AN HONORABLE DEFEAT:
THE LAST DAYS OF THE CONFEDERATE GOVERNMENT


William C. Davis
A 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 country’s history. It was 1865, the Confederacy had fallen apart after General Robert E. Lee’s 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 Washington’s 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 South.

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.

Mary GayAn Honorable Defeat calls to mind another classic book, written by Decatur’s 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 O’Hara 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 Decatur’s square.

Mary Gay was much admired by Union commanders who occupied this area after Atlanta’s 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.


Have you visited the Union prisoner-of-war camp on Lake Erie? Click this arrow to learn more about Johnson's Island.

Read some of Doc's other reviews:

Rick Bragg's "Ava's Man"

"Ignatius Rising" - a biography of John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the classic
"A Confederacy of Dunces"

Andrea Immer - "Great Wine Made Simple"

Willie Morris' final novel "Taps"

 

 

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