Chapter 1: ancestry and boyhood.

Jefferson Davis was born in 1808. He died in 1889. During the intervening period of over fourscore years, by his stainless personal character; by his unflagging and unselfish devotion to the interests of the South; by his unsurpassed ability as an exponent and champion of her rights and principles, as well as by his distinguished public services in peace and war, and his high official station, he was universally regarded, both at home and abroad, as pre-eminently the representative of a great era, a great cause, and a great people.

The era is closed, the cause sleeps, but the people survive, and revere the memory, and mourn him dead, whom, living, they delighted to honor. It is for them that I write this memoir and vindication of his political action. In vindicating him I also vindicate them; for he spent [2] his long life in their service, and was rewarded with their love and confidence from his cradle to his grave.

In the fulfilment of this sacred task I shall endeavor to be guided by the spirit that inspired him during his whole life — a spirit of unswerving devotion to truth and duty, of unyielding antagonism against all assailants of justice, without regard to their prejudices or their numbers, but mindful of the fact that every opponent, even to the death, is not necessarily an enemy, and that sincerity of belief is entitled to respectful consideration even when found arrayed against us. I shall endeavor to do exact and equal justice to the antagonists of the South, as well as to her leaders; “naught to extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.” If I fail, it will be because my love for the Southern people, and their lost cause and leader, may unconsciously influence my judgment of the men and beliefs that were arrayed in deadly conflict during the war between the States.

As to the plan of the work, I shall endeavor, as far as possible, to make the book an autobiography — to tell the story of my husband's life in his own words; to complete the task he left unfinished. For, during the last year of his life, after having spent the summer in preparing “A Short History of the [3] Confederate States,” he yielded to the repeated requests, both of his personal friends and publishers, to write an autobiography.

Shortly before his last journey to Briarfield he dictated to a friend, as an introductory chapter, this account of his ancestry and early boyhood. He was too weak to sit up long at a time, and lay in bed while his friend and I sat by and listened. No verbal or other change has been made in the dictation, which Mr. Davis did not read over:

Three brothers came to America from Wales in the early part of the eighteenth century. They settled at Philadelphia.

The youngest of the brothers, Evan Davis, removed to Georgia, then a colony of Great Britain. He was the grandfather of Jefferson Davis. He married a widow, whose family name was Emory. By her he had one son, Samuel Davis, the father of Jefferson Davis.

When Samuel Davis was about sixteen years of age his widowed mother sent him with supplies to his two half-brothers, Daniel and Isaac Williams, then serving in the army of the Revolution. Samuel, after finding his brothers were in active service, decided to join them, and thus remained in the military service of Georgia and South Carolina until the close of the war. After several years of [4] service he gained sufficient experience and confidence to raise a company of infantry in Georgia. He went with them to join the revolutionary patriots, then besieged at Savannah.

At the close of the war he returned to his home. In the meantime his mother had died, and the movable property had been scattered. The place was a wreck. It was a home no more; so he settled near Augusta. His early education had qualified him for the position of county clerk, and the people, who had known him from boyhood, gave him that office.

There was only one political party in those days — the Whigs. The Tories had been beaten or driven away. During his service in South Carolina he had met my mother, and after the war they were married. Her maiden name was Jane Cook. She was of Scotch-Irish descent, and was noted for her beauty and sprightliness of mind. She had a graceful poetic mind, which, with much of her personal beauty, she retained to extreme old age. My father, also, was unusually handsome, and the accomplished horseman his early life among the ‘ mounted men’ of Georgia naturally made him. He was a man of wonderful physical activity.

At this point of the narrative my husband was interrupted by a question, which he answered [5] by relating this anecdote about his father:

The last time I saw my father he was sixty-four years of age. He was about to mount a tall and restless horse, so that it was difficult for him to put his foot in the stirrup. Suddenly he vaulted from the ground into the saddle without any assistance. He was usually of a grave and stoical character, and of such sound judgment that his opinions were a law to his children, and quoted by them long after he had gone to his final rest, and when they were growing old.

Mr. Davis then continued his dictation:

My parents lived near Augusta, Ga., where they had a farm, on which they resided until after the birth of several children, when they moved to what was then known as the Green River country, in the southwestern part of Kentucky. There my father engaged in tobacco — planting and raising blooded horses, of which he had some of the finest in the country.

I was born on the 3d of June, 1808, in what was then Christian County. The spot is now in Todd County, and upon the exact site of my birthplace has since been built the Baptist church of Fairview.1 [6]

During my infancy my father removed to Bayou Teche, in Louisiana; but, as his children suffered from acclimatization, he sought a higher and healthier district. He found a place that suited him about a mile east of Woodville, in Wilkinson County, Miss. He removed his family there, and there my memories begin.

My father's family consisted of ten children, of whom I was the youngest. There were five sons and five daughters, and all of them arrived at maturity excepting one daughter. My elder brother, Joseph, remained in Kentucky when the rest of the family removed, and studied law at Hopkinsville in the office of Judge Wallace. He subsequently came to Mississippi, where he practised his profession for many years, and then became a cotton-planter, in Warren County, Miss. He was successful both as a planter and a lawyer, and, at the beginning of the war between the States, possessed a very large fortune.

Three of my brothers bore arms in the War of 1812, and the fourth was prevented [7] from being in the army by an event so characteristic of the times, yet so unusual elsewhere, that it may be deemed worthy of note. When it was reported that the British were advancing to the attack of New Orleans, the men of Wilkinson County, who were then at home, commenced volunteering so rapidly that it was deemed necessary to put a check upon it, so as to retain a sufficient number at home for police purposes. For this purpose a county court, consisting of a justice and quorum, ordered a draft for a certain number of men to stay at home. This draft stopped my brother, who was about to start for New Orleans-making him the exception of my father's adult sons who were not engaged in the defence of the country during the War of 1812.

The part of the county in which my father resided was at that time sparsely settled. Wilkinson County is the southwestern county of the State. Its western boundary is the Mississippi River. The land near the river, although very hilly, was quite rich. Toward the east it fell off into easy ridges, the soil became thin, and the eastern boundary was a ‘ pine country.’ My father's residence was at the boundary line between the two kinds of soil. The population of the county, in the western portion of it, was generally composed [8] of Kentuckians, Virginians, Tennesseeans, and the like; while the eastern part of it was chiefly settled by South Carolinians and Georgians, who were generally said to be unable to live without ‘lightwood’ 2which is fat pine. The schools were kept in log-cabins, and it was many years before we had a “County Academy.”

Mississippi was a part of the territory ceded by Georgia to the United States. Its early history was marked by conflicts with the Spanish authorities, who had held possession, and who had a fort and garrison in Natchez.

During the administration of President Adams a military force was sent down to take possession of the country. It was commanded by General Wilkinson, for whom the county in which we lived was named. He built a fort overlooking the Mississippi, and named it, in honor of the President, Fort Adams. There is still a village and river-landing by that name.

My first tuition was in the usual log-cabin school-house; 3 though in the summer, [9] when I was seven years old, I was sent on horseback through what was then called “The wilderness” --by the country of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations — to Kentucky, and was placed in a Catholic institution then known as St. Thomas, in Washington County, near the town of Springfield.

In that day (1815) there were no steamboats, nor were there stage-coaches traversing the country. The river trade was conducted on flat-and keel-boats. The last-named only could be taken up the river. Commerce between the Western States and the Lower Mississippi was confined to water-routes. The usual mode of travel was on horseback or afoot. Many persons who had gone down the river in flat-boats walked back through the wilderness to Kentucky, Ohio, [10] and elsewhere. We passed many of these, daily, on the road.

There were, at that time, places known as Stands, where the sick and weary ofttimes remained for relief, and many of these weary ones never went away. These Stands were log-cabins, three of them occupied by white men who had intermarried with the Indians. The first, in the Choctaw nation, was named Folsom; then came the Leflores, known as the first and second French camps. The fourth was that of a half-breed Chickasaw, at the crossing of the Tennessee River. When the traveller could not reach the house at which he had intended to stop, he found it entirely safe to sleep, wrapped in blankets, in the open air. It was the boast of the Choctaws that they had never shed the blood of a white man, and, as a proof of their friendship, they furnished a considerable contingent to the war against the Creek Indians, who were allies of the British.

The party with which I was sent to Kentucky consisted of Major Hinds (who had command of the famous battalion of Mississippi dragoons at the battle of New Orleans), his wife, his sister-in-law, a niece, a maid-servant, and his son Howell, who was near my own age, and, like myself, mounted on a pony. A servant had a sumpter mule with some [11] supplies, besides bed and blankets for camping out. The journey to Kentucky occupied several weeks.

When we reached Nashville we went to the Hermitage. Major Hinds wished to visit his friend and companion-in-arms, General Jackson. The whole party was so kindly received that we remained there for several weeks. During that period I had the opportunity a boy has to observe a great man-a stand-point of no small advantage-and I have always remembered with warm affection the kind and tender wife who then presided over his house.

General Jackson's house at that time was a roomy log-house. In front of it was a grove of fine forest trees, and behind it were his cotton and grain fields. I have never forgotten the unaffected and well-bred courtesy which caused him to be remarked by court-trained diplomats, when President of the United States, by reason of his very impressive bearing and manner.

Notwithstanding the many reports that have been made of his profanity, I remember that he always said grace at his table, and I never heard him utter an oath. In the same connection, although he encouraged his adopted son, A. Jackson, Jr., Howell Hinds, and myself in all contests of activity, ponyriding [12] included, he would not allow us to wrestle; for, he said, to allow hands to be put on one another might lead to a fight. He was always very gentle and considerate.

Mrs. Jackson's education, like that of many excellent women of her day, was deficient; but in all the hospitable and womanly functions of wife and hostess she certainly was excelled by none. A child is a keen observer of the characteristics of those under whom he is placed, and I found Mrs. Jackson amiable, unselfish, and affectionate to her family and guests, and just and mild toward her servants. The undeserved slanders that had been launched against her for political purposes had served to render her husband more devoted to her, and her untimely death was unquestionably the heaviest grief of his life.

Our stay with General Jackson was enlivened by the visits of his neighbors, and we left the Hermitage with great regret and pursued our journey. In me he inspired reverence and affection that has remained with me through my whole life.

1 In 1886 Mr. Davis attended and made a speech at the presentation of his birthplace to the trustees of the Baptist congregation. All the surviving friends and neighbors of his father and of his own boyhood were present, and received Mr. Davis with the tenderest affection. It was my husband's last visit to his birthplace, and gave him much pleasure. The house was taken down, moved, and reerected as a parsonage on a lot adjacent to the new church.

2 The necessity for “fat pine” is not understood now that lucifer matches are in such general use. It is hard to recall when they were invented, but I remember when a flint and a piece of punk were the precarious means of “striking a light,” and when the kitchen fire was of nearly as great importance as the sacred flame of India, and kept up religiously by the cook.

3 At this time Jefferson and his little sister Pollie used to take a basket of luncheon and walk to school. She was two years older than he, but he thought he must take care of her. There used to be a peripatetic chair-mender who carried home his. work in stacks on his head. He often got so drunk as to stagger aimlessly about, and at these times was quarrelsome, not to say dangerous; but, at all events, he was an object of terror to the children. One day they were in the thickest and loneliest of the woods on their way to school, and they saw him, as they supposed, with his load poised high above him, reeling along in the road, coming directly toward them. The five-year-old hero took his sister's hand and said, “We will not run ;” so they stood terrified, but waiting the old drunkard. Instead of the legs of chairs it was the antlers of a splendid buck, which walked up quite near to these babes in the wood, looked at them for some minutes, and turned off. They stood their ground; but it was a wild beast to them.

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