June 18, 2008
Man Marks Another Bicentennial: Davis’ Birth
By JIM SCHLOSSER
William Oden Jr., a man with controversial views, wants to celebrate the bicentennial.Grab your chairs and hold tight.
He's not talking of Greensboro's 200th birthday. He wants to hail a person who wandered Greensboro a defeated man in April 1865 -- Confederacy President Jefferson Davis. Davis was born in Kentucky in 1808 the same year Guilford commissioners peeled off $98 to buy land to start Greensboro.
Oden, with gray eyebrows and hair, believes that those who vent outrage about Davis and the Confederacy haven't done their homework.
He says before the Civil War, Davis served the United States in many ways and was wounded in the Mexican War. The Civil War would have been avoided, Oden says, if Davis had run for president in 1860 as some friends urged. The war would kill 680,000 Northern and Southern soldiers.
Like many with views equal to dynamite sticks, Oden isn't one- dimensional. Although he loves conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, he also likes liberal Maureen Dowd for how she beats up on President Bush.
Liberals, and some conservatives, would shout hooray when Oden declares, "Bush is the worst president," but many would cringe when he adds, "since Lincoln."
Oden says Bush's war in Iraq doesn't match what he calls the Civil War debacle -- which he blames on Abraham Lincoln -- "but it comes pretty dang close."
Oden seems not too distant from the pacifism that once defined the Society of Friends, the Quakers. He graduated from Quaker- founded Guilford College, near his present home.
"I think the only war we fought that was justified," he says, "was against the Japanese because they attacked us."
Oden's clinging to the Southern cause is based on Jeffersonian democracy, meaning the federal government has limited powers, with all others left to the states. Oden argues that the states had the right to decide slavery before the Civil War. Most scholars agree the founding fathers wanted a nation based on Jeffersonian democracy.
Oden's interest in the Civil War, Davis and the Confederacy began at Duke law school where he studied old books and documents in the university library.
The South and slavery seem inseparable. But Oden is convinced slavery was becoming obsolete and would have ended without the Civil War and without the postwar bitterness Southerners felt for decades. If not for the war and Reconstruction -- Northern control of the South -- black people would have achieved freedom, education and eventually equality, in Oden's opinion.
"Slavery was not a good idea to begin with," he says. "It was becoming burdensome to slave owners. Few people could afford to own slaves. Slavery could have ended in a more civilized way."
He belongs to various post-Confederate organizations and has received the United Daughters of the Confederacy's Stonewall Jackson Award. He occasionally hoists a faded Confederate battle flag at his house on a hill in the woods behind New Garden Friends Cemetery.
A former Navy officer, he belongs to patriotic veterans groups, including the Black Caps. He has long been active at West Market United Methodist Church.
In this era when politicians urge youth to enter public service, Oden says Davis always responded when the nation summoned, even though he was reclusive by nature and often grieving.
His first wife, Sarah, daughter of future President Zachary Taylor, died of malaria three months after they married. Four sons from a later marriage died young.
After graduating from West Point, Davis spent seven hated years on the frontier fighting American Indians. Oden says unlike some big- name American soldiers doing the same duty, Davis sympathized with the Indians.
Davis left the Army after marrying Sarah Taylor, whom he met on the frontier when Zack Taylor was Davis's commanding officer. Her death turned Davis into a near hermit for eight years on his wealthy brother's Mississippi plantation. Davis was then elected to Congress, but resigned after a few months to rejoin Taylor in the Mexican War. Davis was wounded in the Battle of Buena Vista.
Later, appointed to the U.S. Senate, Davis became recognized for his oratory and defense of states' rights. From 1853 to 1857, Davis served as President Franklin Pierce's secretary of war (now secretary of defense).
"Davis did more for the U.S. Army than anyone," Oden says, explaining Davis sent generals to observe and learn from the German and French armies.
"Ironically," Oden says, "that same army that he improved would destroy him a few years later."
Returning to the Senate in 1857, Davis argued for saving the Union. With secession apparent, Davis resigned in a tearful speech in 1861.
Oden was born in 1929, 64 years after Davis' lowest point. In spring 1865, Davis walked South Elm Street between Cabinet meetings in a rail car beside what's now Natty Greene's restaurant at Elm and McGee streets. Davis had fled Richmond, Va., as Yankees closed in.
History doesn't say where Davis slept here, but it was surely near 401 Blandwood Ave., where Oden would grow up and play across the street on the grounds of antebellum Blandwood Mansion. Blandwood's most famous owner, former Gov. John Motley Morehead, offered Davis shelter. Davis refused, fearing Union Gen. William T. Sherman, then in Durham, would torch anyplace Davis had lodged.
It was here, history says, Davis signed articles surrendering to Sherman the Confederacy's huge Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joe Johnston. Oden and others, however, believe Johnston betrayed Davis by surrendering instead of traveling south with him to renew the war. The Yankees eventually captured Davis.
One might think Oden's dry-cleaning bill reflects cocktails thrown at him, but he laughs and says, "No, the people I deal with all feel like I do."
He does get occasional flak for editorial page pieces he sometimes writes in the News & Record. He exchanges differences with a neighbor, a Guilford professor. Oden likes the man and believes the feeling is mutual.
Oden works at home at a roll-top desk that was his grandfather's. Two great-grandfathers fought for the South, another for the North. Chuckling, Oden says he doesn't discuss the Yankee kin.
Don't get Oden started on the present. He cares for none of the 2008 presidential candidates.
"If I were a young man, I think I would take my family and move to New Zealand," he says of a nation tough on immigration, a big issue with Oden. "That's how discouraged I am about this country."
He realized just how discouraged when he bought a cuckoo clock with a picture of Davis' top general, Robert E. Lee, and his horse, Traveler. Instead of a bird, a cannon appeared on the hour and fired a shot.
The clock kept breaking. Oden checked the label: "Made in China."
He sent it back.
Contact Jim Schlosser at 601-9879 or [email protected]
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