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Chapter 74: after release in 1867, to 1870.

When Mr. Davis was released, we were pecuniarily prostrate, our plantations had been laid waste and seized. The little money we had, had been sent by the Southern cities to me for my maintenance, and to give him comforts in prison. Poor in purse but moderate in our wants, we turned our faces to the world and cast about for a way to maintain our little children, four in number, Margaret, Jefferson, William, and Varina.

Mr. Davis's fate hung upon the action of the United States Courts; we knew that one effort had been made to suborn a witness,1 but he was fortunately a Confederate, and died in preference to the infamy. My brothers were unable to trust themselves in the country; Becket on account of the Sum/er and Alabama, and Jefferson, whose causeless imprisonment had for a time invalided him. We had little, and my husband's health was apparently [797] hopelessly gone. His emaciation was very great, and long imprisonment had left him with a lassitude very noticeable to those domesticated with him.

As soon as practicable we proceeded to Canada to rejoin our children, who had been under the care of my strong-hearted old mother and young sister. Great was the joy of our reunion, but the motion and life about us drove my husband wild with nervousness; he said the voices of people sounded like trumpets in his ears. He and my mother sat together in loving accord and talked of old times, and the noisy ones remained with me; but like Casper Hauser, long restriction had stiffened and impaired my powers, I could not think clearly or act promptly, difficulties seemed mountain high, the trees and flowers sheltered and bloomed for others, I knew they were fair, but they were not for me or mine. Our children, except the babies William and Varina, were at school in Montreal, and we concluded to remain there for the summer.

After Mr. Davis became somewhat stronger he went to Niagara and Toronto, to visit Mr. James M. Mason, and a number of other Confederates who had not yet returned home, and with cheerful intercourse among friends he slowly improved.

His friends desired to know something of [798] his life in prison, but he was always disinclined to speak of injuries inflicted upon himself, and had a nervous horror of appearing to be a victim. Once, after a man had annoyed him dreadfully with questions about his imprisonment, he said, “I imagine there are no quidnuncs in heaven, else Lazarus must have envied Dives the alienation of his companions below.”

He felt the pressing need there was, while the events were fresh in his mind, to write a history of the Confederacy, and I thought my desire to assist him would overcome any patriotic memory. Mr. Davis sent for the letter and message books, which had been secretly taken from their place of concealment, sent to Canada in the trunk of our sister, and deposited in the Bank of Montreal. We looked over them to mark, for copying, such of the contents as would be of use, and I was to copy and arrange them by dates. We came very soon upon this telegram.

Danville, April 9, 1865.
General R. E. Lee:
You will realize the reluctance I feel to leave the soil of Virginia, and appreciate my anxiety to win success north of the Roanoke. ... I hope soon to hear from you at this point, where offices have been opened to keep up the current business, [799] until more definite knowledge would enable us to form more definite plans. May God sustain and guide you.

Jefferson Davis.

All the anguish of that last great struggle came over us, we saw our gaunt, half-clothed, and half-starved men stand vibrating with courage to their finger-tips, their thin ranks a wall of fire about their homes; we saw them mowed down by a countless host of enemies, overcome, broken in health and fortune, moving along the highways to their desolated homes, sustained only by the memory of having vindicated their honor. He walked up and down distractedly, and then said, “Let us put them by for awhile, I cannot speak of my dead so soon.”

Thus the history was deferred from year to year, to the day when greater calmness should enable him dispassionately to write the record of our people's glory.

One by one my brothers and sisters joined us in Montreal, and our mother rejoiced in having her children once more together. Her health had long been precarious, and after some months, much to Mr. Davis's regret, she went to a Southern friend in Bennington, Vt., for a visit.

In the meantime we had moved to Lenoxville, [800] to be near Bishop's College for our little boys, as there was a good dame school attached. We were fairly comfortable at the hotel, notwithstanding that the servants about the table invariably condensed the menu of our good plain fare into the invitation, “Beef or beans?”

My mother was seized with a severe illness in Bennington. I went there to bring her almost in extremis as far as Montreal, and in Bennington had additional proof of how far party and sectional rancor could carry people, and how pitiless they become. She was old, exceptionally weak, could not rally, and died at the house of Mr. John Lovell, whose family gave us every care and assistance that friendship could render.

In our mother Mr. Davis lost his dearest friend, and “as much of virtue as could die” perished with her. He mourned sincerely, and the sense of our loss deepened our gloom, but no despairing word was uttered by him, he looked forward hopefully to his vindication by a fair trial, and longed for the time to be set.

In the autumn of 1867 Mr. O'Conor, after incessant efforts, aided by men of all parties, succeeded in getting a time appointed for the decision of Mr. Davis's case, either for trial or a nolle prosequi, but both would have [801] preferred the former as a test question. As winter drew on Mr. Davis was summoned to Richmond, but the nolle prosequi was filed.

It was a somewhat inglorious sequel to the threats of the United States Government “to make treason odious.” A man who asked only a fair trial on the merits of his case, had been held on an accusation of treason and assassination, in close confinement, with circumstances of unnecessary torture, for a year and a half, and constrained to remain in Fortress Monroe for two years, to the injury of his health and the total destruction of his interests, not to dwell upon the separation from his family and home. He was denied a trial, while his captors vaunted their “clemency” in not executing their victim. These accusations were either true or false. He asked neither indulgence nor pardon, but urged a speedy trial, constantly expressing his ardent desire to meet it. He could not obtain one-yet the accusation of complicity in assassination was never withdrawn, and the epithet of “traitor” was hurled at his head by every so-called orator, patriot, or petty penny-a-liner in the North.

His deeds had not been done in a corner, he had openly avowed his principles before leaving the United States Senate. If he was the arch-conspirator who inspired and compelled [802] the act of treason, why was he not arrested then and there, before he had accomplished the ruin of the Southern States and cost them and the United States millions of money and thousands of valuable and innocent lives? If, on the contrary, he was unwillingly borne to the position of chief Executive of eight millions of people of the South, who knew their rights and thought it incumbent upon them to maintain them, why was he, who was one of the last to yield to the dread necessity of strife, held more accountable than those whom he had tried to restrain?

Does anyone believe that if a warrant could have been found in the Constitution for the epithet of traitor, and if the fear of his entire justification by its provisions had not prevailed, that any feeling of mercy or pity would have saved the prisoner from execution, and his name from being one universally execrated both North and South? Instead, he was left to follow his course of dignified seclusion, “by all his country's honors blessed,” among his own people, by whom, as well as by many at the North, he was beloved as much as he was esteemed. Might prevailed, but could not wrest from us the right of secession, or lawfully punish its assertion. “Dormitur aliquando; jus moritur nunquam.” [803]

The Canadian winter proved too severe for Mr. Davis's enfeebled frame, and he was advised to spend it in the South. After a pleasant visit to our dear friends, Mr. Charles Howard's family, in Baltimore, whose four brave sons had fought on the Confederate side with courage worthy of their ancestors, we sailed for New Orleans via Havana. We reached Havana just before Christmas, and in time to see the flower-wreathed arches which had been erected in honor of the new Captain-General, who had been installed the day before.

There we were warmly welcomed by Mrs. Sarah Brewer. She was a Southern woman of a respectable family, who owned and had successfully kept a hotel there for years. Her liberality and kind offices to the Confederates had been the theme of many panegyrics by them, and we found her kindness had not been exaggerated.

It seemed strange to give our luggage in charge of Don Juan, a quiet little old Cuban, very unlike Lord Byron's hero. The brightcolored houses which presented faqades of green, pink, and blue, before which Moro Castle stood guard and glowed a soft rose color, seemed very strange, but were after a little while generally in harmony with the brilliant tropical foliage and flowers that peeped out everywhere throughout the city. [804]

After a week spent there, during which we received many visits from Spanish gentlemen and ladies,who dumbly testified their good-will, we continued our journey to New Orleans.

The warmth of the welcome here no words can describe. One man finding that he could not penetrate into the St. Charles Hotel from below, climbed up the pillar that supported the balcony on which Mr. Davis stood, and seized him in his arms, the tears pouring over his face. As we proceeded to visit our family the most cordial manifestations of good feeling were made everywhere on the journey. One old Methodist minister stretched out his arms to Mr. Davis, and looking up reverently, said: “Now, Lord, let Thy servant depart in peace, since I have seen his salvation.”

We found our property all destroyed, our friends impoverished, and our old brother very feeble, but cheery. As many of our negroes as could, came to see us, and Mr. Davis paid a few hours' visit to the rest at Brierfield and Hurricane, witnessed the destruction the enemy had worked, which had blotted out the labors of his life, and after a few weeks we returned to Lenoxville. Perhaps it was owing to the cumulative sorrow over the changes wrought in his life, but this journey did not work the expected improvement in his health, and his emaciation did not decrease. His [805] physician feared entire nervous prostration would supervene. Our means were narrow, and we could not travel with our large family of little children without incurring great expense, and a general tour through Europe was under the circumstances impracticable. While vexed by every anxiety that could torture us, in coming down a long flight of steps with baby Winnie in his arms, Mr. Davis fell from the top to the bottom, breaking three of his ribs. His first question after he came out of the fainting fit into which he sank, was for the baby, and the next was a request that I should not see him die. He lay on the verge of eternity for many days, and then there was no question of the proper course for us. Our physician insisted on an entire change of climate and scene, and we decided to join our friends, the Rawsons, who were “going home” from Canada.

While in Lenoxville, we received notice that the father of a Federal spy who had been executed, had announced his intention of killing Mr. Davis. We remembered that “threatened men live long,” and thought no more about it until an old man called to inquire about the spy, when my husband said, with a smile, “Then you are the man who has come to assassinate me?” But the creature disclaimed volubly, and then proceeded to unfold [806] his business. His object was to get Mr. Davis to certify that it was the son of our inglorious assassin who had been hanged, and thus to secure to him “a nice, comfortable pension that will about let me out of work.” When assured that the spy was a middle-aged man, he could not reconcile himself to his son's dereliction from duty in not being caught and hanged; but, said he, “If you did not look at him after he was dead, you might say you thought it was him; only think of the comfort to me.” War surely lowers the moral standard of those who engage in it, and “hardens a‘ within and petrifies the feeling.”

We sailed from Quebec with our friends, who assisted Mr. Davis to the ship, as he was still very weak from his accident. Our English friend who felt great sympathy with our little Jeff in his extreme sea-sickness, gave him some ginger-beer, from which the child soon felt better. When we had all recovered somewhat and were on deck, the nine-year old boy walked up to Mr. Rawson, and taking off his little cap, said, with a courteous bow, “I have to thank you, sir, for saving my life by gingerbeer.” The laughter this acknowledgment provoked served not at all to discourage the boy, his sense of obligation oppressed him until he had offered thanks to his preserver. [807]

When Ireland and the ivy-covered ruin of Lord Lovell's castle met our eyes, we seemed to have received a greeting from the peaceful past and a welcome for the future. On our arrival at Liverpool, the foreign land did not look at all strange to us; perhaps the atavism of memories was unconsciously felt, and the welcoming cheers of the people on the docks gave Mr. Davis a comfortable sense of Anglo-Saxon sympathy:

Much hospitality was tendered us by our own dear people there, and by the English residents, and had it been possible for us to accept the many invitations extended to us, we should have passed many happy hours among our transatlantic friends; but I had young children, and would not leave or impose them upon others who felt less interest in them; then again we represented no country, and general visiting might have brought about unpleasant contretemps. The Northern people were then, as now, the most numerous class of travellers; to them might be applied the commentary on the Scotch, “Had Cain been a Scot, God had altered his doom, not forced him to wander but kept him at home.” It was quiet we sought, and I found it at Llandudno, and Mr. Davis accepted an invitation from Lord Shrewsbury to visit him at Alton Towers, while with our dear friends the Norman [808] Walkers and the Westfeldts, I remained in Wales.

The quiet of my outing was broken by my little William being very ill with typhoid fever at Waterloo, where he and his brother were at school, and then I learned to love the English people and acquired a sense of home among them. Every kindness that good hearts and sound heads could devise was showered upon us during our long and dreary period of nursing and hopelessness. It is not too late to express sincere gratitude, for we never forgot to be thankful to our English cousins. The Confederates everywhere tried to serve us, and from that time we did not feel like strangers in a foreign country.

We lived in Leamington during the hunting season, and everywhere Mr. Davis attracted all who saw him. Many civilities were offered us there, and especially by Lord and Lady Leigh, of Stoneleigh Abbey. Under the influence of new scenes and cheerful company his health began to improve slowly, and by the winter, when we removed to London, he began to look less like a skeleton, and of his own choice to walk about and take more interest in affairs around him. Occasionally he went to the houses of Parliament, where he received many civilities. We gradually became more cheerful, and our medical man, in [809] whom we found a friend, hoped that the walls of his heart would become normal again.

We went to Paris for a few weeks, and there the Emperor was attentive in a manner. He sent one of his staff to offer an audience to Mr. Davis, and the Empress kindly expressed her willingness to receive me. But Mr. Davis felt that the Emperor had not been sincere with our government. He did not wish to say anything uncivil, and could not meet him with the cordiality his Majesty's kindness warranted; but reviews were held in his honor, and every attention was shown to him by the government. We had cards to the chapel, and there saw the Empress with the Emperor at mass, and kneeling by them was their beautiful boy, the little Prince Imperial. He was so like our own little William that we followed his course with interest, until, in the dawn of his discrowned manhood, he laid down his life in Africa, for a foreign country.

In Paris we had a happy reunion with Mr.Slidell and Mrs. Slidell, with the Honorable Ambrose Dudley Mann, and others we had known, and spent a few weeks happily there, but preferred to remain in London for several reasons. Even then the shadow of the bloody drama that was to end the dynasty of the Bonapartes hung over Paris, and the blue blouses talked treason in the Musee de Napoleon, [810] and hissed out between their teeth abuse of the army officers as they passed.

On our return to London we saw Mr. Benjamin quite often, and always with increasing pleasure. He had now become Queen's Counsellor, and was very successful. He appeared happier than I had hitherto seen him, but though he gave Mr. Davis one long talk about Confederate matters, after that he seemed averse to speaking of them. He was too busy to spend much time anywhere, but was sincerely cordial and always entertaining and cheery. His success at the English bar was exceptional, but did not astonish us. In speaking of his grief over our defeat, he said that his power of dismissing any painful memory had served him well after the fall of the Confederacy.

Soon after our return from Paris, our skilful and wise physician, Dr. Maurice Davis, discovered that Mr. Davis's heart trouble had not decreased, and he ordered him up to Scotland, whither Dr. Mackay, the poet, kindly consented to accompany him.

While visiting our friends, the Abingers, and several gentlemen whose acquaintance he made in Scotland, and during a more protracted visit to his friend, James Smith, of Glasgow, who had given a fine battery to the Confederates, and whose brother fell gallantly [811] fighting in the Confederacy, he recovered his strength partially, but never again was robust. His letters from Scotland were charming. I regret that space is lacking to give some of them.

In the course of the autumn Mr. Davis was offered the presidency of a life insurance company and though something else would have been preferable to him, our needs rendered him unable to be a chooser, and he left me in London and sailed for America. After remaining some months in Memphis, where he was received in the most enthusiastic manner, Mr.Davis came to London for me, to set up our new home in Memphis. On the eve of our departure he heard by cable of the death of his brother, Joseph E. Davis, and his grief was great.

After a smooth voyage we reached Memphis, having left our two sons Jefferson and William at school near Emmorton, Md., with our well-beloved friend, the Reverend W. Brand, and our daughter Margaret with a governess in Liverpool, at the house of my sister and adopted daughter, Madame Stoess, so baby Winnie was the only child with us.

The town looked very small after London, and it was some time before the blessed home air blew upon the weary wanderers and brought with it rest. At that time there were [812] many things to regret in the administration of the city. The drainage was bad, and the police defective, but we learned to love the people and they loved us, and the memory of their cordiality, their sincerity, and ready sympathy will “hang round my heart forever.”

There are so many nlen there liberal without ostentation, and there is so much originality, talent, and enterprise among them, and they are so full of the living interests of the present that, once there long enough to know the people, it is rarely that another home is desired, and the very name brings to us a “waking certainty” of blessed friendship which cannot suffer a change. Memphis, the splendid Memphis of to-day, is, as it promised to be then, the “progressive city of the Southwest.”

There the citizens offered Mr. Davis, as a gift, the handsomest residence to be procured. As an expression of their good — will the offer was acceptable; but he declined the house, preferring to support himself.

He soon mastered the mathematical problems of life insurance, and thought he would have made a success for the company; but, upon closer examination, he discovered that the policies had been issued regardless of the risks or of anything but numbers — the per cent. paid on renewals was enormous. After [813] putting everything that he could command into the stock to save it, the company, he found, must fail, as the yellow fever made the Southern risks alone too great for profit.

He went North to sell the Carolina to a sound Northern company that would save those insured in that company; but during his absence some friends more affectionate toward him than considerate of those who insured, thinking to relieve him of his trouble and responsibility, just as he had completed his arrangement to transfer it, sold the Carolina out to another company in Memphis. He was deeply moved by the loss to those who had insured in the Carolina, but could do nothing but submit, and it was rather a comforting memory to him that he had lost heavily by the failure.

1 The unhappy and innocent victim of sectional rancor, Captain Wirz.

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