Wonder how Jefferson Davis
Feels, down there in Montgomery, about Sumter.
He must be thinking pretty hard and fast,
For he’s an able man, no doubt of that.
We were born less than forty miles apart,
Less than a year apart–he got the start
Of me in age, and raising too, I guess,
In fact, from all you hear about the man,
If you set out to pick one of us two
For President, by birth and folks and schooling,
General raising, training up in office,
I guess you’d pick him, nine times out of ten
And yet, somehow, I’ve got to last him out.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Jefferson Davis, first and last president of the Confederacy, was captured by Union cavalry near Irwinville, Georgia one hundred and fifty years ago. Secretly he is happy about this turn of events. He expects to be tried for treason and looks forward to defending himself on Constitutional grounds. Instead, he will spend two years incarcerated, and then be released on bail, never to have his day in court. He would have the misfortune to survive the War for almost a quarter of a century, and to become involved in many querulous debates with former Confederates who sought to blame him for the loss of the War. Far better for Davis if he had been killed by the Union troopers and died, the martyr of the Lost Cause. Instead, he was fated to endure the worst fate for a loser of a great historical turning point: a long life in which to play the role of scapegoat.
Robert E. Lee I think had it right when he said that he could think of no one who could have done as well as Davis as President. A great man who almost led his nation to victory, Davis had the misfortune to be opposed by a greater man leading a stronger nation. In response to his critics, he produced a two volume turgid defense entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), published, ironically, by a New York publishing house. At 1500 pages it is one of the great unread books of American history, the province of only the most obsessive of Civil War scholars, although Oscar Wilde, strangely enough, proclaimed it a literary masterpiece, although even he admitted that he skimmed the military portions. In recent decades Davis, who had his slaves run his plantation along with their own court system, has been often portrayed as a devil stick figure, as if he had invented slavery, a sort of anti-Lincoln. This is ahistoric rubbish. Davis was a fascinating, and often contradictory, man and the scholarship devoted to him has been sadly lacking. The man who came so close to changing the course of the nation deserves better from the servants of Clio.
T. H. Peabody, a member of the Union cavalry unit that captured Davis gave this account:
Our regiment was stationed in and around Macon and in the early part of May it was learned that Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, was fleeing for Texas to join General Kirby Smith, there to try and re-establish the Confederacy. Orders were at once issued by General Wilson for his capture. The First Wisconsin cavalry was ordered out on the north or east bank of the Ocmulgee River, and Colonel Minty ordered out his old regiment, the Fourth Muchigan cavalry, down the south or west side of the same river, with instructions to intercept and capture Mr. Davis and the party with him. Colonel (since General) Minty, well known in this city, now a railroad official in the west, was one of the finest and most efficient officers in the late war. His command, with Wilder’s, in the foremost front, opened the battle on the noted and bloody field of Chickamauga.
At Abbeyville, 70 miles south of Macon, it was learned that Davis’ fleeing party had here crossed the ferry over the Ocmulgee and were moving southward toward Irwinsvuille, Ga., 30 miles below and 100 miles south of Macon. Lieutenant Colonel B.D. Pritchard, in command of the Fourth Michigan cavalry, marched the regiment rapidly down the river road, and after a 30 mile ride reached Irwinsville late in the night and learned that he had got in advance of the Davis party. Early on the morning of the 10th of May he charged into the camp of the “fleeing Confederacy” and Mr. Davis never joined Kirby Smith in Texas. Many false and nonsensical stories have been related about this capture and different regiments given its credit. Now these are the facts:
Jefferson Davis was captured by the Fourth Michigan cavalry in the early morning of May 10, 1865, at Irwinsville in southern Georgia. With him were Mr. John H. Reagan of Texas, his postmaster general; Captain Moody of Mississippi, an old neighbor of the Davis family; Governor Lubbock of Texas and Colonels Harrison and Johnson of his staff; Mrs. Davis and her four children – Maggie, some 10 years old; Jeff, about 8; Willie, 5; and a girl baby – a brother and sister of Mrs. Davis, a white and one colored servant woman, a small force of cavalry, a few others and a small train of horses, mules, wagons and ambulances. Among the horses were a span of carraige horses presented to Mr. Davis by the citizens of Richmond during the heyday of the Confederacy; also a splendid saddle horse, the pride of the ex-president himself.
On the 11th of May, the next day after the capture, and while on our way back to Macon, as officer of the guard over the distinguished prisoners, I rode by the side of Mr. Reagan, later a senator from Texas. I found him a very fine gentleman. During that day’s march a courier from Macon notified us in printed slips of the $100,000 reward offered for Mr. Davis’ capture, and which notice connected Davis with the assassination of President Lincoln. When Mr. Reagan read the notice, he earnestly protested that Mr. Davis had no connection whatever with that sorrowful affair. History has shown that he had none.
Besides the suit of men’s clothing worn by Mr. Davis he had on when captured Mrs. Davis’ large waterproof dress or robe, thrown over his own fine gray suit, and a blanket shawl thrown over his head and shoulders. This shawl and robe were finally deposited in the archives of the war department at Washington by order of Secretary Stanton.
The story of the “hoopskirt, sunbonnet and calico wrapper” had no real existence and was started in the fertile brains of the reporters and in the illustrated papers of that day. That was a perilous moment for Mr. Davis. He had the right to try to escape in any disguise he could use.
There were many interesting incidents connected with his capture, but I have not the time now to relate them. Of the children of this noted couple Maggie grew up, married and is now living in Colorado. One of the boys died early. One grew to manhood, married and died with yellow fever near Memphis since the war, and that “girl baby” grew up to womanhood and is now a talented and beautiful young lady and known as “Winnie, the daughter of the Confederacy.”
My mind reverts to those days of the war, and I often think of that scene and that march back from Irwinsville, through the somber pine woods, swamps and plantations of southern Georgia. There in the ambulance with his wife and baby was Jefferson Davis, a prisoner of war. How weak and small had become the head and front of that power against which the men in blue had been so long battling! How had the mighty fallen!