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FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [C.C. Clay]

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  • Amos J Wright
    ... From: biod-request@www.anb.org [mailto:biod-request@www.anb.org] Sent: Wednesday, December 13, 2006 1:50 AM To: ANB bioday mailing list Subject: ANB - Bio
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      From: biod-request@... [mailto:biod-request@...]
      Sent: Wednesday, December 13, 2006 1:50 AM
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      Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day

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      American National Biography Online
      [ illustration ]
      Clement Claiborne Clay. Daguerreotype
      from the studio of Mathew B. Brady.
      Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-110033).

      Clay, Clement Claiborne (13 Dec. 1816-3 Jan. 1882), U.S. and
      Confederate senator, was born near Huntsville, Alabama, the son
      of Clement Comer Clay, a lawyer and later governor and U.S. senator,
      and Susanna Claiborne Withers. He used the designation C. C.
      Clay, Jr., to distinguish himself from his father. He graduated
      from the University of Alabama in 1834 and studied law under
      John B. Minor at the University of Virginia, receiving his degree
      in 1839. During his father's tenure as governor of Alabama, 1835-1837,
      Clay was his father's secretary. He practiced law with him from
      1839 to 1846, after which he became Madison County judge. He
      resigned in 1848 for financial reasons. Debt was a lifelong problem,
      along with chronic bad health, particularly asthma. Clay was
      associated with the Huntsville Democrat, a family organ, most
      closely in the 1840s, when he was an assistant editor during
      important campaigns. He was elected to the lower house of the
      Alabama legislature in 1842 and 1844-1845, then to the U.S. Senate
      in 1853 and again in 1857. A Jacksonian Democrat, and a strong
      opponent of Henry Clay (a distant relation) and the Whigs, he
      moved closer to states' rights and John C. Calhoun over a proposal
      for the gradual abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia
      and was active in the Nashville convention of 1850. Yet he was
      never one of the fire-eaters. He strongly supported President
      Franklin Pierce and, with less enthusiasm, President James Buchanan
      in the political disputes of the 1850s.

      Clay's marriage in 1843 to Virginia Caroline Tunstall (Virginia
      Tunstall Clay-Clopton) was in most respects a good match. Her
      social skills were unsurpassed in antebellum Washington, and
      she assisted him materially in his career. She lived until 1915
      and is perhaps better known than her husband because of her memoir,
      A Belle of the Fifties (1904). They had no children.

      Clay believed the national government was "a confederation,
      not a consolidation, a union, not a nation" (Nuermberger, p.
      168). As senator he opposed most public expenditures, including
      homesteads and college land grants, but favored aid to southern
      railroads. A close friend of Jefferson Davis, Clay helped him
      avert a duel with Judah P. Benjamin, a Louisiana senator. He
      was a bitter foe of Democrat Stephen A. Douglas but also of
      and Republicans like Charles A. Sumner and John P. Hale.

      Clay resigned his Senate seat after Alabama's secession (11
      Jan. 1861) and went to Minnesota because of violent asthma attacks
      in late winter. Though he was invited to Montgomery by Davis's
      wife Varina Howell Davis, his health prevented his going. He
      was instrumental in the selection of Leroy Pope Walker, a North
      Alabama rival, as the first Confederate secretary of war after
      Clay had declined the post. Walker was a bad choice yet one that
      eased Clay's election to the Confederate Senate in November 1861.
      He took his seat in Richmond in February 1862. Clay was a moderate
      in Congress, sometimes supporting the states' rights group, at
      other times the conservative faction, but he generally backed
      President Davis. He mediated between Davis and his fellow Alabama
      senator, William Lowndes Yancey, a bitter critic of the administration.
      Clay also headed a committee that exonerated the Navy Department
      for the loss of New Orleans. His loyalty to Davis and his vote
      against a pay increase for Confederate soldiers helped defeat
      him for reelection. His term expired in February 1864.

      Clay was one of three Confederates sent by Davis on a mission
      to Canada. In May he ran the blockade out of Wilmington, North
      Carolina, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He headed a War Department
      espionage team charged with rescuing Confederate prisoners and
      fomenting discontent against Lincoln's government among copperheads
      and the Knights of the Golden Circle. In July 1864 Clay was involved
      in the Niagara Falls "peace conference" with publisher Horace
      Greeley, an attempt to embarrass Abraham Lincoln and influence
      the 1864 presidential election. He recruited Bennett H. Young
      and directed his raid on St. Albans, Vermont, on 19 October 1864.
      The raiders robbed all three banks in the town and escaped across
      the border with a quarter million dollars. It was the only successful
      action carried out by Confederates from Canada and caused international
      repercussions between Great Britain and the United States.

      Clay left Canada in January and reported to Secretary of State
      Benjamin and President Davis in Richmond on 2 April 1865, as
      the Confederate government was evacuating its capital. He traveled
      as far as Danville with the presidential party and headed for
      Mexico after learning of Lincoln's death. As he moved west across
      Georgia he heard of President Andrew Johnson's proclamation for
      his arrest and that of other Confederates as conspirators in
      the assassination. Clay rode 150 miles from La Grange to Macon,
      Georgia, to surrender himself to General James H. Wilson. With
      Davis and other officials, he was taken to Augusta and then by
      steamship to Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he was held as a prisoner
      from May 1865 to April 1866.

      Virginia Clay eventually won her husband's freedom with the
      help of Ulysses S. Grant and northern politicians who had known
      Clay before the war. He was pardoned by Congress in 1880. Upon
      his release, the couple returned to Huntsville, which had endured
      early Union occupation. Though they suffered little during the
      conflict, they faced near poverty in Reconstruction. Yet Virginia
      managed to socialize in various cities, while Clay struggled
      to pay his own debts and those of his late father. He experimented
      unsuccessfully with freedmen as laborers, tried a variety of
      crops on his "Wildwood" plantation, practiced law, and sold insurance.
      He died near Huntsville without recovering his family's social
      or political importance or achieving solvency.

      Clay "did nothing in his public life to ease sectional tension,
      and much to exacerbate it" (Nuermberger, p. 321) and was second
      only to Yancey in Alabama's secession movement. While it has
      not been proved that Clay met John Wilkes Booth in Canada, a
      charge that he always denied, he probably knew of a plot aimed
      at Lincoln. Clay was among the "officers . . . who seem to have
      played important roles in intelligence activities" and was "an
      aggressive man . . . not averse to a fight" (Tidwell, Come Retribution,
      pp. 49, 189, 250). He seemed willing to take direct action for
      the cause he believed in.


      Clay's papers are at Duke University. The best available study
      is Ruth Ketring Nuermberger, The Clays of Alabama: A
      Family (1958), a carefully researched and fascinating collective
      biography, more than two-thirds of which is primarily devoted
      to Clay and his wife. The first part of the volume deals with
      his father's career and early life on the frontier in Alabama's
      Tennessee River valley. The bibliography is a guide to works
      on local and family history and genealogy. Walter L. Fleming,
      Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (1905), is supplemented
      by J. Mills Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society:
      Alabama, 1800-1860 (1978). Wilfred Buck Yearns, The Confederate
      Congress (1960), and Thomas B. Alexander and Richard E. Beringer,
      The Anatomy of the Confederate Congress (1972), analyze Clay's
      performance in the Confederate Senate. William A. Tidwell et
      al., Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the
      Assassination of Lincoln (1988) and April '65: Confederate Covert
      Action in the American Civil War (1995), document Clay's involvement
      in espionage while in Canada. Extensive discussion of his imprisonment
      and the possible charges against him as well as correspondence
      from the Clays is in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation
      of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,
      ser. 2, vol. 8 (1899), and Douglas Southall Freeman, A Calendar
      of Confederate Papers (1908).

      Michael B. Chesson

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      Michael B. Chesson. "Clay, Clement Claiborne";
      American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
      Access Date:
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