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The trials and trial of Jefferson Davis.

A paper read by Charles M. Blackford, of the Lynchburg Bar, before the Tenth annual meeting of the Virginia State Bar Association, held at old Point Comfort, Va., July 17-19, 1900.

Mr. President, Gentlemen of the Virginia State Bar Association, Ladies and Gentlemen.

In the spring of 1865, the States and armies of the Southern Confederacy yielded to the overwhelming numbers of their adversaries and the failure of their own resources. The result was the surrender of a people whose constancy and whose heroic struggle had won the applause and admiration of the world, and will, in the far future, be the common boast of every American citizen.

Of the States which thus yielded to fate, President Jefferson Davis had been the representative and executive head. When the armies which had maintained his government were successively dissolved he was left defenceless. He was nearly sixty years of age, in feeble [46] health, and much worn with the mighty cares and anxieties which had rested upon him for four years.

On the 16th of April, 1865, as soon as he found that Johnston must surrender, he started with resolute will from Greensboroa, N. C., with his family, staff, and some of his cabinet; his avowed object being to join the Confederate forces west of the Mississippi river.

His party was too large for the success of such an undertaking. He was tracked easily by Federal troopers, who, scattered over the States through which his line of march lay, were on the lookout for him; with what intent may be inferred from an order issued by command of General R. H. G. Minty, by F. W. Scott, Captain and Acting Assistant Adjutant-General. It was dated near Macon, Ga., on the 8th of May, 1865, and was addressed to Lieut.-Colonel H. N. Howland, commanding a brigade. The order says:

“You will have every port and ferry on the Ochmulgee and Altamaha rivers, from Hawkinsville to the Ohoopee river, well guarded, and make every effort to capture or kill Jefferson Davis, the rebel ex-President, who is supposed to be endeavoring to cross the Ochmulgee, south of Macon.” (104 War of Rebellion, 665.)

On the 8th of May, Brevet Major-General J. H. Wilson wrote General Upton:

“The President of the United States has issued his proclamation announcing that the Bureau of Military Justice has reported, upon indisputable evidence, that Jefferson Davis, Clement C. Clay, Jacob Thompson, George N. Sanders, Beverley Tucker, and W. C. Cleary, incited and concerted the assassination of Mr. Lincoln, and the attempted assassination of Mr. Seward. He, therefore, offers for the arrest of Davis, Clay, and Thompson $100,000 each; for Sanders and Tucker, $25,000 each; and for Cleary, $10,000. Publish this in hand-bills, circulate everywhere, and urge the greatest possible activity in the pursuit.” (104 War of Rebellion, 665.)

On the next day the same headquarters informs General McCook of these rewards—adding that a reward of $10,000 was also offered for ‘Extra Billy Smith, Rebel Governor of Virginia.’ (104 War of the Rebellion, 683 ) This reward was subsequently increased to $25,000. A very moderate sum for so gallant a gentleman.

General Wilson also wrote General Steedman: [47]

Everything is on the lookout for J. D. His cavalry is dissolved, and he is a fugitive, but in what direction is not known.

(104 War of the Rebellion, p. 666.)

On the 11th of May, 1865, Lieut.-Colonel B. D. Pritchard, commanding the Fourth Michigan Cavalry, reported that at daylight on the 10th, at Irwinville, Ga., about seventy-five miles from Macon, he had captured Mr. Davis with his family, his wife's sister and brother, Mr. Reagan, his Postmaster-General, Mr. Burton N. Harrison, his private secretary, Colonel William Preston Johnston, and Colonel Lubbock, of his staff, and Lieutenant Hathaway; together with five wagons and three ambulances. Colonel Pritchard merely announced the fact, and though he had a whole day to hear the gossip of the memorable occasion, he made no reference to the false report that Mr. Davis was caught in the endeavor to escape in his wife's clothes.

That story was made up by a newspaper correspondent, but circulation was given to it by Major-General J. H. Wilson, who, in his official report to Mr. Stanton, the Secretary of War, on the 14th of May, makes the statement, saying he derived it from ‘the captors.’ Colonel Pritchard, however, makes no such statement in his published official report and correspondence.

Mr James H. Parker, of Elburnville, Pa., who was one of the squad who arrested Mr. Davis, and the first to recognize him, published in the Portland (Maine) Argus, while Davis was still in confinement, a full denial of the whole story. He says that some newspaper correspondent fabricated it, and that it was regarded merely as a joke in the command. He writes:

She (Mrs. Davis) behaved like a lady, and he as a gentleman, though manifestly he was chagrined at being taken into custody. Our soldiers behaved like gentlemen, as they were, and our officers like honorable, brave men, and the foolish stories that went the newspaper rounds were all false. * * * I defy anybody to find a single officer or soldier who was present at the capture of Jefferson Davis, who will say, upon honor, that he was disguised in woman's clothes, or that his wife acted in any way unladylike and undignified on the occasion.

Mr. T. H. Peabody, a lawyer of St. Louis, and one of the captors, in a speech made before a Grand Army Post, a few days after Mr. Davis' death, also denied the whole story.

The Secretary of War, however, rolled the statement under his [48] tongue as a sweet morsel, and, on the 14th of May, wrote gleefully to the Rev. R. J. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, that ‘Jefferson Davis was caught three days ago in Georgia trying to escape in his wife's clothes.’(121 War of Rebellion, p. 555.) On the 23d of May, Mr. C. A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, ordered General Miles to direct Colonel Pritchard to bring with him ‘the woman's dress in which Jefferson Davis was captured.’ (Id., p. 569.)

After his capture, Mr. Davis was sent to Savannah. Thence he was carried to Fortress Monroe in the steamer Clyde, under a heavy guard, commanded by Colonel Pritchard. The steamer was convoyed by the United States steam sloop of war Tuscarora.


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