May 3, 1865 (Wednesday)
The night previous found Jefferson Davis, what was left of his Cabinet, quite a load of gold, and about five brigades of cavalry in Abbeville, South Carolina. They all had set out from the town at midnight. Among their number were two Confederate agents, John Headley and Robert Martin, Texans, who had operated out of Canada for much of the war before utterly failing in their plot to burn down New York City.
Since setting out just before the surrender of Joe Johnston, Davis had dreams of continuing the war west of the Mississippi. But with the surrender of Robert Taylor in Alabama, such an idea grew less and less likely. All of the officers will Davis insisted that the war was over and he must somehow escape to Mexico.
It was John Breckinridge who discovered the operatives and suggested to them that they might serve as Davis’ guards.
“We were both at first disposed to go,” wrote Headley after the war, “simply for the feature of romance that would attach to the journey and to have the prestige of guiding our chieftain safely to his place of exile.”
This prospect, however, soon dimmed.
But the more we discussed the trip the weaker our inclination grew. It occurred to us upon calm reflection that ours had been a long and perilous career and that on such a journey it might be necessary to risk our lives again to protect Mr. Davis. It did not appear that we had ever had anything at stake in the war except our love of the South and the gratification of a spirit of adventure. And now that our cause was lost we ought not to assume a perilous service when so many others who were at least our equals were going directly home to Texas, and we believed could and would conduct Mr. Davis safely to Mexico. However, we concluded to do a reasonable part, if our suggestions were agreeable.
It was our idea to have Mr. Davis take one companion of his own selection and we would escort him as far as Talladega, Alabama. We would set out from Abbeville with him that night and cross the Savannah River about sunrise, at the ferry on the route to Athens, Georgia, traveling at night when we thought it advisable, and reach the hilly country or the terminal ranges of the Cumberland Mountains west of Atlanta within three days and nights.
Meanwhile, the troops here should proceed across into Georgia, and to Washington or Augusta, so as to attract’ all pursuing columns in that direction and surrender at the first opportunity. We would select two Texans from Duke’s brigade, of whom Captain Helm would be one, to follow on with the brigade and be paroled at the first opportunity, proceeding then openly by the most direct route to Talladega County, Alabama, to await our arrival.
It was reasonable to believe that all Federal columns would hurry southward to apprehend the fleeing officials of the Government, and we would cross Georgia north of them and go between Atlanta and Marietta.
They told their plan to Breckinridge, who in turn explained it to Davis. On this, he had to think, and their answer would not come for a few days.
There was, of course, much to worry about. By dawn, the column reached the Savannah River to cross into Georgia. And here, Secretary of the Treasury John Reagan takes up the telling:
We crossed the Savannah River, very early in the morning, en route for Washington, Georgia, and were informed that Federal cavalry was at that place. After crossing the river we stopped at a farmhouse and got breakfast and had our horses fed. There Secretary Benjamin, who could not comfortably ride horseback, parted from us.
With a traveling companion he set out in a wheeled carriage. He told me that only the President and his Cabinet knew his purpose, and that he did not want it made public. I inquired of him where he was going. “To the farthest place from the United States,” he announced with emphasis, “if it takes me to the middle of China.” He had his trunk in the carriage with his initials, J. P. B., plainly marked on it. I inquired whether that might not betray him. “No,” he replied, “there is a Frenchman traveling in the Southern States who has the same initials, and I can speak broken English like a Frenchman.” He made his way to London, England.
But this was not all. John Breckinridge was slowly realizing that his men were about to mutiny. They were tired. The war for them was over. And what’s more, they had not been paid. Many had already discarded their arms and wished to wander off in search of Yankees so they might surrender. Still others threatened to steal the $275,000 in gold that was being transported along with Davis – the entirety of the Confederate treasury.
This bounty was under the responsibility of Breckinridge. The last thing he wanted was a fire fight between his own Confederate veterans. “You’re Southern gentlemen,” he was to have said to the 1,000 or so who were threatening violence, “not highway robbers. On a hundred battlefields you have shown that you know how to face death like brave men. Now, in these dark times, you must show that you can also live honorably.”
His promise to pay them as soon as they reached Washington, Georgia did little to quell them. Finally, unable to satisfy the, he stopped the column and began to pay them immediately.
Each man nearby reportedly received $26 in gold, though it’s likely that it was not so fairly distributed.
“They were impatient,” wrote one of Davis’ staff after the war, “and helped themselves as soon as they discovered where to get it. They result was an inequitable distribution – many got too much, many got nothing, and ‘dust hunters’ picked up a good deal the following day – a good deal that was trampled under foot during the contemptible scramble.”
The other troops in the column were paid as well. Basil Duke, commanding a brigade, claimed that his men were paid $32 each, solider and officer alike.
That night, Breckinridge, who was overseeing the rear of the column, wrote to Davis at the front. ” “Nothing can be done with the bulk of this command,” read his letter. “It has been with difficulty that anything has been kept in shape. I am having the silver paid to the troops and will, in any event, save the gold and have it brought forward in the morning, when I hope Judge Reagan will take it. Many of the men have thrown away their arms. Most of them have resolved to remain there under Vaughn and Dibrell and will make terms. A few hundred men will move on and may be depended on for the object we spoke of yesterday [escape to Mexico].”
The Presidential party and what was left of everything else would wander into Washington, Georgia the following day. Once there, Davis would have to make a decision.1
- Sources: “Last Days of the Confederacy” by Basil Duke, as appearing in Battles & Leaders, Vol. 4, Part 2; Confederate Operations in Canada and New York by John W. Headley; Memoirs by John Henninger Reagan; A Long Shadow by Michael B. Ballard; The Long Surrender by Burke Davis. [↩]