Editor's Note: Clint
Johnson is the author of a dozen Civil War-related books. His
Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution and Surprising Release of
Confederate President Jefferson Davis will be published in June,
2008. This article is adapted from a chapter of
that book and appears here through the courtesy of the author.
General Nelson Miles must have
wondered who he had irritated at the War Department to draw his
latest assignment, jailer of Jefferson Davis.
Born a farm boy in Massachusetts
with little hope of going to college or winning a coveted
appointment to West Point, an honor usually reserved for the sons of
the privileged classes, Miles showed determination at an early age
to become a soldier. At age 17 he moved to Boston where he worked in
a crockery store in the daytime while reserving the evening to being
tutored in military sciences by a Frenchman who had served in that
When the war started Miles, just
22, raised his own company, but his superiors thought he was too
young to command respect of other men his own age. They put him in a
staff command, a do-little job in his mind. He soon talked his way
into a field command.
Miles was brave in battle, but
unlucky enough to be wounded in four different battles in four
different places on his body. Still he was tough enough that he
survived all of the wounds, any one of which could have killed him.
In May 1862 a Confederate musket
ball grazed Miles’ heel. In December 1862, another one passed
through his throat and out his ear. He reported to his general while
holding his throat closed with both hands. In May 1863 Miles took
his third ball to his abdomen, a wound that killed most men, and
which left him paralyzed for several weeks. Still, Miles came back
in order to receive his commission as a brigadier general. In June
1864 Miles suffered his fourth wound, yet another shot to the neck.
The reason such a brave, skilled
field general was assigned to the desk job command of Fortress
Monroe was that the war was over. The United States did not need all
of the generals it had commissioned over the previous four years,
particularly those who had not gone to West Point, and particularly
those who had learned their military skills in night school. The
United States Army was prejudiced against officers who had not
learned their skills in colleges controlled by the federal
Monroe, about 1861
Miles wanted to stay in the army so
when the command of Fortress Monroe was offered, Miles reluctantly
decided he would take what he considered a temporary assignment,
which he had convinced himself was sure to be followed by a field
command once his superiors realized what a commanding presence he
was. Miles correctly guessed that the United States Army would soon
need young, aggressive, experienced officers such as himself who
could transfer what they had learned fighting Confederates to
fighting Indians on the Western Plains.
As Davis walked down the causeway
on May 22 into the fort, Miles grasped him tightly by the arm. It
was a ridiculous gesture by Miles taking formal, firm control of a
single, exhausted, sickly prisoner who was flanked by scores of men
armed with loaded muskets, not to mention that he was walking into a
stone fort ringed with cannons that could sink ships at distances of
more than a mile.
As the former cup and saucer sales
clerk from Massachusetts pulled on the arm of the former United
States senator from Mississippi, neither man could have guessed that
both their lives were changing at that very moment.
Miles’ public rough handling of
Davis on the first day he met him was the start of an unhappy
portion of the ambitious general’s career. For the next year Miles’
treatment of Davis would be the focus of newspaper reports
questioning how the nation was treating a man who was not formally
charged with a crime. Miles would later wonder if the well-reported
harsh treatment of Davis - which some observers regarded as torture -
during the first week of the president’s imprisonment played a role
in cutting short Miles’ grand plan for himself. At one time Miles
believed a grateful nation would demand he be appointed Secretary of
War in the 1880s and an even more admiring nation would elect him
president in the 1890s.
Davis could never have guessed that
Miles’ treatment of him once inside the fort’s walls and away from
prying eyes would actually make him a sympathetic figure with many
Northerners. Davis believed he would soon face a court in
Washington, either fighting charges that he planned the
assassination of President Lincoln, or that he led millions of
treasonous Southerners who dared to defy the United States
government. Davis assumed his stay at Fortress Monroe would be short
and that he would soon board another ship bound for Washington City.
It would be two years before Davis
would board another ship.
Davis was led into a hastily
prepared cell that formerly was a casement for a cannon pointing
toward the sea. The red brick walls were freshly white-washed. Heavy
iron bars were placed where the cannon’s muzzle normally would have
pointed. Two huge wooden doors locked by an iron bar through them
walled off the casement from the long, brick hallway. A desk, chair
and cot were all the furnishings in the cell. On the table burned a
candle. A bucket sat in the corner for his waste. Another bucket
held some drinking and washing water.
Davis imprisoned at Fortress Monroe
(Sketch by Alfred R. Wauld, 1865)
As Davis walked into the cell, two
armed guards followed him. Two more stood outside the now barred
wooden doors. Four more were stationed in the casements next to his.
Six others guarded the entryway into the hallway from outside. Davis
had more than a dozen armed guards personally watching him inside
one of the most heavily armed forts in the nation garrisoned by more
than a thousand men.
That night Davis discovered that
the guards inside his cell were there to do more than watch him.
They were there to make him as uncomfortable as they could. They
were there to keep him from falling asleep.
According to written orders issued
by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and hand delivered to General Miles by
observers Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana and
Major General Henry W. Halleck, the guards were to pace up and down
inside the room beside Davis’s cot. The candle was never to be
extinguished, even at night. An officer was detailed to walk into
the cell and look at Davis every 15 minutes to make sure he had not
escaped the guarded room during the previous 15 minutes, and
presumably, no facsimile of Davis had taken the place of the real
Davis in the previous 15 minutes. No guard was to speak to Davis
under any circumstances. When given his meals, Davis was to be
allowed no implements other than a wooden spoon – even when the meal
was a slab of meat.
Davis and Clement C. Clay upon their release from prison
The next morning, Miles followed
through on another order from Stanton hand-delivered by Assistant
Secretary of War Dana: “Brevet Major-General Miles is hereby
authorized and directed to place manacles and fetters upon the hands
and feet of Jefferson Davis and Clement C. Clay whenever he may
think it advisable in order to render their imprisonment more
Miles did not follow through on the
order to manacle the hands of Davis, but he did have a blacksmith
chain Davis's ankles together, an action that the emaciated Davis
“violently resisted” according to Miles.
The leg irons placement was leaked
to the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph. When other newspapers picked
up the news, Davis drew some sympathy from Northerners who might
otherwise be angry at him for the 320,000 Northerners who had lost
their lives during the war. More important to the Republicans in
power, their political sponsors were disturbed at the apparent
torture of a man who had yet to be charged with a crime. Thurlow
Weed, a New York City political boss, was one of several prominent
Republicans who sent Secretary of War Stanton a note that the “irons
were an error and an enormity…wholly unnecessary severity.”
Fortress Monroe’s post doctor, Dr.
John Craven, examined the prisoner the day after the chains were put
on Davis’s ankles. What Craven saw shocked him.
“He presented a very miserable and
afflicting aspect. Stretched upon his pallet and very much
emaciated, Mr. Davis appeared a mere fascine of raw and tremulous
nerves – his eyes restless and fevered, his head continually
shifting from side to side for a cool spot on the pillow, and his
case clearly one in which cerebral excitement was the first thing
needing attention. He was extremely despondent, his pulse full and
at ninety, tongue thickly coated, extremities cold and his head
troubled with a long-established neuralgic disorder,” Craven wrote.
When Craven suggested to Davis that
he should stand up and exercise, Davis removed a blanket to display
the chains and the skin that was being scrapped from around his
Craven instantly liked Davis. One
of the doctor’s first acts was to bring Davis some tobacco for his
pipe. The act of lighting up seemed to bring new life into the
Confederate president, making Craven realize that some of Davis’s
physical state he witnessed could be attributed to acute tobacco
The post doctor was not cowed by
his superior officer. Captain Craven warned Major General Miles that
if he did not remove Davis’s shackles, the president’s health would
plummet from want of exercise. He might even be driven insane. After
passing that note of warning along to Stanton, Miles received orders
to remove the shackles. Five days had passed with Davis in chains
long enough for the details of what was happening inside the prison
to make national news.
Secretary of War Stanton did not so
much have a change of heart about the way he was treating Davis as
much as he realized that news of the leg irons was not being
favorably carried in all of the northern newspapers. Stanton’s
belief that the nation wanted Davis punished for the war had
backfired. Even if some newspapers were calling for Davis’s trial
and execution, the issue of torturing someone held inside the
nation’s most secure fort made the Republicans seem vindictive
toward a chained man who was a danger to no one.