Davis’ imprisonment helped fame
Robert E. Lee telegraphed Jefferson Davis who was in his pew at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.
His message to Davis read: “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.” Davis left the church service that Sunday morning to collect the Confederacy’s financial assets, government records, and political personnel.
He would take the Confederate government elsewhere. A woman who was sitting behind Davis in the church remembered seeing the “gray pallor that came upon his face as he read a scrap of paper thrust into his hand” by the messenger.
Davis had expected Richmond to fall, but not for awhile. He and his cabinet headed for Danville, Va., the last capital of the Confederacy on April 2, 1865.
This town of 6,000 had been selected well in advance of Richmond’s fall. Danville lay near the North Carolina border. Davis insisted that he would not leave Virginia until “Robert E. Lee was whipped out of it.” Davis and his cabinet stayed in Danville for one week.
On April 10, 1865, Davis heard of Lee’s surrender and the cabinet and Davis headed for Greensboro, N.C. The people there feared that if they offered their homes to Davis, the Federal army would burn Greensboro. Davis met with P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston and tried to get them to gather conscripts and deserters to increase the Confederate army’s numbers.
At a second meeting that same day, Johnston, whom Davis detested, told Davis: “It would be the greatest of human crimes for us to attempt to continue the war.” Davis asked Beauregard for his opinion.
Beauregard and all present at the meeting felt to continue the war was not feasible. Jefferson Davis was alone in insisting that the Civil War continue. Davis and his cabinet prepared to continue their flight, possibly to Alabama or to the Trans – Mississippi Theater.
His cabinet wanted to safely get Davis “out of the country.” His “government on wheels” now sought to evade capture by the federals.
President Davis and his party left for Charlotte, N.C., on the evening of April 15, 1865. The federal cavalry had captured the railroad, so they had to ride horseback and suffer being drenched by heavy rains.
Davis had sent his wife to Charlotte weeks before his arrival. His wife had already fled Charlotte. Davis, with his party reduced to 20 men and 3 wagons would eventually catch up with his family near Irwinville, Ga., 70 miles from the Florida border.
Davis’ family was being escorted by Burton Harrison, Davis’ personal secretary. Davis and his small party heard a rumor that a group of disbanded soldiers was planning to attack Davis’ family and rob them.
After an all night ride and just before dawn, Davis found his family quite safe on May 7, 1865.
He and his family were united for the first time in five weeks. Davis had been running for one month since his meetings in Danville. His party had travelled 400 miles.
On May 9, 1865, Davis and his family made camp at 5 p.m. He was supposed to leave after darkness came, but fell into a deep sleep. At dawn on May 10, 1865, two regiments of Union cavalry were closing in on Davis’ camp.
They rode in from different directions and a 15-minute mistaken battle between the Union forces ensued. Davis thought the intruders were Southern raiders and vowed to go and have them stop firing. He soon saw the attackers were Union cavalry and his wife Varina encouraged him to escape.
He accidentally picked up his wife’s raincoat and she placed her shawl around his shoulders. A Union soldier aimed his carbine at him. Varina begged him to surrender. Davis uttered, “God’s will be done!” and sat down on a fallen tree near the campfire. A Union colonel said to Davis, “Well, old Jeff, we’ve got you at last.”
Union troops insulted him by saying, “Get a move on, Jeff.” After a few days, Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe, Va., on May 22, 1865. The United States government wanted revenge after President Lincoln was assassinated and accused Davis of being involved.
At Fort Monroe, Davis was constantly humiliated. A ball and chain was put upon him by a blacksmith. He was forbidden to exercise. He was refused a knife and fork while eating.
A lamp burned throughout the night in his cell. Guards were to walk their posts continuously outside his cell. Doctors warned the fort commander, Nelson A. Miles, that Davis’ health was deteriorating.
In April of 1866, 11 months after his being imprisoned, Varina was permitted to visit her husband. Varina had tried all of this time to get her husband released. She succeeded in May of 1867 — after two years! A federal court in Richmond ordered Davis released on a $100,000 bond guaranteeing his appearance at a trial.
The trial for Davis never convened. The federal government dropped the charges of being involved in the Lincoln Assassination and of treason.
In 1877, a wealthy widow, Sarah Anne Dorsey, invited Davis to live at “Beauvoir,” her estate near Biloxi, Miss. Sarah rented a cottage there to Davis and served as his amanuensis when he wrote his two-volume work “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.”
Varina, Davis’ wife, would not come to “Beauvoir.” In 1879, Sarah Anne Dorsey died from cancer and willed her entire estate to Jefferson Davis. He now had a home again.
Jefferson Davis caught cold while taking one last visit to his beloved plantation, “Brierfield.”
He died of bronchitis in New Orleans on Dec. 6, 1889. His body lay in state at the City Hall in New Orleans and mourners from all
over the South came to pay their respects. For three days and nights, over 50,000 people walked past his casket.
In 1893, his body was moved to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. He was placed there to be with his six children, several grandchildren, and Varina who died in 1905.
Davis refused to apply for his American citizenship. In 1978, nearly a century after his death, the United States Congress restored his citizenship. Davis once explained to the Mississippi state legislature: “Repentance has to precede pardon and I have not repented.”
Few people in the South truly loved him, but thousands respected the man who made himself the symbol of the “Lost Cause.”
Bob Leith is a history professor at Ohio University Southern.