Women and War, Politics and Bedfellows

That Jefferson Davis is some piece of work…

No, not the guy in Richmond. I’m talking about Jefferson C. Davis, Union Brigadier General. You know, the guy who personally killed a Yankee Major General and got away with it. The other Davis barely got his hands dirty.

For those who might not be awareof the incident (though, since it’s one of the favorite stories of the war, if you read any ACW history I don’t see how you couldn’t be) on September 29, 1862, Jef. Davis shot William “Bull” Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House in Louisville, KY. The offense was a matter of honor, and essentially trivial by modern standards – Davis flipped a card in Nelson’s face, for which Nelson slapped him; all stemming from Nelson ordering Davis out of the department a few days previously. Davis grabbed a gun, Nelson died minutes later.

Davis was indicted, but never tried, and served through the war, essentially out on bail. The indictment was quashed in 1864. Davis of course had powerful friends, (Oliver P. Morton comes to mind) and Nelson was widely regarded as a bully, so many folks thought Nelson deserved it.

But that’s not why I’m writing today. At Chickamauga, Jefferson C. Davis was a divisional commander in McCook’s 20th Corps (where possible, I prefer not to use the roman numerals for corps – it’s not accurate to the period.) Davis’ men were routed off the field at Stone’s River, and hence carried a stigma from that defeat. Never mind that they actually mounted a pretty good fight before they broke, or that they were outflanked and had little choice, all everyone remembered was the rout.

This led to tension between Davis and his senior brigadier, William P. Carlin. Carlin thought Davis’ report of the battle slighted him, and wrote a lengthy rebuttal, touching off a slow simmer of feud between the two men. Carlin would later confide to William T. Sherman that he felt like he was “under command of an enemy.”

Nor was this all. Colonel Hans C. Heg was heading up another of Davis’ brigades in 1863; Heg didn’t like Davis either. Heg, you see, was friendly with Carlin, and even more importantly, was a staunch Abolitionist. Davis, by contrast, was not. In fact, there were rumors going around that Davis was spreading copperhead attitudes. Certainly Davis disliked army commander William Starke Rosecrans’ welcoming attitude toward emancipation – and black soldiers – and made his opinions known. In January 1863, Heg and Davis quarrelled, with Heg telling Davis off in no uncertain terms. Describing the incident to his wife, Heg wrote later that he had no intention of going “into another battle under his command.”

Naturally, these were the two men whom Davis led into the fight at Viniard Field at about 2:15 p.m. on September 19th, 1863.

So why does the title of this post talk about women?

Because for the first part of the campaign, from the time that Davis’s men crossed the Tennessee River on August 29th until September 12th at Alpine – and in blatent contravention of army orders – Marietta Davis and her friend Clara Pope accompanied the general in the field. the women were given every courtesy. There were parades, musical serenades in the field, and inspections. The command spent four days at Valley Head, staying at Colonel Winston’s manor, where Marietta was quite active. For one thing, she visited Hans Heg several times – trying to win the Colonel over by charm? Hegt found her “a young, fine, intelligent woman, but not handsome.” No comment on whether or not he softened towards Jef.

By the way, Davis deliberately took to signing his name “Jef.” to distinguish him from that fellow in Richmond.

What I find most interesting about all this is that Marietta’s friend, Clara, was the wife of John Pope. You know, John Pope of Second Bull Run fame, whom Samuel Sturgis didn’t care a “pinch of owl dung” about.

General Pope was, among other things, a Republican and eventually an abolitionist. He would pursue reconstruction agressively after the war, and apparently really believed in Civil Rights for the black population. He and Davis developed a strong friendship from serving together in Missouri early in the war, a friendship that obviously lasted. Davis had other radical friends: notably Morton, Governor if Indiana, who was hardly a Copperhead.

Davis’ command was again mauled at Chickamauga. His division was cut to peices on the 19th and, outnumbered nearly 5 to 1 on the 20th, routed of another battlefield. Davis, however, was in the thick of it all, and his reputation as a fighter was sustained. He eventally rose to command a corps under Sherman, though official promotion came slowly, doubtless due to that little matter of killing a fellow General in 1862.

Davis is also famous for one other incident of the war: Ebenezer Creek. In December 1864, already frustrated with the clouds of former slaves dogging the steps of his command and slowing progress, at Ebenezer Creek Davis deliberately shed his column of women, children, and the infirm, allowing only able-bodied contrabands who could be of use to the army to cross the pontoon bridge, and then immediately taking that bridge up so as to leave the rest to recapture by Wheeler’s Rebel Cavalry. Even within the army, outrage spiked. Davis was called a monster and a fiend by men in his own command. His supporters pleaded military necessity, but still, the incident rankled.

Davis viewed himself as a hard-bitten soldier, and left few excuses for his conduct, so we don’t have any evidence of his own thinking beyond the extant orders. But we do know that iron resolution to duty cut both ways; when he was appointed military commander of Kentucky in 1866, many Republicans feared that Davis would prove a lenient, even pro-Rebel administrator.

He was not. Orders were orders, and he enforced his with the same ruthless efficiency that left split families apart in Georgia. He pressed state authorities – unsuccessfully, as it turned out – to allow Negro testimony in the courts so he could more vigorously prosecute crimes committed against them. He was directly involved in creating Negro schools across the state, advancing Black educational oportunities, in a very successful program.He created a Freedman’s hospital, and fought for Black Civil Rights. His tenure in this post was short – only 8 months – but at the end of it Oliver O. Howard freely admitted he was wrong to fear Davis’ appointment.

Davis went on to other duties – in fact, the army seemed to be his whole life. He served in Alaska, and in the Modoc War. He was active in Reunion affairs. In fact, his health was already fragile when he attended the Army of the Cumberland Reunion in Washington DC in 1879, where the statue of George H. Thomas would be unveiled. Returning from that trip, Davis died at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago on Sunday, November 30th, 1879. His old friend Phil Sheridan was in attendence.


7 Responses to “Women and War, Politics and Bedfellows”

  1. Brad Butkovich Says:

    All things considered, I think Davis did a great job and fought hard on the 19th. His division rallied twice and marched back into battle twice. Well, some of it the second time anyway. The only mark against his performance on the 19th to me is sending Heg in alone before Carlin had deployed, or not keeping a tighter reign on Heg and making sure he didn’t go in alone.

  2. robert fugate Says:

    interesting post – Generals in Bronze contains an interview with a prickly Davis from 1879, still resentful of newspapers that had called him a murderer – the interview gives a sense of the person

  3. Dave Powell Says:

    Yes it does. I find Generals in Bronze to be a great book, though I wish it were organized a little better.

    The interview has a good phiscial description of Davis at the time, he was sick with jaundice and very infirm.

  4. Chris Evans Says:

    Interesting and informative post.

    ‘Jefferson Davis in Blue: The Life of Sherman’s Relentless Warrior’ by Hughes and Whitney is one of my favorite relatively recent biographies on a lower level Civil War commander. I wish all books on Civil War commaders were that good. They do a really excellent job in describing Davis and his role in his various Civil War battles plus some of the most detailed accounts of Davis and his murder of Bull Nelson and the Ebenezer Creek fiasco that I have read. Really fascinating and well written stuff.

    Cozzens says some tough things about Davis in his Chickamauga book. Cozzens is funny in that you’ll be going along reading his level headed account and then when speaking about Davis he’ll throw in “Some idiot gave Davis a pistol.”, when talking about the Bull Nelson murder. These descriptions spice up his account. I always found the way Cozzens describes Davis to be darkly humorous.

  5. Dave Powell Says:


    Jefferson Davis in Blue is also a favorite of mine. In fact, most of Dr. Hughes’ stuff is like that, for me. Gideon Pillow was revealed in a whole new light after I read that bio. Very thoughtful, without whitewash.

  6. Ricky Friar Says:

    Hey may I reference some of the information found in this post if I provide a link back to your site?

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