secret_history (2006-28)

Unexpected Encounters

A Rebel icon, and the weighty cares of insurance

by Jack Neely

The old town was recuperating from its war injuries, perhaps quicker than most of the South. It was rebuilding itself into something altogether different, now with a major iron works, a couple of competing breweries, a prospective opera house, a small university, and almost 10,000 people living in an un-Southern proximity. Peter Kern, the German baker, sold candy, breads and cakes on Market Square; the Spiro brothers sold their own summer confectioneries around the corner on Gay; the Anti-Tobacco Society met at the Old Methodist Church, and the Sons of Temperance met at Temperance Hall, as dozens of saloons and tobacconists did land-office business all over town.

It had been over six years since Appomattox, but the Civil War was still daily news. The Knoxville Chronicle , run by former Union Capt. William Rule, announced a fundraising project for a statue of the late Gen. George Thomas, the Union hero of Tennessee battles—and raised questions about the credibility of former Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who kept insisting the Ku Klux Klan didn’t exist, and that if it did, he had nothing to do with it.

There had even been controversy about the celebration of the Fourth of July. Many diehard Confederates despised it as a Yankee holiday; in much of the South, keeping the Fourth was looking for trouble. The Chronicle lamented the fact that cautious Knoxville didn’t have much of it that year. 

And in the summer of 1871, Market Square was suffering a plague of ragamuffins. “Crowds of children, white and colored, who steal anything they can get their hands on,” as an article in the Chronicle —whose newsroom was located on the Square—described it. “If a lady making change lays down her parasol, it is spirited away in a manner astounding to realize.”

With its ever-busier train station, Knoxville was becoming less predictable. You never knew whom you might encounter. Just across Depot Street from the train station was the Atkin House, a hotel with a restaurant. One customer that July day was a slender insurance man of 63, with receding hair and a wispy goatee. A few recognized him, as you might recognize the president of a defunct country, even one who had spent a couple of years in jail.

The first to recognize the old statesman loitering in the Atkin House dining room was the waiter. Known as “Burrell”—whether first name or last wasn’t important to the reporter—the waiter approached the newcomer “in the most approved style of a French dancing master.”

“Here’s Mass Jeff Davis,” he said, using the abbreviated honorific used, sometimes a little saucily, for white men of higher station. “Used to know you in Virginia. How do you do, Mass Jeff?”

In mentioning Virginia, it’s not clear whether Burrell knew Jefferson Davis from the Confederate government of which Davis used to be head of state, or from federal jail. Both were in Virginia. The waiter turned to another distinguished gentleman, who happened to be the proprietor of the Atkin House.

“Mass Jefferson, ’low me to introduce Mass James Bell. Mass James Bell, this is Mass Jeff Davis.”

Thus Burrell introduced his boss to the former president of the Confederate States of America. The Chronicle remarked on this “rather unconventional mode of making an acquaintance.” In 1871, it was apparently unusual for a black restaurant employee to introduce two white men to each other.

Jefferson Davis had been out of jail for four years; he’d tried to make a living in Britain, but failed. He accepted a job as president of Carolina Life, in Memphis. He traveled mostly for business, selling insurance around the South. But recently, in Augusta, he’d given a “bitter, defiant” speech, implying that the Republican Grant administration was “wicked,” and expressing skepticism of congressional inquiries into the KKK. “If I say, ‘Good night, my friends, go to your homes,’ and a Congressional investigating committee happened to be within hearing, its members would swear that I directed you to go off and join the Ku Klux.”

Davis was not universally beloved in 1871, in either the North or the South. Unionists vilified him as a traitor to the United States who should have gotten much more than two years in jail. Many old Confederates blamed his military meddling for the South’s loss of the war. In that regard, Davis’s trip here may have been a little awkward. One recent, specific charge against Davis was that he had encouraged Gen. Longstreet to waste critical weeks in a fruitless siege of Knoxville.

Still, he was a handsome man who could cause some hearts to flutter.

It’s not clear whether Jefferson Davis spent the night in Knoxville, that July—but it might have been good, for the sake of his reputation, if he’d stayed the summer through.

A few days after his departure from Knoxville, Davis was in Memphis—where he was, for the time being, living at the Peabody Hotel—and boarding a train for Huntsville.

“The Great Man Descends to a Lower Berth,” went the headline of an unsigned item in the Chronicle . “A New Illustration of His Fondness for Petticoats.”

Davis had been married for many years, but he and his wife were then living apart. Varina Davis didn’t care for the humidity of her husband’s former domain; she didn’t like to come farther south than Baltimore, where she was living that year.

However, Davis wasn’t alone on that trip to Huntsville. According to the article, he was “kind enough to honor with his protective and fatherly care the handsome wife of a gentleman.…” It went on to describe Davis’ journey to Huntsville, commenting that his young female companion took the bunk directly below his own.

When Davis said he was going on to bed at 8:30, “The passengers were somewhat surprised that the venerable ex-president should retire so early, but they assumed the weighty cares of insurance and the mighty memories of his presidential career weighed heavily on the great man.”

The bunk was apparently visible to some of Davis’ card-playing acquaintances. “Strange to say, the curtains which hid the form of the distinguished ex-President from the gaze of his fellow passengers were seen to bulge outward. A form descended cautiously from the upper berth, and dropped into the lower one....

“Weighed down with the cares of insurance, and the mighty memories of the past, was it possible that the distinguished ex-President was a somnambulist?”

Admirers of Davis are free to take that account with a grain of salt. The Chronicle was, after all, a Republican paper.