Monday, August 26, 2013

Outside Looking In: Jefferson Davis In Canada - Part 1 - Dispatches from Maine

I posted a piece on August 11 dealing with Jefferson Davis’ visits to Maine in 1853 and 1858.  It grew unexpectedly out of the research I undertook to write this look at Davis’ time spent in Canada following the Civil War.  It is always interesting to me how some of these topics spring to mind.

Back in early July my wife and I were spending the Independence Day holiday weekend in the Connecticut River headwaters in far northern New Hampshire.  We had only been at the Maine lake cottage for a few days when we whisked ourselves away to one of my favorite places on God’s Green Earth.  While we were there, we had dinner with new friends, Donna and Charlie Jordan, who own, edit and publish The Colebrook Chronicle, a weekly newspaper that has become the voice of the North Country of New Hampshire, Vermont and the bordering areas of Québec’s Eastern Townships.  I first met Donna and Charlie in January 2012 when I attended a community meeting held in Colebrook, New Hampshire.  Since then we have chatted and corresponded on this and other subjects of mutual interest, and I was delighted to join them for a pleasant evening and dinner in their home when I returned to the North Country this past January.  So it was good to see them again in July and for Sally Ann to have the  opportunity to meet them.  We got along famously and talked well into the evening.

Charlie said something that evening that has long resonated within me each time I find my way back to this unique little corner of northern New England where New Hampshire’s Great North Woods, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, and Québec’s Eastern Townships (Estrie) all come together - while sitting on the edge of an isolated pond or stream with moose and other critters lurking nearby in the woods, it is hard to imagine that cosmopolitan Montréal is only a couple hours away.  A quiet and unsettled edge of America bumping the underside of one of the more populated regions of Canada.  But you don’t need to travel to Montréal.  Step across the almost invisible line that is the US-Canadian border and the changes become visible.  All the signs are in French; another factor underscoring the uniqueness of this region. 

Most of my visits to this area include a pleasant foray across the border.  I especially like driving up Provincial Route 253 from the border at Beecher Falls, Vermont through East Hereford and St. Venant-de-Paquette as it parallels the international border after it turns north following Hall Stream and the Height of Land.  I frequently stop along this route and stare eastward to the rolling hills of far northern New Hampshire and the United States and I am reminded of Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), in Out of Africa, describing the locale of her four thousand acre coffee plantation at the foot of the Ngong Hills, in British East Africa (now in the vicinity of Nairobi, Kenya).  “The geographical position, and the height of land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world.”  At the conclusion of her African memoir, as she describes her final departure from the farm, she looks back at the Ngong Hills from Samburu Station, she tells how the “outline of the mountain was slowly smoothed and levelled [sic] out by the hand of distance.”  I know exactly what she means.

Over dinner Charlie also told us the story of Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederate States of America, who had come to this very same region of Québec after he was released from prison following the Civil War.  Charlie found the story so fascinating that he published it as “Jefferson Davis in Lennoxville” in the May 1996 issue of Northern New Hampshire Magazine.  Like me, Davis would look across that imaginary line to the land of his birth.  I am always free to return home.  Davis faced a trial for treason should he do the same.
The next day Sally Ann and I crossed the border from Vermont into Québec, and toward the end of the day we passed through North Hatley, where the Riviére Massawippi enters the northern terminus of the lake of the same name, and from there we drove north to Lennoxville, now a suburb of Sherbrooke, the largest town in the Eastern Townships.  As we drove around the streets Davis once wandered I decided I wanted to know something more about this little piece of history of which I knew nothing.

Upon our return to Maine, I visited the library at Bates College and checked out a couple biographies on Davis.  These touched on his time in Canada, but did not tell me all I wanted to know.  So I went to The Papers of Jefferson Davis, a multi-volume tome published by the Louisiana State University Press and began to piece together the story on my own.  And now I am sharing it with you in two parts. 

As the Civil War drew to a close, Jefferson Davis refused to flee to Cuba or Europe, joining instead his wife and some advisors as they tried to slip away from Richmond to carry on the rebellion from beyond the Mississippi River.  Fearing imprisonment and possible execution for treason, perhaps even implication in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Davis hoped to escape to Florida and then by ship to Texas. Unfortunately for the Southern cause, the Confederate forces he hoped to join in the Trans-Mississippi had already surrendered and Davis made it only as far as southern Georgia before he was captured by Federal forces in early May 1865.  Taken first to Macon, Georgia, and then to Atlanta and Savannah by rail, he was taken by steamer to  Fort Monroe, in the Virginia Tidewater, where he was incarcerated on May 22, 1865 to await his eventual trial.

Davis would spend 720 days in confinement at Fort Monroe during which his health and mental state suffered, due in part to his disillusionment over the fate of the Confederate cause and those who fought bravely in its defense.  It improved only after a year when he was finally reunited with his wife and was allowed certain visitors, including his old Senate colleague, former President Franklin Pierce under whom Davis served as Secretary of War.  Throughout his incarceration at Fort Monroe, the federal and state judicial authorities debated when and how Davis should be tried.  Did his case come under military or civil jurisdiction?  What charges would be laid against him?  And then there was the matter of his health and competence to stand trial.  These questions and other delays would postpone any possible trial until the autumn of 1866 at the earliest.  There was also the question of whether bail should be granted before trial, and perhaps even the possibility of amnesty.  Davis was certainly entitled to a speedy trial yet by the spring of 1867 he had been sitting in jail for almost two years.  Without any definite plans to try Davis, he was eventually paroled from Fort Monroe on May 11, 1867 and remanded into civilian custody to stand trial in Richmond or to be released on bail.  A $100,000 bond was posted by Horace Greeley and other supporters and Davis was ordered released until his trial in Richmond in November 1867.

Once he was released from incarceration, Davis had to decide what he and his family would do.  He and his wife both claimed they opposed the repatriation of former Confederate soldiers and government officials to Mexico, Canada and other countries; yet he was sympathetic to those who chose to go into foreign exile.  He naturally assumed that he would have to seek a new home outside the reunited states should he ever be released from prison.  Franklin Pierce offered the Davis family use of his seaside cottage near Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Davis and his wife and their two youngest children, William and Winnie, departed Richmond on May 14 and caught a steamer from Norfolk to New York City where they arrived two days later.  There was no peace to be found there and they did not remain long, departing on May 20 and traveling up the Hudson River valley to Lake Champlain.  They crossed the Canadian border near St. Albans, Vermont and arrived in Montréal in the 21st.  There he was finally reunited with his older children, Jeff Jr. and Margaret, who had been living there in the care of Davis’ mother-in-law.  Canada would be his new home for the time being.

Part 2 will follow tomorrow.  Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos

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