150 Years Ago This Week: Death in the White House

April 1864

On Monday, April 25, Maj. Gen. Robert Ransom was assigned to command the Department of Richmond. That same day, following the capture of Plymouth, N.C., on April 20, the Confederates began evacuating nearby Washington, N.C.

With the failure of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ Red River campaign in Louisiana, Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele and his Federal column in Arkansas began to retreat from Camden after failing to join Gen. Banks’ troops on the Red River.

In Florida, Union troops began expedition to clear out Confederate troops on a route between Jacksonville and Lake Monroe. The Maryland Constitutional Convention began meeting in Annapolis in sessions that were to last until the beginning of September. In Richmond, President Jefferson Davis instructed Jacob Thompson of Mississippi to proceed at once to Montreal in Canada, and meet with Clement C. Clay, Jr. to establish a Confederate presence there.

While not officially designated as such, the mission was apparently intended to see what assistance could be obtained and to communicate with certain parties in the United States for the purposes of instituting a possible truce or peace. In time, a number of Confederate operatives including John Surratt and John Wilkes Booth would meet with Mr. Thompson, Mr. Clay and others in Montreal, and bank accounts were established there to fund these operations.

Another bombardment of the hulking presence of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C., by Union land and sea batteries began on April 28. In the following week, over 500 rounds would be fired by the Federals, and still the fort showed no signs of yielding.

President Davis informed Gen. E. Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department: “As far as the constitution permits, full authority has been given to you to administer the wants of your department, civil as well as military.” The U.S. Congress raised all duties 50 percent for 60 days on April 29; later, the rate was extended until July 1.

In Richmond on Saturday, April 30, President Davis again wrote to Gen. Polk: “Captured slaves should be returned to their masters on proof and payment of charges.” Then personal tragedy struck the Confederate White House between 5 and 7 p.m. that afternoon: Five-year-old Joe Davis, the darling of the Davis household, was killed when he fell from the high verandah on the second floor of the president’s home to the pavement in the garden 15 feet below, breaking his neck.

The child was born in 1859 in Washington, D.C., while his father was a senator from Mississippi, and was an exceptionally bright boy — apparently the best behaved of all the Davis children. Rumors persisted that Joe had been pushed from the verandah by his older brother, Jeff Jr., but this has never been substantiated. Neither of his parents were at home when the tragedy occurred, and a servant discovered Joe lying on the pavement.

Sister Maggie Davis ran to a neighbor for help, and Jeff. Jr., enlisted the help of two passersby on the street, one of whom was a Confederate officer who later said that the boy’s head was badly contused “and his chest much injured internally.”

The parents arrived home at about the time of Joe’s death, and President Davis went to his room, refusing to see anyone. Later, he could be heard pacing the floor all night. Funeral services were held the next day, May 1, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and Joe was interred in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, where the rest of the Davis family would eventually be buried.

It was both ironic and coincidental that, in the service of their respective countries, President Davis and President Lincoln both lost sons. On Feb. 20, 1862, 11-year-old Willie Lincoln, the president’s third son, had succumbed to typhoid fever in the White House. The illness had also affected young Thomas “Tad” Lincoln, but the president’s youngest son had recovered.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.