Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/March/Letter from President Davis

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Southern Historical Society Papers: Volume 1 Number 3  (1876)  by Jefferson Davis
Letter from President Davis
Southern Historical Society Papers, March 1876

New Orleans, January 27, 1876.

Hon. James Lyons:

My Dear Friend—Your very kind letter of the 14th instant was forwarded from Memphis, and has been received at this place.

I have been so long the object of malignant slander and the subject of unscrupulous falsehood by partisans of the class of Mr. Blaine, that, although I cannot say it has become to me matter of indifference, it has ceased to excite my surprise, even in this instance, when it reaches the extremity of accusing me of cruelty to prisoners. What matters it to one whose object is personal and party advantage that the records, both Federal and Confederate, disprove the charge; that the country is full of witnesses who bear oral testimony against it, and that the effort to revive the bitter animosities of the war obstructs the progress toward the reconciliation of the sections? It is enough for him if his self seeking purpose be promoted.

It would, however, seem probable that such expectations must be disappointed, for only those who are wilfully blind can fail to see in the circumstances of the case the fallacy of Mr. Blaine's statements. The published fact of an attempt to suborn Wirz, when under sentence of death, by promising him a pardon if he would criminate me in regard to the Andersonville prisoners, is conclusive as to the wish of the Government to make such charge against me, and the failure to do so shows that nothing could be found to sustain it. May we not say the evidence of my innocence was such that Holt and Conover, with their trained band of suborned witnesses, dared not make against me this charge—the same which Wirz, for his life, would not make, but which Blaine, for the Presidential nomination, has made?

Now let us review the leading facts of this case. The report of the Confederate commissioner for exchange of prisoners shows how persistent and liberal were our efforts to secure the relief of captives. Failing in those attempts, I instructed General R. E. Lee to go under flag of truce and seek an interview with General Grant, to represent to him the suffering and death of Federal prisoners held by us, to explain the causes which were beyond our control, and to urge in the name of humanity the observance of the cartel for the exchange of prisoners. To this, as to all previous appeals, a deaf ear was turned. The interview was not granted. I will not attempt, from memory, to write the details of the correspondence. Lee no longer lives to defend the cause and country he loved so well and served so efficiently; but General Grant cannot fail to remember so extraordinary a proposition, and his objections to executing the cartel are well known to the public. But whoever else may choose to forget my efforts in this regard, the prisoners at Andersonville and the delegates I permitted them to send to President Lincoln to plead for the resumption of exchange of prisoners cannot fail to remember how willing I was to restore them to their homes and to the comforts of which they were in need, provided the imprisoned soldiers of the Confederacy should be in like manner released and returned to us.

This foul accusation, though directed specially against me, was no doubt intended as, and naturally must be, the arraignment of the South, by whose authority and in whose behalf my deeds were done. It may be presumed that the feelings and the habits of the Southern soldiers were understood by me, and in that connection any fair mind would perceive in my congratulatory orders to the army after a victory, in which the troops were most commended for their tenderness and generosity to the wounded and other captives, as well the instincts of the person who issued the order as the knightly temper of the soldiers to whom it was addressed. It is admitted that the prisoners in our hands were not as well provided for as we would, but it is claimed that we did as well for them as we could. Can the other side say as much?

To the bold allegations of ill treatment of prisoners by our side, and humane treatment and adequate supplies by our opponents, it is only necessary to offer two facts—first, it appears from the reports of the United States War Department that though we had sixty thousand more Federal prisoners than they had of Confederates, six thousand more of Confederates died in Northern prisons than died of Federals in Southern prisons; second, the want and suffering of men in Northern prisons caused me to ask for permission to send out cotton and buy supplies for them. The request was granted, but only on condition that the cotton should be sent to New York and the supplies be bought there. General Beale, now of St. Louis, was authorized to purchase and distribute the needful supplies.

Our sympathy rose with the occasion and responded to its demands—not waiting for ten years, then to vaunt itself when it could serve no good purpose to the sufferers.

Under the mellowing influence of time and occasional demonstrations at the North of a desire for the restoration of peace and good will, the Southern people have forgotten much—have forgiven much of the wrongs they bore. If it be less so among their invaders, it is but another example of the rule that the wrong doer is less able to forgive than he who has suffered causeless wrong. It is not, however, generally among those who braved the hazards of battle that unrelenting vindictiveness is to be found. The brave are generous and gentle. It is the skulkers of the fight—the Blaines—who display their flags on an untented field. They made no sacrifice to prevent the separation of the States. Why should they be expected to promote the confidence and good will essential to their union?

When closely confined at Fortress Monroe I was solicited to add my name to those of many esteemed gentlemen who had signed a petition for my pardon, and an assurance was given that on my doing so the President would order my liberation. Confident of the justice of our cause and the rectitude of my own conduct, I declined to sign the petition, and remained subject to the inexcusable privations and tortures which Dr. Craven has but faintly described. When, after two years of close confinement, I was admitted to bail, as often as required I appeared for trial under the indictment found against me, but in which Mr. Blaine's fictions do not appear. The indictment was finally quashed on no application of mine, nor have I ever evaded or avoided a trial upon any charge the General Government might choose to bring against me, and have no view of the future which makes it desirable to me to be included in an amnesty bill.

Viewed in the abstract or as a general question, I would be glad to see the repeal of all laws inflicting the penalty of political disabilities on classes of the people that it might, as prescribed by the constitution, be left to the courts to hear and decide causes, and to affix penalties according to pre-existing legislation. The discrimination made against our people is unjust and impolitic if the fact be equality and the purpose be fraternity among the citizens of the United States. Conviction and sentence without a hearing, without jurisdiction, and affixing penalties by ex post facto legislation, are part of the proceeding which had its appropriate end in the assumption by Congress of the Executive function of granting pardons. To remove political disabilities which there was not legal power to impose was not an act of so much grace as to form a plausible pretext for the reckless diatribe of Mr. Blaine.

The papers preserved by Dr. Stevenson happily furnish full proof of the causes of disease and death at Andersonville. They are now, I believe, in Richmond, and it is to be hoped their publication will not be much longer delayed. I have no taste for recrimination, though the sad recitals made by our soldiers returned from Northern prisons can never be forgotten. And you will remember the excitement those produced, and the censorious publications which were uttered against me because I would not visit on the helpless prisoners in our hands such barbarities as, according to reports, had been inflicted upon our men.

Imprisonment is a hard lot at the best, and prisoners are prone to exaggerate their sufferings, and such was probably the case on both sides. But we did not seek by reports of committees, with photographic illustrations, to inflame the passions of our people. How was it with our enemy? Let one example suffice. You may remember a published report of a committee of the United States Congress which was sent to Annapolis to visit some exchanged prisoners, and which had appended to it the photographs of some emaciated subjects, which were offered as samples of prisoners returned from the South.

When a copy of that report was received, I sent it to Colonel Ould, commissioner for the exchange of prisoners, and learned, as I anticipated, that the photographs, as far as they could be identified, had been taken from men who were in our hospital when they were liberated for exchange, and whom the hospital surgeon regarded as convalescent, but too weak to be removed with safety to themselves. The anxiety of the prisoners to be sent to their homes had prevailed over the objections of the surgeon. But this is not all, for I have recently learned from a priest who was then at Annapolis that the most wretched looking of these photographs was taken from a man who had never been a prisoner, but who had been left on the "sick list" at Annapolis when the command to which he was attached had passed that place on its southward march.

Whatever may be said in extenuation of such imposture because of the exigencies of war, there can be no such excuse now for the attempts of Mr. Blaine, by gross misrepresentation and slanderous accusation, to revive the worst passions of the war; and it is to be hoped that, much as the event is to be regretted, it will have the good effect of evoking truthful statements in regard to this little understood subject from men who would have preferred to leave their sorrowful story untold if the subject could have been allowed peacefully to sink into oblivion.

Mutual respect is needful for the common interest, is essential to a friendly union, and when slander is promulgated from high places the public welfare demands that truth should strip falsehood of its power for evil.

I am, respectfully and truly your friend,

Jefferson Davis.