Rare Mercy from Jefferson Davis Saves the Life of a Unionist

December 27, 1861 (Friday)

Perhaps it was the Yuletide spirit, still lingering jubilant in the air of the Confederacy, that tricked the fate of Harrison Self, an Eastern Tennessee bridge burner who had been captured and was to be executed at 4pm. Since the heart-wrenching death of fellow bridge burner, Alexander Haun, at least two other Unionists had been hanged at Knoxville. Jacob Harmon, and his son, Thomas, had been found guilty of burning the same bridge that Haun had torched. They were executed together on December 17th, but not before Thomas could testify against Harrison Self (though Harmon stated that Self was not at the bridge in question).1

While father and son met the wrong end of their ropes together, Harrison Self had a daughter to fight for his life. Her heroic dedication to her father, sentenced to swing, caught the hearts of many Confederate officers involved in the court martial. So much had she stirred their sensibilities that they took up a petition and sent it to Richmond in an attempt to save the life of someone who the Secretary of War Judah Benjamin, not to mention the court martial, said must die.

In the petition, the officers allowed that though they had “found him guilty and under a sense of stern justice have sentenced him, the defendant, to death by hanging,” they had their doubts over what executing Harrison Self would accomplish. The court considered the circumstances “from the testimony in the case, from the character of the prisoner, from what the members of the court know of his previous life and conduct, from his known kindness of heart and his standing in the community as a good citizen, and from many other circumstances occurring in the trial which cannot be transferred to paper—that this is a proper case for commutation of punishment. It is our belief that the public interest will suffer nothing from this course, but that on the contrary every object will be gained that can be attained by the extreme penalty of death.”2

These petitions went relatively unnoticed, however, and the day of her poor father’s hanging had arrived. A Unionist minister, Parson William Brownlow, was also confined in the jail at the time and witnessed what was to be the last meeting of father and daughter:

His daughter, a noble girl, modest, and neatly attired, came in this morning to see him. Heart-broken, and bowed down under a fearful weight of sorrow, she entered his iron cage, and they embraced each other most affectionately. My God! what a sight! what an affecting scene! May these eyes of mine, bathed in tears, never see the like again!

But her short limit to remain with her father expired; and she came out, weeping bitterly and shedding burning tears. Requesting me to write a despatch for her, and sign her name to it, I took out my pencil and a slip of paper, and wrote the following: —

Knoxville, Dec. 27, 1861.
Hon. Jefferson Davis, — My father, Harrison Self, is sentenced to hang at four o’clock this evening, on a charge of bridge-burning. As he remains my earthly all, and all my hopes of happiness centre in him, I implore you to pardon him. “Elizabeth Self.3

Young Elizabeth took the note and ran as fast as she could to the telegraph office. The message to President Davis was tapped out and she waited anxiously for a reply.

At 2pm, a reply finally came from Richmond. The execution of Harrison Self was commuted! The prisoner was taken from the death row cage and returned to his cell with the other confined Unionists. Elizabeth was filled with a joy unmatched by anything in her short life.4

All sources (even the Official Records) agree that President Davis personally telegraphed, staying the execution of Harrison Self. However, his exact words are lost, it seems.5

  1. East Tennessee and the Civil War by Oliver Perry Temple. Temple makes no mention of Thomas Harmon testifying for the Confederates. That information comes from Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 1, p863. In fact, Self’s trial took place on the same exact day as Harmon’s execution. []
  2. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 1, p865. []
  3. A Youth’s History of the Rebellion by William Makepeace Thayer quoting from Parson Brownlow’s prison diary. Ms. Self’s telegram to President Davis also appears in Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 1, p866. []
  4. East Tennessee and the Civil War by Oliver Perry Temple. []
  5. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 1, p859. []
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Rare Mercy from Jefferson Davis Saves the Life of a Unionist by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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