February 4, 1861, fell on a Monday. On that day, delegates from six lower south states congregated at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala., to form a national government that would be known as the Confederate States of America. Distinguished representatives were in attendance from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Only Texas was missing from those that had seceded from the United States in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election, but the Texas delegates would be along just as soon as that state’s secession vote was confirmed. In the meantime, there was much to do and little time in which to do it.
This new government, everyone agreed, needed to be in operation prior to Lincoln’s March 4 inauguration.
From the beginning of the secession crisis back in November, those leading the charge out of the union assumed that a unifying government would need to be created. South Carolina’s secession convention had suggested Montgomery as the proposed location for this effort, in part because South Carolina fire-eater William B. Rhett considered himself the best choice for president of the new nation and counted on the support of his fellow fire-eater from Alabama, William L. Yancey. Others, not fully aware of Rhett’s ambitions, agreed that Montgomery would serve as a good central gathering place.
As time for the opening gavel approached, just over 40 delegates were on hand. Most had taken rooms at the Exchange Hotel, one of just two such establishments in town and much preferred over Montgomery Hall, its less prosperous counterpart. Both hotels were described by their new guests as filthy, insect-ridden, and overly expensive. Georgia delegate Thomas R.R. Cobb even complained about the “great uniformity” of the mealtime fare. In a letter home, Cobb reserved special disdain for “what is considered here the greatest delicacy called ‘Ambrosia,’ which is nothing more than sliced oranges and grated cocoanut.”
Notwithstanding their lack of creature comforts, or maybe because of it, the convention turned out to be a model of efficiency. On Feb. 4 the delegates elected Howell Cobb, Thomas’s brother, as president of the convention. Howell Cobb was described as a “fat, round-faced, jolly looking fellow,” and proved an able administrator. That same day, a committee of 12 members began working on a provisional constitution which was ready for adoption on Feb. 8. Patterned after the United States Constitution, this Confederate document, together with the permanent version that replaced it on March 11, mirrored the original of 1787 with several notable exceptions. The most significant of these was found in the preamble. Instead of “we the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union,” the Confederate preamble began with “we, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character,” thus affirming from the outset the principle of states’ rights.
Elsewhere, the Confederate Constitution protected the institution of slavery, limited the president to a single six-year term, provided the president with the power of an item veto when considering congressional legislation, streamlined the judicial system, and included a number of other minor changes that gave the document its special character.
Having completed its new constitution, the Montgomery Convention quickly turned to the matter of selecting a president and vice president. In addition to Robert B. Rhett, other hopefuls included Howell Cobb, William L. Yancey and Robert Toombs. In each case, however, reservations arose.
The one name that generated broad and consistent support was that of Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Davis was a West Point graduate who had distinguished himself in the Mexican War of 1846-1848. Since then, he had served ably as a U.S. senator and, during the Franklin Pierce administration, as secretary of war. On top of that, Davis looked like a president. Accordingly, on Feb. 9, Davis was unanimously elected president of the Confederate States of America, along with Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia as vice president. In contrast to the tall, statesmanlike president, Stephens was described as “a little sallow, dried-up looking fellow.”
Since the vice president-elect was serving as one of the Montgomery Convention delegates and thus conveniently on hand, the convention swore him in on Feb. 11. In the meantime, word was sent by telegraph to Jefferson Davis’s plantation near Vicksburg with the news that he had been chosen to lead the fledgling nation. Since there existed no direct rail line to Montgomery, Davis was obliged to make a five-day trip that took him from Jackson to Memphis, Chattanooga and Atlanta before arriving on the 16th. During the course of his journey, the new president delivered 25 short speeches at various stops along the way. One of those occasions is believed to have taken place at Tunnel Hill.
On Feb. 18, a cold, blustery day, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated at Montgomery, which by this time had been chosen as the capital of the Confederacy. Amidst great pageantry, the president-elect was delivered to the C
apitol building in a carriage drawn by six magnificent iron-gray horses driven “by that veteran ‘whip’ Prof. Snow.” During his address, Davis employed images from the American Revolution, noting that the South had “merely asserted a right which the Declaration of Independence of 1776 had defined to be inalienable.” Privately, however, in a letter to his wife Varina, he admitted the enormity of what surely lay ahead. “We are without machinery, without means, and threatened by powerful opposition, but I do not despond and will not shrink from the task imposed upon me.” Indeed, Davis would need a vast reservoir of fortitude over the next four years.
This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories will run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton-Whitfield Civil War 150th Anniversary Committee. To find out more about the committee go to www.dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article please contact Robert Jenkins at 706-259-4626.
To learn more about the creation of the Confederate States you can read “The Confederate Nation, 1861-1865 (New York, 1979) by Emory M. Thomas; The Confederate States of America, 1861-1865 (Baton Rouge, 1950) by E. Merton Coulter; and Jefferson Davis, American (New York, 2000) by William J. Cooper, Jr.