Jefferson Davis was a Genuine War Hero When He Arrived in the Senate

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation.

By Jim O’Neal

Thirteen-year-old Jefferson Davis was tired of school. He returned home from Wilkinson Academy, a few miles from the family cotton plantation, put his books on a table, and told his father he would not return. Samuel Davis shrugged and told his youngest son that he would now have to work with his hands rather than his brain. At dawn the next day, he gave young Jeff a large, thin cloth bag, took him to the cotton field and put him in a long line with the family slaves picking cotton.

Three days later, he was back at Wilkinson, happily reading and taking notes with his bandaged hands.

By 16, Jefferson had mastered Latin and Greek, was well read in history and literature, and eager to study law at the University of Virginia. Instead, he spent four years at West Point, graduated in the bottom third of his class and then entered the Army. He was 20 years old and fighting in both the Black Hawk War and the Mexican-American War.

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation. A true war hero at age 36, he was recognized by everyone and warmly greeted by all he met. After all, Jeff Davis was the first genuine war hero in the Senate in its entire 58 years!

His rise to prominence occurred as one generation of leaders died or retired – Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster – and a younger one was set to take over, led by Stephen Douglas (39), Andrew Johnson (39), Alexander Stephens (35), Salmon P. Chase (39) and William Seward (35).

Jeff Davis began to give important speeches in the Senate and everyone sensed he had a future in politics.

The Senate proved comfortable and prestigious, providing an intimate venue to discuss and debate the great issues of the time. Yet despite all the exciting opportunities facing the young nation, the hard fact was that slavery was a pernicious issue lurking in the shadows. It was like a cancer that seemed to grow more lethal after every “compromise” designed to resolve it.

An example was the fateful Compromise of 1850, intended to resolve the four-year controversy over the status of the new territories that accrued to the U.S. after the war with Mexico. California was admitted as a free state, and Texas had slaves, but had to surrender its claim to New Mexico. Utah and New Mexico were granted popular sovereignty (self-determination) and there was a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law (destined to be revoked by the Dred Scott reversal).

Jeff Davis felt so strongly that slavery was a 200-year tradition (to be decided by individual states) and detested the 1850 Compromise so much that he resigned his Senate seat to run for governor of Mississippi, confident this would enhance his national visibility, send a strong message to the North and bolster any wavering Southerners. The strategy failed when he lost the election, leaving him with no political office.

Davis bounced back into the Senate by one vote and new President Franklin Pierce (1852) selected him to be Secretary of War, a powerful position to resist the continuous threat from the North to impose their will on the South by any means necessary. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act just roiled the opposing forces and thoughts of secession were like dry kindling waiting for the proverbial spark. First was President James Buchanan (1856), a Democrat who seemed helpless or resigned to the inevitability of war.

As abolition forces gained momentum and the South grew even more resolute that they would not concede a principle that states’ rights trumped Federal aggression, it was only a question of how or what set of events would tip the nation into a civil war. The answer was in plain sight.

In the critical election year of 1860, though still hopeful of a peaceful settlement on slavery, Davis told an audience that if Republicans won the White House, the Union would have to be dissolved. “I love and venerate the Union of these states,” he said, “but I love liberty and Mississippi more.” When asked if Mississippi should secede if another state did, he roared, “I answer yes!” And if the U.S. Army tried to suppress it? Davis answered even more vehemently. “I will meet force with force!”

Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.

The slavery issue was simply not resolvable by anything but force. Few foresaw how much force would be needed and the enormous carnage and loss of life involved. War always seems to be much more than anticipated. The 20th century would really amp it up and the 21st century has gotten off to a rocky start, as well.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

People of South Carolina were Eager, Even Jubilant, to Start an All-Out War

This Confederate albumen photograph of Fort Sumter, taken two days after Union Major Robert Anderson surrendered, sold for $1,875 at a June 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Fort Sumter, S.C. – site of the first battle of the Civil War – was located on an artificial island inside the entrance to Charleston Harbor. A pentagon with block walls 300 feet long, 40 feet high and up to 12 feet thick was still under construction in late 1860.

On Dec. 26, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson moved his troops from Fort Moultrie, at the edge of the harbor entrance, to Fort Sumter to reduce their exposure to an attack. Just days earlier, South Carolina had declared their state an independent republic and they resented the “foreign” U.S. flag. They considered Anderson’s transfer of troops an act of aggression.

They considered it another hostile act when the lame-duck James Buchanan administration sent an unarmed merchant ship with reinforcements in January 1861. As the ship approached Charleston Harbor, shore batteries opened fire and forced it to turn back.

Apparently, few recognized how eager (perhaps more than just eager) the people of South Carolina were to start an all-out war against what they considered the oppression of the North. Some even prayed for it to start.

On Feb. 15, 1861, the Confederate Provisional Congress in Montgomery secretly resolved that “immediate steps should be taken to obtain possession of both Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens … either by negotiation or force.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis then dispatched three commissioners to Washington to try diplomatic negotiations. However, he also ordered P.G.T. Beauregard (full name Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard) to take command of the harbor and start formal preparations for the use of force.

Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard

General Beauregard (one of only eight full generals in the Confederacy … ever) proceeded to extend and enlarge the batteries, targeting the fort. His preparations nearly complete, he advised President Davis on March 27 that expulsion of the Union troops “ought now to be decided in a few days.” Davis replied that Anderson should not be allowed to buy provisions in Charleston.

Want to start a war? Surround a fort with canons … cut off any reinforcements … and restrict its provisions. Then get a match and prepare to light the fuse.

On April 10, Beauregard was ordered to demand an evacuation of Fort Sumter, and if refused, to “reduce it.”

On April 12, 1861, 50 Confederate guns and mortars launched more than 4,000 rounds on an ill-equipped Fort Sumter. They surrendered after 34 hours. Two days later, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the “insurrection.” The president was not willing to start a war over the slavery issue, but the taking of federal property was leading to disunion, something the president was not going to allow, even if it meant all-out war.

The U.S. flag would not be raised over Fort Sumter again until April 14, 1865, exactly four years after the surrender. Who would have guessed? Obviously, few if any of the people who were so jubilant when the war started and so utterly demoralized when it ended.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Zachary Taylor was First President Elected With No Political Experience

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A half-plate daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor circa 1844, once owned by the Taylor family, sold for $47,800 at a November 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Washington, D.C., that said farewell to James Polk in 1849 and greeted General Zachary Taylor was similar to many American cities with a combination of town and pasture. However, even after 50 years, it still looked unfinished. Pennsylvania Avenue was the principal commercial street, lined with buildings from the Capitol to the White House. But beyond, it was a town of monotonous red brick houses interspersed with seas of grass.

There were schemes for improving public lands in various places, but only one was significant to the White House. The marshy expanse to the south was believed to give off vapors, especially in the summer. In 1849, the most feared disease was cholera – particularly from May to November when the first frost quelled it. Those who could afford it left town for the summer and President Polk’s insistence on staying probably contributed to his early demise.

Taylor was the first president elected to office with no political experience. He was ill-prepared for the politics and problems involved. Like William Henry Harrison, Taylor was chosen by the Whigs as their presidential candidate solely because he was a war hero. Taylor spent 40 years in the Army, fighting Indians and winning glory in the war with Mexico. He was called “Old Rough and Ready” by his men. He preferred civilian clothes to military uniforms, even in battle. Short and plump, he had none of the appearance of a military hero and had to be given a leg-up when he mounted a horse.

Taylor was inaugurated in March 1849 and as he moved from the Capitol to the WH, the police had trouble holding back the throngs. Nodding and smiling, he waved his hat and seemed approachable, if not particularly presidential. Those who got a close look found him heavy and scruffy, his face deeply wrinkled, gray hair tousled. After four years of the dour Polk, the public was eager to idolize someone friendly.

But Taylor was an odd hero. Lacking the presence of General Jackson or General Harrison, he looked more the Louisiana planter he was in private life. The general had become president at age 64 and was considered an old man. The hope was that he would prevail through the sheer force of his prestige. Plus, Taylor’s greatest asset was his integrity, which he wore like a medal. Voters seem to have willingly accepted that he would allow his advisers to run the government. It seemed logical to have a chain of command with an honest, experienced general at the head.

The strategy failed since their hero-president provided little leadership and Democrats controlled Congress. The Taylor family circle included few intimates with one notable exception: Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. He had been their son-in-law after he married the second-eldest Taylor daughter in 1835, but she died three months later of cholera.

Then it was suddenly 1850, a most pivotal year and possibly the last chance to prevent a civil war. The slavery issue came to a boil and debates raged in Congress over allowing the people of California and New Mexico to determine their own status. Perhaps with a different president, a workable solution could have held the Union together, but Taylor scorned compromises.

On July 4, 1850, at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, President Taylor remained in the hot sun for many hours and became ill. He died five days later. The winds of war only became fiercer and there was nobody on either side who could temper them.

Next stop: an all-out Civil War that would come close to permanent disunion.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Buchanan Left Looming Disaster of Seceding South to Lincoln

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Commemorative medals were gifted to a Japanese delegation when they visited the United States and President Buchanan in 1860. This Silver Japanese Embassy Medal sold for $10,157.50 at a November 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Abraham Lincoln began making appearances in the East in early 1860 and emerged a national figure. That summer, Republicans obtained a semblance of unity behind a ticket of Lincoln for president and Hannibal Hamlin for vice president. Their victory in November was no surprise at the White House or anywhere else.

Outgoing President James Buchanan had four months left to serve and knew he was sitting on a powder keg. He started to distance himself from Southern advisers and, as disunion started to loom as a reality, Cabinet meetings became an ordeal. Buchanan had a sharp legal mind and a keen perception of people; he did not share the president-elect’s optimism that threats of secession were mere tactical bluffs by vocal Southerners.

However, the bachelor Buchanan and his niece Harriet Lane, who served as official White House hostess, entertained as usual during the winter of 1860-61. Each week, there were two major dinners for about 40 guests in the State Dining Room. Smaller “family” dinners honored Cabinet members. They were all gala affairs with masses of flowers and superb French cuisine with separate wines for each course. In prison, five years later, ex-Senator Jefferson Davis wrote that the Buchanan White House had come closest of any to being a “Royal Court.”

On election day, a committee from South Carolina had called at the White House asking Buchanan what his plans were for the unfinished forts in Charleston harbor. In his desk was a puzzling document marked “Scott’s views” from General Winfield Scott. It presumed that a Lincoln victory would result in a takeover of the small forts and, importantly, every military installation in every state that seceded!

Without answering the Southern committee, Buchanan convened his Cabinet to debate what should be done. Finally, Buchanan simply dismissed the issue and the Cabinet heads left. They were passed on the stairs by a messenger bringing the news that the commander of Fort Moultrie-Charleston had been confronted by a mob while trying to transfer supplies.

This was the first overt action taken against the Union by the hotheaded South Carolinians.

On Dec. 20, 1860, Buchanan wrote to a friend: “I have never enjoyed better health or a more tranquil spirit. … All our troubles have not cost me an hour’s sleep or a single meal. … I am leaving the rest to Providence.”

That same evening, word was received: South Carolina had seceded.

During the last days of December, members of the Cabinet began to resign. Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb was the first to go. Most of the others followed after much shouting, table-pounding and book-slamming rage. Gray-faced and unsmiling, the president sat puffing on his cigar as his Cabinet fell apart.

On New Year’s Day 1861, South Carolina began seizing federal property around Charleston harbor and then it spread. Six more states seceded and grabbed forts, offices, custom houses, mints and arsenals. But Buchanan stubbornly maintained the status quo, waiting for his successor to shoulder the burden.

Just after 11 a.m. on Feb. 14, a messenger raced up the stairs to the Cabinet room and slipped a card into the president’s hand. Buchanan read it and stood up smiling. “Gentlemen,” he announced, “Uncle Abe is in the Red Room below. Let us not keep him waiting.”

There was a new sheriff in town.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

The 1850s Represented a Challenging Time for America

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U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis presented this gold pocket watch to Franklin Pierce the year Pierce was nominated for president. Pierce was Davis’ favored candidate since Pierce had not openly opposed slavery. This watch sold for $15,535 at a June 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

jefferson-davis-and-franklin-pierceIn 1819, the United States was a divided nation with 11 states that permitted slavery and an equal number that did not. When Missouri applied for admission to join the Union as a slave state, tensions escalated dramatically since this would upset the delicate balance. It would also set a precedent by establishing the principle that Congress could make laws regarding slavery, a right many believed was reserved for the states.

In an effort to preserve harmony, Congress passed a compromise that accepted Missouri as a slave state and Massachusetts would be divided (creating Maine) and admitted as a free state. The passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 earned U.S. Senator Henry Clay the nickname of the “Great Pacificator.”

It was the first real crisis over the slavery issue and kicked the can all the way to the 1850s, however, observers like Thomas Jefferson were profoundly upset. He said just the threat of disunion in 1820 caused him to be apprehensive about the future. He foresaw the potential for civil war, saying, “My God, this country is going to have a blow up. When it hits us, it’s going to be like a tornado.”

Those words would prove to be eerily prophetic.

By the 1850s, the disagreement had splintered into a five-way dispute. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans arguing with the Southern Democrats. The Northern Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, versus the Southern Democrats through Jefferson Davis. There were heated arguments between Frederick Douglass (and the political abolitionists) and William Lloyd Garrison, who favored non-violent moral suasion, and both against the non-political-process abolition that led to John Brown’s violent actions.

The War with Mexico (1846-48) had fueled these contentious debates since there was no consensus on how to treat the vast new territories of California, Utah, New Mexico or even Texas. After years of wrangling, the Compromise of 1850 put a bandage on it and several other lingering issues (e.g., the Fugitive Slave Act, the banning of slave trade in Washington, D.C.). Neither side was satisfied, but the Union remained intact.

However, the tentative peace was fleeting. When the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, with cooperation between U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas and President Franklin Pierce, the inevitability of a civil war was finally a stark reality. The election of Lincoln in 1860 was the final straw and seven Southern states seceded, even before his inauguration, to form a new confederacy.

Formal hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on the Federal seaport of Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., and would not end for four bloody years. Even Jefferson’s metaphor of a tornado never contemplated the death and destruction that took place.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell]