previous next

Chapter 68: Hon. Hugh MacCULLOCHulloch's visit to Jefferson Davis at Fortress Monroe.

The fact of the utter failure of Mr. Davis's health could no longer be concealed by General Miles's assurances of his comfort and the salubrity of his surroundings, and the Honorable Hugh MacCulloch, Secretary of the Treasury, determined to visit the prisoner at President Johnson's suggestion. In his “Men and measures of half a Century,” published in 1889, he describes his interview with Mr. Davis at Fortress Monroe. I have taken the liberty of condensing his statement.

The question what shall be done to the Confederate leader was referred to at Mr. Lincoln's last meeting with his Cabinet. Mr. Lincoln merely remarked in his humorous way: “ I am a good deal like the Irishman who had joined a temperance society, but thought he might take a drink now and then if he drank unbeknown to himself. A good many people think that all the big Confederates ought to be arrested and tried as traitors. Perhaps they ought to be, but I should be [697] right glad if they would get out of the country unbeknown to me.”

This question came up in the case of Jefferson Davis soon after Mr. Johnson became President. Some action must be taken in his case; what should it be? He was the most conspicuous of the enemies of the Government. By the people of the North he was regarded as the arch-traitor upon whose head vengeance should be visited. Should he be liberated, or should he be arraigned for treason? and, if arraigned, should he be tried by a military commission or a United States court? These were questions which required careful consideration both in their legal and political bearings.

The legal question: “Has Mr. Davis been guilty of such acts of treason that he can be successfully prosecuted?” was submitted to the Attorney-General, who, after a thorough examination of it and consultation with some of the ablest lawyers in the country, came to the conclusion that Mr. Davis could not be convicted of treason by any competent and independent tribunal, and that therefore he ought not to be tried. This conclusion was undoubtedly correct. It was a revolution, a general uprising of the South against the Government. The war in which they had been engaged was of such proportions that belligerent [698] rights had been accorded them by foreign governments. Our Government, by exchange of prisoners and other acts, had acknowledged the fact; treason, therefore, could not be charged, nor could one of their number be legally convicted of the crime. It was clear that if Mr. Davis had been guilty of treasonable acts, they were committed in the Southern States, where conviction would be impossible. The President was chagrined by the decision, which was enforced upon the opinions of the Attorney-General and other eminent lawyers. HIe was committed by his vindictive speeches made at the commencement of his administration, but he saw the correctness of it, and from that time he pushed his generosity to those whom he had denounced as traitors to an extreme. Mr. Davis's position made him the most conspicuous, but he was no more guilty than many others against whom no proceedings were contemplated. There was no evidence that he was responsible for the horrors of Andersonville, or the general treatment to which Union soldiers were subjected in Southern prisons. He was, however, kept in confinement until the spring of 1867, when he was brought before the United States Court at Richmond on the charge of treason, and admitted to bail. He was not tried, although he expressed a desire to be, nor [699] was he among those who asked to be pardoned.

When the question was pending, the President sent for me one day and said that he would like to have me go unofficially to Fortress Monroe, and ascertain whether or not the reports that had reached him about the treatment of Mr. Davis were true ...

A few days after the request was made, I was able to comply with it.

On my arrival at the fortress, Mr. Davis was walking upon the ramparts accompanied by a couple of soldiers. I was glad to notice that his gait was erect, his step elastic, and, when he came nearer, that he had not the appearance of one who was suffering in health by his imprisonment. I spent an hour or two in conversation with him.

“ I was,” he said, “ in the first two or three months of my imprisonment treated barbarously, but now I am permitted to have a daily walk, and my present quarters, as you perceive, are such as a prisoner charged with high treason ought not to complain of” --a cot, a small pine table, and two cane-bottomed chairs. The cot and chairs were hard, and of the plainest and cheapest kind, but the room was clean and well lighted. There was not much need of light, for the only book in the room was an old treatise upon military tactics [700] --a subject which was not then especially interesting to the prisoner. Newspapers were forbidden to him. My interview was very pleasant. There have been few men more gifted than Mr. Davis, and few whose opportunities for intellectual culture have been better improved. I had not known him personally, but I knew what his standing was among the able men of the country, and expected to meet in him an accomplished gentleman. To those who knew him well, it is not necessary to say that I was not disappointed, and that I was most favorably impressed with his manner and conversation. I was his first visitor, and he seemed to be pleased with my visit and with the opportunity which it gave to him for a free talk. He was indisposed to say much about himself, and it was only by direct questions that I learned the facts in regard to the barbarous treatment to which he had referred. “ I was,” he said, “when brought to the fortress, not only strictly confined to a casemate, which was little better than a dungeon, but I was heavily ironed. As I had been a submissive prisoner, and was in a strong fortress, I thought that chains were unnecessary, and that I ought not to be subject to them. I resisted being shackled, but resistance was vain. I was thrown violently upon the floor and heavily fettered. [701] This was not all. The casemate in which I was confined was kept constantly and brilliantly lighted, and I was never relieved of the presence of a couple of soldiers. My eyes were weak and sensitive, I suffered keenly from the light, and you may judge how my sufferings were aggravated by my not being permitted for months to have one moment to myself.” I listened silently to this statement, given substantially in his own language; but I felt as he did, that he had for a time been barbarously treated. Chains were unnecessary, and the constant presence of the guards in the casemate must have been to a sensitive man worse than solitary confinement, which is now regarded as being too inhuman to be inflicted upon the greatest criminals. I happened to know some of his personal friends in the West, and he had a great deal to talk about without saying much about himself. He seemed to be neither depressed in spirits nor soured in temper. He could not help saying something about the war, but he said nothing in the way of justification or defence. He had the bearing of a brave and high-bred gentleman, who, knowing that he would have been highly honored if the Southern States had achieved their independence, would not and could not demean himself as a criminal because they had not. The only anxiety he [702] expressed was in regard to his trial, not as to the result, but the time. He thought the delay was unnecessary and unjust. He was kept in prison for two years before he was arraigned and released on bail; and, strangely enough, Horace Greeley and Gerritt Smith, the distinguished abolitionists, were among the signers of his bond. 1

1 Men and Measures of Half a Century, page 408.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Fortress Monroe (Virginia, United States) (3)
United States (United States) (2)
Andersonville, Ga. (Georgia, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Jefferson Davis (11)
Abraham Lincoln (2)
Bradley T. Johnson (2)
Gerritt Smith (1)
W. Porcher Miles (1)
Hugh MacCULLOCHulloch (1)
Horace Greeley (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1889 AD (1)
1867 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: