The Mystery of the Saxeville - Jefferson Davis Bell
||Saxeville Jefferson Davis Bell
Waushara County, Wisconsin
From the Scrapbook of Wayne and Alta Guyant
Contributed by Darlene Ryan
by Greg Marr
June 11, 1981
If you choose to believe the people of Saxeville, it's just a case of the "spoils of war." If you believe the people of Vicksburg, it's a clear cut case of theft. the controversy centers on a bell and a body.
The Vicksburg, Mississippi, National Park Cemetery holds the body of a Union Soldier, Captain Edward Saxe, the victim of a Rebel bullet during the battle of Shiloh. the community of Saxeville has a bell once believed to have been used to call field hands on a Jefferson Davis plantation over a century ago.
Vicksburg wants the bell and they've offered to swap the body to get it.
Although there have been some tongue in cheek threats of a raid on Saxeville, by latter-day confederates, Saxeville isn't worried. they consider it their bell and they have no intention of giving it up. Rumors of a militia forming to protect the bell are a bit premature, however.
According to the story, which has be now become legend in both communities, the heavy, cast-iron bell was shipped north by Saxe's soldiers after a raid on one of Davis' plantations. This story has often been disputed by history buffs North and South. In fact, some people on both sides aren't even convinced the bell ever did belong to Jefferson Davis.
Charlotte Van Airsdale, a Saxeville resident, has pieced together fragments of the story and come up with this account:
Edward Saxe received a commission from the governor of Wisconsin in 1861 and began forming a Military Company called the Waushara County Rangers. After several months of drilling in Madison, the Rangers were sent to Union Headquarters in Nashville.
The group joined a Wisconsin regiment and saw action at the Battle of shiloh, where, on April 6, 1862, Captain Saxe was killed. Saxe's soldiers later stationed at Corinth, Mississippi, claimed to have taken the bell and shipped it up the Mississippi River hidden in a cracker barrel.
Fred Saxe, son of the Captain, doesn't believe the bell came from a Davis plantation at all. Saxe claims records show Saxeville soldiers were never near the Davis plantation and could not, therefore, have taken the bell.
Saxe tells of a conversation with one of the soldiers who said the bell was found in a warehouse in Nashville.
A plaque mounted beneath the bell "was originally used to call slaves from the fields at the Jefferson Davis plantation in Corinth, Miss." Although Davis had several plantations, none were located near Corinth.
One might begin to think Saxe's soldiers were playing a joke on their ancestors or trying to show off for the home folks. Although there is an abundance of evidence to the contrary, at least one Southerner is convinced the bell actually did come from a Davis plantation, but not near Corinth.
Gordon Cotton is the director of the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg. Cotton has spear-headed an effort to get the bell back home, where he feels it belongs. It was he who suggested swapping the bell for the body.
Cotton has been corresponding with Mrs. Vernon Jorgensen, a member of the Saxeville Improvement Committee, unofficial caretakers of the bell, in an effort to have it returned.
Cotton was half convinced the bell was not Davis' until he recently received a phone call from a woman in Louisiana who said she had proof the bell was indeed Davis' and taken from a plantation near Vickburg by Saxe's soldiers.
Her proof? A diary kept by her grandfather, one of the Waushara Rangers, documenting the actual heist. And who is this raiding Ranger? Well, Cotton isn't saying. . .yet. He considers the diary his ace-in-the-hole for the time when he, or descendants of Davis, might want to prove the true origin of the bell.
Whoever the Union soldier was, Cotton was convinced he took part in the removal of the bell. "He describes in great detail the actual taking of the bell," Cotton said recently. "he gave specific directions on how to get there (the plantation near Vicksburg).
"They went out there with the intent of getting food," Cotton added. "He called it, in the diary, a foraging expedition." They ended up on a looting expedition, taking the bell with them. Cotton points out nearly all of Davis' plantations were looted during the war with little, save for walls and floors, remaining. Over the years, the Davis family has tried to regain some of their lost property. cotton is in the process of informing Bertram Hayes - Davis, president of the DAvis Family Foundation, about the new evidence concerning the bell.
Back in Saxeville, Mrs. Jorgensen was skeptical when she heard the new "evidence" concerning the bell's origin. Even if the bell is determiined to be Davis', Saxeville, she says is adamant about keeping it. "It's just considered the spoils of war. We don't feel we should have to give it up."
Cotton isn't so sure. According to him, courts have ruled in favor of the original owners in similar cases.
Cotton admits it is unlikely Davis' descendants would even bother taking the matter to court. Both Mrs. Jorgensen and Cotton agree the controversy has been more fun than hassle for both communities. Earlier stories have prompted letters from around the country to Saxeville and prompted the diarist's granddaughter to call Vicksburg.
Saxeville residents can build a pretty good case for hanging onto the bell, even if it wasn't theirs in the first place. According to Charlotte Van Airsdale, it hung in the first Saxeville school house from 1862 until 1880, when it was moved to a new school. the building ceased being used as a school in 1962 and the bell was moved to the park as a historical monument.
Should any Rebels try to sneak into Saxeville in the dead of the night and capture the bell, they might be in for a surprise. Rumor has it the bell hanging in the park is not the actual bell at all. the real bell may be in safe-keeping, although no one in Saxeville is willing to confirm that story.
At least one Southerner has volunteered to ride North on horseback to receive the bell, should Saxeville reconsider. A delegation from the Davis family would be on hand for the official ceremony and the bell would be shipped South the way it came North, aboard a steamboat on the Mississippi River.
For now, at least, the bell will remain in Saxeville. Should the mystery Ranger's diary prove authentic, the war between the North and South just might heat up again.
As for the body of Captain Saxe, Mrs. Jorgensen laughingly says they can keep it.