A Confederate and His Dog

Alexander Stephens, vice president of the short-lived Confederate States of America, is not a name easily remembered unless you are a Civil War buff. The frail Georgia politician who served in public life before, during, and after the war between the states actually lived quite an interesting life. But what I found even more interesting was his devotion to dogs, particularly his beloved large white poodle, Rio.

Stephens (1812-1883), started out his life with a number of strikes against him. His mother died when he was just three months old. Then, when he was 14, his father and stepmother died of pneumonia. Stephens and one of his brothers was sent to live with an uncle while the rest of his siblings were sent off to other relatives.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

Stephens spent most of his life battling one ailment or another, but this did not stop him from excelling in his academic and professional endeavors. He was elected to the Georgia state legislature in 1836, beginning a steady rise through the political ranks as a member of the Whigs, Unionists, and later the Democratic Party. He was elected to the House of Representatives in a special election in 1843 and served through 1859, choosing to retire rather than run for reelection as the political scene slid inexorably toward civil war.

During his tenure, Stephens supported the annexation of Texas, but opposed the Mexican-American War. He stood for the extension of slavery into newly acquired territories at nearly every turn, and was nearly stabbed to death in 1848 for his views. As war over the issue of slavery grew closer, Stephens, a slaveowner, actually stood for preserving the Union even as his fellow Georgians sought secession.

Stephens, a lifelong bachelor, had many friends in politics, but the companions he always kept closest were his canines. There was a long list of dogs that Stephens owned throughout his life, but it was Rio that he would forever maintain was his favorite.

Rio, given to Stephens in 1851, was never far from his master’s side when Stephens was not conducting business in Washington. According to biographer Henry Cleveland, “Rio always slept in the same room with him, and when the master was ill and confined to his bed, the faithful brute was never out of the room. save for a few moments at a time, for days and weeks together. He accompanied his master almost every- where he went except to Washington City.”

Stephens claimed that Rio possessed an almost human intelligence, and the dog seemed to have a knack for knowing when Stephens would be returning home to Georgia and would faithfully wait for his train at the depot.

By the time Stephens was elected vice president of the Confederacy in 1861, Rio had become as frail and infirm as his master. Stephens, in constant strife with President Jefferson Davis, filled many letters to friends with words of concern for his dog, who by this point was blind and in need of constant care.

When Rio finally died in 1863, Stephens was beside himself with grief. He buried the dog in the garden at his estate. Stephens wrote to a friend, “The world will never see another Rio. And few dogs ever had, or ever will have, such a master. Over his grave I shed a tear as I did over him frequently as I saw nature failing.”

Stephens would actually continue a life in politics after the Civil War, serving in the U.S. Senate from 1866 to 1882. He was elected Governor of Georgia that same year, but died shortly after taking office. He was buried at his estate on the same grounds as Rio.