Davis Plans to Retreat into Texas or Mexico

April 23, 1865 (Sunday)

“The dispersion of Lee’s army and the surrender of the remnant which remained with him destroyed the hopes I entertained when we parted,” wrote Jefferson Davis to his wife. Jefferson Davis was still in Charlotte, North Carolina. He had scurried away from Richmond mere hours before its fall, and by April 3rd, he was in Danville, Virginia, where he hoped to re-establish the Confederate capital. With Grant’s army threatening to devour Lee’s army, Davis fled south to Greensboro, arriving on the 11th. There, he heard the news of Lee’s surrender, and gave some sort of nod toward Johnston who wished to follow suit.

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Jefferson Davis had little desire to be captured – sentiment held that he would most certainly hang. And so he dipped farther south, leaving Greensboro without even telling Johnston, to Charlotte, arriving on the 19th. The original idea had been to there re-establish the seat of government and to carry on the war.

And there he remained still, though it was not what he had wished. The rest of his Cabinet had arrived on the 22nd. With them came the confirmation of Lincoln’s assassination and the terms of surrender as given by Sherman to Johnston. Though Washington had already rejected them, at this point, not even Sherman knew of their status. Believing that they would possibly end the war, Davis wished for each of his Cabinet members to state their opinions on what they might do next.

All had concluded that a continuation of the war through the use of partisans and guerrillas would be devastating. The terms should be accepted, the held. There was, however, a problem. They also concluded that the Confederate Constitution did not allow the President to dissolve the government. Some wished for each state to have a part in such an event, though that idea was quickly tilting toward impossibility. Others, however, cared little about formality and wanted it to simply end for the sake of the people.

Davis’ opinions on this matter were set down in a letter to his wife.

“The issue is one which it is very painful for me to meet. On one hand is the long night of oppression which will follow the return of our people to the ‘Union’; on the other the suffering of women and children, and courage among the few brave patriots who would still oppose the invader, and who unless the people would rise en masse to sustain them, would struggle but to die in vain.”

For his wife, Davis wished her save passage “from Mobile for a foreign port or to cross the [Mississippi] River and proceed to Texas, as the one or the other may be more practicable.” He did not know that Mobile had already fallen.

For himself, he had no thoughts of facing the results of his position over the past four years. Continuing, he wrote, “it may be that our Enemy will prefer to banish me, it may be that a devoted band of Cavalry will cling to me and that I can force my way across the Mississippi. And if nothing can be done there which it will be proper to do, then I can go to Mexico and have the world from which to choose a location.”

Davis had already paved some of the way for this likelihood. A few days back, he had ordered Kirby Smith, still operating in Louisiana, not to surrender under any circumstances. If all went south, he would go west.

A "touched up" John Breckinridge.
A “touched up” John Breckinridge.

When Davis met on this date with North Carolina’s Governor Zebulon Vance, he urged the official to gather up as many North Carolina troops as he could find and come with him to the Trans-Mississippi to join Kirby Smith. This raised little confidence, and even urged Secretary of War John Breckinridge to restate the obvious – that the war was over.

Meanwhile, near Raleigh, General Sherman had just learned that he would know for certain the following day whether the terms of surrender that he had drafted in the company of Joe Johnston were accepted or rejected by Washington. They had included the surrender of all the Confederate armies and liberally waded into civic issues. Sherman had hoped and even trusted that they would be met with approval and thus end the war, restoring states to the Union and keeping their governments in tact.

Accompanying this news, which was to arrive the next morning, was General Grant, though Sherman did not yet know this.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 3, p287, 830-831; Marching with Sherman by Henry Hitchcock; Letter from Jefferson Davis to Wife as published in Papers of Jefferson Davis; Narrative of Military Operations by Joseph Johnston; A Long Shadow by Michael B. Ballard; The Long Surrender by Burke Davis. []

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