May 10, 1865 (Wednesday)
Following are five first-person accounts of the capture of Jefferson Davis. Four are from a Confederate points of view, while the last was written by the Union officer responsible for his capture.
I travelled with my family two or three days, when, believing that they were out of the region of marauders, I determined to leave their encampment at nightfall to execute my original purpose. My horse and those of my party were saddled preparatory to a start, when one of my staff, who had ridden into the neighboring village, returned and told me that he had heard that a marauding party intended to attack the camp that night. This decided me to wait long enough to see whether there was any truth in the rumor, which I supposed would be ascertained in a few hours. My horse remained saddled and my pistols in the holsters, and I lay down fully dressed to rest.
Nothing occurred to rouse me until just before dawn, when my coachman, a free colored man who clung to our fortunes, came and told me there was firing over the branch, just behind our encampment. I stepped out of my wife’s tent and saw some horsemen, whom I immediately recognized as cavalry, deploying around the encampment. I turned back and told my wife these were not the expected marauders, but regular troopers. She implored me to leave her at once. I hesitated, from unwillingness to do so, and lost a few precious moments before yielding to her importunity.
My horse and arms were near the road on which I expected to leave, and down which the cavalry approached; it was therefore impracticable for me to reach them. As it was quite dark in the tent, I picked up what was supposed to be my “raglan,” a waterproof light overcoat, without sleeves; it was subsequently found to be my wife’s, so very like my own as to be mistaken for it; as I started, my wife thoughtfully threw over my head and shoulders a shawl.
I had gone perhaps fifteen or twenty yards when a trooper galloped up and ordered me to halt and surrender, to which I gave a defiant answer, and, dropping the shawl and raglan from my shoulders, advanced toward him; he levelled his carbine at me, but I expected, if he fired, he would miss me, and my intention was in that event to put my hand under his foot, tumble him off on the other side, spring into his saddle, and attempt to escape. My wife, who had been watching, when she saw the soldier aim his carbine at me, ran forward and threw her arms around me. Success depended on instantaneous action, and recognizing that the opportunity had been lost, I turned back, and, the morning being damp and chilly, passed on to a fire beyond the tent.
Burton Harrison, Davis’ personal secretary:
I was awakened by the coachman, James Jones, running to me about day-break with the announcement that the enemy was at hand! I sprang to my feet, and in an instant a rattling fire of musketry commenced on the north side of the creek. Almost at the same moment Colonel Pritchard and his regiment charged up the road from the south upon us. As soon as one of them came within range, I covered him with my revolver and was about to fire, but lowered the weapon when I perceived the attacking column was so strong as to make resistance useless, and reflected that, by killing the man, I should certainly not be helping ourselves, and might only provoke a general firing upon the members of our party in sight. We were taken by surprise, and not one of us exchanged a shot with the enemy. Colonel Johnston tells me he was the first prisoner taken.
In a moment, Colonel Pritchard rode directly to me and,pointing across the creek, said, “What does that mean? Have you any men with you?” Supposing the firing was done by our teamsters, I replied, ” Of course we have—don’t you hear the firing?” He seamed to be nettled at the reply, gave the order, ” Charge,” and boldly led the way himself across the creek, nearly every man in his command following. Our camp was thus left deserted for a few minutes, except by one mounted soldier near Mrs. Davis’s tent (who was afterward said to have been stationed there by Colonel Pritchard in passing) and by the few troopers who stopped to plunder our wagons.
I had been sleeping upon the same side of the road with the tent occupied by Mrs. Davis, and was then standing very near it. Looking there, I saw her come out and heard her say something to the soldier mentioned; perceiving she wanted him to move off, I approached and actually persuaded the fellow to ride away. As the soldier moved into the road, and I walked beside his horse, the President emerged for the first time from the tent, at the side farther from us, and walked away into the woods to the eastward, and at right angles to the road.
Presently, looking around and observing somebody had come out of the tent, the soldier turned his horse’s head and, reaching the spot he had first occupied, was again approached by Mrs. Davis, who engaged him in conversation. In a minute, this trooper was joined by one or perhaps two of his comrades, who either had lagged behind the column and were just coming up the road, or had at that moment crossed over from the other (the west) side, where a few of them had fallen to plundering, as I have stated, instead of charging over the creek.
They remained on horseback and soon became violent in their language with Mrs. Davis. The order to “halt” was called out by one of them to the President. It was not obeyed, and was quickly repeated in a loud voice several times. At least one of the men then threatened to fire, and pointed a carbine at the President. Thereupon. Mrs. Davis, overcome with terror, cried out in apprehension, and the President (who had now walked sixty or eighty paces away into the unobstructed woods) turned around and came back rapidly to his wife near the tent. At least one of the soldiers continued his violent language to Mrs. Davis, and the President reproached him for such conduct to her, when one of them, seeing the face of the President,as he stood near and was talking, said, M Mr. Davis, surrender! I recognize you, sir.” Pictures of the President were so common that nearly or quite every man in both armies knew his face.
It was, as yet, scarcely daylight.
The President had on a water-proof cloak. He had used it, when riding, as a protection against the rain during the night and morning preceding that last halt; and he had probably been sleeping in that cloak, at the moment when the camp was attacked.
While all these things were happening, Miss Howell and the children remained within the other tent. The gentlemen of our party had, with the single exception of Captain Moody, all slept on the west side of the road and in or near the wagons. They were, so far as I know, paying no attention to what was going on at the tents. I have since talked with Johnston, Wood, and Lubbock, and with others, about these matters; and I have not found there was any one except Mrs. Davis, the single trooper at her tent, and myself, who saw all that occurred and heard all that was said at the time. Any one else who gives an account of it has had to rely upon hearsay or his own imagination for his story.
John Reagan, Confederate Treasury Secretary:
Under cover of the darkness, Colonel Pritchard moved to where we were, and posted one battalion in front of us, and another across the creek in our rear. About dawn, an Iowa battalion, in pursuit of us, came in sight of the Federals in our rear, and each took the other, in the dimness of the morning, for Confederates. Both battalions were armed with repeating rifles, and a rapid fusillade occurred between them. One or two were killed and a few wounded.
When this firing occurred the troops in our front galloped upon us. The major of the regiment reached the place where I and the members of the President’s staff were camped, about one hundred yards from where the President and his family had their tents. When he approached me I was watching a struggle between two Federal soldiers and Governor Lubbock. They were trying to get his horse and saddle bags away from him and he was holding on to them and refusing to give them up; they threatened to shoot him if he did not, and he replied (he was not as good a Presbyterian then as he is now) that they might shoot and be damned, but that they should not rob him while he was alive and looking on.
I had my revolver cocked and in my hand, waiting to see if the shooting was to begin. Just at this juncture the major rode up, the men contending with Lubbock disappeared, and the major asked if I had any arms. I drew my revolver from under the skirt of my coat and said to him, “I have this.” He observed that he supposed I had better give it to him. I knew that they were too many for us and surrendered my pistol.
I asked him then if he had not better stop the firing across the creek. He inquired whether it was not our men. I told him that it could not be; that I did not know of an armed Confederate within a hundred miles of us except our little escort of half a dozen men, and that they were not then with us. We learned afterward that they, or the most of them, had been captured at Irwinsville. The major rode across the creek and put an end to the skirmish.
When the firing began, President Davis afterward told me, he supposed it to be the work of the men who were to rob Mrs. Davis’s train. So he remarked to his wife, “Those men have attacked us at last; I will go out and see if I cannot stop the firing; surely I will have some authority with the Confederates.” Upon going to the tent door, however, he saw the blue-coats, and turned to his wife with the words, “The Federal cavalry are upon us.”
He was made a prisoner of war. As one of the means of making the Confederate cause odious, the foolish and wicked charge was made that he was captured in woman’s clothes; and his portrait, showing him in petticoats, was afterward placarded generally in show cases and public places in the North. He was also pictured as having bags of gold on him when captured. This charge of his being arrested in woman’s clothes is disproven by the circumstances attending his capture. The suddenness of the unexpected attack of the enemy allowed no time for a change of clothes. I saw him a few minutes after his surrender, wearing his accustomed suit of Confederate gray, with his boots and hat on, and I have elsewhere shown that he had no money.
Varina Davis, Wife of Jefferson:
Just before day the enemy charged our camp yelling like demons. Mr. Davis received timely warning of their approach but believing them to be our own people deliberately made his toilette and was only disabused of the delusion, when he saw them deploying a few yards off. He started down to the little stream hoping to meet his servant with his horse and arms, but knowing he would be recognized, I pleaded with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof wrap which had often served him in sickness during the summer season for a dressing gown and which I hoped might so cover his person that in the grey of the morning he would not be recognized.
As he strode off I threw over his head a little black shawl which was around my own shoulders, saying that he could not find his hat and after he started sent my colored woman after him with a bucket for water hoping that he would pass unobserved. He attempted no disguise, consented to no subterfuge but if he had in failure is found the only matter of cavil.
Had he assumed an elaborate female attire as a sacrifice to save a country the heart of which trusted in him, it had been well. When he had proceeded a few yards the guards around our tents with a shocking oath called out to know who that was. I said it was my mother and he halted Mr. Davis who threw off the cloak with a defiance and when called upon to surrender did not do so and but for the interposition of my person between his and the guns would have been shot. I told the man to shoot me if he pleased, to which he answered he ‘would not mind it a bit,’ which I readily believe.
Lieut. Col. Benjamin D. Pritchard, Fourth Michigan Cavalry:
As soon as the firing had ceased I returned to camp and took an inventory of our capture, when I ascertained we had captured Jeff. Davis and family (a wife and four children), John H. Reagan, his Postmaster-General; Colonels Harrison [Johnston] and Lubbock, aides de-camp to Davis; Burton TSf. Harrison, his private secretary; Major Maurin, Captain Moody, Lieutenant Hathaway, Jeff. D. Howell, midshipman in the rebel navy, and 12 private soldiers; Miss Maggie Howell, sister of Mrs. Davis; 2 waiting maids, 1 white and 1 colored, and several servants. We also captured 5 wagons, 3 ambulances, about 15 horses, and from 25 to 30 mules. The train was mostly loaded with commissary stores and private baggage of the party.
Upon returning to camp I was accosted by Davis from among the prisoners, who asked if I was the officer in command; and upon my answering him that I was, and asking him whom I was to call him, he replied that I might call him what or whom I pleased; when I replied to him that I would call him Davis, and after a moment’s hesitation he said that was his name; when he suddenly drew himself up in true royal dignity and exclaimed, “I suppose that you consider it bravery to charge a train of defenseless women and children, but it is theft—it is vandalism!”
After allowing the prisoners time to prepare breakfast, I mounted them on their own horses, taking one of the ambulances for my wounded, and one of the wagons for the dead, using the other two ambulances for the conveyance of the women and children, and started on my return by the direct route to Abbeville, where I arrived at sunset the same day. Here I halted for the night and called in the rest of my regiment from its duty along the river, and resumed my march toward Macon at an early hour on the morning of the 11th, after having buried our dead and performed the last solemn rites of the soldier over his fallen comrades; sending couriers in advance to announce the success of the expedition.
Jefferson Davis’ account was pulled from Jefferson Davis: Ex-president of the Confederate States of America, Volume 2 by Varina Davis. She quotes her husband’s version of the event.
Burton Harrison’s account came from “The Capture of Jeff Davis” by Burton Harrison, as appearing in The Century, Vol. 27.
John Reagan’s account appeared in MemoirsOfficial Records, Series 1, Vol. 49, Part 1, p536-537.