On the afternoon of the 10th, a slave delivered a message to Jefferson Davis as he and his wife Varina pruned rose bushes at their home of Brierfield south of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The message was from the convention then under way at Montgomery, Alabama: “We are directed to inform you that you are this day unanimously elected President of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America, and to request you to come to Montgomery immediately.”
Varina later recalled: “Reading that telegram, he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes, he told me, as a man might speak of a sentence of death.” Davis had recently been appointed major general of the Mississippi militia, but that job would have to be abandoned for this higher duty. He wrote a letter of acceptance, which was conveyed to the convention via telegraph at Vicksburg. Davis then began hurried arrangements to go to Montgomery.
The new president-elect left the next day after bidding farewell to his family and slaves at Brierfield. The first leg of the 600-mile trip involved taking a boat to Vicksburg, where he delivered a short speech to an exuberant crowd. He explained that he had tried to preserve the Union and the “constitutional equality of all the States… (But) our safety and honor required us to dissolve our connection with the United States. I hope that our separation may be peaceful. But whether it be so or not, I am ready, as I always have been, to redeem my pledges to you and the South by shedding every drop of my blood in your cause…”
The second leg of the journey began on the 12th, with a train ride from Vicksburg to the Mississippi capital of Jackson. He was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and martial music as he resigned his major general’s commission. From Jackson, the Davis train moved east to Chattanooga and Atlanta before doubling back to Montgomery. A direct route from Davis’s home would have been just 100 miles, but the hurried nature of the trip combined with a lack of direct railroads made the journey much more difficult. Davis’s train stopped roughly 25 times on its journey.
While Abraham Lincoln’s parallel trip through the northern states was met by supporters and detractors alike, Davis enjoyed almost unanimous support. A reporter covering Davis’s trip for the New York Herald wrote: “There are two things noticeable in connection with the president’s passage through the country—the unstudied, spontaneous, hearty enthusiasm with which he has been everywhere greeted, and the unanimous determination to stand by the new government. For whatever division there may have been before secession, there is now but one mind.”
Davis finally reached Montgomery late on the night of the 16th, where he was greeted by a joyous crowd and a band playing “Dixie’s Land,” a minstrel song new to southerners, supposedly written by Daniel Decatur Emmett in New York City. The president-elect was escorted by a cheering crowd to the Exchange Hotel, where he addressed the people in the street: “The time for compromise has now passed, and the South is determined to maintain her position, and make all who oppose her smell Southern powder and feel Southern steel if coercion is persisted in… We ask nothing, we want nothing; we have no complications.”
Later, Davis appeared on the hotel balcony with William Lowndes Yancey, who had been instrumental in the secession of Alabama. Davis spoke to the crowd below:
“It may be that our career will be ushered in in the midst of a storm; it may be that as this morning opened with clouds, rain and mist, we shall have to encounter inconveniences at the beginning; but as the sun rose and lifted the mist it dispersed the clouds and left us the pure sunshine of heaven. So will progress the Southern Confederacy, and carry us safe into the harbor of constitutional liberty and political equality. We fear nothing… because, if war should come, if we must again baptize in blood the principles for which our fathers bled in the Revolution, we shall show that we are not degenerate sons, but will redeem the pledges they gave, preserve the rights they transmitted to us, and prove that Southern valor still shines as bright as in 1776… I will devote to the duties of the high office to which I have been called all that I have of heart, of head, of hand. If, in the progress of events, it shall become necessary that my services be needed in another position—if, to be plain, necessity require that I shall again enter the ranks of soldiers—I hope you will welcome me there.”
Yancey then stepped forward to show gratitude to “the distinguished gentleman who has just addressed you,” who was “the statesman, the soldier and the patriot.” Yancey had been a leader among the fire-eaters who had worked so hard to take the South out of the Union. Now he would pass that leadership on to Davis, leader of the moderates who would head the new government. Yancey declared: “The man and the hour have met.”
- Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- Thomas, Emory M., The Confederate Nation. HarperCollins e-books, Kindle Edition, 1976.
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.