We like to sit on very high horses, don’t we? Every high horse I’ve gotten comfortable on has bucked me off. I suppose that is the nature of aging (and learning). I still have my moments.
Jeff Davis was only a decent cadet at West Point, but an excellent rider and extremely good looking (according to EVERYONE who met him). His military bearing, his grace, his unflappable sense of person integrity impressed friends and acquaintances, but he wasn’t perfect. He was involved in the EGGNOG RIOTS at West Point. Yes, it was as silly as the name. The boys smuggled in whiskey and got completely out of control one Christmas.
As a handsome military man things sometimes happen. I’m no apologist but I have a checkered past (and I was a straight A student set for great things!). For over a hundred years people have wondered about Jeff’s debilitating eye infection. The current theory is that AT SOME POINT JEFFERSON DAVIS CONTRACTED HERPES SIMPLEX. Jeff was not the sort to kiss and tell (as far as we know). I wonder at our shock over the Donald’s crass words when we seemed to love the bawdy talk of the women of Sex in the City–but maybe it’s just another high horse waiting to bolt.
Jeff Davis fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor. When her father ZACHARY TAYLOR refused to give his blessing to the couple, worried that his daughter would have a horrible life following Jeff in the military, Jeff resigned. Three months after their wedding Sarah died of malaria. Jeff almost died as well. I wonder if his eye troubled him yet?
I think we tend to gloss over what pain and tragedy does to a man (or woman). My brother went crazy for about five years when his wife died of brain cancer. Imagine a wedding and a funeral so closely following. Imagine the weakness and depression felt by a young man recovering from malaria and the loss of a young, beautiful wife.
Jeff hermit-ted himself away on the plantation his brother gave him as a wedding gift. He read history. He by chance went to a political meeting and to his surprise was given a position. This post is not about slavery. It’s not about tearing down monuments and in doing so tearing down the complexities of history (don’t you mourn the loss of photos and diaries of your forebears when you find a heartless relative threw them away as clutter?)
People in pain sometimes fight battles and cling to old ideas as their only means of survival. At a Christmas party Jeff met Varina Davis, a girl with Northern ties. Was Jeff just lonely? Did he love her as much as Sarah? They married.
We look at photographs of Jefferson Davis as either a hero of the “Lost Cause” or a hardhearted traitor to his country, but it’s never that easy. Jeff served his country in and out of the military for years. Slavery (only recently done away with in England and still quite a popular thing in the rest of the world including Africa at the time) was seen by different people in different ways–just as pro-life people see things differently about abortion than other people. Most of us go with the flow. We listen to the people with strong opinions one way or the other but very few of us do more than that.
As the debates about slavery heated up again (for slavery was debated constantly since the founding of the nation) so did Jeff’s pain. Herpes simplex comes with black pimples forming around the eye, the eye swells and a film forms. I won’t disgust you with the horrible details of 19th century treatment but it was bad. During a recurrence of symptoms which can lay dormant for a time, Davis lay in a darkened room for days and weeks. Did he wonder if any of it was his fault? Why would he? Even a strong wind hitting the eye was said to bring on his outbreaks.
But there was more. Sudden and severe shocks of pain assaulted his face. A pain so terrible that Varina said the only words Jeff spoke to her were intermingled with such tortured cries of anguish she could hardly stand it. But she did. With every bout of TRIGEMINAL NEURALGIA (considered one of the most painful nerve disorders known to man) Varina stayed at Jeff’s side–sometimes just holding his hand. He could neither eat nor move–again this went on for days and weeks. As a senator he cared so deeply for his duties that on many occasions Varina and others carried him to his work in Washington.
If Jeff loved Varina at first, he was devoted to her now (and would be for the rest of his life).
Jeff shared an unlikely friendship with WILLIAM SEWARD, an openly pragmatic anti-slavery senator from New York, and through Jeff’s illnesses Seward visited him on a daily basis. When a doctor suggested Jeff might have to have his eye removed, Seward reportedly cried with Varina that to spoil Jeff’s face–a face of such masculine beauty– would break their hearts.
Words said in a sick bed are often quite interesting:
After Seward admitted that he never voted but only as it might help his career, “The weakened Mississippian gasped to Seward, ‘Do you ever speak from conviction alone?’
“‘Ne-ever,’ said Seward, stretching out the word as he leaned forward in his chair.
“Davis raised his head from the pillow, looked right at his Northern friend, and said in a low voice, ‘As God is my judge, I never spoke from any other motive.’
“Seward was genuinely moved.”**
**Essay inspired by Bruce Chadwick’s book 1858
Attacks of trigeminal neuralgia may be triggered by the following:
- Touching the skin lightly
- Brushing teeth
- Blowing the nose
- Drinking hot or cold beverages
- Encountering a light breeze
- Applying makeup