Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Bloody Crimes"

Despite the date, this is not a Halloween post.

"Bloody Crimes" is a work of history by James Swanson published last month with the subtitle "The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse".

The reviews attracted my attention and Swanson's prior book, "Manhunt", about the days before the capture and killing of John Wilkes Booth, had been a bestseller. The clincher for purchasing the book, however, was my curiosity about the Jefferson Davis side of the story and what it might reveal about his stay in hometown Danville, Virginia which views itself as the Last Capital of the Confederacy.

The two stories are intertwined in a way that pushes the narrative forward in an absorbing manner. The book is well written storytelling, and the quality of the research is endorsed on the cover by the well known Lincoln historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. That's good enough for me.

The Lincoln side of the story is focused initially on the last days of the war and the fateful night at Ford theater, but primarily it details the public grief and ceremonies that followed his assassination and the train journey returning his body to Illinois. This is all interesting but the details of each stop on the journey may be more of interest to professional historians than to a lay reader.

The Jefferson Davis side of the book is fascinating because so much of the information is new to me. Davis is certainly not remotely a figure of historical writing and research like Lincoln. Despite growing up in the "Last Capital", attending Robert E. Lee Junior High School and regularly squaring off in basketball games against Stonewall Jackson Junior High just across the Dan River, Davis was almost unknown to me except as the stalwart severe leader of a failed and flawed cause.

Without going forward with some book review type prose, what follows are some interesting facts from the book, mostly new to me if not to whoever reads this.

---Much of Richmond burned to the ground because "The Confederates would, by accident, set their own city ablaze because they burned supplies to keep the goods out of Union hands". This led to a conflagration and numerous explosions none of which had to do with advancing Union forces nearby. A shot did not need to be fired to take the destroyed city.

---Lincoln spent most of the ten days prior to the capture of Richmond near the front lines, wanting to be with the troops. He bravely, or some would say dangerously, toured the city with just a few troops as guards the day after.

---Returning to Washington for initial ceremonies, Lincoln was treated to an outdoor concert featuring his favorite form of music, military bands, and requested that "Dixie" be played twice. This was apparently solely because it had always been one of his favorite tunes and he could now request it again.

---Jefferson Davis's retreat to set up a government in Danville with two trains following each other took 18 hours to cover the 140 miles as the tracks were in such disrepair. His departure from Danville seven days later was chaotic as heavy rains had created knee deep mud around the train station and just getting loaded took an entire night. The 45 miles to Greensboro took seven hours.

---Davis and much of the Confederate cabinet were in Danville from April 3rd to April 10th. They were received openly and warmly by the citizens there. Having to retreat further after Lee's surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, they next went to Greensboro N.C. where no one would provide them shelter and no government welcome showed up. They stayed in small rented quarters for a few days, cooking and fending for themselves, not even having enough tin plates, cups, and cutlery. Not only were the North Carolina citizens less supportive of the Confederate government, they were afraid that any association with Davis would lead to the destruction of their city by the advancing Stoneman's cavalry. Charlotte, Davis's next stop, reacted similarly and the only lodging was provided by a transplanted "Yankee" who it turned out was doing so for exploitive purposes, both to promote himself and distort what had happened in sensational ways to the Northern press. So while Davis and his entourage had not given up and still hoped to set up a new place of government, for all practical purposes Danville was the last functioning seat of the Confederate government, no matter how briefly and how out of touch it was with the status of the war due to communications difficulties.

---All of the gold and silver in the Confederate treasury was on the train to Danville. It supposedly continued on with Davis but when he was finally caught in Georgia with just a few wagons and everyone else on horseback there did not appear to be any substantial amount and what was there disappointed but was still looted by Union soldiers. So, somewhere along the way, much of the treasure disappeared and that mystery is not addressed by the book. It was definitely not taken by Davis as he was left with nothing, taking various jobs after his release from prison and eventually he and his family were willed a house on the Gulf coast by a friend.

---Davis, like Lee and Grant, was a West Point graduate, fought in the Mexican War, twice traveling the 1000 miles there by horseback for duty, fought the Comanches in Arkansas, eventually was elected to Congress, was in the Franklin Pierce cabinet as Secretary of War, was elected a Senator, was a founder of the Smithsonian Museum, and was in charge of supervising the substantial expansion of the U.S. Capital building in the 1850's. Like Lee he was a nationalist who worked to contain extremism but chose to defend his native culture when war came. For some reason I knew almost none of this.

---And one last odd fact - in his last years, in his late 70's and early 80's he became a hero and to some extent a healer in the South while living mostly at his Gulf Coast Mississippi home. Oscar Wilde, then 26, was on a lecture tour of the U.S. and for some reason decided that the one person that he wanted to meet in America was Jefferson Davis. So when his tour landed him in New Orleans he visited Davis at his home. He came for dinner and entertained Davis's wife, daughter, and sister-in-law late into the evening but Davis said little and retired early. In the morning his only comment was "I didn't like that man".

There's an accompanying photo related to that and many events throughout the book that add to the overall themes.


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