Did Jefferson Davis’ Son Serve in the U.S. Navy?
Slave quarters on Jefferson Davis’ plantation, Library of Congress.
Did Jeff Davis’ son by an enslaved woman serve in the U.S. Navy on the Mississippi?
Over at Civil War Talk we had a discussion over this item that appeared, almost word-for-word, in numerous Northern newspapers beginning in February 1864:
The London Star of January 15th says a letter from a gentleman occupying a high position in the United States, contains the following story: This reminds me says the writer, that Jeff. Davis’ son, by his slave girl Catherine, was in the Federal service on board of one of our gunboats, in the Mississippi, for several months—a likely mulatto. Among the letters of Jeff, taken at his house by our Illinois troops, there was a batch of quarrelsome epistles between Jeff. and Mrs Davis, touching his flame Catherine. Mrs. Davis upbraided her husband bitterly. I have this story from one of the highest officers in the squadron, who had the negro Jeff. on board his gunboat, and who himself read the letters and suppressed them.
It sounds exactly like the sort of scurrilous accusation that Northern readers would want to hear about Jeff Davis, like the story the following year about his being captured by Federal troops while wearing a dress. It has the ring of tabloid-y trash, and it’s easy to dismiss on that account.
However, there’s another, longer story from the Bedford, Indiana Independent of July 13, 1864 (p. 2, cols. 3 and 4) that, while differing in several details, largely supports the claim in the London Star, and provides substantial corroborative detail:
Jeff. Davis and His Mulatto Children — Abolitionists are constantly accused in copperhead papers of trying to bring about an amalgamation of whites and blacks; but those papers are very careful to conceal from their readers, as far as possible, such facts as those related in the following extract of a letter from an officer in the Army to a Senator in Washington: “While at Vicksburg, I resided opposite a house belonging to a negro [sic.] man who once belonged to Joe Davis, a brother of Jeff. Learning this, I happened one day to think that he perhaps would know something about the true story told in the London Times, that there was a son of Jeff. Davis, the mother of whom was a slave woman, in our navy. The next time I met the man I asked him if he had ever known Maria, who had belonged to Jeff. Davis, and was the mother of some of his children? He replied that he had not known Maria, but that he knew his Massa Joe Davis’ Eliza, who was the mother of some of Massa Jeff’s children. I then inquired if she had a son in the navy? He replied that she had — he knew him — they called him Purser Davis. He said that Eliza was down the river some thirty miles, at work on a plantation. The next day, as I was walking down the street, I met the man, who was driving his mule team, and he stopped to tell me that Eliza had returned. A few moments afterwards he came back, and pointing to one of two women who came walking along, he said she was the one of whom we had been talking. When she came up, I stopped her, and inquired whether she had not a son who would like to go North. She replied yes and added that she would like to go too. I told her that I only wanted a lad. She said that her son had gone up the Red River on board the gunboat Carondelet, but when he returned she would be pleased to have him go. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘some say that Jeff. Davis is your son’s father — do you suppose it’s so?’ ‘Suppose,’ she cried with offended pride, ‘I’s no right to suppose what I knows — am certain so. Massa Jeff. was the father of five of my children, but they are all dead but that boy, and then I had two that he wasn’t the father of. There’s no suppose about it.’ Perhaps if the boy gets back safe on the Carondelet, you may see him in Boston some of these days.”
Here’s where it gets interesting. The correspondent recorded the young Carondelet sailor’s name he was told as “Purser Davis.” There was, in fact, not a Purser Davis, but a Percy Davis in the crew of U.S.S. Carondelet at that very moment. According the NPS Soldiers and Sailors System, a fourteen-year-old named Percy Davis was enrolled for a term of one year as a First Class Boy on the ship at Palmyra, Mississippi on November 16, 1863 — almost exactly two months before the original news item appeared in London. He remained on board Carondelet at least through the muster dated January 1, 1865. Davis is described as being mulatto in complexion, and five-foot-one. Percy Davis gave his birthplace as Warren County, Mississippi — the county of Vicksburg, and where both Jefferson Davis and Joseph E. Davis were major slaveholders, with 113 and 365 slaves respectively at the time of the 1860 U.S. Census.
Does this prove the original story is true? No, but it does add considerable additional detail, some of which is corroborated. The first news item is vague, without any specifics, but the second is detailed and at least partly verifiable. There’s enough here that the claim of Davis’ natural son having served aboard a Union gunboat cannot, in my view, be dismissed out-of-hand as Civil War tabloid trash. The possibility of its truth merits further digging.