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Story Archives: Rank Dickson, Jefferson Davis and the Civil War
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|Rank Dickson, Jefferson Davis and the Civil War|
(Fifth in a series)
Before the Civil War the Dicksons had prospered as one of the first families to settle in the newly founded state capital Jackson in 1822.
They remained at the center of Jackson's social and political life for decades. By 1860 and the beginning of secession, the family had become pillars of the community. Jeff's great-grandmother, Letitia Dickson, operated the popular hotel and boarding house known as the Dickson House. His grandfather, Christopher Rankin "Rank" Dickson, served for about two decades as the city's postmaster under the Federal government and later under the Confederacy. He also served as alderman. Rank Dickson was long active in the cause of states' rights. In 1850 the Southern Rights Association was founded in Jackson with General John Anthony Quitman, the former governor of occupied Mexico and future governor of Mississippi, as president, while Rank was treasurer.
After South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, Mississippi held a secession convention in the state capitol (now known as "the Old Capitol") in Jackson on January 7, 1861. After secession was approved on the 9th, the doors of the convention opened to admit Rank Dickson who had been delegated to be the ceremonial bearer of the Bonnie Blue Flag. He proceeded to the front of the room and handed the flag to the president of the convention to the sound of thunderous applause. The flag was soon flying over the capitol building as a token of Mississippi's newly proclaimed independence.
On December 8, 1859, Rank and Olivia Dickson had a third child, a son whom they named Jefferson Davis Dickson, obviously in honor of one of Mississippi's most beloved sons, Jefferson Davis of Brierfield plantation, Warren County. The boy would grow up to become the father of Jeff Dickson, Jr., the subject of this series.
At the time of the birth of young Jeff, Jefferson Davis was serving as U.S. Senator in Washington. It has been claimed that Rank Dickson and Davis were "close" friends and that Rank participated in Davis' 1845 marriage to Varina Howell at the Briars in Natchez. This is probably exaggerated. While Dickson and Davis certainly knew and respected each other, there was about 14 years difference in their age. Although there was occasional correspondence between the two, it wasn't extensive. Nor is there any documentation that Rank participated in Davis' wedding.
One year old Jeff Dickson would soon have an opportunity to meet his namesake. After Mississippi voted to secede in January 1861, in Washington, Jefferson Davis resigned from the U.S. Senate, and he and his wife Varina immediately returned home by train. Disembarking in Jackson, the Davises stayed for about a week in the Dickson House as activity whirled about them and the city and state waited in anticipation for the storm that lay ahead. Varina later recalled that Letitia was "an old lady of wonderful acumen. . . . whose husband had been a member of Congress. She knew intimately every man of prominence in the State, and had no little political influence." During their stay at the Dickson House, it's almost certain that the soon-to-be President of the Confederacy must have met his year old namesake.
After returning with Varina to Brierfield on the Mississippi, Davis returned alone to Jackson and, apparently, to the Dickson House. On February 14, 1861 he wrote to Varina noting in the letter that "Mrs. Dickson inquired affectionately for you and says you must come to see her."
He left Jackson by train bound for Montgomery and onboard accompanying him was Rank Dickson. Davis followed a circuitous route on a two day trip that took him through Chattanooga and Atlanta, making about twenty speeches along the way to crowds waiting at the depots. After arriving in Montgomery, he was inaugurated on February 16 at the Alabama capitol as provisional president of the Confederacy. On the 20th he wrote Varina from Montgomery noting that he was sending the letter with Rank Dickson who was returning to Mississippi. Davis later described Rank as a "Good, energetic, bold man – worthy of trust."
In May 1862 Jefferson Davis, by then residing with his family in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, sent a letter to his older brother Joseph Davis who resided at Hurricane plantation on the Mississippi River below Vicksburg. The letter probably passed through the Confederate postal system to the Jackson post office where Rank was postmaster. Rank then personally carried the letter to the Hurricane, where the two men discussed possibilities for moving Davis away from the river because of the growing threat of his capture by Union forces. Rank told him that he was in control of "the old Haley place," referring to all or part of the property owned by his late father-in-law Major David W. Haley and that he would lease it to Davis. However, it had been a very wet spring. When Davis arrived to inspect the place he found it inundated, probably by the Pearl River. So the deal was off.
We know little of the Dicksons during the ensuing years of the war. They must have been there in 1863 when the city was occupied by General William T. Sherman and then re-occupied by him soon after.
As the war ground toward a close, so too did the life of Jackson's matriarch, Letitia Dickson, widow of General David Dickson, mother of Rank and grandmother of Jeff, Sr. She died in 1864. At the time she was perhaps the only person left in town who had been there from its founding in 1822. She had been there when Jackson was covered in woods, she had seen the building of the Old Capitol and witnessed the arrival of the first train; she had seen the outbreak of the War and the occupation under Sherman. But she did not live to see the onset of peace and the decline of her family.
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