The descendant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis returned to Danville to mark the 150th anniversary of the city’s period as the final capital of the Confederacy.
Bertram Hayes Davis is retracing the journey made by his great-great grandfather in the final days of the Civil War, travelling from Richmond to Danville and further Southward. During his stop in Danville, Hayes Davis detailed his famous relative’s trip while sharing his personal experience.
“We’ve worked very hard to understand that one sentence in the history book of ‘elected president of the Confederate States of America’ and all the things that come with it,” Hayes Davis told the small crowd at Averett University on Saturday.
For Hayes Davis, learning about all the controversial Civil War presidency means weeding through the fallacies and stereotypes to find the truest portrait of his family member. Often the general public pins all of the wrongs of that period on Davis, from slavery to the loss of the war.
“America’s perception because of the northern victory goes to that extreme,” Hayes Davis observed.
What fascinates Hayes Davis is that his great, great grandfather went from esteemed Confederate president to escapee to chained prisoner in 38 days. Travelling on train, wagon and horseback, Davis faced the crashing tide of the war’s end.
The first misconception that Hayes Davis cleared about his ancestor was that he was devout man. On April 2, 1865, Davis was walking to church in the original Confederate capital in Richmond when he received a telegram from Gen. Robert E. Lee. Receiving the bad news that the capital was at risk, Davis remained stoic and continued to the worship service.
“What was the most important thing to him that day? It was his religion. It was allegiance to God, his thankfulness to God for everything that God had given him,” Hayes Davis said. “That’s an important characteristic of Davis that a lot of people miss.”
Sitting in prayer in the church pews, Davis received a second telegram from Lee alerting him to the incoming danger. At that he rose and solemnly exited the sanctuary to quickly pull together an exit strategy.
“They want to construe him as something that’s nasty and evil or whatever, not knowing that he is a devout Christian that has a strong religious background and he was not going to let the movement of the war get in the way of his worship service at St. Paul’s,” he commented.
Another aspect that is diminished in historical accounts is the devotion Davis had for his family. Many question Davis’ family value in light of his extreme dedication to the Confederate cause, even at its guaranteed end. Hayes Davis reassured the crowd that Davis protected his family from the start.
Prior to even reaching Danville, the rest of Davis’ family was sent to Charlotte. Davis gave his wife, Varina, a gun and told her to use it in an emergency. Hayes Davis explained this wasn’t a weapon of defense but one meant to be used to take her own life if she were captured.
Davis is misrepresented in accounts of the war’s end, too, Hayes Davis argued. Historians suggest he was delusional in trying to prolong the Confederacy efforts. On the other hand, the persistence to the cause is an example of Davis not giving up his responsibility. That’s the attitude modern day presidents should take, Hayes Davis said.
The brave approach Davis lived by in the Civil War’s final days is more impressive when paired with knowledge of his health condition. Hayes Davis explained that his great, great grandfather at 6 feet tall and weighing only around 160 pounds suffered many ailments. Among his illnesses were a chronic eye disease that caused blindness in one eye, digestive issues and insomnia.
He also maintained face after being captured and imprisoned for two years. His likeness was a regular subject of political cartoons, mocking his appearance when he was finally captured by Union forces. Davis had disguised himself using women’s clothing and was mocked for the unusual attire.
Even though Hayes Davis pointed out that Greensboro, North Carolina, or any of the stops on Davis’ 38-day trip could claim the title of the Last Confederate Capital of the Confederacy, the opportunity to revisit Danville for the second time has been enlightening to understand his role in the family history.
“Today as I stand here and as I walk into the Sutherlin Mansion, I’m standing on the same ground 150 years later that my great-great grandfather did. And that experience gives me credibility when I talk about Jefferson Davis,” he said.
Hayes Davis talked about his great grandmother and Davis’ daughter, Margaret, as well as her sister, Winnie. Winnie was made into a symbol of the Confederacy following the conclusion of the Civil War. Nicknamed the “Daughter of the Confederacy,” Winnie was pressured to take on the significance of what some called the second revolutionary war.
As Winnie received more pressure, Margaret made the decision to remove herself and her family from the spotlight. This burden is felt today by Hayes Davis and his contemporaries, and in the opinion of Hayes Davis, that is a responsibility and legacy from God.
“I’ve been able to grow into rather than have it dumped on top. I think that’s what Margaret was worried about,” Hayes Davis said. “I’m a very religious person. I believe I’m standing here because God gave me the last name and the ability to speak.”
Hayes Davis wants to encourage people to learn more about the stereotyped last leader of the Confederacy. As the executive director of Davis’ final home, the Beauvoir property, Hayes Davis was making strides. That ended when Hayes Davis abruptly resigned one year ago over a disagreement.
Since then he and his wife have been travelling, touring and speaking at historical sites related to the Civil War. Now that involvement with the Beauvoir property is over, Hayes Davis has created an historical steamboat tour on the Mississippi River.
“I have a last name. I worked hard to understand my great, great grandfather and what can I do with it?”