The irony is, on the surface, remarkable. While serving as the First Lady of the Confederacy, living in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capitol, Varina Howell Davis rescues a young African-American boy from a brutal guardian, and takes him into the Confederate household as a member of the family, an “adopted” son. Such is the legend of Jim Limber, also known as Jim Limber Davis. But is there any truth to this story?
The story of Jim Limber, while not exactly well-known, has been passed down throughout the years, and has been the subject of several articles and at least one book. However, Jim Limber’s story has been muddled over time, until the details have become exaggerated or fabricated.
The fact that Jim Limber did indeed reside with the Davis family is documented. Several contemporaries of the Davis family – including author Mary Boykin Chesnut – wrote of Jim Limber’s presence in the Davis household. Letters exchanged by members of the Davis family refer to Jim Limber, and there is at least one photograph of Jim Limber in existence, evidently taken at the same time as pictures of the Davis children were taken.
It is not, however, Jim Limber’s existence or his being taken in by the Davis family, then, that is in question; what is in question is the relationship between Jim Limber and the Davis family.
Various stories have been recounted both about Jim Limber’s introduction to the Davis household and his relationship to the family. Most of these stories recount Varina Davis Howell’s circa-1864 observation of Jim Limber, then a child of around 5, being beaten savagely by an African-American guardian, and subsequently taking the child, by force, from the guardian. The First Lady of the Confederacy thereupon took the child to the Confederate White House, treated his wounds, and made him a member of the household. He was a playmate of the Davis children, was beloved by President Jefferson Davis himself, and was adopted as a son of the Davis family. When the Davis family fled Richmond after Lee’s surrender, Jim Limber went along, only to be taken from the family by Union officers, crying and clutching to his “family,” who begged to be allowed to keep him. Alas, he was taken, and the family never saw him again, despite the fact that Varina Howell Davis searched in vain for him for years.
While these stories of Jim Limber are heartwarming, they are at best exaggerated and at worst fabrication. The truth is perhaps even more remarkable.
Varina Howell Davis did indeed rescue Jim Limber from an abusive guardian; letters from the time corroborate this, as do the writings of Mary Boykin Chesnut. According to Varina Howell Davis’ memoirs,
A little free negro boy whom we had rescued from one of his own color, who had beaten him terribly, lived… with us. Mr. [Jefferson] Davis, notwithstanding his absorbing cares, went to the Mayor’s office and had his free papers registered to insure Jim against getting into the power of the oppressor again. Jim Limber, which he said was his name in his every-day clothes… became Jeems Henry Brooks in his best suit on Sunday.
At various times, Varina Howell Davis mentioned “adopting” the boy; however, the meaning that she attached to the word “adopt” was never intended to connote that the boy had been legally made a member of the family. Incidentally, “James Henry Brooks” is the name that Varina Howell Davis inscribed on the photograph of Jim Limber that is now part of the collection at the Museum of the Confederacy.
There is some truth to the fact that Jim Limber was forcibly taken from the Davis family, as well. After the family was forced to flee Richmond, they made it as far as Georgia before being caught by Union officials. The officer who escorted the family to their next destination, Captain Charles T. Hudson, threatened to take the child away from the family. Fearing for Jim Limber’s fate, the Davis’ gave him over to the care of another Union officer, General Rufus Saxton.
Varina Davis Howell later wrote of her poignant separation from Jim Limber, who was given to the custody of tugboat officers,
Believing that he was going on board to see something and return, he quietly went, but as soon as he found he was going to leave us he fought like a little tiger and was thus engaged the last we saw of him.
Varina Howell Davis’ account of the family’s separation from Jim Limber was recalled by Elizabeth Hyde Botume, a Bostonian who came South to teach freed slaves. Botume wrote in her memoirs that Varina Howell Davis turned Jim Limber over to Saxton, accompanied by a note
written with pencil on the blank leaf of a book. I quote from memory. She said:–‘I send this boy to you, General Saxton, and beg you to take good care of him… he has shared our fortunes and misfortunes until the present time. But we can do nothing more for him, I send him to you, General Saxton, as you were a friend of our earlier and better times. You will find him affectionate and tractable. I beg you to be kind to him.’ That was the gist of her note.
In none of the memoirs she wrote later in life did Varina Howell Davis ever make reference to attempts to locate Jim Limber; however, she consistently and fondly recalled his time with the family.
The history of Jim Limber’s relationship with the Davis family is fascinating, if muddled by sentimentality over the years, despite the fact that it was well-documented by contemporaries of the Davis’ and the Davis’ themselves.