Jeff Davis’ kind words led to an unusual friendship

By Gordon Cotton
Published: Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Today is the birthday of Jefferson Davis, Warren County’s most famous citizen and revered statesman. This story is mostly about his wife, Varina, but it also illustrates the sterling character of her husband.

There was a knock on the door of the room at Cranston’s-on-the Hudson in New York where Mrs. Jefferson Davis was staying, and when she opened it an elderly lady was standing there.

“I am Mrs. Grant,” she said. Mrs. Davis invited her to come in.

It was a June day in 1893. That evening the two ladies, both widows, dined together and then sat on the porch as other guests watched in amazement. After Mrs. Davis retired for the evening, Mrs. Grant noted, “She is a very noble-looking lady. She looked a little older than I had expected. I have wanted to meet her for a very long time.”

Julia Grant’s desire to meet Varina Davis was possibly because of an incident that had occurred in 1885 when a Boston newspaper sent a reporter to Biloxi to interview the Confederate president. The young man had attempted to get Davis to criticize Gen. U.S. Grant, but Davis had refused.

“General Grant is dying,” he stated. “Instead of seeking to disturb the quiet of his closing hours, I would, if it were in my powers, contribute to the peace of his mind and the comfort of his body.”

Grant died a short time later, then Davis died in 1889. Mrs. Davis moved to New York City where she worked as a writer for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the World.

No doubt Mrs. Grant was impressed by Davis’ reply, and though her friendship with Mrs. Davis surprised some, the two ladies had much in common. Both were Southerners, both had married West Point graduates and had followed their husband’s military careers. Both were well educated, and both spoke in soft, low voices. In old age, each had grown portly and wore her hair parted in the middle and drawn tightly over her ears.

Ironically, Mrs. Lincoln had no use for Mrs. Grant. Occasionally Julia Grant and Varina Davis traveled together, and Mrs. Davis was one of the special guests invited to the dedication ceremonies of Grant’s tomb when it was completed in 1897. Julia Grant told her, “I will soon be laid beside my husband in this solemn place. Please visit it sometime and think of me.”

Jefferson Davis and U.S. Grant never met, but they never felt vindictive toward each other. Varina wrote that Grant had used his influence in Davis’ interest several times when the Confederate leader was in prison. She was also moved by Grant’s attitude toward Robert E. Lee, a man the Northern general greatly respected.

When a Northern writer made unkind remarks about Grant in 1900, Julia was deeply hurt, but Varina was accustomed to such slander about her husband, and she came to Julia Grant’s defense and tried to comfort her. When Mrs. Grant died in 1902, Mrs. Davis sank to her knees in grief and prayer.

Four years later, Varina Davis died in New York. As the funeral procession wound through the streets of the city to the railroad station, where the body would be sent to Richmond, Confederate veterans and mounted police, led by a United States Army military band, escorted the hearse. The casket was draped in a Confederate flag and carriages followed that were filled with flowers.

The Federal soldiers in blue, marching side by side with old Confederate veterans, provided an honor guard, and among the floral tributes was one from the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

The band played all the Southern aires, such as “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” The musical tribute had been ordered by a U.S. Army General named Frederick Dent Grant.

His mother would have approved.

For Varina Davis, it was the first state funeral in the nation to honor a woman.

Jefferson Davis’ act of tolerance, of kindness, of good manners had, unknown to him, paved the way for a friendship between North and South. It is no wonder that upon his death the New York Times admonished the South never to forget him.

Copyright © 2009 The Vicksburg Post

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