Chapter 64: capture of President Davis, as written by himself.
After the expiration of the armistice I rode out of Charlotte, attended by all but two members of my cabinet, my personal staff, and the cavalry that had been concentrated from different fields of detached service.
The number was about two thousand.
They represented five brigade organizations.
Though so much reduced in number, they were in a good state of efficiency, and among their officers were some of the best in our service.
After two halts of half a day each, we reached the Savannah River.
I crossed early in the morning of May 4th, with a company which had been detailed as my escort, and rode some miles to a farmhouse, where I halted to get breakfast and have our horses fed. Here I learned that a regiment of the enemy was moving upon Washington, Ga., which was one of our depots of supplies, and I sent back a courier with a pencil-note addressed to General Vaughan, or the officer commanding the advance,
requesting him to come on and join me immediately.
After waiting a considerable time I determined to move on with my escort, trusting that we should arrive in Washington in time to rally the citizens to its defence.
When I reached there scouts were sent out on different roads, and my conclusion was that we had had a false alarm.
The Secretary of State, Mr. Benjamin, being unaccustomed to travelling on horseback, parted from me at the house where we stopped to breakfast, to take another mode of conveyance and a different route from that which I was pursuing, with intent to join me in the trans-Mississippi Department.
At Washington the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Mallory, left me to place his family in safety.
The Secretary of War, Mr. Breckinridge, had remained with the cavalry at the crossing of the Savannah River.
During the night after my arrival in Washington he sent in an application for authority to draw from the treasure, under the protection of the troops, enough to make to them a partial payment.
I authorized the acting Secretary of the Treasury to meet the requisition by the use of the silver coin in the train.
When the next day passed without the troops coming forward, I wrote to the Secretary of War to deprecate longer delay, having heard that General
Upton had passed within a few miles of the town, on his way to Augusta to receive the surrender of the garrison and military material at that place, in conformity with orders issued by General Johnston.
This was my first positive information of his surrender.
Not receiving an immediate reply to the note addressed to General Breckinridge, I explained to Captain Campbell, of Kentucky, commanding my escort, that his company was not strong enough to fight, and too large to pass without observation, asked him to inquire if there were ten men who would volunteer to go with me without question wherever I should choose.
He brought back for answer that the whole company volunteered on the terms proposed.
I was gratified, but felt to accept the offer would expose them to unnecessary hazard, and told him, in any manner he might think best, to form a party of ten men. With these ten men and five of my personal staff, I left Washington.
Secretary Reagan remained for a short time to transfer to Mr. Semple and Mr. Tidball the treasure in his hands, except a few thousand dollars. Mr. Reagan overtook me in a few hours.
I saw no more of General Breckinridge, but learned subsequently that he followed our route to overtake me, but heard of my capture, and, turned to the east and reached the
Florida coast unmolested.
On the way he met J. Taylor Wood, and, in an open boat they crossed the straits to the West Indies.
The cavalry command left at the Savannah River was paroled, on the condition of returning home and remaining unmolested, and the troops inclined to accept those terms.
Had General Johnston obeyed the order sent to him from Charlotte, and moved on the route selected by himself, with all his cavalry, so much of the infantry as could be mounted, and the light artillery, he could not have been successfully pursued by General Sherman.
His force, united to that I had assembled at Charlotte, would have been sufficient to vanquish any troops which the enemy had between us and the Mississippi River.
Had the cavalry with which I left Charlotte been associated with a force large enough to inspire hope for the future, instead of being discouraged by the surrender of their rear, it would probably have gone on, and, when united with the forces of Maury, Forrest, and Taylor, in Alabama and Mississippi, have constituted an army large enough to attract stragglers, and revive the drooping spirits of the country.
In the worst view of the case it should have been able to cross to the trans-Mississippi Department, and, there uniting with the armies of E. K. Smith and Magruder,
to form an army which, in the portion of that country abounding in supplies and deficient in rivers and railroads, could have continued the war until our enemy, foiled in the purpose of subjugation, should have agreed, on the basis of a return to the Union, to acknowledge the constitutional rights of the States, and by a convention, or quasi-treaty, to guarantee security of person and property.
To this hope I clung, and if our independence could not be achieved, so much, at least, I trusted might be gained.
Those who have endured the horrors of “ reconstruction,” who have, under “ carpet-bag rule,” borne insult, robbery, and imprisonment without legal warrant, can appreciate the value of even such a limited measure of success.
When I left Washington, Ga., my object was to go to the south far enough to pass points occupied by Federal troops, and then turn to the west, cross the Chattahoochie, and meet the forces still supposed to be in the field in Alabama.
If there should be no prospect of a successful resistance east of the Mississippi, I intended to cross to the trans-Mississippi Department, where I believed Generals E. K. Smith and Magruder would continue to uphold our cause.
After leaving Washington I overtook a commissary and quartermaster's train, having
public papers of value in charge, and finding that they had no experienced woodman with it, I gave them four of the men of my party, and went on with the rest.
On the second or third day after leaving Washington I heard that a band of marauders, supposed to be stragglers and deserters from both armies, were in pursuit of my family, whom I had not seen since they left Richmond, but who, I heard at Washington, had gone with my private secretary and seven paroled men, who generously offered their services as an escort, to the Florida coast.
I immediately changed direction and rode rapidly east across the country to overtake them.
About nightfall the horses of my escort gave out, but I pressed on with Secretary Reagan and my personal staff.
It was a bright moonlight night; and just before day, as the moon was sinking below the tree tops, I met a party of men in the road, who answered my questions by saying they belonged to an Alabama regiment; that they were coming from a village not far off, on their way homeward.
Upon inquiry being made, they told me they had passed an encampment of wagons, with women and children, and asked me if we belonged to that party.
Upon being answered in the affirmative, they took their leave.
After a short time, I was hailed by a voice
which I recognized as that of my private secretary, Burton N. Harrison, who informed me that the marauders had been hanging around the camp, and that he and others were on post around it, and were expecting an assault as soon as the moon went down.
A silly story had got abroad that it was a treasure train, and the auri sacrafames had probably instigated these marauders, as it subsequently stimulated General J. H. Wilson to send out a large cavalry force to capture the same train.
I travelled with my family two or three days, when, believing that they were out of the region of marauders, I determined to leave their encampment at nightfall to execute my original purpose.
My horse and those of my party were saddled preparatory to a start, when one of my staff, who had ridden into the neighboring village, returned and told me that he had heard that a marauding party intended to attack the camp that night.
This decided me to wait long enough to see whether there was any truth in the rumor, which I supposed would be ascertained in a few hours.1 My horse remained saddled
and my pistols in the holsters, and. I lay down fully dressed to rest.
Nothing occurred to rouse me until just before dawn, when my coachman, a free colored man who clung to our fortunes, came and told me there was firing over the branch, just behind our encampment.
I stepped out of my wife's tent and saw some horsemen, whom I immediately recognized as cavalry, deploying around the encampment.
I turned back and told my wife these were not the expected marauders, but regular troopers.2 She implored me to leave her at once.
I hesitated, from unwillingness to do so, and lost a few precious moments before yielding to her importunity.
My horse and arms were near the road on which I expected to leave, and down which the cavalry approached; it was therefore impracticable for me to reach them.
As it was quite dark in the tent, I picked up what was supposed to be my “raglan,” a waterproof 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 levelled 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, who had been watching, 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.
Our pursuers had taken different roads, and approached our camp from opposite directions; they encountered each other and commenced firing, both supposing that they had met our armed escort, and some casualties resulted from their conflict with an imaginary body of Confederate troops.
During the confusion, while attention was concentrated upon myself, except by those who were engaged in pillage, one of my aides, Colonel J. Taylor Wood, with Lieutenant Barnwell, walked off unobserved.
His daring on the sea made him an object of special hostility to the Federal Government, and he properly availed himself
of the possible means of escape.
Colonel Pritchard went over to their battle-field, and I did not see him for a long time, surely more than an hour after my capture.
He subsequently claimed credit, in a conversation with me, for the forbearance shown by his men in not shooting me when I refused to surrender.
Many falsehoods have been uttered in regard to my capture, which have been exposed in publications by persons there present-by Secretary Reagan, by the members of my personal staff, and by the colored coachman, Jim Jones, which must have been convincing to all who desired to know the truth.
We were, when prisoners, subjected to petty pillage, as described in the publications referred to, and in others; and to annoyances such as military gentlemen never commit or permit.
At this time quick firing was heard on the side of the swamp.
We afterward learned that two Federal companies of our pursuers had met in the gray of the morning, and each had mistaken the other for Confederate troops.
While the camp was being plundered, which was done with great celerity, there was a shriek dreadful to hear, and our servants told us it came from a poor creature who, in prying up the lid of a trunk with his loaded musket, shot off his own hand.
Out of this trunk the
hooped skirt was procured, which had never been worn but which they purported to have removed from Mr. Davis's person.
No hooped skirt could have been worn on our journey, even by me, without great inconvenience, and I had none with me except the new one in the trunk.
I have long since ceased to combat falsehood when it has been uttered and scattered broadcast, a much less distance than this one has been borne upon the wings of hate and vilification, and I now rest the case, though, could the tortures wantonly inflicted when he was a helpless prisoner, have been averted from my husband by any disguise, I should gladly have tried to persuade him to assume it; and who shall say the stratagem would not have been legitimate?
I would have availed myself of a Scotch cap and cloak, or any other expedient to avert from him the awful consequences of his capture.
When we had travelled back a day's drive, as we were about to get in the wagons, a man galloped into camp waving over his head a printed slip of paper.
One of our servants told us it was Mr. Johnson
's proclamation of a reward for Mr. Davis
's capture as the accessory to Mr. Lincoln
I was much shocked, but Mr. Davis
was quite unconcerned, and said, “The miserable scoundrel
who issued that proclamation knew better than these men 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.
Bitterest among these was an officer named Hudson
He informed me he intended to take our poor little negro protege as his own, and solicitude for the child troubled us more than Hudson
Within a short distance of Macon
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.
It is needless to say that as the men stood at ease, they expressed in words unfit for women's ears all that malice could suggest.
In about an hour, Colonel Pritchard
returned, and with him came a brigade, who testified their belief in Mr, Davis
's guilt in the same manner.
Men may be forgiven, who, actuated by prejudice, exhibit bitterness in the first hours of their triumph; but what excuse can be offered for one who in cold blood, deliberately organizes tortures to be inflicted, and superintends for over a year their application to the quivering form of an emaciated, exhausted, helpless prisoner, who, the whole South
proudly remembers, though reduced to death's door, unto the end neither recanted his faith, fawned upon his persecutor, nor pleaded for mercy.3
described his entrance into captivity as follows:
When we reached Macon, I was conducted to the hotel where General Wilson had his quarters.
A strong guard was in front of the entrance, and when I passed in it opened ranks, facing inward and presented arms.
A commodious room was assigned to myself and family.4 After dinner I had an interview with General Wilson.
After some conversation in regard to our common acquaintance,
he referred to the proclamation offering a reward for my capture.
I supposed that any insignificant remark of mine would be reported to his Government, and feared that another opportunity to give my opinion of A. Johnson might not be presented, and told him there was one man in the United States who knew that proclamation to be false.
He remarked that my expression indicated a particular person.
I answered yes, and that person was the one who signed it, for he at least knew that I preferred Lincoln to himself.
Having several small children, one of them an infant, I expressed a preference for the easier route by water, supposing then, as he seemed to do, that I was to go to Washington City.
He manifested a courteous, obliging temper.
My preference as to the route was accorded.5 I told him that some of the men with me were on parole, that they were riding their own horses-private property-and I hoped they would be permitted to retain them.
I have a distinct recollection that he promised me it should be done, but have since learned that their horses were taken; and some who were on parole, viz., Major
Moran, Captain Moody, Lieutenant Hathaway, Midshipman Howell, and Private Messec, who had not violated their obligation of parole, but were voluntarily travelling with my family to protect them from marauders, were prisoners of war, and all incarcerated in disregard of the protection promised when they surrendered.
At Augusta we were put on a steamer, and there met Vice-President Stephens, Honorable C. C. Clay, General Wheeler, the distinguished cavalry officer, and his adjutant, General Ralls.
Burton N. Harrison, though they would not allow him to go in the carriage with me, resolved to follow my fortunes, as well from sentiment as from the hope of being useful.
His fidelity was rewarded by a long and rigorous imprisonment.
At Port Royal6 we
were transferred to a sea-going vessel, which instead of being sent to Washington City, anchored at Hampton Roads.