Jefferson Davis Hopes the “Oppressed South” Shall “Rise Again”

While he awaits trial for treason, Davis writes a close friend lamenting the “Radical” rule of the Republicans and the state of the southland.

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A very early use of this now famous phrase

The expression “The south shall rise again” is one that everyone has heard, not only in the southern states but throughout the entire nation. It has been used as a political slogan, a regional emblem, a football battle cry, and even...

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Jefferson Davis Hopes the “Oppressed South” Shall “Rise Again”

While he awaits trial for treason, Davis writes a close friend lamenting the “Radical” rule of the Republicans and the state of the southland.

A very early use of this now famous phrase

The expression “The south shall rise again” is one that everyone has heard, not only in the southern states but throughout the entire nation. It has been used as a political slogan, a regional emblem, a football battle cry, and even been the title of a 1950s song (“Save Your Confederate Money Boys, The South Shall Rise Again”). However, the expression is not a recent one; its genesis dates back to the turbulent years directly following the Civil War.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s southern Democrats began to gain more political strength as former Confederates were once again given the right to vote. During this time, across the South, people known to history as the Redeemers came into prominence. The Redeemers actively promoted a return to conservative Democratic rule and opposed the Republican-led, federally-imposed local and state governments, which they saw as corrupt and a violation of true principles. They were also dedicated to white dominance and sought to deny blacks any role in the new South. Many of the Redeemers were plantation owners and other wealthy elites who had lost power and wealth during the Civil War, former Confederate soldiers and loyalists, and a wide variety of supporters. From 1868, they used violence, intimidation and even fraud to control or sabotage any election they could not influence, the goal being to reduce Republican voting and oust current officeholders. In 1868 alone, there were over 1,000 political murders in Louisiana, most of the victims being freedmen. The motto and rally cry that the Redeemers adopted was “the South shall rise again,” and this became something of a motto for the area, one that was at times used by candidates to stir up racial and regional confrontation. It has retained its currency into the 21st century.

Before the Civil War, Jefferson Davis seved as Secretary of the Navy under President Franklin Pierce. While in this position he met and befriended America’s first Assistant Secretary of State, Ambrose Dudley Mann. During the war, Confederate President Davis appointed Mann as one of the first Commissioners to Europe and Mann eventually gained the title of Confederate Commissioner for Belgium and the Vatican.

After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Davis fled Richmond and was captured by Federal cavalry near Irwinville, Georgia on May 10, 1865. He was then held at Fort Monroe on charges of treason against the United States until May of 1867, when he was released on a $100,000 bond. The bond was posted by several prominent Americans, among them his wartime opponents Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Gerrit Smith. Though a public trial was something Davis eagerly sought because it would raise the issue of whether or not secession was actually illegal no less treasonous, it was long delayed. Meanwhile, he refused to apologize or consider ideas of a pardon.

In 1868, after spending time in New Orleans and Canada, Davis and his wife traveled to Europe. He wanted to call on Mann, who had moved to Paris after the war, but serious illness in his family prevented it. In this important letter, Davis explains all that, mentions his own ill health (no doubt worsened by the physical and mental strain of his confinement and constant travels), and clearly describes his family’s reduced straits and meager budget. He laments the delays in and inconveniences of his upcoming trial, which were in part the result of the unavailability of Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who was presiding over the trial after impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Davis also decries the “radical rule” of the Federal government, and with the U.S. presidential election of 1868 just ahead, he doubts that New York Governor and Democratic candidate Horatio Seymour can defeat the popular Republican candidate, U.S. Grant. This leads him to regret the condition of the South, wondering if it will ever have the “life to rise again.”

Autograph Letter Signed, Waterloo, England, October 9, 1868 to Mann. “My dear friend, I have long desired to write to you but having learned that you had changed your residence was at a loss how to address you, until I met our friend Senator [James A.] Bayard at London. Immediately thereafter I returned to Liverpool and learned that my son who was at school at this place was dangerously ill, and on my arrival here found him so low that for weeks we had more to fear than to hope. He is now convalescent but my wife is quite ill, probably consequent on fatigue and anxiety, and I have suffered from the disease which has afflicted this village. You will I hope excuse the delay in announcing myself to you and believe that one of our great desires in Europe was to meet you again. It was my intention to leave France before this date but all of my plans have been disturbed for the causes already stated. The U.S. Court before which I am under bond to appear meets again on the 23rd of November and unless notified that my presence is not required I shall have to be in Richmond, Va. at that time. My counsel expected to receive notice dispensing with my attendance because the case would not be tried in the absence of the circuit judge, the Chief Justice Chase, and it was well understood that he could not preside in the Circuit Court, because the term of the Supreme Court would commence in the ensuing week. Having however been compelled on the two former occasions to go to Richmond and when it was known there would be no hearing, it may be that a like needless journey will again be necessary.

“As soon as the health of my family will permit it is our purpose to leave here, going in the first instance probably to Leamington, and after a short stay there I wish to go to France. My object is to locate my family in some healthy place where they may live at such small expense as our circumstances will permit, and where the children may have good schools accessible from their Mother’s lodgings. We have looked to you for information and advice. I need not say that the lowest rates consistent with comfort will be accepted.

“The American newspapers have not recently encouraged the hope of Seymour’s election, I cannot bear to contemplate another four years of ‘Radical’ rule. Their crimes would probably lead to a terrible reaction and their punishment would be more full and therefore more beneficial to the oppressed South, if it were possible to wait so long and yet have life to rise again. Mrs. Davis presents to you her kindest remembrance…I am your friend, Jeff’n Davis.”

The sentiment in this letter is overwhelming, with Davis feeling persecuted, impoverished, and powerless, even as his worst adversaries maraude through the south and prepare to inaugurate Grant and his Republicans into the Execute Mansion. Moreover, considering the timing of this letter, the very language with which it ends is startlingly consistent with the rally cry of the Redeemers – “The south shall rise again” – which raises some interesting potentialities. If Davis borrowed the expression from the Redeemers in composing this letter, that would tend to indicate that he was in sympathy with them and their program. On the other hand, its use here may indicate that Davis himself had something to do with the phrase’s origin. Although its exact genesis is not known, it is possible that some unknown person within the Redeemers originated it.  Another scenario is that it was adopted from an early version of a quote that Jefferson Davis used in 1873, and which he borrowed from Thomas Carlyle: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” Plus there is the intriguing possibility that the language of this very letter may have been published in southern newspapers at the time and resulted in creation of the phrase.

The Supreme Court eventually dismissed the charges against Davis, though his U.S. citizenship was only restored posthumously.

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