The Civil War, 1861-1865

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Author: Jefferson Davis  | Date: 1865

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Davis’s Flight from Richmond and Capture in Georgia

ON Sunday, the 2d of April [1865], while I was in St. Paul’s Church, General Lee’s telegram, announcing his speedy withdrawal from Petersburg and the consequent necessity for evacuating Richmond, was handed to me. I quietly rose and left the church. The occurrence probably attracted attention, but the people of Richmond had been too long beleaguered, had known me too often to receive notice of threatened attacks, and the congregation of St. Paul’s was too refined, to make a scene at anticipated danger. For all these reasons, the reader will be prepared for the announcement that the sensational stories which have been published about the agitation caused by my leaving the church during service were the creation of fertile imaginations. I went to my office 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. The event was not unforeseen, and some preparation had been made for it, though, as it came sooner than was expected, there was yet much to be one….

Being alone in Richmond, the few arrangements needful for my personal wants were soon made after reaching home. Then, leaving all else in the care of the housekeeper, I waited until notified of the time when the train would depart; then, going to the station, started for Danville, whither I supposed General Lee would proceed with his army….

We arrived at Charlotte on April 18, 1865, and I there received, at the moment of dismounting, a telegram from General Breckinridge announcing, on information received from General Sherman, that President Lincoln had been assassinated. An influential citizen of the town, who had come to welcome me, was standing near me, and, after remarking to him in a low voice that I had received sad intelligence, I handed the telegram to him. Some troopers encamped in the vicinity had collected to see me; they called to the gentleman who had the dispatch in his hand to read it, no doubt supposing it to be army news. He complied with their request, and a few, only taking in the fact, but not appreciating the evil it portended, cheered, as was natural at news of the fall of one they considered their most powerful foe. The man who invented the story of my having read the dispatch with exultation had free scope for his imagination, as he was not present, and had no chance to know whereof he bore witness, even if there had been any foundation of truth for his fiction.

For an enemy so relentless in the war for our subjugation, we could not be expected to mourn; yet, in view of its political consequences, it could not be regarded otherwise than as a great misfortune to the South. He had power over the Northern people, and was without personal malignity toward the people of the South; his successor was without power in the North, and the embodiment of malignity toward the Southern people, perhaps the more so because he had betrayed and deserted them in the hour of their need. The war had now shrunk into narrow proportions, but the important consideration remained to so conduct it that, if failing to secure independence, we might obtain a treaty or quasi-treaty of peace which would secure to the Southern States their political rights, and to the people thereof immunity from the plunder of their private property….

…. On the second or third day after leaving Washington, I heard that a band of marauders, supposed to be stragglers and deserters from both armies, were in pursuit of my family, whom I had not seen since they left Richmond, but of whom I heard, at Washington, that they had gone with my private secretary, and seven paroled men, who generously offered their services as an escort, to the Florida coast. Their route was to the east of that I was pursuing, but I immediately changed direction and rode rapidly across the country to overtake them….

For the protection of my family I traveled with them two or three days, when, believing that they had passed out of the region of the marauders, I determined to leave their encampment at nightfall, to execute my original purpose. My horse and those of my party proper were saddled preparatory to a start, when one of my staff, who had ridden into the neighboring village, returned and told me that he had heard that a marauding party intended to attack the camp that night. This decided me to wait long enough to see whether there was any truth in the rumor, which I supposed would be ascertained in a few hours. My horse remained saddled and my pistols in the holsters, and I lay down, fully dressed, to rest.

Nothing occurred to rouse me until just before dawn, when my coachman, a free colored man, who faithfully clung to our fortunes, came and told me there was firing over the branch, just behind our encampment. I stepped out of my wife’s tent and saw some horsemen, whom I immediately recognized as cavalry, deploying around the encampment. I turned back and told my wife these were not the expected marauders, but regular troopers. She implored me to leave her at once. I hesitated, from unwillingness to do so, and lost a few precious moments before yielding to her importunity. My horse and arms were near the road on which I expected to leave, and down which the cavalry approached; it was therefore impracticable to reach them. I was compelled to start in the opposite direction.

As it was quite dark in the tent I picked up what was supposed to be my "raglan," a waterproof, light overcoat, without sleeves; it was subsequently found to be my wife’s, so very like my own as to be mistaken for it; as I started my wife thoughtfully threw over my head and shoulders a shawl. I had gone perhaps fifteen or twenty yards when a trooper galloped up and ordered me to halt and surrender, to which I gave a defiant answer, and, dropping the shawl and raglan from my shoulders, advanced toward him; he leveled his carbine at me, but I expected, if he fired, he would miss me, and my intention was in that event to put my hand under his foot, tumble him off on the other side, spring into his saddle and attempt to escape.

My wife, who had been watching, when she saw the soldier aim his carbine at me, ran forward and threw her arms around me. Success depended on instantaneous action, and, recognizing that the opportunity had been lost, I turned back, and, the morning being damp and chilly, passed on to a fire beyond the tent. Our pursuers had taken different roads, and approached our camp from opposite directions; they encountered each other and commenced firing, both supposing they had met our armed escort, and some casualties resulted from their conflict with an imaginary body of Confederate troops. During the confusion, while attention was concentrated upon myself, except by those who were engaged in pillage, one of my aides, Colonel J. Waylor Wood, with Lieutenant Barnwell, walked off unobserved. His daring exploits on the sea had made him, on the part of the Federal Government, an object of special hostility, and rendered it quite proper that he should avail himself of every possible means of escape. Colonel Pritchard went over to their battle-field, and I did not see him for a long time, surely more than an hour after my capture. He subsequently claimed credit, in a conversation with me, for the forbearance shown by his men in not shooting me when I refused to surrender.

Wilson and others have uttered many falsehoods in regard to my capture, which have been exposed in publications by persons there present—by Secretary Reagan, by the members of my personal staff, and by the colored coachman, Jim Jones, which must have been convincing to all who were not given over to believe a lie. For this reason I will postpone, to some other time and more appropriate place, any further notice of the story and its variations, all the spawn of a malignity that shames the civilization of the age. We were, when prisoners, subjected to petty pillage, and to annoyances such as military gentlemen never commit or permit.

On our way to Macon we received the proclamation of President Andrew Johnson, offering a reward for my apprehension as an accomplice in the assassination of the late President Abraham Lincoln. Some troops by the wayside had the proclamation, which was displayed with vociferous demonstrations of exultation over my capture. When we arrived at Macon I was conducted to the hotel where General Wilson had his quarters. A strong guard was in front of the entrance, and, when I got down to pass in, it opened ranks, facing inward, and presented arms….

At Augusta we were put on a steamer, and there met Vice-President Stephens, and C. C. Clay, who had surrendered himself, At Port Royal we were transferred to a sea-going vessel which, instead of being sent to Washington City, was brought to anchor at Hampton Roads.

One by one all my companions in misfortune were sent away, we knew not whither, leaving on the vessel only Mr. Clay and his wife and myself and family. After some days’ detention, Clay and myself were removed to Fortress Monroe, and there incarcerated in separate cells. Not knowing that the government was at war with women and children, I asked that my family might be permitted to leave the ship and go to Richmond or Washington City, or to some place where they had acquaintances, but this was refused. I then requested that they might be permitted to go abroad on one of the vessels lying at the Roads. This was also denied; finally, I was informed that they must return to Savannah on the vessel by which we came. This was an old transport-ship, hardly seaworthy. My last attempt was to get for them the privilege of stopping at Charleston, where they had many personal friends. This also was refused—why, I did not then know, have not learned since, and am unwilling to make a supposition, as none could satisfactorily account for such an act of inhumanity.

My daily experience as a prisoner shed no softer light on the transaction, but only served to intensify my extreme solicitude. Bitter tears have been shed by the gentle, and stern reproaches have been made by the magnanimous, on account of the needless torture to which I was subjected, and the heavy fetters riveted upon me, while in a stone casemate and surrounded by a strong guard; but all these were less excruciating than the mental agony my captors were able to inflict. It was long before I was permitted to hear from my wife and children, and this, and things like this, was the power which education added to savage cruelty.

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Chicago: Jefferson Davis, "Davis’s Flight from Richmond and Capture in Georgia," The Civil War, 1861-1865 in America, Vol.8, Pp.293-300 Original Sources, accessed April 20, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DBGHEMMEG6IIWML.

MLA: Davis, Jefferson. "Davis’s Flight from Richmond and Capture in Georgia." The Civil War, 1861-1865, in America, Vol.8, Pp.293-300, Original Sources. 20 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DBGHEMMEG6IIWML.

Harvard: Davis, J, 'Davis’s Flight from Richmond and Capture in Georgia' in The Civil War, 1861-1865. cited in , America, Vol.8, Pp.293-300. Original Sources, retrieved 20 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DBGHEMMEG6IIWML.