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Chapter 71: letters from prison.

From Mr. Davis to Mrs. Davis.1

Fortress Monroe, Va., October 11, 1865.
... On the second of this month I was removed to a room on the second floor of a house built for officers' quarters. The dry air, good water, and a fire when requisite, have already improved my physical condition, and with increasing health all the disturbances due to a low vitality, it is to be expected, will disappear as rapidly as has been usual with me, after becoming convalescent. I am deeply indebted to my attending physician, who has been to me much more than that term usually conveys. In all my times of trouble, new evidences have been given me of God's merciful love. ... The Herald claims to give me regular information concerning my family, but if it did contain such news, as I only get occasionally a copy, the promise would be unfulfilled. ... I have lately read the [721] “Suffering Saviour,” by the Reverend Dr. Krumacher, and was deeply impressed with the dignity, the sublime patience of the model of Christianity, as contrasted with the brutal vindictiveness of unregenerate man; and with the similitude of the portrait given of the Jews to the fierce prosecutions which pursued the Revolutionists after the restoration of the Stuarts. One is led to ask, Did Sir Henry Vane and the Duke of Argyle imitate the more than human virtue of our Saviour, or was their conduct the inspiration of a conscience void of offence in that whereof they were accused?

Misfortune should not depress us, as it is only crime which can degrade. Beyond this world there is a sure retreat for the oppressed; and posterity justifies the memory of those who fall unjustly. To our own purblind view there is much which is wrong, but to deny what is right is to question the wisdom of Providence or the existence of the mediatorial government. ...

Every intelligent man knows that my office did not make me the custodian of public money, but such slanders impose on and serve to inflame the ignorant — the very ignorant — who don't know how public money was kept, and how drawn out of the hands of those who were responsible for it. My children, [722] as they grow up and prove the pressure of poverty, must be taught the cause of it; and I trust they will feel as I have, when remembering the fact that my father was impoverished by his losses in the war of the Revolution.

Our injuries cease to be grievous in proportion as Christian charity enables us to forgive those who trespass against us, and to pray for our enemies. I rejoice in the sweet sensitive nature of our little Maggie, but I would she could have been spared the knowledge which inspired her “grace,” and the tears which followed its utterance. As none could share my suffering, and as those who loved me were powerless to diminish it, I greatly preferred that they should not know of it. Separated from my friends of this world, my Heavenly Father has drawn nearer to me. His goodness and my unworthiness are more sensibly felt, but this does not press me back, for the atoning Mediator is the way, and His hand upholds me.2

I hope the negroes' fidelity will be duly [723] rewarded, and regret that we are not in a situation to aid and protect them. There is, I observe, a controversy which I regret as to allowing negroes to testify in court. From brother Joe, many years ago, I derived the opinion that they should then be made competent witnesses, the jury judging of their credibility; out of my opinion on that point, arose my difficulty with Mr. C ,3 and any doubt which might have existed in my mind was removed at that time. The change of relation diminishing protection, must increase the necessity. Truth only is consistent, and they must be acute and well trained, who can so combine as to make falsehood appear like truth when closely examined.

For, say, three months after I was imprisoned here, two hours consecutive sleep were never allowed me; more recently it has not been so bad, but it is still only broken sleep which I get at night, and by day my attention is distracted by the passing of the sentinels who are kept around me as well by day as by night. I have not sunk under my trials, am better than a fortnight ago, and trust I shall be sustained under any affliction which it may be required me to bear. My [724] sight is affected, but less than I would have supposed if it had been foretold that a light was to be kept where I was to sleep, and that I was at short intervals to be aroused, and the expanded pupil thus frequently subjected to the glare of a lamp ... There is soon to be a change of the garrison here. I will be sorry to part from many of the officers, but as they are to go home I should rejoice for such as are entitled to my gratitude. Au reste, as I cannot control, so I may hope for the best.

I have not seen Jordan's 4 critique, and am at a loss to know where that game was played and was lost by my interference. If the records are preserved they dispose summarily of his romances past, passing, and to come. The events were of a public character, and it is not possible for men to shift their responsibility to another. Everyone who has acted must have made mistakes, and the best defence he can make to the public, and the only one beneficial to his conscience, if he has changed his theory, is to confess it; let him whose opinions are unchanged conform his action to changed circumstances, and [725] both classes may preserve their integrity and live and work in harmony. Our life is spent in choosing between evils, and he would be most unwise who would refuse the comparative good thus to be obtained. History is ever repeating itself, but the influence of Christianity and letters has softened its harsher features. The wail of destitute women and children who were left on the shore of Cork after the treaty of Limerick, still rings in the ears of all who love right and hate oppression; but bad as was the treatment of the Irish then, those scenes of which you were reading not long before you left Richmond, enacted by Philip of Spain in the Low Countries, were worse. The unfortunate have always been deserted and betrayed; but did ever man have less to complain of when he had lost power to serve? The critics are noisy-perhaps they hope to enhance their wares by loud crying. The multitudes are silent, why should they speak to save him who hears best the words most secretly uttered? My own heart tells me the sympathy exists, that the prayers from the family hearth have not been hushed. ...

... John Mitchel has been released. He was permitted to take leave of me through the grates, and he offered to write to you. I have not seen our friend Clay for some time, [726] not having been out to walk lately on account of a series of boils, or a carbuncle with a succession of points, which rose in my right armpit, and has prevented me from putting on my coat since the day I last wrote to you. I believe the disease is now at an end, and but for the rain I would have gone out to-day. I will comply with your repeated request for a description of my room, and hope the reality may be better than you have imagined the case to be. The room is about 18X20 feet; is situated at the corner in the second story of a long two-story house which stands under cover of the main parapet, and was built for officers' quarters. In the centre of the end wall, is a fireplace; in the centre of each of the other walls is a door. The one opposite to the fireplace opens into the room occupied by the officer of the guard for the day, the one on the south side looks out on a gallery which runs along the building, and, beyond, is a limited view of the interior of the fort; the one on the north side connects with a passage dividing the building. The doorway into the officer's room is closed by an iron grating, with locks on his side of it, and, turning on hinge, affords the means of exit. The gallery door is closed by a fixed iron grating with glazed sash shutters outside. The passage doorway is closed by iron grating, and a panel [727] shutter into which are inserted two panes of glass. Sentinels are no longer kept in the room I occupy. One sentinel only now walks back and forth along the gallery, one along the passage, and one in the officer's room, so as to give each of the three a view through his door of the interior of the room. They cause the broken sleep concerning which you ask. I have endeavored to overcome the distraction and annoyance this constant passing causes in the day, and to resist its disturbing effect at night; the success has not, however, been commensurate with the effort. Formerly the circumstances were much worse; and, before changes were made, a morbid condition had been produced so that wakefulness is continued by less than would have produced it. My bed stands in the corner of the walls of the gallery and officer's room; on the opposite corner is the water-bucket, basin and pitcher, and a folding screen which enables me to wash unobserved. On the gallery side of the chimney is a recess with a shelf for books, and pegs to hang up clothes. On the opposite side of the chimney, a closet. The bed is the common form of iron frame, two mattresses, sheets, blankets, and a cover with pillows and mosquito bar. Breakfast is sent to me about nine; dinner about four; and tea would be sent if I desired it. The food is [728] suited to my condition, and I have had no occasion to ask for change or addition. The chair, though coarse, is so much better than the one I had before it, as to be comparatively satisfactory; a stand, such as is commonly used in hospital wards, serves me as a table, and for the present there is a stool which answers for a washstand. My clothes are not with me, except those in immediate use. My valise was taken charge of by General Miles. I have not seen it since. I much regret that you did not keep the things which had a value from association, instead of leaving them in the valise.

Fortress Monroe, Va., November 3, 1865.
I am sustained by a Power I know not of. The Protector of the fatherless and the widow, I am permitted to hope, hears your prayer. Your trust that the Son of the righteous will not be forsaken has also been to me the suggestion of comfort. When Franklin was brought before the privy council of George III., and a time-serving courtier heaped the grossest indignities upon him, he bore them with composure, and afterward attributed his ability to do so to the consciousness of innocence in the acts for which he was reviled. ... I have no means of communicating [729] with any one but you, and, as I understand the orders, all communications to you must pass through Washington, and be viseed.

... What, under Providence, may be in store for us I have no ability to foresee. I have tried to do my duty to my fellow-men, and while my penitent prayers are offered to our Heavenly Father for forgiveness of the sins committed against Him, I have the sustaining belief that He is full of mercy; and, knowing my inmost heart, will acquit me where man, blind man seeks to condemn. From our mediating Saviour I humbly trust to receive support, and, whatever may befall me in this world, to have justice dictated by Divine Wisdom and tempered with Divine mercy in the next.

Kiss dear little Winnie for me, and, as she grows, teach her how her father loved her when she was too young to remember. Try to make my thanks to Mr. Schley and the ladies equal to my gratitude. ... My faith tells me that our merciful Father will give us whatever it is expedient we should have. ...

Fortress Monroe, November 21, 1865.
To make the best of the existing condition is alike required by patriotism and practical [730] sense. The negro is unquestionably to be at last the victim; because, when brought into conflict, the inferior race must be overborne; but it is possible to defer the conflict and to preserve a part of the kind relations heretofore existing between the races, when a lifelong common interest united them. The object is worthy all the effort. To be successful, the policy must be as far removed from the conservatism that rejects everything new, as from the idealism which would retain nothing which is old. If catch-words determine who shall mould the institutions and administer the affairs of the Southern States --the deluge. Though neither a spectator nor an actor, a life spent more in the service of my country than in that of my family, leaves me now unable to disengage myself from the consideration of the public interests ... The best source of patience is the assurance that the world is governed by infinite wisdom, and that He who rules only permits injustice for some counterbalancing good of which the sufferer cannot judge.

I yielded to your renewed request, and wrote minute description of my room, its furniture, the beats of the sentinels, etc.; that part of my letter was objected to 5 and was [731] rewritten accordingly. Let me renew the caution against believing the statements of correspondents in regard to me. To calumniate a state prisoner and thus either gratify or excite hatred against him, is an old device, and never was a fairer opportunity presented to do so without the fear of contradiction than is offered in my case.

November 22d. It is six months since we parted, and I know no more of the purpose in regard to me than I did then. Measured by painful anxiety for you and your helpless charge, these months are to me many, many years. From the anguish and doubly painful trial, because I could learn nothing of you, I have extracted the consolation of increased pride and fully sustained confidence ... I do take care of my health; all the motives you enumerate are ever before me; and others, of which you are less apt to think, furnish me the strongest inducements to desire life and strength to vindicate my conduct, at least to posterity, and for my family. Be hopeful-trust in “the faithful Promiser.” Let us with faith and charity look out for a better morrow. ... Shut out from the ever-changing world, I live in the past with a vividness only thus to be accounted for. ...


Fortress Monroe, Va., December 7, 1865.
I am deeply impressed by the kindness of the Bishop, and that of the priests who have so nobly shown their readiness to do their Master's work in relieving the afflicted and protecting the fatherless. They have sent thus the sweetest solace to one in the condition of Him, who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. I feel with you, that God has been very good to us ...

Reagan I knew to be a true-hearted, consistent man, and I never gave the least heed to the newspaper reports which attributed to him participation in censorious remarks against me during his confinement at Fort Warren. Some men I had to trust because of the confidence others had in them. When disaster fell upon me their desertion did not surprise me.

I recently saw that Davis had been arrested; also, that a general petition for his release has been gotten up in North Carolina, which it was expected would be effectual. The proverb in relation to the desire of misery for companionship is not realized by me in this matter of imprisonment. I would that, like one of old, it were for me to say, I alone am left. To me — as it must to you — it is sometimes a puzzle to find the rule of discrimination. In such a situation Hume's balance [733] is peculiarly to be sought. ... As natural rights belong only to those who can maintain them, so natural affections and excitements are only safe to those who are not unnaturally restrained.

I have been reading “ Thoughts on Personal Religion,” by Dr. Goulburn. His instructions as to prayer have impressed me particularly. Howlike is the experience of men. It is no small encouragement to a sinner striving for a better state, to find that those who have, atleast in the world's estimation, won the crown of glory, had passed through such tribulation as he is beset with. Did it never occur to you how much evil is done by the use of a text startling in its terms, and so iterated and reiterated that any explanation of its meaning by reference to other texts bearing on the same subject is lost? It occurred to me, after last writing to you, that something of that kind might have happened to you in regard to forgiveness; and I regretted not having pointed out the illustration of his meaning which our Saviour gave in the parable of the King who took an account of his servants. When we shall pass into the future state of pure intelligence, so as to judge not by external signs but by the inner motives, how different men will appear to each other from the estimates of their carnal life! May [734] it not be that we shall then find our most earnest efforts at self-examination brought us but to a poor knowledge of ourselves?

Though my prison life does not give me the quiet of solitude, its isolation as to intercourse affords abundant opportunity for turning the thoughts inward; and, if my self-love, not to say sense of justice, would have resisted the reckless abuse of my enemies, I am humbled by your unmerited praise. It teaches me what I ought to be, and lifts my eyes to Him whose all-sufficient grace alone can raise me to your ideal standard. With the communion of the Church, I am not alone, nor without remembrance that the burthen is not permitted to exceed the strength. I live and hope.

The “heavy erasures” concerning which you inquire, assuming that they were made by me, as the Attorney-General had politely informed you that he did not do it, were not by my choice. To your repeated requests to be informed as to my room, my clothes, and the change of garrison as affecting me, I replied in the letter to which you refer. Two leaves containing the answers to the two first questions were returned to me as matter which would not be forwarded, and they were rewritten omitting the answers described. Subsequently my attention was called to a [735] sentence on another page, responding to your inquiry about the new garrison, and stating a consequent alteration in the matter of sentinels, which I was required to obliterate. I drew the pen through it and sent it back. General Miles afterward told me that it had still been legible as I left it, and added something not distinctly heard beyond the point of main interest, that the letter had been sent.

My incarceration followed four years of terrible war. The North put forth its whole capacity on land and sea, by ball and bayonet, striving to retain the South in one Government with it; the South strained every nerve to maintain a separate existence. By the newspaper, to-day, I see that the North, as represented in Congress, stands quite united to keep the South out of the legislative halls of the Union, and the South, wistfully looking at the closed entrance, stands outside-and then she is told she has all the time been inside ...

The ways of Him who doeth all things well are inscrutable to man. Let us learn to say, “not mine but Thy will be done.” The bitterness which caused me to be so persistently slandered, has created a sentiment which will probably find vent in Congressional speeches, and test all your Christian fortitude. Remember that the end is not yet. A fair [736] inquiry will show how “false witnesses have risen up against me and laid to my charge things that I knew not of” If you will recall the very early period when I was warned by letter that an emissary had been sent to Montgomery to assassinate me, you will see misconception of my position and a cruel desire for my destruction are not new-born. When the truth is revealed, the more honorable and manly of my enemies will recoil from further association with the others. Truth and the common sense of justice will generally protect the innocent, where the trial is according to the due course of law, and is sure to vindicate the memory of a victim. ... There is an unseen hand which upholds me, save when my thoughts are concentrated on the objects of my dearest love and greatest solicitude. Perhaps He will give me that strength hereafter. In the many friends He has raised up for you, there is the promise of that peace to come. ...

December 8th. Another day has succeeded the night. The sun has risen bright, and the cold bracing air invites animal life to activity. To me there is the same monotonous round of prisoner's life in military confinement, such as is not known to the usages of war in cases like mine. I am, however, thankful for the power to bear, and trustful that the [737] power will be given me to bear in patience. In a former letter I mentioned to you that the trunk you had sent with clothes had arrived. I notice that the shirts are new, and it excites the inquiry whether you have been robbed of those which you took with your baggage when you left me in Richmond.6 ... If the field where the events of Jordan's intrigue occurred was near to Drury's Bluff, Colonel Melton knows how my designs were frustrated, and how little the promise accorded with the action on the unwise plan substituted for mine. A letter to Mr. Seddon put it beyond the power of anyone to falsify that affair. It was sent by General Beauregard the day before he undertook the execution of his own plan, to account for the change he made, and from which, when it failed, he endeavored to escape by blaming Whiting and Ransom.

After faithful self-examination it is permitted to me to say, I have not done to others as they do unto me. There is no occasion, now, to make Frankensteins. Like ready-made clothing, they wait in abundance for customers. When Roberts grew angry with Byron, you know he charged him with being miserable because of a soul of which he could not get rid. The sentinel has stamped with such [738] noise, back and forth, in front of me, that, until another and more quiet walker comes on, and I recover from the effect produced by the attempt to write under such difficulty, I will desist . ...

Somebody writing from Augusta to the Boston Advertiser, makes an extraordinary statement about a letter said to have been written to someone in Columbus, by Mr. A. H. Stephens, immediately after the Hampton Roads conference-containing the assertion that terms not humiliating to the South could be obtained, but that I and my principal advisers did not want peace. Of course Mr. S. could not have said anything of the sort, as he had been twice employed to seek peace, and, on the last occasion, made a report, written and oral, showing that no negotiation would be entertained. He was pressed to enlarge the written report by the addition of such conclusions and impressions as the confidential nature of a part of the conference would permit, but though the two other commissioners appeared willing to do so, Mr. S. strongly objected, arguing that the bare recital of facts was the best presentation of the case to the public mind. Now, as it would have been dishonest to conceal from me such an opportunity as is described, and treacherous to the people to have given such an account as it [739] was thought would most certainly lead them to the opposite conclusion, I take it that someone is slandering Mr. Stephens, and so publicly that even a philosopher might be moved to correct it. ... There has been certainly much zeal displayed in the planting and cultivating of prejudice against me, but many of the stories are so absurd that it required a morbid state of opinion to receive them.

Dobbin7 always was sterling; his father and his mother were pure gold. Tell him how gratefully I recognize his care for my children. ... On the whole, it must be more comfortable to be the deceived than the deceiver. Sometimes I feel that there is a real compliment in the trust displayed by some of my slanderers, to whom it must occur that, with a single breath, I could topple over the miserable fabric. ...

In the time when nations were ruled by arbitrary power, the Catholic priests stood between the despots and their victims, sublimely defying the rage of one, and divinely bending to raise the other. From time to time the heroic spirit of that ancient line has been called forth, and in plague, pestilence, and famine, in the wilderness and on [740] fields of blood, in the prison, on the scaffold, and among the deserted mourners, nobly have they maintained the glory of their order. ...

I would write more freely if I knew that the Attorney-General only inspected my letters, but, as I send them open and don't know how they are forwarded, and do know that objections have been made here to the contents of a letter enclosed to the Attorney-General, I conclude that they are read before they reach him, and may be stopped on the way.

1 the intervening letters are simply records of suffering, deprivation, and fortitude under the trial.

2 Little Maggie was told she might write to her father if she said nothing objectionable to the authorities. She thought long, and as she was then a very small girl, wrote with difficulty; after days of labor she copied the 23d psalm “The Lord is my Shepherd, ... ” and with tearful eyes brought it to me, signed with her name, saying, “This letter will comfort father, and will not make the Yankees mad, will it?” The letter was suppressed.

3 An overseer who gave up his place with us, on account of the negroes being allowed a hearing in their own defence.

4 A publication made by General Jordan, in Harper's Monthly of 1865, calculated to inflame the minds of the North against Mr. Davis, with a note appended by General Beauregard, scarcely less hostile and offensive.

5 By General Miles.

6 These were demanded from my trunk and given for his use to the messenger sent for them from the fort,

7 William Preston Johnston.

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