Jefferson Davis Vows to Fight On

April 13, 1865 – Despite the recent Confederate disasters, President Jefferson Davis was determined to continue the fight.

Davis refused to acknowledge that the cause was lost, despite the recent surrender of the largest Confederate army. He and his cabinet-in-transit met with Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard at the home of Colonel J. Taylor Wood in Greensboro, North Carolina, on the 12th. Johnston, with Beauregard second-in-command, led the largest Confederate army still in the field.

President Jefferson Davis and Gens J.E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Beauregard reiterated his earlier assertion that the cause was lost, but Davis maintained that the armies in the field still had the means to fight. And since the Federal government had refused to negotiate a peace unless the Confederacy surrendered unconditionally, Davis intended to fight to the last man.

Both Beauregard and Johnston balked at this idea. And when Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge arrived that night and confirmed that Robert E. Lee had surrendered the entire Army of Northern Virginia, Johnston told him that it “would be the greatest of crimes” to keep fighting when it would almost certainly destroy the South beyond repair. He resolved to explain this to Davis the next day.

Davis reassembled his cabinet on the morning of the 13th, and it was soon apparent that only he and Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin supported continuing the fight. Johnston and Beauregard arrived at 10 a.m., and Davis repeated his announcement from yesterday. He said, “Our late disasters are terrible, but I do not think we should regard them as fatal. I think we can whip the enemy yet, if our people turn out.”

The men sat silent until Davis asked for their views. Johnston spoke first: “My views are, sir, that our people are tired of war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight.” The Confederacy was “without money, or credit, or arms, or ammunition, or means of procuring them.” Johnston continued:

“My men are, daily, deserting in large numbers, and are taking my artillery teams to aid their escape to their homes. Since Lee’s defeat, they regard the war as at an end. If I march out of North Carolina her people will all leave my ranks. It will be the same as I proceed south through South Carolina and Georgia, and I shall expect to retain no man beyond the by-road or cow-path that leads to his house. My small force is melting away like snow before the sun, and I am hopeless of recruiting it. We may, perhaps, obtain terms which we ought to accept.”

Davis turned to Beauregard, who declared, “I concur in all General Johnston has said.”

Johnston recommended meeting with Major General William T. Sherman to try negotiating a peace. Four of the five cabinet members agreed; only Benjamin dissented. Davis was reluctant to approve this, but he finally said, “Well, sir, you can adopt this course, though I am not sanguine as to ultimate results.” At Johnston’s insistence, Davis dictated a letter to Sherman for Johnston’s signature:

“The results of the recent campaign in Virginia have changed the relative military condition of the belligerents. I am, therefore, induced to address you in this form of inquiry whether, to stop the further effusion of blood and devastation of property, you are willing to make a temporary suspension of active operations… the object being to permit the civil authorities to enter into the needful arrangements to terminate the existing war.”

Johnston suggested confronting Sherman’s Federals at Charlotte, and if they proved too powerful, Johnston would then retreat southwest, “with Texas as a final goal.” Davis approved this plan, believing that Johnston would adopt it regardless of whether or not the Federals were willing to talk peace. But Johnston intended to adopt it only if Sherman refused to negotiate. Davis arranged for Commissary General I.M. St. John to have supplies ready for the Confederates on their line of retreat.

Davis and the cabinet spent the 14th planning their route out of Greensboro to the south. Outwardly, the president was still confident that the Confederacy could win its independence. But privately his confidence wavered, as he wrote to his wife Varina at Charlotte: “I will come to you if I can. Everything is dark. You should prepare for the worst by dividing your baggage so as to move in wagons… I have lingered on the road to little purpose…”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 222-23; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22814-29, 22847; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 558; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 20323-43, 20353-402; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 583; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 155-60; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 673-75; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 736; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q265

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