The Day Jeff Davis Came to Town

January 1, 2006 by  
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© Clifford Crouch, 2006

TO PARAPHRASE KARL MARX, a specter is haunting Houston – the specter of Jefferson Davis. All the powers of Houston have entered into an alliance to exorcise this specter of the old Confederacy: city officials, business leaders, nonprofit groups, real-estate developers.

The city of Houston has struck some observers as a place virtually without a history – at least not one worth preserving. In 2000, filmmaker Woody Allen, defending the integrity of his old Manhattan neighborhood, shrugged to a journalist: “I’m not against skyscrapers and development … But there’s got to be … places like Jane Street in the Village, or you have Houston, Texas.” In 2003, New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote disdainfully of post-9/11 designs for “glitzy, structurally inept towers” that “would look at home … [housing] energy companies in Space City U.S.A.”

For many people, living here or elsewhere, Texas history surely must be at a mysterious “someplace else:” The Alamo in San Antonio, say, or The Strand in Galveston, or perhaps Dealey Plaza in Dallas. But this city – founded by two ex-New Yorkers (brothers named Allen; no relation to Woody) in 1836 – blossomed long before the energy and aerospace industries ever existed. And while many modern-day Houstonians insist on dressing in faux-cowpoke style and ceremonially attending the rodeo at Reliant Stadium once a year, their hometown became a major hub of commerce not with horses and cattle, but through the confluence of the cotton trade and the railroad industry.

Nineteenth-century Houston – together with its elder sister, Galveston – was a brasher version of more venerable cities to the east, such as New Orleans, Jackson, Biloxi, Montgomery, Savannah and Charleston. (Trivia question: Which is the older city, Houston or Atlanta? Not the one you saw ablaze in “Gone with the Wind.”) Like those cities, Houston suffered epidemics of tropical, mosquito-borne diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria, and thrived by trade in crops, such as cotton and sugar cane. It was populated largely by Southerners moving westward with the frontier.

After Texas seceded from the Union in 1861, Houston became a significant military, economic and social outpost of the western Confederacy. For much of the Civil War, Houston served as army headquarters – under Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder – for the entire CSA Military District of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. And it continued to serve as a center of trade and of refuge long after other Southern cities to the east were embattled and captured.

Little exists in today’s Houston to mark this era. (In a typical example of civic boosterism, the antebellum mansion used by Gen. Magruder as his center of operations was torn down in 1927 to make way for an auto-repair shop.) A handful of period buildings somehow escaped demolition in the downtown area, now belatedly designated as the Main Street-Market Square Historic District. Another handful of wooden and brick houses has been rescued, restored and relocated to tiny Sam Houston Park, where they stand, shadowed by skyscrapers, under the protection of the Harris County Heritage Society. A few scant bronze and stone monuments commemorating the combatants are cloistered away in scattered pockets of urban greenery. Otherwise, the only enduring vestiges of the time are headstones in the city’s oldest cemeteries – the weatherworn grave markers of those veterans who came westward in the aftermath of the war.

An unknown number of veterans, in fact, were buried here without tombstones to mark their final resting place. Many Southerners who migrated to Houston (both during and after the war) to make a new start had been left utterly destitute by the northern policy, under Union generals Sherman and Sheridan, of “total warfare” – the intentional destruction by the military of civilian supplies, livestock and crops. To such refugees, struggling to survive and rebuild in new and uncertain circumstances, the purchase of a marble tombstone for a deceased family member would have been an impossible extravagance.

Over the closing years of the 19th century, untold thousands of Houstonians were buried in the old city cemetery. (Estimates have ranged from roughly 3,000 to 10,000.) The dead included black and white alike, civilian and military – from the North, as well as the South. (U.S. troops first occupied Houston on June 20, 1865, one day after their “Juneteenth” landing in Galveston. When the next yellow fever epidemic swept the populace, it did not distinguish between the blue and the gray.) Some graves were marked with wooden crosses or tablets that disintegrated within a few years. Many of the dead were buried with no markers at all. And so, by a circuitous route, came to exist the city’s last and most controversial Civil War relic: Jefferson Davis Hospital.

IN 1924, HOUSTON (in cooperation with Harris County) built its first hospital dedicated to the care of the poor. Historian Marguerite Johnston Barnes records that it was erected “at Elder and Girard streets, on land that had been given to Houston more than 80 years before by [city founders] Augustus and John K. Allen.” Unfortunately, as the public eventually discovered, that site also happened to include a portion of the old city cemetery, which had fallen into disuse and neglect by the start of the 20th century.

In the outcry that followed, construction continued (as it usually does in Houston), but something had to be done. The descendants and heirs of the Confederate dead – as well as aged survivors of the great conflict itself – were hardly the only parties outraged by the graveyard’s desecration, but they were the most fervent, tenacious and well organized. Mayor Oscar F. Holcombe ultimately presided over the placement of a small, hazily worded plaque on the hospital grounds, inscribed to unnamed “Confederate Soldiers.” (Today the memorial stone is virtually inaccessible to the public, as it is surrounded by what is now Houston Fire Department property.) The new hospital itself became the Jefferson Davis City-County Charity Hospital, named after the onetime president of the Confederacy: a man who was born in Kentucky, lived in Mississippi and governed from Virginia.

To modern sensibilities, the connection seems remote if not tenuous, and the tribute correspondingly quaint. It was hardly so to the people of the day. For decades after the fight had been lost, generations of parents across the South continued to name infant sons for their fallen heroes – giving America such distinguished 20th century figures as Robert E. Lee Saner, a prominent Texas lawyer; Jefferson Davis Sandefer, a university president; John Robert E. Lee, another college president (one who began life as a slave); and Jefferson Davis McKissack, creator of Houston’s unique “The Orange Show.” (Infant girls, meanwhile, tended to be christened with such evocative first names as Georgia, Carolina, Alabama, and even Louisiana and Texana.) The people of that time and place could still hear faintly the music that President Lincoln himself had evoked in 1860 as “the mystic chords of memory,” sounding “from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land.”

And perhaps the connection was not, after all, so tenuous as we might assume. For in the living memory of many of those men and women of 1924, Houston would have been an event entirely forgotten today, but extraordinary and indelible to them nearly 50 years afterward: the time Jeff Davis came to town.

IN 1875, JEFFERSON DAVIS was living, like many of his fellow citizens across the South, in reduced circumstances. Once a hero of the Mexican-American War, a U.S. senator and the Secretary of War under President Pierce, Davis had spent two years in a military prison after the Civil War’s end (although he was never convicted of any crimes). After his release, he had traveled extensively in Europe, then returned home in an attempt to make his way in a radically changed world. Up until 1878 – when, at the age of 70, he settled into a home in Biloxi called “Beauvior,” the gift of a devoted friend – Davis would struggle, with limited success, at various business enterprises such as insurance and international trade. On one such business trip, Davis found himself in New Orleans, and on Saturday, May 8, 1875, he sent a cable to a friend, conveying what seems to have been a nearly spur-of-the-moment decision: TO GOV. F.R. LUBBOCK:STARTED FOR HOUSTON, VIA GALVESTON, THIS MORNING.

Davis had been invited to speak at the sixth annual Texas State Fair, then held in Houston. (The current state fair, in Dallas, was instituted in 1886, after Houston had allowed its own event to lapse for several years.) His message was addressed to former Texas Governor Frank Lubbock, an old friend; and it seems to have set off frantic activity throughout the entire state, as the visit was apparently Davis’ first. (It appears – the historical records are sketchy – that he may have set foot on south Texas soil, at a camp called Fort Ringgold, during the Mexican-American War.)

The old man arrived via steamship early Sunday morning, to be met by Lubbock (a former Houstonian who had become Galveston’s tax assessor) and Galveston Mayor R.L. Fulton. He was immediately swarmed by friends, reported the Houston Daily Telegraph, and after church services and “a short drive” through the city, he left by train for Houston.

Arriving at the depot that evening, he was met by Houston Mayor I.C. Lord, a military unit called the Houston Light Guards and “a large and enthusiastic crowd of citizens.” Davis, “being fatigued from travel,” spoke only his brief thanks, to which the crowd responded with “a Texas cheer.” The Telegraph editorialized in that same day’s issue:
We do not welcome him now as a leader … but we hail him as a citizen of the United States … He comes to talk to the old and young, to say cheering words to those who, with him, have had to encounter defeat and misfortune … He comes … to look upon the faces and take the hands of many who fought through the war with bravery and are not ashamed of the record on every battle-field.

Davis was, in fact, to visit Houston for a week, staying at the homes of private citizens, receiving visitors and making a handful of public appearances. A reporter for the Galveston Daily News, however, noted with apparent disappointment: “He has courteously but firmly set his face against all interviews … [and] all effort at conversation on national or political topics was a waste of breath.”

Davis’ first formal address came at the opening of the State Fair on Tuesday afternoon, May 11. His horse-drawn carriage was the head of a stellar political procession that included the then governor of Texas, Richard Coke; U.S. Senator S.B. Maxey; at least one Congressman, John H. Reagan; three former Texas governors (Pease, Clark and Lubbock); the mayors of Houston, Galveston and Austin; and other prominent citizens. Attendance was in the thousands, wrote a “special correspondent” for the Dallas Weekly Herald, who described the speaker thus: “Mr. Davis’s hair is quite gray and beard almost white. He looks thin but is in good health …”

The Galveston Daily News set the larger scene vividly: His reception was boisterous as the roar of many waters, the music of the band was drowned in the screeching of the steam engines and the shouts of the multitude … The bands played, the people shouted, while the venerable man stood, with beaming eyes, and flushing at the fervency and ardor of his reception.

Allowed to speak at last, Davis thanked his audience for “the hospitality … shown to one who led you in your suffering, but on whom in his distress you were not prepared to turn your back.” Describing his presidency as being “but the instrument in your hands,” he added, “A people less noble than those of the south would have held me responsible for their misfortunes.”

After discussing free trade and immigration (which he supported as a boon to the entire state), Davis turned to the topic of Buffalo Bayou, then in the earliest stages of its gradual development into the Houston Ship Channel:
There is your Ship Channel, which will open up your city as a port of entry. Some say, or have said, that is chimerical. Well, your bayou is about as big as the river Clyde in Scotland. It was so small once that only little sloops could ascend it. But they dredged it, and improved it, until now … the largest and finest war ships are built and taken out on the Clyde.

Drawing to a close, Davis thanked Texans as those “who never turn their backs upon a friend … As long as I may live, and wherever I may live, I shall remember that “Texan” is another name for chivalric generosity and bravery, and my thoughts shall go out to you and endure as long as life lasts.”

The following day, Davis visited briefly on the fairgrounds with aged veterans of Texas’ 1836 war for national independence from Mexico. Referring to the old Lone Star flag, reported the Houston Daily Telegraph, he “exhorted his hearers to be now as loyal to the Stars and Stripes as they had been zealous and heroic in their defense of their first flag.” That same evening he met visitors from across the state at a reception, described by the Galveston Daily News as “an affair as representative as it was brilliant.” He ended Wednesday night by attending a public musical event called “The Old Folks Concert,” held at Houston’s Perkins Hall, a theater ?literally packed and jammed with the wealth and fashion of the city.”

Thursday, May 13, was “Military Day” at the state fair, and Davis attended an event at which two military companies, the Houston Light Guards and the Travis Rifles of Austin, competed for the prize of best-drilled company. After the Travis Rifles were awarded the prize, observed the “special correspondent” of the Dallas Weekly Herald, the combined body of troops, headed by the band of the tenth infantry, United States Army, and the Galveston artillery, passed in review before Mr. Davis, who stood bareheaded in the grand stand. The officers presented swords and the troops carried arms and dipped the colors as they passed. The drum major of the band of the tenth infantry, United States Army, also saluted as they passed. Mr. Davis returned the salute by bowing and raising his hand. He then addressed the troops, and was loudly cheered … In fact, the fair has been one grand ovation to the ex-president from beginning to end …

On his final day in Houston (Saturday, May 15), Davis was guest of honor at a banquet held at the mayor’s office, and attended by (among others) the city’s elected officials, judges and representatives of the local railroad and shipping interests, as well as the mayor of Galveston. Upon being toasted, the Galveston Daily News wrote, Davis responded:
Your attentions will remain forever in my memory. I claim no credit for all this, but to you the credit belongs. It is something new in the history of the world to find a people who will crowd around a fallen man to show him the respect you have extended to me … This kindness to me no one had a right to expect, except one of God’s chosen people …

The next toast, reported the newspaper, was: “To the United States.” Davis subsequently went on to make brief visits by train to Austin (Monday, May 17), and then Dallas (Wednesday, May 19). There he again referred repeatedly to his impressions of Houston – particularly to the deepening of Buffalo Bayou into a channel for large, commercial ships. When the whirlwind state tour had concluded, and Davis was en route back to his home (then in Memphis), the Houston Daily Telegraph exulted on Friday, May 21, 1875:
Everywhere in this State where Jefferson Davis has been, the people have, with one accord, paid a tribute … He was the especial guest of Houston … Jefferson Davis believes the war is over, and tells the boys who wore the gray, as well as those who wore the blue, to rally around the old flag, and forget the animosities of the past. During his visit here, Davis was made a verbal offer of the presidency of what is today Texas A&M University in College Station. Texas Governor Richard Coke formally asked him to accept the position in a letter dated June 14, 1875. It took him a month to decline the offer. Scholars suggest that Davis’ wife persuaded him to remain in the cradle of the deep South, far from the isolation of what was then a frontier state: Varina Davis looked “with dread,” she had written him during his visit, upon any future “Texas hegira.” Nonetheless, writes biographer William E. Dodd, the old man “always felt a peculiar attachment” for “the people of Texas.” Having completed his memoirs, Davis died in 1889 while in New Orleans, and now lies buried in Richmond, Virginia. JEFFERSON DAVIS HOSPITAL served Houston as a medical institution for some 15 years. It was succeeded by a second, larger hospital located on Allen Parkway (but bearing the same name), which has since been demolished. After years of serving various other functions – psychiatric hospital, drug rehabilitation center, records warehouse – “old Jeff Davis” was essentially abandoned by the Harris County Hospital District and sank into complete decay for some two decades.

In 2003, a consortium of non-profit groups began renovating the building with government and private funding and in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. These groups included a local organization called Avenue Community Development Corporation, or Avenue CDC, and another called Artspace Projects, Incorporated. Today the four-story, red brick edifice in Classical Revival style is an officially designated landmark, its historic hallways and terrazzo floors beautifully restored – only now housing loft-style apartments. It seems somehow appropriate that the site has changed, over the course of a century, from a place for burial, into a place for healing, and at last (after a period of rest) into a place for living. It is apparently not yet, however, a place for remembrance – even conciliatory remembrance. One web page belonging to Artspace even today refers to the building as the “Jefferson Davis Artist Lofts.” Upon its actual re-opening, however, that had been rehabilitated into the “Elder Street Artist Lofts.” The name of Jefferson Davis, a spokesman for Artspace informed the Houston Chronicle, was not retained because of its unfortunate historical associations. Artspace Projects, Incorporated, has its headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

THE SPECTER OF Jefferson Davis nonetheless continues to haunt Houston, after a fashion. The specter is actually a bronze statue, created by sculptor Louis Amateis in 1907, of a heroic winged angel bearing a sword and a palm leaf. The statue is titled “The Spirit of the Confederacy” – having not yet been renamed by a progressive-minded nonprofit organization – and the angel stands amid cypress trees (the traditional symbol of mourning) by a pond in Sam Houston Park, with his back turned to the Elder Street Artist Lofts and his face toward the relentless skyscrapers of downtown Houston. The statue does not bear any sort of didactic epigraph, but if it did I would suggest an oddly fitting one, not by Davis but by Abraham Lincoln.

“Fellow citizens,” Lincoln told us in 1862, “we cannot escape history.” H

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