A Warrior's Tale

Madison author Whitney explores
Union Army's Jefferson Davis in book

By Ruth Wright
Staff Writer

MADISON, Ind. (November 2002) – After 20 years of dedicated research, Madison resident Gordon D. Whitney has realized a lifelong dream. Whitney’s book, “Jefferson Davis in Blue: The Life of Sherman’s Relentless Warrior,” which he co-authored with Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr., was released in June.
The book, published by Louisiana State University Press, is the biography of Jefferson Columbus Davis, who besides sharing a name with the president of the Confederacy, became notorious in own right as a general in the Union army.
Whitney, 74, said that he first became interested in Davis because he was from Indiana and because of his intriguing career. Davis grew up in the small town of Memphis, Ind., in Clark County and entered the military at the age of 17. Davis soon gained notoriety from superiors for his service in the Mexican War and was recommended for West Point.

Gordon Whitney

Madison author Gordon Whitney

Although appointment to the military academy never materialized, Davis stayed in the military and continued with what would be a long and, at times, tumultuous career. Whitney said that although Davis was a loving husband and devoted soldier, his reputation was somewhat tarnished by two major incidents that would eventually, and perhaps unfortunately, define his historical significance.
In 1860, Davis was placed under house arrest and charged with shooting to death General William “Bull” Nelson, his former commanding officer. Amazingly, however, Davis was never tried or punished for his crime, mainly because the two generals seeking charges against Davis were killed in a Civil War battle shortly thereafter, Whitney said.
In fact, according to Whitney, Davis was eventually released and went on to command forces during the war and to commit the second most notorious act of his military career, the abandonment of a group of black refugees to Confederate forces at Ebenezer Creek. These two incidents paint a grim picture of the military leader. But according to Whitney, despite character flaws Davis proved himself a competent commander who, after the war, was appointed as commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau and was subsequently sent to Alaska in 1879. There, he spent three successful years helping to establish U.S. authority.
Reviews on the book have been favorable, pointing to the authors’ accurate portrayal of Davis. In the October edition of “North and South,” John F. Marzalek of Mississippi State University concludes, “This new book should correct Davis’ previously all-negative historical reputation. What makes it particularly effective is that, while it presents favorable information, it does not ignore or even downplay Davis’ flaws and shortcomings.”
Whitney said that he is pleased the book was published by Louisiana State University Press, recognized as one of the premier publishers of historical texts.
Whitney, originally from Hammond, Ind., where he worked as a fireman for 25 years, moved to Madison in 1974. Whitney said that he spent many hours researching records in such places as the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the Indiana State Library and Indiana State Archives in Indianapolis.
Additionally, Whitney was able to obtain the original scrapbooks kept by Davis’ wife, Marietta, from one of her descendants. According to Whitney, after completing the bulk of the research, he collaborated with Hughes who has written and edited several books on the Civil War including his most recent, “Sir Henry Morton Stanley, Confederate.”
Whitney is the past-president of the Chicago and Louisville Civil War Round Tables and the current president of the Jefferson County Civil War Round Table, the latter two of which he founded. The Jefferson County group meets on the second Tuesday of each month, September through May at the Presbyterian Church in Madison.
A guest speaker is invited and the meetings are open to anyone interested in Civil War history. Fellow Round Table member Ken Knouf said that the Jefferson County group has been anxiously awaiting the publication of Whitney’s book and have followed his progress with interest.
“It’s been kind of a labor of love (for Whitney). It’s really exciting to see it come to fruition,” Knouf said.
In addition to his recently published book, Whitney has written articles for various historical and Civil War publications. The book is available for purchase from the Jefferson County Historical Society, which will host a book signing from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 10.

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