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Preeminent Civil War historian Frank Vandiver always longed to see an interpretive biography of Jefferson Davis. Finally, more than twenty years after Vandiver expressed that wish, publication of Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart makes such an interpretive biography available.
Felicity Allen begins this monumental work with Davis's political imprisonment at the end of the Civil War and masterfully flashes back to his earlier life, interweaving Davis's private life as a schoolboy, a Mississippi planter, a husband, a father, and a political leader. She follows him from West Point through army service on the frontier, his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, his regimental command in the Mexican War, his service as U.S. secretary of war and senator, and his term as president of the Confederate States of America.
Although Davis's family is the nexus of this biography, friends and enemies also play major roles. Among his friends intimately met in this book are such stellar figures as Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Robert E. Lee.
With the use of contemporary accounts and Davis's own correspondence, Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart casts new light upon this remarkable man, thawing the icy image of Davis in many previous accounts. Felicity Allen shows a strong, yet gentle man; a stern soldier who loved horses, guns, poetry, and children; a master of the English language, with a dry wit; a man of powerful feelings who held them in such tight control that he was considered cold; and a home-loving Mississippian who was drawn into a vortex of national events and eventual catastrophe. At all times, "duty, honor, country" ruled his mind. Davis's Christian view of life runs like a thread throughout the book, binding together his devotion to God, his family, and the land.
Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart brings Davis to life in a way that has never been done before. The variety of his experience, the breadth of his learning, and the consistency of his beliefs make this historical figure eminently worth knowing.
As the tug bore him away from the ship, 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."
To one of the enemies waiting ashore, he appears "much wasted and very haggard"; to another, he seems to bear himself "with a haughty attitude." The latter is an assistant secretary of war for the United States, Charles A. Dana. By the death date of the man now his prisoner, Dana will have come to regard him as a "majestic soul" who "bore defeat and humiliation in the high Roman fashion." The other enemy is Bvt. Lt. Col. John J. Craven, M.D. He will attend the already ailing captive for seven months and prove, in the end, a friend.
The man so variously looked upon is Jefferson Davis, until twelve days before, president of the Confederate States of America. The ship from which he is being borne away this May 22, 1865, is the William P. Clyde, an oceangoing, though barely seaworthy, side-wheeler. Escorted by the warship Tuscarora, it has brought Confederate prisoners up the coast from Port Royal, South Carolina, to Hampton Roads, Virginia. The "foreign soldiers" wear the uniform of the United States of America. They are a few of the thousands in the Northern army, many recruited surreptitiously abroad. At Andersonville, Georgia, so many prisoners cannot speakEnglish that the Catholic priest has had to send for an interpreter. Davis conveyed an informal protest to Pope Pius IX about this covert recruitment in Catholic regions of Europe. The pope "appeared to be touched" and "intimated ... a salutary remedy," but no more came of it.
The tug is bearing Davis toward the Engineer Wharf of Fortress Monroe, in the granite wall of which a gun casemate has been converted by concrete and iron bars into a cell to receive him. Night and day, soldiers will pace inside as well as in the guardroom that provides the only entrance to the cell. Against the thirty-foot walls of the encircling moat rise and fall the tides of Chesapeake Bay. Two casemates away, an almost identical cell and guardroom await Clement Claiborne Clay, who is with Davis in the tugboat. Dr. Craven, passing through the shore guard on his way to the wharf, hears, among excited speculations as to the ex-president's fate, "They'll hang Clem. Clay sure."
Another "knightly" figure in his friends' eyes, Clay began his career after the University of Alabama as secretary to his father, the governor, who had been Alabama's first chief justice. After law school in Virginia, Clement practiced in Alabama, served in its legislature, and was then elected to the United States Senate, where he met the man standing in the boat beside him. Their comradeship was basically political, but it ripened into a friendship which both called "intimate" and which survived strong disturbance during the Confederate years. Differences in temperament are apparent in their farewell addresses made to the Senate on the same day, January 21, 1861, as they quit that august body for an uncertain future with their seceded states. Davis's is a model of highly charged but restrained eloquence; Clay's is a passionate denunciation and defiance of the abolitionist foe.
President Davis had sent Clay and others on a confidential mission to neutral Canada to feel out the Northern peace movement just prior to the 1864 elections. The agents tried to contact President Abraham Lincoln through newspaper editor Horace Greeley for informal peace talks, and they encouraged the copperhead C. L. Vallandigham and his Sons of Liberty. The secretive nature of the mission led to enormous flights of fancy in the Northern press as to what they were up to. Clay had been back in the South over two months before the assassination of Lincoln on April 14, 1865. But when it came out that some of those accused of it had been in Canada, people leapt to the conclusion (aided by false testimony) that the Confederate mission had instigated the murder. In the public mind, Clay is already condemned, which is why the soldier is "sure" "they" will hang him.
There is very little doubt in anybody's mind that "they" will also hang Davis. Even his wife, Varina Howell Davis, leaning over the rail of the Clyde, believes that she and their children are looking their last upon him. With this belief piercing her heart, she still is able to bid farewell without a scene. His "eyes of quiet fortitude which shone [there]" and words whispered in their last embrace, have imparted to her his own courage. She is in herself a courageous woman, but she has feared the worst ever since their capture, especially since the Proclamation.
Gen. Robert Edward Lee telegraphed on April 2, 1865, that he could no longer protect Richmond from the troops of Gen. Ulysses Simpson Grant at Petersburg, Virginia, and Davis removed the whole Confederate government south to Danville, Virginia, that night. Varina was then in North Carolina. Against her wishes, he had sent her and their family out of Richmond a few days before. When Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, the dwindling governmental corps had to keep moving south and west. Davis and his wife pursued separate though similar routes, he nearly but never quite overtaking her.
From Danville, the president's party went to Greensboro, North Carolina, then Charlotte; from there, joined by several cavalry brigades, through South Carolina from Fort Mill to Abbeville; then across the Savannah River at Vienna to Washington-Wilkes in Georgia. Almost due south of there, by pressing relentlessly forward on horseback all one night "without drawing rein," Davis finally came up with his wife's wagons.
Grant, knowing Lee's escape route from a paper found in captured Richmond, was able to hammer the sparse and starving Southern men at every point with massed troops, cut Lee off from Danville (where he and Davis planned to meet), and finally to trap him at Appomattox.
Gen. Joseph Eggleston Johnston had command of the only other approximation of a Confederate army in the seaboard states. He wanted to surrender this too. He had for some time viewed resistance to the hordes of Generals Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman as hopeless. At Greensboro, he won Davis's reluctant consent to seek an armistice with Sherman, so that civilian officials could treat for peace. Should the armistice fail, Johnston was to follow Davis southwest with his cavalry, light artillery, and all the infantry he could mount, and they would join the Confederate troops in the Gulf states. They would then be in position, as belligerents, to exact favorable terms. As he traveled, Davis arranged for depots of supply "on the route [Johnston] had selected." Davis "never contemplated a surrender ... as long as we were able to keep the field."
Just as he anticipated, Sherman made it clear that "the United States did not acknowledge ... a Southern Confederacy; nor, consequently, its civil authorities." They had, Davis said, "special dread" of seeming to recognize "the existence of a government which for four years they had been vainly trying to subdue." So Johnston proposed, citing Napoleon as precedent, that the generals themselves arrange the peace terms. The president, now in Charlotte, overlooked the presumption—"Heaven knows, I am not particular as to form"—and approved the terms that Sherman and Johnston worked out, since they "secured to our people the political rights and safety from pillage, to obtain which I proposed to continue the war." The United States, however, rejected these terms. Then Johnston, "announcing to the Administration" that he was about to meet Sherman again, surrendered his army on April 26. Davis "had no part whatever in the transaction," getting his "first positive information" of it some ten days later, he says, when he found Augusta, Georgia, capitulating to Union troops. He wrote from Washington-Wilkes, "This Department has been surrendered without my knowledge and consent."
It was not only the department. Sherman says Johnston thought that "further fighting would be `murder'" and that "we might arrange terms that would embrace all the Confederate armies ... a universal surrender, embracing his own army, that of Dick Taylor, in Louisiana and Texas, and of Maury, Forrest and others, in Alabama and Georgia"—the very ones Davis was trying to reach (and all by now in Mississippi). Grant had tried to get Lee to "advise" this on the day after his own surrender, but Lee, though general-in-chief, had insisted he could not do it "without consulting the President first." This was impossible, and the proposal fell dead. Johnston, as he himself says, simply disobeyed his commander in chief's instructions to move his army south. Instead, he signed his own convention and strongly urged the other generals to follow suit—which they did. He assumed a presidential tone: "The pacification was announced by me to the States immediately concerned."
Davis's reaction to the usurpation of his authority was mild, at least by the time he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: "something more than courtesy required that the Executive should have been advised if not consulted." He had "never expected a Confederate army to surrender while it was able either to fight or to retreat." To the end of his life, he thought, "General Lee was forced to surrender and General Johnston consented to do so." Johnston obeyed his own feeling instead of his superiors, saying he wanted to "save the people" by surrender. Davis wanted to save them by fighting, to win "political rights of the states," which was not done by reunion "without condition." "Those who have endured the horrors of `reconstruction,'" he later wrote, "a state of vindictive hostility" with "insult, robbery, and imprisonment without legal warrant ... will probably think continued war not the greatest of evils."
Varina Davis's reaction was passionate: "I cannot refrain from expressing my intense grief at the treacherous surrender of this Department." An outspoken friend of theirs in South Carolina, Mary Chesnut, wife of Brig. Gen. James Chesnut, was also incensed. She said that Joe Johnston, when asked if he had the government's consent, had answered he "was not aware that we had any government. No—nor has he ever been aware that he owed allegiance to any." "The women of Columbia weep & call Joe a traitor. Joe who makes a `convention' to save the country from ruin—& leaves his country to ruin—the miserable demagogue. Intriguer." She even named him among "our base betrayers."
If Johnston's action was a betrayal of Davis, it was the only one. The men who constituted the Confederate government as it left Richmond dropped away one by one, but each bade farewell and made his excuse for going. George Davis, the attorney general, a widower from North Carolina, was the first to leave. He wondered aloud at Charlotte whether his place was with the government or with his family. "By the side of your family" promptly responded the other Davis. Since this was a family of motherless children, the response was virtually certain. Jefferson Davis's devotion to his own children was well known. Not so obvious was the mutual attraction between him and every child he met. The last act of his life was to oblige a child. Even now on the perilous road, Varina had with her Jim Limber, a mulatto orphan whom the Davises had rescued from a cruel guardian and informally adopted. At a stopping place, she wrote: "The children ... play all day—Billy and Jim fast friends as ever."
After settling his children, George Davis learned that Federal amnesty did not apply to civil officers. The hefty six-footer went penniless in disguise to Florida and hired on as a deckhand for passage to the Bahamas. But winds forced the small craft to Key West. He was arrested in October and sent to Fort Lafayette, New York harbor, where he was held prisoner for three months. A latecomer to the cabinet, he had originally been a political opponent of President Davis's but found that "the more you saw and heard him the greater he grew." He retained "unfailing confidence, esteem and love" for Jeff Davis until his death.
George Trenholm, who had inherited the onerous duties of treasury secretary the year before, was the next to fall away. He had been ill the whole trip, and by the time the caravan reached South Carolina, could not go on. He addressed his regret to the president, saying: "I cannot retire without expressing the profound impression made upon me by your public and private virtues, and the grateful sense I entertain of the kindness and courtesy that I have received at your hands, in our official intercourse—." Davis in turn thanked him for the "kindness and wisdom" of his counsel through "many trying scenes." Trenholm was arrested at his home near Columbia and, despite his illness, imprisoned for four months at Fort Pulaski, Savannah harbor. In a letter written in 1870, his household sent Davis "undiminished respect and affection," and wanted to know "all about Mrs. Davis and the children."
Judah Philip Benjamin went next. He had no taste for the noose or rigors of confinement that he saw ahead. He had managed to ride out of Greensboro in an ambulance (a small covered wagon) along with the aged and infirm, smoking his "cheerful cigar" and entertaining the company as he "rhythmically intoned" in his "silvery voice ... verse after verse" of "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His figure was not made for the horseback riding to which he was reduced as the party crossed the Savannah River into Georgia. Davis reassured someone worrying about this: "if one of us escapes it will be he." Indeed, Benjamin soon put to work the wits that later raised him to high rank at the English bar. He set off in a gig, disguised as a French traveler, aiming, said Davis, to reach the coast and then "join me in the Transmississippi Department whither he knew it was my fixed purpose to go." When he heard Davis was captured, however, he set out for the West Indies and eventually made it to England after terrible trials at sea. Thus escaped the secretary of state, who had also been attorney general and secretary of war.
By this first week in May, only half the cabinet was left. Pleading family needs, Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory resigned, not without noting Davis's "kindness, consideration and courtesy": "Language fails to give expression to my sense of your patriotic devotion to our common country.... Cheerfully would I follow you and share whatever fate may befall you, could I hope thereby in any degree to contribute to your safety or happiness." But he left Washington-Wilkes for LaGrange, on the western edge of Georgia.
The last secretary of war, Maj. Gen. John Cabell Breckinridge, was also commander of the cavalry units, never more than three thousand men. Col. William Campbell Preston Breckinridge, his cousin, led one unit; the others were under Brigadier Generals Basil W. Duke, George Gibbs Dibrell, Samuel Wragg Ferguson, and John Crawford Vaughan. At the Savannah River, the troopers (number now uncertain) learned that Johnston had surrendered the department and they could be paroled at nearby Augusta and Macon. Breckinridge let each command decide its own course. He divided among them, with Davis's consent, $108,322.90 in silver coin from the Treasury wagons.
Duke felt "the honor of the soldiery was involved" in the president's safety. Breckinridge led his men one way and sent Duke in another, trying to divert the Yankees. When he ran into a big Federal force, he left his officers to parley under a flag of truce and slipped into the forest with a few of his staff. But he lingered near, hoping to be of help to Davis. Not until he knew the president was captured would he go on to Florida. Eventually he made his way abroad. There was no time to resign or bid farewell.
The only cabinet member left was John Henniger Reagan, postmaster general and acting secretary of the treasury. He had been with Davis since 1861, and he would be to the end. He and Col. Francis Richard Lubbock had "entered into a compact that we would never desert or leave him ... [but] share his fortune, whatever might befall." Frank Lubbock was a latecomer to the president's staff. He had been governor of Texas from 1861 to 1863, then a lieutenant colonel in the army, until Davis called him to his side in 1864. He was to advise him on the Trans-Mississippi Department, which included not only Texas, but also Arkansas, Missouri, most of Louisiana, and the Indian, New Mexico, and Arizona Territories. Neither of these two Texas politicians had known Davis well before. Both were attracted to him by what Lubbock called Davis's "winning, unaffected manners" and "his great heart." The "maxim that distinguished men diminish in greatness as we get closer," said Reagan, "did not apply in his case." Lubbock agreed: "Constant attendance day by day" upon Davis "founded in my heart a strong love for the man." Something rang so true that it held both men, though so unlike—Lubbock the South Carolina gallant and Reagan the rugged East Tennessee mountain man. In the disaster now befalling the Confederacy, each could have made for Texas alone. Reagan had six motherless children as an excuse. But they made their compact.
The other staff members were equally attached to the president. Davis had known the two other aides-de-camp all their lives. Col. William Preston Johnston was the son of his cherished friend Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. Col. John Taylor Wood (who was also a naval commander) was a nephew of Davis's deceased first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor. The young men naturally felt bound to Davis by these ties, yet serving under him led to a personal devotion that never died.
Then there was Burton Norvell Harrison. This Yale graduate was teaching mathematics at the University of Mississippi when war came. He was about to join the Washington Artillery of his native New Orleans, when he was called to be Davis's private secretary in March of 1862. He held something of a filial position in the Davis family, actually living in the executive mansion. His wife says that he might have avoided "his subsequent hard fate" except that he "loyally chose to follow [Davis]." It was to Harrison that the president confided the safety of his family when he sent it out of Richmond on March 31, 1865. At the railroad station, he told Harrison to come right back, but by the time Varina and her large flock of dependents were settled in Charlotte, Davis had had to leave the capital. Harrison found him at Danville and went on with him to Greensboro and Charlotte.
Varina Davis had by then left Charlotte, and on April 23, Davis sent Harrison out again to look for her. He found her at Abbeville, South Carolina, safely housed with her brood in the home of old friends, the Armistead Burts. Varina had thought Burt "simply an elegant man" when she knew him in Washington, D.C., but now he proved a heroic one. She offered to leave after Yankees threatened to burn his home, only to have him insist, as Davis remembered, "there was no better use to which his house could be put." The Burts "have urged me to live with them ... begged to have little Maggie—done everything in fact that relatives could do," she wrote Davis, calling it "their generous devotion to you."
Her party now consisted of her younger sister, Margaret Graham Howell; the orphan, Jim Limber; James Jones, the hired mulatto coachman; two nursemaids, Ellen Bond (mulatto) and Catherine (white); and four Davis children: Margaret Howell, ten; Jefferson Jr., eight; William Howell, three and a half; and the ten-month-old baby, christened on March 19 as Varina Anne but known as Pie Cake or Li' Pie.
Also at Abbeville was Jefferson Davis Howell, Varina's baby brother, named when Davis was thought mortally wounded at the battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War. Jeffy D., as he was called, was now nineteen, a midshipman in the Confederate States Navy. At Richmond on April 2, his commandant, Capt. William Harwar Parker, had scuttled their training ship and formed the sixty middies into a guard for the Confederate treasury. They had escorted the gold and silver bullion and specie safely to Danville, where Davis noted his brother-in-law's arrival. From Charlotte on, Jeffy D. was escorting his two sisters as well, for Captain Parker persuaded Varina to follow him for protection.
They went by rail to Chester, South Carolina, where the treasure had to be packed on wagons for passage to Newberry. This gave Varina time for a reunion with friends who were refugees there—Clement C. Clay, Mary and James Chesnut, John S. Preston of the Conscription Bureau, and Gen. John Bell Hood, headed for Texas "under orders to bring ... all the troops that would follow me." He said, "If I have lost my leg and also lost my freedom, I am miserable indeed." Varina herself felt the misery of defeat that night, as she set out to follow the "treasure train" in an ambulance. "The ambulance was too heavily laden in the deep mud, and as my maid was too weak to walk and my nurse was unwilling, I walked five miles in the darkness in mud over my shoe tops, with my cheerful little baby in my arms." When they all stopped to rest at a church, a woman told Varina that they had saved the communion table for her bed; but The "additional comfort," she later wrote, "did not tempt one to commit sacrilege."
At Newberry they took "the cars" for Abbeville, where Varina found comfort at the Burt home. Jeffy D. lay sick at the house of George Trenholm's son and could not go when Parker took the treasure and went looking for Davis. Unable to find the president, Parker finally went back to Abbeville and turned the treasure over to Reagan, who had replaced Trenholm. He then disbanded the midshipmen, on Mallory's order, to Davis's "very great regret." When recovered, Jeffy D. went to Augusta and signed his parole not to take up arms against the United States, in return for which, he was "not to be disturbed." Varina left Abbeville on April 29 for Washington-Wilkes, and there her brother joined her.
This was the home of Gen. Robert Toombs. Although an old enemy of Davis's, he "called with many kind offers of hospitality." Varina and the children were, however, being "entertained" elsewhere, says Harrison. He and Varina tried to form plans, hoping at first to meet Davis: "Mrs. Davis is very anxious to see him if she can do so without embarrassing [hindering] his movements." They thought of going west, but "our route was changed by the tidings of Genl. Johnston's surrender of the Department." Federal cavalry was suddenly deploying everywhere. They decided to head south for the coast. Varina wanted to get to England, she wrote Davis, put Maggie and Jeff Jr. in "the best school I can find, and then with the two youngest join you in Texas—and that is the prospect which bears me up, to be once more with you—once more to suffer with you if need be—but God loves those who obey him, and I know there is a future for you." Besides, she had in her ears, from that voice, to her sweetest and most authoritative: "I charge you solemnly to leave when you hear the enemy are approaching; and if you cannot remain undisturbed in our own country, make for the Florida coast and take a ship there for a foreign country."
It was on their last day together in Richmond that Davis had said this, as he showed her how to load, aim, and fire a handsome pistol given her by his aide, William Montague Browne. He had ordered Gen. Josiah Gorgas, the ordnance chief, to send him cartridges for "a small Colt pistol" as quickly as possible. She was to use it, he said, "if you fear insult from our foes." He was, she recalled, "very apprehensive of our falling into the hands of the disorganized bands of troops, roving about the country, and said, `You can at least, if reduced to the last extremity, force your assailants to kill you.'" The intensity of his fear for her may be measured by the ferocity of his proposal. It was a last desperate hope for souls to whom honor was dearer than life—upon whom, as Varina said, "shame would not dare to sit." It was perhaps the hope in his own heart for himself. Certainly he expected to die. He "almost gave way" when Jeff Jr. "begged to remain" and little Maggie "clung to him convulsively, for it was evident he thought he was looking his last upon us." He had already told Varina, "I do not expect to survive the destruction of constitutional liberty."
All during Varina's travels, Davis the president was trying to maintain his government. He had issued a proclamation at Danville; he wrote military directives, transfers, and promotions; he requested saddles for Duke's command and artillery for the defense of Charlotte; he appointed Reagan acting secretary of the treasury when Trenholm resigned ("little money left to steal," he quipped); he asked for written reports from the cabinet; he told Maj. Gen. Howell Cobb how to recruit men for the defense of Macon, Georgia.
All the while, his military props were being knocked out from under him. Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton, incensed at the idea of surrender, came to Davis at Greensboro, offering to take him to Texas with "many strong arms and brave hearts ... and I can get there." He soon found that Johnston had surrendered his troops in his absence. Alone, he tried to overtake Davis but finally gave up exhausted.
To "cut loose" from everything "and ride at full speed to Forrest was [Davis's] only hope," said another cavalry leader, "if indeed there was any whatever after Appomat[t]ox." Davis postponed doing this, first because Johnston was parleying with Sherman, and then, because of his "scruple about moving until the truce had expired." His "impregnable" honor thus defeated his one chance to avoid capture.
When he finally rode out of Charlotte on April 26, it was slowly, slowly, with the wagons of the civil corps and his large cavalry escort. After they reached Abbeville, he was finally convinced that military resistance in the area was hopeless. But he was still bent on reaching the troops remaining and rallying those beyond the Mississippi. Taking one company out of the cavalry brigades, which were beginning to disperse, he crossed the Savannah River into Georgia and reached Washington-Wilkes just after his wife had left. He then asked for ten men to go without question wherever he should lead them. The whole company volunteered. Capt. Given Campbell had to pick the ten himself.
Jefferson Davis was finally doing—almost—what his wife had been frantically urging. She not infrequently had a more realistic grasp of people and events than he did. She saw, for example: "a stand cannot be made in this country." "I have seen a great many men who have gone through—not one has talked fight ... do not be induced to try it." From Washington-Wilkes she had written: "May God grant you a safe conduct out of this maze of enemies—I do believe you are safer without the cavalry than with it." And again: Why not cut loose from your escort? go swiftly and alone with the exception of two or three—Oh! may God in his goodness keep you safe, my own."
They had kept in touch all along by a few letters and hurried notes confided to passing couriers, husband and wife never quite sure where or how the other was. The uncertainty and danger brought their mutual devotion to light. They fell into their pet names for each other: "My own precious Banny"; "My dear Winnie"; With a courier waiting at the door, he dashed off, "love to the children and Maggie [Howell]—God bless, guide and preserve you, ever prays / Your most affectionate / Banny." In Charlotte, he had time for a real letter:
Dear children, I can say nothing to them, but for you and them my heart is full, my prayers constant, and my hopes are the trust I feel in the mercy of God.
Farewell, my dear. there may be better things in store for us
than are now in view, but my love is all I have to offer, and that
has the value of a thing long possessed, and sure not to be lost.
On her part, there was more frantic anxiety, more fervent expressions: "May God in his Mercy keep you safe and raise up defenders for our bleeding country prays your devoted wife—"; "Oh my dearest precious husband, the one absorbing love of my whole life may God keep you free from harm."
In the midst of total collapse—the loss of worldly goods and a world—Davis cried out: "Dear Wife, this is not the fate to which I invited [you] when the future was rose colored to us both; but I know you will bear it even better than myself." Varina replied: "It is surely not the fate to which you invited me in brighter days, but you must remember that you did not invite me to a great Hero's home, but to that of a plain farmer, I have shared all your triumphs, been the only beneficiary of them, now I am but claiming the privilege for the first time of being all to you now these pleasures have past for me."
They longed for one another: "Dear Winnie / I will come to you if I can—Everything is dark"; "My dear Old Banny ... Where are you, how are you—what ought I to do with these helpless little unconscious charges of mine.... I am so at sea ... I will come to you ... if you cannot come to me." But as the danger of capture increased, Varina warned him repeatedly "not to calculate upon seeing me unless I happen to cross your shortest path to your bourne—be that what it may." She pleaded, "Do not try to meet me, I dread the Yankees getting news of you so much, you are the countrys only hope, and the very best intentioned do not calculate upon a stand this side of the river." It was then, as she was about to leave Washington-Wilkes, that she bade him "go swiftly and alone."
Even after the president sent his baggage train south and gave up four of his escort to guard public papers, he still had roughly a dozen men instead of the two or three Varina had in mind. As for going swiftly, he was no more interested in that than in protection. He never considered himself in flight, only en route. Capt. Micajah H. Clark, Harrison's chief clerk, who had left Richmond with Davis, describes his progress:
On that retreat (if so leisurely a retirement could be so called) ... his great resources of mind and heart shone out most brilliantly. Still the head, he moved, calm, self-poised, giving way to no petulance of temper at discomfort, advising and consoling, laying aside all thought of self, planning and doing what was best, not only for our unhappy and despairing people, but uttering gentle, sweet words of consolation and wise advice to every family which he entered as guest.
In Danville, he wrote a letter of thanks to the mayor and council for their hospitality. He refused, with tears in his eyes, a bag of gold that his hostess pressed on him, saying, "You will need it. I will not." "He was sure he would be killed," she said. He gave her a little gold pencil, which she treasured as "a sacred gift." He went to a community church service there on April 9, and to his own Episcopal church in Charlotte on April 23. It was his habit. Doubtless he would have gone on April 16, Easter that year, but he was on the road to Salisbury, North Carolina. Arriving the next night, he stayed with the rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church. "At tea and after tea [the evening meal], Mr. Davis was cheerful, pleasant, and inclined to talk." They sat late on the porch, "the President with an unlighted cigar in his mouth, talking of the misfortune of General Lee's surrender." Next morning at breakfast, when the host's little girl came crying that "old Lincoln's coming and going to kill us all," it was Davis who put down his fork and, turning the child's "tearful face toward his own," said, "Oh, no my little lady, you need not fear that. Mr. Lincoln is not such a bad man, he does not want to kill anybody, and certainly not a little girl like you."
By the time the presidential party reached Washington-Wilkes, these easy stages were over. But Davis's manner was the same. Johnston's surrender had unleashed the Federal cavalry. Gen. George Stoneman ordered them to pursue the president "to the ends of the earth." They were less than twenty miles away, and "the citizens were anxious" for Davis to make his escape, says an eyewitness, "But Mr. Davis had not the remotest idea of going.... In the morning he was in no greater haste to depart. He was informed that Mrs. Davis was awaiting him at Raytown, but he must speak to the ladies who had called. He was informed that his horse was at the door, but he had to kiss the little children that were present.... At last ... he walked in the most leisurely way down the front steps ... saying something appropriate to everyone that approached him." He took time to shake the hand of each man in his escort company, expecting to meet them later and "rally on Forrest."
If Davis seemed to be moving in a different time frame from others, it was partly because he was staggering from a heavy blow. General Duke had seen him "affable, dignified," "the very personification of high and undaunted courage," as he called his commanders to him at the Burt home in Abbeville to discuss the next move. "In a spirited and exceedingly eloquent speech [he] urged a continued prosecution of the war." But the cavalry leaders saw no hope of further resistance and said they were keeping their men together only to insure his escape.
Mr. Davis declared that he wished to hear no plan which had for its object, only his safety—that twenty-five hundred men brave men were enough to prolong the war, until the panic had passed away, and they would then be a nucleus for thousands more. He urged us to accept his views. We were silent, for we could not agree with him, and respected him too much to reply. He then said, bitterly, that he saw all hope was gone—that all the friends of the South were prepared to consent to her degradation. When he arose to leave the room, he had lost his erect bearing, his face was pale, and he faltered so much in his step that he was compelled to lean upon General Breckinridge. It was a sad sight to men who felt toward him as we did.
With "his whole soul" given to "the great end of Southern independence," says Duke, "an appearance of slackness ... seemed to arouse his indignation ... he at times exhibited some impatience and irascibility, but I never witnessed in any man a more entire abnegation of self." "I do not think he at all realized the situation."
He did realize it. He told Varina that he had seen men "uncontrollably resolved to go home.... panic has seized the country.' She had told him that no one would fight. At Charlotte he had asked his cabinet to assess the South's chances, and even Benjamin the optimist had said they were nil. Reagan alone said that if the armistice failed, "it will be our duty to continue the struggle as best we can ... better and more honorable to waste our lives and substance in [an unequal] contest than to yield both to the mercy of a remorseless conqueror." "A gentleman may risk destruction," said the chivalric code, "but not dishonor." Davis agreed; he had told his people how the "heroic devotion" of American Revolutionists made their reverses "but the crucible in which their patriotism was refined." To the cavalry leaders now, he held up the example of his hero, George Washington. Their desertion of the Cause shocked him so severely that he told Duke he failed "entirely to remember the conference at Abbeville."
Gen. Braxton Bragg, though in North Carolina, had not surrendered with Johnston but had caught up with the president's party. At the Abbeville conference, reports General Dibrell, Davis's astonishment over Bragg's "unauthorized" furloughing of two cavalry regiments "twice brought Genl. Bragg to his feet to explain his reasons for so doing." Yet Davis always insisted that Bragg was not there.
"I thought you were in error, in not acceding to our wishes [to escape the country]," Duke said later; "every Southern soldier would have exulted." He argued that it was not inconsistent with honor. Davis thought differently. In the United States Senate, he had voted against giving "the privileges of the floor" to the Hungarian leader Lajos Kossuth "because I did not believe a brave man or patriot would have abandoned his country with an army of 30,000 men in the field." Davis had a soldier's "stern sense of duty," which made him determined now "to do and dare to the last extremity." He was not alone. About half the cavalrymen wanted to go with him to the Trans-Mississippi and refused to surrender. Colonel Breckinridge was ready to command his escort, and some sixty of John Hunt Morgan's men, now under Duke, offered their services. But General Breckinridge finally convinced Davis to head for Texas with very few men. Still, the president refused to go by way of the Gulf of Mexico: "I shall not leave Confederate soil while a Confederate regiment is on it."
What got Davis finally to move fast was danger to his family. Mrs. Davis was not "awaiting him at Raytown." She was moving out of his way as rapidly as she could, "fearful that his uneasiness about our safety would cause him to keep near our train." She knew him well. He had written to her only two weeks before from Charlotte, in the throes of a "very painful" decision about whether to continue the fight:
I think my judgment is undisturbed by any pride of opinion, I have prayed to our Heavenly Father to give me wisdom and fortitude equal to the demands of the position in which Providence has placed me. I have sacrificed so much for the cause of the Confederacy that I can measure my ability to make any further sacrifice required, and am assured there is but one to which I am not equal—My wife and my Children.
Some fifty miles south of Washington-Wilkes, at Sandersville, Preston Johnston heard that Varina's wagon train, on a parallel road, was about to be attacked by a band of stragglers who wanted her horses and mules. Frank Lubbock advised him not to repeat the rumor to the president, saying "we had better not stop." But Johnston replied, "I know him better than you do. He would never forgive me.... He would say, `It was your duty to give me the facts, and let me decide the course I should take.'" As soon as he heard it, Davis changed direction. He said to his men, "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." Of course they all went.
Davis moved so swiftly on "his fine bay horse," Kentucky, that he soon wore out the mounts of the few cavalrymen with him and left them behind. When Burton Harrison, guarding Varina's camp by moonlight, cried out, "Halt! Who comes there?" and was "astonished" to hear the president's voice answer "Friends," there were only seven with Davis—Preston Johnston, Reagan, Lubbock, John T. Wood, Col. Charles E. Thorburn, "his negro boy," and Robert Brown, a favorite servant who had come out of Richmond with Davis.
It was near dawn of May 7, 1865. The rumored attack never came. The Davis parties traveled together all that day and night. On the eighth, after breakfast, "in deference to our earnest solicitations," says Harrison, the president, with his seven men and the escort, which had caught up, once again cut loose westward. They did not get far. Slowed by a driving rainstorm and made to double back by a flooded ford, they took shelter for the night a few miles ahead at the crossroads town of Abbeville, Georgia. Davis sent back a courier to tell Harrison to move on—Yankees were twenty-five miles away. Although he was sick with "dysentery and fever," Harrison managed to get in motion through the downpour his clumsy caravan of ambulance and wagons, loaded with women, children, and servants. As they passed this Abbeville, he went into the deserted house where his chief was and found him wrapped in a blanket on the bare floor. At Washington-Wilkes, Davis had taken to his bed in broad daylight, "almost as soon as he got into the house." He was "sick," says Johnston, "and a good deal exhausted, but was not the man to say anything about it." Mute witness to his illness is the fact that he, the most courteous of men, did not go out to see his wife, or even get up. He promised to follow when the horses were rested. Harrison pushed his caravan forward through dense woods, the lightning alone showing the way. Finally in "the midst of that storm and darkness, the President overtook us." During the next day, he took a little rest by riding with Varina in her ambulance. "He was still with us," says Harrison, "when, about five o'clock in the afternoon ... I halted my party for the night, immediately after crossing the little creek just north of Irwinsville and went into camp."
The aides were extremely unhappy about being entangled again with the slow wagon train. Davis promised to leave it "after taking tea with my family." But a new report reached camp that marauders intended to attack. Davis thought if they were ex-Confederates, they "would so far respect me as not to rob the encampment of my family. I[n] any event ... it was my duty to wait the issue."
There was still his other duty, to the Confederacy, which he now embodied more than ever and meant to preserve. Wood and Thorburn had a boat ready in Florida, yet once more he refused to "leave the soil of the Confederacy, as long as there was an organized command displaying its flag." He insisted on his "original plan"—"if Taylor and Forrest were still maintaining themselves in the field to join them" (they were even then surrendering) or to reach the Trans-Mississippi. The commander there, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, expected him. There was a rumor that Davis would lead his troops to Mexico, to help Maximilian, the French-supported emperor. (But Davis had only said privately that, if all else failed, "I can go to Mexico, and have the world from which to choose a location.") Davis had buoyed Smith in the "darkest hour" (July 1863): "May God guide and preserve you." After Appomattox, Smith was still exhorting his men to "sustain the holy cause," resist "invasion," and win "under the Providence of God ... final success," or at least "terms that a proud people can with honor accept." These aims were identical with those of his commander in chief.
"My horse was saddled to start," hitched near the road, "and my pistols were in their holsters," Davis says. "[I had on] my travelling dress, grey frock coat and trousers, the latter worn inside of heavy cavalry boots, on which remained a pair of conspicuous brass spurs of unusual size." "I lay down in my wife's tent with all my clothes on, to wait for the arrival of the marauders, but being weary fell into a deep sleep from which I was aroused by my coachman, James Jones, telling me that there was firing over the creek." Davis jumped up, thinking it was the marauders. (It was actually Union troopers firing at each other.) Stepping out of the tent, he saw horsemen deploying. "Though it was in the grey of morning their movement revealed more than sight could." As an old dragoon, he instantly recognized it and turned back to tell Varina that the United States cavalry was upon them. "She implored me to leave her at once. I hesitated, from unwillingness to do so, and lost a few precious moments.... My horse and arms were near the road ... down which the cavalry approached.... I was compelled to start in the opposite direction." Quickly he told James to bring Kentucky to the "fringe of wood skirting the stream towards which I was going."
As it was quite dark in the tent, I picked up what was supposed to be my "raglan," a water-proof, light overcoat, without sleeves; it was subsequently found to be my wife's, so very like my own as to be mistaken for it; as I started, my wife thoughtfully threw over my head and shoulders a shawl. I had gone perhaps fifteen or twenty yards when a trooper galloped up and ordered me to halt and surrender, to which I gave a defiant answer, and, dropping the shawl and raglan from my shoulders, advanced toward him; he leveled his carbine at me, but I expected, if he fired, he would miss me, and my intention was in that event to put my hand under his foot, tumble him off on the other side, spring into his saddle, and attempt to escape. My wife ... when she saw the soldier aim his carbine at me, ran forward and threw her arms around me. Success depended on instantaneous action, and, recognizing that the opportunity had been lost, I turned back, and, the morning being damp and chilly, passed on to a fire beyond the tent.
It was May 10, 1865. In the cold drizzle, Preston Johnston went to find him. He knew how Davis had meant to unhorse the trooper, "for he had taught me the trick." Davis said he would have done it, "but she caught me around the arms." Johnston tried to console him with the truth that "it would have been useless." "Mr. Davis was dressed as usual," he says, and "had on a knit woolen visor, which he always wore at night for neuralgia.... He complained of chilliness, and said they had taken away his `raglan.'" Having one "exactly similar ... I went to look for it, and ... he wore it afterwards. His own was not restored."
Nor were ever restored any of the things snatched away that May morning: Preston Johnston's gold or the cherished horse and saddle, pistols and holsters that had been his father's at Shiloh; the privately owned mounts so prized by the other Southerners; Varina's carriage horses, returned to her by anonymous buyers after she had had to sell them in Richmond. All the prisoners were `subjected to petty pillage," says Davis, "and to annoyances such as military gentlemen never commit or permit."
He thought "the auri sacra fames" had brought this on them. "The accursed thirst for gold" was certainly played upon by Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, commanding the federal military district. On May 6 he had offered a reward "IN GOLD" to anyone who would "apprehend and deliver JEFFERSON DAVIS," adding, "Several millions of specie, reported to be with him, will become the property of the captors." This reflected both a proclamation by President Andrew Johnson and an order from War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton "to intercept the rebel chiefs and their plunder," estimated fantastically at between six and thirteen million dollars. Wilson's notice had not overtaken Col. Benjamin D. Pritchard and his Fourth Michigan Cavalry, however. They thought they had captured the Confederate treasure train and at first did not even know the president was there.
They forced open Varina's trunks and strewed the campsite with a hoopskirt, children's clothes, Bibles, and Episcopal prayer books, looking for gold. Varina lost all of hers they could "ferret out and steal." The president had none. His last coin, a foreign gold piece, he had given away to a toddler whom he found named for him, at a farmhouse where he stopped for water. All he had left were Confederate bills, now worthless. Micajah Clark, in charge of specie, had forced some gold on Reagan for their use, but it was lost when his saddlebags were seized.
Lubbock says the captors "stole the watches, jewelry, money, clothing, &c. I believe I was the only one of the party not robbed." He was the reason for that. Reagan saw him struggling with two soldiers trying to get his horse and saddlebags and threatening to shoot him. He heard Lubbock say "that they might shoot and be damned, but that they should not rob him while he was alive and looking on. I had my revolver cocked, and in my hand," Reagan says, "waiting to see if the shooting was to begin." A major rode up, the troopers ran off, and Reagan, seeing the camp surrounded, gave up his revolver. Lubbock hung onto those saddlebags, gold and all, through his whole imprisonment, though he lost some other gold in his holsters when his horse was finally taken. "Freebooters," he called the Yankees. The officer in charge promised to return the stolen property, but he never did.
The auri sacra fames stood one man in good stead. John T. Wood offered a Federal trooper gold to look the other way and escaped into the woods. As a former naval raider commanding the Tallahassee, Wood was afraid that, without his government to protect him, the United States just might hang him for piracy. They had tried this with others early in the war and been thwarted by Davis's strong reaction. Wood's civilian chief, Mallory, was in fact arrested for "setting on foot piratical expeditions," and treated with especial severity, but not, in the end, hanged.
Wood invited Lubbock to escape with him, but Lubbock refused because of his pact with Reagan never to desert the chief. In fact, he rushed to Davis's defense with typical ardor. He found him by the campfire, looking "in all respects more the ideal hero than in the hours of his greatest prosperity." "The man and patriot, who a few days before was at the head of a government, was treated by his captors with uncalled for indignity.... A private stepped up to him rudely and said: `Well, Jeffy, how do you feel now?' I was so exasperated that I threatened to kill the fellow, and called upon the officers to protect their prisoner from insult." Lubbock was "completely unhinged" by this contemptuous treatment: "I cannot see how Mr. Davis could speak of Colonel Pritchard or his command with any degree of patience."
Jefferson Davis's patience had not yet been made perfect. Prisoner though he was, he told the soldiers with some heat that he would not stand for their "violent language to Mrs. Davis." He was "chafed by the annoyances and petty thefts," and Preston Johnston found him "in altercation" with Colonel Pritchard. Seeing his children's breakfast snatched away "was the thieving which provoked my angry language." He told Pritchard "their conduct was not that of gentlemen, but of ruffians"; the colonel merely replied "in an offensive manner" and walked off. For the most part, however, Davis held his usual air of quiet dignity, which people often mistook for haughtiness. Lubbock especially noticed this and reacted violently to the personal abuse precisely because Davis did not. Amidst the crying of the children, the howling of the servants, and Varina's "appeals," John Wood remarked that "the President was calm, his wife greatly excited."
Varina was in extreme distress over his capture, not least because she had been the immediate cause. She had preferred his capture to his death, which perhaps he had not. But the surprise attack had caught him without his pistols. Asked if he had weapons, he answered, "If I had, you would not be alive to ask that question." "Offensively declaring I would not surrender," he had advanced on the trooper. He knew this gave him the right to shoot but thought he could unhorse him, because in the Mexican War, a whole squadron armed with carbines had fired down on him, "and they all missed me." Varina, running to share the danger "in accordance with her heroic nature," had spoiled his plan. That was escape or death, not surrender: "I had not asked `for quarter.'" He was trapped and taken, meeting not "the violent death he expected to be his," but humiliation.
Because his humility is already great, Jefferson Davis is not undone by this turn. In the moment of catastrophe—the fall of his hope, of his country, of his civilization—he remains upright. In deep anguish, he still soothes with his serenity Varina's wilder grief. She "threw her arms around my neck, that of course ended any possibility for my escape, and I said to her God's will be done, and turned back with her to the tent." These words, echoing Christ's in Gethsemane, were not chance but a continual refrain. They had been his when his son died and would be his in the prison to come. Even to Congress, he had said in his last message, "Let us bow submissively to the Divine will."
This is the prayer of a humble man. It explains Davis's strange calm, even cheer, all the way from Richmond. He has refused to be hurried, moved more like a monarch than a fugitive, reminding one man of Robert the Bruce. At Greensboro, Mallory notes, with the fate of the country hanging, surrounded by an enemy "more powerful and exultant than ever," Davis, true to his "uniform habit," opens the cabinet meeting with light conversation. This is the more remarkable in that he is "not well" and is faced with two pretty open enemies of his, Generals J. E. Johnston and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. He has called them to assess the military situation after Lee's surrender, and everything they say is not what he wants to hear. Keeping his eyes on "a scrap of paper ... folding and re-folding [it] abstractedly," he listens "without a change of position or expression" to Johnston's opinion, "jerked out" in a "tone and manner almost spiteful": "our people are tired of war, feel themselves whipped, and will not fight." Beauregard agrees. Although Davis believes "we can whip the enemy yet," he replies to Johnston's armistice proposal, "without raising his eyes from the slip of paper between his fingers.... `Well, sir, you can adopt this course, though I confess I am not sanguine as to ultimate results.'" He even dictates, at Johnston's insistence, the galling note to Sherman. All with the utmost composure.
Between Greensboro and Charlotte, the humility of the president passes an amusing test where his party stops for the night. A servant, sent to show the most honored guest to a private room, picks out Gen. Samuel Cooper (the sixty-six-year-old adjutant and inspector general) instead of him. Davis never says a word. Harrison reports "his cheerfulness" in Charlotte, "and I remember his there saying to me, `I cannot feel like a beaten man!'" When they go to the Episcopal church, he tosses off "with a laugh" a sermon seeming "to fancy I had something to do with [Lincoln's] assassination" (a few days before). "The suggestion was preposterous," says Harrison; "No man ever carried on [war] ... with less of disturbance of the nicest sense of perfect rectitude ... his every utterance, act and sentiment was with the strictest regard for all the moralities," even while "passions" were making others "defiant" of them. Davis was actually made "very sad" by Lincoln's death: "I considered him a kind hearted man, and very much to be preferred by us to his successor Mr. Johnson."
Davis's trust in God has only one weak spot: anxiety for his wife and children. For himself, as Duke attests, he has none. Mallory recalls how he enjoyed stretching out under a tree with his head pillowed on his saddle, talking pleasantly "under the inspiration of a good cigar." Harrison thinks him "entirely unable to apprehend the danger of capture." But the clue to his "quietest possible manner" is dropped by a Baptist preacher. Speaking "words of cheer and consolation" in Washington-Wilkes, he hears Davis say, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." It is the reply of Job in affliction, total faith in total abandonment, the highest mystery.
In the camp near Irwinville, Colonel Pritchard received orders to proceed to the headquarters of General Wilson in Macon, Georgia. Immediately, Davis tried to get his wife's party released (again echoing the scene in Gethsemane, which he knew so well): "I suppose, sir, your orders are accomplished in arresting me. You can have no wish to interfere with women and children; and I beg they may be permitted to pursue their journey." The men, he argued, had already signed their paroles (guaranteeing the right to go home). But the colonel's order said every person had to go prisoner to Macon.
The president was put into the little covered-wagon ambulance with his family. An enemy account, which has many errors, says, "Mr. and Mrs. Davis were at times seen in tears. She read the Bible to him, and he regularly asked a blessing over their meals." The latter actions were indeed their habits. If, "exhausted and enfeebled" as he was, Davis did break down briefly in the overwhelming disaster, he was doubtless like the Southern soldier told of his child's death: "I took a good cry and gave her up to the Lord's will, I hope like a Christian ought to do." Varina says, "Only a firm belief in ... an omnipresent and merciful Providence upheld us at this time. and Mr. Davis did not lose heart."
It took the Michigan cavalry four days to move their prisoners the seventy-five miles north to Macon. On the second, Varina relates, "as we were about to get in the wagons, a man galloped into camp waving over his head a printed slip of paper."
It was Mr. Johnson's proclamation of a reward for Mr. Davis's capture as the accessory to Mr. Lincoln's assassination. I was much shocked, but Mr. Davis was quite unconcerned, and said, "The miserable scoundrel who issued that proclamation knew ... that it was false. Of course, such an accusation must fail at once; it may, however, render these people willing to assassinate me here." There was a perceptible change in the manner of the soldiers from this time, and the jibes and insults heaped upon us as they passed by, notwithstanding Colonel Pritchard's efforts to suppress the expression of their detestation, were hard to bear.
A regimental band "struck up `Old John Brown,' the boys putting in the words; `And we'll hang Jeff Davis on a sour-apple-tree,' with gusto,—which so affected him that he pulled down the curtain of his ambulance." But physical violence was not offered. "Within a short distance of Macon," Varina goes on, "we were halted and the soldiers drawn up in line on either side of the road. Our children crept close to their father, especially little Maggie, who put her arms about him and held him tightly, while from time to time he comforted her with tender words from the psalms of David, which he repeated as calmly and cheerfully as if he were surrounded by friends." The soldiers "expressed in words unfit for women's ears all that malice could suggest," showing "their belief in Mr. Davis's guilt."
It was only the beginning. Davis's optimistic "at once" came from his own sense of innocence. He had no way of knowing the fury engendered in the North by Lincoln's murder. The false accusation, bolstered by Johnson's offer of $100,000 for his capture, turned the fury on Davis. Without the least evidence of his guilt, journalists and preachers began to demand his death. Belief in the lie helped to bring upon him some rough treatment now and later, but he left it largely to others to dwell upon this. It is Varina who says, "of the horrors and sufferings on that journey it is difficult to speak."
In Macon, however, Davis remembers that as he entered Wilson's headquarters, the guard before the Lanier House "opened ranks, facing inward, and presented arms." He had met Wilson at West Point before the war. He found him "obliging" but was unable to get the paroled men released or any of the privately owned horses returned. "With the full expectation that it would be reported," he told Wilson that Andrew Johnson knew his accusation was false, "for he knows that I would a thousand times rather have Abraham Lincoln to deal with ... than to have him."
Varina tells of one bright moment at the hotel, when a black waiter slipped a bunch of flowers onto the supper tray. "With tears in his eyes he said, `I could not bear for you to eat without something pretty from the Confederates.' I have one of the roses yet, and if he has gone to his reward, feel sure that this kind act was counted him for righteousness."
Reagan heard they were to be kept in Macon and the president sent alone to Washington City (as the capital was called). He quickly asked to go with him, on the pleat that "Davis was much worn down." Wilson, not knowing of the Reagan-Lubbock pact, found this a strange request and warned of the danger. His promise to see about it was obviated when the whole party was ordered to Washington City. Wilson courteously gave Davis a choice of routes. He chose, especially on the children's account, the easier one by water, from Port Royal on the Atlantic. First, however, they would have to go to Augusta and take a steamboat down the Savannah River. On the cars (the train), the Davises met other prisoners, such as Lt. Gen. Joseph Wheeler of the Confederate cavalry and their old friends Clement and Virginia Clay.
The Clays had "refugeed" to Sterling Hall, the mansion of Confederate Sen. Benjamin Harvey Hill, at LaGrange, Georgia, near the Alabama border. In March, Hill had come here to tell Georgians for the president that defiance alone could save them from dishonorable terms. Also there were the Stephen Mallorys and Senators Thomas J. Semmes and Louis Trezevant Wigfall with their wives. Clay had been about to strike out with Wigfall for the Trans-Mississippi when Virginia arrived from town with Johnson's proclamation naming Clay along with Davis as an instigator of Lincoln's murder and putting a price on his head. Everyone rushed upstairs. There was Clay, Virginia relates, "sitting quietly, deep in the conning of a thick volume. It was Burton's `Anatomy of Melancholy,' ever a favourite with him. It lay open on his knee," while one hand "was stroking his beard, absent-mindedly." As the towering Senator Hill read out the accusation, Semmes cried, "'Fly for your life, Clay!' ... 'Fly?' he said, slowly ... 'from what?' Mr. Semmes's answer came drily. `From death, I fear!' ... I begged him hysterically to fly; I would join him anywhere if he would but escape. But my ever patient husband only answered ... 'Virginia! my wife! Would you have me fly like an assassin? As I am conscious of my innocence, my judgment is that I should at once surrender.'" Virginia felt he was signing "his own death warrant," but he wired General Wilson, and they started for Macon. As they passed through "pandemonium" in Atlanta, they heard on the cars that Davis was captured. "'If that is true,' said Clay, `my surrender was a mistake. We shall both perish!'" The mistake became apparent in Macon. Clay's voluntary surrender was called his "arrest." He and Virginia were sent to the cars with the prisoners.
At the depot, Virginia saw the Davises coming under cavalry guard in a barouche, with "Miss Howell, the Davis little ones and nurses" in "a carryall" behind them. "Mr. Davis was dressed in a full suit of Confederate grey, including the hat, but his face was yet more ashen than was his garb." There were hoots of derision. "One heartless Union soldier ... [called out] `Hey, Johnny Reb.... we've got your President!' `And the devil's got yours!' was the swift reply."
The Davises were put on the train first. Virginia recalled that when she entered, "Mr. Davis rose and embraced me. `This is a sad meeting, Jennie!' he said." "I became aware that the car had filled up with soldiers," she goes on, "I heard the doors slam, and the command, `Order arms!' and in the dull thud of their muskets as the butts struck the floor, I realized for the first time that we were indeed prisoners, and of the nation!"
"Dawn found us haggard and ill," she says; "only the children slept." The foul air in the car, and other discomforts, made the trip "most trying to our invalids, of whom there now were three—Mr. Davis, Mr. Clay, and our venerable Vice-President, Mr. Stephens." Virginia Clay was mistaken. Alexander Hamilton Stephens had indeed been arrested at his home near Crawfordville, Georgia, on May 11, but he was not on this train. He had specifically asked to travel on a different one to avoid meeting Davis. This little man, of frail body and weighty mind, had been a center of civil discontent in the late Confederate States. He held secession to be "wrong," possibly "fatal," and he said, "[I] exerted my utmost power to prevent it." He managed to avoid Davis in Augusta, when the prisoners were transferred to the riverboat. Here the street was "thronged with ladies, all weeping bitterly," so that "even the President's Yankee guard seemed touched," said a witness, who was "glad some were there to testify that the feeling of the South is still with our fallen President and to shame with their tears the insulting cries of his persecutors."
Stephens had to sleep on the deck of the "wretched little craft" on the Savannah River and was unable to hide when Davis came out the next morning. Although "I could but deeply sympathize with him," Stephens said, "I deplored the ruin which, I think, his acts helped to bring upon the whole country, as well as on himself." Davis's salutation was "not unfriendly, but ... far from cordial." There were other reasons for reticence. Davis "suffered intensely during the trip from pain in his eye (for years a chronic disability)," and all night the ladies had been bathing "his temples with cologne in vain attempts to lessen his tortures."
At 4 A.M. on May 16, 1865, the steamboat reached Savannah, and the prisoners took a "coast steamer" to Hilton Head, where they boarded the William P. Clyde for the trip to Washington. In the midst of his own woes, Davis typically cared for others. At Macon, he had tried to give Harrison, whose horse had been taken, a ride in his carriage, only to be forbidden. Now Jim Limber was on his mind. "He was about seven years old," observes Aleck Stephens, "and little Jeff's playfellow; they were always together." Varina says Capt. Charles Y. Hudson "intended to take our poor little negro protégé as his own, and solicitude for the child troubled us more than Hudson's insults." Now at Port Royal harbor, when "a tug came out to us, bringing a number of jeering people to see Mr. Davis ... we learned that our old friend, General Saxton, was there." They asked him "to look after ... Jim's education," to save him from Hudson's "degrading influence." Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, "Inspector of Plantations and Settlements" (of freedmen on confiscated Sea Island estates) agreed to take the boy, and he was handed over to officers on the tugboat. When Jim realized he was to leave the Davises, "he fought like a little tiger." Stephens says he "screamed" and "had to be held to prevent his jumping overboard," and "at this, Jeff and Maggie and Billy screamed almost as loudly." Ellen and Varina wept. "Mrs. Clay threw Jimmy some money." He paid no attention "but kept on scuffling to get loose; he was wailing as long as he could be ... seen by us."
As the Clyde pushed into the Atlantic, the Tuscarora followed, its guns bearing `directly upon us, day and night." Mrs. Clay's "pocket-diary" tells why: fear "of the Stonewall or Shenandoah" (one an ironclad already surrendered, the other a raider in the Pacific or Indian Ocean). Davis called Virginia's attention to the fact that all the ship's axes were gone "from their usual positions.... `Cowards!' he said, `They're afraid of this handful of Confederate men!"
"Little Joe" Wheeler had in fact devised, on the riverboat, a plan to seize the guns of the guard and take over, but Davis would not allow it. His "fine sense of honor and propriety" made him refuse another Wheeler plan of escape. "Mr. Davis' noble courage never forsook him for a moment; he was perfectly calm and seemed to have no regard for himself or his fate." Wheeler thought he enjoyed "having a few days which he could so entirely devote to his family. He walked the deck with his baby, Winnie, in his arms, and frequently allowed me the same privilege."
It was not pure enjoyment. With Margaret and the two nursemaids all sick, Varina had the care of three invalids and four children on her hands. Davis was doing what he could to help, though coming down himself with malaria. He was restless and depressed, Virginia Clay says, but still called their attention to the beauty of sea and sky.
The Clyde finally dropped anchor in Hampton Roads, under the guns of the strongest bastion on the east coast. Pritchard found he was not to take his prisoners to Washington after all. President Davis was not regarded as a head of state. Neither the Constitution, nor the intent of the founding fathers, nor the usage of years since had convinced those in power in the North of a state's right to secede. Southerners were merely rebels and their head, the "rebel chief." On him must fall the chief punishment for "the Southern rebellion."
The Great Criminal is in our hands, what crime shall be laid to his charge? Guilty of treason, guilty of perjury, guilty of barbarity, guilty of murder—such is the indictment against Jefferson Davis.... If the Government shall not hang Jefferson Davis, then let it never hang another man while the world stands.
Like this Northern editor, framing his indictment as a verdict, Joseph Holt, the judge advocate general of the United States Army, had condemned the Confederate leaders in April as "Iscariots of the human race": "May God in His eternal justice forbid that there should ever be shown mercy and forbearance." This was the man who had prepared the case for the United States military commission, now sitting, against the associates of Lincoln's presumed assassin, John Wilkes Booth. It was Holt who had named Jefferson Davis a coconspirator. Lubbock says this charge was "so preposterous to those of us who knew him that we were at a loss to account for its having been made until we became more fully acquainted with the blind rage that possessed the Northern people." With all this hanging over him, Davis "showed not the slightest trepidation, but reviewed the situation as calmly as if he had no personal interest in it," writes Wheeler.
With Fortress Monroe looming ahead, Lubbock remembered his vow: "Mr. Davis did me the honor to request ... that I should be permitted to share his prison with him. This was promptly refused." He and Wheeler and Preston Johnston were soon shipped off to Fort Delaware, on Delaware Bay, where Lubbock found that solitary confinement in an absolutely bare cell "tested my strength very severely." Reagan too was forced apart from Davis, remanded, with Alexander Stephens, to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. At their parting, "Mr. Davis requested me to read often the 26th Psalm ["Be thou my judge, O Lord, for I have walked innocently"]. He said it gave him consolation to read it." The remembrance of this scene moved the bluff Tennessean to add: "I loved him as I have never loved any other man."
Aleck Stephens had no love for Davis at all, but they had had a "friendly talk" and had perforce taken their meals together, where the president "bows his head and asks a blessing, but not audibly." "On my taking leave of Mr. Davis, he seemed more affected than I had ever seen him. He said nothing but good-bye, and gave my hand a cordial squeeze." Both must have known their danger: "If Jeff Davis and those who acted with him ... do not deserve to be hung," said the Boston Congregationalist, "then surely `the magistrate will bear the sword in vain.'"
One by one, the Confederates were sent away, "we knew not whither." Varina saw Jeffy D. go over the side with a "cheery smile" (taken to Fort McHenry at Baltimore). The other young men of her party were "all incarcerated, in disregard of the protection promised when they surrendered," says Davis. Burton Harrison was dispatched to Old Capitol Prison in Washington City, then switched to the Arsenal, where those accused of Lincoln's murder were confined. He ended up at Fort Delaware in solitary confinement.
At last only the Davises, their children, Margaret Howell, and the Clays were left on the Clyde. The maid and nurse, persuaded by the captors, had deserted. But Robert Brown remained faithful. Although newspapers depicted him as "happy to get rid of you and indifferent at parting," Varina wrote to Davis later, he was "entirely willing to be imprisoned with you." She quoted Robert: "He gave me charge of his family, and was too manly to make a scene, and I would not expose him and myself by showing what I suffered."
The two casemates being converted into cells were at last ready. On May 22, in "a sultry, drizzling rain," Virginia Clay recalls, Clement came to their cabin "shortly after breakfast," saying, "There is no longer any doubt 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." Varina describes the Davises' response: "Our little Jeff ran to us pale with horror, and sobbed out, `They say they have come for father, beg them to let us go with him.' Mr. Davis went forward, and returned with an officer, saying, `It is true, I must go at once.'" There was no one "to whom I could say that he was quite ill; indeed suffering from fever." On deck, in their last embrace, he "whispered, `No matter what proof is adduced by the North, remember that my dying testimony was to you that I had nothing to do with assassination.... Try not to weep, they will gloat over your grief,' and the desire to lessen his anguish enabled me to bid farewell quietly."
This is the moment when Varina, looking down on them in the boat, sees her husband among the "German and other foreign soldiers" as "a man of another and higher race." The superiority she sees is not national—their Episcopal priest in Richmond, Dr. Charles Frederick Ernest Minnigerode, is also a German. The distinction is in her phrase "knightly bearing."
|VI.||Plantation and Politics||111|
|VIII.||United States Senator||159|
|IX.||Victory in Defeat||184|
|X.||War Department Days||202|
|XI.||Struggles for Health and the South||225|
|XIII.||The Chief Executive||292|
|XIV.||Commander in Chief||317|
|XV.||The Year of Our Lord 1863||344|
|XVIII.||An Unseen Hand||434|
|Appendix A||J. E. Johnston to J. Davis, on Rank||577|
|Appendix B||Proclamations by Davis for Days of Prayer||582|
|Appendix C||Devotional Material Used by Davis in Prison||584|
|Preface to the Note||587|