By Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jnr and Gordon D Whitney
Louisiana State University Press - ISBN 0-8071-2777-9 - $49.95
Review by: Andrew F Roberts
Jefferson Columbus Davis is widely known to have killed his former commanding officer, William "Bull" Nelson. Many of us know that he abandoned hundreds of black refugees to Confederate cavalry at Ebenezer Creek during Sherman's march to the sea. Few of us would have known about his early career in the Mexican War and his post Civil War activities in the newly acquired Alaska. This book puts that right with an exhaustive and comprehensive examination of his life.
Born 1828, Davis had just turned 18 when the Mexican War broke out and he enlisted straight from school.
Established as corporal, he served with such distinction at Buena Vista that he was not only promoted to Sergeant, but also proposed to the Indiana Governor as a candidate for West Point.
However, this did not come about and he was commissioned directly as 1st Lieutenant in 1st Artillery, a Regiment whose officers included T J Jackson, A P Hill and J Magruder, all destined for high command in the Confederate Army. His pre Civil War career consisted mainly of garrison duty but he was involved in the Third Seminole War, a frustrating operation in conditions which probably caused the ill health that would dog him all his days.
Davis was posted to Fort Sumter where he participated in the opening engagement of the Civil War. After the surrender to the Confederates, he returned to Indiana to a hero's welcome and promotion to Captain. On 2 August 1861 he was further promoted to Colonel of volunteers and given command of the 22nd Indiana. On 28 August he was made Acting Brigadier General and replaced U S Grant as District Commander at Jefferson City.
Rapid promotion indeed. Davis was noted as a strict disciplinarian, but he looked after his men who were consistently regarded as the best-fed in the Army, presumably a legacy of his stint as an NCO. Early in 1862 he married Marietta Athon, though the experience didn't seem to mellow him.
The incident with Nelson is a fascinating one. Nelson was even more arrogant and abusive than Davis, and had actually requested Davis to assist him in recruiting at Louisville. However, Nelson was unhappy with Davis' attitude, although Davis was ill with jaundice, and had him arrested and removed. When Davis returned to Louisville, he confronted Nelson and demanded satisfaction. Nelson shouted "Go away you damned puppy", Davis flicked a visiting card in Nelson's face, so the latter slapped him. Davis raced off and got a revolver, and shot the unarmed Nelson in the chest. Nelson took an hour to die and told a friend that "I have been basely murdered". Hard to argue with that in modern terms, but things were different then.
Circumstances conspired to help Davis. First Buell was relieved that very day by Thomas, and within a week three of Nelson's staunchest supporters, and seekers after justice, had been killed in action at Perryville. Davis had friends in high places too, and the Governor of Indiana, a State whose political persuasion was on a knife-edge certainly put in a word with Lincoln. Davis also had very good lawyers, and the civil charge of manslaughter was never brought to court!
Davis always thought he was blighted thereafter, but he continued to serve with distinction, being brevetted as Regular Army Lt Colonel after the Battle of Resaca and Colonel after his capture of Rome. He was lucky that he came under the command of W T Sherman, who cared nothing about what a man had done, but how he did his job as a soldier, and Davis did an extremely good one. A fellow officer described Davis as "unsympathetic, overbearing and tyrannical", and it is alleged that his own men plotted to kill him.
Davis was leading his column on Sherman's march to the sea through difficult and swampy terrain when he was involved in his other controversy. Joe Wheeler's Confederate cavalry was dogging his column, and his position on a narrow causeway was a precarious one. Some six hundred refugee slaves were tagging along, though this was contrary to Sherman's orders that only fit men who could be usefully employed were to be accepted. Davis had a pontoon bridge thrown over Ebenezer Creek, but once his men had passed over it, he ordered it to be taken up before the refugees could cross it. Many of his own men were appalled at this "inhuman and cruel" action. Sherman supported his action as militarily necessary but the authors describe his action as "inhuman, ethically indefensible and politically stupid". Contrary to then opinion, the refugees were not sabred by the pursuing Confederates and most got across the river anyway. Undoubtedly some were drowned, their deaths forever laid at Davis' door, and others would have been returned to masters who would have whipped them. Although Sherman and Grant supported Davis for promotion from Brevet Major General to Major General, this incident did blight his career and it was turned down.
After the War, Davis' health continued to fail, but he was given charge of the newly acquired territory of Alaska though he was to be frustrated by the lack of materiel support he received. He was then transferred south and was chosen as the man to end the Modoc War These Indians had been persecuted beyond endurance and lashed out at the white man, an action that cost them dearly. Davis prosecuted the war vigorously and having killed or captured all of the Modocs, he wanted to hang the survivors. He had obviously not learned the lesson of his previous indiscretions and was forbidden to carry this out. Instead the civil power tried the remaining Indians and spared all but two of the ringleaders. Davis himself was not long for the world, as his health deteriorated rapidly. After contracting pneumonia at an Army reunion, he died of it on 30 November 1879, aged fifty-one.
Davis was a man of his times. Undoubtedly a good soldier, brought up in the ranks, he looked after his men well but was hard on indiscipline too, no bad thing. The Nelson incident should have ended his career, and in a way it did. However, he soldiered on and Sherman's support was critical. This was reinforced after the Ebenezer Creek incident, when general opinion was very anti Davis. His legacy should have been his distinguished Civil War service, but he will be forever blighted by the two infamous events in his life.
The authors are to be congratulated on their research and readable style. They have the footnotes in the right place, at the foot of the page, not tucked away at the back of the book. My only complaint is that there are too few maps, only four in 479 pages. Detailed descriptions of battles are best accompanied by a map! However, I have no hesitation in recommending this book which I found fascinating, and very easy to read.