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Today in History - May 10

Jefferson Davis Captured!

On May 10, 1865, Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis near Irwinville, Georgia. Davis and his Cabinet had retreated from Richmond after General Lee’s defeat at Petersburg on April 2, 1865. For several weeks the Confederate government had been in flight from the Union Army. Davis’ plan was to escape by sea from the east coast of Florida and to sail to Texas where he hoped to establish a new Confederacy.

Just before day the enemy charged our camp yelling like demons. Mr. Davis received timely warning of their approach…He started down to the little stream hoping to meet his servant with his horse and arms…Knowing he would be recognized I plead with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof wrap which had often served him…for a dressing gown and which I hoped might so cover his person that in the grey of the morning he would not be recognized. As he strode off I threw over his head a little black shawl which was around my own shoulders, seeing that he could not find his hat…When he had proceeded a few yards the guards around our tents with a shocking oath called out to know who that was. I said it was my mother…

Letter from Varina Davis to Montgomery Blair (pages 13-20) describing the capture of her husband, Jefferson Davis, June 6, 1865. Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years

En route, the Cabinet disbanded, taking payment from the gold of the Treasury. With rumors spreading among the Southern troops of the defeat of the Confederacy, the Davises were in hourly anticipation of attack by marauding Confederate soldiers in search of treasure. When the Union soldiers charged their camp, Jefferson Davis mistook them at first for the expected marauders.

Jeff. Davis Caught At Last. Hoop Skirts & Southern Chivalry (detail), Philadelphia, J. L. Magee, 1865. An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera

A version of Jefferson Davis’s capture by Union cavalry. The title at the top of the cartoon reads, “The only true Picture of the Capture of Jeff. Davis, from the account furnished by Col. Prichard of the 4th Mich. Cavalry.” Davis says, “I think the United States Government could find something better to do than be hunting down Women and children.”

Jeff’s Double Quick. The Last Groans of the Confederacy: “Jeff’s War Hoops” (detail), Sheet music cover, 1865. Prints & Photographs Division

A comic version of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ ignominious capture by Union troops in May 1865. Davis, clad as a woman and holding a wooden pail, is discovered by a lone trooper, Benjamin Dudley Pritchard of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry. The soldier lifts the skirts of the fugitive to reveal a pair of black boots. Davis’s wife (at right) protests, saying, “Only my mother.”

When apprehended by the Union soldiers, Davis was wearing his wife’s dark gray cloak and black shawl. The Union soldiers reported that he was attempting to escape in the disguise of a woman. Responding to accusations of her husband’s cowardice, First Lady Varina Davis attempted to offer a justification for Davis’ apparent disguise in a letter to Montgomery Blair, an old friend and postmaster general in the Lincoln administration:

Although one of Davis’s own aides was persuaded his chief had indeed disguised himself as a woman to abet his escape, First Lady Varina Howell Davis…was incensed at accusations of her husband’s cowardice in the Northern press. Her letter to the powerful Montgomery Blair…a friend of earlier years and postmaster general under President Abraham Lincoln…, provides a firsthand, detailed account of her husband’s capture. Readers must decide for themselves whether the sequence of events was entirely coincidental or the efforts were calculated to deceive…

Descriptive essay accompanying Varina Davis letter, Janice E. Ruth and John R. Sellers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years

Fort Monroe, Virginia, where Jefferson Davis was imprisoned, circa 1910-1920. Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Davis and his family were put on board ship, along with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, and taken by sea to Fort Monroe, Virginia. On May 22, Davis was taken ashore and placed in the prison, in shackles, into solitary confinement. He was indicted on the charge of treason but was never tried, and was released two years later, in May 1867.

Davis, who had opposed secession in spite of his belief in states’ rights, was chosen president of the Confederacy soon after Mississippi left the Union. His first act in office was to send a commission of Southerners to Washington to negotiate terms of peace, but President Lincoln refused to see them. Throughout the Civil War, Davis contended with inflation, scarce resources, an argumentative Confederate Congress, and an undermanned and ill-equipped army.

Jefferson Davis (detail), [President of the Confederate States of America], Brady National Photographic Art Gallery, Washington, D.C. Civil War Photograph Album. Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years

In a history of abolitionism published in 1861, F. G. De Fontaine described President Jefferson Davis:

Personally, he is the last man who would be selected as a “fire-eater.” He is a prim, smooth looking man, with a precise manner, a stiff, soldierly carriage and an austerity that is at first forbidding. He has naturally, however, a genial temper, companionable qualities and a disposition that endears him to all by whom he may be surrounded. As a speaker he is clear, forcible and argumentative; his voice is clear and firm, without tremor, and he is one in every way fitted for the distinguished post to which he has been called.

F. G. Fontaine, History of American Abolitionism…Together with a History of the southern Confederacy, 1861. African-American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907

Beauvoir, Home of Jefferson Davis, Biloxi, Mississippi, copyright 1901. Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 Davis retired to this small Gulf Coast estate in 1877 and spent his last years there.

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“Wedding of the Rails”

Officials and workers of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railways held a ceremony on Promontory Summit, in Utah Territory—approximately thirty-five miles away from Promontory Point, the site where the rails were joined—to drive in the Golden Spike on May 10, 1869. The spike symbolized completion of the first transcontinental railroad, an event that connected the nation from coast to coast and reduced a journey of four months or more to just one week.

Ceremony at “wedding of the rails,” May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, Unidentified photographer, May 10, 1869. Prints & Photographs Division

The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, generated the first maps and reports to describe the topography of the trails and passages that led from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Congress recognized the importance of such topographical studies to westward expansion and organized a Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1838. In the 1850s the Senate ordered that ten thousand copies be printed of topographical reports and surveys called the Pacific Railroad Route Reports, including one by John Charles Frémont, a member of the Corps. It was clear to expansionists such as Senator Thomas Hart Benton (Frémont’s father-in-law) that both pioneers and railroaders would rely on such topographical reports to transverse the continent and to accomplish what so many believed was the nation’s Manifest Destiny—unity from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It also became increasingly clear to Congressional leaders that in the event of a Civil War between the North and the South, whichever side had the best transportation system and access to the West would hold a great military advantage.

Among the great topographical studies of the nineteenth century were those undertaken by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads. Men such as Grenville Dodge and Peter Dey, chief engineers for the Union Pacific, and Theodore Judah and Samuel Montegue, Chief Engineers for the Central Pacific, plotted railroad lines which were soon laid across prairie and desert, and blasted straight through mountains. It is a measure of their engineering skills that today, the well traveled east-west motor highway, Interstate 80, closely follows much of the path charted in the 1860s by engineers of the first transcontinental railway.

Map of the Union Pacific Rail Road and Surveys of 1864, 65, 66, 67, 1868 from Missouri River to Humboldt Wells, G. M. Dodge, Chief Engineer, 1869. Railroad Maps, 1828-1900
New Map of the Union Pacific Railway, the Short, Quick and Safe Line to All Points West, Rand McNally and Company, 1883. Railroad Maps, 1828-1900

The Central Pacific Railroad began construction eastward from Sacramento, California, and the Union Pacific Railroad began construction westward from Omaha, Nebraska. The majority of the track was built by Irish laborers from the East, Chinese who entered the country from the West, veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies, and Mormons who wished to see the railroad pass through Ogden and Salt Lake City. (The Mormon leader Brigham Young became a member of the Board of Directors of the Union Pacific). The men worked for an average of between one and three dollars a day. Between 1865 and 1869 the Union Pacific laid 1,086 miles of track; the Central Pacific laid 689 miles of track.

Map of the Central Part of California, and Part of Nevada [Showing the Current and Proposed Central Pacific Line]. Bielawski, Hoffmann & Poett, compilers and publishers, 1865. Railroad Maps, 1828-1900

The years immediately following the construction of the transcontinental railroad were years of astounding growth for the United States. Between 1860 and 1890 the miles of railroad track interlacing the U.S. increased ninefold—from 30,000 miles to 270,000 miles, and the population leapt from 31,000,000 persons to over 76,000,000 people; many were recent immigrants.

My folks came to the United States from Sweden in 1866; landed in New York, then came to Omaha. When they got to Omaha they had $5.00 in American money, no job, and couldn’t speak a word of English….Then they both got work on the new Union Pacific railroad from Omaha to Laramie City. Father worked on the road and mother cooked and washed for twenty-two men, for nine months; when they got back to Omaha they had $900.00 saved up.

Mrs. Will H. Berger” November 21, 1938. Interviewer, Edna B Pearson. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

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