|Fort Niagra, New York|
After enduring two years incarceration at Fort Monroe, Virginia and facing an unknown fate, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederate States of America was released from custody in May 1867 after which he and his wife and young children traveled from Virginia to New York City and eventually north to Montréal where he was finally reunited with his two older children who had been sent from Savannah to Montréal before Davis’ capture and who had been living there with his mother-in-law. “My children were assembled here to receive me and were all in good health.” They had grown up so much during his imprisonment. Varina Davis had hoped to settle the family in Canada where the federal authorities could not harass them and she continued to visit her children there while Davis was still in prison. Despite reports that Davis was taunted at various stops through New York, his trip to Montréal was an easy one; “so devoid of incident that like the weary knife grinder I have no tale to tell.”
The family took up residence in a modest boarding house where Davis hoped to find some peace and quiet. They would later reside briefly in the mansion of John Lowell, an Irish-born publisher of a Tory newspaper, at the corner of Ste. Catherine and Union across from the Christ Church Cathedral. Lowell’s family “gave us every care and assistance that friendship could render,” Varina Davis would later write. Perhaps Davis and his family had found a new home in Montréal, if only a temporary one. “Davis did not like crowds, and often moved about the city incognito or stayed inside. He declined numerous invitations to dinner and drinks, and to fishing trips into the nearby countryside. He and Varina would occasionally attend the theater in the city. A friend in Boston wrote to him glad to know “that you have reached a quiet home in Canada, away from the turmoil and useless excitement of our Northern cities.” The peace and quiet lasted only briefly.
Shortly after his arrival in Montréal, Davis received a letter from Jubal Early, one of his most reliable generals, inviting him to meet in Toronto. Davis departed Montréal by steamer on May 29, 1867 in the company of Colonel Charles Helm, a former Confederate agent in Havana. They traveled down the St. Lawrence River via Prescott and Kingston, arriving in Toronto on the following day where he received a warm welcome by former Confederates and Southern sympathizers. Many were surprised by Davis’ weak and emaciated appearance. “I feel that I am once more breathing free air,” Davis exclaimed upon his arrival. His reception was reported in The New York Times. It “proves that the Canadians are in a very bad condition of mind. They want to recover their equanimity until they are formally annexed by us.”
The next day he traveled across Lake Ontario in a small boat with James M. Mason, the former Confederate ambassador to Great Britain and France, to spend a couple days at Mason’s home in Niagra, Ontario. From the outside looking in, Davis could see Fort Niagra, on the American side of the Niagra River, the Stars and Stripes flying above the ramparts. “Look there Mason,” Davis said with some bitterness in his voice. “There is the gridiron we have been fried upon.” Joining other former compatriots, Davis offered some remarks about Canada that were later reported in the New York Times.
I thank you sincerely for the honor you have this evening shown to me; it shows that true British manhood to which misfortune is always attractive. May peace and prosperity be forever the blessing of Canada, for she has been the asylum for many of my friends, as she is now an asylum to myself. I hope that Canada may forever remain a part of the British Empire, and may God bless you all, and the British flag never cease to wave over you.
This is certainly a change of heart for a man who as a US Senator from Mississippi told the Maine Agricultural Society in September 1858 that the entire North American continent should eventually fall under US sovereignty. Ironically, the British North American Act establishing an independent Dominion of Canada was enacted by the British parliament a month later, on July 1, 1867. After a few days in Niagra, Davis returned to Montréal via Toronto on June 5. His health somewhat improved and his spirits raised, Davis was still saddened by his fellow Confederates forced into exile and “waiting like Micawbar.”
Back in Montréal, Davis had to consider his own plight. “Unless one had capital this seems to me a poor country for a Confederate; though it is due to the people to say that they have shown me more attention and cordiality than it would have been reasonable to expect.” Upon his arrival in Montréal Davis had invested $2000 of his scarce funds in a copper mining venture near Sherbrooke; he hoped “to make something out of it.” His Canadian partners hoped his name might lend some cachet to their business dealings there and in New York. Upon his return from Niagra, the Davis family would move into another friend’s residence at 247 Mountain Street [today rue de la Montagne] between rue Ste-Catherine and Dorchester (today Boulevard Réne-Lévesque). Described as a “narrow three-storey house, with steep front stairs leading up to the drawing room level,” the house also had a facade “marked by high, stone arched windows, and a black iron fence surrounded the green patch of garden.” It was leased from Reverend Henry Wilkes and rent was allegedly paid by anonymous Confederate donors. The house was eventually razed in the 1980s.
Davis ventured out of the city from time to time during the summer months of 1867. In late June he traveled to Sherbrooke and Lennoxville, Québec situated 85 miles east of Montréal in the province’s Eastern Townships, a bastion of English-speaking communities. He also visited the copper mines near Montréal and Sherbrooke for several days throughout July, and visited his good friend Charles Helm in Toronto, in early September.
Montréal life proved too fast paced for Davis who sought a quieter environment. With his lease set to expire, he wrote to Helm in mid-September to inquire whether he might suggest an inexpensive furnished house in Toronto for the winter. “We require but a small and plain one.” Davis took a long looked at Lennoxville, which he visited earlier in the summer and which Varina described as “this little out of the way village. He finally moved his family there in late September or early October. “This is a very quiet place and so far agreeable to me,” Davis told Helm in mid-October when Davis visited Toronto and nearby St. Catherine, Ontario. “A village tavern is a thing which you can comprehend without description.” Continuing to live on the charity of others, he boarded at Clark’s hotel and tavern for almost a month while Varina returned to visit her mother who had fallen ill during a visit to Burlington, Vermont. Varina brought her back to Montréal were she died on November 24, 1867. Davis took long walks through the quiet streets of the village and along the banks of the Massawippi River and up to College Hill. “This is a very quiet residence, therefore pleasant to me. The weather has been fine for out door [sic] exercise and we have taken advantage of it.” Sometimes Davis would chat with the locals but more often than not he preferred his own company.
While in Lennoxville Davis considered writing his memoirs and a history of the Confederacy, and Varina surged him to use this time in Canada to do so since a large store of his personal and official papers and books had been brought to Canada in one of his mother-in-law’s trunks and were held in storage by the Bank of Montréal. Davis quickly abandoned the idea. “I cannot speak of my dead so soon.”
As the autumn of 1867 arrived, Davis had to once again think of his upcoming trial in Richmond which was tentatively scheduled to begin in November. He also had no great desire to live through a cold northern winter, if he could help it. Hoping he might be going home for good, he departed Canada by ship on November 19, traveling first to New York and then to Richmond where his wife eventually joined him, leaving their children in Canada in the care of her sister. His trial was postponed again, this time until the spring of 1868, and so Davis and his wife departed for Baltimore on December 19 and then traveled by boat, first to Key West and Havana, and finally arriving in New Orleans on New Year Eve. They traveled throughout the South visiting friends and family, eventually ending up back in his home state of Mississippi during the height of Reconstruction.
Frederick W. Terrill, one of Davis’ principle partners in the Canadian mining venture, wrote to Davis in January 1868 concerned about his silence since leaving Lennoxville. Given recent assays studies, it would be a favorable time to consider selling the venture at a healthy profit. “We have equal interest in the proceeds of any sale that may be effected.” Terrill also suggested that Davis’ deferred trial date in Richmond was to prevent his eligibility to run for the US presidency; “so strong is this opinion among many Canadians that it has been common to offer a wager that you rather than General Grant would be elected.”
Departing New Orleans on March 11, 1868, they returned to Baltimore by ship. They returned to New York on March 25, and departed two days later by train for the return trip to Montréal, and eventually to Lennoxville to rejoin their children and where Davis could once again monitor his partnership in the local copper mines. It was difficult for him to find real employment until his legal status could finally be resolved and Varina complained they were “vexed by every anxiety that could torture us.” Still the family was together; Jeff Jr. and William attended Bishop’s College Grammar School, in Lennoxville, while daughter Margaret was enrolled in a convent school in Montréal.
The family quickly fell back into the routine of village life in Lennoxville. They continued to reside at the Clark’s Hotel and Davis would occasionally walk through the village. “This is a very quiet place and so far agreeable to me but further I have little to add.” That said, he delivered some formal remarks upon his return.
I thank you most kindly for this hearty British reception, which I take as a manifestation of your sympathy and good will for one in misfortune. It bespeaks the true instincts of your race. I trust you may ever remain as free a people as you now are, and that under the union of your provinces you will grow great and prosperous as you are free. I hope that you will hold fast to your British principles and that you may ever strive to cultivate a close and affectionate connection with the mother country. Gentleman, again I thank you.
By May 1868 Davis feared he may have to soon return to Richmond to finally have his day in court. He traveled as far as Montréal before he learned that his presence in Richmond was no longer required. The trial had been postponed again until at least October 1868. He returned again to Lennoxville, growing restless about his future and his ability to find gainful employment.
John Taylor Wood, a grandson of President Zachary Taylor and Davis’ nephew who served as an important naval commander in the Confederate Navy and was traveling with Davis when he was captured, managed to escape to Cuba. He eventually settled in Nova Scotia with his family and became a successful merchant there. He wrote to his uncle in April 1868 telling him the advantages of living in Halifax. The climate was mild, the residents congenial, and servant wages were relatively low. There were good Catholic schools and the local archbishop was enthusiastically pro-Confederate. Wood had not yet located reasonably priced lodging and board. Wood promised passage from Lennoxville to Portland, Maine where Davis and his family spent several months in the summer of 1858, as well as steamer tickets to Halifax. Wood made additional inquiries in May concerning summer lodging for the family, but nothing ever came of this offer. James Mason was also concerned for his old friend. “You are not dead I take for granted . . . [yet] I infer that you are nevertheless buried in Lennoxville.” He invited Davis to visit Niagra again; “we shall have for the summer quite a large and attractive Confederate circle.”
Davis and his family remained in Lennoxville during the early summer of 1868. They took carriage trips throughout the surrounding countryside and Davis also made a trip up to Québec City. On June 25, while carrying his youngest daughter Winnie, Davis took a nasty spill down a staircase at the Clark’s Hotel. His daughter was uninjured, but Davis suffered two broken ribs. His recuperation was very slow and his wife and friends feared for his health. His “soul is wearing out his body - inactivity is killing him,” Varina wrote to a friend. “I feel sure that he would recuperate if he could once get something to do.” His doctor suggested an ocean voyage.
Davis’ attention turned however toward Europe as an opportunity to explore further employment options and to live more frugally. He announced on July 6, 1868 that he planned to travel to Liverpool where he hoped he might use his name and reputation to trade cotton and tobacco. Varina was glad. She never really liked Lennoxville which she found “tolerably comfortable” yet “stupid but quiet.” Davis’ partners in the Québec mining venture granted Davis power of attorney and asked that he serve as an agent in an attempt to sell their interests. Davis would recoup his initial $2000 investment and make a very healthy commission on the side.
Davis and his family departed later that month for Québec City where they took passage across the Atlantic on board the Austrian. Davis was praised and feted upon his arrival in Liverpool, and with his children enrolled in school, he and Varina traveled to Scotland and Wales. They remained in Britain until the end of the year, and unable to find employment or to sell the mining interests due to the depressed market in Great Britain, they left for Paris where they stayed for a month before traveling on to Switzerland. They returned to London via Paris in early February 1869 and remained in Britain until late September although Davis was still unable to find suitable employment. He and his family finally set sail for America, arriving in New Orleans in late October. As the government had still not scheduled a trial, Davis petitioned to have the indictment quashed in November, and it was dismissed on December 5, 1869, almost two and half years after he was released from Fort Monroe. Davis had always hoped to vindicate himself in court. That opportunity would never come. Now, perhaps, he could seek his fortune in the United States.
Varina returned to Canada for reasons of health in early July 1873, now referring to “the dear old days in Lennoxville.” Davis hoped to travel there from Memphis to meet her at Drummondville, Québec and go “wherever there is a prospect of getting something to do.” But he never left Memphis and Varina eventually returned there in December. Davis would return to Canada one more time, in the summer of 1881, to arrange for the Canadian publication of his two-volume memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.
Jefferson Davis’ time spent in Canada following his release from prison in 1867 was memorable despite the physical and financial hardships he endured during those difficult years. “Of my wanderings it is proper to say that in Canada the hospitality of the people was everywhere most cordial.”
Thanks to Charlie and Donna Jordan of The Colebrook Chronicle (New Hampshire) and to the George and Helen Ladd Library at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine. Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.