Jefferson Davis Arrives Off Virginia

May 19, 1865 – The ocean vessel conveying former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other captured members of his government arrived at Fortress Monroe, on the tip of Virginia’s York-James Peninsula.

The William P. Clyde had left Port Royal three days ago carrying Davis, Vice President Alexander Stephens, Treasury Secretary John Reagan, General Joseph Wheeler, and former Texas Governor Francis Lubbock. Also aboard were Davis’s wife, children, and servants, and other Confederate officials, including Senator Clement C. Clay and his wife Virginia. Mrs. Clay later wrote:

“Our journey on the Clyde, though sorrowful, apprehensive as we were concerning the fate to which the prisoners were being led, was otherwise uneventful. Mr. Davis was exceedingly depressed, and moved restlessly about, seeming scarcely ever to desire to sit down. Always an intellectual cosmopolite, however, he made observations on the natural phenomena about us, commenting from time to time on the beauty of sea or sky. Our meals, which were served at a table reserved for the prisoners, by no means represented the fare of the coastwise steamers of to-day, but few of us were in a mood to take note of culinary deficiencies.”

The Clyde was originally ordered to bring the prisoners up Chesapeake Bay to Washington, but Federal Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had persuaded Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to imprison Davis at Fort Monroe under the command of Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, “the object being to put an officer at Fortress Monroe who will by no possibility (allow) the escape of the prisoners to be confined there.”

The prisoners remained confined aboard the Clyde for three days while arrangements were made to accommodate them. Stanton, worried about political intrigue, wanted the preparations to remain secret. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles explained that “the papers would have the arrivals announced in their next issue,” and “he could not stop the mails, nor passenger-boats, and twenty-four hours would carry the information to Baltimore and abroad in that way.”

Stanton wrote out the orders for dealing with the prisoners, and according to Welles:

“In framing his dispatch, he said, with some emphasis, the women and children must be sent off. We did not want them. ‘They must go South,’ and he framed his dispatch accordingly. When he read it I remarked, ‘The South is very indefinite, and you permit them to select the place. Mrs. Davis may designate Norfolk, or Richmond.’ ‘True,’ said Grant with a laugh. Stanton was annoyed, but, I think, altered his telegram.”

Stephens and Reagan would be placed aboard the warship U.S.S. Tuscarora and sent to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, while Wheeler, Lubbock, and presidential aide William P. Johnston would go to Fort Delaware in Philadelphia. Davis and Clay would be confined within Fort Monroe. Mrs. Clay remembered:

“On the morning of May 22d a sultry, drizzling rain fell. It was a day exactly calculated to induce melancholy even in the stoutest-hearted. To us, eagerly alert to learn what we might of our fate, it was unspeakably distressful. Shortly after breakfast my husband came quietly into our stateroom. ‘There is no longer any doubt,’ he said, ‘that this fort is the one destined for Davis and me! I have just been notified that we are expected to take a ride on a tug. I am convinced we shall be taken to Fortress Monroe. I can’t imagine why they do not come out boldly and tell us so, but be sure this is our farewell, my wife!’ We took leave of each other in our stateroom, nor did I leave it to follow Mr. Clay to the deck. I stood, instead, at the fourteen-inch window of my cabin, alone with my thoughts.”

The Davises son Jeff wailed upon learning that he would be taken from his father. A soldier told him, “Don’t cry, Jeff. They ain’t going to hang your pa!” Little Jeff replied, “When I get to be a man, I’m going to kill every Yankee I see!” He then ran to his mother and cried, “They say they have come for father, beg them to let us go with him.” Davis confirmed the news and told Varina, “Try not to cry. They will gloat over your grief.”

Davis and Clay were put aboard a tug to take them to the fort, and as Mrs. Davis recalled, “he stood with bared head between the files of undersized German and other foreign soldiers on either side of him, and as we looked, as we thought, our last upon his stately form and knightly bearing, he seemed a man of another and higher race, upon whom ‘shame would not dare to sit.’”

Back aboard the Clyde, Federal troops rummaged through the Davises’ trunks and took whatever they wanted. Tugs carrying curiosity-seekers came out to visit the Clyde, and Mrs. Davis wrote, “They steamed around the ship, offering, when one of us met their view, such insults as were transmissible at a short distance.” When Federals tried getting into Mrs. Clay’s room, she admonished them, “Gentlemen, do not look in here, it is a ladies’ state-room.” One Federal remarked, “There are no ladies here,” to which she replied, “There certainly are no gentlemen there.”

Davis and Clay were confined in subterranean casemates that had been hastily converted into prison cells. Davis later wrote:

“Not knowing that the Government was at war with women and children, I asked that my family might be permitted to leave the ship and go to Richmond or Washington City, or to some place where they had acquaintances, but this was refused… I was informed that they must return to Savannah on the vessel by which we came… why, I did not then know, have not learned since, and am unwilling to make a supposition, as none could satisfactorily account for such an act of inhumanity.”

The New York Herald reported on the 23rd:

“At about 3 o’clock yesterday, ‘all that is mortal’ of Jeff’n Davis, late so-called ‘President of the alleged Confederate States,’ was duly, but quietly and effectively, committed to that living tomb prepared within the impregnable walls of Fortress Monroe… No more will Jeff’n Davis be known among the masses of men. He is buried alive.”

Alfred Waud sketch of Jefferson Davis jailed at Fort Monroe | Image Credit:

Federal guards allowed Davis just the clothes he wore and a small-print Bible. General Miles received orders from the War Department “to place manacles and fetters upon the hands and feet of Jefferson Davis… whenever he may think it advisable in order to render imprisonment more secure.” Davis forcibly resisted being shackled, but the guards overcame him and placed him in chains.

Northern protests soon compelled Miles to remove the shackles. But Davis continued to be subjected to other methods of punishment, including having guards continuously march past his cell, burning lamps around the clock, and exposing him to illnesses brought on by confinement below sea level. Davis’s health declined as sympathetic northerners raised funds to provide him with legal counsel.

Federal authorities considered trying Davis for treason; Davis welcomed such a charge because it would give him the opportunity to argue for the legality of his cause. Fearing he might win, officials opted not to try him. They also lacked evidence to implicate Davis in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which they had accused him of when they set out to capture him in the first place.

In 1867, Davis was released on a $100,000 bond, which was financed by such prominent northerners as Horace Greeley (editor of the New York Tribune) and Gerrit Smith (one of the financial backers for John Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry in 1859). In 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a “pardon and amnesty” to “every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion,” including the former president of the Confederate States of America.


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 570; 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 21337-57, 21791-831; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 592; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 689; 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

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