The President is coming to … old Murfreesborough

As published by the Murfreesboro Post, Sunday, November 29, 2009

By Mike West, Managing Editor

The President’s coming … the President’s coming to little Murfreesboro.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis and wife Varina

Confederate President Jefferson Davis and wife Varina

No, not President Obama. We are talking somewhat ancient history and about the president of an entirely different nation, the ill-fated Confederate States of America.

Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the CSA, was coming to review the troops of the newly assembled 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.

Murfreesboro, the former state capital, was a bustling town with rail connections to Nashville and Chattanooga. 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.

Davis 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 in those meager days.

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 in charge of the division. Stevenson was a West Point graduate with real military experience.

Davis wanted Stevenson’s men to help in the defense of Vicksburg, where Confederate forces were under the command of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton. Vicksburg, which after the fall of New Orleans, was the only point preventing the Union from having complete control of the Mississippi River.

The Army 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.

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.

But 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.

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.

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

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