“Could I forget what our country and true liberty has lost, my own misfortunes might soon be forgotten”.
After Jefferson Davis was captured in May 1865 he was taken to Fort Monroe and placed in irons. The irons were removed but he was confined for some time in an unheated, open casemate. A month later, his first indictment for treason was handed down. He was not afforded a trial,...
After Jefferson Davis was captured in May 1865 he was taken to Fort Monroe and placed in irons. The irons were removed but he was confined for some time in an unheated, open casemate. A month later, his first indictment for treason was handed down. He was not afforded a trial, however, as the result of jurisdictional questions. Davis remained the most hated man in the north and pressure to try him continued. In May 1866, he was again indicted for treason and his lawyers urged that the trial be held without delay; but the government declined to proceed on the indictment, citing the importance of the trial and the necessity of preparation for it. The judge refused to admit the prisoner to bail. Months passed and still the trial did not proceed. By 1867, however, many northerners openly questioned the wisdom of trying Davis, arguing that to bring to trial the head of the late Confederate States would reopen the whole subject of the constitutionality of secession. If Davis should be acquitted, the Confederate cause would appear to have been justified. Holding the ill Davis in prison was likewise being seen as a risk, as if he died in captivity there would be undesired repurcussions. So in May 1867 Davis was admitted to bail. He and his family went straight to Montreal and then on to Europe. In December 1868 the U.S. court rejected a motion to nullify the indictment against him, but the prosecution dropped the case in February 1869. That September, Davis returned to the U.S. and became president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee. He held that position until 1873.
Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia was a former tobacco warehouse converted into a prison used by the Confederacy to house civilian prisoners, including captured Union spies, political prisoners and those charged with treason during the Civil War. A large number of its inmates were sentenced to death. The prison’s most notorious commandant was George W. Alexander, and he and the prison guards had a reputation for brutality. The unsavory reputation of the prison obliged the Confederate House of Representatives in 1863 to order an investigation of Alexander, who was accused of “harshness, inhumanity, tyranny, and dishonesty.” Alexander was eventually cleared of the charges. After the war, maintaining his Southern sympathies even while spending some time in the north, Alexander corresponded with men like Robert E. Lee, for whom he offered to help disseminate an autobiography. He also reached out to assist Davis.
After the war, the Confederate ladies of St. Louis held a Southern Relief Fair and raised $140,000 for the aid of the stricken southland and its former political and military servants. Prosperous Confederate surgeon William M. McPheeters had returned home to that city and resumed his civilian practice; he was one of a group of gentlemen who distributed the funds. From 1865-7, when Davis was confined in Fortress Monroe, McPheeters arranged for $3,000 of these funds to be delivered personally to Davis for his relief, and McPheeters own brother tendered him the funds. Apparently he and another man named Fife made another offer to help Davis, who responded with this letter, reflecting on his situation and lamenting the South’s loss of liberty.
Autograph Letter Signed, January 4, 1870, Memphis, to Alexander. “I am very thankful to you and to messrs Fife and McPheters, whose letters I herewith return to you. To most of the evils of life there is a compensating good, and few have had so much occasion to realize this as myself. Could I forget what our country and true liberty has lost, my own misfortunes might soon be forgotten, save as the cause of giving me so many and such noble friends.”
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