19. Davis, Jefferson. Superb autograph letter signed (“Jeffer Davis”) and initialed (“D.”), as President of the Confederate States of America (C.S.A.), 4 pages (8 x 5 in.; 203 x 127 mm.), “Richmond, Virginia,” 1 April 1865, marked “Private” at the head of first page to General Braxton Bragg; repair to vertical fold of second leaf.
At the Confederacy’s darkest hour, just eight days before General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis looks back on all that he has given, and lost, to the Confederate cause.
Davis responds to a letter from Bragg sent from Raleigh, where he had withdrawn in the face of Union General William T. Sherman’s northward advance. Bragg had complained of his own weakened position and the lack of order and loss of morale among the Confederate troops. Davis, casting his lot with a man on whom he bestowed his trust and full confidence despite open opposition from his military allies.
Davis writes in full: Yours by Col. Sale was duly received. I am sorry to learn that so much of the good tidings published in regard to operations in N.C. is without solid foundation. My best hope was that [Union General William T.] Sherman while his army was worn and his supplies short would be successfully resisted and prevented from reaching a new base or from making a junction with [General John] Schofield [Commander of the Department of North Carolina]. Now it remains to prevent a junction with [General Ulysses S.] Grant, if that cannot be done, the Enemy may decide our policy.
Your long and large experience in Tenn. and Ga. render palpable to you the difficulty and danger of a movement towards either. If we could feed the army in Va. after exposing R.R. communication with the South the problem would be even in the worst view of it one of easy solution. How long this could be done I cannot say, but fear the supply of grain is quite small. Our condition is that in which great Generals have shown their value to a struggling state. Boldness of conception and rapidity of execution has often rendered the smaller force victorious. To fight the Enemy in detail it is necessary to outmarch him and to surprise him.
I can readily understand your feelings. We both entered into this war at the beginning of it. We both staked every thing on the issue and have lost all which either the public or private enemies could take away. We both have the consciousness of faithful service and may I not add the sting of feeling that capacity for the public good is diminished by the covert workings of malice and the constant iterations of falsehood. I have desired to see you employed in a position suited to your rank and equal to your ability. I do not desire to subject you to unfair opposition when failure may be produced by it and will not fail on the first fitting occasion to call for your aid to the perilous task which lies before us.
At Missionary Ridge in November, 1863, Bragg’s army suffered the most humiliating defeat yet suffered by a Confederate army. The circulating opinion was that Bragg had been in a fog for months, and as a result of the disaster, the government would undoubtedly suffer the terrible consequences, as it (i.e., Davis) had assumed the responsibility of retaining him in command. 1863 was a terrible year for the Confederate cause. Tennessee was entirely lost - as was Louisiana east of the Mississippi. With the fall of Vicksburg went much of Mississippi. In Virginia, the success at Chancellorsville had not kept Union forces out of the state, and Maryland seemed lost. Gettysburg had been a disaster. Foreign relations remained non-existent. The economy was in precarious shape and the Southern people were tiring of the struggle. Davis had not been the leader his people needed in their final hour.
1864 was no better. Davis’ inadequacy was partially due to his unyieldingly blind devotion to men such as Bragg throughout the final years of the war. Davis has prejudiced his chances of success by consistently adhering to a man whose record gave cause to expect little but defeat. Stubbornly, he refused to be moved by popular opinion, and would not take the chance of giving command to generals who had victories to their credit. After Bragg’s removal from field command, he became Davis’ General-in-Chief, his chief advisor. Bragg’s name quickly became anathema in the War Department; he generated respect from no one and hostility from almost everyone. In the last months of the war, however, Davis consistently tied his fortunes to Bragg, demonstrably the worst of all his generals. There was talk in the Congress of deposing the president, though the opposition essentially remained, from the first to the last, a petty group of squabbling, self-important, second-rate politicians. To all concerned, however, Davis had ceased to be presidential.
As if fully aware that the war is now lost, Davis still cannot admit that defeat is imminent. He still voices his support for Bragg, hoping to see him employed in a position suited to your rank and equal to your ability and pledging that he will not fail on the first fitting occasion to call for your aid to the perilous task which is before us. The resistance to Davis in the Congress proved to be impotent, though Davis remained obstinate, guided by his prejudices for and against men. The situation was doomed for both Davis and the Confederacy. By the end of March of 1865, most officials had left the Confederate capital of Richmond; only Davis and his cabinet remained. To most Southerners, Davis’ determination was mere delusion and his cause lost.
A remarkable letter written the day after Davis put his wife Varina and his children off at the Danville railroad. His words to his wife: If I live you can come to me when the struggle is ended, but I do not expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty. Davis fully believed that he was saying his final farewell to his family. The day after his letter to Braxton, Davis learned from the War Department that the enemy had broken through Lee’s lines, endangering the last remaining avenue of escape; to save his army, Lee had to evacuate immediately. Richmond had to be abandoned. It was only a matter of days before the war would be over.