Guarding the Arch-Traitor

Selden Allen Day had a distinguished and lengthy career in the U.S. Army, serving in both the Civil War and the Spanish American War. He was born July 22, 1838 in Chillicothe, Ohio and at the outbreak of the war was living in Wood County, Ohio. He enlisted in Co. C of the 7th Ohio Infantry and had been promoted to the rank of sergeant by the time he left in February 1863, seeing action at Kessler’s Crossroads, First Kernstown, Port Republic, Cedar Mountain, and Antietam. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Light Artillery in April 1864 and was given a brevet promotion to first lieutenant in June 1864 for gallantry at Cold Harbor, and a second brevet promotion to captain in March 1865 for meritorious services during the war. Day later saw action in the Spanish-American War in Cuba and retired from the Army in 1902.

However, one of the more memorable events of Day’s service occurred away from the battlefield. In the fall of 1865, he was one of Jefferson Davis’ jailors and got to speak with the “arch-traitor.” In this letter dated November 1, 1865, Lieutenant Day wrote to Wood County Sheriff Charles C. Evers (a veteran of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry) about life at Fortress Monroe and his interactions with the “chief instigator of the rebellion.”

Jefferson Davis sitting atop his bed in conversation with a Federal officer while being guarded by two guards. Selden Day found the "old man" to be highly intelligent, patient, and very sociable. 
Carroll Hall, Fort Monroe, Virginia
November 1, 1865

                Being on guard this evening over the late president of the so-called Southern Confederacy and having to sit up with the same, like any other sick man, I have an opportunity in the idleness of my vigil to write you.

                Our regiment went on duty at this post today, relieving the 3rd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, and everything accordingly has been reduced to a peace standard. Even the guard over Jefferson Davis and Clement C. Clay, who are both imprisoned in this building, were very much diminished in numbers this morning, though, mind you, I don’t say in force as I did take the place of three officers myself. The sentinel in the room with me relieved two volunteers who did the same duty before.

                I had quite a friendly talk with the chief instigator of the great rebellion before he went to bed this evening. The “old man” as he is familiarly called here is not very well just at present. He has been suffering with several boils for the last few days. He seems quite patient and very sociable and pleasant, and as he lays there so quietly sleeping, it seems quite impossible that the feeble old man whose breathing I hear so regularly could or would ever do harm in this world again.
Sergeant Selden Allen Day
Co. C, 7th Ohio Infantry

Don’t think though that I have been won over to sympathy for traitors, for I assure you I still think that treason shall be made odious for all time to come. But I can’t help pitying that unfortunate man whose fall has been so great. He talks freely on every subject to those with whom he is allowed to speak, and certainly seems to possess a marvelous store of information on almost every subject. His knowledge of the political history of the country is, of course, very extensive and to hear of him talk of “when I was in the War Office” is certainly quite interesting to us who have so much to do with that Department, and in fact, whose source all of it is.

Clay, the other prisoner for whose keeping I am responsible until tomorrow, there is a great deal of mystery about. It will be remembered that he was charged with complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and a big price was set on his head when he delivered himself up in the Department of the Gulf last May, since when he has been well taken care of. [Clay served as U.S. Senator from Alabama from 1853-1861 and a Confederate state senator from 1862-1864. He was suspected of having hired John Wilkes Booth prior to Lincoln’s assassination and was arrested accordingly. He was released in April 1866] I am not far from home when on duty over these prisoners as my quarters are in the same building, but still, the officer of the guard is required to remain constantly in view of the principal of the two and it will be a relief indeed that lets me out tomorrow.
The "other" prisoner: ex-Alabama Senator Clement C. Clay


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