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1865 August 12: How Jefferson Davis Spends His Time in Confinement

August 14, 2015

The Prescott Journal of August 12, 1865, reprinted the following article, about former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, from the New-York Times of July 27.  The Times prefaced the article with:  “The very few here who are permitted to know the facts about Jeff. Davis’ health, his prison habits, diet, privileges, and so on, are much amused at the manufactured fol-de-rol that appears periodically in the New-York and Philadelphia papers.  One would imagine, did he credit the statements of these sensationalists, that Jeff, is in the hands of brutish tyrants rather than of Christian gentlemen :  that he is being worn away between the upper and nether stones of official restriction and prison torture, instead of enjoying to his full capacity every comfort which the necessary caution and watchfulness of his guardians will permit. ”


Jeff. Davis.

He is confined in a large casemate, where there is ample room for his bed, a table, several chairs and a bath-tub.  He is in no way hampered about his person, everything being as free to-day as when he stamped defiance with his foot in Washington and waved adieu to his compeers of the Senate.  To be sure he is not permitted to be alone, but the guard are cautioned against intrusion ;  and at no time has he complained of either officers or men.  Should he do so, and were his complaint based on the slightest foundation, it would be attended to.  At night a lamp burns within his room.  This, however, was done as a measure of precaution rather than annoyance.  At first he complained of it, thinking it would interfere with his sleep ;  but as experience demonstrated the folly of his fear, he withdrew the request that it should be removed.  The guard is changed every two hours ;  an inspection of the guard is made twice each day.  The floor is neatly swept and every care taken to furnish water in abundance.  The regularity with which Mr. Davis takes his morning bath is evidence of the care he yet takes of his person.  His toilet is as faultless as ever, and he presents the same precise and well-ordered exterior as in earlier and happier days.


I have seen it stated that Jeff’s food was the same as is furnished the rank and file of the army.  If it was it would be sufficiently better than that given our prisoners at Richmond, but as retaliation is not the practice of the government, it may be as well to state that this report is as far from the truth as is the other which says that he is allowed all the delicacies of the season.  The fact is, strange as it may seem to some of our Copperhead friends, that Davis is taken care of by people who have at least an ordinary amount of common sense, and who know the folly of going to extremes.  The food furnished the rebel chief is such he can eat with relish.  He doesn’t have strawberries and cream, nor boned turkey and mince pie, but he does have tea and coffee, beef and other meats, vegetables and cigars.  These complaints about food do not originate with the prisoner, and until he sees fit even to intimate to those in charge that his diet disagrees with him, it is hardly necessary for the newspaper oppositionists to worry themselves about it.  Dr. Craven [John J. Craven], who has been with Mr. Davis every day since his arrival, is a gentleman and a practitioner of acknowledged merit, who would not forfeit the approval of his conscience for all the advancement in the power of his superiors, and to his opinion the officers in charge invariably yield the most implicit respect.  At his advice sundry changes, vegetable mainly, were made in the bill of fare, but they were suggested as precautionary, rather than as absolutely necessary.

It is not true that Davis neither speaks nor is spoken to.  Such rigor would be childish and absurd.  With Maj. Gen. Miles [Nelson Miles], with Dr. Craven and other officers of the post he converses freely and unrestrainedly.  They have no desire to be uncivil, nor would they consent to such a depth of degradation as would be needful were they expected in any way to irritate, annoy or disturb their prisoner.  With the soldiers of the guard he is not permitted to talk, nor would he be if he was a simple visitor.  It is customary at all military posts for visitors, and especially prisoners, to refrain from conversation with any soldier on duty.  In case he needs anything at any time he has only to tell the sentinel, who calls the officer of the guard, who reports to the officer of the day.


Rising at an early hour, Mr. Davis takes a bath, then dresses, after which he is visited by the officer of the guard, the officer of the day, and the medical attendant.  He then breakfasts, after which he walks up and down his room, converses with Gen. Miles, who generally visits his quarters about that time, or with Dr. Craven, reads the Bible, and quite likely longs for books and papers ;  that he has not thus far been permitted either is a fact.  Whether it is best to wholly deprive him of the society of books is a fair matter of argument.  Many think that he should have everything of the kind with which to while away his time and make the tedious hours pass less slowly.  Then there are many who entertain the idea that Jeff, deserves a little punishment, and that it is not at all desirable that his time should pass pleasantly or rapidly.  Quite likely the government are of that opinion ;  at all events, he don’t get the papers.


It has also been stated that no letters of sympathy had been received for him.  This is incorrect.  Mrs. Davis and other members of the family have written frequently, and although Mr. Davis is not permitted to read the letters, he is furnished with all items of domestic news and interest, such as the state of health and movements of the family generally.  In addition to these, numerous letters of counsel and advice have been received, although none of them, with one exception, have been given him.  It is not deemed right that intercourse by letter should be permitted with any one, although one would suppose it could do no harm if the mere home letters were allowed to pass freely.  Of course there are hundreds of silly people in the country, and it would be strange if they who pester the President for opinions, bother persons of note for autographs, and deluge officials with advice, should not occasionally scribble a line of abuse to old Jeff.  His friends, however, may rest easy on this point ;  he is never annoyed by these impertinences, because he never sees nor hears of them.  It is said that he rarely talks about or cares to have reference made to political or military matters.  Quite likely this is in deference to the good advice of his counsel.  When Davis was first incarcerated, he made application for pen, ink and paper; the application was refused.  He then made no requests for several days, until after the reception of a letter from an eminent lawyer, when he again requested stationery.  It was granted on one condition ;  finding it difficult to comply with the terms, he returned the materials.  He has several times expressed a desire for free correspondence with his wife and family, and seemed annoyed at the determined refusal given at each application.


What earthly honest purposes the presses hope to gain by circulating lies about Jeff.’s health it is difficult to conceive.  He is in better condition to-day than he has been in five years.  It will be remembered that a hacking cough seriously affected his throat and lungs during his last days at Washington ;  it has gone entirely.  He has been blind of one eye for many years, and the sight of the other was exceedingly poor of late.  The power of his eye is greater now than at any time in ten years.  He wears at times the famous green goggles, but there is not the need for them now that there used to be.  During his rule at Richmond, the constant strain upon his eye wore upon it, and it was the opinion of his best and most intimate friends that he would eventually lose sight altogether.  This is changed for the better.  Regular hours, much sound sleep, almost total abstinence from wear and tear, are doing much for his health generally and very much for his eye-sight.  His carriage is still erect.  His hair is changing color, his cheeks, always sunken, are now covered with a light beard, making him look fatter and sounder, his physique is in good repair, his limbs are firm and his step square.

Of his mental condition, it is more difficult to speak.  He is as eager for books, for mind food, as he is for the substantials needed by his body.  Naturally nervous, years of ill health have made him irritable.  Other years of absolute power made him impatient, and trouble seems to have made him querulous.  Still he sleeps like a top.  He retires early, and sometimes never turns till morning.  If the people who write labored editorials about the “treatment of Jefferson Davis,” could contrast his appearance with that of thousands who barely escaped starvation and death at his hands, they would be compelled to keep quiet or change their tune.

Nor is it true that he has been denied the privileges of an occasional walk, any more than is the story that his near approaching dissolution compelled a change of programme.  Gen. Miles, a prudent, efficient officer, has been in charge of the prisoner’s person and health.  He is, in fact, held responsible for him by the President and the Secretary of War.  At first, before the excitement of capture and confinement wore away, it was deemed best that he should be kept quietly in his ample room.  Since then, however, at various times, at the suggestion of the General or of Davis, as the case might be, they have walked out upon the ramparts in the cool of the early evening, and sniffed the fresh air together.  With Gen. Miles, Mr. Davis has ever been courteous and decorous in his bearing and conversation.  There is no reason why he should not be, for so far as the externals of life and society go, he is as proper a person as can be found in a day’s tramp.  The heat having become intense at the fort, Gen. Miles has made these little excursions more “frequently, and with great benefit to his mental and physical condition.

[The Times’ article ends with:

“Surmises are always in order.  It is the matured opinion of one “well informed circle,” that he’ll be tried by a military commission, convicted and hanged.

“Another equally well informed circle is confident that he’ll be tried by a civil court and acquitted.

“One opinion is just as good as the other, and the reader can take his choice.  Of one thing they may rest assured.  The government has not yet determined what to with him, and when it does, it will do nothing inconsistent with its dignity.”]

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