Many of us in Maine and the North remember Jefferson Davis solely as the first and only president of the Confederacy. Our position on the other side during the Civil War places him strongly in the enemy camp and perhaps doesn't lead us to study the facts about his life very dispassionately. Few of us could tell much about his other life before the Confederacy even though only three years before his presidency he spent a summer in Maine and was quite a celebrity.
But first here's a little background to set the scene. One of ten children, Jefferson Finis Davis was born in a Kentucky in 1808. This seems like the stuff from which a legend is made. He was named for the third president of a country which his father fought to free and was born in the West like many of the leaders of the coming generation. Davis was even born in a log house not unlike his future adversary Abraham Lincoln, but with these differences: his house had glass windows, his father's farm was worked by slaves, and young Jefferson was educated in private schools.
Davis attended West Point, graduating in 1828 and soldiered during the 1832 Black Hawk War in Illinois and later in the Mexican War. He was nationally acclaimed as the ‘hero of Bueno Vista’ where he was wounded. Riding this claim to fame he went on to serve as a US Representative, US Senator and Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. In other words he was a very well known and respected American.
By 1858, Davis had become the spokesman of the southern states and was in demand to speak almost constantly on the floor of the Senate and at political and social events. That winter he became very ill. The stress and heavy speaking load caused by the country's sectional difficulties were attributed to bringing on this almost fatal illness. In fact, his speaking load in Senate was so intense that he suffered a facial paralysis. By the end of February, Davis was so seriously run down that he caught cold which went into laryngitis then neuralgia of the left side of his face and badly inflamed his left eye. He lay for weeks in a darkened room unable to speak or see with the pupil of his left eye so painfully swollen that his own doctor thought it would actually burst. Only the constant nursing of his wife Varina and the daily visits of his friends of all political beliefs saved him.
In the spring as Davis began to recover his doctor urged him to take a sea voyage or a vacation to a northern climate during the upcoming summer. And so, after some deliberation, the Davis’s choose to vacation in Maine.
Right: Varina and Jefferson Davis at the time of their wedding. LOC
For two months they traveled about the state and enjoyed our “Vacationland”. At first they used Portland as a base and later moved up to Washington County to visit with their friend Dallas Bache who was running field operations for the Coast Survey, an important scientific and engineering endeavor to accurately map the coast of America. Along the way they visited Brunswick, Waldoboro, Belfast, Bangor, Augusta and other towns; they picnicked on Casco Bay Islands, went to the Bowdoin commencement, a militia muster and the state fair. The Davis family thoroughly enjoyed their stay in Maine.
It did not take very long before Jefferson Davis was prevailed upon to speak to various Maine groups both formally and informally. What he had to say was both very interesting and a thoughtful view of the difficulties coming to a head between the North and the South. Contentious as we often are here in Maine, it is a tribute to Davis and to Maine that he and his opinions were treated with the interest and respect that such an important man of his time was due.
By the end of August the Davis family headed back to Washington. This vacation was their last respite before all hell broke loose.
This is a very abbreviated account of the Jefferson Davis’s vacation and leaves out many interesting parts of the story:
- What kinds of things did Davis say in his Maine speeches? Did he defend slavery?
- Did he have some ulterior political agenda in visiting Maine and New England?
- How was this Southerner treated by Mainers? By the Maine Press?
- Why was Davis’s visit to the Bowdoin so controversial?
- What happened in Waldoboro? Really? And in Washington County? Truth or tall tale?
- Who was Dallas Bache?
- What was the US Coast Survey? What were the ground-breaking methods that scientists were using to map the US?
- Ultimately, at summer’s end, how was Davis’s trip viewed in the North and in the South?
If you are interested in the complete story of the Davis family vacation please read my MaineStory in
The Hidden History of Midcoast Maine
by Pat Higgins with photos by Dave Higgins.