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Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Flight of Jefferson Davis

By April 1865, the Civil War was spinning out of control for the Confederate States of America.  The first day of that month, the eventual hero of the South, Robert E. Lee, was forced to abandon his forces' defense of Petersburg and, in turn, left the capital city of Richmond defenseless as a prize to the Union forces.  A mere eight days later, Lee would be humbled again and agree to the terms of surrender with Ulysses S. Grant, at the the house of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House, VA.  By the end of that week, the villainous actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth had put a bullet into the head of President Abraham Lincoln.  The North was out for blood and people were anxious to put a hasty end to this Civil War that had soaked too many fields with the blood of their kinsmen.  Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, would go as far as to put a $100,000 reward for the capture of Jefferson Davis.

Northern animosity toward Jefferson Davis was fairly universal.  Here he is depticted wearing
women's clothing and brewing a "Treason Toddy" with the devil and Benedict Arnold.

The Confederacy was reeling and in almost complete disarray, remaining intact in only the loosest sense of the word.  CSA President Jefferson Davis would remain vigilantly hopeful, though bordering on denial in his assessment of the situation. In the absence of Lee's army, the Confederate capital had moved from Richmond, VA to Danville, but only held it from April 3 - 10.  Davis was on the run for good reason; not only was Richmond a much sought goal for the Union forces, but he was as well.  In the minds of many Northerners, to capture ol' Jeff Davis would be to cut the head off the snake of the Confederacy.  Besides, prisoners of war were not exactly known to receive the finest of accommodations.  On April 4, Davis gave his final proclamation to the CSA in the house of the local quartermaster.

In all of these happenings, Davis seemed in remarkably good spirits.  In fact, one of the brigadiers assembled on the night they departed from Richmond, notes of Davis that he had, "never seen Mr. Davis look better or show to better advantage.  He seemed in excellent spirits and humor, and the union of dignity, graceful affability, and decision, which made his manner usually so striking, was very marked in his reception of us."  Davis, of course, did not know that the proclamation he had given was to be his last.  He assumed that the South would continue to fight and survive their current disasters, even if it meant moving the war from the holding and defense to a more guerrilla-style warfare in the deep South and/or Texas.  This was perhaps an attitude enabled by men either in his immediate vicinity or who would write to him pledging their allegiance to the South and to continue the fight.  However, Davis was also thinking of his country.  In a letter to his wife, Varina, he speaks quite candidly on the matter when he writes,

"The issue is one which it is very painful for me to meet.  On one hand is the long night of oppression which will follow the return of our people to the 'Union'; among the few brave patriots who would still oppose the invader, and struggle, but to die in vain.  I think my judgment is undisturbed by any pride of opinion, [for] I have prayed to our heavenly Father to give me wisdom and fortitude equal to the demands of the position in which Providence has placed me.  I have sacrificed so much for the cause of the Confederacy that I can measure my ability to make any further sacrifice required, and am assured there is but one to which I am not equal - my wife and children."  Davis' self-professed dedication to his family would eventually ruin his escape.

On April 14, Sherman's terms of surrender to Johnston, identical to the compassionate terms offered to Robert E Lee by Grant, were rejected by Washington., resulting in Davis and his party to head even further south.  He left Danville, the eight day capital of the CSA, for Greensboro, North Carolina on April 15th with barely 3,000 cavalry, his entire Cabinet, "a number of officers and their attendants," and several baggage wagons.

The ruins of the Armory at Richmond, VA

So far, the things you have read about Jefferson Davis have largely been provided by sources which document the fall of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War.  However, what you are about to read, which further details Davis' flight from the Union forces, will come mostly from a first hand account of someone who was with the president during that time.  That person was Captain Given Campbell, who was in the Confederate service up until the very end, and whom Jefferson Davis, in his memoirs, recounts the readiness of Campbell and his entire command "to render any service needed in behalf of himself or the cause he represented."  Cpt. Campbell kept a journal during his time with Davis and Rock Island Auction Company has that journal.  Make no mistake, this is not a transcription (although a partial one does exist that covers Davis' capture and several days prior), nor a copy.  This is a fragile, Civil War-era journal, written in pencil almost 150 years ago, which describes the movements, spirits, and decisions of the men in that escort.  If there are other similar first hand accounts from the flight of Jefferson Davis, I have not encountered them in my research.  This is a museum quality document whose survival and disclosure is perhaps deserving of some celebrity and an expert trained in preservation to transcribe it before it is lost to time.

There is also a second document created by Given Campbell entitled, "Memorandum of A Journal, Kept Daily During the Last March of Jefferson Davis."  It fleshes out many of the journal entries with more specifics and fewer abbreviations than when writing in a small military journal.  The original of this document was gifted to the Library of Congress in 1934 by Campbell's son, Dr. Given Campbell Jr.  However, full transcriptions of this document are available and using such transcriptions I shall attempt to convey the last days of the Confederacy without resorting to a simple reproduction.  All quotes have had their errors left as they are.

Campbell's memorandum begins on April 15th and states much of what is already known from other sources.  Jefferson Davis had already fled Richmond and reached Greensborough, NC with several specifically named divisions and regiments of cavalry.  They did not leave that city until 6:00 p.m. the next day when they began toward Salisbury.  The president and his Cabinet all were making the journey on horseback, except for Secretaries Tremholm and Benjamin, who made the journey "in ambulances, drawn by mules of inferior quality."  The next day's journal entries would also bemoan what would become the recurring theme of the party's lethargic pace when Campbell writes, "the roads were heavy, two of the ambulances broke down; the progress of the party was slow; they went into camp near Lexington for the night."

The next day, all partook in a "soldiers fare" breakfast before heading on their merry way.  At this time, Davis' confident demeanor is specifically described by Campbell, who writes, "President Davis appeared well on horseback; had a Marshal air, and road [sic] very erectly as he passed our Regiment; he appeared to be thin, but not to be in a frail or weak condition; his hair was iron-gray; we reached Salisbury that night."  April 18th's entry backtracks a bit to record that the previous day, "about four miles south of Salisbury; all of the females of the party and most of the baggage were placed upon the railroad train for transportation southwestward."    They continued on to Concorde, NC when they received word that Union General Stone was threatening Charlotte, a bit over 20 miles away.  The cavalry hurried to Charlotte, arriving there the next morning, but found the claims to be false and no Union forces present.

This left the escort's forces diminished, though it is not specified by how much.  It seems highly unlikely that they would leave their president and a large portion of the South's bullion undefended from Yankee soldiers.  Campbell  was separated from the president and his escort for some time, until April 27 when he was directed to report to General John C. Breckinridge at Yorkville, two miles distant.  The next day he reported in and was ordered back to the president's escort.  He "promptly reported to President Davis" and the escort continued on to a residence outside of a town called Ford near the Broad River.  Despite their flight and the tense situation their country was in, Jefferson Davis conversed on the porch with Secretary Breckinridge (change in Breckinridge's title as written by author), while Secretaries Mallroy and Regan were "in the front of the house in the garden pitching silver half dollars for five cents - 'Eleven-Up.'"  Even the most tightly wound must reset from time to time so perhaps yard games and conversation is just what the evening called for.  Such relaxing chats would not be uncommon for Davis, whom Mallory recalled when, "He talked very pleasantly of other days and forgot for a time the engrossing anxieties of the situation"  In fact, he maintained his "singularly equable and cheerful" demeanor throughout the party's subsequent six day journey, making stops in Scaifes Ferry, Unionville, South Carolina; Gists Bridge, and Cokesverry where Campbell notes that, "President Davis was greeted by a large assembly of ladies and prominent citizens who manifest profound respect and regard for this distinguished, but unfortunate man...the affection of the people was manifested by generous gifts of fruits and flowers, and the warmest expressions of sympathy and affection."

In Abbeville, Davis had hoped to reunite with his wife and daughters, but they had moved on to Georgia three days prior (and encountered many stragglers from Lee's and Johnston's defeated armies).  Letters exchanged between husband and wife revealed she also wished to see him though never at his own peril, and she gave him whatever information and thoughts on continuing the fight she could - the picture of a supportive spouse even in the bleakest of hardships.  According to noted Civil War scholar Shelby Foote, that evening, Davis, in his usual and excellent mood, summoned the Brigade commanders to the basement of a house that had housed them the previous night.  Foote describes the meeting best,

"After welcoming and putting them at ease, as was his custom at such meetings...he passed at once to his reason for having called them into council. 'It is time that we adopt some definite plan upon which the further prosecution of our struggle shall be conducted.  I have summoned you for consultation.  I feel that I ought to do nothing now without the advice of my military chiefs.' He smiled as he said this last: "rather archly," according to one hearer, who observed that while 'such a term addressed to a handful of brigadiers, commanding altogether barely 2,000 men, by one who so recently had been the master of legions, was a pleasantry; yet he said it in a way that made it a compliment.'  What followed however, showed clearly how serious he was.  'Even if the troops now with me be all that I can for the present rely on, 3,000 brave men are enough for a nucleus around which the whole people will rally when the panic which now afflicts them has passed away."

Davis seriously felt the South could rise again!  His armies in shambles, his staff and treasury being transported in a wagon train, separated from his wife and family, the capital overrun, and Davis still sought military advice from this "advisers" - the few men he had remaining.  Again, a quote from Foote,

'A tense silence ensued; none of the five wanted to be the first to say what each of them knew the other four were thinking.  Finally one spoke, and the rest chimed in.  What the country was undergoing wasn't panic, they informed their chief, but exhaustion.  Any attempt to prolong the war, now that the means of supporting it were gone, "would be a cruel injustice to the poeple of the South," while for the soldiers the consequences would be even worse; "for if they persisted in a conflict so hopeless they would be treated as brigands and would forfeit all chance of returning to their homes."  Breaking a second silence, Davis asked why then, if all hope was exhausted, they still were in the field.  To assist in his escape they replied, adding that they "would as our men to follow us until his safety was assured, and would risk them in battle for that purpose, but would not fire another shot in an effort to continue hostilities."  Now a third silence descended, in which the gray leader sat looking as if he had been slapped across the face by a trusted friend.  Recovering he said he would hear no suggestion that had only to do with his own survival, and made one final plea wherein, as one listener said, "he appealed eloquently to every sentiment and reminiscence that might be supposed to move a Southern soldier."  When he finished, the five  merely looked at him in sorrow.  "Then all is indeed lost," he muttered, and rose to leave the room, deathly pale and unsteady on his feet.  He tottered, and as he did so Breckinridge stepped forward, hale and ruddy, and offered his arm, which Davis, aged suddenly far beyond his nearly fifty-seven years, was glad to take.'

Gen. Joseph Johnston
According to the journal, the party would remain in Abbeville until 11:00 p.m. when word reached them that enemy troops were approaching the Savannah River.  Hearing this sent the party in a race to reach and cross the river first.  They rode through the night and reached it the next morning, but again found the reports to be baseless.  The flight continued toward Washington, GA with many more false alarms of Union troops and scouts.  It seemed at every turn they would risk capture by imaginary Union soldiers.   One can only imagine the added stress and toll on the already weary party.  This was only compounded when at lunch, General Johnston mentioned he would be withdrawing his troops from Atlanta to increase their mobility and leaving the city's defense to the militia.  Davis, visibly angered, appointed General Hood to the defense of the city as "a man in Command of the Army there, who would at least strike one manly blow in defense of [that] important point."  They would reach Washington, GA at 3:00 p.m. that afternoon and there it seems Davis encounters a change of heart.

His mind turns from that of reversal of fortune for the Confederate cause to one focused on escape, or escape to a place of safety and then possibly regroup what remaining forces were at his disposal.  At first his destination of escape was across the Mississippi, to garner support, potential fight in Texas, and if all else failed escape into Mexico.  To aid his escape, Davis had to lighten his load.  Part of this was done by distributing the Confederate treasury that they carried with them.  $39,000 of it was left in Greensboro for Johnston to pay his men ($1.15 each).  The rest was divvied up among the troopers, cadet guards, and cavalrymen still with the president at Washington - each was given a $26.25 share paid in silver coins.  The other $86,000 in gold bullion and $30,000 in silver bullion was concealed in banks or warehouses, intended to eventually find its way to England and withdrawn once the "government" of the CSA reached Texas.  Much was also carried with them to cover expenses.

The next day, May 4th, Davis summoned Captain Given Campbell into his private room to relay his plan to venture forth with a smaller, faster party.  Davis "knew that his fortunes were desperate and that he would not order any one to go with him, but that he desired to entrust his safety to a few faithful hearts who would be willing to go as his escort."  Campbell accepted and with that Davis gave him some money from what remained of the treasury to buy any needed horses and pistols.  He then presented Campbell with a pair of London Kerr's Patent revolvers, one of which will be sold by Rock Island Auction Company.  Despite Davis' desire to travel more quickly, he keeps the slow carts in his group.  This was mentioned by Campbell to Davis when Campbell writes, "In asking me the feasibility of the plan I told him that there was one feature of the scheme that I did not like & that was having wagons with him & I would not guarantee his safety if he went with them otherwise I would."  Two days later, President Davis would leave the wagons behind in a delayed action that was clearly on the minds of those traveling with him.

Campbell's journal makes no mention of the fact, but on May 5, 1865, Davis is said to have met with his Cabinet (or what was left of it) one final time to dissolve the Confederate government.  Some sources cite this as happening at the "Heard House," a Georgia Branch Bank Building.  The only mention of a "Bank owner" mentioned by Campbell (the first person source) is on May 3rd, when Davis stops there to pare down his entourage and treasury.  All Campbell mentions happening on May 5 is him journeying ahead to Sparta, finding no news of the enemy closer than Macon, GA, and then camping for the night "about six miles north of Sandersville."

The May 6 entry mentions the leaving behind of the pack mules and ambulances as the group embarked toward the Blackshears ferry to cross the Oconee River.  Within one mile of the ferry, the group received word that the wagon train of Mrs. Davis, separated from her husband for several weeks, had coincidentally passed down that same path, but that "a party of disbanded soldiers intended on plundering it."  Obviously, hearing this distressed President Davis very much, so much so that he endeavored to go on ahead alone to protect his family, remounting his horse and saying, "I do not feel that you are bound to go with me, but I must protect my family."  It is the first of several decisions made by Davis that prioritize his family above his escape.  The president would ride all night with several men whose horses could keep up and would eventually arrive in Dublin to find a darkened camp alongside the road around 2:00 p.m. on May 7.  It held his family, their escorts, and the rest of the party.  It was the first time husband and wife had seen each other since he put his family on a train in Richmond, nearly five long weeks prior.  When the rest of the group with slower horses arrived, Campbell asked if he planned on staying with his wife's wagon train and Davis replied in the affirmative.  At this point readers are treated to a lengthy passage in Campbell's journal regarding his opinion of his president's actions.

"I made no comment - but thought it madness & folly to get rid of a small train and that because it was unsafe and in two days to fix himself to a much larger one - he excused this, on the ground of anxiety for the safety of his wife.  I told him four resolute men could defend it & he need not stay with it but my objections and suggestions were useless - and he went on in his wife's ambulance his wife had her sister 7 children - & servants & was passing them as the family of General Smith going to Florida.  She is a very nice woman but evidently shows a great lack of sense in wishing her husband to risk his life staying with that cumbrous train.  I told him & urged his aids to do so that he could not protect but his presence might damage his wife's train & that he would be caught but he would stay - and it was the first thing that made me regret that I had come with him..."

Later that same day, Campbell rode ahead and discovered a group of soldiers "organizing to take the train" thinking it was a quarter master's train.  Davis later came to find out they heard the train to be Mrs. Davis' & Co, but didn't believe it.  Then a former Lieutenant under Morgan told the soldiers that it was, in fact, the President's wife's train and that Jeff Davis was with them!  Knowing that enemy encampments were near by, Campbell announced himself to the men as a defender or the train "and that if they desired to try to take it they might do so but that they would get more balls (bullets) than horses."  This allegedly put a stop to the soldiers' plans, though hearing of the incident spurned Mrs. Davis to urge her husband to travel on without her.  The group camped that night "below Dublin & Abbeville" and multiple sources mention Jefferson Davis spending the night in his wife's tent, while his aides weary from weeks of riding, shared their mixed feelings: doubts about being two days behind schedule thanks to the train, but also their hope at being only 70 miles away from the Florida border.

Campbell was often used to scout the route ahead of the president and the next few days would prove no exception.  May 8 he rode ahead, took a ferry across the Ockmulgee River and then waited three hours for the train followed by Davis.  For the group of men willing to risk their own lives for the president, it was almost too much to bear!  Davis seemed to care little for his own safety and was willing to sacrifice it at every turn to provide some meager protection for his family.  To his credit, Campbell made no mention of it to Davis, but did again try to impart the urgency of the situation by mentioning the nearby Union presence at Hawkinsville, some 25 miles away.  The news only made Davis nervous for the wagon train.

May 9, Campbell is again sent off ahead to scout and he takes Sgt. Parsely with him.  They set off toward Nashville [Berrien County, GA] to recon the route.  Campbell notes that he left Davis, "with his train - thinking that the chances were two to one that he would be attacked."  The pair of scouts found no food in Irwinville and so rode eight miles further and stayed at a Widow Paulk's house all night.  The next morning they set off again and rode about ten miles and "concluded to wait for the president.  He did not come..."

The morning of May 10 in the president's train was not nearly as peaceful as that of Campbell and Parsely.  As Davis' train slept, two regiments of Union cavalry - the 4th Michigan and the 1st Wisconsin - were closing in on their camps location.  They had been tipped off in Hawkinsville that the president's train had left Abbeville that morning and was bound for Irwinville, some 40 miles away.  One regiment circled around and approached from the south while the other bore down from the northwest.  It seemed all too easy a capture until the fighting broke out.  Gunshots clapped rapidly in the last battle east of the Mississippi as troops were thrown into an unexpectedly violent battle.  Unfortunately, all participants were Union troops and it would be around fifteen minutes before the sides took notice.  Needless to say, the commotion woke Davis' train.  They had planned to leave at midnight that night, but slept through their intended hour of departure.  Now Davis, not expecting union troops, began heading toward the gunfire thinking it to be marauders. "I will go out and see if I can't stop the firing.  Surely I will have some authority with Confederates."  However, opening his tent flap revealed dark uniforms and boots.  Union troops were upon the camp!  Davis intent on escaping, grabbed a sleeveless raincoat, made from the same oilcloth material as his wife's, and his wife threw a shawl over his head to preserve what poor health he had left.  As Davis was quietly making his way to the trees, he was captured and did not resist, or rather wasn't given the chance.  Davis writes that he was approached by a Union cavalryman with his carbine at the ready, but that the president kept walking toward the soldier.  "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 the other side, spring into his saddle, and attempt my escape."  This plan was dashed when Varina, seeing a rifle pointed at her husband, ran up to him and threw her arms around his neck.  The capture was reported far and wide in the North that Davis, "had been captured wearing his wife's clothing."  It did not matter that it was only her raincoat and shawl, the press had a field day and many cartoons were dedicated to the embarrassing fiction.

Yes, even several songs were eventually written about the event.

Upon not meeting the president that day, Captain Campbell, "...went out to forks of road & waited for him til near night & got uneasy and went back up the road.  Concluded that he had either been run in on or had taken the wrong road - went one & half mile off the road & stopped at the house of a deserter named Jack Fletcher & he told me Davis & co were captured at daylight."  Davis would then be taken as a Union prisoner to the impregnable Fortress Monroe, with its 30' granite walls said to be 100' thick at the bottom.  While Davis would eventually leave his cell there, the dream of the Confederacy would remain forever in that immense crypt.

-Written by Joel R. Kolander


Campbell, Cpt. Given. Memorandum of A Journal Kept Daily During the Last March of Jefferson Davis. N.d. Raw data. N.p.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative - Red River to Appomattox. New York, NY: Random House, 1974. Print.
Lasswell Crist, Lynda. Partial Transcription of the Given Campbell Diary. 30 Mar. 2011. Raw data. Rice University, Houston, TX.
Wolf, Wayne, Paul Faeh, and Jack Simmerling. Colonel Given Campbell C.S.A. N.p.: McGraw-Hilll, 1995. Print.

Etching of Davis in his cell.


  1. Awesome story, so much history in firearms.

  2. And one hundred and fifty years later we have a worse president than Lincoln.

  3. Mrs. Davis [Varina] wrote in her own hand in a letter to her friends the Blakes that "I said it was my mother," to the Union soldiers at the time of capture. That could have reinforced the Union story that he was trying to escape wearing women's clothes.
    That letter is in the Library of Congress, donated by Blair descendants. Mrs. Davis had asked in the letter that it be burned, but that was not done.
    She seems to have been a braver woman than he was a man.

  4. Jefferson Davis was wearing a slave's shawl to protect against the elements. Mr. Davis had every intention of resisting his captors, and had his wife not thrown his arms around him, would have done so.

    Of course Mrs. Davis said it was her mother! She was trying to help her husband escape! The Union soldiers could not distinguish between a slave's clothes and a woman's clothes, if these were similar.

    I must agree with the anonymous poster who says we have a worse president than Lincoln.