Spending Christmas behind bars isn’t anybody’s idea of fun. That’s what happened to former U.S. Senator George Wallace Jones in late December 1861, after the federal government seized a personal letter to Jefferson Davis.
George Wallace Jones was a pro-slavery Iowa Democrat who was a lifelong friend of Jefferson Davis. Senator Jones made stump speeches around Iowa. For example, he said, if civil war broke out, he and his three sons would “be found in the ranks of the Southern Army, and that, altho’ we might be few in number, we would be victorious as our cause would be just.” Perhaps this was a politician’s bravado, but it was out of step with many Iowa constituents in the 1850s.[i]
Jones served in the U.S. Senate alongside William H. Seward of New York. They were “brother Senators,” and both were friends of Senator Jefferson Davis. In early 1857, Jefferson Davis’s “left eye became intensely inflamed.” Wracked with pain, Davis was confined to a darkened room. Seward visited Davis an hour every day, telling Davis of congressional news and trying to lift his spirits. Davis’s wife, Varina, appreciated Seward’s “earnest, tender interest” in her husband.[ii]
When he lost his Senate seat, President James Buchanan came to the rescue, appointing him minister, or ambassador, to Bogota, New Grenada (present-day Columbia). Ambassador Jones was in South America as the United States descended into civil war.
It took weeks for letters to come by ship to New Grenada, and then even longer to be delivered to Ambassador Jones. Consequently, Jones didn’t know that Confederates had fired upon Fort Sumter when he wrote a fateful personal letter to Jefferson Davis on May 7, 1861. He also didn’t know that Seward had been intercepting his correspondence since Lincoln was inaugurated.
Absolute power …
Historian Mark E. Neely Jr. notes that “Secretary of State William H. Seward was given control of military arrests of civilians” after Fort Sumter until the War Department assumed control of them in early 1862. Seward organized a secret service for this purpose.
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that tells of Seward’s power. He allegedly told Lord Lyon, the British minister in Washington:
“My Lord, I can touch a bell on my right hand, and order the arrest of a citizen in Ohio. I can touch the bell again, and order the arrest of a citizen in New York. Can the Queen of England, in her dominions, do as much?”[iii]
A visit with Abraham Lincoln
About this time, the Lincoln administration recalled Ambassador Jones to replace him with a Republican. When Ambassador Jones returned to Washington in December 1861, his boss, Seward, honored him with a diplomatic dinner. Seward also introduced Jones to Abraham Lincoln as “my old friend.” Lincoln invited Jones to visit his home.
The next night, Jones came to the White House and saw Lincoln with his leg thrown over the side of a chair. Lincoln said he had met Jones years earlier, when Lincoln was a state representative. Jones had asked the Illinois State Legislature for permission to operate a ferry from Dubuque to the shore of Illinois.
Lincoln said to Jones, “You were brought to my house one night by our old friend, Judge Pope, of the United States District Court for Illinois, the father of this ‘lying Gen. John Pope’ now of our army.”
Jones said, “Yes, Mr. President, I got that John Pope into West Point Military Academy in 1838 …”
Lincoln said, “Judge Pope said to me, ‘Lincoln, I want you to pass George’s bill granting him a ferry privilege at Dubuque. I’ll be damned, if you don’t pass his bill tomorrow morning, you shall never come to the Legislature again.”
Lincoln then told some funny stories and suggested that Jones get reacquainted with Mary Lincoln, whom he knew from his college days.
On Jones’s last day in Washington, Seward pulled a bottle out from under his desk and said, “Let’s take a farewell drink.”
The Grinch emerges
The next morning, Ambassador Jones rode a train to New York. When he arrived, a detective arrested Jones, without formal charges, at the order of his “old friend,” William H. Seward.[iv]
Later that day, Seward told the press that Jones was in Fort Lafayette prison. Seward publicized one of the Ambassador’s letters to Jefferson Davis, highlighting passages that made him appear disloyal. Jones had written Davis:
My prayers are regularly offered up for the reunion of the States, and for the peace, concord and happiness of my country. But let what may come to pass, you may rely upon it, as you say that neither I or mine, ‘will ever be found in the ranks of our (your) enemies.’
May God Almighty avert civil war, but if unhappily it shall come, you may, I think without doubt, count on me and mine and hosts of other friends standing shoulder to shoulder in the ranks with you and our other southern friends and relatives whose rights like my own have been disregarded by the abolitionists.[v]
A Christmas Eve request to the Grinch
Dubuque Attorney Ben M. Samuels asked Seward’s office for details about George Wallace Jones’s arrest and imprisonment. Samuels wrote on Christmas Eve:
The General’s family is in the very depths of distress. The suspense in regard to the charges against him increases their anguish of spirit. Certainty will bring to them some measure of relief … Mrs. Jones informs me that she is acquainted with Sec. Seward and has always regarded him as entirely friendly with the General and the family.
A different perspective
Iowa Republicans excoriated Jones and his traitorous sons. Ambassador Jones had written another letter on the same day, in which he states the cry of his heart. Unfortunately for him, the second letter slipped past the State Department. Jones had told a fellow Iowa Democrat:
I tell [Jefferson Davis] he judges me & my friends rightly in supposing that we will not make war against … our own beloved people who are driven from the Union for no other reason than because they were unwilling to submit to insult, injury & a palpable violation of our Constitution.
No, I will not do battle against them & rather than do so I will leave my own beloved home & go South to join Davis … & the true hearted & chivalrous Southerners.
Great God, has it come to this that I am to be impressed into a northern Army, at the bidding of Kirkwood … or other Abolition coward[s], to go down south with a rifle on my shoulder, do battle against the only brother whom I have living … or turn my back upon the State which has honored me so highly?[vi]
Release from prison
Ambassador Jones spent about two months in prison. After he was released, the New York Times called Jones a minister to “Bogota [Colombia] and Fort Lafayette [Prison].”[vii]
Jones write a letter, defending himself, that was printed in the Burlington Hawk-eye on July 12, 1862. He said he had intended to fight only abolitionists, through the political process, but not to “break up the Union.” But he was never allowed to defend himself in court.[viii]
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[i] George Wallace Jones to Jefferson Davis, 11/30/1858, DIY History, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.
[ii] William J. Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American (New York: 2000), 288.
[iii] Mark Neely Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: 1991), 19-21
[iv] Carl Parish, “My Meeting with Abraham Lincoln,” George Wallace Jones, (Iowa City: 1912), 235-243.
[v] George Wallace Jones to Jefferson Davis, 5/17,1861, holographic copy, George W. Jones Vertical File, Center for Dubuque History, Loras College, Dubuque.
[vi] George Wallace Jones to Laurel Summers, 5/17/1861, Laurel Summers Papers, Correspondence, State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.
[vii] “From our Special Correspondent,” 2/7/1862, New York Times Archive Online.
[viii] George Wallace Jones to the Dubuque Herald, printed as “A Rich Document,” Burlington Weekly Hawk-eye and Telegraph, 7/12/1862.