The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Forgotten History for a Sunday in July

Posted on | July 21, 2019 | Comments Off on Forgotten History for a Sunday in July


Most Americans have never heard of the Battle of Kettle Creek, fought in Wilkes County, Georgia, in February 1779. The British had captured Savannah two months earlier, and in January moved upriver to take Augusta. The British began recruiting and arming local Tories. By February, Lt. Col. John Boyd led a force of about 700 Tory militia, who plundered the locals as they marched through the backcounty until they were intercepted, some 20 miles south of the Savannah River, by about 400 Patriot militia commanded by Col. Andrew Pickens.

In the battle, Boyd was killed and most of the Tories fled or were captured, while the Patriots suffered fewer than 30 casualties. One of the Patriots wounded in the Battle of Kettle Creek was a Georgia militia private named Samuel Emory Davis, a 23-year-old Augusta native whose father immigrated to Georgia from Cardiff, Wales. Samuel Davis later raised a company of mounted troops and rose to the rank of major. After the war, he married Jane Cook, the daughter of a South Carolina Baptist minister, and settled down to farm in Wilkes County, Georgia, not far from the battlefield at Kettle Creek. By 1797, the Davises had five children when Samuel made the decision to relocate his family to the Kentucky frontier, where they established a settlement about 20 miles north of present-day Fort Campbell. There the Davis family kept growing, with their 10th child being born in 1808, when Samuel was 52 years old.

Samuel Davis later moved his family twice again, first to Louisiana before finally settling in 1812 near Woodville, Mississippi. When America went to war against the British that year, three of Samuel Davis’s sons enlisted, and two were commended by Andrew Jackson for their gallantry in the 1814 Battle of New Orleans. Samuel’s oldest son, Joseph Emory Davis, became a lawyer and one of the wealthiest men in Mississippi, but it was his youngest son who was destined for historic fame. A brilliant scholar, Samuel’s youngest son was the only Protestant student enrolled in a Dominican Catholic boarding school in Kentucky. He later studied at Transylvania University in Lexington. He was 16 when his father died in 1824 and shortly thereafter, his brother Joseph helped him gain appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he graduated in 1828. Second Lieutenant Davis was assigned to the First Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Crawford on what was then America’s remote northwest frontier, in present-day Wisconsin.

The commander at Fort Crawford was Col. Zachary Taylor. Four years later, the Black Hawk War broke out, ending with the defeat of the hostile tribes and the capture of Chief Black Hawk. Taylor assigned Lieutenant Davis the duty of escorting the prisoner to St. Louis. With peace restored to the northwestern frontier, it was now safe for Taylor’s family to join him at Fort Crawford, and Lieutenant Davis fell in love with the colonel’s beautiful daughter Sarah. Her father opposed this romance, not wishing his daughter to have the difficult life of a soldier’s wife, but love won out.

After consulting his brother Joseph, Lieutenant Davis resigned from the army, and Sarah Knox Taylor became Mrs. Jefferson Davis.


Yes, this grandson of a Welsh immigrant, whose father had been wounded in battle during America’s War of Independence, was the same Jefferson Davis who later became President of the Confederacy, but not before he had won a distinguished military reputation and suffered a tragic loss. A few months after he and Sarah were married, they went to visit Jefferson Davis’s sister in Louisiana, where both fell ill during a malaria outbreak. In September 1835, Sarah died, and while her husband survived the disease, he was deeply affected by the death of his beloved bride. He became something of a recluse for the next few years, until in 1840 he became involved in politics. He remarried in 1845, and later that year was elected to Congress. In 1846, when the United States went to war against Mexico, Jefferson Davis left Congress and raised a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles. Col. Davis’s regiment was assigned to the army commanded by Davis’s former father-in-law, now Gen. Zachary Taylor. Col. Davis served with conspicuous gallantry in the Battle of Monterrey and at the Battle of Buena Vista, where he was wounded. Recognizing the courage of his former son-in-law, Gen. Taylor is reputed to have said, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

After the war, Davis was appointed to the Senate, where he served until 1853, when he was appointed Secretary of War in the administration of President Franklin Pierce. Afterwards, he was re-elected to represent Mississippi in the Senate. In 1860, he found himself caught up in the crisis caused by the election of Abraham Lincoln. Ironically, Lincoln had been born in Kentucky within 100 miles of Davis’s birthplace, had served as a militia captain in the Black Hawk War and, as a freshman congressman in 1848, had actively campaigned in Illinois for the presidential election of the Whig candidate, Zachary Taylor.

After Mississippi seceded in January 1861, Sen. Davis made his final appearance in the Senate, giving a farewell address in which he explained his understanding of the crisis at some length:

I well remember an occasion when Massachusetts was arraigned before the bar of the Senate, and when then the doctrine of coercion was rife and to be applied against her because of the rescue of a fugitive slave in Boston. My opinion then was the same that it is now. Not in a spirit of egotism, but to show that I am not influenced in my opinion because the case is my own, I refer to that time and that occasion as containing the opinion which I then entertained, and on which my present conduct is based. I then said, if Massachusetts, following her through a stated line of conduct, chooses to take the last step which separates her from the Union, it is her right to go, and I will neither vote one dollar nor one man to coerce her back; but will say to her, God speed, in memory of the kind associations which once existed between her and the other States.
It has been a conviction of pressing necessity, it has been a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision. . . .
I find in myself, perhaps, a type of the general feeling of my constituents towards yours. I am sure I feel no hostility to you, Senators from the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say, in the presence of my God, I wish you well; and such, I am sure, is the feeling of the people whom I represent towards those whom you represent. I therefore feel that I but express their desire when I say I hope, and they hope, for peaceful relations with you, though we must part. . . .
Whatever offense I have given which has not been redressed, or for which satisfaction has not been demanded, I have, Senators, in this hour of our parting, to offer you my apology for any pain which, in heat of discussion, I have inflicted. I go hence unencumbered of the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury offered.
Mr. President, and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains to me to bid you a final adieu.

Of course, this was not the end of Jefferson Davis’s political career, although he had actually hoped to return to military service. Two days after his farewell speech to the Senate, the governor of Mississippi appointed Davis commander of the state’s troops, with the rank of major general. Two weeks later, however, when the first convention of what were to become the Confederate States met in Montgomery, Alabama, the delegates chose Davis to become the first president of the newborn Confederacy. His wife recalled that when the telegram arrived informing Davis of his election, he was deeply saddened: “Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family.”

After Fort Sumter, when Lincoln called for troops to force the seceded states back into the Union, Virginia seceded rather than to support what citizens of the Commonwealth viewed as an unconstitutional act by the government their forefathers had done so much to establish.

In May 1861, the Confederate States relocated their capital from Montgomery to Richmond, scarcely 100 miles from the U.S. capital in Washington. Confederate troops were now just south of the Potomac River, within sight of D.C., and Yankees were enraged by this close proximity of what they considered a treasonous rebellion. Thousands of volunteer troops, mustered in for 90 days service — the North’s leaders couldn’t imagine it would take longer than 90 days to suppress the rebels — were assembling in Washington, and there was a growing impatience to see this army put into action quickly. In late June, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune began carrying a front-page banner: “Forward to Richmond!” It seemed a simple matter to civilians for the Union army to march south, defeat the rebels, capture Richmond and thus end the war. Adding to the North’s sense of urgency was the fact that many of the 90-day troops would reach the end of their enlistments in late July. If these men were going to crush this rebellion, it was time to get moving, and so the volunteer regiments were organized into brigades and, under the command of Brig. Gen. Irwin McDowell, formed into an army of 35,000 — the largest army ever to take the field in America up to that time.

McDowell’s army was at Arlington, just south of the river, and the main body of Confederate troops was about 25 miles away, a little more than 20,000 soldiers assembled around an important railroad connection called Manassas Junction. On July 16, McDowell’s army set out on its march toward Manassas, traveling southwest on what was called the Warrenton Turnpike. While it would have taken less than two days for a disciplined army to march this distance, the raw recruits commanded by McDowell were not such an army. They were just barely trained — not a single brigade-level drill had even been attempted — and so the march from Arlington to Manassas was painfully slow.

Setting out on Tuesday, July 16, it took McDowell’s army until Wednesday night to cover the 15 miles to Fairfax Courthouse, and it was nightfall on Thursday before they reached the vicinity of Centreville. Here, the Northern army spent Friday and Saturday getting ready for their planned attack on the Confederates, just four miles away at Manassas Junction, west of a sluggish stream called Bull Run.

In Richmond, Jefferson Davis had been receiving regular updates on McDowell’s advance. Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate army at Manassas Junction, telegraphed July 17 that his outposts had been pushed back and he expected a battle the next day, Thursday the 18th. But Thursday came and went with no battle, and so did Friday and Saturday. Meanwhile, Davis had set in motion his plan to reinforce Beauregard’s army. A smaller force of Confederates, under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, had been guarding the Potomac River crossings up in the Shenandoah Valley. Johnston’s army was ordered to leave a token force to keep an eye on the Yankees there and with the rest, some 10,000 troops, to travel by rail to Manassas Junction. This movement, one of the first major strategic uses of railroads in warfare, would give the combined Confederate forces of Johnston and Beauregard about equal numbers to the advancing Union army.

If McDowell’s army had marched faster, they might have beaten Beauregard. If they had attacked on Friday, July 19, the Northern army would have outnumbered the Confederates by more than 10,000 men. Johnston and the first of his Shenandoah Valley troops did not begin arriving at Manassas Junction until noon Saturday the 20th, and it would take most of the next 24 hours for the entire force to be shuttled down from the Valley on the overworked railroad. McDowell’s delay proved costly, but it also strained the nerves of the Confederate president.

Since the Tuesday telegram from Beauregard informed him of McDowell’s advance, Davis had been receiving regular updates at Richmond, where on Saturday the Confederate Congress assembled for its first meeting in the South’s new capital. A soldier by training, Davis hurried through the formalities of the congressional session, and after church on Sunday morning, took a special train to Manassas Junction. By the time he arrived that afternoon, the war’s first great battle had been fought and won by the Confederacy, but this victory was not immediately apparent to Davis. Disembarking from the train and mounting a horse, the Confederate president rode through the disordered backwash of the battle, with grievously wounded men being carried back on stretchers, the walking wounded staggering past with bloody bandages, and demoralized stragglers milling around everywhere. At one point, Davis stopped to rally a group of soldiers he mistook for stragglers. In fact, these men weren’t the slightest bit demoralized — they belonged to a Virginia brigade which had come down from the Valley. They had met the Yankee attack on Henry House Hill with fixed bayonets, and then made a counter-charge that drove the enemy in retreat. Their commander was a brigadier named Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who had been slightly wounded in the battle. Even at the moment Davis was mistaking his heroic troops for stragglers, Jackson was telling the surgeons in the hospital tent, “We have whipped them! They ran like sheep! Give me 5,000 fresh men and I will be in Washington City tomorrow!”

There was to be much debate about this in later years. If anyone could have captured Washington just then, the indomitable Jackson was the man to do it, but Davis had no 5,000 fresh men to give him, and besides, the Yankees still had plenty of soldiers to guard their capital. Indeed, McDowell’s retreat from Manassas had turned into a panic-stricken rout, with most of the 90-day men making it back to Washington much faster than it had taken them on their sluggish southward march. Still, nearly half of the Union army had never gotten into action during the battle, and had maintained their organization despite the defeat, so even if a Confederate force of 5,000 had been able to make the 25-mile march to Washington with utmost speed, they would find the Potomac River crossings stoutly guarded by at least 10,000 Union troops.

When Jefferson Davis was able at last to find his generals on the disorderly battlefield at Bull Run late that afternoon, they reported that their army had been almost as badly disorganized by victory as the Yankees were by defeat. More than two dozen Confederate officers were killed or mortally wounded in the fighting, including Brig. Gen. Bernard Bee, and the total butcher’s bill for the South amounted to about 400 dead and 1,600 wounded. While this would be regarded as “light casualties” in comparison to latter battles in that long and deadly war, it was a shocking amount of bloodshed compared to anything that had preceded it in American military history. Although the North lost more, especially in terms of the 1,500 men captured at Bull Run, the Southern army needed to rest, resupply and reorganize before it could advance, and so the pursuit of the beaten Yankees was not pressed as vigorously as some might have hoped. Some blamed Davis for what they saw as a lost opportunity, but a sober military assessment of the tactical situation at nightfall on that Sunday — July 21, 1861 — must absolve the Confederate president of any blame. The game of “what if?” might amuse the civilian at a safe distance from the bloody confusion of battle, but the passage of more than 150 years allows the student of history to judge more fairly.

Years after the South’s final defeat, Davis replied to a letter from the Rev. Frank Stringfellow, who had been a Confederate captain in the war. Stringfellow suggested that it might have been better if Davis had taken the field as a military commander, and Davis answered that this had not only been his preference but that he had actually contemplated it in 1862. Davis also wrote of the larger lesson of the war:

I have often times combatted the idea of calm thoughtful men, that the failure of our righteous cause rendered doubtful the government of the world by an overrulling providence. My answer has been first a question, has it failed? Then the reminder that He who knows the hearts of men, requires not only that the cause should be righteous but also that it should be righteously defended, to be the object of His favor. The immutable principles for which we contended must live, or republican government perish from among us. Had we succeeded, how well and wisely would we have used our power, was made questionable by various manifestations in the last twelve months of the war. Perhaps the furnace to which we have been subjected was necessary for our purification. . . .

In that 1878 letter, Davis speculated that perhaps “in the distant future, which lies beyond human vision, there may be consequences which will fully compensate for our present losses.”

Well, all this history, from Kettle Creek to Manassas and beyond, was prompted by my thought that it was on this date — July 21, a Sunday — that the first great battle of the Civil War was fought. We now live in that “distant future” of which Davis once wrote, and I wonder whether Americans have learned anything in the years since then. It is difficult to learn lessons from history, when history is forgotten.



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