The Hunt for Jefferson Davis

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The Hunt for Jefferson Davis

Whether he grabbed his wife’s cloak in his haste, or she threw it over him as cover, depends on who tells the tale. For the rest of his life Davis would be hounded by the story that he had tried to escape disguised as a woman.

When the end came, on April 2, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was sitting in his customary pew at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. A messenger interrupted the Sunday service to deliver a sealed telegram from General Robert E. Lee, then some 25 miles to the south defending Petersburg. “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight,” Lee reported tersely.

For the better part of a year, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had held off three Union armies under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, but the previous day the Federals had finally broken through at Five Forks. With Union troops threatening his main line of supply and retreat, Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and race west, away from the capital. Richmond was doomed. As president, Davis’s task had suddenly become to lead the Confederacy in defeat more adeptly than he had ever led it in victory.

Escaping With the CSA’s Treasury

Having commanded the 1st Mississippi Regiment in the Mexican War, the West Point-educated Davis fancied himself something of a military expert. He had desired to serve the Confederacy not as its president but as overall commander of its armies and endeavored to run the nation as a military operation. Autocratic governance, however, had proven ineffective in a nation based on states’ rights. Southern governors largely went their own way, sending or withholding troops as they saw fit and printing their own money. Inflation was near 6,000 percent, and the Confederacy was $700 million in debt. There had been food riots in Richmond, and city matrons had been reduced to serving river water at “starvation balls.” On the war front, Davis had accepted slaves into Confederate armies with a promise of freedom for those who fought, but Southern troops were still outnumbered 10-to-1. When Lee surrendered, it was left for Davis to carry on alone.

“I went to my office,” Davis recalled, “and assembled the heads of departments and bureaus, as far as they could be found on a day when all the offices were closed, and gave the needful instructions for our removal that night, simultaneously with General Lee’s withdrawal from Petersburg.” Each department head was to see that important documents and records were packed and ready to go and the rest destroyed. Leftover stores of cotton and tobacco were to be burned. The remaining national treasury of some $500,000 in gold nuggets, double eagles, silver bars, and Mexican coins was to be crated and taken along. The government would entrain for Danville, on the North Carolina border, at eight that evening. Anyone and anything not on board then would be left behind. The meeting was cut short by the rumble of cannon fire in the distance.

Davis hurried home to the Confederate White House at Clay and 12th Streets to wind up his personal affairs. The house was largely empty. “In view of the diminishing resources of the country on which the Army of Northern Virginia relied for supplies, I had urged the policy of sending families as far as practicable to the south and west,” wrote Davis, “and had set the example by requiring my own to go.” On Wednesday he had put his wife Varina and their children on board a train to Charlotte, North Carolina, giving her a revolver and instructing her in its loading and firing. “If I live you can come to me when the struggle is ended,” he told her, “but I do not expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty.” As he put them on the train, his daughter Maggie hugged his leg and his son Jeff burst into tears and begged to stay with his father. Varina thought her husband appeared “as though he was looking his last upon us.”

Davis had auctioned off the family horses, silver, and valuables for $28,400. He sent Confederate treasurer John Hendren with the check to the Bank of Richmond. Hendren returned with the news that the bank would not cash it, even when presented by the treasurer of the Confederacy on behalf of its president. The banks were choked with customers clamoring for their deposits, even as officials piled together millions in worthless paper notes for burning. Meanwhile, bank officials insisted on sending junior managers along to supervise the guarding of the government treasury, half of which legally was theirs.

The Last Train Out of Richmond

At dusk Davis left for the train station through a city rapidly sinking into chaos. Frank Lawley, correspondent for the London Times, reported, “During the long afternoon and throughout the feverish night, on horseback, in every description of cart, carriage, and vehicle, in every hurried train that left the city, on canal barges, skiffs, and boats, the exodus of officials and prominent citizens was unintermitted.”

Liquor poured into the gutters to deny the invader was instead scooped up by rowdies and hooligans as taverns and saloons emptied and crowds gathered in the streets. Supply houses and depots were thrown open to the citizens, who had been too long denied. “The most revolting revelation,” wrote Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s wife, LaSalle, “was the amount of provisions, shoes and clothing which had been accumulated by the speculators who hovered like vultures over the scene of death and desolation. Taking advantage of their possession of money and lack of both patriotism and humanity, they had, by an early corner in the market and by successful blockade running, brought up all the available supplies with an eye to future gain, while our soldiers and women and children were absolutely in rags, barefoot and starving.” The crowd’s mood soon turned ugly.

The scene at the station was little better. The last trains out of the city sat huffing on the line. Troops endeavored to control the refugees jamming the platform, the insides and tops of the passenger cars, boxcars, freight cars, and even the locomotives. The treasury gold had been boxed and loaded, with 60 cadets from the naval academy drafted to guard it. Davis calmly awaited any last-minute reprieve from Lee at Petersburg. None came. Finally, at 11 pm, the president boarded last and the trains pulled out for Danville.

With government authority gone, Richmond quickly tumbled into anarchy. The last of the city garrison pulled out in the early hours. Throngs of maddened citizens, deserters, and criminals newly escaped from the state prison became mobs of drunken rioters and looters. Fires from government storehouses spread to the city, punctuated by explosions from ammunition magazines and ironclads scuttled at the riverfront, blowing out windows two miles away. By dawn a third of the city, including the entire business district, was on fire.

Continuing the War

Meanwhile, along the 140-mile run to Danville, plans took shape for carrying on the war. “The design,” wrote Davis, “as previously arranged with General Lee, was that, if he should be compelled to evacuate Petersburg, he would proceed to Danville, make a new line of the Dan and Roanoke Rivers, combine his army with the troops of [General Joseph E.] Johnston in North Carolina, and make a combined attack upon [Maj. Gen. William T.] Sherman.”

Parts of Richmond were still burning at 9 am on Tuesday, when Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad, turning 12 that day, disembarked on the riverfront. They walked the two miles or so to the Confederate White House, escorted only by a handful of high-ranking officers and, almost immediately, a throng of jubilant ex-slaves. “[Lincoln] walked through the streets as if he were only a private citizen, and not the head of a mighty nation,” reported the Boston Journal. “He came not as a conqueror, not with bitterness in his heart, but with kindness.” At the presidential mansion Lincoln was shown the office Davis had vacated 40 hours earlier. Colonel Thomas Thatcher Graves recalled, “As he seated himself he remarked, ‘This must have been President Davis’s chair,’ and, crossing his legs, he looked far off with a serious, dreamy expression.”

In Danville, Davis knew none of this. Telegraph lines from the north had been cut. It was not until Saturday that the president learned that Lee had been trapped near Appomattox, and Monday when word came of his surrender. Davis did not for a moment contemplate following his commanding general’s example. “Certainly better terms for our country could be secured by keeping organized armies in the field,” he wrote, “than by laying down our arms and trusting to the magnanimity of the victor.” He wired Johnston of the change in plans. With Lee out of the war, he said, they would meet in Greensboro, North Carolina, the headquarters of General P.G.T. Beauregard. There was no time to lose. Union horsemen were reportedly already closing in. If the rails to Greensboro were cut, it was all over for Davis and his party.

“A Miss is as Good as a Mile”

The scene at the Danville station was, if anything, even more desperate than at Richmond. Ten passenger cars were not enough to accommodate all those seeking to escape. Two more cars were added over the protests of the train crew, who were proven right when their old locomotive blew a cylinder just a few miles out of town. The government sat defenseless on the line until another engine could be brought up. Their escape was so narrow that Union cavalry burned a railroad bridge just moments after the train passed over it. With so little to cheer about, Davis smiled when he heard the news. “A miss is as good as a mile,” he joked.