Wishing Washington … in the land of cotton?

February 23rd, 2011

Our recent articles on the Lincoln Memorial and the 16th president’s birthday tribute in Washington, DC, plus the sesquicentennial re-enactment of Jefferson Davis’ inauguration in Montgomery, Alabama on February 19, generated a sizeable response from readers. To be sure, these two opposing American presidents traveled vastly different career paths.

For education, Jeff Davis spent two years at a Catholic academy, three years at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, and four more at West Point, graduating in 1828; Abe Lincoln essentially educated himself. Yet both men are remembered as prodigious readers.

On military service, Colonel Davis commanded a regiment of Mississippi volunteers in the Mexican-American War, heroically leading part of the attack on the Teneria at Monterrey and later being wounded at Buena Vista. As a member of President Franklin Pierce’s cabinet, Davis is still regarded as one of the nation’s most effective Secretarys of War. As for Captain Lincoln, he served 80 days over three enlistments in the Black Hawk War of 1832, mostly battling insubordination, bad food and boozing soldiers.

Would it not be altogether fitting then, to examine some of the life experiences they shared? We know both were born in Kentucky within eight months and 100 miles of each other. And both would grow up to be, in their own style, eloquent public speakers.

As presidents, both ironically, would suffer family tragedy: Twelve-year old Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862. Five-year-old Joe Davis fell to his death from an upstairs veranda at the Confederate White House on April 30, 1864. None of Davis’ four sons lived to manhood. Only one of Lincoln’s, Robert Todd, did.

And despite today’s mountain of political correctness, it’s well known that both presidents loved Dan Emmett’s Dixie. The Ohioian had only composed the song in1859, needing a banjo opening “walk around” for a new minstrel show in New York. Looking for a stirring tune to excite the crowd for Jefferson Davis’ inaugural parade on February 18, 1861, band leader Herman Arnold, on the suggestion of his wife, orchestrated Emmett’s minstrel song I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land into a march for his band and had them practice it over and over in a side room of the Alabama capitol set aside for that purpose. Dixie became an instant hit across the South, the Confederacy’s Marseillaise.

The evening after news of Lee’s Appomattox surrender reached the nation’s capital, Lincoln appeared before an enormous, rousing crowd outside the White House. The festivities went on for some time, son Tad at one point waving a captured Confederate flag from a White House window. Days earlier, while aboard the River Queen as it was about to depart City Point, Virginia, for Washington, Lincoln had asked the band to play Dixie. All aboard were stunned.

Now on the tenth day of April, 1865, before this boisterous, celebratory mob, Lincoln offered congratulatory words for the occasion, and then the following:

“I see you have a band.”

[Voices, ‘We have three of them.’]

“I propose now closing up by requesting you to play a certain piece of music or a tune. I thought Dixie one of the best tunes I ever heard.”

Yes, many of you are familiar with these oft-told anecdotes. But in two forthcoming Examiner articles, we’ll explore a more profound, less-well-known sentiment shared by Davis and Lincoln…as well as something stunning about Dixie we’ll wager few of you even have an inkling.

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