Meeting Jefferson Davis – Old West Point

Born near the shores of Lake Ontario, in the small town of Hounsfield New York, noteworthy not only for its strategic naval position of Sackett’s Harbor in the War of 1812; it’s also the birthplace of Frances Roe’s patriotism. And what she called “Americanism.” It ran deep in her blood. For Roe, the fourth of July flag-waving, apple pie eating, Star Spangled Banner singing, and sleeve wearing patriot was more than a holiday feeling. Patriotism meant watching the review regiments of soldiers and officers in straight lines wearing the federal blue uniform with shiny brass buttons and shoulder straps. As an officer’s wife later in life, Frances would proudly celebrate the Federal Blues marching to Sousa’s “The March Past of the Rifle Regiment” written for her fellow patriot, officer and husband Faye. 

Throughout Army Letters she repeatedly reminds us that she “loved the Army and all that came with it.” Celebration of Americanism meant living it in her actions by marrying USMA cadet 2nd Lieutenant Fayette W. Roe and immediately heading to their first appointment. Together, they were united in an unspoken agreement of patriotism. And so began their army career of settling the western frontier and governing the territories while proudly carrying the flag for Uncle Sam.  It was more than a career, it was her unequivocal devotion to flag and country.

What prompted Roe’s Americanism was much more than Hounsfield’s historical facts. While sleuthing in the archives, I came across a puzzle piece that undoubtedly influenced her destiny. In April 1861, the Civil War arrives on her doorstep in the town of Elmira. Fannie Mack is sixteen years old and a student at the Elmira Female College.* Elmira was a bustling trade center on the Chemung River, home to 25,000 inhabitants, and the summer home of Mark Twain. Here, she lives and breathes the patriot’s calling due to the fact that Elmira occupies a prominent place in the eyes of the Union states. “It was then an important military post, and its streets echoed to the tread of 30,000 soldiers. It was one of the most important recruiting stations of the North, and thousands of troops were here equipped and sent out.”**

elmirafromhill1

According to Elmira’s newspaper, “Here it was, too, that in 1864 was established one of the most famous rebel prisons. […] Some 12,000 captive Confederate soldiers were confined here from the latter part of 1864 until the close of the [Civil] war.”  This historical fact provides a deeper understanding about Roe’s viewpoint towards Jefferson Davis and who she calls “Old West Point.”

Frances and 2nd Lieutenant Fayette Roe are boarders at the Shamrock, also known as Porterfield Mansion. Shamrock was the residence of Mrs. Julia Lyons Porterfield, who was often referred to as Jefferson Davis’ niece.***  The Shamrock Mansion was well-known for its architecture and elegance. Newspaper reviews proclaimed it- “by far the finest residence” in Vicksburg, Warren County, Mississippi.

The Old Porterfield residence. Home of Jefferson Davis while visiting Vicksburg, Mississippi. Date 188- ? Courtesy of MDAH.

The Old Porterfield residence. Home of Jefferson Davis while visiting Vicksburg, Mississippi. Date 188- ? Courtesy of MDAH.

Frances records poignant events during their commissioned time, between 1874 to 1877 during the reconstruction of the South:

But the  event in the South that has made the deepest impression of all that occurred at Vicksburg, where for three weeks we lived in the same house, en famille and intimately, with Jefferson Davis! […] We were boarding with his niece in her splendid home when he came to visit her. I remember so well the day he arrived. He knew, of course, that an army officer was in the house, and Mrs. Porterfield had told us of his coming, so the meeting was not unexpected. Still, when we went down to dinner that night I was almost shivering from nervousness, although the air was excessively warm. I was so afraid of something unpleasant coming up, for although Mrs. Porterfield and her daughter were women of culture and refinement, they were also rebels to the very quick, and never failed at any time to remind one that their uncle was “President Davis”! 

Clearly, to meet the man she has held accountable for the division of her country and all the loss and heartbreak for citizen and kin was fresh in her memory. But even more so, Jefferson Davis is a USMA  graduate who has dishonored the uniform.*  The uniform is everything:

                     As we went in the large dining room, Faye in his very bluest, shiniest uniform,                                                  looked as if he might be Uncle Sam himself. 

Jefferson Davis, c.1885. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-4852

Jefferson Davis, c.1885. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-4852

Frances chronicles her first impression of Jefferson Davis,

… a tall thin old man who came forward with Mrs. Porterfield to meet us–a courtly gentleman of the old Southern school–who, apparently, had never heard of the Civil War, and who, if he noticed the blue uniform at all, did not take the slightest interest in what it represented. 

Northern censorious judgement encounters cultivated Southern disdain. Frances’ fierce loyalty to country and Americanism duly holds Davis responsible for the near dissolution of the country:

He turned to Faye and grasped his hand firmly and cordially, the whole expression of his face softening just a little. I have always thought that he was deeply moved by once again seeing the Federal Blue under such friendly circumstances, and that old memories came surging back, bringing with them the almost forgotten love and respect for the Academy–a love that every graduate takes to his grave, whether his life be one of honor or of disgrace. One could very easily have become sentimental, and fancied that he was Old West Point, misled and broken in spirit, admitting in dignified silence his defeat and disgrace to Young West Point, who, with Uncle Sam’s shoulder straps and brass buttons, could be generously oblivious to the misguidance and treason of the other. We wondered many times if Jefferson Davis regretted his life.

Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife details the fresh scars of the Civil War not only embedded into the hearts and minds of the Roes, Mrs. Porterfield and Jefferson Davis, but also in the damage done to Porterfield Mansion:

It was impossible not to notice the unpainted casing of one side of a window, and also the two immense patches of common gray plaster on the beautifully frescoed house during the siege of Vicksburg. The shell itself had exploded outside near the servants’ quarters. 

The Civil War had imprinted Roe’s early years and more than likely her critical northerner view about the South. Consequently, the pain of domestic war deemed her abundant criticism, and the victor’s prerogative to proclaim the glory of an inglorious war instigated by “rebels.”  Frances understands in a way, this is Davis’ penance for the defeated South: 

Fayette W. RoeEvery warm evening after dinner, during the time he was at the house, Jefferson Davis and Faye would sit out on the grand, marble porch and smoke and tell of little incidents that had occurred at West Point when each had been a cadet there. At some of these times they would almost touch what was left of a massive pillar at one end, that had also been shattered and cracked by pieces of shell from U.S. gunboats, one piece being still imbedded in the white marble. For Jefferson Davis knew that Faye’s father (Rear Admiral Francis Ashbury Roe) was an officer in the Navy, and that he had bravely and boldly done his very best toward the undoing of the Confederacy; and by his never-failing, polished courtesy to that father’s son–even when sitting by pieces of shell and patched-up walls.

Lastly, Frances Roe honors Davis- in a way she sees fit to yield tribute,

the President of the Confederacy set an example of dignified self restraint, that many a Southern man and woman–particularly woman–would do to follow.  

Being a strong woman with an unwavering steadfast brand of patriotism, Frances believed that the southerners must reunite with the North and move forward. Even more so, become good citizens for the sake of the country. Simply, life with honor was lived in her choices and actions because Americanism was the intrinsic nature of her core. Americanism ran deep in her blood.

USMA Official Register of Officers and Cadets. 1828. USMA Library. Digital Collections. http://digital-library.usma.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p16919coll3/id/534

USMA Official Register of  the Officers and Cadets. June, 1828. USMA Library. Digital Collections.

Davis, Jefferson. USMA Library. Digital Collections. Official register of Officers and Cadets. v1828. pg 7.

Jefferson Davis. First Class. Cadet. No. 23. USMA Library. Digital Collections. Official Register of the  Officers and Cadets. v1828. pg 7.

 

 

 

*

 

 

The Shamrock, Porterfield Mansion., c. 1936, Walker Evans collection. Library of Congress, LC-USF342-T01-008233-A.

The Shamrock, Porterfield Mansion., c. 1936, Walker Evans collection. Library of Congress, LC-USF342-T01-008233-A.

The Shamrock, Porterfield Mansion was built in 1851 at Mulberry at Oak, and considered a healthy location with a full view of the waterfront (see endnotes of “The Papers of Jefferson Davis: 1871-1879″ ; 3 December 1875. egoogle book).  After the Civil War, Julia Porterfield accepted boarders at the Shamrock Mansion. Note: the Shamrock was demolished c. 1936.

* Elmira Female College – 1861 preparatory program records verify Frances M.A. Roe is registered as Fannie Mack by her father Ralph Gilbert Mack.

**Elmira, NY Newspaper article description.

***St. Charles Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana, September, 1877.  Here’s a brief background on ‘Shamrock’: Julia Lyons Porterfield -owner of Shamrock -also known as the Porterfield Mansion, often hosted her uncle -Jefferson Davis, since she was the ‘adopted’ daughter of Joseph E. Davis’ daughter Florida and her first husband David McCaleb. Julia was often identified as Jefferson Davis’ niece or cousin. Julia Lyons married William Porterfield who was a widower, and they resided at the ‘Shamrock.’

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