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February 10, 2013

Sour Apple Tree
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:19 PM * 23 comments

Today is the one-hundred and fifty-second anniversary of Jeff Davis learning that he was president of the Confederacy.

Jefferson Davis, a former US Senator from Mississippi, was at home trimming his rose bushes when he learned that he’d been selected by the Confederate States of America’s constitutional convention. Up until then the thing he was best known for was designing a hat for the cavalry (the Davis Hat, worn by both sides during the Civil War) while he was Secretary of War.

Jeff hadn’t sought the honor, though he had written to the Governor of Mississippi, “Judge what Mississippi requires of me and place me accordingly.” My guess is that he was hoping to be appointed a general in the Mississippi militia. Davis’s wife, Varina, said later, “Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes he told me like a man might speak of a sentence of death.”

He was an odd choice for Confederate president given that he had spent most of his Senatorial career arguing against secession. He was, however, a plantation owner and slave holder, which made him a logical choice.

Davis himself had no confidence in his ability to carry out the duties of the office. And he saw clearly the difficulties that lay ahead. “Upon my weary heart was showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers, but beyond them I saw troubles innumerable. We are without machinery, without means, and threatened by powerful opposition but I do not despond and will not shrink from the task before me.”

He was right about being without machinery and means: What kind of a country starts a war when it doesn’t own a single cannon factory? His wisest move might have been to make his first act in office to sue for peace while begging for readmission to the Union.

Some years ago I recall (but cannot now find on the Google-indexed web), a cereal company had a US Presidents word-search puzzle printed on the back of the box. And, seemingly by chance, the name “Davis” appeared in the puzzle (though not on the official list of answers). While looking for documentation on that event I did discover that you can get a picture jigsaw puzzle of Jeff Davis dancing on an American flag.

While Davis was charged with treason he was never tried. He was stripped of US citizenship and ability to run for public office, though it was eventually returned to him by congress in 1978. A pity he didn’t run in ‘80; he was a Democrat and might have beaten Reagan.

It is not true that Jeff attempted to avoid capture by Union troops by dressing in women’s clothing. He was wearing Varina’s shawl because it was cold.

My personal connection: My co-author, Doyle, is related (on the Taylor side of the family) to Jeff Davis’s first wife, Sarah.

Comments on Sour Apple Tree:
#1 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 12:36 PM:

There are a lot of Taylors out there. The ones in my family's line tend to live to be ninety-odd (occasionally ninety-very-odd), and spend their declining years in lawsuits with each other.

#2 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 12:47 PM:

In the song "Jeff in Petticoats" we see the lines,

Just fancy now the "What is it?"
Dressed up in crinoline!

The "What is it?" is a reference to the sideshow performer otherwise known as "Zippy the Pinhead."

#3 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 12:56 PM:

It has long been a dream of mine to found the Jefferson Davis Horticultural Society, with a goal of planting a sour-apple tree on the grounds of every state capitol in the Union (not just the South, mind), with a plaque reading something tot he effect that it was planted "to remind all officeholders of the solemnity of their duty".

#4 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 05:07 PM:

I am missing the point of the headline. Presumably it has something to do with a saying or popular song.

#5 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 05:24 PM:

Fragano: I had the same question and googled "Jefferson Davis sour apple". I was informed that there's a version of "John Brown's Body" that includes the line "They're gonna hang Jeff Davis from the sour apple tree".

#6 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 05:25 PM:

"John Brown's hanging on a sour apple tree"?

In this context, is a sour apple tree the same as a crabapple?

#7 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 06:18 PM:

Fragano #4: A song: The Sour Apple Tree; or, Jeff Davis' Last Ditch. (Note the sheet music cover has Jeff Davis in the iconic skirts and cavalry boots, carrying the equally iconic bag of gold and dagger.)

The University of Pennsylvania used the "Hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree" line (without the rest of the lyrics from the 1865 version) in one of their fight songs, but it has apparently been dropped due to vulgarity.

I did learn the song (or at least its first line) in my youth in New York.

#8 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 06:35 PM:

Jim #7: Thanks. That does make things clear.

Carrie S #5: Thanks also.

#9 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 06:53 PM:

BTW, the tune to "The Sour Apple Tree; or, Jeff Davis' Last Ditch" is nowhere even close to "John Brown's Body/The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

#10 ::: James E ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 07:57 PM:

Ah! I hadn't realised "sour apple tree" was actually a line from John Brown's Body; I knew it from the Skillet Lickers'* song-of-the-same-tune Pass Around the Bottle, and since the refrain of that song is "Glory, glory to old Georgia" I'd sort of assumed Jeff Davis was to be hanged for failing to defeat the Union, not for betraying it. I stand corrected.

*The Skillet Lickers are great fun, and probably one source for the Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother Where Art Thou?; they accidentally wrote themselves into music history by recording slightly tongue-in-cheek versions of corny old-timey stuff that ended up being a primary source because no-one had ever recorded the originals which they were lovingly recreating.

#11 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 08:39 PM:

There's another tune, "They Swung John Brown to a Sour Apple Tree" (here performed by a fellow on old-time fiddle). This isn't "Battle Hymn of the Republic" either.

See also, John Brown Exhibiting His Hangman, with Jeff Davis again in women's dress and cavalry boots. No apple tree is in evidence.

#12 ::: BigHank53 ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 09:26 PM:

It wasn't just cannons the South was lacking. Some years ago I got interested in black powder sidearms, and eventually wound up with a compendium of all the official pistols and rifles used by both sides (included were charming oddities like the LeMat nine-shot revolver) which listed the quantities of firearms supplied, and details of the supply contracts. The Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, by itself, was capable of out-producing every state in the Confederacy combined.

There are alt-history concepts that can grant the American South a victory in the Civil War. But not many.

#13 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 10:03 PM:

I don't think there's any scenario where the Confederacy could win with the Union blockade in place. They could have traded cotton for guns, but not with every port sewed up tight.

Having England come in on the Confederate side would work, but that would be far-fetched given England's attitude toward slavery.

The words to "The Sour Apple Tree":

The Yankee boys have caught him --
The traitor, Old Jeff D! --
I wonder if they'll hang him
To the "Sour Apple Tree!"
Don't you think it will be right!
And justice, I declare!
To hang him up "to dry," my boys
And dangle in the air!

The Yankee boys have caught him --
The traitor old Jeff D! --
I wonder if they'll hang him
On the "Sour Apple Tree!"

O, when our Soldiers found him,
I'll bet he did "look rich"
With the "petticoats" around him
As he stood in the "last ditch!"
Old Jeff, he wasn't wise
With "boots" on! don't you see!
It was a splendid sight I'm sure,
Such "Southern chivalry!"

The Yankee boys have caught him,
The traitor old Jeff D! --
I wonder if they'll hang him,
On the "Sour Apple Tree!"

Now if they hang him, it will be
A moral lesson, taught
To those who might in future time
Like him be evil fraught.
Some think it will be right --
Whatever it may be,
I really think they'll hang him
To the "Sour Apple Tree!"

The Yankee boys &c.

#14 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 10:20 PM:

I've been posting the Civil War letters of my great-grandfather and his older brother, along with the latter's journal (where it exists). I haven't run into any mention of J. Davis yet, but coming up are some excellent rants about Copperheads. And next year, there's a trip up Red River.

#15 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2013, 11:58 PM:

The Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, has Jefferson Davis's checkerboard. It came home from the war in the pack of a local soldier who had . . . picked it up . . . at some point along the way.

#17 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2013, 09:31 AM:

I see his birthday is still a state holiday in Florida and Alabama. In Mississippi, it's combined with Memorial Day.

#18 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2013, 09:50 AM:

Alan Hamilton@17: In Florida's defense (sort of, anyhow), I spent my first twelve years there, and never actually saw the day being publicly celebrated . . . and Lord knows, Florida was not precisely a beacon of enlightenment at the time.

(Still isn't, as far as I know. But I haven't been there for decades, and lack the authority to speak.)

#19 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2013, 06:24 PM:

Speaking of John Brown (who by any reasonable definition was a domestic terrorist): John Brown

#20 ::: M Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2013, 07:22 AM:


PJ, where are you posting these family documents?

PJ's sister

#21 ::: Jan Vaněk jr. ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2013, 08:27 AM:

Pardon this humble foreigner, but is "sue for peace and while" some kind of a merism, or just a typo?

#22 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2013, 11:33 AM:

Typo. I think I'll delete the "and."

#23 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2013, 11:39 AM:

M Evans @20: P J Evans @20's name is linked to, a blog titled "I take my pen in hand", which recently consists mostly of posts titled "150 Years Ago Today".

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