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The Fall and Rise of a Man Without a Country

In 1865, the great War for Southern Independence ground to a final end after four and a quarter years of combat and a tremendous cost in blood and fortune. On May 9, victorious Union forces captured President and Commander-in-Chief Jefferson Davis near Irwinville, Ga., as he and his cabinet fled south from the fallen capital at Richmond, Va.

After Prison: Davis, left, is pictured about 1867. This portrait was discovered in a collection of drawings made by renowned war artist Alfred Waud. The photographer may have given this print to Waud. Albumen photo by William W. Davies of Richmond,Va. John O’Brien Collection.
After Prison: Davis, left, is pictured about 1867. This portrait was discovered in a collection of drawings made by renowned war artist Alfred Waud. The photographer may have given this print to Waud. Albumen photo by William W. Davies of Richmond,Va. John O’Brien Collection.

That Davis had to be taken by force was perhaps no surprise, for he had indicated that surrender was not an option. In early 1861, he addressed South Carolina’s Hampton Legion near Manassas, Va., and said, “When the last line of bayonets is leveled, I will be with you.” In July 1864, he told two northern visitors, “This war must go on till the last of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize his musket and fight our battles, unless you acknowledge our right of self-government. We are not fighting for Slavery. We are fighting for independence; and that, or extermination, we will have.” His words are reminiscent of those uttered by Winston Churchill in his heralded 1940 speech before the House of Commons, “We shall fight on the beaches … we shall never surrender.”

Twilight of light: This print of Davis, opposite, appeared in the Dec. 18, 1970, edition of Life magazine. John O’Brien Collection.
Twilight of light: This print of Davis, opposite, appeared in the Dec. 18, 1970, edition of Life magazine. John O’Brien Collection.

The never-say-die spirit that carried Davis through the war sustained him through two years as a state prisoner, briefly shackled in chains, at Virginia’s Fortress Monroe. Stripped of his citizenship, he was a man without a country. But, for the next 22 years, he lived in the afterglow of the Lost Cause. He wrote, made speeches and dedicated memorials. In 1881, he completed The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, his defense of secession and the war for Southern independence—and an important text in the Lost Cause narrative.

Davis posed for a portrait almost every year after his release from prison in 1867. The relatively high number of sittings stands in stark contrast to the handful of images he had made before and during the war. One explanation may be that the rigors of the presidency and prison caused him to shed his natural shyness, and a concern about an eye noticeably affected by an early bout with malaria. In 1887, he sat for his final portrait in two separate poses. On Dec. 6, 1889, he passed away from a severe cold complicated by malaria and bronchitis at age 79.

Davis remembered: Among the mourners who viewed the former Confederate president lying in state in the Municipal Building in New Orleans on Dec. 9, 1889, was David Marshall Hollingsworth. The Georgia native and New Orleans resident was a Mexican War veteran who had served as a first sergeant in the 1st Mississippi Rifles. Davis had commanded the regiment. According to a newspaper report, “Hollingsworth this morning brought to the hall an old rifle used by him during the Mexican War which he exposed alongside his body.” The report continued, as “Hollingsworth deposited the weapon near the coffin of his old commander, he began to weep. The scene was a most affecting one and moved many of the spectators to tears.” Hollingsworth outlived his beloved colonel by two years, dying in 1891. His surviving family included a son, Jefferson Davis Hollingsworth. Cabinet card by an anonymous photographer. Buck Zaidel Collection.

Davis remembered: Among the mourners who viewed the former Confederate president lying in state in the Municipal Building in New Orleans on Dec. 9, 1889, was David Marshall Hollingsworth. The Georgia native and New Orleans resident was a Mexican War veteran who had served as a first sergeant in the 1st Mississippi Rifles. Davis had commanded the regiment. According to a newspaper report, “Hollingsworth this morning brought to the hall an old rifle used by him during the Mexican War which he exposed alongside his body.” The report continued, as “Hollingsworth deposited the weapon near the coffin of his old commander, he began to weep. The scene was a most affecting one and moved many of the spectators to tears.” Hollingsworth outlived his beloved colonel by two years, dying in 1891. His surviving family included a son, Jefferson Davis Hollingsworth. Cabinet card by an anonymous photographer. Buck Zaidel Collection.

His death was widely mourned and marked by the largest public funeral ever held in the South. Distinguished historian Douglas Southall Freeman observed, “Opinions regarding Jefferson Davis always, I suspect, will be divided, because he had such a complex personality. My own belief is that he was a devoted and earnest man of high ability, though he was handicapped by physical malady and a singular sensitiveness to criticism.”

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter restored Davis’ American citizenship.

John O’Brien of Charles Town, W.Va., is a retired journalist and historian from the University of Connecticut, and a contributor to MI.

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