AN HONORABLE DEFEAT:
THE LAST DAYS OF THE CONFEDERATE GOVERNMENT
William C. Davis
Doc Lawrence review
The spring and summer in Georgia were filled with adventure. Events
were dominated by daring escapes, one of the greatest manhunts in the
countrys history. It was 1865, the Confederacy had fallen apart
after General Robert E. Lees surrender of the Army of Northern
Virginia in April. Richmond fell and Lincoln had been assassinated.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet fled Richmond
with some family, gold from the treasury and an escort of young cadets,
pursued relentlessly by Federal cavalry.
Their paths would take them to Georgia.
William C. Davis in his latest book, An Honorable Defeat: The
Last Days of the Confederate Government, (Harcourt, 2001),
has compiled a day by day chronicle of these tumultuous events in a
reader-friendly presentation that almost takes us back as eye-witnesses.
Davis, who teaches at Virginia Tech, has established himself as a preeminent
recorder of history as it occurred in our backyard, and this book falls
squarely under the heading of masterpiece.
The main characters are Davis and John Breckenridge, a Confederate
general, Davis secretary of war and the Vice-President of the
United States immediately prior to the Civil War. Professor Davis reveals
that a good many Confederate leaders were at one time high-ranking
U.S, government officials. Davis was a Senator from Mississippi. His
Vice-President, Alexander H. Stephens was a Congressman and close friend
of Abraham Lincoln. Stephens was elected Governor of Georgia after
the war. Robert E, Lee, whose wife was a member of George Washingtons
family, and whose father and uncle were Founding Fathers and signers
of The Declaration of Independence, was Commandant of West Point until
1861; Lincoln had offered him command of the Union Army to defeat the
The adventure of this great escape and chase brought the fugitives
to several Georgia towns including Washington and LaGrange and even
Woodstock in metropolitan Atlanta, with the main party hauling gold
from the Confederate treasury which largely disappeared, thus creating
the legend that survives to this day that millions of dollars worth
of treasure lies buried in the red clay of northeast Georgia.
Honorable Defeat calls to mind another classic book, written
by Decaturs Mary Gay. Her still in print, Life In Dixie
During the War, (DeKalb Historical Society) remains the best
record of events of the siege and Battle of Atlanta and the dissolution
of civil authority and the resulting chaos after the fall of the Confederate
government. According to my dear and departed friend, Doris Houston
VanLandingham (who, as a child growing up in Decatur knew Ms. Gay quite
well) Scarlett OHara and her fabled Tara were patterned after
Mary Gay and her home which the good people of Decatur and the DeKalb
Historical Society preserved for us to visit on Swanton Way near Decaturs
Mary Gay was much admired by Union commanders who occupied this area
after Atlantas surrender, and, she delights in telling readers
how she received almost daily trays of fine food prepared by trained
chefs traveling with Sherman and his entourage and how her complaints
about soldier misbehavior were almost always acted upon by Federal
officers. Little did the victors know however that Mary Gay served
as a very effective spy for nearby Confederate generals.
Perhaps the most interesting character revealed in Davis outstanding
work is Judah P. Benjamin, a former U. S. Senator from Louisiana ,
the Confederate Secretary of State, and a jew. Benjamin, a renowned
lawyer in his day, had two sisters in nearby Lagrange he visited incognito
during his escape from the country, a journey that took him to Florida,
Cuba and a new permanent home in London. Benjamin became a British
citizen, a trusted confidant of Queen Victoria and Benjamin Disraeli
and never returned to the States.
Many believe that the Civil War gave America a second birth and defined
us as a people. Lee, for example became a college president, a disciple
of national reconciliation and a beloved national hero. Breckenridge
returned to Kentucky and was an enormously public figure. Davis was
imprisoned and mistreated which caused public outrage, and was condemned
by New York newspapers. He was released and became a noted lecturer
and author and resumed a dignified life.
Davis serves up some mighty powerful stories that make a fascinating
read during bleak winter days.