Confederate Eyes of the Civil War
From 1861 to 1865 the United States of America became divided. The war that would claim the most American lives in the history of the country began in 1861 with the secession of several states from the Union and ultimately the attack on Fort Sumter on April Second which would be considered the official start of the Civil War (Time Line of Civil War). During the Civil War the country was split, the North against the South, the Union against the Confederacy, the Union being lead by President Lincoln, and the Confederacy and their newly established government lead by Confederate President Davis. Today, most of the history we receive regarding the Civil War is told from the Union point of view with the success of President Lincoln in reuniting the country with what is seen as his biggest accomplishment which was the Emancipation Proclamation, or the freeing of the slaves in America. It is rare, however, to get a good sense of the history of the Civil War from a Confederate point of view, the point of view of the people living in the south that were part of the rebellion against the Union, at least in the Northern parts of the country. With the primary texts of James Dorman Davidson, I will provide a history some are not familiar with, the history of this time from a Confederate viewpoint.
The writings of James D. Davidson are a part of a larger collection known as The McCormick Collection. It is a vast collection of writings from the south, mainly from the state of Virginia. James D. Davidson was a respected member of the Virginian community and well known by many that were involved in politics due to his occupation, which was a lawyer. James. D. Davidson was born in Virginia in 1808 to a Presbyterian minister and would spend his life in Virginia. He would go on to graduate from Washington College in 1828 and passed the bar in 1831 and would move to Lexington to practice law for almost half a century (A guide to James D. Davidson). His politics would change a bit over the years, starting out as a Whig and eventually moving on to become a democrat and eventually a Unionist. While practicing law in Lexington, Davidson would eventually come to be an owner of the Virginia Life Insurance Company and through that company would play a large role in helping southerners purchase insurance for their slaves. It was through this business and also his practicing of law that he would make connections with several politically involved men in Virginia and would become also involved in Virginia’s secession from the Union.
While a majority of the writings included in the collection of the Davidson Papers are legal notes and business notes there are a good amount of personal writings to family members, such as Greenlee Davidson, one of his sons, and writings that talk about secession and Slavery and also soldiers for the Confederate army. Also included in the works is a journal written by Greenlee Davidson during his travels of the Northwest when he visited the State of Ohio and Illinois where he spent most of his time in Chicago. From these writings a good sense of the confederate view point is presented and the issue of slavery throughout the confederacy is presented in a different light, not necessarily a better light, but still a different light.
Slavery is, at times, the main issue that is discussed when talking about the Civil War; the Union became separated between Free states and Slave states, or in other words, states that did not own slaves in the north and states that did own slaves in the south. While the practice of slave trading and owning is, a dark and terrible aspect of the country’s history, it did play a huge role in the economy of the South and had for many years before the Civil War. So with the Emancipation Proclamation that would eventually free all the slaves in 1863, the south’s economy would fall apart. Contained in the Davidson Collection are some correspondences to James D. Davidson regarding slaves. Many of them are regarding payments owed and made to the Virginia Life Insurance Company for insurance purchased for slaves. There is one very interesting letter written to Davidson, though, that would come to him after the Emancipation Proclamation was made by Lincoln. On February 15th, 1863, Davidson received a letter that came from a camp 3 miles from Richmond, Virginia regarding the “negroes” at the camp, one of them being Davidson’s “man.” The correspondence is signed by a W. H. Ott and it is regarding the health of the Negroes in the camp. He writes in the letter at one point, “I have written to several persons in regard to the rations the Negroes get which is certainly too light for them to work on” (Davidson Papers). He goes on to write that that bread and beef rations they are receiving at the camp are too light for their daily workload and this is what is causing so many of them to fall ill and he recommends that they be sent extra bread and bacon so they can have a proper rationing of food to go along with their daily work load.
This is an interesting letter from the collection because it is only a month after the Emancipation Proclamation has been made, but slavery still wasn’t 100% illegal, yet there is still some care being expressed on behalf of the black slaves/former slaves that are working in this camp in Richmond. While this might not have been the case regarding slaves throughout the entire confederacy, it was for Davidson and his community. Another important fact that it shows is that slavery was a business, while it is a tragic and terrible business to buy, sell and trade fellow human beings as property, this unfortunately was the way it was at the time, and for a long time before that. This letter expresses the concern for the property of others, and the well being of the “negroes” is a concern for the people because it is their money at line if they should fall ill and be unable or unfit to work. With this we get an understanding that slavery was a way of life for many southerners and the Union was infringing on their way of life and their livelihood by emancipating the slaves.
Another interesting piece included in the collection is a speech that James D. Davidson wrote regarding secession from the Union. He wrote the speech and would present it at the Virginia Convention in March of 1861. It holds a lot of valuable information as to why he viewed secession as the way to go for Virginians. The speech is written with beautiful language that would suggest Davidson was a well-mannered speaker, and having practiced law for so long in Lexington, it would be no surprise at all that he would be able and willing to speak to a crowd regarding certain politics. One of the passages from the beginning of his speech says, “I shall not attempt to penetrate the veil that conceals the great future- sufficient for me if I address myself to the day, nay of the hour and the moment” (Davidson Papers). He also goes on to say that “The secession of Virginia is now, unless the terms of reformation are arranged at the time,” “Virginia is sovereign and independent, but has contracted and imposed on herself certain obligations which she cannot throw off at will and without responsibility to her co-states” (Davidson Papers). He goes on in the speech to talk about the government of Virginia having responsibilities that the Union is not allowing them to follow up on and this is why Virginia will be forced to secede from the Union if changes are not made.
James D. Davidson would have three sons that would end up being killed in battle during the Civil War, including Greenlee, who he would maintain correspondence with in order to organize weapon deliveries to support to ill equipped confederate soldiers in certain areas until his death. So to say that Davidson was no invested in the war would be untrue. After the war came to an end Davidson would continue to practice law without the obvious providing life insurance to slaves. He would also continue to be involved in politics in Virginia sending petitions to President Andrew Johnson for men to join the army of Rockbridge County, Virginia. These papers do provide a fascinating look at the politics and practices of some Confederate supporters. While it is not a blanket opinion from all southern confederates, it does contain the opinions of many people from Virginia, since Davidson was in communication with many of them and did business with many as well. He served as a spokesperson for the people of Virginia. They are important papers to read because they provide an insight into such a major aspect of this country’s history that is rarely touched upon, especially in the north, since we see the heroes of the Civil War as Lincoln and Grant and so on, and that the Civil War was fought to end slavery, when in reality it was fought to keep the south from succeeding in establishing their own government free from the federal Union, which is expressed in these letters from James. D. Davidson.
James D. Davidson Papers. James Dorman Davidson. 1805-1885. The McCormick Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison. Print
“A Guide To James D. Davidson Letters, 1860-1865.” Briscoe Center for American History. Electronic
Time Line of the Civil War. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/tl1861.html. Electronic.