Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back
Robert Penn Warren
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Publish Year note: Originally published in 1980
In 1979 Robert Penn Warren returned to his native Todd Country, Kentucky, to attend ceremonies in honor of another native son, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, whose United States citizenship had just been restored, ninety years after his death, by a special act of Congress. From that nostalgic journey grew this reflective essay on the tragic career of Jefferson Davis — "not a modern man in any sense of the word but a conservative called to manage what was, in one sense, a revolution."
Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back is also a meditation by one of our most respected men of letters on the ironies of American history and the paradoxes of the modern South.
Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back ROBERT PENN WARREN THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY Published by The University Press of Kentucky, scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth, serving Berea College, Centre College of Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University, The Filson Club, Georgetown College, Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky
old friend of his youth—it was later that he became Justice—and describing him as “a powerful battery, formed like a planing machine to gouge a deep and self-beneficial groove through life”? In any case, not simple ambition or the desire for a self-beneficial groove through life, any more than naked energy, maintained Davis for the four gruelling years. Iron will, self-denial, self-discipline, devotion to principle were certainly there—and, it may be safely hazarded, his conception of honor. But
cost, was the policy of a man who loathed the sight of blood but had come face to face with reality. He was purely logical, and after the war he stated the theory he had developed: “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving.” A perfect theory, if you can pay what the then soldier (later Justice) Holmes called, in a letter to his father, “the butcher’s bill.” And there was one more factor, of a
fidelity to friends,” he wrote. Elsewhere, he wrote that “there were moments ... in which Mr. Davis impressed me more than any professor of Christianity I had ever heard.” And “Let me here remark that, despite a certain exterior cynicism of manner, no patient has ever crossed my path who, suffering so much himself, appeared to feel so warmly and tenderly for others.” Over this period hung the grim image of what the farcical military trial and accompanying tortures for the plotters (and others)
rainy morning in late August. I want to stand before the monument to see it rear, as years before, blank and lonely against the sky. There is no person in sight—none near the towering obelisk. And there is nobody beneath that structure. On December 11, 1889, in New Orleans, a hearse, drawn by black horses, bearing a now whittled-down and nearly weightless human burden, had led the longest funeral procession ever seen in that city out to the Metaire Cemetery. But the last tribute was to be a