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“Not Buried Yet”: Northern Responses to the Death of Jefferson Davis and the Stuttering Progress of Sectional Reconciliation

  • Robert J. Cook


This article, the first detailed scholarly assessment of northern responses to the death of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis in December 1889, contributes to ongoing academic debates over the troubled process of sectional reconciliation after the Civil War. Southern whites used their leader's funeral obsequies to assert not only their affection for the deceased but also their devotion to the Lost Cause that he had championed and embodied. Based on an analysis of northern newspapers and mass-circulation magazines in the two weeks after Davis's death, the essay demonstrates that many northerners, principally Republican politicians and editors, Union veterans, and African Americans, were outraged by southerners’ flagrant willingness to laud a man whom they regarded as the arch-traitor and that they remained opposed to reconciliation on southern terms. However, despite continuing concerns about public displays of affection for the Confederacy evident at the time of Davis's reinterment in Richmond in May 1893, northern opposition to the Lost Cause waned rapidly in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Full-blown sectional reconciliation occurred after the Republicans gave up on their efforts to enforce black voting rights in the South and President William McKinley's imperialist foreign policy necessitated, and to some degree garnered, support from southern whites. The death of Jefferson Davis, therefore, can be seen as an important event in the difficult transition from a heavily sectionalized postwar polity to a North-South rapprochement based heavily on political pragmatism, sentiment, nationalism, and white supremacism.


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1 Morning Star (Wilmington, NC), Dec. 10, 1889.

2 New York Daily Tribune, Dec. 9, 1889.

3 Troy (New York) Weekly Times, Dec. 25, 1889.

4 Silber, Nina, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Blight, David W., Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001). Silber updated her views in “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reviewed and Reconsidered,” Journal of American History 103 (June 2016): 59–83. In this essay, she continued to represent the process of North-South amity as a predominantly cultural one by urging scholars to attend to “the imagined reconstitution of the nation” in the late nineteenth century (80), while simultaneously emphasizing that reunion/reconciliation was “chaotic, attenuated, and contested” (67).

5 Prince, K. Stephen, Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865–1915 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 246.

6 Blair, William A., Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865–1914 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Neff, John R., Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005); Janney, Caroline E., Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Harris, M. Keith, Across the Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration Among Civil War Veterans (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014). For a recent assessment of modern scholarship on sectional reconciliation, see Cook, Robert J., “The Quarrel Forgotten: Toward a Clearer Understanding of Sectional Reconciliation,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6 (Sept. 2016): 413–36.

7 Scholarship on the death of Jefferson Davis is limited to a single book chapter and a few pages scattered in biographies and histories of sectional reconciliation and the Lost Cause. Collins, The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 49–85, is a useful but predominantly descriptive account of the president's passing and some of the responses to it. Although the author acknowledged some hostile northern reactions, he contended that these were “relatively few in number” and treated the event as evidence that sectional reconciliation was well underway. Ibid., 57. This thesis was broadly consistent with Blight's contention in Race and Reunion that the forces driving better feelings between northerners and southerners had become unstoppable by the late 1880s. Blight devoted only a few lines to Davis's death, interpreting it as “signal” evidence of southern whites’ growing determination “to proclaim the glory of their failed revolution and to refurbish their self-respect.” Ibid., 266–67. Buck, Paul H., The Road to Reunion 1865–1900 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co, 1937), 254, claimed that “An epoch ended with his [Davis's] death” because “[h]e alone seemed to represent a past that could not be assimilated into the present.” Buck, however, noted the continuing power of sectionalism in American politics until the early 1890s. For Caroline Janney, the most important aspect of Davis's death was the “torrent of vitriol” that it attracted from Federal veterans’ groups like the Grand Army of the Republic. Janney, Remembering the Civil War, 182–83. Unlike Donald Collins, Neff portrayed southern mourning for Davis as predominantly sectional in nature and providing “a foundation for a particularly aggressive resurgence in Southern rhetoric and commemorative activities.” Neff, Honoring the Civil War Dead, 174. Of Davis's biographers, Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis, Tragic Hero: The Last Twenty-Five Years, 1865–1889 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), 507–26, provided the fullest description of the president's funeral. He based his erroneous contention that “[t]he majority of the leading Northern papers … were not only fair, but admiring in their comments [on the deceased]” on evidence from two Democratic and one independent newspaper in New York. Cooper, William J., Jefferson Davis, American (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), the standard modern biography, provided no coverage of the rituals and responses that followed his subject's demise.

8 I chose these newspapers and journals using a combination of informed scholarship and random selection based on the availability of Gilded Age newspapers in the Library of Congress and on the Readex Early American Newspapers, 1800–1901 digital website. I consulted small-town and major urban papers, the circulation of which varied greatly from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands in the case of mass-circulation papers like the New York World. Typically, their content was determined by their partisan affiliation. The majority of those whose partisan identity could be identified were Republican but around a third were Democrat or Independent. Four were African American newspapers.

9 Blight, Race and Reunion, 260. On the postbellum memory work of elite ex-Confederate women, see Blair, Cities of the Dead, 61–62, 79–87; and Janney, Caroline E., Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

10 On the UDC, see especially Cox, Karen L., Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).

11 Foster, Gaines, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 104–44.

12 On the Lost Cause as a religiously-infused civil religion, see Wilson, Charles Reagan, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980).

13 Prince, Stories of the South, 9.

14 On Davis's later years see Strode, Tragic Hero; and Cooper, Jefferson Davis, 611–702.

15 For a detailed account of the Young Pretender's dispiriting career in continental Europe after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden, see McLynn, Frank, Bonnie Prince Charlie: Charles Edward Stuart (1988; Pimlico ed.: London, 2003), 308550.

16 Richmond Daily Dispatch, Aug. 19, 1873.

17 Rebecca Edwards notes that political cartoonist Thomas Nast first drew an elephant, “an animal with a proverbially long memory,” to depict the Republican Party in 1876. He did so in order “to represent Republicans’ fixation on Union victory.” Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age 1865–1905 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 20.

18 Quoted in Holt, Michael F., By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008), 68. Holt's analysis of the 1876 election highlights the Republicans’ purposeful use of Civil War memories in the campaign. Blaine's vengeful rhetoric was doubtless intended to remind northern voters that Davis should have joined Henry Wirz, the camp superintendent hanged in November 1865 for the mistreatment of Union POWs at Andersonville, on the scaffold.

19 Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (2 vols., 1881; repr. New York: T. Yoseloff, 1958), 2:764.

20 On the construction of this once robust narrative see Cook, Robert J., Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United States Since 1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 6972; and Gannon, Barbara A., Americans Remember Their Civil War (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2017), 1936.

21 Johnson, Rossiter, “Factitious History,” North American Review 133 (Sept. 1881): 302–14.

22 “A DEAD HERO AND A LIVE JACKASS” (cartoon), Puck, June 22, 1881, 267.

23 Jefferson Davis, speech of March 10, 1884, in The Papers of Jefferson Davis, ed. Lynda Lasswell Crist (14 vols.; Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971–2015), 14:220.

24 For an account of Davis's successful visits to Alabama and Georgia, see Collins, Death and Resurrection, 25–48.

25 On the political context of Wounded Knee, see Richardson, Heather Cox, Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre (New York: Basic Books, 2010). Nelson A. Miles, the U.S. military commander in South Dakota at the time of the massacre, had been commandant at Fort Monroe when Jefferson Davis was incarcerated there after the Civil War.

26 Baker, Bruce E., What Reconstruction Meant: Historical Memory in the American South (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 23.

27 On the close linkage between Republicans and veterans in the Gilded Age, see Jensen, Richard, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888–1896 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 2226. Republican Party appeals to veterans were particularly evident in the swing state of Indiana in the 1888 election.

28 Aberdeen (South Dakota) Daily News, Dec. 6, 1889; Minneapolis Tribune, Dec. 6, 1889; Chicago Herald, Dec. 6, 1889; Topeka State Journal, Dec. 6, 1889.

29 Sun (New York), Dec. 7, 1889.

30 New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette (Concord), Dec. 12, 1889.

31 Boston Daily Globe, Dec. 7, 1889.

32 World (New York), Dec. 7, 1889.

33 New York Herald, Dec. 7, 1889. See also Boston Daily Globe, Dec. 7, 1889.

34 World (New York), Dec. 7, 1889.

35 Commercial Advertiser (New York), Dec. 6, 1889. The Philadelphia Public Ledger provided extensive front-page coverage of Davis's death and the many responses to it, but initially left its readers to make up their own minds about the meaning of events. Public Ledger, Dec. 7, 1889.

36 Evening Post (New York), Dec. 6, 1889; New York Times, Dec. 7, 1889.

37 Nation, Dec. 12, 1889.

38 Harper's Weekly, Dec. 14, 1889.

39 Philadelphia North American, Dec. 7, 1889.

40 New York Tribune, Dec. 7, 1889.

41 Daily Inter-Ocean (Chicago), Dec. 7, 1889.

42 Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 7, 1889.

43 Blight, Race and Reunion, 183–85; Benjamin G. Cloyd, Haunted By Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010), 31–82; Harris, Across the Bloody Chasm, 20–26.

44 Strode, Jefferson Davis, 501.

45 On Union veterans’ often difficult postwar lives, see especially Shaffer, Donald R., After the Glory: The Struggle of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004); Marten, James, The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); and Jordan, Brian Matthew, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2015).

46 Omaha Republican, Dec. 8, 1889.

47 Daily Kennebec Journal (Augusta, ME), Dec. 7, 1889.

48 McConnell, Stuart, Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992) is the standard modern account of the GAR; but see also Gannon, Barbara A., The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

49 National Tribune, Dec. 12, 1889.

50 Quoted in Harris, Across the Bloody Chasm, 54.

51 Blight, Race and Reunion, 244–51.

52 Bierce, Ambrose, “On Jefferson Davis's Death” in Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, eds. Duncan, Russell and Klooster, David J. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), 330, 331.

53 Daily Inter-Ocean (Chicago), Dec. 14, 1889. On Tourgée's continuing battle to promote equal rights for African Americans, see Elliott, Mark, Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgée and the Quest for Racial Justice from the Civil War to Plessy v Ferguson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); and Karcher, Carolyn L., A Refugee from His Race: Albion W. Tourgée and His Fight Against White Supremacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

54 Detroit Plain dealer, Dec. 13, 1889.

55 Cleveland Gazette, Dec. 14, 1889.

56 Leavenworth Advocate, Dec. 14, 1889.

57 New York Age, Dec. 14, 1889. Davis addressed his last words to his wife, Varina, as she tried to administer medicine. Collins, Death and Resurrection, 52. Although Fortune chose to interpret them for public effect as a belated sign of repentance, it seems more likely that Davis was simply declaring his wish to die. The president had never previously apologized for his political conduct, and it would have been out of character for him to engage in a death-bed conversion that would have cast doubt on his own whole career. As Karl Guthke has observed, the last words of great men have often assumed importance as proof of a good life lived consistently. Guthke, Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 50–51.

58 Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco), Dec. 6, 1889.

59 Quoted in Aberdeen (South Dakota) Daily News, Dec. 7, 1889.

60 Bismarck Daily Tribune, Dec. 8, 1889.

61 New York Daily Tribune, Dec. 7, 1889, Dec. 8, 1889.

62 On this theme, see especially Gaston, Paul M., The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970).

63 Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 7, 1889.

64 Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 7, 1889.

65 Quoted in Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 10, 1889.

66 Surprisingly the standard history of New Orleans at this time, Jackson, Joy J., New Orleans in the Gilded Age: Politics and Urban Progress 1880–1896 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press for the Louisiana Historical Association, 1969), makes no mention of Davis's funeral nor, aside from a brief discussion of Pierre G. T. Beauregard's postwar career, does it have much to say about the city's importance as a center of Lost Cause activity.

67 The New Orleans Picayune’s estimated total attendance was 140,000: 18,000 on the first day of public viewing; 40,000 on the second; 20,000 on the third; and nearly 70,000 on the fourth; Daily Picayune, Dec. 11, 1889. Although these figures were probably inflated, there is no question that tens of thousands of people viewed Davis's remains. In his 1964 biography, Hudson Strode observed that “[n]ewspaper estimates of the number that passed the bier in three days varied widely; one exaggerated report put the figure at 150,000, but none was under 50,000.” Strode, Jefferson Davis, 520.

68 Daily Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 8, 1889.

69 Daily Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 8, 1889.

70 Collins, Death and Resurrection, 62.

71 Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 10, 1889. The row inside the Grand Army elicited President Harrison's only public comment on the burgeoning controversy over Davis's death. It came while he was en route from Washington to Chicago to attend a concert to mark the opening of the Chicago Auditorium. Asked by a reporter in Pittsburgh about “the propriety” of Federal veterans marching in the funeral parade, he responded guardedly that “the G.A.R. must regulate their own conduct.” It is reasonable to assume that his private view on how to respond to Davis's passing was consistent with the decision of his Union comrade, Redfield Proctor, not to lower the flag on the war department to half-mast. Louisville Commercial, Dec. 11, 1889.

72 Philadelphia North American, Dec. 11, 1889.

73 Janney, Remembering the Civil War, 183.

74 Daily Picayune (New Orleans), Dec. 12, 1889.

75 News and Courier (Charleston, SC), Dec. 12, 1889.

76 Blight, Race and Reunion, 266–67.

77 Philadelphia Record, Dec. 11, 1889.

78 For a brief obituary of Mussey, see New York Times, June 29, 1897.

79 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Dec. 9, 1889.

80 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Dec. 10, 1889.

81 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Dec. 9, 1889.

82 One of these Confederate flags can be seen clearly in a photograph of Davis's coffin inside City Hall. See New Orleans Public Library, “Jefferson Davis Lies in State,” (accessed Aug. 25, 2017).

83 Cook, Civil War Memories, 86.

84 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Dec. 10, 1889.

85 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Dec. 11, 1889.

86 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Dec. 12, 1889.

87 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Dec. 12, 1889.

88 Gordon's career as a New South businessman in the 1880s is detailed in Eckert, Ralph Lowell, John Brown Gordon: Soldier, Southerner, American (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 239–67.

89 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Dec. 12, 1889.

90 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, Dec. 13, 1889.

91 Evening Bulletin (Philadelphia), Dec. 10, 1889.

92 Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle, Dec. 23, 1889. The paper's name belied its Republican affiliation.

93 Mail and Express (New York) quoted in Daily Register (Mobile), Dec. 11, 1889.

94 Evening Bulletin (Philadelphia), Dec. 12, 1889.

95 Morning Oregonian (Portland), Dec. 20, 1889.

96 See, for example, Daily Register (Mobile), Dec. 11, 1889, Dec. 12, 1889, News and Courier (Charleston), second ed., Dec. 8, 1889.

97 Constitution (Atlanta), Dec. 8, 1889, Louisville Commercial, Dec. 9, 1889.

98 New Mississippian (Jackson), Dec. 11, 1889.

99 News and Courier (Charleston), Dec. 10, 1889.

100 Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, May 30, 1890.

101 Daily Inter-Ocean (Chicago), May 31, 1890.

102 Kousser, J. Morgan, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), 2023.

103 Quoted in Calhoun, Charles W., Conceiving a New Republic: The Republican Party and the Southern Question, 1869–1900 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), 259.

104 Karcher, A Refugee from His Race, 149–95. Karcher notes that 80 percent of the NCRA's estimated 250,000 members were white northerners, significant numbers of them Union veterans and students. The organization proved short lived, partly because of opposition from some black leaders.

105 The best account of Davis's reinterment is Collins, Death and Resurrection, 87–129.

106 Philadelphia Press quoted in Daily Inter-Ocean (Chicago), June 2, 1893.

107 New York Herald, May 31, 1893.

108 New York Tribune, June 1, 1893.

109 New York Tribune, June 2, 1889. The trolley was the brainchild of William H. Tipton, a Gettysburg politician and photographer, who saw it as a way of encouraging more tourists to visit the battlefield. Opposition from veterans’ groups and other interested parties resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1896 affirming the federal government's right to protect the Union shrine for the purposes of patriotic education, but the trolley continued to operate on a slightly different route until the advent of the automobile. Weeks, Jim, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 7172, 88–89.

110 Boston Daily Advertiser, June 1, 1893.

111 Collins, Death and Resurrection, 123–24.

112 Kelly, Patrick J., “The Election of 1896 and the Restructuring of Civil War Memory” in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, eds. Fahs, Alice and Waugh, Joan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 180212; Cook, Civil War Memories, 110–12.

“Not Buried Yet”: Northern Responses to the Death of Jefferson Davis and the Stuttering Progress of Sectional Reconciliation

  • Robert J. Cook


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