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A Pen of Fire

ISSUE:  Winter 2002

John Moncure Daniel was ever quick to attack what he saw as wrong. He minced no words during the seven years he spent as a top American diplomat, including a moment which may have deeply affected the history of Italy. Subsequently, Daniel spoke bluntly as the Confederacy’s leading editor. When he died in Richmond just before the Confederacy’s final defeat in 1865, Daniel’s newspaper was the most influential publication in the South. He had long been one of Jefferson Davis’s harshest critics; there were those in the South who wished him hanged; he had recently fought, and lost, a duel with the treasurer of the Confederacy. If loss of morale was a reason, or even, as has been argued, the chief reason that the South lost the war, it might be argued that the piercing attacks of that Southern arch-patriot John Daniel actually helped move the South toward that final defeat. Yet historian-editor Virginius Dabney has argued that notwithstanding Daniel’s sharp attacks on Davis—a president who certainly had grave faults—Daniel helped to maintain Southern morale when days turned dark.

The future editor first came to Richmond as a youth from Stafford County, Virginia, where he was born in 1825. His family was not rich, but they were respectable; his mother’s father Thomas Stone was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In Richmond the young man first lived with his great-uncle Peter Vivian Daniel, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Daniel has been called the last Jeffersonian to hold public office; he has also been called a brooding proslavery fanatic. Clearly the justice had some effect on his great-nephew’s thinking. The younger Daniel became a strong supporter of slavery—although it may be that the main effects on his thinking were not Justice Daniel but Thomas Carlyle’s essay on “the nigger question” and the theory of Louis Agassiz, European scientist and Harvard professor, that blacks and whites came from different ancestry.

As a young man John Moncure Daniel had a passion for reading, and soon developed a hard-hitting prose style. By his early 20’s he was the editor-in-chief, and soon he became the owner, of The Richmond Examiner. The paper and its editor supported the Democratic party and fiercely attacked the Whigs, using sharp sarcasm and ridicule. Daniel’s personal attacks on many of Richmond’s rich and famous made him lifelong enemies. They also increased his paper’s circulation. As a critic, Daniel was not only sharp but perspicacious. He soon saw the worth of a drunken Richmond poet named Edgar A. Poe and published his work in the Examiner. For some reason a quarrel rose between the two. Poe challenged Daniel to a duel, and in an inebriated state went to the Examiner office in search of Daniel. He found Daniel, sitting in a chair waiting with a brace of pistols; the poet sobered and backed down. After Poe died at 40, Daniel wrote in the Southern Literary Messenger (with which Poe had been closely associated) that no other American writer was so likely to be remembered in history—despite the criticism of Poe by well-known writers like James Russell Lowell who, Daniel wrote, was himself a base imitator and “a minute species of literary insect . . . plentifully produced by the soil and climate of Boston.” Lowell’s name, said Daniel, was known less from literature than “. . .from its frequent appearance in the proceedings of abolitionist meetings in Boston, cheek by jowl with the signatures of free negroes and runaway slaves.”

John Daniel fought as many as nine duels in two decades. His first duel to gain attention took place early in 1852, when he fought Edward C. Johnston of the rival Richmond Whig on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The quarrel arose not from politics but from an argument over the merits of Hiram Powers’ neoclassic statue of a Greek slave. The New York Times, reporting the duel, said that Daniel was “. . .the same amiable individual who denounced, in his paper, all northern men, coming south of a given line, as scoundrels, cheats, and robbers. . . .” Daniel wrote wryly to a friend that while for his part he had tried to keep the duel private—and dueling was illegal—Johnston’s Washington friends, including Whig Congressmen, had showed up in numbers. Neither man was hurt.

In the presidential campaign of 1852 Daniel and his paper gave their strong support to the Democratic candidate, Franklin Pierce, a New Englander but no abolitionist. After Pierce won he made Jefferson Davis his secretary of war, and Davis became a dominant figure in a weak administration. Other Southern supporters of Pierce also claimed a share of the spoils. The United States had not yet followed other leading countries in creating a career diplomatic and consular service; all posts abroad were filled by political appointments. In early 1853 the president-elect received letters from a number of members of Congress, including Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—with whom John Daniel was associated in the radical “Young America” movement in the Democratic Party— urging that Daniel be sent to Belgium as American chargé d’affaires. That post went to another, but several months later Pierce sent John Moncure Daniel as charge d’affaires to the Kingdom of Sardinia, one of seven kingdoms and duchies into which ancient Italy was then divided. This was a somewhat misnamed kingdom; it included the island of Sardinia but it was centered in Piedmont and its capital was there, at Turin. A few years later Turin would become the first capital of reunified Italy. Daniel sold the Examiner, reserving the right to repurchase it later, and arrived in Turin in October 1853, just as an envoy sent by the previous Taylor administration, a brilliant writer and former congressman from Vermont named George Perkins Marsh, was reluctantly giving up his post as minister to Turkey. Neither Marsh nor Daniel could have guessed that seven years later Daniel would leave his post to return home to a new Confederacy, and a new president named Lincoln would send Marsh—who as a congressman had fiercely attacked Southern slavery—to replace Daniel at Turin.

The Sardinian kingdom had had a mixed experience with American envoys before John Daniel arrived. In 1841 the Foreign Minister had sent confidential instructions to the Sardinian charge d’affaires in the United States to request the withdrawal of the American charge d’affaires in Turin, who had gone out of his mind, and the consul general in Genoa, who was a notorious bankrupt. In 1849, on the other hand, the Sardinian foreign minister had tried indiscreetly but without success to prevent the replacement of a well-liked American envoy. Just before Daniel reached Turin, the conservative royal government was enraged to learn that President Pierce had named as American consul general at Genoa an Italian-born professor at Columbia College in New York, Felix Foresti, who not many years earlier had been a fierce fighter for democracy and republicanism in Italy. One of Daniel’s first tasks at Turin was to defend Foresti’s appointment.

Daniel himself soon got into serious trouble in Turin, as the result of what has been called his “garlic letter.” Before Daniel reached Turin, President Pierce’s new Secretary of State William Marcy had sent out instructions that on formal occasions American diplomats should not wear any sort of diplomatic uniform—as European diplomats did, and in some cases still do—but should rather wear the plain dress of an American citizen. Daniel followed his instructions; he was presented to King Victor Emanuel II in a dark suit, and later wore the same suit to a court ball. But Daniel had left enemies in America, and the New York Tribune reported hearing that Daniel had had an elegant uniform made for himself. Daniel, concerned, wrote to his best friend in Richmond, Dr. E.A. Peticolas, that the story was not true. He went on to share with his friend some frank observations about his new post, concluding (he told Secretary Marcy later) with the request that none of this appear in a newspaper. Unfortunately all of it did, first in his old Examiner and later in papers in Boston, New York—and Turin. It equaled anything he had ever written about Whigs in Virginia. In Turin, Daniel (a lifelong bachelor) wrote, the women were uglier and the men had fewer ideas than in America; the whole place stank of garlic, and the diplomats had “. . .titles as long as a flagstaff and heads as empty as their hearts.” Sardinian officials, other prominent Turinese, and foreign diplomats in Turin were all furious. The president of the Whist Club of Turin, whose members included the foreign envoys in Turin, wrote him demanding an explanation, Daniel told the foreign minister that he had offered Washington his resignation. In fact, he had decided that if he resigned and went home he would be finished as a public man in Virginia; he wrote for help to his friends in Richmond and Washington. Justice Peter Daniel went to see Dudley Mann, the number-two in the State Department, and Mann called in the Sardinian chargé d’affaires to emphasize that Daniel’s private letter had contained no criticism of the Sardinian government. In the end, Daniel remained, although he suffered a second serious embarrassment, later in 1854, when an Italian-American journal revealed that the new American envoy had only been able to leave America for Turin after giving bail in a libel suit brought against him in New York.

The rest of John Daniel’s diplomatic tour of duty was less stormy but significant. His reporting to Washington on the Italian scene was cogent and accurate; he proved an able defender of American interests. James Buchanan succeeded Franklin Pierce as president in 1857, and he kept Daniel at Turin while replacing the head of almost every other diplomatic post. The American envoy helped the United States Navy to maintain its depot at La Spezia, although the Royal Navy wanted the Americans out. Bilateral trade was growing— Piedmont was buying Virginia and Kentucky tobacco—and Daniel reported to Washington that Sardinia had become America’s third most important trading partner. The envoy interceded a number of times when American merchant ships and their captains and crews got into trouble at Genoa or La Spezia.

In the spring of 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi, soon to liberate southern Italy and join it to the Sardinian kingdom, called on the American envoy in Turin. Garibaldi was a native of Nice, then part of Sardinia but about to be annexed to France as the result of a deal between Napoleon III and Sardinian Prime Minister Camille Cavour, which provided for Nice and Savoy to go to France in exchange for French acquiescence in Sardinia’s annexation of several independent duchies in what later became united Italy. In April Garibaldi, famous for his defense of the short-lived Roman Republic of 1849 (after which he had taken refuge in Staten Island), asked John Daniel whether, if Nice should declare independence, it could obtain protection from the United States. Daniel reported to Secretary of State Lewis Cass that “I told him at once that the United States would interfere in no manner with such a matter. . . .” Daniel had answered Garibaldi without instructions from Washington which, since there was yet no trans-Atlantic telegraph, he could not have received in less than several weeks. There was to be a rigged pro-France plebiscite in Nice. When Garibaldi called on Daniel, he was planning some sort of expedition to Nice to prevent it from going to France. Biographers say he planned to raid polling stations, burn the ballots, and then campaign against the city’s handover. His approach to Daniel indicates that he may have hoped to go further, and declare Nice independent from both France and Sardinia. He could only have done this with support from another power— America.

Garibaldi’s turndown by John Daniel may conceivably have had a profound effect on Italian history. How much it weighed in Garibaldi’s thinking is not clear, but instead of going to Nice he turned his full attention to the South, where an insurrection had broken out in Palermo against the Bourbon rulers of Sicily and Southern Italy. Garibaldi’s daring and successful expedition to Sicily and Southern Italy in May 1860 included a small number of American volunteers, one of them a nephew of Jefferson Davis, Capt. Alfred Benthuysen of New Orleans. The Kingdom of Two Sicilies, with its capital at Naples, was conquered by the Kingdom of Sardinia and the American Legation at Naples thereafter had no diplomatic function. Several Italian duchies also joined the Turin kingdom. Daniel reported to Washington that “Judging by present appearances the Italian Millennium is at hand.” Daniel happily saw his authority widening considerably as the chief American representative in this larger Italy. He wrote to Cass on Nov. 20, 1860 that “I should think it my duty to perform the functions of a Minister in the case . . . I should be glad to receive . . .some advice or indication as to the extent of my powers in the new arrangement of Italian territory.”

But if Italy was unifying, America was not. There was still no trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, and so John Daniel did not know when he wrote Secretary Cass that Abraham Lincoln the Republican had been elected president. Lincoln would undoubtedly terminate all the previous administration’s appointments after he took office in March 1861. Before that, in January, John Daniel heard that South Carolina was leaving the Union. Perhaps Daniel had not really expected this. In any event he now realized that Virginia too might well secede. He told his brother Frederick, who was serving as his private secretary, that “It has got to come to this at last, and the sooner the better.” He obtained Washington’s permission to depart from Turin on a leave of absence, making clear that he was not coming back. Lewis Cass and Jeremiah Black, who had replaced Cass as Buchanan’s secretary of state in December 1860, had both praised Daniel for his work, and on Feb. 5, 1861 Daniel wrote Secretary Black “. . .that while the actual Chief Magistrate of this nation and the great officers of the law who surround him have always received my entire sympathy and profound respect, their approval of my official conduct, most kindly communicated by yourself, will be a source of justifiable pride to me for the rest of my life.” He said nothing about the incoming Lincoln administration. With hardly a farewell to his diplomatic colleagues, Daniel returned to Richmond and again took over the Examiner.

It was still not clear whether Virginia would secede. The new Confederate government headed by Jefferson Davis had established itself at Montgomery, Alabama. John Daniel urged in the Examiner the prompt secession of Virginia, and after that occurred he quickly called on the government to move to Richmond; Mr. Davis’s presence in Virginia would be the equivalent of fifty thousand additional troops. Daniel’s initial esteem for Jefferson Davis was coupled with scorn for Abraham Lincoln, “an ugly and ferocious old Orang-Outang from the wilds of Illinois” who, the Examiner wrote in March 1861, would bring in brutality, moral filth, and arbitrary power.

As his March inauguration neared, Lincoln hurried to choose new Union envoys to European countries, whom the Confederacy would soon approach for recognition and assistance. George Perkins Marsh left for Turin, which after annexing the South was now capital of the new Kingdom of Italy, just after the Southern attack on Fort Sumter in April. There are indications that during the war Marsh reviewed the files his predecessor had left in the Turin legation. He must have smiled at Daniel’s prewar work on behalf of the United States Navy in the Mediterranean, given the Confederacy’s buildup of its squadron of anti-Union sea raiders like the Alabama, built in England. Marsh for his part worked hard and successfully to keep the Confederacy from making headway in Italy, which built no ships for the South. Giuseppe Garibaldi even offered his services as Union commander-in-chief. Garibaldi’s pro-Union sentiments might have turned still stronger had he known that John Daniel, as American envoy in Turin, had tried unsuccessfully to keep American sailors from deserting U.S. merchant ships in Genoa in order to join Garibaldi’s successful 1860 expedition to Sicily.

It did not take the editor of The Richmond Examiner long after resuming his post to find serious faults in the new Confederacy. By November 1861 the paper was attacking John Letcher, the governor of Virginia, as an imbecile who had not only squandered public funds but had initially discouraged Virginians from enlisting in the Confederate service, while giving top Confederate officials an exaggerated description of Virginia’s military capabilities. His attack on Letcher was perhaps unfair. At his inauguration in January 1860 the new governor, probably seeing war coming, had called for increased spending on Virginia’s military forces. After secession, Letcher moved cautiously, directing a gradual strengthening of Virginia’s forces. Still Virginia’s mobilization produced more men than weapons, and many unequipped volunteers were sent home.

At the beginning of 1861 some Southern papers had predicted that Southern secession would not bring war. Not so Daniel, who wrote realistically of the grave problems facing the South while expressing confidence, as he continued to do for the next three years, that the South would ultimately win. By 1862 Daniel was calling on the public to make greater sacrifices; there were for example too many Richmond gentlemen who kept horses in order to ride a few blocks, when those horses could equip a couple of artillery batteries. No nation, said the Examiner, ever lost independence except through cowardice; “. . .no nation was ever subdued that really determined to fight while there was an inch of ground or a solitary soldier left to defend it.” And yet, the paper protested, “The War Department has snowed furloughs and discharges.” The South could conscript “an invincible army” of 750,000 men from its population of white males between 18 and 35, but it had preferred a “wretched shift of twelve-month volunteers and raw militia . . .in the vain delusion that European interference was certain and peace was near at hand.” In fact, in April 1862 the Confederacy began the first national conscription system in North America, and eventually put a huge percentage of its white male population—more volunteers than draftees—into the field. Meanwhile Editor Daniel fit action to words, obtaining a commission as major and joining the staff of General Floyd in Western (now West) Virginia. Later, in June 1862, while serving on the staff of General A.P. Hill, Daniel was wounded by a musket ball in the right arm, near Mechanicsville during the Seven Days’ Battles. He had continued to write Examiner editorials while in service; now he received a medical discharge and resumed his full-time editorship.

On April 2, 1863 a bread riot took place in Richmond, following a breakdown in the city’s supply system. Hundreds of the participants were women, and considerable damage was done to shops. The government asked newspapers not to report the occurrences, but Daniel would not agree. The Examiner denounced the rioters, calling them “a handful of prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags, gallows-birds from all lands but our own.” This was untrue. A careful study by Michael B. Chesson has shown that many of the women were respectable and solidly middle-class. For some time the authorities feared a recurrence, and cannon were placed on Richmond streets to intimidate the people. Nothing happened; but it is difficult to see the Examiner’s coverage, which must have exacerbated rather than soothing feelings, as having played a positive role for Confederate interests.

Soon Daniel was writing that while gloom was admittedly prevalent in the Confederacy, whose people had finally realized they had no allies abroad, few Southerners doubted that the South would ultimately win. The true danger, Daniel said, came not from the lack of foreign allies—or from the recent shortages of food—but from “the many jacks-in-office, thieves, renegade Yankees, and nondescript parasites who have fastened on our Government.” After the loss of Vicksburg and Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, Daniel wrote in the Examiner on July 28, 1863 that the worst was yet to come—but that “War, pushed to the last extremity, is the resolution of the South. By it, ultimate victory is secure. Our strength is unbroken, our force unexhausted. . . .”

By now John Moncure Daniel and his Examiner had come out strongly against Jefferson Davis. A Davis biographer, Hudson Strode, says that this resulted from Davis’s earlier refusal to make John Daniel and Examiner editor Edward A. Pollard his special confidants, as well as from Daniel’s and Pollard’s friendship with Joseph E. Johnston, a general whom Jefferson Davis found especially troublesome. The Examiner blamed Davis directly for the South’s defeat at Corinth, which had resulted from “the doting fondness” of the president in entrusting the defense of Corinth to the incapable General Van Dorn. The loss of Vicksburg was similarly the sole responsibility of the president who had left in command the incompetent General Pemberton. Daniel wrote that “Had the people dreamed that Mr. Davis would carry all his chronic antipathies, his bitter prejudices, his puerile partialities, and his doting favorites into the Presidential chair, they would never have allowed him to fill it.”

At about this time Mary Chesnut, whose husband was a senior military aide to President Davis, found herself seated at a Richmond dinner party next to “a clever unknown who apparently knew me . . .my neighbor, a bold, bad man, was bright and clever beyond my wildest hopes.” She told him that he talked too much like the Examiner, which was “splitting us into a thousand pieces”, adding that John Moncure Daniel deserved to be hanged. Later she learned that her dinner partner had been John Daniel.

Daniel’s attacks on Davis did not stop with criticisms of his conduct of the war. In February 1864 he reported that William Howell, the president’s brother-in-law, had received a government contract to produce 500,000 gallons of whiskey, supposedly “to be used by the Medical Purveyor and as rations”. In addition, Daniel wrote, it appeared that when Jefferson Davis’s Mississippi plantation and valuable cotton crop were about to fall into Union hands, the president had for some reason failed to send orders to burn the cotton, although other plantation owners burned theirs. The president’s personal secretary protested Daniel’s treatment of this information; Daniel left it to the public to decide what it all meant. And while in the North President Lincoln suppressed publications considered seditious, Jefferson Davis stuck by freedom of the press and Daniel continued to write what he would.

Daniel was at least as fierce in his attacks on Abraham Lincoln as he was on Davis. After Lincoln and Edward Everett spoke at Gettysburg on Nov.19, 1863, the Examiner wrote that while Everett in his oration had been equal to the occasion, Lincoln had not really spoken but had acted the clown; the badinage which had passed between him and a member of the crowd was like the coarse jokes that might be indulged in by a Hunnish leader and his followers.

In July 1864 Daniel published in the Examiner a slashing satire which purported to be a report by a Japanese envoy on his visit to “the Powerful Republic of the Southern Barbarians.” Among those satirized was “the Mandarin of the Treasury, whom the Barbarians call Memminger.” This was Christopher Memminger, the secretary of the treasury and an incompetent whose fiscal policy had created a disastrous popular distrust of Confederate currency. By the time Daniel’s satire appeared, a Union dollar was worth 40 cents gold, a Confederate dollar four cents. Memminger, whom an earlier Examiner piece had called a wretched bum, may conceivably have thought of challenging Daniel to a duel, but when the satire appeared he had just resigned his Cabinet post, on June 21.

Daniel had fought no duels since the war began, perhaps partly because he had been placed under a peace bond after an altercation on a Richmond street. Now it was not the treasury secretary but the confederate treasurer, E.G. Elmore, who called out Daniel, in August 1864, after the Examiner had reported that an unnamed Treasury official was gambling with official funds. When they met with pistols, Daniel’s war wound is said to have forced him to shoot with his left hand. He missed Elmore; Elmore wounded him in the leg. It was not a fatal wound but it affected Daniel’s health, which had never been robust; there is reason to believe that since long before the duel John Daniel had been suffering from tuberculosis.

Manpower shortages eventually led the Confederacy to consider using black troops. Daniel was distressed. He wrote in November 1864 that “we surrender our position whenever we introduce the negro to arms. If a negro is fit to be a soldier, he is not fit to be a slave.” He was perfectly right. Slavery had been a poor and insufficient basis on which to argue, and fight, for Southern independence. And when slaves were to be armed and made soldiers, what was left of Southern distinctiveness? Yet in early 1865 the Confederate Congress approved the use of black troops, and a few were soon drilling in Richmond.

By the beginning of 1865 John Daniel was seriously ill. He claimed he was worth nearly $100,000 “in good money”—whatever that meant—and he dreamed of rebuilding the fine house of his ancestors in Stafford County, which Union troops had burned. But the Confederacy was nearing its end.

Three years earlier, in 1862, the Examiner had taken a sneering approach toward Robert E. Lee, calling him “Evacuating Lee”; for a time these sneers had damaged Lee’s public standing. Now, in 1865, the Examiner concluded that the best chance for the Confederacy lay in the appointment of General Lee as supreme military commander. But, said Daniel, this did not seem likely to happen. He was wrong; Lee was finally made general-in-chief near the end of January 1865. It was too late. By the end of March General Lee was fighting desperately to defend Petersburg, just over 20 miles from Richmond, and John Daniel was on his death bed. On the morning of March 30 the rumor spread in Richmond that Lee had made a night attack which crushed the Union forces all along the line. Later that day, John Daniel died. His colleague Edward Pollard wrote later in The Lost Cause that the fearless editor died in the delusion that the South had won a decisive victory. But on April 2 the Confederate government evacuated Richmond, and on April 9 Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Meanwhile Daniel’s successor as envoy in Italy, George Marsh, moved from success to success. Even while the Civil War continued Marsh found time to complete, and to publish in 1864, his pioneering environmental work Man and Nature, which remains in print today. After Lincoln’s assassination, succeeding presidents retained Marsh in office, and he died in 1882 in Italy, aged 81 and still the American envoy. John Moncure Daniel died at 39, after writing and editing hundreds of articles which deeply affected Confederate readers. He had once written of Edgar Poe that the poet, who died at almost the same age, had lived a wild, hard life; that Poe had “. . .dealt out justice to the dunces. He flayed them alive. He was in those days like one possessed of a divine fury . . . .” So it was with John Daniel. The soldier and scholar Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, who served with Daniel on the Examiner, praised him in a sonnet as a “pen of fire” who had “. . . Illum’d the good and blasted what was base.”

After Daniel’s death The New York Times said almost kindly that “. . .much of the good he aimed at and achieved in his better days will doubtless be remembered when the terrible errors of his later years are forgotten.” John Daniel had served the United States well and faithfully as a senior diplomat for more than seven years before he served the Confederacy. If he had lived, he might have been a major critical voice in the reunited American nation. Some years after the war, Joe Johnston, the former Confederate general, became a federal railroad commissioner; Lucius Lamar, the Confederacy’s envoy in Europe, was Grover Cleveland’s secretary of the Interior and eventually an associate justice of the Supreme Court; another Confederate general, James Longstreet, was American minister to Turkey when John Daniel’s successor George Marsh was nearing the end of his long mission in Italy. One can well imagine an older, perhaps less fiery John Daniel serving the United States again in a key diplomatic post. But it was not to be.


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