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.
Several folks have noted online that one of the Confederate reenactors at last Saturday’s Jeff Davis inaugural in Montgomery was an African American woman. Her name is Barbara Marthal, and she’s been active in Confederate heritage activities for years. She is a member of the Tennessee Order of the Black Rose, does public presentations on “black Confederates,” and last spring was married in a Confederacy-themed ceremony (PDF) hosted by the local SCV camp and ladies’ auxiliary. Her commitment to a particular, SCV-endorsed narrative about the war is unquestioned.
I mention Ms. Marthal because, in response to a story on the event at NPR, she posted a comment in which she cited the case of a Civil War relative of hers, Handy Davis Crudup, “who fought for and received a pension from the Confederacy. One hundred fifty years ago he would have cheered Mr. Davis.” The characterization of Mr. Crudup here is interesting, because Crudup’s Tennessee pension explicitly identifies him as a slave, accompanying Pvt. Richard T. Davis of the 7th Tennessee Infantry. This is a salient fact — indeed the most fundamental fact of his wartime experience — but rather than being clear about that, Ms. Marthal instead offers the somewhat ill-defined assertions that Crudup “fought for” the Confederacy, and “would have cheered Mr. Davis.” In place of specific fact, the reader is offered vague assertion and speculation. As with Jefferson Davis in 1861 and his doppelganger in 2011, the mention of slavery is avoided in preference to grander language. I really don’t know how she figures to know Crudup’s likely response to Davis” original speech.
It may seem unfair to examine too closely a comment posted to a news story, but in this case it’s not a quickly dashed-off response. They’re Ms. Marthal’s own words, unfiltered by a reporter or editor. Ms. Marthal’s comment is carefully-worded and clear. It is written in defense of the ceremony in Montgomery, addressed to other NPR readers whose own comments are clearly not sympathetic to her view. And it does as good a job of that as it can. But at the same time it badly misleads the casual reader about Mr. Crudup’s actual wartime status, leaving the clear impression that the man was recognized as a soldier. (Another news story gets closer, saying that Crudup “fought as a slave.”)
Ms. Marthal is clearly committed to her Southern heritage, as she views it. She seems conscientious and sincere, but it’s unfortunate that someone who commits so much time and effort to getting history right, falls into the trap of offering vague-but-grand-sounding language rather than clear and specific wording. We don’t do our ancestors honor by being vague or misleading about who they were. It’s hard enough to try to know them at all; it does no honor to their memory to avoid the unpleasant realities of their lives. They lived those hard, ugly realities; is it too much for us even to acknowledge them directly?
Today the SCV will be sponsoring a sesquicentennial parade and reenactment of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. It will be interesting to see how many folks turn out for this event, and what sort of media coverage it gets.
I’ve never visited the Alabama State Capitol, but it nonetheless resonates with me because of a story told me many times by an old friend. In the summer of 1965 he was in high school, and lived with his family in Houston. The family’s social life revolved around church, where my friend’s father was music director and a deacon, and their vacations usually consisted of going to family reunions. This was not a lot fun for a teenager.
My friend prevailed upon his parents that summer to fore-go the usual family reunion, and instead take a long driving trip across the South, with particular attention to visiting Civil War sites. This was in the last year of the Civil War Centennial, and my friend already had a pretty big fascination with the subject.
Their visit to Montgomery came a few months after the famous Third Selma-to-Montgomery March, which had ended with a rally at the State Capitol, yards from the spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in a century before. My friend remembered that event vividly, and was as interested to see the Capitol as much for that recent history as for its association with the Civil War. One thing he remembered clearly from watching coverage of the anticipated rally was that the capitol steps, at least some of them, had been covered with sheets of plywood. These formed a steep slope, and my friend hadn’t quite figured it out. Maybe, he thought, they’d been put out to allow people in wheelchairs to participate in the rally, but they seemed at too great an incline for that.
So when he actually visited the Alabama State Capitol a few months later, my friend made it a point to ask about the plywood. What was it for, he asked a state trooper on duty nearby. What was the purpose of the plywood covering the capitol steps?
“So the coloreds couldn’t desecrate them,” was the trooper’s answer.
Is it fair that I think of that story every time I see a mention of the Alabama State Capitol or Jeff Davis’ inauguration? Probably not, but the paths our minds take when we think about things, and how we feel about them, often isn’t fair. It just is.
My friend, a son of the South, continued his fascination with the war, and the Confederacy. By his own admission, he bought into the Lost Cause without hesitation, even tacking up an enormous Confederate Battle Flag in his college dorm room at a school that had only desegregated a few years previously. But looking back on his youth now, all these decades later, he sees that offhand comment by the Alabama state trooper at Montgomery, juxtaposed against Jeff Davis’ inauguration and the Selma-to-Montgomery March, to have been the first, crucial step in his questioning of the Lost Cause and developing a more mature, complex understanding of both the history of the war and the historical heritage of his own family. It was the beginning of a hard process of realization, and it took him a long time to understand the realities of those events, and ugly legacies of them that have come down to us, right to the present day.
Added: Scott MacKenzie, via Kevin Levin, attended today’s event (with a little cardboard “UNIONIST” sign) and has the pictures.
Image: Inauguration of Jefferson Davis, Montgomery, Alabama, 1861. Library of Congress.