A Grieving Jefferson Davis Announces to a Friend the Death of “my last surviving son, who died far from me” – in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878

He rhapsodizes on the gratitude the stricken southern communities would always feel towards northerners whose aid contributions flooded in.

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“The benevolence of your city and other places can never be forgotten by our people, and will remain a lasting memorial of the civilization of our day & country.”

James Cephas Derby was a New York bookseller and publisher who in 1872 he became an executive with the major publishing firm, Appleton...

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A Grieving Jefferson Davis Announces to a Friend the Death of “my last surviving son, who died far from me” – in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878

He rhapsodizes on the gratitude the stricken southern communities would always feel towards northerners whose aid contributions flooded in.

“The benevolence of your city and other places can never be forgotten by our people, and will remain a lasting memorial of the civilization of our day & country.”

James Cephas Derby was a New York bookseller and publisher who in 1872 he became an executive with the major publishing firm, Appleton & Company. Derby is remembered as the author of Fifty Years Among Authors, Books and Publishers, which was published in 1884 and related his experiences and acquaintances in the golden years of American publishing. The book, which has been republished and is still in print, contains a fascinating compendium on 19th century publishing, bookselling, and authorship, and includes chapters on every major publishing house in America (Ticknor and Fields, Lee and Shepard, Wiley and Putnam, Harper and Brothers, Little-Brown, Appleton, Lippincott, Scribner, Lossing, and others), their leaders, and their authors – including Dickens, Thackeray, Hawthorne, and Poe. The book contains previously unpublished texts of some Poe and Hawthorne letters and separate chapters on Southern writers and early American humorists. There are also first-hand accounts of authors Thomas B. Aldrich, William Cullen Bryant, Jefferson Davis, Horace Greeley, Joel C. Harris, William Seward, Alexander Stephens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among others. In 1874 Derby began a correspondence with Jefferson Davis, one that lasted a decade. Appleton was publishing Davis’s memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, and Derby worked with Davis, at times trying to nudge Davis to produce his chapters according to the time schedule, and even visiting his plantation, Beauvoir, in 1880.

Yellow fever broke out in the Caribbean early in 1878, and some of the islanders took ships and fled north to the southern United States to escape its ravages. On April 26, President Hayes signed the Quarantine Act into law, giving the Marine Hospital Service responsibility to stop the disease from coming ashore via those travelers or sailors. However, my late May it reached New Orleans. It took hold and spread, devastating the city and then spreading up the Mississippi River. This became the great epidemic of 1878, the worst in the region’s history. The New Orleans health board listed “not less than 4,600” dead, while 5,000 died in Memphis. As the gravity of the situation became known, contributions flooded in, many from northern cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. This outpouring of generosity astonished many southerners, as this soon after the Civil War regional feeling still ran high and they supposed the Yankees would not care about their sufferings.

Creole children and full blooded negroes who were generally exempt from yellow fever have been in no wise spared by this pestilence.”

One of the little-known tragedies of Jefferson Davis’ life was that he survived all four of his sons. Jefferson Davis, Jr. was born in 1857, and was the Davis’s last surviving son. He became a victim of the yellow fever epidemic, dying in Memphis on October 16, 1878. About that time, Derby wrote Davis, likely relating to his memoir. Davis responded with this letter, which Derby published in his magnum opus in 1884. The Maj. Walthall mentioned was William T. Walthall, a former Confederate officer who was assisting Davis with his memoir by helping obtain information from primary sources, such as the National Archives.

Autograph letter signed, two pages, Beauvoir, Harrison Co., Mississippi, October 29, 1878, to Derby, telling of the death of his son and praising the contributions northerners were making to disease relief in the South. “When your kind letter of the 15th inst. was received, domestic affliction in the loss of my last surviving son who died far from me, and the serious illness of my wife who alone of my family is with me, prevented me from making an early acknowledgment. Maj. Waltham has returned under summons to a sick family. His oldest daughter and two youngest sons are prostrated by the terrible scourge which has devastated our towns and is spreading through the country. Isolation, which has heretofore given security, no longer affords safety from infections. Creole children and full blooded negroes who were generally exempt from yellow fever have been in no wise spared by this pestilence. These and other characteristics of this year’s disease have caused much discussion as to whether it is pure yellow fever, or a combination of that disease with another fever.

The benevolence of your city and other places can never be forgotten by our people, and will remain a lasting memorial of the civilization of our day & country. I have not seen Mr. Gladstone’s article published in the North American Review, but have had a notice of it in one of your city papers.”

The article referred to was Gladstone’s famous essay “Kin Beyond the Sea”, in which he praised the U.S. Constitution, and predicted that the United States would emerge as a great world power. This implied a reconciliation of North and South, thus Derby’s musing on whether Davis saw things the same way.

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