Mourning for our Chieftain: The Funeral Procession of Jefferson Davis

From the end of the war until his death in 1889, Jefferson Davis was the living personification of the Lost Cause to his fellow Southerners. The

Jefferson Davis at his home Beauvoir, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast - Library of Congress
Jefferson Davis at his home Beauvoir, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast – Library of Congress

Confederacy’s only chief executive never sought a pardon, believing to the end of his days that he had done nothing wrong. When he died in New Orleans in 1889, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children throughout the states of the former Confederacy mourned his passing.

Davis’ body was placed in the vault of the Army of Northern Virginia at Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, but it was never meant to be a permanent resting place; Varina Davis would make the decision as to the final resting place of her husband. It took a few years, but eventually Varina chose Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy’s former capital, as the final resting place for Jefferson Davis.

On May 27, 1893, Davis’ body was removed from the vault in Metairie Cemetery, and the next day it was placed on the train that would take him to Richmond. During the course of the trip, the train made a stop at Beauvoir, Davis’ post-war home on the Mississippi Gulf coast, and the body also lay in state at the capitols of Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. All along the way, thousands of Southerners met the train to pay their last respects to Davis. On May 31, 1893, the train reached Richmond, and Jefferson Davis was taken to Hollywood Cemetery, where his body was interred.

Jefferson Davis had been accompanied to Richmond by a delegation of notable citizens, including a contingent of Mississippians. One of the Mississippians who made the trip was Patrick Henry, who had served as an officer in the 6th Mississippi Infantry during the Civil War. In the years after the conflict Henry had become a very successful politician, serving in the Mississippi State Legislature and in the United States Congress. He was also a delegate to the 1890 Mississippi Constitutional Convention.

As fate would have it, Henry was the last survivor of the members of the Mississippi delegation that accompanied Jefferson Davis’ body to Richmond. In 1927, Henry wrote the following letter to newspaper editor Edgar S. Wilson, giving his account of the trip. The original letter is located in the Patrick Henry Papers, Z/0215.000/S, Box 1, Folder 2, Mississippi Department of Archives and History:

Brandon – 10/19/27

Hon. Edgar S. Wilson, Jackson, Miss.

My Dear Friend,

Mindful of my promise to send you the personnel of the Escort to the body of President Jefferson Davis, from New Orleans, to Richmond, Va., I

Patrick Henry of Brandon, Mississippi - www.findagrave.com
Patrick Henry of Brandon, Mississippi – http://www.findagrave.com

had you the list, all gone to their reward, save the writer, Viz:

Gen. Stephen D. Lee, Commanding Escort, Gen. W.S. Fergerson, Col. J.L. Power, Capt. R.J. Harding, Capt. J.R. McIntosh, Col. J.R. Binford, Col. E.T. Sykes, Judge Newman Casey, Col. J.H. Jones, Lt. Gov’r., and Maj. Pat Henry. I write names and rank, as per my picture.

We had a wonderful trip, many stops en route, often the rail road yards were strewn with flowers, and hosts of people lining up on either side of the track, many in tears, all seemingly mourning for our chieftain, who even then had been registered among the immortals. We rested the casket in the Capitols at Montgomery, Raleigh, and Richmond, where great crowds of sorrowing people met us. It was placed in Hollywood Cemetery beside the body of his beloved, and beautiful daughter, lovingly known as the “Daughter of the Confederacy,” Miss Winnie Davis.

There was aboard the train a reporter for a Boston paper, who seemed deeply impressed with the general grief manifested by the people along our route. We passed a one legged ex-soldier plowing in his field, on the road side, and altho’ it was raining lightly, he stopped his mule, faced the funeral car, hat off, and head bowed, remaining uncovered with head bowed till the train passed. He had done his bit, it seemed to impress the reporter, and he turned to me, and said “What manner of man is this that brings forth such evidences of devotion, from an entire people. All seem to have sustained a personal loss.”

I told him he was the leader of a proud people, who yielded to numbers, but whose principles still lived, and he was the vicarious suffer[erer], for the so so called sins of his people. Why, he says, “I never witnessed anything like this, from the whole people, regardless of station or rank; think of that old fellow stopping his plow, and standing with bowed head, hat off, even in the rain.” He said, “I attended the funeral of General Grant, but witnesses [witnessed] nothing like this, no grief, or tears, there seemed to be a sort of machinery effect that is wanting here.”

We liked the reporter for his seeming interest, and suggested the same to him, and told him, when we reached Richmond, we would take him down to the James River, and baptize him in the waters of Democracy, but never saw him, after reaching the city, but it was his loss.

Ed, I recount this just for you, the memory of it came welling up, as I wrote, so you will excuse me. With great respect, and affection, I am your friend of the olden time.

Patrick Henry died three years after he wrote this letter, on May 18, 1930, and was buried in the Brandon City Cemetery in Rankin County, Mississippi. Henry’s obituary was carried in papers throughout the state; the Daily Herald of Biloxi published it on May 18, 1930. The tribute noted, “Death closed the colorful career of Major Pat Henry Sunday morning, and with it brought to a close a life devoted to the welfare of Mississippi.” The paper also noted, “Among the honorary pallbearers were the seven remaining members of the United Confederate Veterans camp here.

 

The Grave of Jefferson Davis in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia - www.virtualtourist.com
The Grave of Jefferson Davis in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia – http://www.virtualtourist.com

 

While Jefferson Davis never sought a pardon, and never apologized for his part in the rebellion against the United States, he did, in the twilight of his life, urge the Southern people to put aside any lingering animosity left over from the Civil War. In a speech he gave at Mississippi City in 1888, he told the audience:

“Mr. Chairmen and Fellow Citizens: “Ah, pardon me, the laws of the United States no longer permit me to designate you as fellow citizens, but I am thankful that I may address you you as friends. I feel no regret that I stand before you this afternoon a man without a country, for my ambition lies buried in the grave of the Confederacy. There has been consigned not only my ambition, but the dogmas upon which that Government was based. The faces I see before me are those of young men; had I not known this I would not have appeared before you. Men in whose hands the destinies of the South land lie, for love of her I break my silence, to let it bury its dead, its hopes and aspirations ; before you lies the future – a future full of golden promise; a future of expanding national glory, before which all of the world shall stand amazed. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to make your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished – a reunited country”

 

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Well Do I Remember that Exciting Day: The Capture of the Crew of the U.S.S. Rattler

On September 12, 1863, the parishioners of Rodney Presbyterian Church in Jefferson County, Mississippi, filed into their house of worship for a

Modern Photo of the Rodney Presbyterian Church -www.jayssouth.com
Modern Photo of the Rodney Presbyterian Church -www.jayssouth.com

typical Sabbath service. This Sunday, however, the service was anything but typical, as anchored just offshore was the United States tinclad gunboat U.S.S. Rattler, and some of the Federal tars were about to join the congregation for their worship.

The commanding officer of the Rattler was Acting Master Walter E.H. Fentress, and even though he had very clear orders against going ashore, the officer felt that there would be no harm in attending the service as there were thought to be no Confederates in the immediate area. Fentress, along with some of his men, took a rowboat to shore and quietly walked into the church – what transpired next made this particular worship service one of the most memorable of the entire war in Mississippi.

I found the following account of what happened that Sunday at the Rodney Presbyterian Church in The Port Gibson Reveille, March 10, 1910. This article was written for the paper by Elijah Conklin, who as a teenager had attended the church that fateful Sunday. While I have seen several other reminiscences of the incident at Rodney, I don’t think Mr. Conklin’s has been in print since it was originally published in 1910:

The following letter, written by Mr. Conklin, of Omaha, referring to an incident of the late war had been furnished us by Major Broughton. At the time referred to Mr. Conklin was a youth, living in Rodney; later he enlisted and served two years in the Confederate army:

Omaha, Neb., Jan. 8, 1910:

Maj. Jno. W. Broughton, Lorman, Miss.

Dear Friend and Comrade: As you mentioned in your last letter that the Fayette Chronicle would soon publish an account of the capture of a federal naval captain and sailors in the Presbyterian church in Rodney, during the war between the states, I thought as I was in the church that day, and had the experience of having both a Federal and Confederate officer level their pistols on me within two or three minutes time, that perhaps my experience might also be interesting to the readers of the Chronicle.

As a preface, I will say the captain of the Federal gunboat was a very sociable man and frequently came ashore and talked in a friendly way with the citizens, and had attended church a few times previous to the day of his capture. The citizens of Rodney did not know of there being any armed Confederate soldiers in that vicinity at that time; there were though several paroled Confederate soldiers in the town, it being their home, they having been captured and paroled, some at Vicksburg, others at Port Hudson, when those places surrendered to the Federals.

 

The tinclad U.S.S. Rattler
The tinclad U.S.S. Rattler – U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph

 

Well do I remember that exciting day. It was a beautiful, sun-shiny Sabbath morning. The church was crowded so much that a bench had to be brought from the negro gallery and was occupied by sailors who could not find seats in pews. The Federal captain was seated immediately in front of me. The pew he was sitting in was entirely taken up by himself and sailors. A Federal officer who had accompanied a lady of the town to church was seated on the opposite side of the church from the captain. He was the only one of the party that was armed, he having a navy revolver. Soon after the services commenced, we were startled by noises on the outside of the church, such as running of horses in the street and a rattling noise which we afterwards found out was caused by the Confederate cavalrymen’s spurs rattling on the brick walk in front of the church.

We could not imagine the cause of the noises, but everybody seemed to have a premonition of something dreadful going to happen. Before we had time to take in the situation, a Confederate officer ran in the church from the left entrance. He had a revolver in each hand, and with them pointed toward the Federals, said, in a loud tone, with an oath, ‘Surrender, you are my prisoners.’ The Federal captain quickly arose to a standing position with uplifted hands, facing the Confederate, said, ‘We surrender, for God’s sake don’t fire among the women and children.’

At that instant the Federal officer from the opposite side of the church fired at the Confederate, who immediately fired at the Federal and then such excitement and confusion never witnessed before or since. Women and children were screaming, men, women and children were rushing in every direction endeavoring to get out of the church, some jumping out of windows, others rushing out of the doors. Back in the choir looked to me to be the safest place, and in my excitement I climbed over the top of the pews to get there. I found a few of the citizens of the town in the choir, the only ones I can remember now were James Wilson.

 

Interior of the Rodney Presbyterian Church - http://www.pinterest.com/pin/447686019180754519/
Interior of the Rodney Presbyterian Church – http://www.pinterest.com/pin/447686019180754519/

 

We could hear the Confederates on the outside of the church shooting and calling on the sailors to surrender, and occasionally heard a shot fired from the inside of the church by the Federal officer. Presently he came running down the side of the church and into the corridor and stopped in the door-way leading into the choir and covered me with his pistol. I had met this officer on the street a few days before and had a heated argument with him, and when he pointed his cocked pistol at me I thought his intention was to kill me.  I threw up both my hands as quickly as possible and said, ‘For God’s sake don’t shoot me.’ He replied, ‘Then take those men away from here.’ I answered, ‘That is not in my power; I have no control over them.’ He then left me and I went farther in the church. One of the Confederates ran in the left entrance and leveled his revolver in the direction of the choir, but instead of covering the Federal with it as he expected, it covered me. I thought in his excitement he would surely shoot me, Instantly up went both of my hands and again I cried out, ‘For God’s sake don’t shoot me.’ He said, ‘Where did that Yankee go?’ I answered, ‘I don’t know.’

In my excitement I did not think to tell him that the Federal had gone further in the church. The Confederate went outside without searching the church for the Federal. We learned afterwards that when the Federal left me he hid under a pew and remained there until the Confederates left and then made his way to the river bank and gave a signal to the gunboat which was anchored in front of the town, and a yawl was sent ashore and he and a sailor who had escaped capture were taken aboard of the gunboat.

After my experience with the Confederate officer I realized that instead of getting, as I supposed, in the safest place in the church, I had got into the most dangerous, and I followed the Confederate officer out of the church and found most of the people who had been in the church congregated in front of it. Just at that time the squad of Confederates, mounted on their horses, passed in front of the church with the Federal captain and eighteen sailors with them as their prisoners. One of the Confederates, a mere boy as he appeared to me to be, waved his hat and said, ‘Three cheers for the Southern Confederacy,’ and addressing the crowd of citizens, said, ‘You must excuse us for disturbing your church services, but it was too good an opportunity to pick these men up.’

The Confederates left town and we Rodneyites hastened to our homes and hurriedly tied in sheets some provisions and clothing, ready to throw the bundles over shoulders and run from the town in case the Federals burnt it, which they usually did when they were fired on from towns. When the Federal officer and sailor who had escaped capture reached the gunboat and informed those on the boat what had occurred, the gunboat raised her anchor and steamed up and down in front of the town, firing broadside after broadside of shells into the town. Several houses were struck by the cannon balls, one entering the church; finally the cannonading ceased.

 

Modern Ruins of the town of Rodney
Modern Ruins of the town of Rodney

 

After the Confederates left town, they sent a written communication to the gunboat, stating that the citizens should not be held responsible for what had occurred, for the citizens did not know of their being in that vicinity or their intentions, and if the Federals burnt the town they would hang the prisoners they had captured. The communication was given to one of the old men of the town who immediately consulted other citizens and they decided it would be poor policy to send the communication to the Federals for they might capture nineteen citizens, burn the town and say to the Confederates, ‘Now hang our men and we will hang these citizens.’ So the communication was destroyed instead of being sent to the commanding officer of the gunboat.

In an hour or two after the cannonading stopped it commenced again. We soon discovered they were shelling the roads leading into the town and were landing a force of sailors who marched up town and set fire to the hotel. Rev. Mr. Price, came running down the street; he was bareheaded and in his shirt sleeves, and asked on of the sailors for their commanding officer; when he was pointed out to him he told him of the communication the Confederates had sent in and why it had not been delivered, and as they had commenced burning the town he thought it best to inform him of it. The Federal officer said he had orders to only burn the hotel; that the Confederates threats would not influence him to put the fire out, but he would call his men off and if the citizens could put the fire out they might do so. As the fire had hardly got started the citizens did not find it difficult to stop it. The Federals returned to the boat and we were told they would not disturb the town any more until the matter had been reported to the general in command at Natchez. He, I suppose, decided not to take any action, for we were not molested again. The reason they intended burning the hotel was on account of the sailor who escaped capture having run into the hotel and asked for protection which was refused him.

We afterwards heard that when the captured captain was exchanged he was courtmartialed and dismissed from service for endangering himself and men to capture. As to the truthfulness of his courtmartial, etc., I cannot vouch. Sometime in the future I will write for publication in the Chronicle an account of my capture during the war, as you have often requested me to do.

Remember me kindly to my Jefferson County friends, and with many good wishes for yourself, I remain, Your friend and comrade,

ELIJAH CONKLIN

Elijah Conklin was born in Grand Gulf, Mississippi, in 1847, and shortly after the incident at Rodney which he so wonderfully described in his

Postwar Photograph of Elijah Conklin - Confederate Veteran Magazine, Volume XIX, Page 492
Postwar Photograph of Elijah Conklin – Confederate Veteran Magazine, Volume XIX, Page 492

letter, the teenager joined Wirt Adams’ Regiment of Mississippi Cavalry. His service record is woefully incomplete, but fortunately in later life Conklin filled out a veteran’s questionnaire for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. In it he stated that he enlisted in the army at Jefferson County, Mississippi, on September 1, 1864. Conklin wrote in his account:

I Elijah Conklin, when 16 years old, served during the siege of Vicksburg campaign as an independent volunteer in Co. K, Wirt Adams Cavl. Regiment, and participated at that time in Cavalry skirmishes, and in Battle of Jackson, Miss., and was a picket on the left wing of the Confederate army at the battle of Raymond, Miss. When 17 years old I enlisted for the war in Co. A, Wood’s Regt., Adams Brigade Cavalry, and served until the end of the war, and surrendered under Genl. Forrest, at Gainesville, Ala., in May 1865. I was captured by Elliott’s Marine Brigade, U.S. Cavalry, and held as a prisoner of war for a few days on boats on Mississippi River. During the winter of 1864 & 1865, I was detailed from my regiment to do service as a headquarters courier for General Frank Gardner, with headquarters at Jackson, Miss.

– Veteran’s Questionnaire of Elijah Conklin, Series 390, Box 16598, Mississippi Department of Archives & History

In 1873 Elijah Conklin moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to join his older brother William, who had found employment there as a bookkeeper. Elijah worked for over a decade as a Pullman Conductor on the Union Pacific Railroad, and later became a successful traveling salesman. Although he lived far from the state of his birth, Conklin never forgot his home, or the war he had fought in as a teenager. He was a member of the J.J. Whitney Camp, United Confederate Veterans, in Fayette, Mississippi. When he died in 1911 it was written that “He was borne to his last resting place in a casket of Confederate gray upon which were entwined Confederate and American flags. He wore the highly prized cross of honor, and his pallbearers were old veterans of both the Confederate and Union armies.” – Confederate Veteran Magazine, Volume XIX, Page 492.