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Jefferson Davis, Political Soldier

On Jan. 9, 1861, Mississippi seceded from the Union.

Two days later, Jefferson Davis followed his home state, and resigned from the U.S. Senate with a moving farewell speech. Earlier, on Dec. 31, he had received a letter from Gov. John J. Pettus. “You will be elected to command the voluntary forces of Mississippi—and if Lincoln makes fight as l doubt not he will, I think you had better be getting ready to meet General Scott at the side of two hundred thousand Wide Awakes,” declared the fiery Pettus, who expected hostilities against venerable Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott and an army of Lincoln supporters.

What was Davis to do? He and his wife, Varina, remained in Washington to see what reaction might come from the U.S. government, including the possibility of arrest.  

What was to be Davis’s future? Would he retire to life on his cotton plantation? Many expected that he would assume a military role in the soon to be formed Confederate States. His West Point education, Mexican War experience and tenure as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce made him a logical choice for a general. Others believed he would be called to a higher office, as he was recognized above all other Southerners as their chief spokesman. The eyes of the country, both North and South, fell upon him.

On Jan. 23, Davis arrived in Jackson, Miss., and accepted the commission as major general of the Mississippi army. He would hold this command until elected President of the Confederacy on Feb. 18.

Albumen print by James E. McClees or his assistant, Julian Vannerson, left, from the Library of Congress. Carte de visite by Charles D. Fredricks of New York City, right. Author’s collection.
Albumen print by James E. McClees or his assistant, Julian Vannerson, left, from the Library of Congress. Carte de visite by Charles D. Fredricks of New York City, right. Author’s collection.
Carte de visites by Charles D. Fredricks of New York City, left, and Jesse H. Whitehurst of Washington, D.C. Author’s collection.
Carte de visites by Charles D. Fredricks of New York City, left, and Jesse H. Whitehurst of Washington, D.C. Author’s collection.

Many in the North waited eagerly to see photographs of Davis. Meanwhile in New York City, the studio of Charles D. Fredricks offered images of Davis as a general for sale. The examples here were widely circulated in the North and the border states of the upper South. They are remarkable in quality and faithful to their subject. They have also been altered from portraits made by other photographers.

Prompted by a need to move quickly to match the pace of events, Fredricks employed art to pick up where reality ended. He or his assistants made copy photographs of at least two different images of Davis in civil clothing, one by Jesse Whitehurst (1858), and the other by James McClees and possibly Julian Vannerson (1859). The glass plate negatives that resulted were manipulated with paint to alter Davis’ frock into a military uniform bearing the shoulder straps of a major general. Having no reference to the design of a Confederate uniform, the frock style borrowed from the federal style.

Viewing the images through today’s lens, ethical questions arise about photo manipulation and the intent to deceive for profit. Photojournalism was in its infancy during this period and no hard and fast rule existed. Fredricks, like other photographers, were also artists and storytellers, given to pirating from one another. They used paint and other techniques, including multiple exposures to create visual imagery where none existed. These unique photographs and others made throughout the war were the result. They were extensively copied and recopied in both North and South throughout the 1860s.

References: Images and letter from Gov. John J. Pettus to Jefferson Davis, Dec. 31, 1860, are from the author’s collection.

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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