In 1878, more than a decade after his faction’s defeat in the Civil War, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote a letter to the child of a friend, Confederate General and eventual University of Alabama President Henry De Lamar Clayton. Since the young man, Jefferson Davis Clayton, bore his name, he apparently felt a responsibility to get to know him.
Davis’s letter to Clayton was eloquently written, and it offers wisdom and advice that is clearly borne of his own life’s circumstances. You can click on the images below to read the original — his handwriting is fairly readable — but the letter has also been transcribed for your convenience.
Beauvoir Harrison Co. Missi
15th Aug. 1878
Dear young friend,
The high compliment your gallant father bestowed on me, in giving to you my name, not only imposed an obligation on me to him, but creates in me a deep interest in you. Therefore I write to you, and address you as my friend.
The stormy time in which you were born, if not most favorable to your comfort, was, it has been thought by many, most conducive to noble characteristics in the children of that period. Without [assenting?] to, or [dissenting?] from the physiological problem, I can hope all which is possible for the son of parents as true, and heroic as yours; and so expect my name to receive lustre from your deeds.
Circumstances even more than merit, decide whether one shall be famous or not: but it is in the powers of most men to leave behind them a [pg. 2] good name, on which shall have the unfading lustre of a virtuous and charitable life. The true gentleman never sacrificed his self respect to gain temporary success, on what a poor ambition considers glory; therefore he can never be humiliated by disaster or defeat. The condition of our country enables you to find instructive examples illustrative of the above remark.
But I only intended to express my affectionate regard for you and must apologize for wandering into general reflections.
Please present my respectful regard to your parents and believe me ever
Mr. Jefferson Davis Clayton
Barbour Co. Ala.
Davis also wrote to another Civil War General and future UA President, Josiah Gorgas, whose papers are housed at the W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library. To find those letters, go to the online finding aid and find the series Josiah Gorgas. Click Components in Detail, where you’ll find Incoming Correspondence, and, within that, a folder for letters from Davis.