Federal Cavalry Surrounds Jeff Davis’ Camp

May 9, 1865 (Tuesday)

From the report of Lieut. Col. Benjamin D. Pritchard, Fourth Michigan Cavalry.

After a march of seventy-five miles, during which nothing of special interest occurred, the command reached Abbeville about 3 o’clock on the afternoon of May 9, and where I discovered the first trace of any of the parties for whom we were seeking.

At this place I met Lieutenant-Colonel Harnden, First Wisconsin Cavalry, who informed me, as also did the inhabitants, that a train of several wagons and two ambulances had crossed the Ocmulgee River at Brown’s Ferry, one mile and a half above Abbeville, at 12 o’clock on the previous night, and had halted at Abbeville long enough to feed their animals, and gone on in the direction of Irwinville before daylight.

Benjamin Pritchard
Benjamin Pritchard

Colonel Harnden also said that he had been following on the track of this train for some distance on the north side of the river, and was convinced that it belonged to some of the Richmond parties and thought Mrs. Davis was with it, but did not think Davis himself was with it, as he had been reported traveling by himself with a small escort. Colonel H. reported that he had a force of from seventy to seventy-five men of his regiment, First Wisconsin, with him, and that they were from one hour and a half to two hours in advance on the Irwinville road.

I asked Colonel H. if he thought his force sufficient to cope with that supposed to be with the train, if not I would give him a detail from my regiment. He said that he considered it ample. I then told him it was useless for me to follow on the same road with him, telling him what my orders were, and that I would continue down the river and act as circumstances might dictate.

Colonel Harnden said that he should press forward to Irwinville before he encamped, if the train went to that place, saying that the train was in the habit of driving off from the road when going into camp, sometimes several miles distant. After this conversation Colonel H. and myself parted, he going to his command and I moving on down the river road, after sending one company of my regiment under Lieutenant Fisk to take possession of Brown’s Ferry.

There was no plan of action agreed upon between Colonel H. and myself, as neither of us knew anything about the roads. I continued to move on down the river for a distance of about three miles, when I found a negro guarding his master’s wagon, which had broken down in the road, who gave me an account of the passage of the Davis party over Brown’s Ferry, stating that at the time of the crossing they would allow no lights to be made, not even to enable the ferryman to make change, saying that they would pay him amply for his services, and did pay him a ten-dollar gold piece and a ten-dollar Confederate note, also relating other suspicious incidents, which convinced me that either Davis or some other very important personages were with the train.

I also learned of this same negro and a lady living close by that there were two roads by which Irwinville might be reached from Abbeville — one the direct, which Colonel Harnden had taken, and another leading from the river road in a southwesterly direction at a point fifteen miles below Abbeville known as Wilcox’s Mills. Feeling that no effort on my part should be spared which could aid or insure the capture of what I was now convinced were important parties from the rebel Government, I accordingly decided to pursue the party at once by way of the river road, believing that if the party were hard pressed at any time by Colonel H. they would abandon the direct road and drive on to any other which might give hopes of escape, and in that case would be liable to drive over the road by which my command would approach Irwinville, and if Colonel H. pressed forward to Irwinville, as he said he should, they would fall in between the two commands.

I had no thought at that time of being able to reach Irwinville in advance of Colonel H., as the distance I would have to march would be from eight to ten miles greater than that traveled by him, and his command was then at least two hours on its way. I at once ordered a detail of 150 men of the best mounted in the regiment, but which, on account of jaded horses, was cut down to 128 men and seven officers (besides myself); but I since learn that several men joined the detail irregularly afterward unknown to me, which were not included in the count. With this force I moved at 4 p. m., leaving the rest of the regiment under command of Captain Hathaway, with directions to picket the river, &c. The command reached Wilcox’s Mills at sunset, where I halted one hour, fed, unsaddled, and had the horses groomed. From thence we proceeded by a blind woods road through an almost unbroken pine forest for a distance of eighteen miles, but found no traces of the train or party before reaching Irwinville, where we arrived about 1 o’clock on the morning of May 10, and were surprised to find no traces of either Colonel Haruden or the rebels.

The roads were first closely examined in all directions, but no traces of the passage of a train or a mounted force could be discovered; after which I resorted to inquiry, passing to the opposite side of the town from which we had arrived, so that the presence of my command might not be known, and representing ourselves as Confederates, it was readily learned from the inhabitants that a party had encamped at sunset that night from one to one mile and a half out on the Abbeville road, and that some of the men had come into the town during the evening.

From the June 3, 1865 cover of Harper's Weekly.
From the June 3, 1865 cover of Harper’s Weekly.

At first I thought that it must be the First Wisconsin, but upon further inquiry learned that the party had tents and wagons, which I knew was not the case with the First Wisconsin, but thinking that there might still be some mistake regarding the character of the party I gave my officers strict orders with reference to learning the character of all parties before firing upon them; after which I moved the command out to within half a mile of the encampment, impressing a negro for a guide, where I halted the command under cover of a small eminence and dismounted twenty-five men and sent them under command of Lieutenant Purinton to make the circuit of the camp and gain a position in the rear for the purpose of cutting off all possibility of escape in that direction, with orders to make the circuit of the camp undiscovered if possible, but if discovered and an alarm was raised to operate upon the camp from any point he might then occupy.

My orders were also very special and strict with regard to ascertaining definitely the character of any men whom he might meet before firing upon them, and which orders I feel confident he made his best endeavors to carry out, for he not only made the circuit of the camp as directed, but sent one of his men close to the enemy’s camp for the purpose of espying their exact locality and character. I had directed Lieutenant Purinton after gaining the position indicated to remain perfectly quiet until I should commence tho attack from the front, as I had not then determined whether I would charge the camp at once or wait until daylight should appear, but finally decided upon the latter course, as the moon was getting low and it would be easy for persons to escape to the woods and swamps in the darkness. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning when all dispositions for the attack were completed.

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