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.

A drizzle had settled over the night. Just before dawn the Confederates heard horses milling out in the misty dark. Abrupt shots rang out from two directions. Bullets hummed around the camp. Davis told Varina, “The Federal cavalry are upon us.”

Pritchard rode into camp, shouting for the Federal troopers to cease fire. They lost two dead and four wounded from friendly fire; no Southerner had so much as fired a shot. Davis took advantage of the confusion to try a getaway. 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. He was making for the nearest woods when a trooper called on him to halt. Varina threw her arms over her husband, pleading for his life. “Shoot me if you wish,” she cried defiantly. The Union trooper was unmoved. “I wouldn’t mind a bit,” he said. About that time Pritchard rode up, saying, “Well, old Jeff, we’ve got you at last.”

Word immediately spread that the Confederate president had been captured in his wife’s clothes. “Jeff Davis Captured in Hoop Skirts” and “Jeff Davis in Petticoats” were two of the headlines in Northern newspapers. Cartoonists drew laughter for months with drawings of an effeminate-looking Davis mincing about in a shawl and dress. At least one of the Union soldiers on hand that day, Captain James H. Parker, went out of his way to shoot down the absurd story. “I defy any person to find a single officer or soldier who was present at the capture who will say upon his honor that he was disguised in women’s clothes. Hi wife behaved like a lady, and he as a gentleman, though manifestly chagrined at being taken into custody. I am a Yankee, full of Yankee prejudices, but I think it wicked to lie about him.” Still the story endured.

Reconciliation After the War

Taking their prisoner to Macon, Davis’s captors taunted passing Confederates, “Hey, Johnny Reb, we’ve got your President.” One defiant onlooker responded, “Yes, and the devil’s got yours.” Other paroled soldiers were less forgiving. Told by the Federals, “We’ve got your old boss back here in the ambulance,” the men replied bitterly, “Hang him! Shoot him! We’ve got no use for him. The damned Mississippi Mule got us into this scrape.” His apotheosis as a Southern martyr was not yet underway.

Within days Davis was bound for Fort Monroe, at the southernmost tip of Virginia’s York-James peninsula. “Try not to weep,” he told Varina as his captors marched him within the building. “They will gloat over your grief.” Inside the fortress walls, 30 feet high and 100 feet thick, a subterranean gunroom had been converted into a cell especially for the leader of the rebellion. Davis was locked into heavy manacles. The dank chamber was lit around the clock. His guards were changed every two hours. With no sun, little sleep, and his chains wearing him down, Davis’s health declined.

The Johnson administration couldn’t decide what to do with him. Trying ex-Confederate leaders for treason would do nothing for reconciliation. Northern sympathizers and even Pope Pius IX championed Davis’s freedom. After two years, Johnson, falling out with Stanton and facing (ultimately successful) threats of impeachment, didn’t need the continuing headache. Davis was simply released on bond. He and his family moved to Canada, Cuba, and Europe before settling in Mississippi. His massive two-volume history of the war, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, went a long way to establishing Davis’s reputation, for better or worse, as a leader and icon of the South’s Lost Cause, a term he coined first. “When the cause was lost, what cause was it?” Davis wrote. “Not that of the South only, but the cause of constitutional government, of the supremacy of law, and the natural rights of man.” It was, perhaps, the best face he could put on a ruinous war of choice that had cost the lives of more than 600,000 Americans, left the South destitute, and destroyed his own reputation as a political statesman.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.