Ben Butler Talks Politics with Jeff Davis’ Escaped Slave

January 23, 1864 (Saturday)

“The President’s man Jim – whom he believed in, as we all believe in our own servants – and Betsy, Mrs. Davis’s maid, decamped last night. It is miraculous that they had fortitude to resist the temptation so long.” – Mary Chesnut, January 9, 1864.

A young Jeff Davis started life in relative poverty, owning only one slave. Poor fellow.

A young Jeff Davis started life in relative poverty, owning only one slave. Poor fellow.

The first slave that Jefferson Davis ever owned was a man named James Pemberton. He was given as a gift to the young plantation owner in 1823. When Davis joined the army, James went with him, forced to leave behind his wife Julia Ann and their son, Jim Jr. – both of whom were also Davis’ slaves. By all accounts Davis treated James about as well as any one human can treat another human bonded to them in chattel. It wasn’t unusual in cases such as this for the master and slave to form a strange friendship. By 1835, Davis had resigned from the army, and, placing his trust in James, made him the overseer of his plantation, which now held twenty-three slaves.

During the Mexican War, Davis allowed James to decide for himself if he would accompany his master to the front lines. He decided to stay in Mississippi. Through Davis’ run as Senator, James remained his overseer until 1850, when he died.

When Davis became President of the Confederate States, he brought with him to Richmond several of his slaves from Mississippi. This included a slave named Jim Pemberton, who was probably Jim Jr. He was by that point married to one of Varina Davis’ body servants, Betsy. Together, they stole away while the President and Mrs. Davis attended a party thrown by Thomas Semmes. Before the month was out, three more slaves would escape to their freedom.

Jim and Betsy fled down the Virginia Peninsula to Union-held Fortress Monroe. Making their way through the lines, Jim finally met General Benjamin Butler, and did he have a tale to tell.

He began by claiming the Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephenson had left for Europe without anyone being the wiser, even Davis. According to Pemberton, Congress was about to meet, they sent for him, and he never showed up.

Slave quarters at Davis' Mississippi plantation.

Slave quarters at Davis’ Mississippi plantation.

Jim also had details involving the Southern army in northern Georgia that he apparently overheard while he was pretending to sleep. This was the meeting where Davis decided to replace the relieved Braxton Bragg with Joe Johnston. By this time, of course, the Federals already had this information, but it lent a bit of credence to his other claims.

He told of how many militia men were in Richmond (8,000), and that General Lee had between 30,000 and 40,000 troops fit for duty. Jim spoke of how close General Meade’s Army of the Potomac came to destroying Lee’s Army during the Mine Run Campaign. Lee apparently considered Meade the smartest Union General who had led the eastern army.

Patterson informed Butler of the talk within Confederate circles that Grant might be coming east. This was not yet actually an idea bandied about Washington, but already, it seems, Davis was suspecting it. He also mentioned that pretty well everyone wanted to see Benjamin Butler hanged.

In closing the interview, Jim brought up the talk around the Davis’ dinner table about the “excellent fighting qualities of the negroes.” There had been, he related, talk of using slaves in the Southern ranks. This was actually true, in a limited sense. In late 1863, General Patrick Cleburne vehemently proposed the idea, the word of which got back quickly to Davis. Davis, of course, shot it down, which was also related by Patterson.

Things were looking down for the Confederacy at this point. According to Jim, who probably heard it from his wife, Betsy, Mrs Davis said that if she had known “the the Confederacy had turned out as it did, she would have preferred to remain in Washington. She would go to Europe now, but for fear of being captured in running the blockade.”

Following the interview, General Butler wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, telling him of Jeff Davis’ table servant. “I have examined him,” he wrote, “and think him truthful and reliable, and his information of sufficient consequence to send him to you.” Butler believed everything and specifically mentioned Alexander Stephenson’s apparent flight to Europe “without the knowledge of Davis.”

Alexander Stephens was conveniently bed-ridden.

Alexander Stephens was conveniently bed-ridden.

The truth behind the Alexander Stephens story was that while he didn’t go to Europe, he was indeed missing from Richmond. Becoming sickly, he remained at his home in Georgia. He had grown disenchanted by Davis’ more Federalistic policies, including conscription and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Actually, the day prior to this, Stephens, writing from his bed, gave Davis an earful concerning such matters.

Jim Pemberton was awarded $25 for his information – at a time when Union soldiers were paid $13 a month for their service. His information probably did little more than confirm a few questions here and there for the Union authorities, but it’s an interesting little story anyway.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, vol. 33, p406; Jefferson Davis, American by William J. Cooper; A Diary from Dixie by Mary Boykin Chesnut; The Papers of Jefferson Davis: October 1863-August 1864; National Archives, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, which contains the hand-written account of Pemberton’s interview; Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography by Thomas E. Schott. []
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Ben Butler Talks Politics with Jeff Davis’ Escaped Slave by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International
  1. Would like to have been there when the Davises returned home. “Where’s Jim?” “Hey – where’s Betsy?”