The Prison Life Of Jefferson Davis

The Trying Experience of the Ex-President at Fort Monroe Prevarication of General Miles

Actual Instructions of Assistant Secretary of War as to Shackles.
By Colonel William H. Stewart

[From the Times-Dispatch, February 12, 1905.]

        The steamer William P. Clyde, with President Jefferson Davis, Mrs. Davis, son and two daughters; Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, Hon. C. C. Clay and Mrs. Clay, Hon. John H. Reagan, Confederate Postmaster-General; General Joseph Wheeler, and other prisoners, convoyed by the United States ship Tuscarora, arrived in Hampton Roads on the 19th of May, 1865, from Port Royal, S. C.
        The arrival was immediately wired to Washington, and that afternoon Secretary of War E. M. Stanton ordered Major-General H. W. Halleck to proceed to Fortress Monroe, take charge of the prisoners, and to imprison Messrs. Davis and Clay securely in that fortress; to send Messrs. Stephens and Regan to Fort Warren by sea in a gunboat; General Wheeler and staff, Colonels Lubbock and Johnston, aids to President Davis, to Fort Delaware, also in a gunboat; Colonel Harrison, secretary to Mr. Davis, to Washington, and the remainder of the prisoners to Fort McHenry, in the Clyde, under convoy. He was also instructed to allow the ladies and children of the party to go to such places in the South as they might prefer, but forbid their going North or remaining at Fortress Monroe or Norfolk. He was also directed to prevent any one from visiting or holding communication with President Davis or Mr. Clay, either verbally or in writing. This was to deny them any communication either with their wives or children.

Other "Prisoners" Depart

        The Maumee, Commander F. A. Parker, sailed with General Wheeler and party on the 21st of May for Fort Delaware, and the Tuscarora, Commander James Madison Frailey, sailed at the same time with Messrs. Stephens and Reagan for Fort Warren.
        The orders for the Clyde were changed, and she was directed to take the ladies and children to Savannah, Ga., without restraint, and arriving there to give them perfect liberty.
        As the prisons could not be prepared for Messrs. Davis and Clay at once, they were held on the Clyde until the 22d of May; then the prelude to the infamy of the nineteenth century began.
        General Halleck ordered Major-General Nelson A. Miles to proceed at 1 P. M. on a tug with a guard from the garrison to bring the prisoners from the Clyde to the engineer's wharf, thence through the battery to their prisons.

Miles on the Scene

        At precisely 1 o'clock General Miles left for the Clyde, and at 1:30 o'clock the tug left the Clyde, landing' at the engineer's wharf. The procession to the prison was led by cavalrymen from Colonel Pritchard's command, and moved through the water battery on the front of the fortress and entered by a postern leading from that battery. The cavalrymen were followed by General Miles, holding Mr. Davis by the right arm. Next came half a dozen soldiers, and then Colonel Pritchard with Mr. Clay, and last, the guard of soldiers which Miles took with him from the garrison.
        The distinguished prisoners asked to see General Halleck, but were denied. They were incarcerated, each in a separate inner room of a casemate, with a window heavily barred, and a sentry was placed before each of the doors leading into the outer room. These doors were secured by bars fastened on the outside, and two other sentries stood outside of these doors, and an officer was put on duty in the outer room, with instructions to see the prisoners every fifteen minutes. The outer door of all was locked on the outside, and the key kept exclusively by the general officer of the guard, and two sentries were also stationed without that door.

Unnecessary Sentinels

        A strong line of sentries was posted to cut off all access to the vicinity of the casemate; another line stationed on the top of the parapet overhead, and a third line posted across the moats on the counterscarp opposite the places of confinement. The casemates on each side and between those occupied by the prisoners were used as guard rooms, so that soldiers would always be at hand. Mr. Davis occupied casemate No. 2; Mr. Clay, No. 4; Nos. 1, 3 and 5 were occupied by guards of soldiers. A lamp was kept constantly burning in each of the prisoners' rooms. The furniture of each prisoner was a hospital bed with iron bedstead, a stool, table and a movable stool closet. A Bible was allowed each, and afterwards a prayer-book and tobacco were added.
        These regulations must have been directed or supervised by C. A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, who was present, for he says: "I have not given orders to have them placed in irons, as General Halleck seemed opposed to it; but General Miles is instructed to have fetters ready if he thinks them necessary."
        On the 24th of May, 1865, Miles reported to Dana: "Yesterday I directed that irons be put on Davis' ankles, which he violently resisted, but became more quiet afterward. His hands are unencumbered."
        These fetters remained on five days, although Dr. Craven urged their removal, because the irritation caused by the chains was counterpoising whatever medicine he might give the sick captive.

For Humiliation Only

        It appears to us that the object of Dana and Miles, in chaining the feet of President Davis, under the poor pretext of rendering imprisonment more secure, was to humiliate not only the prisoner, but the people of the whole South, and to them the names of Dana and Miles will be ever linked with the infamy. Whenever they are mentioned, feelings akin to those aroused at the name of Caligula will fire the breasts of the proud descendants of the people of the conquered nation; and the act of chaining President Davis will be hated wherever honor lives.
        On the 28th day of May, 1865, Secretary Stanton required Miles to report" whether irons have or have not been placed on Jefferson Davis. If they have been, when it was done, and for what reason, and remove them." Miles replied: ". . . . that when Jeff Davis was first confined in the casemate the inner doors were light wooden ones, without locks. I directed anklets to be put upon his ankles, which would not interfere with his walking, but would prevent his running, should he endeavor to escape. In the meantime I have changed the wooden doors for grated ones with locks, and the anklets have been removed. Every care is taken to avoid any pretence of complaint, as well as to prevent the possibility of his escape."
        Such was the flimsy excuse given by Miles when called to account for his cruelty by the iron-hearted Stanton.

Broke His Health

        The health of Mr. Davis rapidly failed under the cruel treatment and severe mental strain. The chief medical officer, Dr. John }. Craven, on the 20th of August, 1865, reported that his general condition denoted a low state of the vital forces. After a long time the reports of his deplorable condition reached the ear of President Andrew Johnson, and on the 9th of May, 1866, he requested the Secretary of War to direct Surgeon G. E. Cooper to submit an early report respecting the health of Jefferson Davis. Dr. Cooper, after a special examination on the same day, reported as the result of the examination:

"He is considerably emaciated, the fatty tissue having almost disappeared, leaving his skin much shriveled. His muscles are small, flaccid and very soft, and he has but little muscular strength. He is quite weak and debilitated; consequently his gait is becoming uneven and irregular. His digestive organs at present are in comparatively good condition, but become quickly deranged under anything but the most carefully prepared food. With a diet disagreeing with him, dyspeptic symptoms promptly make their appearance, soon followed by vertigo, severe facial and cranial neuralgia, an erysipelatous inflammation of the posterior scalp and right side of the nose, which quickly affects the right eye (the only sound one he has) and extends through the nasal duct into the interior nose. His nervous system is greatly deranged, being prostrated and excessively irritable. Slight noises, which are scarcely perceptible to a man in robust health, cause him much pain, the description of the sensation being as of one flayed and having every sentient nerve exposed to the waves of sound. Want of sleep has been a great and almost the principal cause of his nervous excitability. This has been produced by the tramp of the creaking boots of the sentinels on post round the prison room, and the relieval of the guard at the expiration of every two hours, which almost invariably awakens him."

Mr. Davis's Statement

        "Prisoner Davis states that he has scarcely enjoyed over two hours of sleep unbroken at one time since his confinement. Means have been taken by placing matting on the floor for the sentinels to walk to alleviate this source of disturbance, but with only partial success. His vital condition is low, and he has but little recuperative force. Should he be attacked with any of the severe forms of disease to which the Tidewater region of Virginia is subject, I, with reason, fear the result."

Miles's Pitiful Plea

        The comments of the press quite excited General Miles, and he, in a confidential communication to the Assistant Adjutant-General, said: ". . . . . I regret to say that I think Surgeon Cooper is entirely under the influence of Mr. and Mrs. Davis, the former of whom has the happy faculty that a strong mind has over a weaker to mould it to agree with its views and opinions. Surgeon Cooper's wife is a secessionist and one of the F. F. V.'s of this State. He is exceedingly attentive to Mrs. Davis, escorting her to Norfolk and back, and yesterday he had a private interview with Davis and Messrs. O'Connor and Shea. To-day the four were together at the doctor's house."
        It is patent that this stab in the back was intended to misrepresent the intention of an honorable medical officer, who could be fair and just to a prisoner, so as to justify the vilefier's own despicable conduct. Public indignation not only spread over the whole South, but reached to such a degree in the North that the newspapers were emboldened to denounce the tortures of Jefferson Davis in scathing terms.

The Press to the Rescue

        The New York World of May 24, 1866, in an editorial under that head, says: "It is no longer a matter of newspaper rumor that the treatment which Jefferson Davis has received during his incarceration in Fortress Monroe, has been such as to break down his constitution and to put him, after twelve months of protracted suffering, in imminent peril of death.
        Upon the recommendation of the Secretary of the Treasury the President of the United States recently ordered the post surgeon to make a careful and thorough examination of Mr. Davis' health. That report has been made and is now published. It cannot be read by any honorable and right-minded American, no matter what his sectional feelings or his political opinions may be, without a sickening sensation of shame for his country and a burning flush of indignation against the persons who have prostituted their official position to inflict upon the American name an ineffaceable brand of disgrace by the wanton and wicked torture of an invalid lying a helpless prisoner in the strongest fortress of the Union. The report of Post Surgeon Cooper is all the more damning that it is perfectly calm and formal in tone, and that it deals only with the strictly medical aspect of the investigation, which its author was ordered to make. We hear nothing, for example, from Surgeon Cooper of the stories which have been repeated over and over again, in all varieties of tone, but with singular consistency in the main details, by correspondence of all shades of opinion in regard to the petty insults heaped upon Jefferson Davis in the routine of his daily life.

Military Orders Condemned

        The refusal by express military orders of the common courtesies and simplest decencies of life to a man who for four years wielded the resources of eleven belligerent States against the whole power of the Union, while it would be unspeakably disgraceful to the authorities perpetrating it, might be of very little consequence to the health or the spirits of the captive at whom it was aimed. A man of strong and self-sustained character might be annoyed, indeed, at finding himself in the hands of persecutors so paltry, but they would scarcely be able to disturb his digestion or his sleep. The American people, should the stories prove to be true, will have a serious account to settle with the functionaries who could thus misrepresent and belittle them in the eyes of Christendom and of history. But the crying result of Surgeon Cooper's report, the result of which demands the most prompt and emphatic expression possible of the popular indignation, if we are not to be written down all of us as accomplices in the vile transactions which it reveals, is this, that the health of Jefferson Davis, which was notoriously poor at the time of his capture, has been systematically broken down by a cruel and deliberate perseverance in applying to him one of the worst tortures known to humanity. Here are the fatal words in which the truth is told." Then quoting a part of Surgeon Cooper's report, which we have given above, the editor goes on to say: "In a very minute and horrible treatise on the tortures practiced by the Inquisition, an Italian writer tells us that a certain grand Inquisition at Rome, famous for skill at jangling God's work in the human body, pronounced this special form of torment to be 'the most exquisite and victorious of all he had ever essayed.' No picture in all the dread gallery of imperial madness and misery which Suetonius has bequeathed to us is so fearful as his portraiture of Caligula roaming through the vast halls of the palace of the Caesars night after night with bloodshot eyes, sleepless, and driven on by sleeplessness to insanity. And in what light are we, this triumphant American people of the nineteenth century, to appear before posterity weighted with the damning image of our most conspicuous enemy thus tied by us to the stake and tortured by us with worse than Indian tortures? We make and seek to make no party issues with any man or men on this matter. It is the honor, the humanity, the Christianity, the civilization of the American republic which are involved.

A Case in Point

        Since the eloquent pen of Mr. Gladstone, near a score of years ago, concentrated the indignation of the civilized world upon the barbarous treatment inflicted by the Bourbon rulers of Naples upon Baron Poerio and his fellow-captives, there has been no such revelation as this of the brutality to which men may be tempted by political passion, and it is intolerable that the scandals of Ischia and San Elmo should be paralleled in the sacred name of liberty within the walls of Fortress Monroe. We abstain purposely from discussing the nature and extent of the political offenses for which Jefferson Davis has thus been made to suffer, for we are so unwilling to believe that any man can be found, even in the ranks of the most extreme radical party, who would dare import such a discussion into the case. Thaddeus Stevens could shock the moral sense of mankind by demanding the 'penitentiary of hell' for millions of his fellow-countrymen; but even Thaddeus Stevens, we prefer to think, would shrink from condensing that vast and inclusive anathema into the practical, downright torture of a single human being. When Lafayette was suffering the extremes of cruelty in the Austrian dungeons of Olmutz, Edmund Burke, transported by a blind rage against the French revolution, could respond to an appeal in behalf of the injured and high-souled victim by exclaiming in his place in Parliament: 'I would not debase my humanity by supporting an application in behalf of such a horrid ruffian.' But is it for a moment to be supposed that the most fanatical member of an American Congress, which assumes to itself a special philanthropy and sits in the year 1866, can be found to imitate the savage bigotry of an exasperated British royalist in the year 1794?

Congress Appealed To

        If the members of the congressional majority at Washington are not weaker and more wicked men than the sternest of their political opponents would willingly believe them to be, they will compel a prompt exposure of the authors of this shameful thing--a prompt exposure and a punishment as prompt.
        The President has done his duty in laying bare the facts, and will do his duty, we doubt not, in arresting at once and summarily this continuous outrage upon the national character. But we live in an epoch of congressional inquiries into national scandals and national rumors of all kinds, and the conscience of the country will hold the present Congress to a dread responsibility if it shirk or evade a duty more important to our national honor than any which it has as yet assumed.

The Parole

        The exposure of Mr. Davis' condition and cruel treatment, and the severe arraignment of the authorities by the newspapers undoubtedly caused the tyrants to relax their rigid hands and give the State prisoner more liberty as indicated by the following parole, dated Fortress Monroe, May 25, 1866:

"For the privilege of being allowed the liberty of the grounds inside the walls of Fort Monroe between the hours of sunrise and sunset, I, Jefferson Davis, do hereby give my parole of honor that I will make no attempt to nor take any advantage of any opportunity that may be offered to effect my escape therefrom.

"Jefferson Davis"

"Witness: J. A. Fessenden,
"First Lieutenant, Fifth Artillery."

Miles' "Reward"

        On The 29th of August, 1866, the War Department issued an order relieving Miles of duty at Fortress Monroe, which he seemed to think was a reflection upon his conduct. He had been there during fifteen months of Mr. Davis' imprisonment, and desired to remain until the prisoner should be removed, so he requested to be allowed to remain a month longer, or until the 5th of October. He desired this slight consideration in justice to his reputation. The request was not granted, but he was made a colonel in the regular army, which, we presume, was balm enough for his wounded feelings from the public attacks on his conduct in cruelties to a helpless prisoner.
        On Miles' retirement, General H. W. Burton assumed command of Fortress Monroe, and he seems to have been more considerate and humane to his State prisoner, for he was called to account by the War Department for permitting persons to visit Mr. Davis not specially authorized by it.
        The writ of habeas corpus for Mr. Davis was issued by the United States Circuit Court for the District of Virginia on the 1st day of May, 1867, and under instructions from the War Department, General H. W. Burton, on the 13th day of May, obeyed the writ and was released from the further custody of the ex-President of the Confederate States.
        Thus ended the imprisonment of the great and good man.
Source:  Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXXII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1904.

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