Chapter 18: marriage, 1845.
My father, W. B. Howell
, lived in a large old-fashioned house called “The briers,” on a “bluff” 1
near Natchez, Miss.
The ground sloped on each side, on the west to a “dry bayou” about one hundred feet or more deep, the sides of which were covered with pines, oaks, and magnolia trees.
On the west there were deep caving bayous, washed in the yellow clay by the drainage to the river bank, about one-eighth of a mile from us.
Mr. Joseph E. Davis
came to see the family when I was sixteen, and urged my mother to let me go to him for a visit.
After much insistance the request was accorded; but as I was reading hard then to finish my course of English and Latin classics, it was not until the next year that the visit was made.
In those days the only mode of communication was by boat, or by going to Vicksburg
and driving thirty-six miles back down stream.
Therefore, under the care of our life-long and intimate friend, Judge George Winchester
, of Salem, Mass.
, a jurist of renown in Mississippi
, we took the old Magnolia
steamboat, the week before Christmas
, 1843, and went up to the Diamond Place
, the home of Mrs. David McCaleb
, the eldest daughter of Mr. Joseph E. Davis
, whose plantation is thirteen miles north of “The Hurricane.”
The steam-boats at that time were literally floating palaces of ease and luxury.
They were much larger then than now, and I have never seen any hotel where the food was so exquisitely prepared or the provision of dainties so great.
Fresh fruits and the most beautiful flowers were sent to the captain at almost every stopping-place by the planters and their families, to whom “the boat” meant ice, new books, and every other luxury New Orleans could furnish or their purses command.
A journey on one of these packets was an ideal mode of travel.
I hope I may be excused for paying here a passing tribute to Judge Winchester
, a saintly man, to whom I owe the little learning I have acquired, and also the realization of my childish ideal of “Great-heart.”
He was an eminent lawyer, an incorruptible jurist, a strong thinker, and a devoted, self-sacrificing, faithful friend.
His charity was as
wide as his horizon.
He taught me for twelve years gratuitously, and in the hard methods that a learned man is apt to adopt who has no experience in the art of pedagogics.
During that period the most valuable lessons I learned were not from the Latin
classics — in the former of which he was a proficient scholar, and remembered them well because he loved them-but from the pure, high standard of right of which his course was the exemplar.
His politics, like my father's, were what was then called Whig, as, indeed, were those of most of the gentlefolk of Natchez
Everybody took the National Intelligencer
, then edited by Messrs. Gales
, who were men of sterling honesty, with strong Federal views.
They held Mr. Van Buren
's name and fame as anathema.
They believed all they published, and, as a consequence, the Whigs
In every argument the statements of the National Intelligencer
were of frequent reference, and as to facts, accepted by both sides.
These papers gave, in stately periods, the six weeks old news from the “under world,” and, as they were English
was often the theme.
We knew then more about Lord Brougham than about the Czar of Russia
, more of the Duke
than of Bonaparte
had removed the
Treasury deposits from the national banks, thereby ruining half the people of the South
; and this added to the detestation felt by “the best people” for the Democratic
principles and theories.
was not yet admitted into the Union
, and the poor fellows who were ruined by their speculating proclivities had gone there by the thousand to wipe off the long score against them and begin anew.
Albert Sidney Johnston
had been, as far back as 1840, Secretary of War
of the new republic.
Then, as they did ever afterward, the hearts of the people trusted in him.
The Whig ladies, many of them, had what were called “sub-Treasury brooches” --small shell cameo-pins on which was carved a strong box with immense locks, and a little bloodhound chained to the lock and lying on watch.
The Whig children were told, “Martin Van Buren
wants to set these dogs on your family.”
However, I have strayed far afield and must return to the subject of these memoirs.
, on his way to a preliminary caucus at Vicksburg
, his first essay in political life, came by the Diamond Place
on horseback, en route
. He brought a message from his brother that he would expect me at once.
The next day Miss Mary Bradford
, Mr. Davis
's niece, afterward Mrs. Richard Brodhead
, of Pennsylvania
, came up on horseback, accompanies
by a servant-man leading a horse with a lady's side-saddle.
The old-fashioned high swung carriage and pair came also to bring my impedimenta
, and “all in the blue unclouded weather” we rode over the rustling leaves through the thick trees to “The Hurricane.”
was then thirty-six years old, and looked about thirty; erect, well-proportioned, and active as a boy. He rode with more grace than any man I have ever seen, and gave one the impression of being incapable either of being unseated or fatigued.
From an old letter to my mother I quote my first impressions of him:
To-day Uncle Joe sent, by his younger brother (did you know he had one?), an urgent invitation to me to go at once to ‘The Hurricane.’
I do not know whether this Mr. Jefferson Davis is young or old. He looks both at times; but I believe he is old, for from what I hear he is only two years younger than you are. He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me; yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself.
The fact is, he is the kind of person I should
expect to rescue one from a mad dog at any risk, but to insist upon a stoical indifference to the fright afterward.
I do not think I shall ever like him as I do his brother Joe.
Would you believe it, he is refined and cultivated, and yet he is a Democrat!
So wrote this little miss of seventeen of the future hero and statesman!
“The Hurricane” house stood in many acres of splendid oaks, and the main part of the building had low ceilings; a wide hall with four rooms on the lower floor, as many on the second story, and the same number in the attic.
The windows were small, the walls were thick, and the doors were panelled below, and had six small panes of glass above.
On the right-hand side of the hall were the drawing-room and the “tea-room,” where the ladies sat; on the other, was a bedchamber and the “office.”
There the brothers sat when they were not riding over their plantations, and talked of books, of elementary law, of agricultural experiments, commented upon the day's doings, and made and perfected theories about everything in heaven and on earth.
Mr. Jefferson Davis
read aloud to his brother the Congressional debates, and often when his eyes were tired one of the ladies was summoned to finish the speech under consideration.
While I was there I often took my turn, and greatly enjoyed their comments.
The house was surrounded by wide galleries that ran nearly all around it, upstairs and down.
Below, the floor was paved with bricks, which were reddened industriously.
To the west was a large annex of two rooms forty-three feet long and twenty-five wide.
The lower one was a dining-room, paved also and cemented.
The upper one was arched and called the “music-room,” where the young people sang and played, acted charades, gave mock concerts, and improvised games, while the family portraits looked stolidly down upon our antics.
There was a little store-room adjoining Mr. Davis
's bedroom below stairs, out of which came, in the most astonishing and unexpected variety, candy, negro shoes
, field implements, new saddles and bridles, fancy plaid linsey or calico dresses for the negro women who needed consolation for a death in their families; guns and ammunition for hunting, pocket-knives
, nails, and screws.
This little closet was an ark, of which Mr. J. E. Davis
kept the key, and made provision for the accidental needs of “each one after his kind.”
At the back of the house was an immense garden of rare roses and shrubs, flanked by eight acres of peaches, figs, and apples.
On the east side of the house was a very large barn and stable, in which thirty stalls contained horses — a part for the use of the family and the guests, and the rest for the brood horses owned by the brothers.
The riding-horses were fast rackers, broken with care and ridden enough by the stablemen and the innumerable guests to make them gentle.
Here was Highland Henry
, a large red bay, that glowed golden in the sun; his lean head and popped eyes, as he craned his neck over the fence, always commanded the admiration of the lovers of horses and elicited a cake from the ladies of the house.
He was both fast and strong, but, his eyes having failed, his former owners had withdrawn him from the turf, after he had won several races, and sold him. Black Oliver
, a Canadian horse that had also won several races, went like the wind, and he stretched out so in running that he came alarmingly near the ground; he was the sire of the then-renowned Davis
One of these was taken from our plantation when the Federals
were in possession and given to General Grant
, who said he was the best horse in his stable.
There was the gray Medley, an iron-gray horse, coarser than the other two, strong-limbed and of wonderful muscle, but of most vicious temper; and a wild horse from the plains
west of the Rocky Mountains
, dun-colored, with black legs, mane, and tail.
He had a certain rolling of the eyes, and a free, airy motion of the head and neck that gave a suggestion of a deer, and was very noticeable.
All his colts had the same carriage, united to a wonderful amount of endurance.
Both the brothers were good and fearless horsemen, and they were pitiful to their beasts, and talked of them in the most affectionate tones; they often gave them to friends, but never sold one.
It was the gray Medley which gave rise to my husband's constant expression about tergiversating politicians.
The gray Medley
's groom was a dwarfish, odd, little negro called Randall
; he had been very often warned about the temper of the horse, but grew careless, approached too close to him, and at last was mortally injured.
Mr. J. E. Davis
was leaning over the poor fellow, much distressed, when Randall
sighed out, “It is in the breed of them gray Medleys, you never kin trust 'em,” and died.
From that time, when Mr. Davis
distrusted a man he said, “He is a gray Medley, and it's in the breed of them.”
While engaged in these quiet and varied pursuits Mr. Davis
was called to run, in the autumn of 1843-44, as a forlorn hope for the legislature from Warren County
that the county was Whig by a large majority, and that he could not be elected.
He was defeated, of course, but decreased the Whig
Next year, 1844, he was nominated elector for Polk
, and went out on an active campaign.
At that period it was a general canvass, as the State
had not been districted, and there was no railway throughout the length of it, except a short road from Vicksburg
, and six miles of unused track from Natchez
to the little town of Washington
, which General John Anthony Quitman
had been instrumental in having laid down.
The majority of travellers went by stage-coaches, and these made only one weekly trip, so that the candidates for office either bought a carriage and horse, or horses, but more often the former, and drove by easy stages from place to place, or rode on horseback with an old-fashioned pair of leather saddle-bags strapped on behind the saddle, stopping at such gentlemen's houses as were on the road, where they were hospitably received and entertained, and where the offer of remuneration would have been considered an insult.
The negro servants might be amply feed, but not the masters.
told me an amusing anecdote of one of these visits.
He was driving, that
summer, a handsome pair of roached ponies, that were full brothers, almost exactly alike.
In the morning he asked for a match.
The negro said, “They are eatin‘ their breakfests, sir.”
He repeated his request for a match, and the negro brought round the horses, by which he found they had been called “The match,” by the stable-boy.
If the house happened to be near the place of “the speaking,” then the household joined the cavalcade and went in to hear it. Not unfrequently three or four candidates travelled together, and very often the opponents accompanied each other to the combat.
There was one candidate for a minor office who had a remarkable memory, and the power of exact yet graceful mimicry developed to a wonderful degree.
On several occasions he took the place of men who were indisposed, with whom he was travelling, and, verbatim
, repeated their speeches in exactly the manner and phrase, and he was a good-looking, sensible, friendly mimic.
He did this for Mr. Davis
once, amid the plaudits of the crowd, and one of the old countrymen told him, “Ef you had a looked like Jeff Davis
you'd a been perfec, but thar's whar the crowd got you.”
Before Mr. Davis
's departure for the canvass of 1844, in January, we became engaged,
and early in February I returned home.
He followed within a week, and after a short visit addressed himself to the work he had undertaken.
Riding in the sun, and late in the dew, in midsummer, always gave him malarial fever.
So these journeys were generally succeeded by long attacks of illness, and the fever affected his eyes greatly; finally, they brought on an attack of amaurosis, and impaired the sight of one.
When he came to Woodville
in this canvass he found that his mother lay dead in his sister's house.
He was much overcome by her death, and after the funeral rode forty miles to see me for an hour in Natchez
; and, taking a fresh horse returned to Woodville
and kept his appointment to speak there that night, having ridden the greater part of the night previous.
His mind dominated his body in so great a degree that he was able to endure nearly what he pleased.
The suddenness with which my husband sprang at once into the political arena, and found his adherents ready armed to cooperate with or follow him, has often been a matter of surprise.
Perhaps it was the years of continuous study and calm comparison of opinions with a wise and prudent man like his elder brother, which gave him the certainty of thought that
led to the fluency that flows from it. He used to say that there was an instinct among human beings which recognized any mask-“be it ever so natural” --and if ever a man was “rooted and grounded” in his political faith my husband was. I told him once I should not go to hear him again, for he talked “on the stand” as he did at home.
Though no man was less open to the accusation of saying all he believed, he sincerely thought all he said, and, moreover, could not understand any other man coming to a different conclusion after his premises were stated.
It was this sincerity of opinion which sometimes gave him the manner to which his opponents objected as domineering.
After the canvass for Mr. Polk
had closed with his election, in the spring of 1845, Mr. Davis
came down to Natchez
for his wedding.
On the steam-boat he met General Zachary Taylor
for the first time since he left Prairie du Chien
, and the general approached him most cordially An entire reconciliation took the place of the unexpressed but friendly regard which had never ceased to exist in all those years of mutual grief and separation.
I had been quite ill, and could not then undertake the ceremony; but some three weeks afterward he came on a short visit, and we concluded to marry then.
On February 26, 1845, at “The briers,” in the presence of my family and some of his, we were married.
The Reverend David Page
, of Trinity, the pastor of the Episcopal church of Natchez
, performed the ceremony.
After a breakfast to our friends, we left on a tour of visits to his family at Bayou Sara
, and from thence to New Orleans.2
On our visit to Woodville
I was introduced to Mr. Davis
's mother, who, though she could not leave her chair, and had attained her eighty-fifth year, was still fair to look upon.
Her eyes were bright, her hair was a soft brown, and her complexion clear and white as a child's. His dutiful attentions to her, and the tender love he evinced for his sisters and family, impressed me greatly.
His sisters were both like him, and were spirited, intelligent women, with strong convictions of duty and a wonderful inborn dignity that is not to be acquired by education: it is a gift.
After our visit was finished we went to the St. Charles
, then the first hotel in New Orleans.
A great many fashionable people were there, but one of those I remember most
there, but one of those I remember most clearly now was Mr. Wilde
the poet, whose sonnet, “My life is like a summer rose,” had made quite a local success.
He was the uncle, I think, of the poet and aesthete Oscar Wilde
A soiree was given the evening we reached the hotel, and first among the guests his figure impressed me. He was then about thirty-four or five, slender, and very refined in manner, with flashing black eyes, and a singular pallor of complexion.
He was the first poet I had ever encountered, for my journeys had been of the character so happily described since as “Autour de ma Chambre
While I was listening attentively to his sprightly talk, and expecting his flow of conversation to become rhythmical, my husband came up, bringing General Gaines
, who, at the request of some lady friends, was in full uniform.
He was not a tall man, hardly — as my memory serves me--five feet ten inches tall.
He had a fine military bearing; a good, compact head; stern blue eyes, and carried himself very proudly.
His manner of talking was very peculiar; he halted between every two or three words in this manner: He was asked what he thought of General Scott
's plan of retaining the French
words of command in his “System of tactics.”
He responded, “I a — think, sir,
that — a — the — a English language is a — sufficiently copious — to express — a — all the ideas that — a General Scott
will — a — ever have.”
As will readily be seen the two generals were not friendly.
, then a laughing, brown-eyed little woman, unwhipped of social conventionalities, not because she did not understand them, but because she understood them and was naturally lawless, was very attentive to her feeble old hero.
She told me, in a pause of the conversation, that she was always uneasy about him; and he, when hearing his own name, looked at her and said, “A --what, my dear?”
She responded, “I said you were the best and dearest old General in the world.”
He praised my husband as “An — a-incomparable adjutant, and the most — a — fearless and — a — dashing young — a — soldier of — a — his day,” and I believed him; and confided to him, in a foolish little way, what I thought of Mr. Davis
, and how much my husband thought of and loved him; and we found each other mutually agreeable.
In about six weeks we returned to Brierfield
, our home, and took up our abode in a “cat and clayed” house, situated in the centre of, and behind, a magnificent grove of oaks, and flanked by thrifty fig-trees; the Quarter houses
being to the right and left of us. The building was one of my husband's
experiments as an architect, and he and his friend and servant, James Pemberton
, built it with the help of the negroes on the plantation.
The rooms were of fair size, and opened on a paved brick gallery, surrounded by lattice-work; but some miscalculation about the windows had placed the sills almost breast high.
The outer doors were six feet wide, but on these he especially dwelt as most desirable for admitting plenty of cool air; however, when they were opened, the side of the house seemed to be taken down.
The fireplaces were very deep, and looked as though they had been built in Queen Elizabeth's time, to roast a sheep whole.
It was a cool house, comfortably furnished, and we passed many happy days there, enlivened by daily rides, in which we indulged in many races when the road was smooth.
The game was more abundant then than the chickens are now. Wild-geese, in great flocks, made fat by the waste corn in the fields; wild-ducks by the thousand, and white
cranes adorned almost every slough, standing on one leg among the immense lily-pads that yet cover the low places with lemon-colored flowers as large as coffee-cups.
In these scenes and occupations we passed many happy days, looking after the sick negroes, reading and writing, and visiting our
neighbors and the Hurricane every day. We always expected to build another house, but it was not finished for five years after our marriage, and, though it was much more pretentious-indeed for that day a fine housethe other always seemed “home” to me.