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.
person of humane instincts with whom Davis came into contact was the prison doctor, John C. Craven, whose duty was presumably to preserve life in the body for the further torture of a military trial. Dr. Craven, who later wrote a book on Davis, saw the shackles as nothing but a danger to the survival of his charge, and as a result of his intervention—as well as some backfire from public opinion—they were removed after five days. Craven saw that the allaying of “cerebral excitement” was the first
indictment, the Chief Justice entered a dissent, and the case was dropped as of December 5, 1868. Poor Davis was never to have the day in court that he yearned for in order to justify his public career. What was left was a protracted and increasingly bitter quarrel with his old enemy General Joseph E. Johnston, C.S.A., and others, and his struggle to survive. He wanted to survive to write his book on the Confederacy. There seemed a widespread willingness to provide him with information and
say, “is worth a million dollars”: Mr. Smith is no longer a person—he is a million dollars. Suppose that Lincoln, who, some historians say, scarcely understood the world he helped to bring to birth, or even the fuddled Grant, who after the farce of his Presidency and his idiotic business operations redeemed himself in his final days of lonely suffering and honor—suppose Lincoln or Grant should have citizenship thrust upon him by the America of today. Would either happily accept citizenship in a
into, glorified into, the immobile thrust of concrete (not even the dignity of stone), rising from thistle, mullein, poverty grass, and broken timbers against the blazing blue sky of summer or the paling sky of autumn. By this time, young men, some from the neighborhood, were dying far away across the ocean, but I can’t recall that the thought brushed my mind, however fleetingly, that this monument was already antiquated, and that spick-and-span new ones would soon be built to honor blood newly
shed. Was the blank shaft that was rising there trying to say something about that war of long ago when young men had ridden away from the same countryside to die for whatever they had died for? Was the tall shaft, now stubbed at the top, what history was? Certainly these words did not come into my fuddled head. Childhood and adolescence do not live much by words, by abstractions, for words freeze meaning in its living surge, or come only as bubbles that rise and burst from the dark,