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Fes is life was the reflection of the simplici and perserverance of a District of Columbia Special Issue —— — — — REMARKS GIVEN AT THE COMMEMORATION OF THE BIRTH ANNIVERSARY OF JEFFERSON DAVIS Starvary HALL, UNITED States CaPmot, JuNE 3, 1995 By Robert L. WILKIE, LeGIsLATIVE DIRECTOR FOR THE HONORABLE DaviD FUNDERBURK Jefferson Davis; planter, soldier, statesman, President of the Confederate States of America, martyr to “The Lost Cause,” and finally the gray-clad phoenix—an exceptional man in an exceptional age. It is fitting that we gather here in his Capitol. He super- vised construction of the Capitol we know today. His vision gave life to the chambers where the Senate and House have gathered uninterrupted since 1860. Here he lifted the mantle of southern leadership from the aging shoulders of John C. Cathoun; here, in 1861, his fellow ‘Senators wept as he bid them a “final adieu’ and head- ed to Mississippi to await the call of his state: and here in 1993, the latest chapter, in what Shelby Foote calls, he continuing war against Jefferson Davis", was played out in the fight over the design patent of the United Daughters ‘of the Confederacy. For decades, distin- guished Southerners have stood before the bronze caped figure Tz marks the 187th anniversary of the birth of proud people. tehind me! and clopedie. ceride the highlights of Davis’ life, But facts without truth to inform them are meaningless. Robert Penn Warren opined, “History is not truth, tuth is in the telling." In the case of Jefferson Davis we must tell America the ‘ruth about the complicated man who carried with him the dreams of southern independence. His life was the reflection of the simplicity and perseverance of a proud, people: men and women who endured the horror of ‘defeat and its equally hellish aftermath; men and women who through their Christian prism understood the fall of man and the imperfection of human institutions—that not all of man’s noble experiments succeed. Today we are experiencing a second Southem Renaissance. Once again, the South has begun to com: mand the course of American life as it has not done since the 1830's. A few years ago, the late Walker Perey said that this was due to “=the ongoing economic and political power shift to the Southem Rim, perhaps, also because of the Southern talent for polities, the burden of national leadership may 12 AUGUST 1995 Welty, William Alexander Perey, and Thomas | Why then is Davis the man more the measure than | was a warm, friendly outgoing man. When you read | iced er] an pps a etl John C. Calhoun and for the first time the fortunes of the | finished twenty-third in a class of thirty four, not sur- | blocked his entreaties, he resigned and eloped. The mar- UDC Magazine District of Columbia Special Issue ‘swamp fever, The fever left Davis blind in one eye and in poor health for the rest of his life. At thirty-six he mar- ried again and won election to Congress. He resigned his seat (0 take up arms against Mexico, commanding The “Mississippi Rifles, the shock troops of the new American Army. He won glory when, severely wounded, he aligned his men in the famous “V" formation and broke the back of the Mexican cavalry at Buena Vista. After the battle, General Zachary Taylor, cried and embraced him saying, “My daughter was a better judge of character than I." Within sixty days the govemor of Mississippi appointed him to the United States Senate, He was the Senate's leading intellectual and foremost spokesman for state’s rights and southern nationalism, but, he resigned over the great Compromise of 1850. He lost a bid for governor but was rescued from oblivion ‘when Franklin Pierce made him Secretary of War. When he retuned to the Senate, he was less strident in his pur- suit of southern independence but no less defiant in his defense of the Constitution. His rectitude and perceived hhumorlessness made him enemies. Sam Houston called him, “cold as a lizard,” Andrew Johnson labeled him “a frock-coated Lucifer,” but nevertheless he stood in the first rank of a talented body which included the likes of ‘Stephen Douglas, William Seward, Judah Benjamin and Charles Sumner. He sought a solution to the coming crisis within the framework of union but, when Mississippi called, he ‘walked with her. On February 10, 1861, while working in the rose garden with his wife, a courier brought word ‘of his unanimous clection as President of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America. Mrs. Davis later recalled that, he grew white and read the note “as a man might speak of a sentence of death.” He left home for Montgomery, Alabama the next day, “ihe man and the hour had met ‘We do not have the time to examine Davis’ enti record as President. Suffice it to say he brought to the office an array of intemal conflicts which made his job, already difficult because of the South’s material weak- ness, almost impossible, He was a conservative at the head of a popular revolution. He was proud and con- vinced that his life's many achievements made him bet- {er qualified than those around him to handle the affairs of state. He felt comfortable going it alone. Davis bore grudges and was susceptible to flatery. He never had the seasoned politician's ability to ignore criticism. When he was challenged he struck back. His troubled relationship with Joe Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard hurt the South. His loyalty to Polk, then Bragg and his indulgence of Hood sealed the fate of the Amy of Tennessce. Despite that, it was Davis, who ignoring all of the back-biting and service jealousy, ed Robert E, Lee, from his personal staff, to com- mand the Army of Northern Virginia. He grasped Lee’s ‘areatness and Lee repaid the President’ trust with def- ference and quiet solicitude. It was Davis who stood by Lee after Sharpsburg and after the retreat from UDC Magazine Pennsylvania. There has never been a better relationship between civilian chief and Army commander in the his- tory of war; not Lincoln and Grant; not Wilson and Pershing; not Roosevelt and Fisenhower. Although Davis was warm and genuinely affection- ate to his wife, and to women, children and slaves, he shared no such feelings with those men—other than Lee and A. $, Johnston — upon whom his country’s fate rested, Had he done so the Confederate cause would have been better served. We should also note that in his four years as President, Davis signed not one mili tary death warrant He refused to exact punishment — from seared yeomen sol- diers, AS a soldier, he knew what they suf fered. Lincoln on the other hand ordered hundreds to their deaths, I'm not saying Lincoln was wrong, 1 only point out what happens when the politically correet ‘myth—Davis the cold hearted versus Lincoln the com- passionate—rubs hard against reality Davis abhorred the notion of total war. The idea of \waging war on civilians affronted his dignity as a soldier and a gentleman. When offered the opportunity to plant ‘bombs in the factories of the North he refused, When given the opportunity to take the War to the people of Maryland and Pennsylvania, he issued onders that viola tors of civilian peace were to be arrested and drummed out of the Confederate service. It was left up to the ‘Yankees Sherman and Sheridan to hold the first classes in the bloody practice of modern war. Their lessons were not lost on their many disciples in our horrific century. Thave often tried to put myself in Davis’ place, siting, there in Richmond as the casualty lists rolled in after the first day of the Shiloh buzz saw—thousands were lost ‘No one in American history had borne responsibility for human suffering on that scale, At Shiloh, more men ‘were lost than died in the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the War with Mexico combined. By 1865, the South lost one out every four of her sons. What a borden. We know Davis suffered physically and emotionally. To add to his pain, his youngest son fell to his death from the balcony at the Confederate White House, but like Lee, ‘who also lost a child in the midst of the camage, he car- ried on. It was Robert E. Lee himself, who reminded Davis’ ‘many crities-most of them armchair generals, “invisible in bate and unconquered in peace”— that, “no one could have done a better job than Jefferson Davis and as far as T know no one could have done as wel” Davis inherited no AUGUST 19950 Gy abhorred the notion of total war.. 13 gg ‘government, no armny, and no navy. He had to create every- thing from the Post Office to the Treasury overnight. Single handedly, he acted as Commander-in-Chief, Secretary of War, and as a replacement for a fractious. legislature. Through sheer force of will he organized and commited ‘every resource his country had, while his adversary fought the conflict with one hand tied behind his back. He rode herd on the most talented and eccentric group of general officers in military history. But despite the human frailties, despite the obstacles, without Jefferson Davis, the South could not have survived the first days after Manassas. He ‘made the system which kept the southem armies fighting along a thousand mile front for four years. Inthe end it was avis—more than anyone else—vwho was the living, breath- 1g embodiment of southern nationalism—tall, erect, beholden to duty, protecting his home, his family and his ‘people from those he believed had betrayed the principles ‘upon which his country was founded, Davis was imprisoned after the War, but federal lawyers could find no law or precedent under which to try him for treason, In the dungeons of Fortress Monroe. where he was abused by a sadistic jailer, he was forever ‘martyred to the cause. For a prostrate South, he was an unbroken spirit reminding his people that their cause was honorable and that all would be right in the end. When he died in New Orleans in 1889, the South had never seen such an outpouring of grief. Two hundred ‘thousand people lined the streets of the Crescent City 10 pay their respects. In death, he achieved what he could ‘hot in Tife-what the Greeks call the apotheosis, He had risen from scorn and defeat, renewed and ennobled. As I said earlier, a man is much more than a compi- lation of vital statistics, particularly a man like Jefferson Davis. Davis was a classivist. He was a defender of the ancient verities. He accepted the natural tragedy of life ‘and the limits of man’s power to alter nature's order. ‘And for the first three-and-a-half years of the war that ‘onder included a defense of the institution of slavery, particularly as it pertained to the south’s ability to deter ‘mine its own destiny, Tost add, as the distinguished scholar and historian James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech did here last year, 1 ‘am no apologist for the South, and I have never bought into what Penn Warren and his colleagues called the “moonlight and magnolia school,” where the decorative past replaces the useable past. The South has many Warts. Chattel slavery and its aftermath is a stain on our story as itis a stain on every civilization in history. But slavery was a collective American tragedy. Lincoln lunderstood that there was enough guilt to be spread from Maine to Key West. To view our history and the ferocity ‘of the Confederate soldier solely through the lens of slay- ery and by the slovenly standards of the present is dis- hhonest and a disservice to our ancestors, We can’t su render American history to an enforced political ortho- doxy dictated to our children by attention-starved politi- cians, street comer demagogues, and tenured campus radicals. Even Edwin Yoder of the Washingron Post, not 14 auaust 99s ——District of Columbia Special Issue — ~~ known for his doctrinaire southern conservatism, noted: “A more serious point is that in the clammy climate of political correctness sweeping the land, we are evolv- ing false standards of historical judgement, such that real history is in danger of becoming a dismal mush of sentiment and emotionalism. It was Abraham Lincoln Who decided rather belatedly that the war was to be over slavery. He had not thought it need be at the time of his inauguration. The deeper question was the nature of the ‘union; and a war over the union might have broken out earlier or later over very different issues. Like most ‘other entities the Confederacy was complex, and it is ‘merely silly to think of its history as shameful.” Davis knew that man is capable of bending the best of institutions 10. malevolent purposes. He saw the Confederacy as the true heir to the govemment laid down in 1787. He fought tariffs, taxes and the secret societies which funded the likes of John Brown because they were enemies of liberty. His contempt for the radi- cal abolitionists of the Republican Party — men even Lincoln knew could ruin the country—came not from his defense of slavery but from his fear that they would violate any law and abridge any freedom to impose their idea of the just society on others. They were as menda- cious as the Jacobins of Revolutionary France which placed power and the rule of the chosen above local ‘autonomy and individual rights, Davis saw in their ascendancy an invitation to the tyranny of the mob and the street justice of the guillotine. Like all conservatives he fought them with everything in his power. Davis viewed the Constitution as a document not ere ated to govern the people but created to restrain gover ‘ment or as Mel Bradford said, “a document to bring gov- ‘emment under the rule of law is opposed to achieving any specific purpose." Davis argued that if there was no right 10 secede from a union unfaithful to the founding. princi- ples, then America acquiesced in the growth of central- ized, unrestrained federal power and as the late Richard ‘Weaver pointed out, “conceded an irresistible temptation to the power hungry of every generation.” Davis believed that once the checks of states Were eliminated and there is an unassailable monopoly of power in Washington, there rises only those whose goal isto hold sway over others, So today we are again fighting Davis’ battles. Once ‘again the halls of Congress reverberate with odes to rugged individualism, state sovereignty, and contempt for the cet tralized super-state. These are the bloodless battles Davis ‘could never fight but, they are no less vital forthe future of ‘American civilization. AS our cities decay and our stan- dards and spiritual traditions deteriorate, America is search- ing for a beter way. Walker Percy urged us to look South to recover the community, stability and sense of place in God's order which we have regrettably lost. That is a tll proposition but, itis certainly one Jefferson Davis would Understand and certainly one for which he would fight UDC Magazine