted prisoner of precious sleep.

Even a vengeful North could not stomach leg irons on a man with nowhere to run, and a storm of critical editorials compelled Stanton to remove the restraints. However, the damage was done and the seeds of sympathy sown for the victim of such inhumane treatment.

As the months of solitary confinement slowly passed, a special tribunal pored over 250,000 Confederate documents in a painstaking attempt to connect Davis with the Lincoln assassination. Finally, in May 1866, the investigators informed Stanton that not a single shred of incriminating evidence could be found.

Weeks later a bombshell best-seller was published by the recently discharged dungeon doctor. The Prison Life of Jefferson Davis described in appalling detail the cruel incarceration and called for his immediate release.

Stanton stalled until May 1867, when forced at last to confess he had no case. Ten prominent northerners posted the $100,000 bail, and Davis was set free.

On Christmas Day 1868, after a close call with impeachment, President Andrew Johnson granted blanket amnesty to all former leaders of the rebellious states. Mrs. Davis rejoiced that her hounded husband was “safe from the clutches of the Yankees.”

Ironically, Yankees of conscience were the very people instrumental in saving Jeff Davis from the gallows. Had he hanged, any hope of national reconciliation would have been wrecked for generations.

In a July 1875 reply to the governor’s letter, Davis modestly protested that Coke had overrated his ability. He gently declined the distinction of serving as the first president of Texas A&M.

Fourteen years later, Jefferson Davis went to his grave an unrepentant Rebel having never applied for a pardon nor apologized for his part in the uprising. “The war proved secession to be impractical,” he observed. “It did not prove it to be wrong.”

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or haile@pdq.net.

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