Monday, December 6, 2010

December 6, 1889

On December 6, 1889, 121 years ago today, Jefferson Davis, the only President of the Confederate States of America, died in New Orleans at the age of 81. Davis had served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce from 1853 to 1857 and the two were close friends. In fact when Jane Pierce returned home after the death of their son Benny, Mrs. Varina Davis often filled in for some of the first lady's duties. During the Civil War, Pierce kept in contact with Davis even when Davis was President of the Confederacy, and this led to accusations of treason being levied against Pierce.

During the Civil War, Pierce was very critical of Lincoln for Lincoln's order suspending habeaus corpus. Pierce argued that even during war time, the country should not abandon its protection of civil liberties. Pierce's stand won him fans among the Northern Peace Democrats, but it enraged many in the Lincoln administration. In 1862, Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward sent Pierce a letter accusing him of being a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a seditious organization. Outraged, Pierce denied this in a fiery response and demanded that Seward put his response in the official files of the State Department. When that didn't happen, a Pierce supporter in the US Senate, Milton Latham of California, had the entire Seward-Pierce correspondence read into the Congressional record. The public appeared to be more sympathetic to Pierce.

But Pierce's reputation was greatly damaged in the North following the siege of Vicksburg, when Union Soldiers under General Hugh Ewing captured the Davises' Fleetwood Plantation. The soldiers found the Confederate President's personal correspondence, including his letters to Pierce. Some of them ended up being published. Pierce had written to Davis about "the madness of northern abolitionism." In other letters, Pierce stated that he would "never justify, sustain, or in any way or to any extent uphold this cruel, heartless, aimless unnecessary war", and that "the true purpose of the war was to wipe out the states and destroy property." Abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe referred to Pierce as "the arch-traitor."

On April 16, 1865, when news had spread of the murder of President Lincoln, an angry mob of young teenagers gathered outside Pierce's home in Concord. The crowd wanted to know why Pierce's house was not dressed with black bunting and American flags, the way that people customarily expressed their grief that day across the country. Pierce came outside to confront the crowd and said he, too, was saddened by Lincoln's passing. When a voice in the crowd yelled out "Where is your flag?" Pierce became angry and spoke about his family's long devotion to the country, including both his and his father's service in the military. He said he didn't need to display a flag to prove that he was a loyal American. The crowd soon quieted down and some even cheered and applauded Pierce as he went back into his home.