Book Review: The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis: The Political Life of Henry S. Foote, Southern Unionist


by Ben Wynne

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018. Pp. xii, 323. Illus., chron., notes, biblio., index. $47.50. ISBN: 0807169331

A Feisty Southern Politician

Opening The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis with a brief overview of the political life of Henry Foote, his career as a lawyer and politician, and his unique personality, Prof. Wynne (University of North Georgia) follows with an overview of the expansion of the U. S., the compromises and disagreements over the spread of slavery and the question of secession, and Davis’s actions as President of the C. S. A. In most accounts of these events, Foote is usually not mentioned as a great statesman, but is primarily known for being argumentative, theatrical, and someone who got into verbal arguments, duels and fist fights with many important people of the era.

In his day, however, Foote’s residence in many states throughout the South – Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas – as well as California, helped make him well known, a successful politician, and an eyewitness to the national events of the era. A member of several political parties, most often a Democrat, but also a Whig, as well as the American – “Know-Nothing” – Party, he ended as a Republican. As a U.S. Senator and governor of Mississippi before the Civil War, he was a staunch unionist, but in 1861, as a resident of Tennessee, he strongly supported secession and served in the Confederate congress, where he often sparred with Jefferson Davis.

Wynne argues that Foote had a confrontational personality, and was very theatrical when criticizing someone, especially while in Senate and the Confederate Congress. The many clashes this statesman had with other politicians during his lifetime were partly due to a terrible temper. There are many examples of his irritability. During the Texas War for Independence and the later debate over statehood for the region, Foote wrote a history of Texas that made an enemy of Sam Houston, he fought two duels with Seargent Smith Prentiss over insults exchanged during a murder trial, and even he challenged Associate Justice of the Supreme Court John McLean to a duel over the Mexican War and the southern institution of slavery. On the floor of the Senate, he argued loudly with New Hampshire abolitionist Senator John Hale over recognition of the Papal States and slavery, got into a fist fight with Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania over the future of slavery in the Mexican Cession, and during an argument over the spread of slavery and states' rights he pulled out a loaded revolver and pointed it at Missouri Senator Thomas Benton.

Wynne concentrates on the main point of this title, the complicated relationship between Foote and Davis, which was partly due to their political differences prior to the Civil War and new issues that arose during it, exacerbated by Foote’s successful defense of the man who gunned down Davis’s brother-in-law, David Bradford. Finally, they were two very different people. Foote was a loud, rude, self-promoter, who tested the bonds of southern and national politics, and had been pro-Union prior to 1861, while Davis was calmer in public, viewed by some as arrogant, and became an ardent secessionist. Both men were ambitious and drawn to the world of politics. Their rivalry manifested itself most notably on December 25, 1847 when, during a discussion on the merits of squatter sovereignty following the war with Mexico; their positions differed, and Foote allegedly used offensive language toward Davis, with blows being exchanged and a challenge issued, though a duel did not take place.

Wynne has written a good book for anyone interested in southern politics, throwing light on a man long neglected by historians, telling a compelling story, well written and full of rich material deeply researched from manuscript collections, newspapers, government sources and published primary sources.

The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis is a great read, and many may want to finish it in one sitting as it is a real page turner.


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Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home Freedom, and Nation, A Republic in the Ranks, An Environmental History of the Civil War, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America, Arguing until Doomsday, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War, “The Devil’s to Pay”: John Buford at Gettysburg. A History and Walking Tour, Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign, Defending the Arteries of Rebellion, A Contest of Civilizations: Exposing the Crisis of American Exceptionalism in the Civil War Era, Unlike Anything That Ever Floated, Meade at Gettysburg, A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, Grant's Left Hook, The Winter that Won the War: The Winter Encampment at Valley Forge, 1777-1778, Gettysburg Rebels, The Siege of Vicksburg: Climax of the Campaign to Open the Mississippi River, From Arlington to Appomattox: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War, Day by Day, 1861-1865, and Unsung Hero of Gettysburg: The Story of Union General David McMurtrie Gregg.




Note: A volume in the LSU series “Southern Biography”, The Man Who Punched Jefferson Davis is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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