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Reuben Davis

Physician, lawyer, and historian Reuben Davis was born on January 18, 1813, near Winchester, Tennessee. The youngest of 12 children, he was son of the Rev. John Davis, a Baptist minister, and Mary Easton, both of whom were Virginia natives before moving to Tennessee around 1810 and then to Franklin County, near Russellville in northern Alabama, which he later described in his autobiography Recollections of Mississippi and Mississippians:

The land had been recently purchased from the Indians, and many of them yet roamed the dense forests of that section. I well remember how I hunted with these wild companions, and was taught by them to use the bow and arrow. Even now I can recall something of the emotion excited in my youthful breast by the wild yells of a party of drunken savages passing near my father’s house.

Reuben’s mother died in 1825 when Reuben was only 12 years old and his father died 6 years later in 1831. As a fifteen year old teenager Reuben moved to Monroe County, Mississippi, to study medicine—rather than the law, which he felt was his true calling—at the urging of his father, who believed that “lawyers were wholly given up to the Devil even in this world, and that it was impossible for any one of them ever to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Reuben Davis studied medicine under Dr. George Higgason, who was married to Reuben’s sister, Lucy. After completing his medical training, Reuben Davis returned to Alabama to practice his new profession. He still felt that his true calling was the law and after several years as a physician he began his study of the law under Judge Lipacomb. He received his law license and returned in 1832, when he was 19 years old, to Athens, Mississippi, in Monroe County. He thus began his long and successful career as a criminal lawyer. He later moved to Aberdeen, Mississippi, where he spent the remainder of his life.

In addition to being an extremely successful lawyer, Davis also served as prosecuting attorney for the sixth judicial district in Mississippi from 1835 to 1839, an associate justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1840, and judge of the high court of appeals in Mississippi in 1842. During the Mexican War (1846-1848), he served as colonel of the Second Regiment of Mississippi Volunteers; he again served briefly in the military during the Civil War as a major general in the Confederate Army. Davis was also active in politics, serving as a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1855 to 1857, a Democrat in the United States House of Representatives from 1857 to 1861, and as a member of the Confederate Congress in 1861 until he resigned in 1864. He ran unsuccessfully for the govenorship of Mississippi in 1863. After the Civil War he returned to the practice of law.

In 1831, Davis married Mary Halbert, a poet and a writer of some note. They had no children, and Mary died in 1865. Davis’s second wife was Sally Virginia Garbor, the niece of writer Joseph G. Baldwin, a lawyer and author of The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi. From this marriage three children were born: Elizabeth, Reuben, Jr., and Stanley. After Sally’s death in 1916, at her request her body lay in state on the grand piano in their home, Sunset Hill, in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

Davis published his autobiography, Recollections of Mississippi and Mississippians, in 1889; the book has been an invaluable reference source for historians ever since. The book is a testimony to Davis’s skills as a writer and as a man of superb intellect and keen insights. He was acquainted with the leading political and social men of the state and he provides intriguing sketches of their lives and paints charming and informative scenes about Mississippi in the years before the Civil War. In the book, Davis describes a time when the state was newly settled with a vibrant and growing population, whose citizens were young and prosperous and mostly immigrants from older states and who were distinguished by their vigor and unbounded imaginations.

“From the year 1828 to 1855,” Davis wrote, “life in Mississippi was full and rich, and varied with much incident and many strong passions. In a new country, teeming with wealth and full of adventurous spirits, there is no tameness, no satiety. O friends of that day, what glorious times we had together! What fierce combats we fought, and with what gay carouses we celebrated the victory! The very recollection makes me grow young again” (Recollections of Mississippi and Mississippians 103).

While on a trip promoting the book, Reuben Davis died suddenly of apoplexy in Huntsville, Alabama, on October 14, 1890. He was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

Davis’s words near the end of his book are a fitting tribute to his own final prospective of the era in which he lived: “All this belongs to the past now. The old homestead has fallen into other hands, the old people sleep in their quiet graves, and their descendants are scattered. The brave old days are like a dream of the night, scarcely to be remembered in the realities of to-day” (Recollections of Mississippi and Mississippians 274).

(Article first posted April 2003)

James K. Harrison

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Publications

Nonfiction:

  • Speech of Hon. Reuben Davis, of Mississippi, on the State of the Union; in the House of Representatives, December 22, 1858. Washington: Congressional Globe Office, 1858.
  • Speech of Hon. Reuben Davis, of Mississippi: On the Bill Making Appropriations for the Army, Delivered in the House of Representatives, February 17, 1859. Washington: Congressional Globe Office, 1859.
  • Recollections of Mississippi and Mississippians. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1890. Revised edition with a new introduction by William D. McCain, preface and an expanded index by Laura D. S. Harrell. Hattiesburg: University and College Press of Mississippi, 1972.

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