May 6, 1865 – Jefferson Davis and his small Confederate escort reached the banks of the Oconee River in Georgia, while Federal forces rapidly closed in on them.
After holding what would be his last council of war, Davis and his party left Abbeville, South Carolina, and crossed the Savannah River on the 3rd. Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin dropped out because he could no longer ride a horse. Davis urged Benjamin to try to escape from the U.S. via the Caribbean, get to Europe, and appeal for foreign aid. But by this time, Benjamin’s chances of getting to Europe were slim, and his chances of getting foreign aid were almost none.
Meanwhile, the Confederate guards escorting the presidential party were on the verge of mutiny. Fearing they might loot the gold being hauled along in the treasury, Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge paid them from the reserves. But in the rush to get the money, some took too much while others got nothing. That night, Breckinridge wrote Davis, who was riding in the front of the column:
“Nothing can be done with the bulk of this command. It has been with difficulty that anything has been kept in shape. I am having the silver paid to the troops and will, in any event, save the gold and have it brought forward in the morning, when I hope Judge (Treasury Secretary John) Reagan will take it. Many of the men have thrown away their arms. Most of them have resolved to… make terms. A few hundred men will move on and may be depended on for the object we spoke of yesterday (i.e., escaping to Mexico).”
The party reached Washington, Georgia, on the 4th, where Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory dropped out. He had resigned on the 2nd and would now go tend to his family at LaGrange, Georgia. He offered to arrange for a boat to take Davis up the Indian River to Cuba or the Bahamas, but Davis refused to leave the Confederacy as long as men continued fighting for it. He held a cabinet meeting at Washington and explained that he was reluctant to disband the government because there was no provision for such a thing in the Confederate Constitution.
Davis directed Reagan to turn over the remaining treasury assets to designated naval officers, who were to secret them to Charleston, Savannah, or some other port where they could be shipped away. The assets were to go to the Confederate envoy in England, currently stationed at Nassau in the Bahamas. Before doing this, Reagan saw to it that the officers still present were paid.
Meanwhile, First Lady Varina Davis and the couple’s children were also on the run, moving under a different escort farther south than the presidential party. Davis received a letter from Varina while in Washington:
“Do not try to meet me. I dread the Yankees getting news of you so much, you are the country’s only hope, and the very best intentioned do not calculate upon a stand this side of the river. Why not cut loose from your escort, go swiftly and alone with the exception of two or three?”
Heeding Varina’s advice, Davis directed Breckinridge to take command of the five cavalry brigades riding with the party and went off separately with an escort of about 350 horsemen. Of these 350, Davis quickly discharged all but about 10 volunteers. These men were to protect the president, three of his military aides, and various servants, teamsters, and secretaries. They were to also protect Reagan, who insisted on staying with Davis, possibly because Davis planned to head for Reagan’s home state of Texas.
By this time, Federals were scouring the countryside in search of the Confederate president, and President Andrew Johnson’s proclamation reached Federal troops in nearby Macon, Georgia:
“One hundred thousand dollars Reward in Gold will be paid to any person or persons who will apprehend and deliver JEFFERSON DAVIS to any of the military authorities of the United States. Several millions of specie reported to be with him will become the property of the captors…”
Major General James H. Wilson, commanding Federal forces in Georgia, reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton at Washington, D.C.:
“One of our scouts says Davis left Washington (Georgia) with only six men. This I regard as probable. He can’t possibly get through the country with an escort… Our scouts are already on every road in North Georgia, by tonight, I will have a complete watch in every part of the State as far down as Hawkinsville on the Ocmulgee.”
Wilson then wrote Major General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Department of North Carolina:
“My own impression is that we have yet no definite clue to his movements, and therefore I am filling the country full of scouts and watching every crossing and road… If Mr. Davis is a fugitive and well mounted, it will be exceedingly difficult to stop him, but I will spare no effort… Mr. Davis was guarded by about seventy-five officers who had volunteered for that purpose. The troops were supposed to number about 3,000, but were deserting very rapidly. The leading officers were to have held a council at Cokesbury, but the approach of our troops from the north broke it up.”
The small Davis party arrived at Sandersville on the 6th and camped that night on the east bank of the Oconee River. Wilson had guessed that Davis would try crossing the Oconee, but he did not have time to cover all the crossings. Davis’s aides received word that Varina’s party was about 20 miles away, and rumors quickly spread that it had been robbed by straggling troops.
When Davis heard this, he immediately called for his horse and announced, “This move will probably cause me to be captured or killed. I do not feel that you are bound to go with me, but I must protect my family.” The rest of the party opted to go with him, heedless of the Federals closing in.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 565, 567; 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 21219-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 589-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 685-86; 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