"No traitor has been hung" : the United States of America v. Jefferson Davis 1865-1869




Icenhauer-Ramirez, Robert Eugene

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The treason charge brought against Jefferson Davis after the American Civil War has been largely ignored by historians. This dissertation examines the imprisonment of the ex-Confederate President, his indictment for treason, and the reasons why the case was never taken to trial.
The beginning of this story is straightforward. By May 1865, Jefferson Davis was implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and considered an arch-traitor to the country that had educated him and in which he had risen to political prominence. He was also accused of abusing federal prisoners at Andersonville. At that time, both Northerners and Southerners believed that he might be hanged for these crimes. In the ensuing four years, he was imprisoned, indicted, and his case set for trial many times. However, he was never tried. Ultimately, in 1869, the federal government simply dismissed the case against him. How was it, then, that the political face of the Confederacy escaped a hangman’s noose? Over the last 150 years, this dismissal has primarily been viewed as a political decision. That perception began immediately after his case was dismissed. Northerners regarded it as an example of their magnanimity after having utterly defeated the South. Conversely, white Southerners pointed to the failure to try Davis as proof that he had not committed treason. Their argument went further. If he had not committed treason, then secession had not been unconstitutional. Both of these arguments are consistent with the politics at that time. As Northerners claimed, the federal government was unquestionably generous in victory in many respects. Similarly, as Southerners claimed, a trial of Davis had the potential to reopen the constitutionality of secession. Davis’s defense team was expected to argue that Davis had not violated his loyalty to the United States of America when Mississippi seceded and he followed it out of the Union. The argument made by former Confederates and their supporters was that the dismissal came as a result of fear by Northerners of litigating the constitutionality of secession. By the end of the war, Southerners conceded that secession had been determined to be illegal in a trial by battle. They continued to argue, however, that putting the issue before a court of law might result in the Supreme Court overturning the result of the war. Although both of these justifications are consistent with these political views, there is little factual backing behind either theory. If federal officials had been able to push the case to trial shortly after the war, they certainly would have done so. And, it was unrealistic to believe that an acquittal by a jury, from Richmond, Virginia, no less, would have caused an uncertainty to develop around the question of a State’s right to secede. Instead the evidence will show that the criminal case evolved through the years in a way that led to its ultimate dismissal.
In the United States of America v. Jefferson Davis, both parties were represented by preeminent lawyers – Charles O’Conor for Davis and William Evarts for the United States. However, the attorney responsible for putting the case together for the prosecution was Lucius H. Chandler, the local United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Chandler did not have the skill or temperament necessary to put the case on a footing that would lead to trial. Getting Davis to a jury was also exacerbated by the involvement of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Salmon P. Chase, who was to be one of the two trial judges had the case proceeded to trial. Chase made every effort to ensure that he did not have to preside over this divisive and controversial case. In 1868, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the presidential election also slowed the momentum of the case. On Christmas Day 1868 President Johnson granted a blanket amnesty to those who participated in the rebellion. All that was left was for the prosecution to formally enter a dismissal in the case. This dissertation will explain how, and why, that happened.



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