The Second Rescue of Mrs. Davis

December 22, 1990|By Neil A. Grauer

WITH A SERENDIPITY rarely seen in the book business, a small Baltimore publishing house has come out with a centennial reissue of the memoirs of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, the First Lady of the Confederacy, just as renewed interest in the Civil War is peaking.

This fortuitous republication is due in part to the local descendants of a Jewish businessman whom Varina Davis revered as one of her benefactors when the Confederacy was collapsing, and whose grandson-in-law later founded the fortune that led to the Baltimore Museum of Art's incomparable Cone Collection of Matisses, Picassos and other treasures.

But that gets a little ahead of the story.

Last January, long before Ken Burns' magnificent television documentary reignited public interest in the Civil War, and without knowing of its impending broadcast, Barrett W. Freedlander, a Baltimore lawyer, told his friend Jan Snouck-Hurgronje, head of the Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America on Read Street, about Mrs. Davis' mammoth, two-volume biography of her husband, out of print since its original publication in 1890.

Mr. Snouck-Hurgronje looked at the book, was intrigued, and decided it deserved republication.

Mr. Freedlander and his wife, Laura, had a dusty copy of the book because a single reference in the 1,638-page memoir, a loving tribute to a man whose public persona was one of icy aloofness, recounts how Abraham Weill, Mrs. Freedlander's great-great grandfather, befriended the erstwhile Confederate First Lady when she and her four young children fled Richmond in the waning days of the war.

With Union forces approaching the Confederate capital in late March, 1865, Jefferson Davis gave his wife a pistol, ''showed me how to load, aim and fire it,'' she wrote, and implored her to leave Richmond with their children, the eldest only nine. They were to head for safety further south in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a furnished house had been rented.

When they reached Charlotte they met Abraham Weill, who clearly understood the plight of outcasts shunned by those who feared reprisals should Northern troops occupy Charlotte.

''We found everything packed up in the house we had rented,'' Mrs. Davis wrote, ''but the agent, Mr. A. Weill, an Israelite, came to meet us there and gave us every assistance in his power; and when he found there were no conveniences for cooking, he sent our meals from his own house for several days, refusing, with many cordial words, any offer to reimburse him for the expense incurred, and he offered money or any other service he could render. This acknowledgement of his kindness is, to some extent, a relief to my heart, which has borne his goodness in grateful memory for twenty-five years.''

According to the Freedlanders, Mrs. Davis privately demonstrated her gratitude to the Weills by giving the family a silver pitcher and writing a letter of recommendation on behalf of Mrs. Weill, urging her acceptance for membership in the Daughters of the Confederacy.

The Weills' granddaughter, Laura, subsequently married Julius Cone of Baltimore, who had moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, to join his brothers in the operation of the Cone Mills there. The modest fortune from that enterprise enabled Julius' sisters, Claribel and Etta Cone, to buy the Matisse and Picasso paintings that are the cornerstones of the BMA's Cone Collection.

The Freedlanders believed that Mrs. Davis' long-forgotten memoirs were an important piece of Civil War memorabilia, an assessment confirmed by Professor Craig L. Symonds, chairman of the history department at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Davis, who in public was always ''austere and dignified . . ., thoughtfully intellectual, passionless, even cold,'' emerges in his wife's memoirs as a sensitive, devoted husband and family man, capable of slipping quietly from his own sickbed to comfort her ill 8-year-old brother with tall tales. ''So carefully did Davis guard his private life,'' Professor Symonds writes, ''that the image of the Confederate president whispering 'bear stories' to a sick child is one that would have astonished not only Davis' enemies, but many of his friends as well.''

Such insights, as well as Mrs. Davis' finely etched vignettes of such prominent ante bellum figures as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Sumner and others, make her memoirs a ''most important book in Civil War literature,'' according to Professor Symonds.

The reissue is dedicated to the great and great-great grandchildren of Abraham Weill, ''the keepers of the scrapbook'' their family has so long preserved.

Once again, they have rescued Mrs. Davis.

Mr. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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