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Chapter 5: West Point, 1818-25.

Genealogy of the Howell family-lieutenant Howell's visit to Natchez-his marriage-purchase of Hurricane plantation-visit to West Point.

The friendship between the Davis family and my own began about this time.

My grandfather, Major Richard Howell, was born in Delaware.1 His great-grandfather was a Howell of Caerleon, Monmouth County. One of the sons moved to Caerphilly, Glamorganshire, Wales, where he was “seated” until he moved to Delaware about 1690, and became a large planter there. One of his daughters married Colonel John Read, “the signer.” Richard, the father of William B. Howell, was a practising lawyer in Mount Holly, N. J., before the Revolution, and his only brother, Lewis, was a surgeon.

Richard Howell married Keziah Burr, a member of the Society of Friends, and upon the breaking out of the war of the Revolution [44] he joined the Continental forces among the first and raised a company. He eventually became major of a regiment.

Major Richard Howell, of the New Jersey Continental line, was born in Delaware, in 1753. He first signalled his patriotism in November, 1774, by assisting in destroying the tea landed by the Greyhound, at Greenwich, N. J.

In 1775, Richard Howell was captain of the Fifth Company, Second Battalion, in the first establishment of the New Jersey line.

November, 1775.--The battalion was placed in garrison on the Highlands, on the Hudson.

February, 1776.-He accompanied his battalion to Canada, in the expedition against Quebec, and his company fired the first gun on the plains of Abraham.

September, 1776.-Appointed Major, Second Regiment, New Jersey troops, General Maxwell's brigade, Major-General Stevens's division.

Major Howell participated in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, with such marked distinction as to merit and receive the commendation of General Washington.

The day before the battle of Monmouth Major Howell had leave of absence to visit [45] his dying twin brother, Surgeon Lewis Howell; but the unexpectedly near approach of the armies led him to remain and, prepared for his journey as he was, in citizen's clothes, to fight in the ranks as a private. General Washington commended him warmly for his selfsacrifice. When the battle was over he was too late and never saw his brother afterward.

At the personal solicitation of General Washington he was selected, for his known qualities, to go upon a secret mission of an honorable character to New York, which was then in possession of the British. He not only accomplished the object of his mission, but secured a quantity of clothing for the ragged troops, for which he personally paid. He made no claim to have the money returned, and never received it.

After the war Major Howell returned to the practice of the law, and in course of time became Chancellor of the State.

The New Jersey State Gazette, of May 4, 1802, says:

In 1788 he (Richard Howell) was appointed Clerk of the Supreme Court, which office he held until 1793, when he was elected Governor of the State, to which honorable station he was for eight terms re-elected successively. From failing health he declined another tender of the office. With a highly cultivated mind and improved [46] understanding, Governor Howell displayed a heart of unbounded benevolence, a temper easy and equable, and manners polite and engaging.

He died on the Wednesday “preceding” the 4th of May, 1802.

Governor Howell's daughter, Sarah, afterward Mrs. James Agnew, of Pittsburg, Pa., with General James Chesnut's mother, were appointed, with ten other young ladies of high social position, to scatter flowers in General Washington's path at the Trenton bridge, and Governor Howell wrote the poetic welcome which was recited upon his arrival.

My father, William Burr Howell, was the fourth son of Governor Richard Howell and Keziah Burr. When quite young he was appointed an officer in the Marine Corps, and served with distinction under Commodore Decatur in the war of 1812, in the engagements on the lakes. Though quite ill, he had come on deck to participate in the fight. At one time the fire was so hot that a stool was shot from under him, and a tin cup of water, which was being handed to him at the same time, was struck out of his hand by another ball. He was three times commended in orders for extraordinary gallantry in action. His brother, Franklin Howell, was killed by a splinter on the President, [47] and instead of the “bad bust” which Byron dreaded, was commended in orders, and his name printed “John Howell” in a book entitled “The naval monument.”

After peace was declared my father came in 1815 in a flat-boat down to Natchez, to look at the country; he was then an officer on half-pay and on leave. Very soon after he reached there he became intimate with Mr. Joseph Emory Davis, who was practising law. They became so mutually attached that when, in 1818, Mr. Joseph E. Davis, attracted by the great fertility of the alluvial land on the Mississippi River, called by the settlers “the bottoms,” had taken up a section of the “wild land,” thirty-six miles below Vicksburg, in Warren County, in the State of Mississippi, he proposed to my father, who thought of leaving the United States Navy, to join him in the purchase and cultivation of the land; but, after riding over the tract, my father feared the malarial effect of the lowlands upon his health and declined.

Scattered about through this land, and adjoining it, were some small holdings of twenty-five or thirty acres. These Mr. Joseph E. Davis bought, so that he became the owner of the splendid body of land now known as “Davis bend.” Mr. Davis had but little money left after paying for his large tract of [48] land, and he took his father's negroes and a few of his own with which to “open a place,” i.e., to clear and cultivate it, which he did with great success.

A part of this tract he sold at little more than government price to friends, who would, he hoped, become good neighbors; a large proportion of it is now owned by the heirs of General Quitman. He reserved to himself about five thousand acres in one tract, which is still owned by the Davis family. Very soon after he began to cultivate the place, a dreadful storm tore away the improvements so far made, killed the little son of his brother Isaac, his active partner in the purchase, and Mr. Isaac Davis's leg was broken. From this time the place was called “The Hurricane,” a name which it bears to this day. Mr. Joseph Davis continued the practice of law until his marriage, in 1827, when he retired to “The Hurricane,” which he made his home until the fall of New Orleans threw the country above that city open to invasion.

In 1823, Mr. Howell married Miss Margaret Louisa Kempe, third daughter of Colonel James Kempe. Mr. Davis acted as groomsman, and the first child born to the young couple, a boy, was named Joseph Davis after him. He had previously known my mother [49] when a little girl at school, and been fond of her rosy face and sprightly prattle. Thus the intimacy begun between the families, grew apace and ripened into three intermarriages in three generations.

Colonel Kempe, who by birth was an Irishman, commanded a company at New Orleans, and then at Pensacola, in the same war. He was a man of classical education, many accomplishments, of large wealth, great liberality, and led in all patriotic enterprises in the home of his adoption.

In 1825 my father was advised to go north for the health of his eldest child, Joseph Davis, and he, my mother, and their baby's nurse, in company with Mr. Joseph E. Davis, took a carriage, and with two led horses drove through “The wilderness” to the crossing on the Ohio River, and there took a boat for Brownsville. These journeys then consumed months of weary travel, and must have required the travellers to be in the enjoyment of good health to bear them. After crossing the Ohio they met in the stage Mr. Cruikshank, the English caricaturist, and Robert Dale Owen, the founder of New Harmony. Mr. Cruikshank was a genial, cheery, old gentleman, who played with the baby and noted all the facial peculiarities of the people they met on the road. At that early date the [50] characteristic type of the American face was not as apparent as it is now, and he noticed the trace of different strains of blood which had been mingled with the Anglo-Saxon. He stated a fact which has been verified since in a great measure by observation, that every man who painted a picture of the Blessed Virgin or of our Lord — no matter of what nation the model might be — gave to it the unmistakable type of his own nationality.

Mr. Owen used to begin his conversations by saying, “Man is the creature of surrounding circumstances.” He was one day very busy explaining his theories of the proper mode of treating children in infancy to Mr. Joseph E. Davis. He said that the most impartial person was the best guardian and educator for a child from infancy. For instance, an aunt was a better nurse than a mother, and a friend than either; that a child would not cry violently more than twice if laid in a cradle and left alone. Its common-sense would teach it that the scream did not bring any relief and it would stop. Mr. Cruikshank, who was dandling little Joe, said, “Those were cowardly civilized British babies, were they not, Joe? You Americans will teach Mr. Owen better than that.”

These agreeable men rendered the journey pleasant, and at last the cheery young people [51] reached New York in safety, and bade their English friends an unwilling farewell.

Mr. Joseph E. Davis was so anxious to see his “little brother” that as soon as practicable the whole party went up to West Point. As the boat neared the landing a very stout, florid, young fellow of about eighteen came running down to the landing-place and caught Mr. Joseph E. Davis in his arms. He said little, but my mother was struck by his beautiful blue eyes and graceful strong figure. He slipped his hand through his brother's arm and sat very close to him, but otherwise made no manifestation of feeling except a silent caress. My mother spoke of his open bright expression in a letter preserved, and my father mentioned that young Jefferson Davis was a “promising youth.” Mr. Davis remembered her exceeding beauty and changing color. This was their first acquaintance with the man who was to be their son-in-law twenty years afterward. The party remained a few hours and returned to New York.

A fellow-cadet thus speaks of Cadet Davis:

Jefferson Davis was distinguished in the corps for his manly bearing, his high-toned and lofty character. His figure was very soldier-like and rather robust; his step springy, resembling the tread of an Indian ‘ brave’ on the war-path.


While at West Point Mr. Davis came near escaping all the anguish and turmoil of his life by a fall. He and Emile Laserre, a fellow-cadet, went down to Bennie Havens's on a little frolic — of course without leave. There was a rumor of one of the instructors coming, and the two young men rushed off by a short cut to get back to barracks, and Cadet Davis fell over the bank, and as he afterward found, he had been precipitated sixty feet to the river bank. Fortunately he caught at a stunted tree, which broke the force of his fall, though it tore his hands dreadfully. Young Laserre looked over the face of the rock and called out, “Jeff, are you dead?” Mr. Davis said he was suffering too much to laugh, remembered the desire to do so, but could only move one hand. He lay ill many months afterward, and was expected to die for some weeks.

One of the professors, at sight, had taken a great dislike to Cadet Davis. There was never a recitation which did not witness a duel of eyes or words between them. The professor was popular with the rank and file of the class, but for some reason or other these two were especially antipathetic. The professor tried to entrap the boy into errors in recitation, and he, in turn, endeavored to find an opportunity to “get even” with the man in [53] authority. One day the professor was giving a lecture on presence of mind being one of the cardinal qualities needful for a soldier. He looked directly at his young enemy and said he doubted not that there were many who, in an emergency, would be confused and unstrung, not from cowardice, but from the mediocre nature of their minds. The insult was intended, and the recipient of it was powerless to resent it.

A few days afterward, while the building was full of cadets, the class were being taught the process of making fire-balls, and one took fire. The room was a magazine of explosives. Cadet Davis saw it first, and calmly asked of the doughty instructor, “What shall I do, sir? This fire-ball is ignited.” The professor said, “Run for your lives,” and ran for his. Cadet Davis threw it out of the window and saved the building and a large number of lives thereby. A person to whom a friend was telling the story in Mr. Davis's presence asked him if he did not take a great risk. He said, “No, I was very quick, and felt sure I had time to ‘try him.’ ” General Thomas Drayton wrote of this circumstance: “Jeff, by his presence of mind, saved many lives and also the building from being demolished.” His horror of oppressing the weak was exhibited throughout his life, and though the [54] professor grew old, honored by the generality of the cadets, Mr. Davis never changed his opinion of him.

In 1826, at Christmas, there was a great riot in the corps of cadets. Cadet--, his room-mate, was discovered and dismissed with several others. Davis was implicated unjustly. Because his room-mate had been mistaken for him he would not explain, and consequently was under arrest for a long period, and his already numerous demerits received a considerable addition.

He did not pass very high in his class, but attached no significance to class standing, and considered the favorable verdict of his classmates of much more importance.

Cadet Davis's pay at West Point was the only money he had ever earned, and after the first month he laid aside a goodly portion of it, albeit a small amount, each month, and sent it to his mother, who once or twice returned it to him, but on finding that it distressed him, kept it, much to his delight. His distinguishing trait, after that of mercy, was filial love and duty.

During all his life he remembered his old companions at West Point, and wrote many loving words to General Crafts, J. Wright, his old and dear friend Sidney Burbank, Professor Church, Professor Mahan, and others, who had been friendly or kind to him there.

1 For some of these particulars I am indebted to my friend and cousin, General Meredith Read, of the United States Army, who is too much esteemed and too widely known to need other introduction to my readers. For other data I am obliged to my cousin, Justice Daniel Agnew, of Beaver, Pa.

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