April 29, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis and his Confederate government-in-exile reached South Carolina, but Federal patrols were closing in on them.
By this time, Davis had learned that General Joseph E. Johnston had disobeyed him by surrendering all Confederates in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. He also learned of Johnston’s proclamation to the governors of those states blaming “recent events in Virginia for breaking every hope of success by war.”
Davis, who never had a very high opinion of Johnston anyway, deeply resented his decision to surrender. Unlike Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Johnston’s army had not been surrounded and still had the means to fight when he gave it up. Even worse, Johnston surrendered the troops in the three states that Davis needed to travel through if he hoped to get west of the Mississippi River.
On the 26th, Davis held his last cabinet meeting before leaving Charlotte. Despite the surrender of nearly every Confederate soldier east of the Mississippi, Davis resolved to continue fleeing so he could carry on the struggle out west. He planned to join Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s small Confederate army in Alabama, and they would then go to Texas and join with Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith’s Trans-Mississippi army. Attorney General George Davis announced that he would not go with the president; he was a North Carolinian and needed to tend to his motherless children in Wilmington.
Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, whose cavalry force was part of the army that Johnston had surrendered, vowed to continue the fight, and he urged Davis to travel under his guard. But then Hampton started having doubts about traveling with the president, as he explained to Johnston: “If I do not accompany him I shall never cease to reproach myself, and if I go with him I may go under the ban of outlawry.”
Meanwhile, First Lady Varina Davis was traveling with her children as part of Lieutenant William H. Parker’s naval escort guarding the Confederate archives and treasury. Their party headed for Abbeville, South Carolina, which was the presumed point where they would rejoin the presidential party. Davis wrote to Varina of an “increasing hazard of desertion among the troops.” However, Hampton “thinks he can force his way across the Mississippi. The route will be too rough and perilous for you and children to go with me.”
From Washington, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton warned Major General George H. Thomas, commanding at Nashville, that Davis was trying to escape to Texas with anywhere from $6 to $13 million in gold and silver. Stanton directed Thomas to “use all possible means to prevent the escape of Davis.”
What remained of the Confederate government left Charlotte that night and stopped at Fort Mill near the South Carolina border. The next day, Davis and the cabinet met again and discussed which route they should take to get to Texas. Treasury Secretary George Trenholm tendered his resignation because he was too sick to continue traveling. Davis thanked Trenholm for his “lofty patriotism and personal sacrifice.” He then transferred Postmaster General John Reagan to the Treasury. Reagan later wrote of the party’s stop on the 28th:
“At Broad River, South Carolina, we stopped on its bank to enjoy a luncheon we had brought along with us, and to take a little rest. While we were there the subject of the condition in which the war left us came up. The property of Secretary (of State Judah P.) Benjamin, situated in Louisiana, and that of Secretary (of War John C.) Breckinridge in Kentucky, was in Federal hands. The fine residence of Secretary (of the Navy Stephen) Mallory at Pensacola, Florida, had been burned by the enemy. My residence in Texas had been wrecked and partly burned, and my property dissipated except a farm of a few hundred acres and some uncultivated land. After we had joked each other about our fallen fortunes the President took out his pocket-book and showed a few Confederate bills, stating that that constituted his wealth. He added that it was a gratification to him that no member of his Cabinet had made money out of his position. We were all financially wrecked except Secretary Trenholm, whose wealth, we thought, might save him. But it afterward turned out that he too was bankrupt.”
Meanwhile, Parker’s naval guard arrived at Abbeville, where Varina wrote to her husband:
“I have seen a great many men who have gone through–not one has talked fight. A stand cannot be made in this country! Do not be induced to try it. As to the trans-Mississippi, I doubt if at first things will be straight, but the spirit is there, and the daily accretions will be great when the deluded of this side are crushed out between the upper and nether millstones…
“I think I shall be able to procure funds enough to enable me to put the two eldest to school. I shall go to Florida if possible, and from thence go over to Bermuda, or Nassau, from thence to England, unless a good school offers elsewhere, and put them to the best school I can find and then with the two youngest join you in Texas–and that is the prospect which bears me up, to be once more with you–once more to suffer with you if need be–but God knows those who obey Him, and I know there is a future for you.”
Parker kept a locomotive at the Abbeville depot in case they needed to flee again. Davis and his group was heading that way, aided by South Carolinians eager to help their exiled leader. And Federal cavalry patrols were getting closer and closer to them all.
Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 472; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 562-64; 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 21110-30, 21149-69; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 588; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 682-83; 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