‘And the Devil’s Got Yours’ – Jeff Davis’ Ride to Savannah

May 15, 1865 (Monday)

It had taken most of four days for Jefferson Davis and his family, along with most associated with his party when captured, to make their way under guard to Macon, Georgia. They had arrived on the 13th and left the day following.

Shortly before arriving in Macon, John Reagan, the last Secretary of the Confederate Treasury (and the last remaining of Davis’ Cabinet) accused Col. Benjamin Pritchard, who had been in charge of their capture, of stealing his saddlebags and clothes. Reagan related an incredibly irritating and pompous exchange in his memoirs:

Varina Davis
Varina Davis

On the morning of the day we arrived at Macon, while I and the President’s staff were taking an humble breakfast, sitting on the ground, Colonel Pritchard came by where we were, and I said to him that I understood we were to reach Macon that morning, that I had not changed my clothing for some time, and requested some clothes which I had in my saddle bags, taken from me when we were captured.

“We have not got your saddle bags,” he answered me.

“I am sorry to hear you say that, Colonel,” I retorted; “for I know you have them.”

He asked me how I knew that.

“Because your officers told me of your examining their contents the night after our capture,” I answered; “and named correctly what was in them.”

With some temper he questioned, “Who told you so?”

“Your officers.”

“What officers?”

“Since you question the fact,” I said, “I will not put them in your power by giving their names.” Then I added, “It does not look well for a colonel of cavalry in the United States Army to steal clothes.”

“Sir,” he said, “I will put you in irons.”

“You have the power to do so,” I replied, “but it will not make you a gentleman or a man of truth.”

He walked off as if intending to execute his threat, but I heard no more of it.

Somehow or another, the party managed to continue on. Varina Davis recalled in her own memoirs the next halt:

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.

Jefferson Davis himself now continues the story:

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.f 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.

James Wilson
James Wilson

In a letter written that evening, the aforementioned General James Wilson penned a letter describing the exchange:

The party reached here at 2 p.m. this afternoon, took dinner at my headquarters and after dinner I received Mr. Davis in my quarters. Our conversation was mostly about West Point, the army, the surrender of Dick Taylor, the assassination of Mr. Lincoln and the journey North. During the conversation he brought in his little son Jeff and introduced him.

Mr. Davis seemed quite cheerful and talkative, but in his whole demeanor showed no dignity or great fortitude. He remarked with a smile that he thought the U. S. would find graver charges against him than the murder of Mr. Lincoln, and seemed to regret that Mr. L. had been killed. He has asked no favors, but Mrs. D. insinuates once in a while that the ‘President’ is not treated with becoming dignity. Upon one occasion she said to Colonel Pritchard that she noticed that whenever the ‘President’ went out the guard had their guns cocked. Whereupon Colonel P. told her the guns were not cocked, only half cocked, but his men had orders to shoot Mr. Davis if he made any attempt to escape and would certainly execute the order.

John Reagan, as well, recalled the meeting in his memoirs, giving us a third version:

After dinner I learned that orders had been received to send to Washington President Davis and Senator Clay, who had voluntarily surrendered after President Johnson’s proclamation implicating him in the assassination of President Lincoln; and that I and the others with us were to remain at Macon. I called on General Wilson and inquired as to the correctness of this report, and received an affirmative answer.

I thereupon observed that President Davis was much worn down, and that, as I was the only member of his political family with him, I might be of some service to him, and requested to have the order so changed as to send me on with him. He asked me if I was aware that this might involve me in danger. I told him I had considered that; that we had entered the contest together, and that I was willing to end it with him, whatever that end might be. He observed that mine was a queer request, but that he would ask that it be granted. In two or three hours he notified us that the first order had been changed, and that all of us would be sent to Hampton Roads.

After Davis had retired to his room, General Wilson mused in his letter:

The thought struck me once or twice that Jefferson Davis was a mad man. The indifference with which he seemed to regard the affairs of our day savored of insanity. He was polite and gracious in his intercourse with me and almost affectionate in taking leave of me.

He mentioned none of this (and quite a bit more) decades after the war in his memoirs.

Around 7pm that evening, Davis and his family were taken to the railroad depot to begin their ride to Augusta. Along the route, Davis’ party was observed by Virginia Clay, wife of Clement Claiborne Clay:

As the cavalry approached the station, the significance of the scene became plain to us. They were a guard, flanking on each side an old “jimber-jawed, wobblesided” barouche, drawn by two raw-boned horses. In the strange vehicle were seated Mr. and Mrs. Davis. Mr. Davis was dressed in a full suit of Confederate grey, including the hat, but his face was yet more ashen than was his garb. Behind them, completing the pitiful cortege, came a carryall, in which were Miss Howell, the Davis little ones and nurses; and, as the procession drove by, the alien and motley crowd along the walks yelled and hooted in derision. But not all—one heartless Union soldier tried the patience of a sorrowful “rebel” onlooker.

“Hey, Johnny Reb,” shouted the first, “we’ve got your President!”

“And the devil’s got yours!” was the swift reply.

They arrived in Augusta the following evening (the 14th), and were placed aboard the steamer Standish. This date (the 15th) was one of sea travel, and they arrived in Savanna after midnight. It wouldn’t be until the 22nd when Davis arrived at Fortress Monroe.1

  1. Sources: Jefferson Davis: Ex-president of the Confederate States of America by Varina Davis; Memoirs by John Reagan; ‘Your Left Arm’: James H. Wilson’s Letters to Adam Badeau. edited by James Jones; Under the Old Flag by James Harrison Wilson; A Belle of the Fifties by Virginia Clay-Clopton; A Long Shadow by Michael B. Ballard. []


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