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Chapter 79: General Sherman's accusations.

Though we lived in strict retirement, whenever a theme for abuse was wanted, one or the other of Mr. Davis's antagonists in the North assailed him.

At a meeting of the Frank P. Blair Post, Grand Army of the Republic, in St. Louis in 1884, General Sherman was reported to have made allegations, hereinafter quoted by Mr. Davis in a letter characterizing those statements.

General Sherman's remarks were published in the Globe-Democrat of St. Louis, and Mr. Davis wrote the following letter of denial:

Beauvoir, Miss., November 6, 1884.
Editor St. Louis Republican: Dear Sir:
I have to-night received the enclosed published account of remarks made by General W. T. Sherman, and ask the use of your columns to notice only so much as particularly refers to myself, and which is to be found in the following extract; [834]

The following is from the Globe-Democrat's report:

Referring to the late war, he said, it was not, as was generally understood, a war of secession from the United States, but a conspiracy. “I have been behind the curtain,” said he, “and I have seen letters that few others have seen and have heard conversations that cannot be repeated; and I tell you that Jeff Davis never was a secessionist. He was a conspirator. He did not care for division from the United States, his object was to get a fulcrum from which to operate against the Northern States, and if he had succeeded, he would to-day be the master spirit of the continent, and you would be slaves. I have seen a letter from Jefferson Davis to a man whose name I cannot mention, because he is a United States Senator. I know Davis's writing, and saw his signature, and in that letter he said he would turn Lee's army against any State that might attempt to secede from the Southern Confederacy.”

This public assault, under the covert plea that it is based upon information which regard for a United States Senator does not permit him to present, will, to honorable minds, suggest the idea of irresponsible slander.

It is thus devolved upon me to say that [835] the allegation of my ever having written such a letter as is described is unqualifiedly false; and the assertion that I had any purpose or wish to destroy the liberty and equal rights of any State, either North or South, is a reckless falsehood, especially, because it was generally known that for many years before, as well as during the war between the States, I was an earnest advocate of the strict construction State-rights theory of Mr. Jefferson. What motive other than personal malignity can be conceived for so gross a libel?

If General Sherman has access to any letters purporting to have been written by me, which will sustain his accusations, let him produce them or wear the brand of a base slanderer.

Yours respectfully, Jefferson Davis.

In reply to the above letter, General Sherman is reported to have said:

It was a matter between two gentlemen, and he would take his own time about replying to Mr. Davis. He would reply in time, and Mr. Davis would be accommodated with facts. He would not give the name of the United States Senator who had received that important letter from Mr. Davis.

He said later on, that the letter had been burned with others of his papers at Chicago. [836]

Senator Vance being very positive that he could not have been the one referred to by General Sherman in his statement, authorized the following publication in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:

Washington, D. C., December 14th.
Every letter ever written to me on a political topic by President Davis is to be found faithfully copied on the official letter-books of the Executive Department of North Carolina. Those letter-books were taken from me by General Sherman's troops at the closing of the war, and are now in possession of the War Department in this city. Aside from the letter-books, General Sherman never saw any letter addressed to me by President Davis. Although I have not seen those books and read their contents in almost twenty years, I am quite sure that no such letter can be found there. I could not have forgotten such a letter had it been received by me. The suggestion, therefore, that I am the person referred to in General Sherman's statements is entirely untrue. It is well-known by those acquainted with the history of those times that my differences with Mr. Davis were purely in regard to matters of detail, and that I supported him in his efforts to maintain the Confederacy with all the zeal [837] that I could command and all the power of the State which I could bring to bear. This Mr. Davis's letters all show. To the letter of mine to Mr. Davis of October 25, 1862, the New York Tribune correspondent says no copy of any reply can be found, and suggests that probably the statement to which General Sherman refers is contained in it. Certainly no effort was made to find that letter. It is upon the letter-book, dated November i, 1862. It has been widely published, and contains no such expression as a threat against the States attempting to secede from the Confederacy, but does contain this expression: “I feel grateful to you for the cordial manner in which you have sustained every proposition connected with the public defence.” This much is due to the truth. Great as were the abilities, and high as were the courage and faithfulness of Mr. Davis, I had no disposition to load him with all the misfortunes of defeat.

Mr. Davis to Governor Vance.

Raleigh, N. C., December 14th.
In reference to the recent controversy between General Sherman and Jefferson Davis, in which the former charges the latter with having threatened to force certain States to remain in the Confederacy, it has been stated [838] that Davis's letter, containing this threat, was written to Governor Vance, now United States Senator, in reply to his letter to President Davis of October 25, 1862. It has been stated also that the letter of Davis had been destroyed. This is a mistake; the letter is here, and is now in the possession of a gentleman of Raleigh. It is as follows:

Dear Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge yours of the 25th ult., and regret the disappointment to which some of the recruits of North Carolina have been subjected. I concur with you as to the policy of allowing the conscripts, as far as the state of the service will permit, to select the companies and regiments in which they are to serve. The right secured by law of a volunteer to select his own company was lost, it is true, by enrollments; but the policy was so obvious of associating men together who would best harmonize with each other, that it was my purpose to continue the privilege beyond the limit fixed by law. That, as you are aware, it serves to check the discontent which resulted from retaining twelve-month men beyond the term of their original engagement, [839] and was fairly regarded as measure to equitably distribute the burden of public defence. I shall endeavor by a judicial decision to settle the question raised, and meantime I have been cheered by the evidence of popular sentiment which supports any measure necessary to protect our country and secure our political independence. Like yourself, I have hoped that party distinctions which existed at a former time would be buried in the graves of the gallant men who have fallen in defence of their birthright, and that we should all as a band of brothers strike for the inheritance our fathers left us. With sincere regard I am respectfully and truly, (Signed.)

Jefferson Davis.

On January 16, 1885, Chester A. Arthur, President of the United States, in answer to a Senate resolution, January 13, 1885, sent the copy of a letter to the Secretary of War, from General W. T. Sherman, dated January 6, 1885.

In this letter to the secretary, that thus became of public record, General Sherman relates the incident of his having been present at the meeting of the G. A. R. Post, in St. Louis, and reiterates his remarks with slight variation, “that he had seen papers which convinced me (him) that the President of the [840] Southern Confederacy had, during the progress of the war, changed his States' rights doctrines, and had threatened to use force-even Lee's army — should any State of the Confederacy attempt to secede from the Government.” He added: “Yet I shrink not from a just responsibility for every word uttered there or at any time.” The balance of his letter contains only extraneous matter, having no reference to the explicit charge made.

The following account of the presentation of General Sherman's letter to the United States Senate appeared in the public prints, and one of the captions is quoted here:

No Scapegoat Wanted. The South Responsible, not President Davis. Continuation of the Debate in the United States Senate on the Resolution to Print Senator Sherman's “Historical” Papers-Senators Vance and Brown Stand by their Record-General Sherman's Mendacity Thoroughly Exposed-The Resolution Passed.-Washington, January 13th.-In the Senate, at ten o'clock, on motion of Senator Hawley, his resolution to call upon the President for copies of the papers filed in the War Department by General Sherman, as a reply to certain strictures of Mr. Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederate States, was taken up. [841]

Senator Vance said that as the Senate would probably pass this resolution and place on its record an unofficial paper by General William T. Sherman, which makes certain statements about persons, it was proper that all persons affected by those statements should be heard in the same form. He said that the newspapers stated General Sherman had been interviewed, who said that Vance was not the person alluded to as the Governor to whom the letter had been addressed. He thought that this denial at. both ends of the line would conclude the matter, but it seemed he was mistaken.

General Sherman said: “At Raleigh a mass of public records had been carried off; yet a number were left behind at the State House and a mansion called the Palace, which we occupied as headquarters during our stay there, namely, from April 13 to April 29, 1860. These records and papers were overhauled by professional clerks, who delivered to Adjutant-General Sawyer such information as was material, and attention was only drawn to such as were deemed of sufficient importance. Among the books collected at the Palace in Raleigh was a clerk's or secretary's copy-book containing loose sheets and letters, among which was the particular letter of Davis, to which I referred in my St. Louis [842] speech. ... It explained to me why Governor Vance, after sending to me a commissioner to treat for his State particularly, now awaited my answer. I am quite sure that we generally thought it was the desire of Governor Vance and of the officials to take North Carolina out of the Confederacy, as I have stated, but they were afraid of Jefferson Davis, and wanted protection.”

Concerning this statement, Senator Vance remarked that he wished to say, first, that no letters, documents, or public books of any character were ever left at his residence or at the Palace of the Governor while he was its occupant; second, no clerk or secretary of his ever kept, as reported, any copy-book for correspondence, all official or public letters being first copied in a letter-book which was required by law to be kept in the executive office, and then tied up into a bundle and placed in files, where they still remain; third, General Sherman did not find in the copybook the particular letter of Davis to which he referred in his speech, for the simple reason that there was no such letter there and no such copy-books when Vance occupied the house; fourth, he averred most positively, on the honor of a gentleman and an American Senator, that no letter containing such a threat was ever received by him from Jefferson [843] Davis. All letters from President Davis to him of any nature were to be found copied in the letter-books of the Executive Department of North Carolina, which books were now in the War Department.

The reasons given by General Sherman to corroborate his statement were such, Senator Vance thought, as would scarcely commend themselves to a respectable lawyer. General Sherman said he had paid little attention to the letter at the time, and did not say that he ever saw it afterward. General Sherman had said further: “Davis being then himself a fugitive, his opinions were of little importance.” Senator Vance supposed it was perhaps the little attention given to the opinions of an unimportant man that enabled General.Sherman to remember so well the contents of the letter after the lapse of nearly twenty years. The suggestion as to the probable fate of that mysterious letter, that it was burned in the Chicago fire, was a mere apology for its non-production, and contradicted the idea of its importance, for if it had been such as General Sherman said it was, it would have found its way into the public files.

But there was another matter averred by General Sherman that more nearly concerned Senator Vance, and to which he would ask the attention of the Senate. “It may be, [844] sir,” continued Senator Vance, “that Northern gentlemen who were on the victorious side during the Civil War cannot properly appreciate the feelings and sentiments of those who were on the side of misfortune and defeat. They seem to regard it as quite a sin and shame that we do not readily join in the denunciations that are heaped upon him who was the leader in that war, and hasten to condemn him on all occasions as the surest way of excusing our conduct and commending ourselves to the good opinion of our late opponents. Surely no man of even the slightest sense of honor in his composition would respect any Southern man who would thus debase himself. Surely the most flagrant and rampant trafficker in issues of sectional hatred would respect more an adversary who came to him walking upright on his feet than one crawling. If not, if a different sentiment is to prevail, what must we think of the manhood of men who should entertain it. Now, sir, be it known to you that those of us who pledged our faith to each other for the establishment of the Confederacy gave up all for which we contended when it failed, retaining to ourselves only one solitary satisfactory reflection, and that is that we had at least served our country faithfully, honestly, and devotedly as we understood it.” [845]

Senator Joseph Brown, of Georgia, also disclaimed ever receiving such a letter. General Sherman did not specify the other of the three ex-Governors who became senators as the person who received the apocryphal letter.

After this false charge three times disproved by the reputed actors in General Sherman's so-called conspiracy by Mr. Davis to intimidate the Governors, the Senate entered General Sherman's misrepresentations on the Journal of that body, and the consolation my husband had in looking at this crystallization of a slander, was that in the future an impartial seeker after truth will find and proclaim it. When the passions of the day have died out with the august figures that have passed, posterity will do justice.

Mr. Davis thus wrote to one of the Senators voting in the negative.

Beauvoir, Miss., January 30, 1885.
Honorable -- , United States Senate.
my dear Sir: accept my thanks for your defence of me against slanderous accusations, and equally are they tendered for your vindication of our people against allegations alike unfounded and indefensible.

General Sherman in a published address stated that he had seen letters and had conversations [846] giving him information which few possessed and which showed that I was a conspirator whose object was by secession to get a fulcrum for the subjugation of the Southern States.

As soon as the publication reached me, I pronounced this a reckless falsehood. He also states that he had seen a letter addressed to one now a United States Senator, which he knew to be in my handwriting and with my signature, in which letter I had declared my purpose to turn Lee's army against any State that might attempt to secede from the Southern Confederacy. I also denounced this assertion as false, and demanded that General Sherman should produce the evidence on which the accusations were founded, or wear the brand of a base slanderer.

As he was reported in several newspapers to have said that it was a personal matter between him and myself, to which he would attend in due time and in his own manner, it was to have been expected that he would either retract allegations which he could not sustain, or produce the evidence on which he had made them. He has done neither, but in a wordy paper on extraneous matter has sought to obscure the true issue, as the cuttlefish blackens the water to aid in its escape; he has thus virtually accepted the brand he [847] had won by his wanton calumny, and I am content to leave him to his unenviable notoriety which he has thus, and twice before, acquired.


Through the influence of partisan hostility General Sherman has succeeded in having spread upon the records of the Senate his imaginary and false accusation without the refutation, and our consolation is that truth is the Excalibar of the innocent.

In defending the Confederates or himself against calumnies, Mr. Davis showed that age did not impair either his spirit or courage, and he asked no aid from his friends or coadjutors, his conscience was clear and he looked within and saw reflected only the aims of an unselfish, much-enduring patriot.

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