Sunday, February 10, 1861
Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, were tending to their rose garden at Briarfield, their plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi, when a messenger bearing a telegram for Mr. Davis arrived. Davis had resigned his seat in the US Senate when Mississippi seceded and had been offered command of all state military forces – a job he wanted very much.
He had a feeling that the new Confederate government might want him as president and had taken what he thought were “adequate precautions” against it. He was surprised and perhaps a little disappointed as he read the message from the new Congress:1
We are directed to inform you that you are this day unanimously elected President of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America, and to request you to come to Montgomery immediately.
Years later, Varina Davis recalled his reaction, saying that “he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes’ painful silence, he told me, as a man might speak of a sentence of death.”2
Mr. Davis wrote a short letter of acceptance and handed it to the same messenger who rode as fast as his horse would carry him the 18 miles to the Vicksburg telegraph office. He arrived around midnight and word was telegraphed to Montgomery by 1am.3, 4
As Jefferson Davis was making last minute preparations for his journey to the Confederate capitol, Abraham Lincoln was finalizing things for his own journey to the United States capitol.
He dropped by his law office, Lincoln & Herndon, to go through the outstanding files with his partner Billy Herndon. Lincoln was in a good mood as he reminisced about some of the strange cases he and Herndon had taken over the years. But then Lincoln crossed the room and flopped himself onto a sofa and fell silent for a few minutes.
He then asked Herndon how long they had been partners. “Sixteen years,” was the reply.
“We’ve never had a cross word during all that time, have we?”
“No, indeed we have not.”
Content at such a record, Lincoln gathered a few items and walked towards the doorway. As he passed under the shingle hanging over their office, which read “Lincoln & Herndon,” he paused and in a quiet voice said, “Let it hang there undisturbed. Give our client to understand that the election of a President makes no change in the firm of Lincoln and Herndon. If I live, I’m coming back some time, and then we’ll go right on practising law as if nothing had ever happened.”5
- The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1 by Jefferson Davis, D. Appleton and Co., 1881. [↩]
- Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate States of America, Volume 2 by Varina Davis, Belford Company, 1890. [↩]
- The Papers of Jefferson Davis: 1861 LSU Press, 1992. [↩]
- There seems to be some confusion as to dates here. According to The Papers, Davis received notice on the 9th, a Saturday, and replied quickly enough that the New Orleans newspaper, the Daily Delta, was able to publish the news in its Sunday edition. I have no doubt that the message informing Davis was dated the 9th and that the Daily Delta published the news in its Sunday edition, but it seems very doubtful that Davis received word on the 9th. This means, of course, that the people of New Orleans (and many other places) heard the news before Davis did. Davis himself does not give the date when he received the telegram, though a second telegram with the same message was received on the 11th. Interesting little side note. [↩]
- Lincoln President-Elect by Harold Holzer. [↩]