Posts tagged: Dead Presidents
This is pretty cool. The good people at AND Magazine have published a feature of my essay on the JFK assassination called “Colors and Time: A Vivid American Memory”. I’m really excited about it, and AND found some great photos of JFK and that terrible day in Dallas in 1963 to make the article look especially sharp.
“I have never noticed that nothing I never said ever did me any harm.”
Calvin Coolidge was a weird guy. Biographical history is often painted with bright colors and written in a positive light, especially when it attains to leaders such as Presidents of the United States. Sometimes, a critical study is undertaken but even then, the route traveled is serious and often reverential. However, it is sometimes necessary to be direct, honest, and, yes opinionated, and the truth is that Calvin Coolidge was a weird guy.
Born on the Fourth of July in 1872, Coolidge grew up in Vermont serious and stern, if not downright shy. He went to Amherst College and began practicing law in Massachusetts after graduation, opening his own law practice in Northampton just before the beginning of the 20th century. Along the way, Coolidge met and married a woman who was his polar opposite when it came to personality. Grace Anna Goodhue was vivacious and outgoing, popular and entertaining. Her first glimpse of Calving Coolidge came two years before their marriage and was a memorable one. Grace was watering flowers and plants outside of the school for the deaf that she taught at; Calvin was standing in the room of his boardinghouse across the street, shaving in front of a full-length mirror while wearing nothing more than long underwear and a hat.
When she married Coolidge, many of Grace’s friends were stunned at the union, unable to understand just what it was that she saw in him. What she saw was a man driven by ambition and a savage work ethic, but also a man completely incorruptible and straightforward. She also learned that her husband was not the quiet, boring, dour man that he appeared to be to the public. He was eccentric and funny, with a dry wit and mischevious streak that inspired many practical jokes. One of his favorite jokes as President was to simultaneously push every button on his desk in the White House and then hide as secretaries, military assistants, valets, Secret Service agents, and even Cabinet officers frantically searched for him.
Coolidge rose quickly in the Republican Party and Massachusetts politics, campaigning for William McKinley in 1896 and 1900, and holding various local offices in the first few years of the new century. Over the next fifteen years, Coolidge climbed steadily through state and local politics, serving as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts State Senator, Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, and finally Governor in 1918. As Governor, Coolidge won nationwide popularity for his stance during the Boston Police Strike of 1919, where he famously stated that, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time.”
Re-elected in 1919, Coolidge was nominated by the Republicans in 1920 as the running mate to Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding. Coolidge was not excited by the prospect of the Vice Presidency, but campaigned on behalf of the ticket nonetheless and Harding and Coolidge won a landslide victory and were sworn into office in March 1921. The Harding Administration was a disaster, ravaged by corruption and inefficiency, and President Harding was admittedly unqualified to be an effective or successful leader. Coolidge had very few duties as Vice President since the Vice Presidency had been a weak position in the American government up to that point in history. Most Vice Presidents floundered in obscurity, stuck in a limbo; not quite a member of Executive branch and not quite a member of the Legislative branch. Coolidge, however, was actually the first Vice President in American History to attend Cabinet meetings — something that is seemingly an automatic responsibility of the Vice President today.
A few minutes after midnight on August 3, 1923, a messenger arrived at the Vermont farm of Calvin Coolidge’s father. Coolidge was visiting his family on vacation, and was disconnected from Washington and official duties because his father’s home lacked a telephone and electricity. Calvin’s father awakened him and the messenger informed him that President Harding had died a few hours earlier in San Francisco. Coolidge was now President and needed to take the Presidential oath before returning to the capital.
More messages were sent between Vermont and Washington, D.C., as Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft informed Coolidge that Calvin’s father, a notary public, could administer the oath of office to the new President. At 2:47 AM, candles and a kerosene lamp illuminated the Coolidge family parlor in Plymouth, Vermont and several witnesses looked on as John Calvin Coolidge, Sr. swore his son in as the 30th President of the United States. Fittingly, the new President immediately went back to sleep.
“Four-fifths of all our troubles would disappear if we would only sit down and keep still,” President Coolidge was once quoted as saying and he was anything but an activist President. Coolidge was a forceful opponent of what we would presently identify as “big government”. One of the new President’s main objectives was to restore confidence in the federal government which had grown wildly and been infected by scandals and corruption due to bad appointments and terrible leadership by Warren G. Harding. Coolidge achieved this objective by shrinking the government, touting private business growth, and eliminating programs and economic regulations that were born from World War I. Coolidge was a small-government conservative on the scale of Ronald Reagan, but sixty years ahead of his time. In fact, one of Coolidge’s biggest fans was Reagan himself who, after becoming President in 1981, replaced a Cabinet Room portrait of Harry Truman with Coolidge.
With his focus on balancing the budget, cutting taxes, and decreasing the size and role of the federal government, Calvin Coolidge would be a dream candidate for the Republican Party here in the 21st century. “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business,” Coolidge said while President. Minding his own business came naturally to President Coolidge.
While he was certainly ambitious and hard-working, that hard work didn’t necessarily mean long hours in the office. Coolidge may have found admirers in successors Reagan and George W. Bush for other reasons besides small government conservatism — it was well known that the President enjoyed his sleep and usually slept no less than eleven hours a day. Coolidge was sure to be in bed by 10:00 PM and normally awakened between 7:00 and 9:00 AM. As if that wasn’t enough, Coolidge somehow religiously found enough time to squeeze in a nap every single day. In fact, maybe it should be said that Coolidge somehow found enough time to squeeze in some work every single day, as his midday naps lasted anywhere from two to four hours long. Coolidge insisted that his sleep habits were a positive for the United States — if he was asleep, he couldn’t mess anything up — and often woke up and asked an aide, “Is the country still here?”. One evening, the President attended the theater to see the Marx Brothers perform Animal Crackers, and upon noticing Coolidge in the audience, Groucho Marx yelled to him, “Isn’t it past your bedtime, Calvin?”.
Undoubtedly, the most famous aspect of Calvin Coolidge’s life and the source of his nickname, “Silent Cal”, was his legendary taciturnity. Coolidge was a man of few words who said as little as possible and only as much as necessary, treating each spoken word as if it was an endangered resource unable to be recycled and reused in the future. Coolidge’s reticence is documented in a multitude of anecdotes, most of which also highlight his sense of humor. While he said very little, what Coolidge said was often very funny. One of the most well-remembered stories is of a woman seated next to President Coolidge at a dinner party who turned to Coolidge and said, “You must talk to me, Mr. President. I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” Coolidge looked at the woman and simply replied, “You lose.”
During the 1924 campaign in which Coolidge won a Presidential term of his own, he answered questions for reporters who had been pleading for a question-and-answer session. One reporter asked, “Have you any statement on the campaign?”. “No,” said Coolidge. “Can you tell us something about the world situation?”, asked another reporter. “No,” said Coolidge. “Any information about Prohibition?”, asked yet another reporter. “No,” said Coolidge once again. Knowing that they weren’t going to get anything new from the President, the reporters began to disperse as Coolidge quickly said, “Now, remember — don’t quote me.”
Part of Coolidge’s reluctance to speak was that he was shy, but a bigger reason is that he was cautious. In his autobiography, Coolidge noted, “The words of a President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately”, and often said, “If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called upon to repeat it.” Coolidge’s restraint and quiet demeanor camouflaged a superb self-confidence of his own abilities. When Charles Hopkinson was painting Coolidge’s portrait, he asked, “Mr. President, what was your first thought when you heard that Harding had died?”, and Coolidge instantly responded, “I thought I could swing it.” To the actress Ethel Barrymore, Coolidge said, “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President, and I think I will go along with them.”
There was certainly a fun-loving side to Coolidge’s austere personality. Many Americans had no idea that their restrained President had a mechanical horse installed in the White House that he rode regularly, sometimes while pretending he was a cowboy. And, oddly enough for man who was seemingly so shy, Coolidge is seen in more newsreels and photographs than any of his predecessors — an unusual number of which depict him wearing strange hats or headgear. Also, despite his reserved nature, President Coolidge held more press conferences than any of his predecessors — 529 in all. While he may not have been the most quotable of Presidents or have given reporters answers with the details they were seeking, he gave them every opportunity to ask questions.
Coolidge and his wife were animal lovers throughout their lives and though the President had very few human friends and was uncomfortable interacting with his own species socially, he doted on his pets and considered them his closest friends. Even as President, he had numerous dogs, cats, and birds living in the White House. People sent him animals as gifts, and he received a black bear, lion cubs, a hippopotamus, a wallaby, a wombat, and a deer, all of which Coolidge donated to zoos. The President’s most famous pet was Rebecca the Raccoon. Rebecca lived in the White House and Coolidge spent afternoons playing with her after he finished his paperwork, sometimes even walking her around the White House on a leash.
In 1924, Coolidge won election in his own right as President, but lost much more. His 16-year-old son, Calvin Jr., received a blister on his toe while playing tennis in sneakers without socks on the White House tennis courts. Shortly afterward, the blister became infected and Calvin Jr. died of blood poisoning. The Coolidges were devastated and in many photographs, the President is seen wearing a black armband in mourning. “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him,” said Coolidge. “The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.”
As 1928 approached, President Coolidge was enormously popular and the country was prospering, but in August 1927, a vacationing Coolidge gathered reporters so he could make a statement. The statement was simple, “I do not choose to run for President in 1928”. Without further explanation, he ended the press conference and walked away. Some historians believe Coolidge retired because he felt that the next four years would require greater spending by the federal government and he was ill-equipped to manage that type of government. Others, however, believe that Coolidge understood that a financial crisis was coming and he retired in order to protect his legacy of prosperity as President.
The Republican Party nominated Herbert Hoover for President in 1928, and Coolidge was lukewarm about Hoover’s candidacy, noting, “That man has offered me unsolicited advice for the past six years, all of it bad.” Hoover won the election, however, and Coolidge offered the incoming President advice of his own, suggesting that Hoover could rid himself of long-winded visitors by simply sitting still and in silence until the visitor stopped talking. After attending Hoover’s inauguration, Coolidge retired to his home, “The Beeches”, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Just months after Hoover’s inauguration in 1929, the stock market crashed and sent the economy into the Great Depression.
In retirement, Coolidge wrote his autobiography and a syndicated newspaper column, working from home in Massachusetts and enjoying his privacy. In 1932, some Republicans were hoping to dump the unpopular President Hoover — who was destined for certain defeat — from the GOP ticket and replace him with Coolidge. When Coolidge was told that a return to the White House would “be the end of this horrible depression”, the former President replied, “It would be the beginning of mine.” Coolidge refused to be drafted as a candidate and Hoover was destroyed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election.
On January 5, 1933, Calvin Coolidge quietly worked on a jigsaw puzzle of George Washington in an upstairs bedroom of “The Beeches” in Northampton, Massachusetts. Grace Coolidge went into town to do some shopping at about noon and when she came home about an hour later she found her beloved husband, the 30th President of the United States, sprawled on the floor in his shirtsleeves, dead of a heart attack at the age of 60. Fittingly, Coolidge’s last words went unrecorded and his Last Will and Testament was a total of just 23 words in length.
Coolidge’s funeral was characteristically quiet and simple, and his headstone in the Plymouth Notch Cemetery in Plymouth, Vermont has only his name, date of birth, date of death, and a small Presidential seal inscribed at the top.
Many tributes were written and eulogies were spoken upon Coolidge’s death. With his official announcement of Coolidge’s passing, President Hoover said, “His name had become in his own lifetime a synonym for sagacity and wisdom; and his temperateness in speech and his orderly deliberation in action bespoke the profound sense of responsibility which guided his conduct of the public business.”
The most appropriate tribute to Calvin Coolidge may have come from The New Yorker’s Dorothy Parker. When told that Coolidge was dead, the writer said, “How can they tell?”
Yes, that’s right, a short Dead Presidents piece on the man, the myth, the weirdo — Calvin Coolidge.
Washington, D.C. was gloomy for a multitude of reasons when Jefferson Davis returned to the nation’s capital in March 1853 to join President Franklin Pierce’s Cabinet as Secretary of War. Sectional crises were flaring up throughout the United States over slavery and state’s rights. The threat of secession was spoken of in boardinghouses, the halls of Congress, and the White House. The Compromise of 1850 was hanging on by a thread and the new President was in deep mourning over the tragic loss of his only surviving child who had been killed in a railroad accident while the Pierce family was en route to Washington for the inauguration.
President Pierce is not remembered for much else besides being terribly forgettable and a poor executive during one of the nation’s most trying eras, but he put together a solid Cabinet that, to this day, is the only Cabinet to remain intact throughout an entire Presidential term. Jefferson Davis was reluctant to accept Pierce’s appointment as Secretary of War because his intention was to make another run for Governor of Mississippi in 1853. Initially, Davis respectfully declined Pierce’s nomination citing commercial pursuits, an urge to contribute to Mississippi state politics, family concerns, and poor health, but the insistence of the President and the need for another advocate for state’s rights in President Pierce’s administration eventually led Davis to relent and accept the position.
There was perhaps no one more eminently qualified to control the War Department in 1853 than Jefferson Davis — a West Point graduate who served many years in uniform, a Mexican War hero, a well-known and well-respected politician with Congressional connections and legislative skills, and a close friend to the new President. Davis’s personal abilities were also ideal for the bureaucracy that the War Department of the 1850’s had become with far-flung military outposts, frequent Indian skirmishes, political generals, supply difficulties, outdated modes of thinking and strategizing, and scores of Mexican War veterans settled throughout the ever-expanding United States.
Davis was somewhat of a visionary and his biggest asset when he was commanding troops as a soldier was his engineering and organizational ability. As Secretary of War, Davis attacked the inefficient War Department and the disorganized U.S. military with zeal and pushed forward ideas that were ahead of his time, brilliantly creative, and sometimes totally bizarre gambles which simply did not work. By bringing a fresh perspective and new school of thought to the Cabinet, Davis was able to modernize and shape the military into a disciplined and efficient machine. Some of Davis’s innovations as War Secretary made a significant impact on the Army and certainly helped prepare the military of the United States for their next conflict. Unfortunately for Davis, he was on the wrong side of that next conflict and had to face the same military that he had very recently turned into a ferocious fighting force as Secretary of War.
Davis’s tenure in the War Department was marked by the energetic efficience and frenetic pace that was a trademark of Jefferson Davis and his work ethic. Immediately upon taking office, Davis set out to relearn everything he knew about the nation’s military and the citizen bureaucracy which administered it. What he found was a tangled chain of distant frontier outposts and decrepit coastal fortifications and a force of less than 10,000 men scattered throughout the now-continental United States. The ultimate management of all commissions, paperwork, supply, maintenance, payroll, and strategic military planning landed on the desk of the Secretary of War and his War Department workforce of less than 100 men. Davis was in a position that begged for the delegation of some responsibilities, but Jefferson Davis was not one to delegate. Today, we would call Davis a micromanager and that’s exactly what he did as War Secretary (and later as the Confederate President).
One impact that Davis immediately made on the War Department was his refusal to play the patronage game long used by politicians who won elections and found themselves in power. Instead of tossing out War Department employees with differing political views and replacing them with loyal Democrats, Davis made it clear that he would retain or hire people based only on merit, not their political ideology. This caused some issues with his fellow Democrats — especially those in Congress who relied on patronage to honor debts and earn votes — and Davis ran into problems throughout his term because of his stubborn personality and constant attempts to keep the War Department as non-political as possible.
Disagreements with Congress is something that most, if not all, high-ranking government officials end up doing at some point during their careers and clashes with other government officials was also to be expected of a man in Davis’s position with Davis’s temperament. For the most part, these quarrels occurred privately and passed quickly, but the public was very aware of the long and vicious battle between Jefferson Davis, the civilian administrator of the War Department and United States Army, and Winfield Scott, the highest-ranking soldier in the nation and commanding General of the United States Army.
The feud between Davis and General Scott was not a new development fueled by President Pierce’s appointment of Davis as Secretary of War. Davis had routinely criticized Scott since the Mexican War and Scott hated Davis because of Davis’s connection to Zachary Taylor. The top two Generals during the Mexican War, Scott and Taylor were professional rivals and strongly disliked one another personally. Taylor felt Scott was heavily favored by Democratic President James K. Polk which allowed Scott to be in a position of command for some of the Mexican War’s most important battles, and that the General received too much credit for things that he wasn’t responsible for. Scott, in turn, was disgusted by Taylor’s relaxed command and tendency to dress sloppily and disregard the military’s uniform code. Although he was a Democrat, Davis was steadfastly loyal to Taylor, his former father-in-law, and openly criticized Scott on numerous occasions.
Taylor was the Whig nominee and elected President in 1848, but died in office less than two years later clearing the path for the anti-slavery Scott to make a run at the White House in 1852. It was that election that Franklin Pierce emerged as a dark-horse candidate and trounced Scott on election day. Jefferson Davis campaigned hard for Pierce, speaking in towns, writing articles, gathering endorsements, and once again criticizing Scott, using his platform to not only promote Pierce but to defend the now-deceased Taylor. In one memorable speech, Davis called Winfield Scott, “proud, petulant, vain and presumptuous”. Scott had detested Davis before the 1852 Presidential campaign and the feeling was mutual. Now, the two men had to work together in the same building and Scott also had to work with the man who had just defeated him for the Presidency, Franklin Pierce.
The Davis-Scott feud exploded almost immediately after President Pierce’s inauguration when Davis refused to approve a request for reimbursement of travel expenses that the General submitted and questioned Scott about fuzzy expenses from the Mexican War that were still unaccounted for. As they argued about money and military matters, Scott packed up his command and relocated his headquarters in New York — a move he had also made when Zachary Taylor was President and which confirmed the petulance which Davis had accused him of.
Throughout Pierce’s term, the Secretary of War and the General-in-chief of the United States Army disagreed, argued, threatened, and accused. Scott implied that he wasn’t accountable to anyone but the President, and Davis gave Scott a civics lesson on the chain of command. The letters between the two men grew longer and longer and were filled with more bitterness and resentment as the years passed. Some letters were over 30 pages long and so vicious that they likely would have forced a duel if Scott was the same age as Davis. Scott, in fact, accused Davis of trying to instigate a duel. In response, Davis taunted Scott, noting that the old General was “unwilling to act upon the sentiment which makes a gentleman responsible to any one whom he assails.” Basically, the Secretary of War was implying that his General-in-chief was a coward.
Because of their hatred for one another and Scott’s decision to set up headquarters in New York, Davis and the General didn’t see one another in person more than once or twice during Pierce’s Presidency. Still, the vitriol grew more-and-more vicious. In one of their later exchanges, Davis wrote that Scott’s “petulance, characteristic egoism and recklessness of accusation have imposed upon me the task of unveiling some of your deformities marked by querulousness, insubordination, greed of lucre and want of truth.” Scott ended his response to that attack with a taunting “what’s next?” and followed up in one of his final letters to Davis by noting “compassion is always due to an enraged imbecile.” Davis ended their long war of words by simply writing that he was “relieved from the necessity of further exposing your malignity and depravity.”
With so much time and energy spent attacking Winfield Scott, it’s difficult to imagine Jefferson Davis being effective at his job, but Davis was perhaps the most active and influential War Secretary in United States history other than Lincoln’s Civil War-era Secretary, Edwin M. Stanton. Davis embedded himself in every bureaucratic and ideological process involving the military and its future. Setting out to eliminate waste and ensure that the officers in place were the best possible choices, Davis hired people, fired people, pushed people into retirement, and was the force behind every promotion or appointment from 1853 to 1857. Much like his opposition to political patronage and reliance on the merit system, Davis disliked the Army’s seemingly corrupt and inefficient seniority system. This tradition, however, was too entrenched for even Davis to circumvent and the seniority system remained (and remains) in place.
What Davis excelled at as Secretary of War was acting upon his imaginative ideas about modernizing and reorganizing the military and the military’s strategic planning. He increased the size of the military, supplied the soldiers with better materials and more technologically advanced weaponry, redesigned uniforms and equipment, and instead of being the bureaucratic brick wall that the Secretary of War normally tended to be, Davis was actually the best advocate in Washington when it came to pushing for pensions for widows and orphans of soldiers who died in service to their country. Davis also beefed up the weapon arsenals of armories throughout the nation, improved coastal fortifications, and championed road-building on the frontier and newly-acquired territories.
In 1853, Congress assigned the War Department the task of scouting possible routes for a transcontinental railroad and Davis savored the opportunity. Four different engineering expeditions set out towards the Pacific surveying the topography and searching for the best possible route for a transcontinental railroad. Davis was excited about the reconnaissance parties because he expected the surveys to reveal a Southern route which would be ideal for railroad construction. Sectional interests surely played a part in this expectation. Davis knew that a Southern route for the transcontinental railroad would give the South a certain amount of economic leverage over Northern interests and trade, and railroad construction would encourage further growth and settlement in the slave states, which would result in more power for those states when it came to Congressional representation. Unfortunately for Davis, the reconnaissances didn’t give him the definitive answer about the transcontinental railroad that he had hoped for. While a Southern route to California through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona was possible, a Northern route appeared to be just as feasible, if not more. Political squabbles about the transcontinental railroad and the sectional crises which led to the Civil War postponed a decision on the best route until Lincoln’s Presidency, and construction on the Northern route began in the 1860’s.
As a reformer, Jefferson Davis often tried to buck tradition and approach running the military from a new direction, so it is no surprise that he was an innovator as Secretary of War. Thinking of the soldiers in the field and his own experiences during the Mexican War, Davis designed uniforms that allowed soldiers to handle weather conditions better and worked hard at trying to provide his men with rifles that were more accurate, lighter to carry, and faster to reload. When war broke out in the Crimea in 1854, Davis sent a trio of officers to Europe to observe the belligerent militaries in battle and studied everything from offensive and defensive maneuvers to supply and transportation in order to provide the United States military with the ability to study new strategic tactics and military sciences from the other side of the world.
One of Secretary Davis’s most famous innovations was the creation of the United States Camel Corps. After the Mexican War and the Gadsen Purchase gave the United States new territories in present-day Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the military began fighting small skirmishes and wars with Indian tribes in that vast dry and arid climate. Davis lobbied Congress for an appropriation in order to purchase camels to use as an experimental regiment. Camels were better equipped to handle the desert climate, could go longer without water, and had the ability to not only provide transportation for soldiers, but also weaponry such as light infantry and cannon. Some Congressmen openly scoffed at the idea, but it wasn’t a joke. Napoleon had used camels in his Egyptian campaigns, and Arabs and Turks had long used them for military purposes. In 1856 and 1857, several dozen camels were shipped to the United States and delivered to Texas. For the most part, the camels worked extremely well. They handled rough terrain better than horses and soldiers were impressed by their strength and endurance. The problem was that camels were ill-tempered and soldiers were loyal to their horses and mules, who were less moody than the camels. Also, the camels and horses were not able to work closely together as the camels frightened the horses when in close quarters. Although the experimental Camel Corps continued after Davis left the War Department, the idea fell apart as the Civil War and the construction of railroads left the Camel Corps obsolete. With the collapse of the Camel Corps, many of the camels were sold to private owners and some escaped into the desert. As late as the 1940s, there were still reported sightings of wild camels in southern Texas.
As Secretary of War and perhaps the closest confidant of President Pierce, Davis exerted a powerful influence over the Cabinet and the government itself. Some of his fellow Cabinet members felt that Davis and the President were too close and that Davis could do no wrong in Pierce’s eyes. Pierce certainly entrusted Davis with many of the most important projects of his Presidency. When Congress passed bills to expand the Capitol and construct a massive aqueduct to supply Washington, D.C. with water, Pierce ordered all construction to be handled by Davis’s War Department.
Unsurprisingly, Davis was intimately involved with both construction efforts. After helping to design the aqueduct, Davis made a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony where he shoveled the first piece of dirt. With the Capitol expansion, Davis helped make decisions on some of the most intricate of details and even commissioned studies on proper acoustics for the Senate and House chambers. Davis also closely scrutinized the design of the Liberty statue which crowns the dome of the Capitol to this day and objected to the first two proposals for Liberty’s headgear before selecting a crown of eagle feathers shaped like a helmet “without being a helmet (for that symbolizes war) and to serve as a cap without being a cap (for that belongs to manumitted slaves).”
Jefferson Davis was undoubtedly a great Secretary of War and superb manager of his governmental department. He reorganized and modernized the military in many different ways, and helped bring innovations to the weapons the field soldiers carried and the strategies their commanders studied. Davis worked tirelessly to improve the Army and put the best qualified men in the most important positions. However, Davis’s term as Secretary of War also foreshadowed certain leadership deficiencies that crippled him as President of the Confederate States of America. Davis was quick to argue and hold grudges with those that he disagreed with professionally or disliked personally. His tendency to micromanage all aspects of his department and his inability to delegate even menial jobs to subordinates resulted in mistakes and miscalculations. And despite his creativity and ingenuity and innovations, Davis was not progressive enough as a leader to inspire change in any other manner besides pushing his ideas through with his authority and power. This resulted in political clashes and personality conflicts that haunted Davis and President Pierce throughout the entire Pierce Administration.
In 1856, the United States was descending towards Civil War and Franklin Pierce was unpopular even amongst his own party. It became clear that not only would Pierce not be re-elected, but that the Democratic Party might become the first political party in American history to deny renomination to an incumbent President. Davis was suggested by some as a potential Democratic nominee, but his loyalty to his close friend Pierce prevailed over his ambition for the highest office in the land. Plus, it seemed impossible for any Southerner to be elected at that moment in the heavily-divided nation. Pierce was a Northerner with Southern sympathies and he was being abandoned by his own party. A Southerner with Southern sympathies probably had no chance. President Pierce lost his bid at renomination and the Democrats replaced him with James Buchanan who replaced Pierce on March 4, 1857.
That same day, Jefferson Davis resigned as Secretary of War and took the oath to once again become a Senator from Mississippi. The Mississippi State Legislature had elected Davis to the Senate and rejoining that forum gave the South a powerful voice in the sectional crisis which was dividing the nation. The return to the Senate was marked by illness and difficult decisions, and just less than four years later, the United States dissolved into war.
On the morning that their term ended, Jefferson Davis paid a visit to Franklin Pierce in the White House. The men had grown very close in the previous four years. President Pierce suffered from deep depression from his numerous family tragedies and drank heavily, but his mood was almost always brightened by paying a visit to the Davis home. “May your days be many, your happiness great, and your fame be in the minds of posterity as elevated and pure as the motives which have prompted your official action,” Davis told the outgoing President and noted that he was saving copies of his correspondence with Pierce in order to give to his son “in remembrance of your much valued confidence and friendship for his father.” When Davis officially tendered his resignation to the President, Pierce took his hand and warmly told Davis “I can scarcely bear the parting from you, who have been strength and solace to me for four anxious years and never failed me.” Several hours later, James Buchanan was President, Jefferson Davis was once again a Senator from Mississippi, and Franklin Pierce was preparing to return home to New Hampshire. Their next meeting would be nearly ten years later, in Jefferson Davis’s prison cell as Davis — also an ex-President by that time — awaited trial for treason.
The last words that someone speaks prior to their death are always interesting to examine, frequently poignant, sometimes touching, but extraordinarily difficult to verify. These are the presumed last words of the Presidents of the United States. Some were substantiated by witnesses, but others may be apocryphal and/or otherwise lost to history. When there are no known final words, I’ve made a note. I’ve also decided to add a short bit of smart-ass commentary to each President’s reputed last words.
George Washington, February 14, 1799: “‘Tis well.”
(Really? That’s it? “‘Tis well.” Somewhat anti-climactic from the Father of His Country, don’t you think? I was expecting something more theatrical.)
John Adams, July 4, 1826: “Thomas Jefferson still survives!”
(Nope. Sorry John, but he beat you to the grave by a couple of hours. You won the “Who lived longer?” race.)
Thomas Jefferson, July 4, 1826: “Is it the Fourth?”
(Yes…amazing timing, by the way. Both you and Adams died on the same day, EXACTLY 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence? You guys really were BFF’s. I wonder who the news led with? Which one was Michael Jackson and which one was Farrah Fawcett?)
James Madison, June 28, 1836: “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.”
(Spoken in response to one of his niece’s asking whether he was alright and undoubtedly the most badass last words of any President.)
James Monroe, July 4, 1831: UNKNOWN
(Monroe’s last words are unknown, but he was a copycat and tried to be like on of the cool kids by deciding to die on the Fourth of July like half of his predecessors. Get a new gimmick, guys.)
John Quincy Adams, February 23, 1848: “No!”
(JQA’s last word before suffering the stroke that took his life was a resounding “No” vote in the House of Representatives. It is unknown if any political rivals decided to take advantage of JQA’s inability to respond by quickly saying, “It’s opposite day, so he really means yes.” It’s unclear whether that would have been an acceptable parliamentary procedure.)
Andrew Jackson, June 8, 1845: “I hope to meet each of you in heaven. Be good children, all of you, and strive to be ready when the change comes.”
(Spoken to family, friends, and servants prior to dying. What a mouthful. How could anyone be that well-spoken in their final moments? I can’t even say “Good morning” until I’ve been awake for three hours.)
Martin Van Buren, July 24, 1862: “There is but one reliance.”
(And it is? Don’t leave us with a cliffhanger, Little Magician.)
William Henry Harrison, April 4, 1841: “Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.”
(Spoken to Vice President John Tyler who succeeded Harrison when he died. To the best of my knowledge, Tyler didn’t say, “You’ve only been President for a month. Get over yourself. If you wanted that shit carried out, you should have worn a scarf on inaugural day.”)
John Tyler, January 18, 1862: “Doctor, I am going. Perhaps it is best.”
(Yes, otherwise you might do something dumb like turn your back on your country and join the Confederate House of Representatives…OH WAIT.)
James Knox Polk, June 15, 1849: “I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you.”
(Curiously, Polk’s wife’s name was Diane. Not really, but it sure would have been funny if that had been true.)
Zachary Taylor, July 9, 1850: “I am about to die. I expect the summons very soon. I have tried to discharge all my duties faithfully. I regret nothing, but am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.”
(Again, who really believes that someone had this much clarity while taking their last breaths? Do these guys have TelePrompTers next to their deathbeds? I don’t think it’s fair to have speechwriters for your last words.)
Millard Fillmore, March 8, 1874: “The nourishment is palatable.”
(“…also, my heart is about to stop.” Glad you enjoyed the food, Millard. Have a safe journey. I hope you packed a lunch.)
Franklin Pierce, October 8, 1869: UNKNOWN
(Pierce drank himself to death, so his last words were probably requesting another round from his bartender.)
James Buchanan, June 1, 1868: “O Lord, God Almighty, as Thou wilt.”
Abraham Lincoln, April 15, 1865: “They will think nothing of it.”
(Spoken in response to his wife wondering what the audience would think about him holding her hand while watching a play. Lincoln should have told her, “I just won the Civil War, holding my hand is the least you can do” while making the international symbol for a handjob. Sadly, he was nicer than I would have been.)
Andrew Johnson, July 31, 1875: “Oh, do not cry. Be good children and we shall meet in heaven.”
(How come nobody says what I would say in my last moments: “Holy shit, I’m going to fucking die! I don’t want to fucking die! Help!”)
Ulysses S. Grant, July 23, 1885: “Water.”
(Pretty sure that’s not going to cure the throat cancer, Ulysses. You should have smoked a few less cigars, General.)
Rutherford B. Hayes, January 17, 1893: “I know where I am going where Lucy is.”
(Hayes was happy that he would be reunited with his wife in the afterlife, but who in the blue hell knows why. Lemonade Lucy was a bore who refused to allow alcohol in the White House, hence her nickname. Rutherford got took five bullets in the Civil War and kept going like he was 2Pac, let the man have a beer.)
James Garfield, September 19, 1881: “Oh, Swaim, there is a pain here. Oh, Swaim!”
(This is more along the lines of what my last words would be if I had been the victim of an assassination, however my version would have included more profanity, more crying, and then more crying.)
Chester Arthur, November 19, 1886: UNKNOWN
(Even in 1886, nobody knew that Chester Arthur had once been President of the United States.)
Grover Cleveland, June 24, 1908: “I have tried so hard to do right.”
(I don’t know if Cleveland was referring to his political career or the paternity payments he made to an illegitimate child that may not have been his in the first place. Most likely, it had to do with the baby mama drama.)
Benjamin Harrison, March 13, 1901: “Are the doctors here? Doctor, my lungs…”
(Doesn’t sound too pleasant. Benjamin should have taken pointers from his grandfather, President #9, if he wanted to sound a bit more dignified at death.)
William McKinley, September 14, 1901: “It is God’s way. His will be done, not ours. We are all going, we are all going, we are all going. Oh, dear.”
(Yeah, God didn’t shoot you, Leon Czolgosz did. Also, we’re staying here, but have fun.)
Theodore Roosevelt, January 6, 1919: “Please put out the light.”
(Spoken to his valet before going to sleep. I don’t really have any smart-ass comments for these last words; they are kind of poetic.)
William Howard Taft, March 8, 1930: UNKNOWN
(Considering his infamous weight issues, Taft may have been ordering a cheesecake.)
Woodrow Wilson, February 3, 1924: “I am a broken piece of machinery. When the machinery is broken…I am ready. Edith!”
(Woodrow Wilson was kind of a douche and that’s all I have to say about that.)
Warren G. Harding, August 2, 1923: “That’s good. Go on, read some more.”
(Spoken to his wife, who was reading to Harding as he died. The story she was reading was a flattering profile of Harding, so that should teach everyone a little something about vanity, shouldn’t it?)
Calvin Coolidge, January 5, 1933: UNKNOWN
(Coolidge is famously remembered as “Silent Cal”, a man of few words. It is altogether fitting that no one knows what he said before dying. It was most likely insignificant and dull. Calvin Coolidge was so boring, he probably talked himself into a having a heart attack.)
Herbert Hoover, October 20, 1964: UNKNOWN
(How is it that the last words of the Presidents who died more recently went unrecorded? Is it possible that 95% of the other last words are bullshit? I’ll answer that…yes, that’s almost certain.)
Franklin D. Roosevelt, April 12, 1945: “I have a terrific headache.”
(Walk it off, FDR…OOPS, my bad…I mean, dust yourself off and stand back up…OOPS…I mean…ummm…of course you have a terrific headache, you just had a cerebral hemorrhage.)
Harry S Truman, December 26, 1972: UNKNOWN
(Another 20th Century President whose last words went unrecorded. Being Truman, it probably included the words “Hell” and “damn” and quite possibly “son of a bitch”.)
Dwight Eisenhower, March 28, 1969: “I want to go. God take me.”
(Once a General, always a General. Apparently, Eisenhower was able to pull rank on God because this was an order that was instantly obeyed. Then again, Eisenhower did have something like 253 heart attacks during the last decade of his life, so that could have done it.)
John F. Kennedy, November 22, 1963: “My God, I’ve been hit.”
(His next words were going to be “I hope Jackie’s knows how to get stains out of that pink dress” but then Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev blew his brains all over Dealey Plaza.)
Lyndon B. Johnson, January 22, 1973: “Mike!”
(LBJ picked up his phone receiver as he suffered his fatal heart attack and yelled “Mike” for assistance by his Secret Service agents. I don’t make jokes about LBJ. Sorry, it’s a personal rule.)
Richard Nixon, April 22, 1994: UNKNOWN
(Nixon suffered a massive stroke, so his last words were unknown, but he unquestionably blamed the stroke on the Jews and the Kennedys.)
Gerald Ford, December 26, 2006: UNKNOWN
(At 93 years old, you’re excused for not having brilliant last words ready. Ford did mention something about “kicking the shit out of Chevy Chase for making me look like a clumsy fool on SNL”. That’s possibly apocryphal.)
Jimmy Carter: STILL LIVING
(My money is on Carter’s last words either being “I don’t even like peanuts” or “Wanna touch my Nobel Prize?”)
Ronald Reagan: UNKNOWN
(Reagan was rendered mute by Alzheimer’s quite some time before his death. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that Reagan’s last words were questions: “Who?” “What?” “Who was Ronald Reagan?” “What?” “I did what?”
George H.W. Bush: STILL LIVING
(Bush 41 has been practicing his last words for years and they will simply be, “My oldest son was a retard — sorry about that.”)
Bill Clinton: STILL LIVING
(Instead of final words, Clinton plans on simply masturbating and then obstructing justice.)
George W. Bush: STILL LIVING
(Who knows, but I’m guessing his last words will be ridiculously mangled and devastatingly banal.)
Barack Obama: STILL LIVING
(Hopefully, it will be “All those Tea Party supporters are faggots” before telling Sarah Palin, “Break yo’ self, bitch!”)
The term “American” has been genericized over the past two centuries, much like people classify all tissue as “Kleenex” or label all cola soft drinks as “Coke”. “American” is the label given to the people of the United States, mostly because we “Americans” hijacked the term even though there are North Americans, Central Americans, South Americans, and Native Americans. Technically, there have been scores of American Presidents, but only 43 men have served as President of the United States of America (Barack Obama is President #44, but don’t forget — Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, so he was #22 and #24).
However, there was one American President born within the borders of this country who also ruled as a President within the borders of this country — an American President ignored in most books on Presidential history despite leading his country during a great war. He isn’t pictured on any currency and his face isn’t etched into Mount Rushmore, but it is etched into Stone Mountain in Georgia, and there are states that built statues of him and celebrate his birthday as a holiday. If you go to the White House in Washington, D.C., you won’t find his portrait, but if you go the White House of Richmond, Virginia, you will find one amongst plenty of other artifacts. His role in history is heavily debated and sometimes forgotten, but he was an American President during this country’s most difficult time period and his name was Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.
Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808 in what was then Christian County, Kentucky, but is present-day Fairview, Todd County, Kentucky. Davis was born less than a year and about 100 miles away from where his future adversary Abraham Lincoln was born. Davis was the tenth and final child of Samuel and Jane Davis, which is why he was likely given the middle name Finis — Latin for “the end”. Samuel Davis served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and spent time in Georgia and South Carolina before moving to Kentucky approximately 10 years before their youngest son was born.
Following Jefferson’s birth, the Davis family spent time moving around Kentucky and Louisiana before finally settling in Mississippi where Jefferson started school at the age of 5. Davis entered Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky in 1823, but left to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1824 when he received an appointment from President James Monroe.
Jefferson Davis’s four years at West Point were difficult. Samuel Davis died as Jefferson entered the military academy, and the young cadet looked to his older brother, Joseph Emory Davis, as a father figure and for financial support. Davis also had an issue with authority and with the rigid regulations of the United States Army. In 1828, Davis graduated 23rd out of 32 classmates and had 327 demerits on his record, including violations for insubordination, absence, inattention, neglect of duty, spitting on the floor, public drunkeness, firing his musket from the window of his room, unecessary noise, having his hair too long at inspection, and dozens of other reasons. In comparison, the man who would later become Davis’s top General during the Civil War — Robert E. Lee — graduated the following year second in his class and had a grand total of zero demerits on his record. While at the academy, Davis arrested twice for alcohol-related incidents — in 1825, he was court-martialed for visiting Benny Haven’s pub and on Christmas Day 1826, Davis was arrested and confined to his quarters for his part in providing the alcohol to cadets that was the catalyst for the “Eggnog Riot”.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation in 1828, Jefferson Davis was assigned to frontier military posts in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, and eventually attached to the First Infantry Regiment in Fort Crawford, Wisconsin under the command of Colonel Zachary Taylor. Taylor commanded the First Infantry during the Black Hawk War of 1832, and while Davis didn’t actually see combat during the war, he was placed in charge of escorting the captured Chief Black Hawk to prison in St. Louis, Missouri when hostilities ended.
While stationed in Wisconsin under the command of Taylor, Davis’s behavior as a soldier was better than his behavior as a cadet at West Point, yet he still found himself running into trouble and adhering to the rules and regulations of army life. Davis squabbled with his superiors and some colleagues from time-to-time, and after a run-in with Major Richard Mason, Davis was arrested, charged with insubordination, and court-martialed in February 1835. While the tribunal in charge of Davis’s trial found him guilty of several acts of insubordination and unbecoming conduct, they also decided that these acts did not constitute criminality and acquitted him. Following the court-martial, Davis requested a furlough from the military for personal reasons and resigned from the Army several months later.
Despite his troubles with Army colleagues and superiors, rules and regulations, Jefferson Davis was highly-regarded as a soldier. Colonel Zachary Taylor had promoted him and thought well of his military abilities. Lieutenant Colonel David Twiggs — who served with Davis at Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin — requested that Davis be assigned to his command in New Orleans in 1835, writing “I have no hesitation in saying that he is as well, if not better qualified for that duty, than any officer of my acquaintance.” And, Brigadier General Matthew Arbuckle — the man who presided over Davis’s court-martial — reluctantly accepted Davis’s resignation from the Army, noting that Davis was “a young officer of much intelligence and great promise.”
The court-martial bruised Davis’s pride and honor as a soldier and gentleman, but it wasn’t the main reason behind his resignation. Davis’s older brother, Joseph Emory, was a successful planter in Mississippi and Davis wanted to take advantage of business opportunities to make some money and begin a family. Plus, Davis had fallen in love, and this love had also caused a strain with a powerful military colleague.
In Fort Crawford, Wisconsin, Jefferson Davis was second-in-command to Colonel Zachary Taylor. Taylor — who would eventually be elected President of the United States in 1848 — liked Davis personally, considered him a skilled soldier, and felt that the young lieutenant had a great future ahead of him in the military. At some point in 1832, Davis met Taylor’s 18-year-old daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Davis and Sarah fell in love and began spending time together, but Zachary Taylor opposed of the romance. When Davis asked permission of Colonel Taylor to take his daughter’s hand in marriage, Taylor refused and banned Davis from visiting his home as a guest. A lifelong soldier himself, Taylor knew that Army life — especially on the frontier — was harsh and unhappy. Although his oldest daughter had married a soldier, Taylor stated, “I will be damned if another daughter of mine will marry into the Army. I know enough of the family life of officers, I scarcely knew my own children or they me.”
Professionally, the relationship between Zachary Taylor and his subordinate remained strong mainly because Taylor thought so highly of Davis’s abilities as a soldier. Personally, however, there was great animosity when Taylor refused to give his blessing for Davis to marry Sarah and then forbade them to visit each other. Davis and Sarah resorted to the help of friends in order to meet quietly within the small confines of Fort Crawford, but their love continued to flourish. In 1833, they became engaged and hoped that Colonel Taylor would eventually relent and give them his blessing.
He didn’t. Taylor, in fact, promoted Davis to first lieutenant with the Dragoons at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. While this could have been a strategy to post Davis far away from his fiancee in Wisconsin, there is no evidence that Taylor acted in any manner that was harmful to Davis’s military career. As he said many times, Taylor believed Davis was an exceptional soldier and the promotion to the Dragoons regiment was offered as a professional courtesy, not to further a personal vendetta. Davis himself was honored by and happy with the promotion, and accepted his new position with zeal.
Though separated by distance and finding themselves apart for over two years, Jefferson Davis and Sarah Knox Taylor’s love for one another did not dissipate. They wrote letters to one another and though Davis was worried that Sarah would marry someone else, her feelings for him never weakened. Sarah’s letters reassured him that she wanted to marry him, but Davis was almost apologetic to her because he realized that Zachary Taylor would never give them his blessing and their eventual marriage might separate Sarah from her family and friends.
It was not until after Davis resigned from the Army following his court-martial in February 1835 that he was able to reunite with Sarah. Knowing that they could not meet in Wisconsin and finding St. Louis undesirable, Davis and Sarah were reunited in Kentucky and planned for the wedding. Hoping to receive a last-minute blessing from her father, Sarah talked with Zachary Taylor just before she left Fort Crawford, Wisconsin on a steamboat to Louisville. Taylor was still opposed to the marriage, but not as adamantly as he previously was.
When Sarah’s steamboat departed Fort Crawford, Zachary Taylor wrote two letters. The first letter was to his sister in Louisville, stating that if Sarah was determined to marry Jefferson Davis, he would accept her decision and hoped that his sister would host the wedding at her home in Louisville. The second letter was to Sarah and was a “kind and affectionate letter” which included “a liberal supply of money”, according to Sarah. Sarah was grateful for her father’s letter and support, but it was clear that her parents were still not pleased with her decision to marry Davis and they did not attend the wedding. On the day of her wedding, Sarah wrote to her mother, “I know you will still return some feelings of affection for a child who has been as unfortunate to form such a connexion without the sanction of her parents; but who will always feel the deepest affection for them whatever may be their feelings toward her.”
On June 17, 1835, Jefferson Finis Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor at Beechland, the estate of the bride’s widowed aunt near Louisville, Kentucky. Along with the bride’s parents, nobody from Jefferson Davis’s family attended the wedding. Sarah’s aunt, of course, hosted the wedding, but she also was grateful for the attendance of her older sister Ann and her husband, numerous cousins, and two of Zachary Taylor’s brothers. Sarah’s cousin, Richard Taylor, served as Jefferson’s best man.
Following the wedding, the newlyweds left Louisville and may have visited St. Louis before heading to their new home near a bend in the Mississippi River in Mississippi called Davis Bend. While the young couple got settled and started building their home at Davis Bend, they stayed with Davis’s oldest brother and the primary landowner of Davis Bend, Joseph Emory Davis and his wife. Jefferson threw himself into the work of planting crops and beginning his career as a Mississippi planter and Sarah enjoyed her role as a wife and partner in this new life that the young couple was building together. While she missed her family and wrote to her siblings, Sarah felt happy with her husband and hopeful about their future. In a letter to her mother on August 11, 1835, Sarah wrote, “Do not make yourself uneasy about me, the country is quite healthy.” It was the last sentence she ever wrote or spoke to her parents.
Shortly after Sarah sent her letter to her mother, she accompanied Jefferson on a trip south to meet Jefferson’s sister, Anna Smith, and stay at her home Locust Grove in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Soon after their arrival in Louisiana, Jefferson became ill and Sarah began showing signs of sickness the very next day. Both husband and wife were ravaged by high fevers and chills, and it quickly became clear that they were suffering from malaria. Jefferson and his wife were quarantined in separate rooms and after several days both were suffering from delirium and near-death. On September 15, 1835, Jefferson awoke from his state of delirium to the sound of Sarah singing her favorite song, “Fairy Bells”. Struggling to rise from his sickbed, Davis reached the side of his beautiful, 21-year-old wife just as she died. They had been married for only 90 days.
Sarah was buried at Locust Grove and Jefferson was devastated. He was also gravely ill with malaria and his survival was not expected, but about a month later he had recovered enough to return home to Mississippi before traveling to Havana, Cuba to further rehabilitate his health. For the rest of his life, Davis suffered from recurring fevers and chills that were related to the strain of malaria that sickened him and killed his wife in 1835. For the rest of his life, Davis also grieved over the loss of Sarah Knox Taylor. Over fifty years later, he still remembered her with great sadness and when a man found a letter written to Jefferson from Sarah and asked if Davis wished to have the letter, Davis responded by letting the man know that receiving the letter from his first love would bring him great happiness. At the time, Jefferson Davis was 81 years old and just months away from his own death.
With Sarah gone, Jefferson Davis returned to Davis Bend to grieve and to start the life as a planter that he had envisioned spending with Sarah. For the next decade, Davis worked hard at building his cotton plantation, Brierfield, and overseeing the slaves that worked it. For the next decade, as he focused on commercial pursuits and tried to move past the tragedy of losing Sarah, Jefferson Davis was virtually a recluse, rarely leaving his plantation or hosting visitors. The quite “retired” life of a planter was all that interested Davis and all that he saw for his future.
While Jefferson Davis was devastated over the loss of his wife, his former commander Zachary Taylor was devastated over the loss of his daughter. Taylor’s fears about Sarah living the harsh life of a military wife didn’t come to fruition, but the bigger nightmare of his daughter’s death was realized instead. Taylor harbored resentment towards Davis for taking his daughter from him, and for not taking care of her properly once they were married. Taylor continued his successful military career as Davis grew as a plantation owner, and by the 1840’s the United States and it’s thirst for expansion had the country headed towards war with Mexico, and one of the nation’s top generals was Zachary Taylor.
Soon, the duty of defending his country that had been instilled in Jefferson Davis while he was a cadet at West Point and a soldier on the frontier, led him to join the forces heading to war with Mexico.
Soon, Jefferson Davis would be reunited with his former commander, his former father-in-law, and the future President of the United States — Zachary Taylor.
Soon, Jefferson Davis’s quiet life as a Mississippi planter would be interrupted by war, duty, and war once again.
So, after agonizing over how to condense the very interesting life of Jefferson Davis into something more readable for my readers, I’ve decided that my readers should read what I write no matter how long it is because I very rarely fail them.
Thus, I am breaking the Jefferson Davis story into a series of several parts. I’m not quite sure how many parts it will end up being, but this is going to be a pretty long one, my friends. I promise that it will be worth it. If not, I’ll give you back every penny you paid me to read my
brilliance contribution to this wonderful community.
Anyway, the first part of the Jefferson Davis series will be posted mid-morning tomorrow with a special surprise. EXCITING? I’ll answer that…yes, it is very exciting.
The famous General — known as “The Butcher Of Galena” and “Butcher Grant” — responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers on the battlefields of the Civil War could not stomach the sight of blood. Ulysses S. Grant was the son of a leather tanner and spent parts of his life working in his father’s shop, surrounded by freshly skinned animal hides. Yet Grant was nauseated by rare steak (he would only eat meat that was extra well-done), refused to eat “anything that went on two legs” and never went hunting, despite the fact that he grew up in a rural area at a time when hunting was almost a requirement for young males. So, how did this squeamish man with a weak stomach become one of the most reckless (albeit successful) generals in the history of warfare?
Because Ulysses S. Grant couldn’t stand the sight of animal blood.
Grant’s strategy to defeat Confederate General Robert E. Lee was to use as many men as possible to hold the Union together and his idea of victory was killing more men than his Army lost. So, during the Civil War, General Grant threw every man he had against the Confederacy and forced General Lee to surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865.
For the first time in his life, U.S. Grant had made the most of an opportunity and his hard work paid off as he became an extraordinarily popular figure in the United States. While the South looked upon him as a “butcher”, the North saw Grant as the country’s biggest hero. Ulysses Grant had come a long way from his failures as a young man.
Born and raised in southern Ohio, Grant’s father arranged for him to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. Grant was not at all excited about the prospect of a military career and excelled at not much else besides horsemanship and mathematics. In 1843, Cadet Grant graduated twenty-first out of thirty-nine students and was assigned to the Fourth Infantry near St. Louis, Missouri.
While in St. Louis, U.S. Grant fell in love with the sister of a former West Point classmate. Julia Boggs Dent was four years younger than Grant and severely cross-eyed. Theirs did not seem like a match made in Heaven. Julia’s father didn’t want his daughter marrying a career soldier and Grant’s father disapproved of the fact that the Dent family owned slaves. But Ulysses and Julia became engaged in 1844 and married in 1848 at the Dent family home in St. Louis.
In 1846, Grant served under General Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War — a war that Grant later admitted he strongly opposed. “I do not think that there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico,” he wrote later in his life. Despite his opposition, Grant fought fiercely and honorably in some of the most important battles of that particular war.
After the war — and his wedding — Grant was assigned to posts throughout the United States, including New York, Detroit, Northern California and the Oregon Territory. During his time in the Pacific, Grant was lonely and missed Julia and their young children. To pass the time, and ease the loneliness, Grant turned to alcohol and was drinking heavily almost every night. In 1854, the distance between Grant and his family was too much to handle and he resigned his post in the Army. He returned to St. Louis and attempted to take up farming.
Over the next few years, Grant suffered failure after failure. He failed at farming. He failed at selling wood in St. Louis. He failed at the real estate business (which he attempted along with one of Julia’s cousins). He decided to run for a county engineering position in St. Louis and lost. After all of these failures, Grant had nothing left to do but turn to his father’s tanning business and work in the dreaded leather goods shop that he had hated in his youth.
Then came the Civil War. Grant requested a commission as soon as hostilities broke out in 1861. Not receiving a quick reply from the Army, he helped organize volunteers in Illinois. In June 1861, he was appointed colonel and, two months later, brigadier general. In February 1862, Grant’s troops scored the first major Union victory of the war, which gave him a national reputation. Following that victory, Grant was promoted again, this time to major general.
Grant’s victories in major battles continued and his troops fought at Shiloh, Tennessee and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Capturing Vicksburg helped the Union armies cut the Confederacy in half, making it much tougher for the South to defend their homeland and almost impossible to retreat and regroup. Grant was high on President Abraham Lincoln’s list because, as opposed to his other leading generals, Grant had no qualms about fighting and pursuing his enemy. Lincoln’s impatience with his commanders led to him appointing Grant as lieutenant general and commander of all Union armies in November 1863.
With more troops, Grant continuously threw his army against that of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s. Despite suffering tens of thousands of casualties, Grant did not let up and that led to Lee’s eventual surrender in April 1865 which ended the Civil War.
On April 14, 1865, Grant and his wife were supposed to attend a play at Ford’s Theater with President Lincoln and the First Lady. Tired and wanting to visit his children in Burlington, New Jersey, Grant respectfully declined the President’s invitation. It was a fateful decision because, when Grant stepped off of the train in New Jersey, he was notified that Lincoln had been assassinated and that the President’s guest that night, Major Henry Rathbone, had been stabbed and seriously wounded.
In 1866, Grant was promoted to the rank of General of the Army and became the highest-ranking American soldier since George Washington. During part of President Andrew Johnson’s administration, General Grant served as acting Secretary of War. As the election of 1868 approached, it was quite clear that Grant would be the unanimous Republican nominee for President and that he had no serious opposition in the general election.
General Grant did not campaign at all and made no promises during the months preceding the 1868 election. His popularity, the fresh memory of his role in winning the Civil War, and the linking of his name to the legacy of Lincoln was all it took to crush his opponent, Horatio Seymour, in the November election. In 1872, Grant was easily re-elected, defeating Horace Greeley of New York.
President Grant did not have the same success as General Grant. Grant’s administration was probably the most corrupt presidency in history up to that time. Scandals rocked his eight years in office and, although Grant was not personally involved in any of the controversies, many high-ranking officials were, including Vice President Schuyler Colfax, Treasury Secretary William Richardson, Secretary of War W.W. Belknap, President Grant’s personal secretary and many others.
The U.S. economy slipped into a five-year depression during Grant’s term and the nation continued to struggle through Reconstruction after the Civil War. President Grant, who had learned the importance of equal rights after fighting alongside African-Americans during the Civil War, pushed for Civil Rights laws and targeted the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations attempting to terrorize and intimidate blacks in the South. In 1877, after eight years as President, the still-popular Grant retired from public office.
For the next two years, the former President and Mrs. Grant toured the world, traveling throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and meeting many foreign leaders, including Pope Leo XIII and Queen Victoria of England. After returning to the United States for a short time, the General and Mrs. Grant toured Cuba, Mexico and the West Indies. In 1880, Grant was the leading candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination, and it seemed that he was almost guaranteed to win a third term as President. His vote totals dwindled as the balloting went on at the Republican Convention, however, and he threw his support behind the eventual nominee (and President) James A. Garfield.
Sadly, Grant’s bad luck began to strike again. In 1881, Grant invested all of his money into a brokerage firm and his finances were destroyed by a swindler that he had entered into partnership with. The former President was so broke that he considered an offer from P.T. Barnum to display his war memorabilia and gifts from world leaders. Although he eventually declined Barnum’s offer, he did give up those valuable items to repay loans.
Grant began writing articles to make some extra money and author Mark Twain was intrigued by the response to the Civil War memories being penned by Grant. Knowing Grant’s dire financial straits, he offered the aging former General good money to publish his memoirs and Grant began writing and didn’t stop because he knew he couldn’t waste any time.
In the summer of 1884, while eating fruit at his home in New York City, Grant grabbed his throat and said, “I think something has stung me from that peach!”. Since spring, the former President had been frequently suffering from sore throats and would lose his voice from time-to-time. When examined by doctors, they first prescribed him with medicinal mouthwashes and ordered him to quit smoking.
Smoking was as big of a part of Ulysses S. Grant’s life as war had been. A lifelong cigar smoker, Americans became aware of his love for cigars during the Civil War. Almost every photograph taken of Grant in uniform showed the General with a cigar in his mouth. With his rise in popularity came a tidal wave of gifts from grateful Americans and most Americans had the same idea — they sent the General cigars, nearly 10,000 of them. Ulysses S. Grant had enough cigars to last him a lifetime — and cost him his life. Despite giving many of the cigars away to friends, he still smoked about twenty cigars a day.
In the months following his initial bout with throat pain, Grant noticed that he was losing his voice more frequently and that, at times, he was unable to swallow without pain. His doctors performed a biopsy and discovered that the former President was suffering from tongue cancer, which was working its way down into his tonsils and throat. After the diagnosis, Grant’s condition quickly worsened.
While he raced to finish his memoirs and provide for his nearly penniless family, illness ravished his body. The once robust, almost 200-pound General, couldn’t swallow food and lost over seventy-five pounds. In April 1885, the cancer ate through an artery in his throat, causing massive hemorrhaging and bringing Grant to the brink of death.
In June of 1885, the Grants moved from New York City to Mount McGregor, New York. The dying General tried to take advantage of the quiet of the country to finish his memoirs. Well-wishers and Civil War veterans stopped by the cottage that the family stayed in to pay their respects to Grant. The General, emaciated from weight loss, spent most of his time on the porch of the house writing the final chapters of his life story as the final scenes of his life played out. Curious locals would pass by the home and see Grant, wrapped in blankets, sitting and writing furiously with only days left in his glorious life.
Writing was pretty much all Grant could do. He could no longer talk and, even when taking a break from his autobiography, the General had to scribble his requests or conversations on paper. Suffering from intense pain, Grant’s throat was treated with a cocaine solution and he was given regular injections of morphine. This led the great hero of the Civil War to become addicted to both drugs as he entered the last stage of his life.
On July 19th, the manuscript that Grant had worked so hard on was finally finished. He had tried one last time to provide financial security for his family and, after a lifetime of failures, he finally succeeded. Three days later, Grant was bedridden and lapsed in and out of consciousness. His only communication was his last spoken word, a response to whether he needed anything. After struggling to say, “Water”, doctors pressed a sponge against his lips. Soon, Grant’s breathing grew labored and he faded into unconsciousness.
With his family at his bedside throughout the morning of July 23rd, the former President rested in a deep sleep, never again regaining consciousness. At 8:06 AM, the great General, now barely recognizable after wasting away to less than 100 pounds, took his last breath.
The country had known of Grant’s illness for some time, yet his death was still a shock. Two minutes after he died, news of his passing was sent by wires all over the United States. Shortly afterwards, condolences began pouring in from national leaders, Civil War veterans (Union and Confederate) and grateful Americans.
One decision that had to be made was where to bury the popular General and former President. Grant was born and raised in Ohio, but spent important years of his life living and working in Missouri, Illinois and New York. Grant had family in all four of those states and it was unclear where he specifically preferred to be buried. Close to death, Grant wrote a note to one of his sons discussing potential burial sites. Grant noted that he would prefer to be buried at West Point, but that it was out of the question because his wife could not be laid to rest beside him upon her death. He went on to list two other sites: Galena, Illinois (or another city in Illinois) - because that is where he received his first general’s commission; or, New York City “because the people of that city befriended me in my need”.
The military, however, had plans to bury the late General at the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D.C. to honor Grant for helping to save the nation’s capital during the Civil War. General Philip Sheridan had made arrangements to bring Grant’s body to Washington for burial, but the decision was finally made to lay the former President to rest in New York City. Grant’s family decided to bury him in New York because the city agreed to allow Mrs. Grant to rest beside him in the elaborate memorial planned for his final resting place.
The body of Ulysses S. Grant was taken first to the New York State Capitol in Albany to lie in state and then to City Hall in New York City where 300,000 mourners paid their last respects. On August 8, 1885, over one million people in New York City witnessed one of the largest funeral processions in American history. Over 60,000 marchers accompanied the body of the fallen General to the red brick vault in Riverside Park where he was temporarily laid to rest.
In 1890, the U.S. Senate recommended moving Grant’s remains to Arlington National Cemetery since the planned memorial in New York was nowhere near being finished due to fundraising problems. Julia Grant strongly opposed the proposal and New Yorkers worked extra hard to finish the promised memorial.
On what would have been Ulysses S. Grant’s 75th birthday (April 27, 1897), he was finally buried in Grant’s Tomb, officially known as General Grant National Memorial. President William McKinley dedicated the granite and white tomb, which today remains the largest mausoleum in North America. In 1902, Julia Grant died and was laid to rest beside her late husband in the mammoth memorial overlooking the Hudson River in New York City.