What Happened to Jefferson Davis After the Civil War? He Tried to Flee to Mexico in a Dress

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When the end came, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sat in his usual bank at St. Pauls Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia on April 2, 1865. A messenger interrupted Sunday service to send a sealed telegram from General Robert E. Lee, who then defended about 40 kilometers south of Petersburg. "I advise that all preparations are made to leave Richmond tonight," Lee said shortly.
For nearly a year, Lee's army in Northern Virginia had fought off three Union armies under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, but the Federals had finally broken through in Five Forks the day before. Lee had no choice but to leave Petersburg and run west from the capital as Union troops threatened his main supply and withdrawal lines. Richmond was doomed to fail. As President, Davis's job suddenly had become to defeat the Confederation more skillfully than he had ever led in victory.
Escape with the CSA Treasury
After Davis, educated at West Point, commanded the 1st Mississippi Regiment in the Mexican War, he introduced himself as a military expert. He had wished to serve the Confederation not as president but as commander-in-chief of their armies, and had tried to run the nation as a military operation. Autocratic governance, however, had proven ineffective in a nation based on the rights of states. The southern governors mostly went their own way, sending or holding troops at their discretion and printing their own money. Inflation was close to 6,000 percent and the Confederation had $ 700 million in debt. There had been food riots in Richmond, and city matrones had been reduced to serving river water at "hunger balls." On the war front, Davis had enlisted slaves in Confederate armies with a promise of freedom for those who fought, but the southern troops were still outnumbered 10 to 1. When Lee surrendered, it was up to Davis to go on alone.
"I went to my office," Davis recalled, "and gathered the department and office managers, as far as they could be found on a day when all offices were closed, and gave the necessary instructions for our move that night General Lee's withdrawal from Petersburg. "Every department head should ensure that important documents and records were packaged and ready for use and the rest were destroyed. Remnants of cotton and tobacco were to be burned. The remaining treasury of around $ 500,000 in gold nuggets, double-headed eagles, silver bars and Mexican coins should go in the government would go to Danville on the North Carolina border at eight o'clock that evening. Anything that wasn't on board would be left behind. The meeting was made up by the rumble of cannon fire in the distance interrupted.
Davis hurried home to the Confederate White House in Clay and 12th Street to do his personal affairs. The house was largely empty. "Given the dwindling resources of the country on which the Army of North Virginia was based, I had asked for politics to send families as far south and west as possible," Davis wrote, "and set the example I have to go. "On Wednesday, he had put his wife Varina and their children on a train to Charlotte, North Carolina, given her a revolver, and instructed her on loading and shooting." If I live, you can come to me when the fight ends is, "he said," but I don't expect to survive the destruction of constitutional freedom. "When he put it on the train, his daughter Maggie hugged his leg and his son Jeff burst into tears and asked to join his father Varina thought that her husband had appeared, "as if he were going to take his last look at us."
Davis had auctioned the family horses, silver, and valuables for $ 28,400. He sent the check to Confederate Treasurer John Hendren to the Bank of Richmond. Hendren returned with news that the bank would not cash it, even if it was presented by the Confederation Treasurer on behalf of its president. The banks were full of customers asking for their deposits, even when officials were stacking millions of worthless paper notes to burn. In the meantime, bank employees insisted on sending junior executives to oversee guarding the treasury, half of which was legally owned by them.
The last train from Richmond
At dusk, Davis went to the train station through a city that quickly sank into chaos. Frank Lawley, correspondent for the London Times, said: "During the long afternoon and during the feverish night on horseback, in every description of carts, wagons and vehicles, in every hurried train that left the city, on canal ships, ships and boats, the exodus of civil servants and prominent citizens was not interrupted. "
Alcohol was poured into the gutters to deny that the intruder was instead exhausted by hooligans and hooligans when taverns and salons were emptied and crowds gathered on the streets. Supply houses and depots were opened to the citizens who had been too long refused. "The most outrageous revelation," wrote Maj. Gen. George Pickett's wife LaSalle, "was the amount of food, shoes, and clothing that speculators had accumulated that hovered like vultures over the place of death and devastation." They took advantage of their possessions of money and lack of patriotism and humanity and, through an early corner of the market and through successful blockade, had procured all available supplies with a view to future profits, while our soldiers and women and children were absolutely in rags, barefoot and hungry . “The mood of the crowd soon turned ugly.
The scene at the train station was little better. The last trains from the city were angry on the route. The troops tried to control the refugees who blocked the platform, the inside and the top of the cars, freight cars, freight cars and even the locomotives. The treasure gold had been packed and loaded and guarded by 60 naval academy cadets. Davis quietly waited for a last minute break from Lee in Petersburg. Nobody came. Finally, the president got on at 11 p.m. and the trains went to Danville.
Richmond quickly became anarchy after the government disappeared. The city's last garrison retreated early in the morning. Crowds of crazy citizens, deserters and criminals who had just fled the state prison became mobs of drunken rioters and looters. Government camp fires spread throughout the city, interrupted by explosions of ammunition magazines and iron armor that sank on the riverbank and blew out windows two miles away. At dawn, a third of the city, including the entire business district, burned.
Continue the war
Plans to continue the war took shape along the 140-mile route to Danville. "The draft," Davis wrote, "as previously agreed with General Lee, was that if he was forced to evacuate Petersburg, he would go to Danville, build a new line of the Dan and Roanoke rivers, and combine his army with that should." Troops of [General Joseph E.] Johnston in North Carolina, and make a combined attack on [Maj. Gene. William T.] Sherman. "
Parts of Richmond were on fire at 9 a.m. on Tuesday when Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad, who turned 12 that day, disembarked on the river bank. They walked the two miles or so to the Confederate White House, accompanied by only a handful of senior officers and almost instantly a crowd of ex-slave exultants. "[Lincoln] walked the streets as if he were just a private individual and not the head of a powerful nation," reported the Boston Journal. "He didn't come as a conqueror, not with bitterness in his heart, but with kindness." In the presidential mansion, Lincoln was shown the office that Davis had vacated 40 hours earlier. Colonel Thomas Thatcher Graves recalled, "When he sat down, he remarked:" This must have been President Davis' chair. "Cross-legged, he looked far away with a serious, dreamy expression."
Davis didn't know about it in Danville. Telegraph lines from the north had been cut off. It was only on Saturday that the President learned that Lee was trapped near Appomattox, and on Monday when news of his surrender came. Davis didn't think for a moment about following the example of his commanding general. "Certainly better conditions for our country could be ensured by keeping organized armies on the ground," he wrote, "than by laying down our arms and trusting in the magnanimity of the victor." He informed Johnston of the change in plans. With Lee from the war, he said, they would be in Greensboro, North Carolina, the headquarters of General P.G.T. Beauregard. There was no time to waste. Union riders are reportedly already approaching. When the rails to Greensboro were cut, everything was over for Davis and his party.
"A miss is as good as a mile"
The scene at Danville station was more desperate than in Richmond. Ten cars were not enough to house everyone who wanted to escape. Two more cars were added due to protests by train personnel, which had proven to be correct when their old locomotive blew up a cylinder just a few kilometers outside the city. The government sat defenseless on the line until another engine could be started. Their flight was so narrow that the Union cavalry burned a railroad bridge shortly after the train passed over it. With so little cheering, Davis smiled when he heard the news. "A failure is as good as a mile," he joked.
Behind them, Dansville followed Richmond. Two troops left behind to maintain order and protect business were not up to the task. "Our children and we are starving," cried a woman at the head of a mob, "the Confederation has risen; let us help ourselves." The troops gave in and the looting began, at least until a nearby ammunition train caught fire and exploded and 50 killed, and when they thought the federal forces were attacking, the rioters dispersed in panic.
The citizens of Greensboro, long a stronghold of Union sympathy, were not looking forward to sharing the same fate as Richmond and Danville. No crowd greeted the presidential procession. The low level of compassion and interest that the fugitive officials received was mainly related to the interest in the treasure that is known to be on the train. A guard colonel recalled, "It has been reported that we have many millions of gold with us."
Davis' strategy meeting on April 13
Most of the officers didn't even bother to get on board, but set up living quarters on board the train. National affairs were brought out of a dilapidated, leaky "cabinet car". The Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, recalled that issues of state sovereignty and secession were less important than "more pressing and practical issues of dinner or not eating, and how, when and where to have them, and plans and means to do so to allow dinner six-foot man to sleep on a four-foot car seat. “For his new White House, Davis took a 12 by 16 foot boarding house room with a single bed, a table and a chair, where he called a strategy meeting on Thursday morning, April 13th.
Reports from Beauregard and Johnston were not encouraging. Mobile had fallen; Raleigh was about to surrender; Sherman was only 50 miles from Greensboro. Johnston estimated that he could deploy approximately 25,000 soldiers. Grant and Sherman, on the other hand, had about 350,000 under arms. However, Davis continued to plan to attract new conscripts and deserters to the flag. "An army that maintains its position with determination to fight and the obvious ability to maintain the fight will attract all the airborne soldiers and gain strength quickly every day," he said.
His generals, to put it mildly, thought Davis was wrong. Neither Beauregard nor Johnston had particularly valued Davis. Johnston, in particular, was still resentful of the president for releasing him from command in Atlanta in 1864. "I have shown that in such circumstances it would be the greatest human crime for us to try to continue the war," recalled Johnston, since we have no money, credit or weapons, only those in the hands of our soldiers and ammunition , but those in their cartridge cases, still in shops to repair weapons or to repair ammunition, the effect of our field keeping would not harm the enemy, but to complete the devastation of our country and the demise of its people. I have therefore urged that the President immediately exercise the only governmental function still in his possession and start peace negotiations. "
Beauregard, who had ordered the first shots of the war fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and who frequently clashed with Davis because of the military strategy, was not on his side now. "I agree with everything General Johnston said," admitted the New Orleans native. Most of the cabinet too. "I gave in to the judgment of my constitutional advisers, only one of whom expressed my views," Davis recalled, "and agreed to allow General Johnston the way he wished to hold a conference with General Sherman."
To Charlotte by horse
The next morning, April 14, Lincoln convened his own cabinet meeting in Washington, including General Grant. The main issue concerned the fate of the Confederate leaders. "All of the gentlemen present felt that, for reasons of general friendship and goodwill, it was desirable to conduct as little trial as possible," one official recalled. "But would it be wise to leave the leaders of the betrayal completely unpunished?"
Another asked, "I assume, Mr. President, you would not be sorry if you escaped the country?" "Well, I shouldn't be sorry to have them out of the country," joked Lincoln, "but I should follow them pretty closely to make sure they go."
It hadn't gotten any easier in Greensboro. Since the Union forces had interrupted the railway line south to Charlotte, the Davis Party could only continue on horseback. State coffers were split, leaving Beauregard with $ 39,000 in silver and loading $ 288,000 with most government records and papers on wagons. After the recent rain turned the streets into mud, an artillery unit was put into service to handle the cars. Cavalry units from Tennessee and Kentucky, a total of about 1,300 riders, were used as companions. The Confederate government disappeared into the country.
"North and South are naturally very curious to see what happened to Jefferson Davis," said the Richmond Evening Whig, "the head of the greatest rebellion the world has seen." And a South Carolina newspaper admitted, "We want to let our readers know where these gentlemen [Davis and the Cabinet] are and what they are doing, but we cannot." "We still honor and trust him and believe that when we put him in the presidential chair, he will still prove to be what we thought he was."
"You will suffer for it"
Only on Wednesday did the presidential party finally appear in Charlotte. By then, Varina and the children had already gone to Abbeville, South Carolina. Johnston and Sherman had reached an agreement that had been sent to Washington for approval. Only then did Davis learn that the final approval of the terms would not come from Lincoln. A messenger sent a telegram: “President Lincoln was murdered in the theater on the night of the 14th inst. Secretary Seward's house was entered the same night and he was repeatedly stabbed and is likely to be mortally wounded. "
Conspiracy-seeking and vengeful Unionists have repeatedly accused Davis of giving their orders to the assassins, and when they heard of their mixed success, they misquoted Macbeth: "If it were to be done, it would be better it would be done well." More sympathetic witnesses said he was really shocked by the news. "I have no particular regard for Mr. Lincoln," said Davis, "but there are many men I would have preferred to hear about the end of than to him." I fear that it will be catastrophic for our people and I deeply regret it. "
During their time in Congress together, Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson, a war democrat, Southern Unionist and former slave owner, had associated Davis with what he despised as the "illegitimate, boastful, bastard, scrubbing aristocracy" of the South. As late as the afternoon of the assassination, Johnson had advised Lincoln not to be lenient with rebels and traitors. And as a target of the assassination attempt (his murderer George Atzerodt had lost his nerve and got drunk instead), Johnson had gotten away from Lincoln's deathbed and swore, "You will suffer for it."
The handover of Joseph E. Johnston
At Lincoln's request, Sherman had offered Johnston conditions even more generously than Grant Lee had offered, but not only to achieve military surrender. The mission was nothing less than the final dissolution of the Confederation. It was in the air. "I doubted that the agreement would be ratified by the United States government," wrote Davis. "The opinion I have of President Johnson and his toxic war minister [Edwin] Stanton made me expect them to be less vindictive after our army's surrender was proposed than when it was viewed as one impressive body that defiantly holds its position on the field. "
As expected, Johnson declined the contract at Stanton's advice. Johnston should surrender unconditionally, otherwise the armistice would expire in 48 hours. Without further consultation with Davis, Johnston agreed to the terms and signed not only his troops in North Carolina but also those in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana - basically all Confederate forces east of Mississippi except Davis and his government. the delivery of which was not the subject of negotiations. But on the contrary. Stanton had telegraphed his generals, who carried the rebel chiefs with $ 13 million of gold plunder that would go to anyone who arrested them.
Meanwhile, Davis had written to his wife: “I have sacrificed so much for the Confederacy cause that I can measure my ability to make any further sacrifices that are required. It may be that a devoted gang of cavalrymen clings to me and I can squeeze over the Mississippi, and if nothing can be done there that is appropriate, I can go to Mexico and have the world you are made of Can choose location. "
Varina replied from Abbeville. "No position can be taken on the Trans-Mississippi in this country," she wrote. "I doubt things will be clear at first, but the spirit is there." She did not intend to wait for the mercy of the north, but to flee to England via Florida and Bermuda or the Bahamas, where she could leave her eldest children in school and meet with her husband in Texas.
Major General Wade Hampton believed that Johnston had surrendered his authority to surrender and that "it would be far better for us to fight to the extreme ends of our country than to rebuild the Union under any conditions". About five brigades, about 3,000 fighters, agreed. They made Davis the military commander of the largest Confederate army east of the Mississippi. "I can't feel like a battered man," he said.
"Travel like a president and not like a refugee"
When the presidential party left Charlotte on April 26 and entered South Carolina, they found it was slow. Their progress was hampered by the benevolent crowds that scattered flowers on their way. Sherman's march through central Georgia, then up the Carolina coast, had never penetrated this area of ​​the country. These Southerners, unfamiliar with their neighbors' horrors, had nothing but admiration for Davis during his retreat. "Some of the commands thought we were driving too slowly," Davis admitted, without a doubt, reliving the optimistic days of 1860, when the Confederation had rejected any attempt by the Union to subdue it, and ultimate independence seemed possible her president had led a noble uprising against oppression.
Public veneration has done nothing to encourage some of his war-weary troops. "His cabinet is all against him, since there is no point in resisting when there is hardly a respectable bodyguard to be found anywhere in the South to protect himself," grumbled Confederate soldier John Dooley. "Mr. Davis believes that people further south will resurrect and thousands will flock to his standard. Poor President, he doesn't want to see what everyone around him sees. He can't make himself believe that we're after four years of glorious struggle to be crushed in the dust of submission. "
But Cavalry Commander Brig. General Basil W. Duke saw what his sore troops did not do: that Davis "traveled like a president and not like a refugee". In the last weeks of April 1865, Davis had developed from a controversial, often ridiculed politician to a supreme symbol of Confederate resistance. By refusing to give up, he kept the southern nation alive, at least temporarily.
"Everything is indeed lost"
Elsewhere it continued to wither. His relative, Lieutenant General Richard Taylor, the brother of Davis' long-dead first wife, had begun negotiations to surrender the Confederate forces in Alabama, Mississippi, and eastern Louisiana. The land route to Texas was cut off. The Confederate Treasury had reached Augusta before its military escort learned of Johnston's surrender. They brought it back to Abbeville on the Georgia border, where it was hidden in a freight car at the train station. Davis called a definitive war council there: "It is time for us to adopt a concrete plan to continue the pursuit of our struggle," he said. "Three thousand brave men are enough for a nucleus around which the whole people will gather when the panic that affects them is gone."
Duke remembered the meeting. "We looked at each other in amazement and with a little bit of anxiety," he recalled, "because we hardly knew how to express ourselves diametrically against those he had said." They told Davis that continuing the war would be "a cruel injustice to the people of the South." Davis asked why, if they felt that way, they'd gotten this far with him. Duke remembered, "We replied that we wanted to give him the opportunity to escape the worsening of the capture. We would ask our men to follow us until his security is assured, risking them in battle for this purpose, but not firing another shot to continue the hostilities. “Davis hadn't fled for his personal safety, but because he saw it as his patriotic duty. Now he finally saw that the Confederation was dead. Those in the room remembered that he turned pale and didn't shiver for a moment. Then he said, "Everything is indeed lost."
He left the meeting. In his absence, his commanders and cabinet members developed the means to disband the Confederation. Remaining archives and records should be abandoned or destroyed. The troops could vote on whether to continue marching or disband. They were already selling their uniforms and weapons as souvenirs on the streets of the city. It would only be a matter of time before they eagerly looked at the government's gold. The treasure car was kept under armed guard, not against Union attacks, but against looting by its Confederates. It was decided to get both the President and the Treasury out of the city.
With Davis at the helm, the caravan started at 11:00 p.m. and at dawn the president and his escort crossed the Savannah River to Georgia. The troops guarding the treasury, however, sensed that the money would soon be in the hands of the Union. Before going any further, they demanded their share on the spot. Because they weren't far from mutiny and looted themselves, Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge paid $ 108,000, a total of $ 26.25 each. "Nothing can be done with most of this order," he wrote Davis. “Many of the men threw their arms away. From almost four thousand men present, one could count on a few hundred. I have received threats to confiscate the entire amount, but I hope the security guard is sufficient. "
12 hours before the union
At around noon on May 3, Davis and his group rode to Washington, Georgia, a small town of 2,200 people whose only war experience was the recent influx of lice-infested former Confederate troops. One resident put it this way: “The foot of a federal soldier had never entered our streets. We were a little remote village in a farming country where the needs and deprivations of war for food had never penetrated. “The irony of reaching the end of the confederation in a city called Washington was not lost on anyone.
While the President and his party were taking much-needed food and rest, Breckinridge spent the day appeasing the river troops, many of whom threw their weapons away and went to surrender. Davis appointed Captain Micajah Clark Acting Confederate Treasurer and sent him to final government money: $ 230,000 to Richmond bankers; $ 86,000 hidden in a false carriage floor on the way to Charleston and from there to the Confederate government account at London banks; and $ 30,000 to cover Davis' escape.
Varina had left a note to her husband: "I'm afraid the Yankees are getting so much news from you, they are the country's only hope, and the very best of intentions don't count on a page on [Mississippi]. Why not yours? Cut off the escort? Go quickly and alone, except for two or three. God save you, my old and only love. "
His cavalry was "not strong enough to fight and too big to survive without observation," Davis wrote back. "I can no longer rely on them in case we encounter the enemy. I therefore decided to dissolve them and try to escape. We will cross the Mississippi and join [General] Kirby Smith where we can continue the war forever. “The idea of ​​reviving the south in the west was perhaps not that far-fetched. It would take a few more decades for the federal forces to subdue enemy Plains Indians, many of whom had been in common with the Confederation. How they might have fared against 40,000 Confederates is an open question.
As a distraction, Davis sent Breckinridge away with most of the remaining cavalry. Former naval officer Colonel Charles Thorburn mapped a route to the east coast of Florida, where he had hidden a boat on the Indian River. From there, Davis could sail around the peninsula and across the Gulf of Mexico to Texas. Davis drove out with only 10 selected men, a car and two ambulances. The Union cavalry rode into town 12 hours behind them.
In a few days, Davis closed within 20 miles of Varina's party, only to learn that a group of former Confederate looters was on their trail.

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