One of the Unreconstructed
OUT of the literary darkness of Mississippi, seldom illumined by any ray from the pen of a writer, there comes to us the unexpected boon of a remarkable book. Recollections of Mississippi and Mississippians, by Reuben Davis (who has, but uses not, the right to grace his name with both civil and military insignia), is not only exceedingly amusing and interesting, but is of great and enduring value historically. As a sketch of a bygone society, its only rivals in English literature are the famous Diary of Pepys and the less known and almost inaccessible Sewall Diary. With scant regard for established theories concerning the old slave-state society, this picture shows a population apparently not much more distinctly divided horizontally than is now the case at the North, encountering the labor and peril of a still young community with a fine industry and endurance, and manifesting an enterprise, activity, and competition sufficiently genuine and lively, albeit different from the development of like qualities in commercial and industrial neighborhoods.
If Mr. Davis appeared in the rôle of the protesting Southerner, holding a brief for his State, he would probably leave our previous convictions unshaken ; but the worth of his work lies not in argument, but in its unconscious simplicity. Carried forward by the most naive ardor, he tells us with graphic faithfulness about the people and the scenes of the only society he has known ; ever so little garrulous in the fond recalling of old friends and stories, not so much ignoring as utterly ignorant of any point of view save his own, amusingly unaware of the impressions he is conveying, he furnishes a series of pictures as vividly characteristic of men, manners, and habits as ever Teniers painted. There is no possibility of doubting his accuracy; that which he sets before us may attract or repel, may accord or clash with preconceived notions, but in either case must be accepted as true. Apart from such internal evidence, the striking features with which the stern old gentleman boldly looks out upon his readers from the beginning of the volume defy doubt and overawe the skeptic. It would be dangerous for those eyes to flash near a powder magazine ; that firm set month is closed like the lips of a wolf-trap. One so fierce and so courageous cannot help being ingenuous. The force and the fire of the South are in this face, which ought to be sent down to posterity, as the type of a class, by the same gifted hand which painted the wonderful portrait of the virile, fiery old Pope Julius II. at Florence.
It is to be hoped that the South holds not, many ex-rebels more unrepentant and unreconstructed than this one. He says, in closing: “With what courage and heroic patience the South took up her changed existence belongs to the story of Mississippi as she is now. The old Mississippian ends his rambling tale here.”
This is disappointing, for the views of such a man on the new régime would be interesting. If his intelligence and good sense, of which he shows much, though of an antique kind, are reconstructed, his hot old heart is not. How he revels in those olden days, tasting again the good drink, hearing the old songs, hating, loving, admiring, fighting, feasting, as fervidly in memory as ever in the flesh ! His sentiment is touching, and his condition in so changed a world is pathetic; it would, perhaps, be an inconsiderate curiosity that would ask him to discuss what he might feel obliged to commend, but could not love. He is instinctively wise in closing with the close of the “ old times.”
The fragrance of gunpowder and of abundant mint juleps arises from his pages, and he sniffs it with a delight that he cares not to conceal. Those were indeed the days of red gold and gay ladies ! If nearly all whom he mentions have long ago, as he sadly says, fallen beneath the sickle of Death, he, at least, has gifts as a mortuary chronicler. It is well known that in Southern society each man, though by some accident he be not a colonel, must be treated as if he were one, and must everywhere have his personal dignity scrupulously respected ; such “chaff” as is over-popular at the North would result in a general extermination of mankind within the limits of the erstwhile Confederacy. In that serious region humor is as dangerous as dynamite ; and though this book is full of it, there is, fortunately, no consciousness of its presence on the part of our worthy writer, — with the single exception of the laughable incident of the militia parade, which is very drolly told. Elsewhere Mr. Davis has not only perfect and everlasting gravity and respectfulness of tone, but abounds in expressions of the most ardent and exalted admiration. The luxuriance of his phraseology of praise is remarkable ; he seldom repeats himself, avoiding with astonishing skill the bad rhetoric of the fortemque Gyan fortemque Cloanthmn ; to each is cleverly allotted his peculiar meed of praise. The less discriminating reader, in reminiscence, groups together all these wondrous sons of Mississippi, and is bewildered to find into what a society he has been introduced: men “good and powerful,” with “shining qualities,” of “ cordial and pleasing manners,” and of “studied courtesy” (when not excited or out of humor) ; “ good men and true, and loyal; ” “ kind and generous above measure;” “the good, the great, and the beloved ; ” the “ noblest and best of men;” gentlemen “of many virtues and no faults,” “ noble, large-hearted, and generous,” of whom no adequate picture can be drawn; “ incapable of fear, treachery, or meanness; ” “ideal Southerners ; ” “living in the highest regions of honor and devotion ; ” men “ of cultivated minds and polished manners;” “brilliant speakers;” “ scholars of varied attainments;” men of “honor, courage, intellect, and learning; ” “ irresistible in conversation ; ” with “wit, anecdote, and ability ” so unlimited as to beggar description, — and so on. The lawyers are “grand” in their speeches; “profoundly read ; ” of “wonderful powers of reason and oratory ; ” “ profound in conception, powerful in argument, and copious in diction;” “weighty and learned;” “ embodied intellect ; ” of “ matchless ingenuity;” able “to spin a web of sophistry more like truth than the honest truth itself.”
S. S. Prentiss is an inspiring theme. His oratory “ was like music and poetry, and flame and fire, and love and hate, and memory and inspiration, all bearing away in one swift torrent the souls given up to its enchantment.” Often did Mr. Davis hear him pouring forth table-talk more intoxicating than the unstinted wine. “Ah,” he exclaims, “what nights those were! how brave and generous, how gay and jovial! and what wit and humor sparkled with the wine ! ” They killed poor Prentiss, those ambrosial nights and suppers of the gods, but, fortunately, spared a comrade to make later generations envious at the tale. As for the ladies, gallantry can no further go than Mr. Davis’s pen goes; they are all accomplished and charming, all elegant, beautiful, fascinating, and refined. So runs the catalogue from Cover to cover of this eloquent book. Nor is it surprising to hear that Mr. Davis’s friendships amid such people were “ardent” and “enthusiastic.” The galaxy pales all other lands and ages. Though it must be confessed that the ascription of so much goodness and such varied greatness to so many dead recalls tombstone literature, and the cynic may scent the flavor of that adaptation of truth to circumstances, like the tempering of the wind to the shorn lamb, which the best of Christians have always felt it lawful to express in epitaphs. But it is part of the Southern coloring of the book, laid on with unconscious and simple sincerity, and gives much to the value of the picture. Yet Mr. Davis himself is sometimes surprised at his sketch, and deems explanation necessary: “Our general population was largely made up from the best and bravest of old communities.” In spite, however, of this good fortune, whereby other States had been skimmed to send their cream to Mississippi, he propounds, and does not answer, the conundrum : why, in the older days, there was “ such a marked superiority in mental and moral tone to that which now exists.” “ The general population of Marshall County,”he says, “ was made up largely of educated and refined people,” and Pontotoc was “ much above the average.” Each city, too, has its individual and distinctive meed of lofty praise. In a word, here is a mythical age of Mississippi, when it was Valhalla upon earth, the home of very gods, with the addition that refinement, cordiality, and lavish hospitality prevailed to a degree never ascribed to any divine society.
It might smack of uncourteous scoffing to ask why, among so noble a race, it was so often found necessary for one elevated being to slay another. Perhaps it was because each man, while having the “ highest sense of what was due to others,” incongruously combined with it an even more superlative “ sense of what was due to himself.” Mr. Davis was much engaged in criminal practice; he defended considerably more than two hundred persons on trial for murder, and he invariably landed his client in safety. The warm heart of the Southern juror went out in sympathy towards any gentleman who had found it his painful duty to slaughter another. There are a good many affrays in the book, and our gallant writer played his own part occasionally. The first occurred when he was quite a youngster. He tells the simple story in a few words, but his comment is entertaining. He was at a ball, and being, as he says, “ engaged in the pleasures of the evening, some question arose as to precedence of claim upon the attention of one of the ladies. To my great surprise, I was grossly insulted by the gentleman whose claims conflicted with mine. Justly outraged, I no sooner withdrew my adversary from the presence of the ladies than I challenged him to defend himself, and assaulted him with my pocket-knife. In this I was sustained by all present. . . . This action I have never regretted, holding that a man has a right to defend his honor whenever and by whomsoever assailed. Had I submitted tamely to this insult, my whole future career would have been blighted by it, and I should have lost all claim to the respect and good opinion of my fellow-citizens.”
The most astonishing encounter is that with Judge Howry. One can fancy the caustic sarcasm with which The Nation would amuse its readers in narrating this scuffle; but the grave tone of undoubting self-respect with which Mr. Davis tells it outruns any possible irony. Passing by a psychical marvel, which appears to Mr. Davis the really striking feature in the affair, but which is quite aside from what interests us, the story may be thus abbreviated : Mr. Davis was defending in a larceny case. In the empanelment of the jury, the prosecutor, Mr. Rogers, having exhausted his challenges, ostentatiously stated his acceptance of one of the talesmen. To counteract the effect of this, Davis said, “ Why do yon say that ? You are bound to accept.” Rogers denied the obligation, and was sustained by the court. Davis read the Statute, showing the obligation, and convicting the judge of an error. He was thereupon ordered to sit down, and obeyed. Rogers was next ordered to sit down, but refused, saying that he had a right to stand, and would do so. Thereupon Judge Howry fined Mr. Davis fifty dollars. It is not surprising that this illogical action threw Mr. Davis into a “perfect blaze of sudden fury;” less fiery eyes than his might have blazed. But he was something more than equal to the occasion. He says: “ I had in my pocket a very fine knife, with a long, thin blade. As I sprang to my feet I drew out this knife, opened it, and threw it, point foremost, into the bar, looking steadily at the judge all the while. My object was to induce the judge to order me to jail, and then to attack him on the bench. The knife vibrated, and the weight of the handle broke the blade near the middle. General S. J. Gholson and others ran upon the bench beside the judge, ordered the sheriff to adjourn the court, . . . and carried the judge out of the court-room, while a number of persons seized me. The situation was full of peril.” for the judge was “a man of unquestioned courage and firmness,” and both parties were well befriended. But for Gholson’s “prudent and timely action,” “the consequences might have been most disastrous.” Even as it was, they were yet to be rather bad. A few hours later, Mr. Davis saw the judge approaching along a corridor. “ I awaited his approach, . . . and asked him if he had intended, by his fine, to insult me. He said, No. I then said that I had been guilty of no offense to justify such an indignity, and requested some explanation.” The judge declined to explain his “official conduct.” Davis, with ready presence of mind, slapped him in the face. The judge, no less prompt in emergency, seized a clawhammer which lay near by, and struck at Davis, " cutting through his hat and several files of papers to the bone of his head.” Davis whipped out what was left of his “ fine knife,” and with it made a stroke for the judge’s jugular. This blow fell upon the judicial jaw, — an important member of a judge’s framework,—and then, says Davis, “I seized him with my left hand by the collar of his coat, and pushed my head into his face. He struck again with his hammer, breaking and depressing the outer plate of my skull bone, without, however, invading the inner plate.” They were then “pulled apart,” but not before the active judge had got in a third blow. Davis went to his room, and sent to the judge a chivalrous but somewhat superfluous warning “ not to leave his room unarmed, as I should attack him upon sight.” But at this stage the psychical phenomenon intervened, and so affected Mr. Davis that he “ gave himself up into the hands of his friends, and allowed them to arrange ” the affair for him. It is to the credit of our writer’s physique that after his skull had been so rudely battered he was still ready to attend to business. “The court,” he tells us, “ met again that evening. I had put on a fur cap, with the back part before, to conceal my wounds, and the judge wore his overcoat, with the collar well drawn up, to hide the tokens of combat on his person.” Fortunately, during the evening another judge arrived, and took the place of the hero of the scrimmage. Seven years elapsed before the combatants again met. Davis was then on circuit, when one of his friends came into the room where he was sitting and said, “ ‘ I suppose, Davis, you care nothing now about that affair between you and Judge Howry ?’ I promptly replied that I thought nothing of it; that Howry was a gentleman, and that our difficulty was casual and without malice; although it had been a death struggle, it had been about almost nothing.” So the judge came to the room. Davis met him at the door ; they “ greeted each other in the most cordial manner,” and ever after were the best of friends.
The fifth act of any serious criminal cause, resulting in the acquittal of the accused, seems frequently to have taken the shape of a glorious carouse in a neighboring tavern or in some lawyer’s office. Counsel and client, lawyers and judges, mingled somewhat incongruously in the hilarious celebration ; and perhaps the alluring prospect of such a glorious night may more than once have softened a juror’s heart and alleviated a verdict. As in the novels of Dickens, a sort of festal rill of liquors glides merrily through the pages, and the curse of the Anglo-Saxon race evidently lay heavy on those old Mississippians. Occasionally a glimpse of its deadly work is apparent. There is the story of McClung, a colonel of course, who, in the frenzy of delirium tremens, emptied a restaurant not only of guests but of attendants, and then seated himself in the banquet hall deserted, at the head of one of the long tables, with a bottle, a bowie-knife, and two dueling-pistols in quasi-military array before him. Unaware of this inconvenient status, Mr. Davis, Governor Clark, and Governor Alcorn entered, upon an innocent quest for oysters. A frightful scene ensued, and they narrowly escaped with their lives, and without the oysters. The exciting tale is most dramatically narrated, and it is with extreme regret that we find so racy and stirring an incident too long to be repeated. Certain it is that half a dozen skeletons at a feast would be more welcome than one McClung. It seems that the peril of the occasion was augmented by the memory of an occurrence at a ball-room, where Alcorn had kicked down-stairs a young man who had taken too much wine and was showing undue attention to a lady. McClung thought that the prior right to do this kicking inhered in him, and he never forgave Alcorn for getting ahead of him. Yet Davis liked McClung; the alcoholized colonel was a candidate for Congress and was defeated, and Davis tenderly says, " Very possibly it is from this defeat, which he took much to heart, that we may date the first symptoms of that deep melancholy which afterwards clouded the noble spirit of McClung, and which culminated in the awful tragedy of his self-inflicted death.”
It is astonishing to see our author, who indeed “ flatters himself that he is a patient man and disposed to peace,” but who evidently never shunned a fight with a foe or shirked a drinking bout with a friend, surviving all these perils, hale and snorting in his old age. How any Southerner of spirit ever lived long amid such risks is a puzzle ; whiskey must have been wholesome in the good days of yore ! Our jovial old gentleman still chuckles with glee over the spectacle which he saw once a Jackson. In the dead of the night he was “ wakened by a confusion of sounds in the street, music predominating.” He looked out, and “ beheld a long line of well-dressed gentlemen proceeding in single file down the middle of the street, and loudly singing the then popular melody of 1 Buffalo Bull came down the meadow.’ It was the legislature of Mississippi indulging in an airing, after having spent an evening in the worship of Bacchus. The chorus was given with a will, and the streets fairly resounded with the lively ditty. It was a sight long to be remembered ! ”
The book, however, is by no means solely a collection of such stories as these. It is written in seriousness, and holds much good thought and observation. Mr. Davis was drawn at times into political life, and his descriptions of canvassing and electioneering at the South are singularly picturesque. The barbecue, — " only those who can remember the old South in its glory can have an adequate idea of a big barbecue in 1844,” — the personal pitting of candidate against candidate in a tour through all the villages and settlements of the district, the matching of quick wit, the rivalry of fiery oratory on the green, the mad revelry at the tavern afterward, are all vividly portrayed, and constitute a method very different from the ward-room caucuses with which we are familiar. The old Southern customs stand the comparison pretty well ; they were boisterous, rough, and crude, but were sufficiently in keeping with the spirit of free institutions and popular suffrage in an agricultural community. Men measured their candidates face to face, and voted for him who seemed the taller man. Mr. Davis admits that the " rigid moralist may be scandalized by the spectacle of whole communities given up to wild days of feasting, speech-making, music, dancing, and drinking, with perhaps rough words now and then, and an honest hand-to-hand fight when debate was angry and the blood hot.” But he boasts that there was then “little trickery and no corruption,” and “ a man who had dared to tamper with a ballot-box, or who had been detected in any fraud by the people, would have been torn in pieces without a moment’s hesitation.” He thinks that political ways have changed for the worse, and there is too much reason to fear that he is right. What he has to say in this connection deserves to be read and pondered.
The campaign of “ Tippecanoe and Tyler too” gave rise to royal doings in Mississippi. It was decided to have a grand political caravan traverse the State, with an hundred chosen canvassers, of whom Davis was one. A new wagon was fitted up, with the log cabin, the barrel of hard cider, and the coonskins ; six horses drew it, and the band of one hundred rode on horseback, with tents and provisions, music and negroes. Thus they advanced “ on a journey that was one long frolic; ” making fifteen miles a day, halting at the cross-roads, collecting the people, dealing out music and speeches, and gathering in from the surrounding country the best liquors and the choicest dainties. All along the route houses were bedecked, and ladies of dazzling beauty appeared, decorated with every ingenious patriotic device. “ There were numbers of beautiful women all along that enchanted road. Do wayfarers find that road brilliant with beauty and delight nowadays, I wonder? Amid such scenes the gallant array drew reluctantly to the journey’s end at Nashville, the bright summer days seeming “ too few and too short for all the merriment crowded into them.” In that town there were grand entertainments, and stirring mass-meetings with ringing harangues by Tom Corwin and Henry Clay ; and then at last the fun was over. So picturesque and so vivid were Southern politics in the days gone by.
It is impossible not to be attracted towards Mr. Davis personally, as we read his book; a frank, fearless, generous gentleman, a conscientious and high-minded citizen according to the light of his generation, if ever there was one. He belongs to the past as much as Noah does, but he is a good fellow and an honest man : and doubtless his quarter held many more like him. His childhood dates back to the pioneer days of his State, when life was wild and hard and advantages were few ; when “ there were no laws, no schools, and no libraries,” and “ every man did what was right in his own eyes.” His father was a clergyman, with a cardinal faith “ that lawyers were wholly given up to the devil, even in this world, and that it was impossible for any one of them ever to enter the kingdom of heaven ; ” and who “ also entertained strong doubts as to the final welfare of medical men in general,” though admitting “ that some few might be saved, provided they used their best endeavors not to kill their patients, and resisted all temptation to prolong illnesses with a view to pecuniary profit.” The lad, in boyhood, hunted with Indians, and got scant schooling. He married young and penniless, and the beginning in life of the young couple shows fine mettle in both. He abandoned medicine, which he had studied, for law, which he had hardly studied at all; but his spirit was strong and his brain was good, and in time, by that miraculous process of development witnessed in our pioneer communities, he became not only an able advocate, but a leading man in public affairs both in his State and in Congress, while we now find him in old age writing with considerable literary skill. With all the versatility of a Yankee, if he will pardon a comparison probably little to his taste, he combined war with medicine, law, and politics. He was in command of a regiment in Mexico ; and though he happened not to be engaged in any of the great battles, he gave evidence of an executive capacity, energy, and judgment to be afterward much more conspicuously displayed during the rebellion. There are some rare touches in his military experience ; subordination came hard to him, and flashes of the fiery Southern temperament occasionally illumine these chapters. Very amusing is the picture of one of the young Southern braves, who, at the battle of Buena Vista, envious of the wound received by Colonel Jefferson Davis, and thirsting for the glorious decoration of a sear, “absolutely heart-broken because a bullet failed to hit him,” “charged up and down the line, waving his arms in the air, and exclaiming, 4 My God ! Can’t one bullet hit me ! ’ ” And, says Mr. Davis, “ it is an actual fact that for the rest of his life his spirit was wounded because his body was whole.”
There are pleasant glimpses, too, of the reckless and prodigal quality of Southern generosity. It is a pretty story of the burning of the house of an estimable old gentlewoman in the village. The fire was over and the crowd dispersing, when a gentleman sprang upon the steps of a neighboring house and harangued the people, headed a subscription list with five hundred dollars, and raised four thousand dollars for the poor lady ou the spot. Credit was “ universal.” and fortunes were quickly made and lost. He who would not risk his own property and the welfare of his family to help a hard-pushed neighbor was no better than a sorry niggard. “ To put your name on a friend’s paper was as much a matter of course as to sit up with him when he was ill, take care of him when he was merry, or fight for him if he got into a row.”
The last part of the book is devoted to the secession period. But it is the scope of this paper to deal rather with the picturesque than the historical traits, and, moreover, it would be difficult to cull amid pages so thickly sown with matter of the greatest interest and value. In the last Congress which sat before the outbreak of the hostilities, Mr. Davis represented his district. He was a man of note and influence, and occupied responsible positions upon committees charged to avert, if possible, the pressing crisis. He tells much that is important about the feelings and expectations, the plans and the plots, of the Southern leaders, and he pauses to sketch Joshua Giddings with a force and vividness most striking; it is a portrait not to be forgotten.
He was a secessionist with regret, but with sincere heartiness. On the other hand, his independent way of thinking, his sound judgment, and indomitable integrity prevented his yielding to the chiefs of the movement that quasi-military obedience which they demanded, and at intervals he angered them and incurred their distrust. He especially crossed them by the frank honesty of his speeches and career in Mississippi, It was their policy to induce the people to believe that disruption would be substantially peaceable. Too intelligent to be hoodwinked, too honest to join in a scheme of deception, Mr. Davis reiterated to many an audience that “ secession would prove to be only another name for bloody revolution.” For this embarrassing behavior he was taken sharply to task; but he refused to mend his ways, and told the remonstrants that he “ had always found the straightest path the safest,” and that he would rather be “ accused falsely of alarming the people than deserve the accusation of misleading them.” Thus he drew down upon himself the extreme indignation of the chief promoters. But events justified him, and the assistance of one so able and so trustworthy could not be dispensed with; he was therefore retained in important positions of high responsibility. He magnifies Jefferson Davis with glowing eulogy, and after all his eloquent praise declares his inability to find words adequate to express the glory and greatness of that leader. After the fall of Fort Donelson he took up the cudgels for General Johnston, then seriously discredited, and, foreseeing the disastrous end, he “ denounced the whole policy of the war and the stupendous folly of the provisional Congress.” Thus he “ gave great offense to the administration,” and “ had afterwards no influence, nor indeed much personal intercourse, with heads of government.” He felt that his usefulness was over, and that he was “ a mere spectator in the final acts of our tragedy.” At this point he drops the curtain, and brings to a close one of the most entertaining books that has been given to the public for a long while.
John T. Morse, Jr.