Saturday, January 22, 2011

January 22, 1861: Jeff Davis Stops Over in Chattanooga

William Crutchfield
One of the more interesting bits of Chattanooga Civil War lore concerns the time when Jefferson Davis almost got into a duel with a Chattanooga Unionist...

It was Tuesday, January 22, 1861. The Deep South states had seceded and Jefferson Davis had just given an emotional farewell to his colleagues in the Senate. He was on his way home to Mississippi by train and stopped for the night in Chattanooga. He checked into the Crutchfield House, Chattanooga's finest hotel at the time, which was operated by Thomas and William Crutchfield.

A crowd gathered in the hotel dining room, imploring Davis to speak on the issues of the day. Davis obliged, giving, according to David Key, "a short talk, very moderate in character; it had nothing in it personal or offensive in expression or manner." The gist of the speech was that Mississippi should be allowed to leave the Union in peace and that Tennessee should vote for a secession convention in its upcoming election on February 9. Davis then left the room.

Accounts vary as to whether William Crutchfield, who was a very outspoken Unionist, was asked to speak to rebut Davis's arguments or just took it upon himself. Regardless, Crutchfield jumped up on a counter and delivered a scathing speech/tirade against Davis.

He began with "Behold, your future military despot..." and went downhill from there. Crutchfield accused Davis and his ilk of deserting their seats in Congress when they were in the majority and might have prevented any legislation that might have been hostile to the institutions of the South, said that instead of Davis poking his nose into the affairs of Tennessee his time might be better spent advising his fellow Mississippians to pay their state debts, and denounced all secessionists as traitors. Tennesseans, Crutchfield said, would not be "hood winked, bamboozled and dragged into your Southern, codfish, aristocratic, tory blooded, South Carolina mobocracy."

Davis, informed as to what was going on, reentered the room while Crutchfield was still speaking and began speaking the language of the code duello, asking if Crutchfield was responsible for the insults to his honor and demanding satisfaction. Davis's supporters, of which there were many in the room, had "pistols drawn and cocked for immediate use."

Most accounts of the proceedings say that violence was averted when Thomas Crutchfield dragged his brother down from the counter and out of the hotel. A short account in Louis J. DuPre's Fagots from the Camp Fire states that John W. Vaughn, the sheriff of Monroe County, Tennessee, who was traveling with Davis, "instantly, in defence of Davis' wounded honor, broke a black bottle, snatched from the shelf of the bar-room, over Crutchfield's head. The bleeding, stunned Crutchfield was borne helpless and senseless from the scene of conflict, shedding the first blood spilled in the war."

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