“I have an infirmity of which I am heartily ashamed. When I am aroused in a matter, I lose control of my feelings and become personal.” – Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, was in his pew at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia on Sunday morning April 2, 1865, when he was handed a message sent by General Robert E. Lee. It read, “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.”
Other parishioners recalled that Davis stood up, gained his erect posture, and walked quickly out of the church. The message clearly indicated that General Lee had decided to abandon his positions near Petersburg and retreat further south to hopefully fight another day. But the retreat would essentially leave the much larger Union forces a clear path to the Confederate Capital of Richmond; and, Lee was, in effect, telling the Confederate government to abandon the city that evening.
Later that Sunday, hesitant to leave the city on such short notice, Davis sent a message to General Lee which read, “To depart from Richmond tonight would necessitate the loss of many valuables, both for the want of time to pack and of transportation.” It was clear that Davis believed that Lee could hold out longer, and he questioned Lee’s decision to retreat from the defensive positions around Petersburg. At first Lee was furious and tore the message apart saying, “I am sure I gave him sufficient time.” But, he immediately gained composure and wrote the President a respectful message stating that it was, “absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position (Petersburg) tonight.”
Although he seemed defiant, Davis must have expected the fall of Richmond, just perhaps not that specific day, because, several days before, he had placed his wife, Varina, and their children on a train toward Charleston, South Carolina (or even further south if necessary to avoid Union capture). She did not want to leave without him and it finally took a forceful directive from the President to his wife for her to leave on the earlier train. Even before her husband’s directive, Varina also knew a retreat from Richmond was eminent and she had been selling many of her belongings including china, silver sets, and even some of her dresses. Still, she did not pack lightly, with 4-5 trunks of clothes and memorabilia. Jefferson Davis wanted his family to travel separately from him for two reasons; first, of course, for their safety, but also so that he could devote his energies to maintain some semblance of a functioning government. Varina later wrote that he told her, “I understand your desire to assist and comfort me, but you can do this in only one way, and that is by going yourself and taking our children to a place of safety. If I live, you can come to me when the struggle is ended; but I do not expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty.” While that phrasing may sound too formal today, it is probably exactly what her husband said; especially about the destruction of Constitutional liberty. Until his dying day, Davis vehemently (but mistakenly) espoused that the U.S. Constitution permitted secession by any state and that Lincoln’s destructive “war of northern aggression” against the Southern states and his Emancipation Proclamation were both unconstitutional.
But, Davis could not debate the Constitution in early April 1865. With his family safely out of the city, Davis was able to focus on his duties in Richmond, until he received the communications from General Lee; then he prepared for his own departure.
“Offer a bottle of whiskey and keep the house in good condition for the Yankees.” – Jefferson Davis purportedly said to his butler as he prepared to leave the Executive Mansion with Union troops closing in.
Many lower level government officials and private citizens of Richmond had left the city days earlier, but Davis and his cabinet remained until Lee’s message. Now they too began gathering the personal and governmental effects they could carry and started on their exit, using trains gathered in Richmond for that purpose. Davis ordered the Secretary of Treasury to load, into one of the box cars, the remaining $500,000 in gold nuggets and coins available to the Confederacy, along with some gold which belonged to Richmond banks and bags of jewelry which had been donated by southern women. The stories of the box car “filled with gold” would later lead to wild speculation about a hidden fortune, and even today can still spur treasure hunters. But, in reality, aside from the banks’ gold which Davis ordered protected, there was only the $500,000 available to the government officials, and that amount would be spent over the next five weeks. At 11pm, Davis, his cabinet, and a few bureaucrats boarded the train, and, accompanied by only a small number of soldiers, headed to Danville, about 150 miles further south.
Unfortunately, as Davis left Richmond, over the objections of the city’s political leaders, Confederate officials ordered the warehouse district set afire, ostensibly to keep any remaining useful materials from the invading Union forces; however, the fires quickly got out of hand, and the residential and other business areas of the city began to burn. Mobs gathered in the streets and ransacked homes and businesses, as described by one newspaper editor, “The sidewalks were encumbered with broken glass; stores were entered at pleasure and stripped from top to bottom.” Ironically, many of the fires were extinguished the next day with help from the Union soldiers who were streaming into the city; and order was restored when the soldiers broke up the mobs and arrested hundreds of the rioters.
After the rampages slowed, one Richmond woman wrote in her diary: “The Yankees are behaving well, considering it is them.”
Although he had abandoned Richmond, Jefferson Davis was not ready to surrender the Confederate States of America. He still had armies in the field and he believed he could regroup elsewhere and fight on.
The town of Danville quickly proved to be an unworkable temporary capital because many of its citizens did not want the Confederate officials in their town; so, Davis ordered the train to head for Greensboro, North Carolina. When he arrived, Davis first learned that Lee’s retreating troops had been overtaken by the superior forces of Union General Ulysses S. Grant near Appomattox, Virginia; and Lee had surrendered his tattered army. Davis at first became emotional but quickly re-gained composure and sent for General Joseph Johnston and General P.G.T. Beauregard, who commanded Confederate forces in the area. The generals were surprised when, instead of asking their advice on the methodology for surrender, Davis said he intended to re-build an army made of deserters who had simply gone home, combined with pardoned confederate soldiers who, if asked, would readily violate their oath to forebear arms against the Union. When Davis asked their opinion. Johnston, who commanded an army larger than Lee’s, spoke first, “Our people are tired of war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight.” Johnston added that his men saw Lee’s surrender as the end of the war and Beauregard only said, “I concur in all General Johnston has said.”
The meeting was formal, but not congenial, and bordered at times as uncivil. Johnston said that the only real presidential power Davis had remaining was to end the war. Davis could not bring himself to participate in any surrender protocol and suggested that the Generals from the Union and Confederate armies could negotiate directly with each other. In other words, the Confederate military might surrender, but not the Confederate Government, nor its President.
As Davis prepared to leave Greensboro, a decision was made to abandon the train and travel on horseback and in carriages. The remaining Confederate treasury gold, now down to about $300,000 after disbursements for supplies and for General Johnston to pay a modest amount to each of his 25,000 troops, was loaded into a wagon to be pulled by a team of horses. President Davis and Generals Johnston and Beauregard then parted ways, but, not before they agreed to assign about 1,200 additional cavalry troops to Davis’s escort.
However, before General Johnston could even arrange a meeting with Union General Sherman to discuss terms of surrender, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Many in the north were convinced (mistakenly) that Jefferson Davis was responsible, and Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton unleashed an unprecedented manhunt to find the Confederate President. The pursuers were instructed to capture Davis alive if at all possible; since both Stanton and new President Andrew Johnson wanted to try him for treason.
Now, with the death of Abraham Lincoln, Davis knew he would be chased by more men with vengeance on their minds; but he still intended to avoid capture and rally some semblance of an army to continue the fight. He convened a “council of war” on May 2, consisting of General John Breckenridge, General Braxton Bragg, and a few other officers in his entourage and said, “It is time that we adopt some definite plan upon which the further prosecution of our struggle shall be conducted.” Like Generals Johnston and Beauregard earlier, Breckenridge, Bragg and the others were astonished. It seemed to those in attendance that only Jefferson Davis failed to realize that the cause was lost. He was told by Breckenridge that the troops which accompanied him only expected to help him reach a safe point and then they would return to their homes; in effect, his military escort was no longer a fighting force. Davis reportedly said, “Then all is indeed lost.”
But, if he actually said that, Jefferson Davis did not mean it, at least not yet. He had still another plan to re-build a viable Confederate resistance.
And, he still had some gold! He appointed an acting treasurer and instructed that the Richmond banks’ gold remain segregated and placed in viable southern banks. And, planning for the future, he instructed that most of the remaining Confederate treasury’s gold be placed into a few other scattered southern banks and in London for later use by the Confederacy; except for a small amount Davis kept to facilitate his escape. Then, he released almost all of his military escorts in the belief that a small group would be more difficult for the Union soldiers to track.
Davis planned to reach General Edmund Kirby and his large force west of the Mississippi River in Louisiana and Texas. He believed that Kirby’s army should be sufficient to build a “Western” Confederacy; but, if all else failed, he would likely ask those troops make a noble last stand. While Kirby had learned of the recent surrender of Lee and Johnston as well as other Confederate forces in nearby Mississippi and Alabama, and he knew of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he also knew Jefferson Davis was still a free man. Davis had been able to get word to General Kirby that he was on his way west and Kirby was determined to keep fighting. On May 9, the Union commander in the west contacted Kirby and offered surrender terms similar to those Grant gave Lee, but Kirby rejected the overture; still hoping to unite with his President.
Davis had even considered an alternative to a “last stand” in Texas, with Kirby’s troops, if that option were to prove impractical. As an option, he would go into Mexico and operate a “government in exile” to keep the Confederate grievances against the United States in the international spotlight.
It is clear that Jefferson Davis could not even consider giving up the fight!
But, for the present, Davis was now determined to re-unite with his wife somewhere in Georgia and he continued to move deeper into southern territory, following what he expected to be her route, often arriving at a town only hours after she had departed. Although her route meandered for safety’s sake, Varina Davis was on her way to Texas as well. The two had been able to exchange some messages by using dedicated couriers who traveled between the groups. With information from those couriers and scouting patrols, Davis knew it was only a matter of time before he could meet with his wife, and then they would head for Texas together.
On May 9, 1865, Jefferson Davis’s entourage converged with his wife and her escorts near Irwinsville, Georgia, and, for the first time in over a month, the two shared some time together.
Then, at dawn the next morning, all of Jefferson Davis’s plans came crashing down.
Union soldiers, who had been tracking Davis for weeks, quietly surrounded their camp, and, at first light, a Union officer shouted for them to surrender. A few Union soldiers mistook movement nearby as Confederate guards and opened fire on their own men; but officers on both sides quickly re-gained control; and no Confederates fired their weapons. At first Davis thought to try to escape into the woods, but his wife restrained him; and he demurred saying, “God’s will be done.” He told his wife that he might be executed on the spot, but that he believed the Union officers would likely protect her, so she should offer no resistance. Varina then draped a shawl over his head and shoulders for warmth and Davis surrendered to his waiting captors. Perhaps to Jefferson Davis’s surprise, he was not executed, but he was restrained and quickly moved away from the area. On the other hand, as he expected, his wife was treated respectfully and informed that her husband was alive; but was a prisoner. As quickly as possible, Davis was transported to the federal prison at Fort Monroe in Virginia, where he would await his fate; and, he would wait for two long years.
Eager to diminish Davis’s reputation, northern newspapers reported that he had tried to flee the camp where he was captured disguised in his wife’s clothes; a falsehood that dogged Davis for years and which greatly offended him. He said that such demeanor would have been “unbecoming a soldier and a gentleman,” and Davis considered himself both.
After learning of the capture of Jefferson Davis, General Kirby finally agreed to surrender his force on May 21, officially signing the document on June 2. However, there would still be a few isolated skirmishes, simply because some Southern units were as yet unaware that the Confederate States of America, for which they had fought, had ceased to exist.
Davis may have been misguided in his commitment to secession, slavery, and the formation of the Confederate States; but he was a courageous man. He had fought with honor in the Mexican War and had actually requested to be appointed as a General of the Confederate Army; and he was not pleased to instead be selected as the civilian President of the Confederate government. And, as President, he did not flee Richmond for his own safety, but only because he hoped to continue to lead the Confederate cause in some alternative form. However, May 10, 1865, outside the small community of Irwinsville, Georgia, all of his hopes and plans for the Confederacy ended.
Jefferson Davis was held in federal prison for two years without a trial, before he was unceremoniously released. Why was there no trial? As in any decision with important political implications, there were numerous factors, but three stand out. President Andrew Johnson had become concerned that a trial would only give Davis a public forum to justify the formation of the Confederacy, which could then damage re-construction efforts. Further, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court had said that, while secessionists committed crimes against federal property, their acts were not treasonous under the Constitution. And, finally, many national and international dignitaries had petitioned for his release on humanitarian grounds; including even the Catholic Pope who had sent Davis, a Protestant, a symbolic “crown of thorns” as an expression of sympathy.