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Richmond Times Dispatch                      May 7, 1939


Home    >    Newspaper Articles    >    John J. Cravens - Jefferson Davis' Prison Physician




A Marker to Jefferson Davis'Physician

By Parke Bolling


Dr. John J. Craven

During more than 45 years which have passed since the organization of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, hundreds of memorials have been erected throughout the South, but none, I am sure, of more significance than the one which was unveiled Thursday in honor of Bvt. Lieutenant-Colonel John J. Craven, M. D., late surgeon, U. S. Volunteers, and physician to Jefferson Davis, president, C. S. A., while a prisoner of war at Fortress Monroe, Va.

President Davis was a prisoner for two years from May, 1865, to May, 1867, six months of the time confined in a casemate under heavy guard, and it was during this period that he was under the care of Dr. Craven who not only ministered to his physical needs doing all that was possible to alleviate his sufferings, but was the only solace to the lonely prisoner and finally became his firm friend and admirer.

At the end of December, 1865, Dr. Craven was relieved from duty and in 1866 he published "The Prison Life of Jefferson Davis," which from notes taken at the time, embraced "details and incidents in his captivity, particulars concerning his health and habits, together with many conversations on topics of great public interest."

This book, a most valuable record of the details concerning the imprisonment and treatment of Davis, was republished in 1905 by Dr. Craven's son who is still living at the age of 93, a resident of Ridley Park, Pa. In the foreward of this edition was found the name and address (in 1905) of Mr. William Darcy Craven.

Writing to the postmaster at East Orange for information, Mr. Philip Fellinger responded promptly showing much interest in the quest, and through his efforts were located not only Mr. William D. Craven, the son, but also a number of grandsons and granddaughters as well as great-grandchildren.

After all the years, no one can even now read of the imprisonment of Jefferson Davis and the cruel indignities heaped upon him with a feeling of painful resentment as well as deep sorrow.

In the heat of bitterness which followed the war, it was evident that Dr. Craven felt impelled to defend himself against criticism which he knew would be aroused by his apparent defense of Mr. Davis who to the foes of the South was a traitor and worthy of death. In a part of the preface he writes: "This is the only apology I shall offer in case any over-sensitively loyal readers may feel or affect to feel, shocked on finding in the following pages some record of the imprisonment of Jefferson Davis, not written to gloat over the misfortunes of a fallen enemy--certainly not aiming to palliate his political or other errors; but to depict so much of him as was revealed to the writer during a medical attendance of many months while he lay a prisoner in Fortress Monroe.

"Should any such objectors be found, the writer believes himself safe in predicting that they will be drawn pretty exclusively from that loyal class who were nonbelligerent except in the contracting line, and strictly noncombatant save for higher percentages of profit during the recent contest "for the Union." (A fine bit of sarcasm.)

Photograph of Jefferson Davis from original articleDescribing the arrival of the famous prisoner we read that there was wild excitement when on the 19th day of May, 1865, "the propeller William P. Clyde" dropped anchor in Hampton Roads and the news spread that on board held as prisoners were Jefferson Davis, late president of the Confederacy, and his family; Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president; John H. Reagan, late postmaster-general; Clement C. Clay and other State prisoners. Many were the questions asked in derision such as "Will they bring him ashore or will they take him to Washington and hang him by a military commission?" to be answered, "They can't hang him unless they hang all." And again, "Will they keep him in the woman's toggery he had on when caught?" "Well, I guess there's no truth in that story." (History proved its falsity.)

Speculation was rife on all sides until on May 21, General Wheeler and his staff were sent to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. Alexander Stephens, John H. Reagan and others to Fort Deleware, and on the afternoon of May 22, Mr. Davis parted from his wife and children in a most affecting scene and was conveyed to shore and under heavy guard marched through a crowd kept back by sentinels and guards, and placed within the inner cell of casemate No. 2. Clement C. Clay was placed in No. 4 and guards of soldiers in the cells numbered 1, 3 and 5 upon each side of them.

Questioning one of his guards, Mr. Davis received no reply and he was left alone with a Bible and Prayer Book as his sole reading matter, two silent guards his only companions, and his food the ordinary rations of beef and bread.

Describing the shackling of Mr. Davis, Dr. Craven writes with much feeling "On the morning of the 23rd of May, a yet bitterer trial was in store for the proud spirit--a trial severer probably than has ever in modern times been inflicted upon any one who had enjoyed such eminence. This morning Jefferson Davis was shackled!"

Heartrending is the account of the weary ill man shackled by a blacksmith under the orders of General Nelson A. Miles. It aroused Mr. Davis to a frenzied effort to prevent the cruel indignity but to no avail. On the morning of the 24th, Dr. Craven was notified that Mr. Davis was ill and that he ad been assigned as his medical attendant. Thus began his kindly ministrations and the association which developed into an abiding friendship. Unable to move except with great difficult with ankles lacerated by the heavy chains, Mr. Davis could not take the exercise so necessary for his digestion, and Dr. Craven realized that his physical condition required the removal of the shackles. Seeking an interview with General Miles and stating his opinion as strongly as possible, General Miles asked, "You believe it then a medical necessity?" to which Dr. Craven replied, "I do most earnestly."

At the end of five days the shackles were removed and improvement in health followed. But this was not to last for owing to continued loss of sleep occasioned by a lamp kept burning in his room all night, and the constant tramping of the guards as well as the consciousness of being continually watched, and being confined in the damp malarial atmosphere of the cell, Mr. Davis became seriously ill and many weeks passed before he recovered. It was then that Dr. Craven became friend and confidant learning to know Mr. Davis as a man of highest character and deep religious faith, and to admire him for his fine intellect and broad knowledge.

Dr. Craven sought in every way to secure more humane treatment for the distinguished prisoner resulting oftimes in a controversy with the commanding officer. Little by little under his watchful care and with dainty food prepared and brought from Dr. Craven's home, the patient was brought back to a semblance of health and after repeated efforts he was able to have Mr. Davis placed in other quarters. Before his release from duty on December 25, 1865, Dr. Craven notes with satisfaction that Mr. Davis had been removed from the damp and gloomy casemate in which he had been kept for six months, to a room in Carroll Hall, where he remained for 18 months longer awaiting a trial which never came, and he was finally released in May, 1867.

After his retirement from service, Dr. Craven returned to Newart, where later he was nominated and became postmaster, but owing to the fact that the appointment had been made under a Democratic administration, confirmation was refused by a Republican Senate. His latter years were passed on his Long Island estate. He died February 14, 1893, and is buried at Patchogen, Long Island.

Strange it seems that more than 70 years have elapsed without recognition of this man so worthy of the gratitude of the Southern people, who was the first and for a long time the only one to give aid, comfort and sympathy to Jefferson Davis, innocent of guilt, imprisoned and alone, the vicarious sufferer for the South. Naught had been done to honor and few knew his name or the record of his kindly deeds.


The tablet erected in honor of Dr. Craven


When this was brought to the attention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the last annual convention by Mrs. Walter D. Lamar, president-general, her recommendation was unanimously indorsed and appropriation made for erection of the memorial. The recommendation read as follows: "That a marker be placed at Fortress Monroe honoring Dr. John J. Craven of the U.S.A. because of his kindness to Mr. Davis during the latter's imprisonment there, this to be established according to the rules laid down by the Government authorities." After a correspondence covering many weeks, ith the office of the ecretary of War and with the commanding officer at Fortress Monroe, consent was given to place the marker and the following inscription was approved:

"Honoring Dr. John J. Craven of the United States Army, whose humanity, intelligent companionship and professional skill lightened the monotony, the loneliness and the physical suffering of Jefferson Davis, President of the former Confederate States of America (1861-1865) while a prisoner of war and confined in a cell in this casement.

This tablet is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. May 4, 1939."

Over the door of the casemate a marker was placed some years ago by the State Conservation Commission, Dr. Ekenrode, historian, in response to efforts made by the Hampton Chapter, U.D.C., Mrs. Charles Fraley, president.

Just under this marker the new tablet was placed and unveiled on Thursday, May 4, 1939.

The presentation and address were made by Mrs. Lamar, president-general, and the tablet accepted by General F. H. Smith, commanding officer at Fortress Monroe. It was unveiled by the great grandson of Dr. Craven, Mr. Robert A. Craven of Paterson, N. J. and the great grandson of President Davis, Mr. Gerald B. Webb Jr., of Middleburg, Va.
                                                                           Richmond Times-Dispatch   
                                                                           May 7, 1939




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