One subject I never expected to research while here in Maine is Jefferson Davis (1808-1889), the prominent Mississippi congressman (1845-1846), senator (1847-1851 and 1857-1861), and Secretary of War under president Franklin Pierce (1853-1856). Of course, he is best known as the first and only president of the Confederate States of America (1861-1865). What did Davis and Maine have in common? Like me, one would think very little. I was wrong.
While conducting research on Davis’ refuge in Canada in 1867-1868 following the Civil War for a piece soon to appear here, I chanced across references for two visits Davis made to Maine, first as Secretary of War, in the summer of 1853, and another longer trip with his family in 1858 during his second term as senator. Both of these trips expose aspects of Davis’ character one might find revealing given his later role in the dissolution of the Union and the bitter war that followed.
How did this connection come to light? Sifting through Davis’ collected papers and correspondence, I found a March 26, 1868 letter he wrote to Julia E.D. Shepard Carroll of New York City expressing his condolences on the death of her father, George C. Shepard, a professor of sacred rhetoric at the Bangor Theological Seminary since 1832. Professor Shepard had shown Davis “many acts of courteous hospitality when as a stranger and an invalid I visited Portland” [during the summer of 1858]. Davis confessed that his acquaintance with her father had “remained to me a grateful memory.” Shepard befriended the Mississippian when he first visited Maine in 1853 in his capacity as Secretary of War. “My previous connection with the works for the defense of the harbor of Portland, probably led him in many of our pleasant drives, to explain to me his views and wishes in regard to the future of the city with which he was so nobly identified.” In his note of condolence, Davis added, “I trust his projects have been so advanced and understood that they will in their completion be an honorable monument to his efforts for the public good.”
Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire served in the Senate with Jefferson Davis, and when he was elected President in 1852, he invited his colleague from Mississippi to join his cabinet as Secretary of War. In this capacity, Davis focused a great deal of his attention on the settlement and defense of the vast areas of the American West, including the routing of a transcontinental railroad. Proving to be a dedicated and hard worker, Pierce also charged Davis with the construction of the Washington Aqueduct and the expansion of the Capitol building, important projects beneficial to the nation’s capital. These tasks quickly took their toll on Davis’ fragile health and he sought a respite from his duties in Washington with a trip - his first - to New England.
Davis departed the capital for Boston on August 17, 1853. Accompanying him was Alexander D. Bache (1806-1867), a native of Pennsylvania and the great grandson of Benjamin Franklin who was also an old friend from their days together at West Point. Bache was a physics professor and scientist prior to his 1843 appointment as superintendent of the Coastal Survey, a civilian agency established in 1807 and charged with mapping land areas along the American coastline and their neighboring waters. According to one of his biographers, Bache liked to spend several months of each year at one of the Survey’s mountain encampments where “there were always some extra tents for those fortunate enough to receive an invitation to visit him in his wild retreats. Davis was one of these fortunate souls in the summer of 1853.
After spending a couple days seeing the sites of Boston, Davis and Bache departed for Concord, New Hampshire on August 20, and from there they traveled into the White Mountains where they spent a night on the summit of Mount Washington. Davis eventually arrived in Portland on August 25 and stayed at the Union Hotel while inspecting the harbor defenses with Professor Shepard. Two days later Davis traveled approximately 80 miles north of Portland to the vicinity of Farmington and the Coastal Survey encampment at Blue Mountain (Mount Blue today) where he enjoyed the hospitality of Professor Bache and his wife. “I am far up the mountain and far ‘down east in Maine,’” he wrote to his wife Varina on August 28 from an elevation around 3000 feet. There “the wind sweeps over the tent with the chilly feeling and hallow sound of wintry weather.” He noted, too, how he had “travelled [sic] over worse roads than even in your swamp experience you ever saw.” His health renewed and ready to get back to work after his visit to the western mountains of Maine, Davis returned to Washington on September 9, 1853 having passed through Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut.
Davis returned to his Senate seat in 1857 following Pierce’s failure to regain the Democratic nomination for reelection in 1856 and the dissolution of his cabinet with the election of James Buchanan. A staunch advocate of Southern Rights, Davis was a standard bearer for those who believed the concerns of all regions of the country must be addressed if the union was to endure. A year into his new Senate term, Davis suffered from a severe eye inflammation which exacted a greater toll on his general health. His doctors suggested a climate cooler than Washington’s might expedite his recuperation. Davis recalled favorable memories of his visit to Maine five year earlier, and when Congress adjourned in June 1858, he and his family set off on an extended trip through New England.
Davis, his wife and two children accompanied by family servants departed Baltimore on board the steamer Joseph Whitney on July 3, 1858. While at sea, Davis gave an impromptu yet stirring Independence Day speech to his fellow passengers. Arriving in Boston on the morning of July 6, Davis and his wife toured many of the cities well-known sites before catching an overnight steamer for Portland where they arrived the following day.
Davis was pleased to be back in Maine which held so many favorable memories.
The Eastern Argus, Portland’s Democratic newspaper edited by John Milton Adams, lavished its welcome on the Senator and his family. "We are quite sure that our citizens will cordially welcome this distinguished and gallant son of the South to our city, and will desire to render the sojourn of himself, and his accomplished lady as agreeable and as conducive to its principal object as possible." They took accommodations in a popular boarding house run by Mrs. David Blanchard, and late on their third evening in the city they were serenaded by Chandler's Band which had assembled in front of their lodgings on Park and Danforth Streets along with a sizeable crowd of curious onlookers. Despite the late hour, Davis came out to the front steps and delivered a thirty minute "chaste, eloquent and very happy speech" with his "musical voice and inspiring eloquence." He spoke of the political legacy left by the Founding Fathers and urged all citizens of the American nation to stand united against all common threats. Furthermore, he urged the completion of the transcontinental railroad, a cause he had first championed as Secretary of War. The Eastern Argus reported that the speech was "a pleasing, a hopeful one without distinction of party. It was in every respect the expression of generous sentiments, of kindness, hospitality, friendly regard, and the brotherhood of American citizenship." According to the paper, Davis was touched by the reception and judged it to be "Maine's greeting to her sister state Mississippi" and a "mark of national fraternity." He felt very much at home among his new friends in Portland. "I came to your city in quest of health and repose,” Davis told the admiring crowd as he thanked them for their kindnesses. “And surely no place could be more inviting to an invalid who sought a refuge from the heat of a Southern summer.”
A week later Davis was invited to the graduation ceremony for the city’s Girls’ High School at which he gave "a brief and felicitous address to the scholars,” praising the school and encouraging them to go forth in the world.” Apparently Davis made quite an impression on those in attendance by wearing a pair of green-tinted spectacle on account of his eye inflammation. Greater was the impression of his speech delivered by what one called his “honeyed eloquence.”
Late in July Professor Bache wrote to his friend telling him he was leaving New York City for a trip to Albany and then to Maine. He hoped Davis would find time to visit his Coastal Survey encampment east of Bangor. Bache wrote again stating that he was leaving Albany and would arrive in Portland on August 11. Former State Senator James W. Bradbury invited Davis to visit Augusta where the air was “just right for restoration of an invalid.” For the meantime, however, Davis and his family remained in Portland through much of August.
Davis did venture several miles north of Portland to Brunswick, to receive an honorary degree from Bowdoin College, the alma mater of his friend and political benefactor Franklin Pierce who had studied there along with classmates Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wordsworth Longfellow. The college acted in recognition of Davis’ distinguished military career during the Mexican War and his service to the United States as a Democratic representative and senator. His fellow honoree was Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, a staunch Republican who frequently debated Davis on the floor of the Senate. It is perhaps ironic, too, that just two blocks from the Bowdoin campus stands the house where Harriet Beecher Stowe had recently penned her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Returning to Portland, Davis announced that his health had “improved steadily.” The Maine air and kind receptions extended to him had obviously had their proper effect as he began to mix more business with pleasure. A few days after the Bowdoin commencement, the senator made an inspection of Portland Harbor. As Secretary of War, he had supported the strengthening of coastal fortifications, including two in Portland - Fort Preble on the mainland and Fort Scammel, on House Island. Both of these forts were erected beginning in 1808 and successfully guarded the harbor during the War of 1812. Davis was also interested in the new Fort Gorges, being erected on Hog Island. Funded in 1857, construction had begun in 1858 and it was intended to support the existing harbor fortifications. It was not yet complete when the Civil War erupted in 1861 and workers rushed to finish it. As a revenue cutter bearing its distinguished guest sailed across the island-studded harbor, a cannon salute was fired in his honor as Davis returned to the city wharf.
Knowing how much her husband was enjoying his time in Maine, Mrs. Davis was also much impressed by the reception her family had encountered. "The people of Portland were as kind as our own could have been, and we met many old acquaintances and made some agreeable new ones.” She enjoyed visiting different homes, “but most pleasant of all, were the basket parties at Cape Elizabeth.” Evenings at the Blanchard home were always pleasant “in the society of intellectual men of bright minds and cordial manners.”
Davis tried to steer clear of politics during his visit. On August 14 he wrote to the Paris, Maine Democrats sending his regrets that he would not be able to address their meeting a few days hence. He thanked them for their support of his positions in Washington and those of the Democratic party, but he was reluctant to engage in political debate just as Maine was preparing for state-wide elections the following month. Nevertheless, in late August he did accept an invitation to address the Democratic convention of Cumberland County at the Portland City Hall. There he attributed his membership in the Democratic party to his father and fellow southerner Andrew Jackson. When asked, he stated categorically that he rejected sectionalism; he believed Mississippi would come to the defense of Maine just as Maine would return the favor to Mississippi.
At one point during his summer in Maine, Davis told how he watched the waves crashing against the rocky coastline only to be thrown back seaward. Then the tide receded exposing what the waves had created. “Thus the waves of sectional agitation are dashing themselves against the granite patriotism of the land . . . If long continued, that too must show the seams and scars of the conflict. Sectional hostility must sooner or later produce fragments.” Davis kept stressing the sanctity of the American union. Writing to Franklin Pierce, he told him the months in Maine and New England encouraged him. “The difference is less than I had supposed.” Davis demurred on all questions concerning slavery, calling them local matters, while refusing comments on local Maine issues. “Each man should attend to his own business.”
With his time running short before he had to return to his duties in Washington, Davis and family departed Portland at the beginning of September; “it is my purpose to leave for the mountains north of the Penobscot.” The plan was to accompany Professor Bache and his surveying party to an encampment on Humpback Mountain (also known today as Lead Mountain) approximately 30 miles east of Bangor. Along the way the Davis family stopped in Thomaston where the senator toured the home of General Henry Knox, a hero of the American Revolution. Hoping to inspect a harbor on Penobscot Bay for which he obtained funding, the Davis family also visited Belfast, at the top of the bay, where he reviewed and addressed a gathering of the state militia. Acknowledging a toast given during a banquet given in his honor, Davis recalled his own army service during the Mexican War and the importance of voluntary military service.
Davis and his wife spent three wonderful weeks on Humpback Mountain in the congenial company of Professor Bache and his crew, and each day the senator felt his health and stamina getting stronger. On his return trip to Portland, and finally accepting Senator Bradbury’s invitation to visit the state capital at Augusta, Davis gave an extemporaneous speech before the Maine Agricultural Society during the state fair. Once again he thanked the people of Maine for their many kindnesses and hospitality. He emphasized the importance of agriculture as the source of all wealth yet recognized how manufacturing can aid the growing and harvesting of food. There was always the need for a more efficient plow. Davis hoped that the voices of America’s rural populace would not lose their voice in public affairs.
After bidding farewell to old and new friends alike, the Davis entourage departed Portland on October 6, 1858. Returning to Boston, Davis and his family toured the city again and visited Daniel Webster’s nearby estate at Marshfield. Davis addressed Massachusetts Democrats in Boston, once again stating his opposition to sectionalism while praising Samuel Adams and John Hancock as long-standing supporters of state’s rights and community independence. He added that “a large mass” of true New England Democrats were not fully represented in Congress. They finally arrived in Washington on October 22 after another brief stop in New York City.
Throughout his summer months in Maine, Davis’ political views were the subject of persistent criticism from the Republican media which followed his every step. It picked apart various statements taken to be interference in local politics. It warned that a vote for the Democrats in the upcoming state-wide elections would be a vote against the survival of the union. Yet personally, Davis seemed above reproach. John G. Blaine, the new editor of The Advertiser, commented in issues appearing in August and early September, about the “invalid tourist in Maine” while conceding that "Senator Davis has personally received no discourteous notice in our columns, and he never will . . . As a private gentleman we know him to be polished, refined and courteous; of most liberal culture, and we doubt not, honorable impulses." Granted, as Secretary of War and senator, he had advanced several causes dear to the people of Maine and “we have no desire to forget and no reluctance to acknowledge. We would certainly be very happy to reciprocate them at any time an opportunity were afforded us.” The Democratic press lauded Davis every chance it could. His visit to Maine could do nothing but help heal the nation’s wounds; “that many of our brethren of the South would, like himself, learn by sojourn here, to appreciate the true men of Maine, and to know how little are the political abolitionists and the abolition papers the exponents of the character and the purpose of the Democracy of this State.”
In a speech delivered in Jackson, Mississippi on November 11, 1858, Davis harkened
back to his three months spent in New England to escape the summer heat and the “political excitement” in Washington. He truly appreciated the sincere and friendly hospitality extend to him and his family. Still, he recalled “a delusion practiced on the people of Maine” as the Republicans cautioned that the true purpose of the Democrats and the South was to force slavery into the free states and territories. This was nothing new. These same voters were also told that electing James Buchanan as president in 1856 would bring slavery to Maine as would the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case. They really had nothing to fear. Republicans won the Maine governorship and all seats in Congress in the election of 1858.
“A stranger, and but a passing observer of events in Maine, he [Jefferson] had nevertheless seen indications of a reaction in popular opinion, which promised hopefully for the future of Democracy” proclaimed The Eastern Argus at the conclusion of Davis’ visit in 1858. There was reason for optimism despite the electoral defeats in the state elections. There was a “gladness and confidence to many a heart now clouded with distrust, and loud would be the cheers which, on distant plain and mountain, would welcome Maine again to her position on the top of the Democratic pyramid.” This promise was short-lived. Three years later the Union dissolved and Jefferson Davis was elected President of the Confederate States of America and the nation descended into fratricidal warfare.
A note of gratitude to the researchers and editors who assembled and published the Jefferson Davis papers and correspondence. They made my work so much easier.
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