When Miles Met Davis

By Clint Johnson
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: Clint Johnson is the author of a dozen Civil War-related books. His latest, 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.

Nelson Miles

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 country’s army.

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.

Jefferson Davis

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 Fort 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 government.

Fort Monroe, about 1861

Miles wanted to stay in the army so when the command of Fort 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 Fort 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.

Jefferson Davis imprisoned at Fort Monroe (Sketch by Alfred R. Waud, 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.

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 secure.”

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.”

John J. Craven, M.D.

Fort 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 ankles.

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 withdrawal.

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.

Jefferson Davis and Clement C. Clay upon their release from prison

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.

About the author: Clint Johnson has written a dozen Civil War-related books with most of them showing tourists how to find historical sites. All can be found at www.clintjohnsonbooks.com. Mr. Johnson lives with his wife in the mountains of Ashe County, North Carolina.

This article is adapted from a chapter of Mr. Johnson’s latest book, Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution and Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Pursuit examines Davis’ curiously leisurely escape from Richmond, his capture where he was wrongly accused of wearing women’s clothes, his two years in prison without being tried, and the behind-the-scenes legal maneuverings of his lawyers and the U.S. government. Both sets of lawyers negotiated to keep Davis from being tried for any crime, including the assassination of President Lincoln and treason for leading the Confederacy after secession. Davis himself wanted to be tried, intending to use the trial to prove the legality of secession.

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