Treason on Trial
The United States v. Jefferson Davis
376 Pages / 6.00 x 9.00 x 1.12 in / 22 halftones
- Hardcover /
- 9780807170809 /
- Published: June 2019
- eBook /
- 9780807171424 /
- Published: June 2019
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, federal officials captured, imprisoned, and indicted Jefferson Davis for treason. If found guilty, the former Confederate president faced execution for his role in levying war against the United States. Although the federal government pursued the charges for over four years, the case never went to trial. In this comprehensive analysis of the saga, Treason on Trial, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez suggests that while national politics played a role in the trial’s direction, the actions of lesser-known individuals ultimately resulted in the failure to convict Davis.
Early on, two primary factions argued against trying the case. Influential northerners dreaded the prospect of a public trial, fearing it would reopen the wounds of the war and make a martyr of Davis. Conversely, white southerners pointed to the treatment and prosecution of Davis as vindictive on the part of the federal government. Moreover, they maintained, the right to secede from the Union remained within the bounds of the law, effectively linking the treason charge against Davis with the constitutionality of secession.
While Icenhauer-Ramirez agrees that politics played a role in the case, he suggests that focusing exclusively on that aspect obscures the importance of the participants. In the United States of America v. Jefferson Davis, preeminent lawyers represented both parties. According to Icenhauer-Ramirez, Lucius H. Chandler, the local prosecuting attorney, lacked the skill and temperament necessary to put the case on a footing that would lead to trial. In addition, Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had little desire to preside over the divisive case and intentionally stymied the prosecution’s efforts. The deft analysis in Treason on Trial illustrates how complications caused by Chandler and Chase led to a three-year delay and, eventually, to the dismissal of the case in 1868, when President Andrew Johnson granted blanket amnesty to those who participated in the armed rebellion.
A Richmond grand jury indicted Jefferson Davis on charges of treason in May 1866 and set the trial date for the following month. Icenhauer-Ramirez brings a lawyer’s appreciation for legal maneuvering and a historian’s commitment to in-depth research to provide a compelling answer to the question, Why was Jefferson Davis never tried at all? Here is a vast cast of characters—President Johnson; members of Congress; justices of the Supreme Court; and Davis' wife, Varina, among many others—in a tale of personal loyalties, political ambitions, incompetent prosecution, and public-opinion manipulation. Icenhauer–Ramirez turns the treason prosecutions undertaken by the federal government into a story that will be of interest to historians, lawyers, and anyone who appreciates a fascinating story with twists and turns. ~Jacqueline Jones, author of Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War
It takes a lawyer to talk intelligently about a great trial, and Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez is not only that but a dogged researcher and a skillful writer. His account of the Jefferson Davis treason trial—which ought to have been 'the trial of the century' but wasn't— is as absorbing a Civil War story as any battlefield narrative. The outstanding characters— Varina Davis, Charles O'Conor, William Maxwell Evarts, Salmon Chase, John C. Underwood— march vividly past, even as we gasp at the incompetence which allowed the most spectacular treason case since Aaron Burr to slip through the government's hands. Thorough in his judgments about the role of the Lost Cause, the 14th Amendment, and military tribunals, Icenhauer-Ramirez gives us an enthralling rendering of American law at its best and its worst. ~Allen C. Guelzo, author of Gettysburg; The Last Invasion and Reconstruction: A Concise History