A Forgotten Anniversary? The Escape and Capture of Jefferson Davis

Photo from the National Archives

Photo from the National Archives

With the anniversary events surrounding President Lincoln’s assassination at a close, one would image that the book of Sesquicentennial events would close. This idea is easy to fall into, since we know how that story ended: Union cavalry track John Wilkes Booth and David Herold to a tobacco barn in Virginia, “come out!” followed by fire, then gunfire and eventually “useless, useless.” Granted, the trial for the remaining conspirators had not yet begun. But, what of the other potential conspirator? It appears the Sesquicentennial is not quite finished.

As modern readers, we often forget to remove our personal omnipotence when looking at the past. The capture of Booth and the trial of the conspirators no doubt gave Northerners and perhaps beleaguered Southerners, a sense of relief. But in the days following Lincoln’s assassination, the doubt cast on Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, was palpable. I suppose it is not a very large jump to see why Lincoln’s cabinet and Northern civilians would suspect him.

As the days passed with the Army of Northern Virginia pinned down at Petersburg, Davis must have longed for news of potential peace offering. A renowned graduate of West Point and one of the best-known politicians of the day, Davis had a reputation for a cool expression under pressure. Even when given a dispatch from General Lee instructing the President to make preparations for abandoning Richmond, fellow church-goers simply remarked how a “gray pallor” took over his face. In his true fashion then, Davis swiftly departed “with stern set lips and his usual quick military tread.” With his wife and children already departed, Davis must have internalized his fear for the beauty and safety of Richmond. Despite the Union’s simplistic “On to Richmond!” slogan, Richmond had not gone the way of Atlanta or Charleston.

Richmond may have been at the mercy of the Yankees, but Davis believed the conflict and the future of the South at that moment were far from decided. Like many of his contemporaries, later in life Davis wrote his account and memories of the war in an aptly titled two-volume work called The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.  In his recollections while explaining his escape, Davis stated he believed at the present moment as well as 1865 that “the continued show of resistance…would have overcome the depression that was spreading…” and perhaps forced Lincoln to negotiate, like so many in Washington pushed him to, for peaceful terms of separation.  On April 15th, 1865 a dashing young actor changed that likelihood.

Intent on escape and the preservation of a working government, Davis and his cabinet, stocked with monetary supplies, made their way south to Danville, Virginia. News of General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender reached him in Danville.  Lacking any official word of the surrender, according to his writings, a “gallant young youth” informed the President of Lee’s surrender. With this new knowledge and rumor of Union cavalry headed south around Danville, Davis and the cabinet removed to Greensboro, North Carolina. With the object of renewing the struggle remaining in front of him, Davis and his cabinet members met with General Johnston and General Beauregard. The object was, again, to determine how to “continue the struggle, “ believing the troops of North Carolina to be stalwart Confederates, “against the surrender which rumor informed them was in contemplation then.” In spite of Davis’ desire for continued fighting, Lincoln hardly considered him a threat. Rather, Lincoln, hoping to speed reconciliation between the regions, wished for his speedy and silent escape.

Davis and his entourage traveled deep into the Confederacy, hoping to outrun the network being set up for them in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination. All the while, Davis traveled hoping to be re-united with his family.  Mrs. Davis, like all well-groomed Victorians I suppose, traveled with a large wagon train.  For this reason, it is obvious why traveling with his wife would have been ill advised. After several weeks on the move, traveling through woods in secret, the Davis family was re-united.

Photo from the Library of Congress

Photo from the Library of Congress

Through bad weather and early signs of sickness, the Davis family and their party journeyed through the woods and small towns of Georgia, all the while confronting rumors of nearby Union patrols. This journey, chronicled in thriller-type fashion by James Swanson in Bloody Crimes, recounts that Davis, while intending to once again separate from his wife’s large party, would not get the chance to. Lieutenant Colonel B.D. Pritchard and his men were tightening the noose. The small town of Irwinville, Georgia would become the setting for one of the greatest and perhaps overlooked episodes of the sesquicentennial story.  In a piece announcing the victorious capture of Davis in Harper’ Weekly, a Union officer commented on the night of May 11, 1865, “a fight ensued, both parties exhibiting the greatest determination…the captors report that he (Davis) hastily put on one of his wife’s dresses and started for the woods, closely followed by our men, who at first thought him a woman, but seeing his boots while he was running, they suspected his sex at once.” And so begins the legend of Davis the cross-dresser.

While Davis, a warrior, no doubt would have put up some show of resistance, the dress thing? A very wise historian I was lucky enough to work with at Fredericksburg gave me multiple examples of not believing everything you read. To this day, I have him to thank for my bubble-busting skepticism. While certainly accused and placed in prison in Fort Monroe, Davis never went on trial for treason. In his writings, he alluded, but did not expound on the “psychological torture” he was abused with while imprisoned. The life and respect he knew before the war were over. Davis turned down the opportunity to seek an official pardon. One last stand for the truly Lost Cause, I suppose. He and his family lived the majority of their remaining years, including those spent on his writings, at their family plantation in Biloxi called Beauvoir. The beautiful mansion is now home to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, and was truly one of the most beautiful homes on the Gulf Coast I’ve had the pleasure to see.

Statue of Jefferson Davis UT Austin Campus

Statue of Jefferson Davis UT Austin Campus

Apparently, Jefferson Davis may have even begun to fall out of favor with today’s Texans in addition to his Union detractors. It is a shame or ironic I guess, since Davis had commented on the bravery and steadfastness of Texas to the cause. Just this week, the student body government at the University of Texas at Austin, has voted to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis from its prominent location on campus, to a new, off-campus home. It is a somewhat familiar story with the “it offends people” argument being confronted with “that’s our heritage, and it’s a fact” retort.  While I tend to agree, several Confederate statues scattered throughout campus with no obvious ties to Texas and absent any context for their purpose does not seem to make sense, at the very least, students have a right to ask what they’re doing there. If nothing else, at least it is an opportunity for them to discover the man behind the story and the fallen cause.


http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/09/jefferson-davis-statue_n_7248132.html       James Swanson, Bloody Crimes

Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, https://archive.org/details/riseandfallconf01davigoog

Harper’s Weekly, May 27, 1865 http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1865/jefferson-davis-capture.htm

Kerry LiBrando is currently teaching middle school history at the Louise McGehee School in New Orleans, Louisiana. She completed her master's degree in history with a concentration in public history at American University in Washington, D.C. Prior to her time in the nation's capital she received her bachelor's in History from Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.