Transvestite President? May 19, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
Beachcombing isn’t big on cross-dressing but this fabulous pastiche of poor old Jefferson Davies’ capture caught his attention. Some accounts – Union accounts it should be noted – claim that Jefferson tried to escape wearing his wife’s clothing. This comes from the New York Times.
To Maj. Hudson was given the duty of surrounding the tent of the great rebel. He picked fifteen of his best men and proceeded to execute the order, which was done with consummate skill, and to the entire satisfaction of his superior officer… After the order had been properly executed of surrounding the tent, the Major proceeded to the tent of Davis, where he was met by Mrs Davis somewhat en dishabille. She inquired if they intended to invade the privacy of a lady’s apartment. The Major thought not. At this juncture an individual having the appearance of an antiquated grandam, dressed with a lady’s waterproof cloak and shawl, minus the inevitable hoop skirt, however, accompanied by a young negro servant girl, bringing a small bucket, emerged from the tent, apparently for the purpose of going to the spring for a bucket of water. This was an ingenious device of Mrs Jefferson Davis to get her husband through the lines. The ruse failed, and Jefferson Davis was discovered. The servant girl ran back to the tent, and Jefferson Davis was soon effectually procured. For some time he remained sulky, very much after the fashion of an old lady in need of her usual compound extract of strong tea; but the ‘President’, after a while, got over his ‘fits’, and became quite communicative; conversing freely on ordinary topics, but maintaining a prudent silence on current military and political events.
Here is another Union account this time from Harper’s Weekly.
The captors report that [Davis] hastily put on one of his wife’s dresses and started for the woods, closely followed by our men, who at first thought him a woman, but seeing his boots while he was running, they suspected his sex at once. The race was a short one, and the rebel President was soon brought to bay. He brandished a bowie-knife and showed signs of battle, but yielded promptly to the persuasions of Colt’s revolvers, without compelling the men to fire. He expressed great indignation at the energy with which he was pursued, saying that he had believed our Government were too magnanimous to hunt down women and children.
Note the differences. The northern press clearly found the story so irresistible that they began to make hay with it. Within a month Barnum was actually running sketches of Davis stumbling in dresses before circus crowds.
And so the Confederacy ended not with a bang but bangs and a petticoat.
Here, instead, is a letter from the always formidable Varina Davis describing the moment of her husband’s arrest. Essentially, if we are to believe her words – and they are pretty consistent with the report in the NYT – she was responsible (perhaps accidentally) for making her husband into a woman. Though note she quickly jumped on the cross-dressing bandwagon by calling him her ‘mother’. JD always passionately denied he had put on women’s clothing and his wife’s account suggest that he may not have realised what was happening.
Just before day the enemy charged our camp yelling like demons. Mr Davis received timely warning of their approach but believing them to be our own people, deliberately made his toilette and was only disabused of the delusion when he saw them deploying a few yards off. He started down to the little stream hoping to meet his servant with his horse and arms. But knowing he would be recognized, I plead [sic] with him to let me throw over him, a large waterproof which had often served him in sickness during the summer season for a dressing gown, and which I hoped might so cover his person, that in the grey of the morning he would not be recognized. As he strode off I threw over his head a little black shawl which was round my own shoulders, seeing that he could not find his hat and after he started sent my colored woman after him with a bucket for water, hoping that he would pass unobserved. He attempted no disguise, consented to no subterfuge, but if he had, in failure is found the only matter of cavil. Had he assumed an elaborate female attire as a sacrifice to save a country, the heart of which trusted in him, it had been well. When he had proceeded a few yards, the guards around our tents with a shocking oath called out to know who that was. I said it was my mother and he halted Mr. Davis, who threw off the cloak with a defiance and when called upon to surrender did not do so – and but for the interposition of my person between his and the guns would have been shot. I told the man to shoot me if he pleased to which he answered he ‘would not mind it a bit’, which I really believed.
It is, in wartime, the duty of POWs to make for the hills and Davis was trying to do just that and his shame at women’s clothing is curious: though looking at these cartoons…It should go without saying that a long line of men from Achilles, through Bonny Prince Charlie, Antonio López de Santa Anna, Charles II and a half dozen other famous individuals owe their lives to a skirt: any others, drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com.
There is also, Beach notes, a recent trend among Islamists to use burkas to evade capture, most notably Hamdi Adus Isaac, one of the failed London bombers, who, in 2005, got to Rome relying on the multicultural sensibilities of Britain’s border police. Hamdi got back to London thanks to an international arrest warrant.
27/May 2012: John M writes in. It seems that the Jeff Davis in a dress story is a spurious legend with no credible evidence to back it up. Cobblers, I think you call it? A most telling paragraph from this article: The arrival in Washington of the so-called petticoats proved to be a big letdown. When Stanton saw the clothes, he knew instantly that Davis had not disguised himself in a woman’s hoop skirt and bonnet. The “dress” was nothing more than a loose-fitting, waterproof raglan or overcoat, a garment as suited for a man as a woman. The “bonnet” was a rectangular shawl, a type of wrap President Lincoln himself had worn on chilly evenings. Stanton dared not allow Barnum to exhibit these relics in his museum. Public viewing would expose the lie that Davis had worn one of his wife’s dresses. Instead Stanton sequestered the disappointing textiles to perpetuate the myth that the cowardly “rebel chief” had tried to run away in his wife’s clothes. The above account seems to originate from a relatively neutral source, but I’m sure you could suss that out more adequately than I. more on the story, can be found on the lost museum and memory (scroll down a bit). thanks John M!