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, Varina Davis to Montgomery Blair describing the capture of her husband, Jefferson Davis, June 6, 1865. (pp. 13-20). (Blair Family Papers). Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. Manuscript Division
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.
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 note accompanying Varina Davis letter of June 6, 1865. Janice E. Ruth and John R. Sellers, Manuscript Division.Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. Manuscript Division
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.
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.
History of American Abolitionism…Together with a History of the southern Confederacy, by F. G. De Fontaine; New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1861. African-American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
- Search on Jefferson Davis in Detroit Publishing Company to find more photographs associated with Davis’s life.
- Search Today in History on the terms Confederacy, Confederate, or Civil War to find more related features.
- The Time Line of the Civil War, a Special Presentation in the collection of Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints, provides an overview of the sequence of events during the war.
- View a photograph of the location of Jefferson Davis’s capture by Union Soldiers on May 10, 1865, in the collection Farm Security Administraion/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.
- To learn more about Jefferson Davis, visit The Papers of Jefferson Davis External. A variety of Davis’s speeches and letters are available online through the efforts of this documentary editing project from Rice University.