When Confederate VP Alexander Stephens Was Imprisoned in Boston

Alexander Stephens_1859

Alexander Stephens (1859)/ Image via Public Domain

On Sunday, May 21, 1865, the president and vice president of the Confederate States of America bade each other farewell. The latter would recall of the former, “he seemed more affected than I had ever seen him. He said nothing but good-bye, and gave my hand a cordial squeeze; his tone evinced deep feeling and emotion.”

It would be the last time rebel leaders Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis would shake hands.

Stephens had been arrested ten days prior at his estate in Crawfordville, GA — the main house of which he ironically named Liberty Hall — on charges of treason. He had woke that day, May 11, “a most beautiful and charming morning,” ate breakfast and wrote letters, and learned Union cavalry had descended on the rustic Georgia town to apprehend him. After a short time packing necessities, and no time to send word to his family, he boarded a Union train bound for Washington D.C.

It wasn’t until nine days later, while afloat off the coast of Virginia, that he learned his destination had been rerouted to Boston.

“I knew then that Fort Warren was to be my place of imprisonment.”

Early in captivity he learned of the capture of Davis, and on a rolling basis he would learn of the capture of other noted Confederates.

En route, in Atlanta, Stephens was given the choice of two routes to Washington, “by Dalton and the lines of railroads northwest and north, or by sea from Savannah. I selected the sea route, but told him I did not wish to go with Mr. Davis.”

Stephens then boarded another train, to Savannah by way of Crawfordville where he was permitted again to pack for the journey. Again leaving his home, perhaps this time for good, he posited,

Leave-takings were hurried and confused. The servants all wept. My grief at leaving them and home was too burning, withering, scorching for tears. At the depot was an immense crowd, old friends, black and white, who came in great numbers and shook hands. That parting and that scene I can never forget. I could not stand it until the other train arrived, and I requested the Captain to move off. This he did.

Despite his wishes, Stephens would spend a short time asea on the same vessel as Davis. The two men had shared an icy relationship regardless their respective positions as the Confederacy’s number one and number two; for it was Stephens “who always saw flaws in whatever the President recommended.” Indeed, if Stephens publicly supported Davis, he “privately countenanced the most serious opposition to the President.”

Davis would disembark at Hampton Roads, VA, where he was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe, clamped in irons, to await trial. Stephens would continue to Boston Harbor.

On May 24, Stephens caught his first glimpse of Massachusetts “leaving Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to the right.” The boat would drop anchor near midnight at Georges Island.

Liberty Hall

Home of Alexander Stephens, Liberty Hall, Crawfordville, GA/ Image Ezratrumpet (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Stephens provides in his recollections little insight as to how he felt at the prospect of his imprisonment. While he does provide vivid imagery of his cordial interactions with the crew and fellow captives, the consistency of the meals he ate, and the tide and turbulence of the sea, the only hint of his state of mind is through his constant yearning to alert his brothers of his circumstances. 

One letter he wrote to his brother John, which he was then prohibited to mail, is composed of just a handful of lines. In a mere five he expresses affection and solicits fortitude.

May God enable you to be as well prepared for whatever fate may await me as I trust He will enable me to bear it. May his blessings ever attend to you and yours. My kindest regards to Cosby, Dick Johnston, and all friends. I have not time to say more. My tenderest love to you dear little ones.

And just days later he confided, “Death, I felt, I could meet with resignation, if such was to be my fate, might I but communicate with [half-brother Linton] and other loved ones while life should last.”

But he never admits to feeling anything along the lines of anxiety, melancholy, or impending doom, as one would suspect an incarcerated person might feel on his or her way to a 4-acre stronghold with 8-foot-thick by 600- to 666-foot-long walls fortified by thirty 32-pound casemate guns, bastion-stationed howitzers, and 8- and 10-inch columbiad cannons.

Of all the military prisons of the Civil War era, Fort Warren was among the most reputable. The roughly 400-man corps that guarded the fort was “a fine body of men, and were uniformly kind and just toward all the prisoners.” They afforded prisoners “all reasonable privileges.” And unlike other such military prisons, “It was surprising that there was so little sickness among the prisoners…”

Fort Warren_Boston Harbor

Fort Warren, Georges Island, Boston Harbor/ Image via Doc Searls (CC BY 2.0)

One of the the Confederate prisoners who was also taken north conveyed this same sentiment to Stephens.

“He spoke in favourable terms… he had been in several prisons and had been treated better at Fort Warren than anywhere else.”

His quarters, while not necessarily spartan, were a breeding ground for what he referred to as “mental torture,” in which, he describes, like something out of a Poe story, “a coal fire was burning; a table and chair were in the centre; a narrow, iron, bunk-like bedstead with mattress and covering was in a corner. The floor was stone — large square blocks. The door was locked. For the first time in my life I had the full realization of being a prisoner. I was alone.”

As habitable as Fort Warren was for the numerous detainees who lived behind its Quincy granite walls, its subjection of isolation took the heaviest toll on Stephens.

Prisoners were entitled to walk the grounds at their leisure, but even in this Stephens was incapable of finding respite from his own mind; thoughts of his family ran rampant, books and newspapers failed to distract him, inaccurate articles attributing false quotes to him made headlines without refute, and the poor state of health that plagued him his entire life was hardly tempered in the confines of imprisonment.

New England’s notoriously inclement weather didn’t help matters either. On May 27 Stephens went for a “short walk out this morning with Lieut. Woodman. Rain drove me in. Greatly Depressed about home and the dear ones there…”

The next day, Stephens sank to a new low.

The horrors of imprisonment, close confinement, no one to see or to talk to, with the reflection of being cut off for I know not how long — perhaps forever — from communication with dear ones at home, are beyond description. Words utterly fail to express the soul’s anguish. This day I wept bitterly. Nerves and spirit utterly forsook me… My affliction, I know, is more of mind than body. Thoughts of home, my brother, and all dear ones there, black and white, almost kills, almost crazes me.

Though in deep despair, he attempted at keeping his mind occupied. He paced his room and estimated its dimensions, at one point recording a distance of over a mile; he reminisced about the last time his family was together at Liberty Hall, those of whom were still alive; he recollected a personal favor granted him by Abraham Lincoln when, at the Hampton Roads peace conference — a “fruitless and relatively unimportant” attempt at peace between the two warring sides late in the war, where Lincoln and Stephens were both present — Lincoln granted Stephens’s POW nephew a special parole.

As time passed, albeit slowly, Stephens’s conditions improved along with his disposition. He was provided tableware and utensils for his hearty meals. He filled the pages of his diary with contemplations of the Civil War. He justified his taking up the Confederate cause; he opposed cessation, he said, and abhorred the idea of a dissolved union, but like many of his southern constituents, ultimately followed the lead of his native state.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens/ Image via Public Domain

He paced his cell, he wandered the grounds, he took in from some seven miles distant “the State House cupola, Bunker Hill Monument, and other prominent objects.” He tended to his health. His eyes filled with tears at the thought of his family. He read of notable Confederates being released from prison, being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, considering “When will the general jail-delivery extend to Fort Warren, I wonder?”

He perused history and philosophy. He applied these to his own experience of attempting to build the Confederacy. With permission, he wrote to his family.

This routine continued for months; the pacing, the wandering, the philosophising, the reading, the reminiscing, the writing, the corresponding, the caretaking.

On July 4 he audibly observed Independence day. Guns were saluting all about. Perhaps fittingly for Stephens, though, “To south and southeast there was a magnificent rain-cloud in full view.”

On October 12, Stephens was notified of his imminent release. His last diary entry in Boston was transcribed the following day and, on October 27, he again picked up his pen, “Thanks be to the Giver of all good, the Father of all mercies, and the Bestower of all blessings, I am once more at home!”

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2 thoughts on “When Confederate VP Alexander Stephens Was Imprisoned in Boston

  1. It’s interesting to contrast Stephen’s statement here of “Thoughts of home…and all dear ones there, black and white…” with his words in the infamous cornerstone speech: “[The Confederacy] rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” While he had beloved friends who are black, he was simultaneously a hideous racist and white supremacist. Perhaps this is why we have such a difficult time with these Confederate leaders and racists in our past – Robert E. Lee, Alexander Stephens, even Boston’s own Tom Yawkey, whose biographer, Bill Nowlin, stated that he never saw him personally racist. The men don’t fit my mental stereotype of the n-word spewing, redneck racist of my mind, and yet they are.

    Thanks for another excellent, informative article!

    Like

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