May 7, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis reunited with his family at Dublin, Georgia, after responding to rumors that they were under attack by desperate Confederate troops.
Davis and his small escort had camped on the Oconee River on the night of the 6th. First Lady Varina Davis and the couple’s children were part of a different group about 20 miles away. When Davis learned that his family might be in danger, he rode out to catch up to their wagon train. The rest of Davis’s party chose to join him, and they rode all night along dark, unknown roads while Federal forces combed the nearby countryside looking for them.
The president finally caught up to his family near Dublin. This marked the first time that the Davises had seen each other since Varina and the children left Richmond just before its fall. When Davis questioned the men guarding the camp, they assured him that the rumors of straggling troops attacking their wagon train were false and the family was not in danger.
Meanwhile, Federal cavalry was closing in on the Davis party. Major General James H. Wilson, commanding the Federals in Georgia, wrote to Major General John Schofield, commanding the Federal Department of North Carolina:
“Davis’ escort has been crowded so closely on all sides that it has been disbanded. Three regiments have given themselves up to us here, and many others are surrendering in Northern Georgia. Davis himself and a small party, variously reported from six to forty men, are supposed to have turned south from Washington. I have the Ocmulgee picketed from its head to Hawkinsville, and by 6 p.m. to-morrow will have it closely watched from Hawkinsville to Jacksonville. I have a line of stations along the railroad from Atlanta to Eufaula and Albany, and have directed McCook, at Tallahassee, Fla., to send scouts to north and eastward in all directions.”
Wilson wrote in his official report:
“The troops occupied almost a continuous line from the Etowah River to Tallahassee, Fla., and the mouth of the Flint River, with patrols through all the country to the northward and eastward, and small detachments at the railroad stations in the rear of the entire line. It was expected that the patrols and pickets would discover the trail of Davis and his party and communicate the intelligence by courier rapidly enough to secure prompt and effective pursuit.”
Wilson dispatched Colonel Robert Minty’s cavalry division to guard the Ocmulgee and Flint rivers, south of Macon, in case the Davis party tried moving in that direction. Minty in turn ordered Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin C. Pritchard to lead the 4th Michigan Cavalry to block any crossing of the Oconee River between Spalding and Hawkinsville, in case the Davis party managed to escape the dragnet covering the Ocmulgee and Flint. Minty sent another detachment to Randolph. According to Minty’s orders:
“You will take possession of and guard all Government property which you may find, not interfering, however, with that turned over to the State authorities by the major-general commanding for the benefit of the poor. All supplies needed for your command will be taken from the country, but proper vouchers will invariably be given by your quartermaster or commissary.”
At Dublin, Davis directed his secretary Burton Harrison to take the excess baggage and ride with Varina and the children while Davis went off with the small presidential escort. Harrison later wrote that the president “bade us goodbye and rode forward with his own party, leaving us, in deference to our earnest solicitations, to pursue our journey as best we might with our wagons and incumbrances.”
On the night of the 8th, Davis sent word to Harrison that Federal patrols were nearby. The Harrison party rode through a terrible storm to Abbeville, where the Davis party had stopped for the night to rest their horses. Harrison recalled:
“As we passed through the village of Abbeville, I dismounted and had a conversation with the President in the old house, where he was lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket. He urged me to move on, and said he should overtake us during the night, after his horses had had more rest. We kept to the southward all night, the rain pouring in torrents most of the time, and the darkness such that, as we went through the woods where the road was not well marked, in a light, sandy soil, but wound about to accommodate the great pines left standing, the wagons were frequently stopped by fallen trees and other obstructions. In such a situation, we were obliged to wait until a flash of lightning enabled the drivers to see the way.”
The next day, the Davis and Harrison parties joined once more and continued southward. The joint group made camp around 5 p.m. near Irwinville, Georgia, about 70 miles from the Florida state line and 120 miles from the Gulf Coast. Davis planned to continue on before dawn.
Pritchard’s 4th Michigan rode into Abbeville earlier that day, where they met elements of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry. The commander of the 1st Wisconsin informed Pritchard that a wagon train had crossed the Ocmulgee and halted at Abbeville to rest the horses before continuing south toward Irwinville. The commander said the train might include Mrs. Davis but most likely did not include the president. Pritchard rode along and heard several other eyewitness accounts of the train’s crossing.
Pritchard led his troopers through the woods to the outskirts of Irwinville, arriving there around 1 a.m. on the 10th. They soon learned there was an encampment near the town on the Abbeville road. Pritchard deployed his men to surround the camp, careful not to make their presence known. Pritchard planned to attack at daylight, to prevent those encamped from escaping into the darkness of night.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 568; 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 21248-68; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 590; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 686; 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