May 2, 1865 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his dwindling government-in-exile held what turned out to be their last council of war in their southward flight to avoid Federal capture.
As May began, Davis and his party reached Cokesbury, South Carolina. Unbeknownst to them, President Andrew Johnson had issued a proclamation declaring that Davis and other Confederate officials were responsible for assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Despite no tangible evidence linking Davis to the crime, Johnson offered a $100,000 reward for Davis’s capture.
The Davis party arrived at Abbeville, South Carolina, on the afternoon of the 2nd. They were met by Confederate Navy Lieutenant William H. Parker’s escort, which turned over the Confederate archives and treasury they had been guarding to Davis and his cabinet. Cabinet officials were directed to destroy most official government papers to prevent Federals from confiscating and using the documents against them.
Parker disbanded his force of midshipmen, with orders to “report by letter to the Hon. Secretary of the Navy as soon as practicable,” once they got home. But that would prove more difficult than supposed because on this day Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory resigned, citing the “dependent positions of a helpless family.”
At 4 p.m., Davis held a “council of war” with Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, General Braxton Bragg, and the five brigade commanders heading the president’s military escort. One of the brigade commanders, Brigadier General Basil W. Duke, later wrote that if this could be called a war council, “It was, perhaps, the last Confederate council of war held east of the Mississippi River, certainly the last in which Mr. Davis participated.” The eight men assembled in a private residence in Abbeville that Davis had made his headquarters.
The president announced: “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.” His “military chiefs,” by this time only a handful of brigadiers, could muster no more than 3,000 men to guard Davis and somehow continue the fight.
Davis was not (or at least pretended not to be) discouraged. He said, “Even if the troops now with me be all that I can for the present rely on, three thousand brave men are enough for a nucleus around which the whole people will rally when the panic which now afflicts them has passed away.” The president then asked the commanders to offer suggestions on how best to carry on the fight.
The brigadiers looked at each other in amazement. The top two Confederate field generals, Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, had already surrendered, and Richard Taylor was about to surrender all Confederate forces in Alabama and Mississippi. None of them believed that the fight should go on, yet all were too awestruck to disagree with Davis. Someone finally spoke up, and then all five unanimously agreed that further resistance was futile.
They explained that the people were not “panic-stricken” as Davis believed, but exhausted and impoverished and unwilling to fight anymore. According to General Duke:
“We said that an attempt to continue the war, after all means of supporting warfare were gone, would be a cruel injustice to the people of the South. We would be compelled to live on a country already impoverished, and would invite its further devastation. We urged that we would be doing a wrong to our men if we persuaded them to such a course; 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.
“He (Davis) asked why then we were still in the field. We answered that we were desirous of affording him an opportunity of escaping the degradation of capture, and perhaps a fate which would be direr to the people than even to himself, in still more embittering the feeling between the North and South. We said that we would ask 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.”
Davis sternly declared that he would not discuss any efforts to save himself. He appealed to their patriotism, their sense of honor, and their duty as gentlemen and warriors. When none of this moved the commanders, Davis rose and said, “Then all is indeed lost.” According to Duke, “He had become very pallid, and he walked so feebly as he proceeded to leave the room that General Breckinridge stepped hastily up and offered his arm.” After Davis left, Breckinridge and Bragg, who had been silent up until now, told the brigadiers that they agreed with their assessment. Duke later wrote:
“They had forborne to say anything, because not immediately in command of the troops, and not supposed, therefore, to know their sentiments so well as we did. But they promised to urge upon Mr. Davis the necessity and propriety of endeavoring without further delay to get out of the country, and not permit other and serious complications to be produced by his capture and imprisonment, and perhaps execution.”
Davis’s options were dwindling, and frustration was setting in. Lashing out at those he believed had forsaken him, the president wrote to his secretary Burton Harrison about the “three thousand brave men”: “I have the bitterest disappointment in regard to the feeling of our troops, and would not have any one I loved dependent upon their resistance against an equal force.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 564-65; 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 21179-99, 21209-19; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 589; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 684-85; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18-24; 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