The Capture of Jefferson Davis

May 10, 1865 – Federal cavalry seized Confederate President Jefferson Davis and members of his party near Irwinville, Georgia.

Davis had reunited with his wife Varina and their children on the 9th out of fear that they might be vulnerable to nearby marauders. Once their combined wagon train reached Irvinville that night, Davis felt confident that his family was safe, and he therefore planned to separate from them again the next morning to keep them out of Federal danger. Davis hoped to continue south before turning west and carrying on the fight beyond the Mississippi River.

During the night, troopers of the 4th Michigan Cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin C. Pritchard surrounded the Davis encampment after learning the party had traveled south from Abbeville. Just before dawn, Davis’s coachman notified him that men were approaching. Thinking they were marauders, Davis told his wife, “Those men have attacked us at last; I will go out and see if I cannot stop the firing; surely I will have some authority with the Confederates.” According to Varina:

“Just before day the enemy charged our camp yelling like demons. Mr. Davis received timely warning of their approach but believing them to be our own people deliberately made his toilette and was only disabused of the delusion, when he saw them deploying a few yards off. He started down to the little stream hoping to meet his servant with his horse and arms, but knowing he would be recognized, I pleaded with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof wrap which had often served him in sickness during the summer season for a dressing gown and which I hoped might so cover his person that in the grey of the morning he would not be recognized.

“As he strode off I threw over his head a little black shawl which was around my own shoulders, saying that he could not find his hat and after he started sent my colored woman after him with a bucket for water hoping that he would pass unobserved. He attempted no disguise, consented to no subterfuge but if he had in failure is found the only matter of cavil.”

As the president left the tent, a Federal trooper rode up and ordered him to halt. Davis refused and the trooper raised his rifle toward him. Davis turned as if to charge the man, but Varina came forward and threw her arms around him. The Davises and the trooper exchanged angry words as more troopers rode up. Davis finally said, “God’s will be done,” and sat down at a fire near the tent.

Northern version of Davis’s capture | Image Credit:

Davis, his wife, and their four children became prisoners, along with aide Colonel William P. Johnston (son of the late General Albert Sidney Johnston), secretary Burton Harrison, Treasury Secretary John Reagan, former Texas Governor Francis Lubbock, and some others. The Federals plundered Davis’s camp, seeking incriminating documents and the millions of dollars that Federal officials claimed he carried. Colonel Pritchard later reported:

“Upon returning to camp I was accosted by Davis from among the prisoners, who asked if I was the officer in command; and upon my answering him that I was, and asking him whom I was to call him, he replied that I might call him what or whom I pleased; when I replied to him that I would call him Davis, and after a moment’s hesitation he said that was his name; when he suddenly drew himself up in true royal dignity and exclaimed, ‘I suppose that you consider it bravery to charge a train of defenseless women and children, but it is theft–it is vandalism!’

“After allowing the prisoners time to prepare breakfast, I mounted them on their own horses, taking one of the ambulances for my wounded, and one of the wagons for the dead, using the other two ambulances for the conveyance of the women and children, and started on my return by the direct route to Abbeville, where I arrived at sunset the same day. Here I halted for the night and called in the rest of my regiment from its duty along the river, and resumed my march toward Macon at an early hour on the morning of the 11th, after having buried our dead and performed the last solemn rites of the soldier over his fallen comrades; sending couriers in advance to announce the success of the expedition.”

As news of Davis’s capture reached the North, rumors quickly spread that he had been captured while disguised in women’s clothing. However, Davis actually wore a raincoat and shawl due to the rain. Reagan later asserted:

“As one of the means of making the Confederate cause odious, the foolish and wicked charge was made that he was captured in woman’s clothes; and his portrait, showing him in petticoats, was afterward placarded generally in show cases and public places in the North. He was also pictured as having bags of gold on him when captured. This charge of his being arrested in woman’s clothes is disproven by the circumstances attending his capture. The suddenness of the unexpected attack of the enemy allowed no time for a change of clothes. I saw him a few minutes after his surrender, wearing his accustomed suit of Confederate gray, with his boots and hat on, and I have elsewhere shown that he had no money.”

With the capture of Jefferson Davis, all that was left of the Confederate government ceased to exist.


References; Clark, Champ, The Assassination: The Death of the President (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 145; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 23150-69; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 569; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 840-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 590; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 83; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 687; Maddox, Robert J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 209; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18-24; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 832-33; 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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