Saturday, 17 November 2007

Tales from the Old South: Jefferson Davis and Blessed Pius IX

After the War between the States (1861-65) in America, the Southern President Jefferson Davis, was held in prison for trial on a charge of treason. But no charge could stick since, as the Supreme Court held, there was nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prohibited the secession of states.

If secession was not illegal, neither Davis nor any other Confederate leaders could be guilty of treason.

Indeed, on one view, the leaders of the North should have been tried for illegally attacking the seceding states who were exercising a right permitted by the Constitution.

Jeff Davis was a Southern gentleman who had married the daughter of US President Taylor, had fought in the Mexican wars and had been a US Senator and US Secretary of War. The unchivalrous Yankees treated him shamefully in prison even denying him basic privacy.

One man, however, accorded him due respect.

Whilst Davis was in prison, Blessed Pope Pius IX sent, to the former President of the Confederate States of America, a crown of Jerusalem thorns hand-woven by the Pope’s own hands which, given their sharpness, he could not have done without drawing blood. The Sovereign Pontiff also sent his own portrait self-autographed with the Scriptural verse:

“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

This was partly in response to the fact that when Pope Pius himself was in exiled in Gaeta, fleeing the revolutionaries of Garibaldi's Roman republic, Jefferson Davis corresponded with him consoling him in his tribulation.

Blessed Pope Pius IX was the only European Catholic prince who recognised the Confederate States government referring to Davis as "His Excellency, the President of the Confederate States of America".

While her husband languished in prison, Varina Davis, the wife of the ex-President, was herself, with her children, succoured by the Sisters of Charity, something, she noted, that none of the members of her own religion seemed willing to do. The sisters also educated her children.

Interestingly, Davis himself had been sent by his father to be educated by the Dominican Fathers in Kentucky and, aged 9, Davis had asked to be received into the Church but his family were reluctant.Davis himself later became a High Church Episcopalian having been received by a former West Point classmate, Leonidas (later Bishop) Polk, who later died as a Confederate general.

Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, though he liberally sprinkled his speeches with religious imagery, rarely attended any church and was not a member of any Christian denomination.

Davis began corresponding with Pius IX when agents of the North sought to recruit mercenaries from Poland and Ireland. Davis asked the Pope to discourage this, which the latter did as he did not wish to raise the American conflict to an unduly international level .

Davis and Pius IX shared many views and opinions and had a shared outlook toward the world and politics in the sense that they believed in the old world of honour, courtesy, hierarchy, chivalry and the land. For this reason, too, all Catholic bishops in the South supported the Confederacy.

The real issue in the War between the States was not slavery but States’ Rights and subsidiarity – a bit like the battle that is currently being fought at a purely political level between Brussels and the Member States of the European Union.

The Church had long ago condemned slavery and the slave trade and that most conservative and supposedly “reactionary” of popes, Pope Gregory XVI, had issued an Apostolic Constitution roundly condemning the slave trade.

As I have mentioned in other posts, it was the so-called “liberals” who legalised slavery, not the conservatives and Catholics.Black slavery in America began in the North and was first legalised there, in Massachusetts, in 1625. Northern liberals and Protestants were as likely to be slavers and segregationists as anyone in the world.

Lincoln’s solution was even worse. He wanted all blacks to be rounded up and sent to Liberia in Africa.In August, 1862, he convened a White House conference with black leaders and said to them:

“Why should people of your race be colonized, and where? Why should they leave this country? You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong, I need not discuss; but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think. Your race suffers very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while we suffer from your presence. If this is admitted, it affords a reason, at least, why we should be separated.”

No, the real issue was States’ Rights and secession. And like most believers in revolution, as Lincoln was, of course, he was also implacably opposed to any such revolution against his own power. Such is the hypocrisy of revolution.

Also it was a war between the more traditional and agrarian interests and the radical and moneyed urban interests.

Interestingly, there were some 20 Confederate generals who were Catholics and many in Davis’ cabinet.

So, too, the native American Indians were allies with, and fellow-soldiers in, the Confederacy. The Cherokee nation had representatives in the Confederate Congress in Richmond and a full blood Cherokee, Stand Watie, was the last Confederate general to surrender.

Many ordinary Southerners were also Catholic. Not a few of them, or their sons and daughters, joined religious orders. Catholic sisters of various orders, in the North as well as the South became the first nurses to tend wounded and ill troops during the War and not, as is oft supposed, the Red Cross.

Southern priests were among the first chaplains in the armies of either side and one in particular must be mentioned: Fr. Abram J. Ryan. Born in Virginia and ordained shortly before the war broke out, he is known as the “poet of the Confederacy.” One poem of his, Conquered Banner, can still be recited by heart by very many Southerners.

Davis always wore a St. Benedict Medal and a Miraculous Medal as well as a French scapular. Someone had also given him the brown scapular of the Discalced Carmelites. All of these he wore in prison and preserved to the end of his life.

He was known to be a familiar meditator on the Crucifixion and carried a worn and coverless 1861 edition of The Imitation of Christ, an 18th-century translation from the Latin by Richard Challoner, the English Roman Catholic Bishop, and which he used often, in his imprisonment, as a manual of prayer.

The Bonnie Blue Flag

We are a band of brothers, and native to the soil,
Fighting for our liberty, with treasure blood and toil;
And when our rights were threatened; the cry rose near and far,
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag, that bears a single star.

Chorus: Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights hurrah!
Hurrah! For the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

As long as the Union was faithful to her trust,
Like friends and like brothers, kind were we and just;
But now, when Northern treachery attempts our right to mar,
We hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

First gallant South Carolina nobly made the stand;
Then came Alabama who took her by the hand;
Next, quickly, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida,
All raised on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

Ye men of valor gather round the banner of the right,
Texas, and fair Louisiana, join us in the fight
Davis our loved President, and Steven statesmen are,
Now rally round the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

And here's to brave Virginia; the old Dominion state,
With the young Confederacy, at last has linked her fate.
Helped by her example, now other states prepare,
To hoist on high the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

Then here's to our Confederacy, strong we are and brave,
Like Patriots of old we’ll fight our heritage to save,
And rather than submit to shame, to die we would prefer.
So cheer for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.

Then cheer, boys, cheer, and raise a joyous shout.
For Arkansas, and North Carolina, now have both gone out,
And let another rousing cheer for Tennessee be given.
For the single star of the Bonnie Blue Flag has grown to be eleven.

New chorus: Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights Hurrah!
Hurrah!For the Bonnie Blue Flag has gained eleven stars.

St Andrew is crucified upon a saltire cross (from a Flemish Book of Hours).

The St Andrew's Cross was adopted by the Kings of Scotland as the Scottish flag and banner and later adopted by the Confederate States of America for its battle flag.



Benfan said...

Great post as usual. Reading it I realise how many false/distorted views of history I have simply absorbed without question. Thanks.

Christine said...


A Simple Sinner said...

I would REALLY love to believe all of this, really I would...

But do you have a citation for

"Davis always wore a St. Benedict Medal and a Miraculous Medal as well as a French scapular. Someone had also given him the brown scapular of the Discalced Carmelites. All of these he wore in prison and preserved to the end of his life."

I wear all of those as well... would love to believe he did too, but... I am not sure I believe this one.

Tribunus said...

Dear simple sinner,

Worry no more.

You may believe it all!

There are a number of sources but this one is good:

Jefferson Davis: the Unconquerable Heart (1999) by Felicity Allen (Blue and Grey Series).

At page 440, she writes this:

"Davis wore round his neck at that very moment, besides his St Benedict medal the one already known as 'Miraculous', struck just 33 years before, from the vision of a French Sister of Charity, still living, who would one day be known as St Catherine Laboure. Nor were these all: thin woven laces over his shoulders held on his breast and back the little cloth panels of a French scapular. Both these distinctly Roman Catholic channels of blessing had been sent to him by the Sisters of Charity who had cared for his family in Savannah."

Believe and be no more unbelieving, O ye of little faith!

I realise that it is hard for us moderns to get our heads round the fact that the secular, liberal, anti-Christian view of history is false but your really must try and overcome the Secular Fundamentalist mumbo-jumbo that the media, the chattering classes and the more worldly of your teachers and professors have tried to hoodwink you with!

Real history and the truth is much more interesting, fascinating, inspiring and fulfilling.



And enjoy the book, too!

A Simple Sinner said...


Thank you for the references, I appreciate it.

My skepticism isn't born out of loyalty to secularists - far from it, I am the first to defend the pious traditions of the pi-zuma (Thomas) Christian traditions of Latin America!

I just wanted to see some references, which you in fact provided.

I recall reading something published by a sedevacantist group years ago insisting that Geo. Washington had been a death bed convert... But have never been able to find further reference to that.

Thanks again.

Tribunus said...


Yes, there is some apparently some evidence for Washington's death-bed conversion but not very much.

It would be nice but I don't think there is enough to claim very much.

Woody Jones said...

Many thanks for this very edifying and encouraging post. As to the de facto recognition of the CSA by Bl. Pius IX, I have read, however, that President Davis and his Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin (the first Jewish cabinet member in US history, generally thought to be President Davis's closest associate, and later to be author in England of the famous-and still published-treatise on the law of sales of goods) finally concluded that addressing him as President on one letter was not sufficient under then-prevailing notions of international law to merit a claim that the Holy See had recognized the CSA.

Incidentally, I have been told by the historian of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston that even after the Yankees took Texas, President Davis was still being publicly prayed for in our Catholic churches, such that a Union general had to threaten prison for the clergy who continued to do so.

Tribunus said...

Thanks, Woody.

I don't think anyone is pressing a claim in international law that the Holy See recognised the Confederate States but rather that, in accordance with the customs of the Holy See, Pope Pius IX was showing recognition of President Davis.

That is the real point - and a very interesting one it is, too.

Interesting, too, is your comment about Catholics praying for him in their Churches.

Thank you for that information.

Vir Speluncae Catholicus said...

Excellent article.

I thought you might be interested to know that Stephen R. Mallory was the first Catholic to attain Cabinet position in American history. (Confederate Sec of the Navy)

Anonymous said...

Your translation of the Pope's quote is inaccurate. "Come to me, all you who labor and are weary, and I will give you rest, says the Lord"

Tribunus said...

OK, Anonymouse,

You give me the reference.

If you can, I'll make the change.