The President is coming to … old Murfreesborough

As published by the Murfreesboro Post, Sunday, December 16, 2007

By Mike West, Managing Editor

Murfreesboro is in the midst of a joyous Christmas celebration, 2007 style.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

Some 145 years earlier, the jubilation was similar, but for a much different reason.

The President was coming to the bustling little town of Murfreesborough, as some then called it.  The 1860 Census reported a population 3,861 for the village.  Of that total, 1,671 were white and 1,190 were black … slaves for the most part.

Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, was coming to review the troops of the Army of Tennessee.  But his real purpose in visiting Murfreesboro was something entirely different.  Davis was worried to the core about his home state of Mississippi and planned to act to improve its defense.

He couldn’t have picked a better time to visit Tennessee’s former state capital.  With the arrival of the Army of Tennessee, social life had reached a frenzy in Murfreesboro.  A Christmas ball was planned as was a major wedding featuring a dashing Confederate raider and the star-struck daughter of a U.S. Congressman.

Davis arrived in Murfreesboro on Friday, Dec. 12, 1862.  An aide, Gen. George Washington Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s son, accompanied him.  The president and his aide were lodged at Oaklands, the home of Dr. Lewis Maney, where the hospitality was as lavish as could be afforded.

On the following day – a Saturday – Davis mixed business with pleasure.

He met with Gen. Braxton Bragg to stress in person his orders to shift an entire division (8,000 men) from the Army of Tennessee to Mississippi.  A Virginian, Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson was a West Point graduate.

Davis wanted the men to help in the defense of Vicksburg, where Confederate forces were under the command of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, who was somewhat of strange selection to defend that key point on the Mississippi River.

A Philadelphia, Penn. native, Pemberton was another U.S. Military Academy graduate.  His marriage to a Virginia woman influenced him to put aside his loyalty to the Union and fight for the South.  His first significant post was commanding the Confederate Department of Georgia and South Carolina.  He drew heavy criticism in South Carolina where his critics claimed he wasn’t dedicated to a defense of the state.

Ultimately, Pemberton was removed from command and was reassigned to Vicksburg, which after the fall of New Orleans, was the only point preventing the Union from having complete control of the Mississippi River.

The Department of Tennessee was under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who had already told President Davis that the diversion of Stevenson’s Division could result in the loss of Tennessee to the Union.

But Davis was receiving extreme pressure from his home state to do whatever possible to keep it from falling to Federal troops under the command of Gen. U.S. Grant.  One of those imploring him to protect Mississippi was his oldest brother and mentor, Joseph Emory Davis. Originally a lawyer in Vicksburg, he made his fortune as a planter and was one of the richest men in Mississippi at the onset of the Civil War.  The elder Davis had much to lose to invading Union troops.

A letter written by Jefferson Davis to his brother shortly after the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson, provides some insight:

“Your property would be the next to my own an attraction to the plunderers It therefore seems to me that it might be well to send away as far as possible all which is mine, to send away, even up the Big Black, your cotton and valuables, and be ready to move your negroes and part of the stock, should a descent be made. 0! how I wish to be with you, and fervently do I pray that you were in some place of absolute safety, with your family and mine. All I have, except my wife and children, I am ready to sacrifice for my country. We have very imperfect intelligence of the disaster at Fort Donelson. I cannot believe that our army surrendered without an effort to cut the investing lines and retreat to the main body of the army. General Johnston’s messenger has not reached me; in the meantime I am making every effort to assemble a sufficient force to beat the enemy in Tennessee, and retrieve our waning fortunes in the West,” the Feb. 21, 1862 letter read.

That “sufficient force” was assembled in Murfreesboro. Braxton Bragg would be facing the 43,400 man Federal Army of the Cumberland with 37,317 men instead of some 45,000 troops.

Bragg repeated his arguments against transferring Stevenson’s Division, suggesting the best way of helping Pemberton was by launching continual cavalry attacks against Union supply lines.

But Jefferson Davis wasn’t taking “no” for an answer and preparations were soon under way to send the division to Mississippi.

Not all of Davis’ news was bad.

He used the visit to Murfreesboro to present promotions to John Hunt Morgan, Roger W. Hanson and Pat Cleburne.

The soon-to-wed Morgan was promoted from colonel to brigadier general, as was Hanson, who commanded the famous Kentucky “Orphan” Brigade. Hanson would not live to celebrate another birthday.

Cleburne was promoted to major general and placed in command of Simon Buckner’s Division after Buckner had been reassigned to East Tennessee.

Corps Commander, Gen. William J. Hardee, pleaded with Davis to commission Morgan a major general, but Davis denied his request, saying, ” I do not wish to give my boys all of their sugar plums at once.”

Highlighting Davis’ visit to Murfreesboro was the grand review of the army.
Gen. Leonidas Polk wrote his wife, the “review was a great affair; everything went off admirably.”

Davis said the Army of Tennessee troops “were the best-appearing troops he had seen, well appointed and well clad.” He wrote his wife, Varina, “The troops in Murfreesboro were in fine spirits and well supplied. The enemy keep close within their lines about Nashville, which place is too strongly fortified and garrisoned for attack by troops unprepared for regular approaches on fortifications.”

Following the grand review, there was a dinner for Davis and the Army of Tennessee’s generals at Oaklands.

The Murfreesboro Daily Rebel Banner reported on the gala in its normal exuberant manner.

The troops were “delighted with the manly form, the firm features, and the unpretending style of the president.” And the entire populace of Murfreesboro envisioned the entire event like “a royal visit from a royal visitor.”

Davis and the generals were also serenaded by town’s folk. In response, the president delivered brief remarks, some of which were reported to interested ears.

Jefferson Davis delivered a speech in Murfreesboro “in which he said Lincoln’s proclamation put black and white on an equality,” reported a Dec. 15, 1862 telegraph from Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans to Gen. Henry Halleck.

“Urged them to fight until death, and to hold Middle Tennessee at all hazards, until Grant could be whipped. Bragg ordered all Kentucky and Tennessee exiles conscripted. Buckner, Breckinridge, and Hanson protested and threatened to resign. Jeff. took the matter in hand. Things will be ripe soon,” Rosecrans wired.

And he was right.

The following morning (Sunday, Dec. 14, 1862), Davis took the early train back to Chattanooga. The scene was set for a major battle just outside Murfreesboro.

For further reading:

“Never Call Retreat,” Bruce Catton
“The War for the Union, Vol. II,” Allan Nevins
The Papers of Jefferson Davis
“Battles and Sketches of the Army of Tennessee,” B.L. Ridley
“The Army of Tennessee,” Stanley Horn

Mike West can be reached at 615-869-0803 or [email protected].

Comments are closed.