Jefferson Davis and the Crown of Thorns

It has long been an article of faith of many admirers of Jefferson Davis that, while he was in Union captivity after the Civil War, he received a crown of thorns from Pope Pius IX woven by the hands of Pio Nono himself.  The Museum of the Confederacy in New Orleans has it on display.  It is a romantic story and appealing on an emotional level.  It is also false.  The Pope did send the imprisoned Davis his photograph with the text  from Matthew 11:28  ‘Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus.’ (Come to me all all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord.)

The crown of thorns was woven by Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis.  Over time the story grew up, perhaps through honest mistake, that associated the crown with the Pope.  A good article on the subject is here.

29 Responses to Jefferson Davis and the Crown of Thorns

  1. TimH says:

    I wonder if the crown of thorns myth had anything to do with the lie that Lincoln was anti-Catholic?


  2. Tom says:

    I don’t know about Lincoln, but it is undeniable fact that the Republicans in 1860 won in part because of the support of the Know-Nothing party remnants.

    As for the crown of thorns, well, not just Jeff Davis, but the entire south suffered a passion at the hands of the vengeful north… would that Lincoln had not been assasinated; the history of the post-war period would probably have looked much different.

    For us, the lasting legacy of the Late Unpleasantness is the destruction of Federalism as envisioned by the Founders, replaced by a national government that from 1865 onwards would dominate the states in a way unimagined before the war.

  3. crazylikeknoxes says:

    Or, perhaps, the South suffered God’s will that “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil *** be sunk, and *** every drop of blood drawn with the lash *** be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

  4. jh says:

    “I don’t know about Lincoln, but it is undeniable fact that the Republicans in 1860 won in part because of the support of the Know-Nothing party remnants.”

    LIcoln of course thought against the Know NOthings. Just Like Jefferson Davis did in his own State of Mississippi. My Several Greats Grandfather was ahrassed by the Know Nothings In Mississippi.

    “For us, the lasting legacy of the Late Unpleasantness is the destruction of Federalism as envisioned by the Founders, replaced by a national government that from 1865 onwards would dominate the states in a way unimagined before the war.”

    Another myth. SOutherners up too the Democratic Convention in Charleston were doing their bit to try to destroy Federalism becauseof the issue. Further to say that Federalism disapperared after the WAR is very much false.

  5. wj says:

    It would have been more appropriate had Pius decided to send him a hammer and nails.

  6. wj says:

    Not that such a gift would have been inappropriate for Lincoln as well.

  7. Kelso says:

    Thank you for this information. I am sure you know that Macon, Georgia, has a busy thoroughfare named Pio Nono Avenue.

  8. crazylikeknoxes says:

    The judiciary, not the executive, invented and imposed the right of abortion. Even before the Civil War I think the notion that States could not impinge upon Federal constitutional rights was recognized. E.g. the (Northern) States reluctant compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act. I might be wrong, and am certainly quibbling, but I don’t believe Roe v. Wade implicates federalism.

  9. Centinel says:

    What might have been. In 1870, Garibaldi invaded Rome, which was still under Papal rule. If the Confederacy had prevailed, Jefferson Davis may have sent reinforcements to the Pope, in order to prevent Rome from falling to Garibaldi.

  10. What reason have we to think such a thing would have happened? The percentage of Catholics in the Confederacy was tiny. It was Protestant England which the Rebs imagined they’d get help from.

    There was a international papal army which fought to save the papal states, but there were very few Americans (north or south) in it.

  11. crazylikeknoxes says:

    But there were at least three members of the Papal Army of Pius IX (the St. Patrick Brigade) who signed up with the Union Army. See Myles Keogh (, Joseph O’Keeffe, and Daniel Keily. Keogh saw action at Gettysburg and met his demise with Custer at Little Big Horn.

  12. Elaine Krewer says:

    “Lincoln of course thought against the Know Nothings”

    Perhaps his most famous quote on the subject comes from a letter he wrote to his longtime friend Joshua Speed in 1855:

    “I am not a Know Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for example, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

  13. crazylikeknoxes says:

    Elaine: Good quote. “The base alloy of hypocrisy.” Must try to work that in somewhere.

  14. bthomas says:

    Or, perhaps, the South suffered God’s will that “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil *** be sunk, and *** every drop of blood drawn with the lash *** be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

    Romantic mythology aside, the struggle for political power that directly led to the Civil War was the result of a unresolved tension between the rights of States and the justly feared encroachment upon those rights by a expansive federal government. Sectional interest drove the nation to war. Slavery was a minor concern. Lincoln did not fight to end slavery. He fought to preserve the union (such as it was and now is).

  15. crazylikeknoxes says:

    No, he did not. But he had the sense realize that his purposes might not have been the same as God’s.

  16. Subvet says:

    While Lincoln did not enter into war for the sake of the slaves, the South certainly aimed to secede in order to preserve that abomination. For those who doubt that, look at the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, specifically the requirements for membership. It unequivocally states that only those recognizing slavery would be admitted. All other issues such as tariffs, etc. could have been resolved. But the continuation of slavery at that time was a game ender for any peaceful resolution.

  17. bthomas says:

    The Civil War was the result of many years of struggle between competing political and economic interest. That punitive trade legislation purposed and in fact injurious to the largely agrarian Southern economy could have been addressed is only an opinion. To assert that that punitive trade legislation injurious to Southern agrarian would have been equitably addressed is without basis in fact.

    At least as significant a factor in the Civil War was the extremely sensitive issue of state rights in the face of creeping federalism. Under the Constitution the Southern states had every right to withdraw from the union. Had the Southern states exited the union, it would have had a very severe impact on Northern manufacturing, financial and shipping interest. By way of restrictive legislation Southern states were faced with a similar situation as that faced in the years immediately preceding the American Revolution when the colonies were expected and by parliamentary action forced to trade primarily with England. The Southern states recognized that they were being pushed to a similar colonial status. The succession of Southern states rightly addressed their legitimate needs and interest. At the same time, it threatened those of the North for a reliable source of raw materials and a convenient protected market for its manufactured goods. Only by military action were the Southern states forced to remain in the union. The only reason Lincoln addressed slavery was as a strategy to help in winning the war. He specifically states that if he could have won the war by ignoring or permitting slavery, he would have done so.

  18. BPS says:

    For bthomas-
    Please see the website-
    Which has Declaration of Causes for Seceeding States, which the confederate states conventions gave, AT THE TIME OF SECEEDING, as their reasons for leaving the union. Not a lot about tariffs in there. But TONS about ‘negro’ slavery being threatened as reasons for seceeding.

    As for states having right to seceed, in our U.S. Constitution in Article 4, congress admits states into the union by majority vote. Since secession is not mentioned in the document, its reasonable to assume that a state leaving the union would necessity such a vote.

  19. bthomas says:

    You are to be commended if you wish to do significant primary research into the significant precipitants of the Civil War. You need to turn to know scholarly resources. To assert that a collection of Constitutions expresses a full and complete rational for succession lacks credibility. It would be the same as to present the U.S. Constitution without specific reference to the developmental thought by which it was produced. This and other similar internet sites do not constitute serious scholarship.

    The individual states freely entered into a democratic federated republic. No where in the Constitution or its supporting documents is there any rational to say that this decision constituted a surrender of prerogative by the states individual to choose to remover themselves from that union. An argument from silence is no basis by which to disenfranchise states individual or severally from self-determination. A very up to date example of this right to self-determination is the experience of Yugoslavia and the individual independent nations that decided to remove themselves from that national construct. Given that our federal government used armed force to force the Southern states to remain in a union they did not want, what rational is there to then justify the U.S. acting to support the break-up of Yugoslavia? At the time of the break-up, it was the position of the U.S. that these individual states had the legitimate right to self-determination. This position was affirmed again in the break-up of the now defunct USSR. Oddly, the Southern states were not supposed to have such a right to self-determination. Perhaps it was because that choice exercised would have possessed to much of a potential economic threat to the northern financial, manufacturing and shipping interest. Given that they dominated the federal government of that era, such is certainly the case.

  20. Paul Zummo says:

    Wow, bthomas. I haven’t seen such effervescent loquaciousness since Oswald Bates.

  21. Paul Bergeron says:

    “The percentage of Catholics in the Confederacy was tiny.” Let’s look at numbers: June 30, 1863 Confederate Army peak strength 473,058; Louisiana, the 3rd most Catholic state in the United States in 1860, contributed 69,000; the Catholic population of antebellum Louisiana was 117,000 in a total population of 708,000; 11,454 Catholics from Louisiana served in the Confederate Army. Sources: Louisiana State Museum, “The Churching of America” and “Why the South Lost the Civil War”. Then again, Catholic Lt. Richard “Dick” Dowling (CSA) and 44 members of the Davis Guard defeated a force of 4000 Federals under the command of General William B. Franklin (USA) and Lt. Frederick Crocker (USN) in the Battle of Sabine Pass on 8 September 1863. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight…”

    “What reason have we to think such a thing would have happened?” There’s no reason not to believe that these Catholic battle-hardened veterans, who may have lost everything they had by 1865, would have given serious consideration to aiding His Holiness in the darkest hour of his pontificate against the other proto-Marxist hordes of Victor Emmanuel II and Garibaldi.

  22. […] In his captivity after the war, Davis was remember by Pius.  The Pope sent the imprisoned Davis his photograph with the text  from Matthew 11:28  ‘Venite a… […]

  23. […] his captivity after the war, Davis was remember by Pius.  The Pope sent the imprisoned Davis his photograph with the text  from Matthew 11:28  ‘Venite a… Davis warmly wrote in later life about the consolation that he received of this token that the Pope […]

  24. bthomas says:

    “Wow, bthomas…” Always try to help enlighten the benighted.

  25. taxsanity says:

    The crown of thorns is no more absurd, or false, than all other stories about Davis as an honorable man.

    For years I assumed the story about Davis being captured in a dress was silly, that no one ever beleived it, that everyone knew it was a joke.

    Surprise — Davis was very much caught wearing his wife’s dress, and his own wife’s letter proves it. But that isn’t such a big deal, most of us would wear anything to stay alive.

    The “big deal” was Davis cowardice during that flight from Richmond, and his whimpy actions when confronted.

    Perhaps no other single incident shows the real nature of Davis, and in some ways, the nature of the Lost Cause. Slave owners and Southern leaders turned out to be cowards. The SOuth has spent 150 years trying to convince themselves, and the world, otherwise.

  26. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Actually Davis was almost completely fearless as he amply demonstrated when he heroically led his Mississippi Rifles into battle at Buena Vista during the Mexican War and was wounded as a result.

    As to the capture of Davis, here is what was written by one of the Union soldiers who captured him:

    “Besides the suit of men’s clothing worn by Mr. Davis he had on when captured Mrs. Davis’ large waterproof dress or robe, thrown over his own fine gray suit, and a blanket shawl thrown over his head and shoulders. This shawl and robe were finally deposited in the archives of the war department at Washington by order of Secretary Stanton.

    The story of the “hoopskirt, sunbonnet and calico wrapper” had no real existence and was started in the fertile brains of the reporters and in the illustrated papers of that day. That was a perilous moment for Mr. Davis. He had the right to try to escape in any disguise he could use.”

    Davis can be amply criticized on numerous grounds, but cowardice is not one of them.

  27. taxsanity says:

    Sorry Don,

    You still have avoided — totally — Varina Davis own hand written letter, where she is very specific about Davis clothes, and his actions. He wore a dress and he acted like a coward.

    I can produce Varina’s letter. We know she was there.

    You can not produce letter from some imaginary Union soldier. The soldier you folks dreamed up was not in the group that found Davis.

    Everyone there – including Davis wife — said he had on a dress of some sort. The only one that says it was a fine grey suit is Jeff Davis. But Davis whole account of that day is preposterous nonsense, not just on his dress, but on his supposed heroics.

    Jeff Davis wife, and the union soldiers, reported Davis actions, which were that of a coward when confronted.

    Forget the dress — though he had one on. His actions were utterly cowardly. First of all, he was running AWAY from his wife and children, toward the horses. He claimed later he was going for a guy — nonsense. You don’t leave your gun on horses 200 feet away, when you are the focus of a man hunt. He was running for the horses and his wife said so.

    You have simply adopted Davis own self serving and fraudulent statements as the truth. His own wife’s letter fundamentally validates what the Union soldiers reported. Davis, in other words, was not only caught in a dress, but in a lie about his actions.

    I suggest you read her letter — closely.

    Varina said that he had on a “dressing gown” — not a fine grey suit. She tells what he had on, and does not mention any BS fine suit. If he had on a fine suit, she would have said that. She said “dressing gown”. Over the dressing gown (a dress) he had on a woman’s scarf, and a shawl.

    That is what his WIFE said. And she should know — she dressed him.

    How do we know she dressed him? She said so.

    SO let’s deal with what his WIFE said — not with what Southern apologist made up later.

    Varina also says Davis stood mute when confronted, downcast, sullen. She ran to him — she said — and pulled him to her, and SHE dared the soldiers to shoot HER. She told the soldiers “She is my MOTHER”

    That’s right — go read her own letter. SHe says, in her OWN letter, that SHE called out, its my MOTHER.

    Let me repeat that — she said, in her letter, that she called out, “Its my mother”.

    Why would she call out “Its my mother”? Do you have any explanation for that?

    And Davis stood mute and looked down at the ground. That is what she said. That’s not what I said, that is what she said. And that is what the soldiers reported too.

    This is pretty much what the Union soldier’s reported too.

    In fact, they said when Davis took the dress off, his wife put it on! That is what the soldiers who were there said.

    A stunning bit of trivia. They had told Davis to go change out of the dress. Davis wife went with him, in the tent, so he could change. She emerged wearing that dress!

    Apparently she put the dress on, so the soldiers would not take it — but they took it later anyway, ordered by the War Department to bring the dress to DC. And they brought the dress to DC, where it remained on display for over 20 years, according to a speech by one of the Blair children.

    Why does it matter?

    Because the entire Confederate Myth of honor and bravery collapses like a house of cards, if its two leaders, Davis and Lee, are cowardly cruel and deceptive.

    Varina Davis letter gives us a unique, bird’s eye view of what happened that day. She totally obliterates Davis’s own self serving story of heroics.

    He wore a dress, he acted like a coward even apart from the dress.

  28. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Taxsanity, you are the mirror image of the Neo-Confederates who seek to distort the historical record to serve current political battles. Davis was not a coward, and your attempts to paint him as one simply is at war with the historical record. Davis was a very brave man fighting for a cause I am glad was defeated. I will not distort the historical record to accuse a man of cowardice when he was not a coward.

  29. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Taxsanity, based upon your last comment, which I have deleted, you are banned from this site. You seem to be eaten up by hate and wish to vent that hatred, and I will not allow you to do so on this blog.

%d bloggers like this: