Jeff Davis Strikes Out on His Own

May 5, 1865 (Friday)

“Do not try to meet me,” wrote Varina Davis to her husband, “I dread the Yankees getting news of you so much, you are the country’s only hope, and the very best intentioned do not calculate upon a stand this side of the river. Why not cut loose from your escort, go swiftly and alone with the exception of two or three.”

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This letter was received by Jefferson Davis when he entered Washington, Georgia they day previous. He would not heed her warning, but could not yet break off to join her. On the 4th, the final Confederate Cabinet meeting was held. John Reagan, Secretary of the Treasury, recorded the briefing:

Before the President left Washington, upon consultation with the Cabinet, it was determined that I should turn over the remaining part of the Confederate gold to a Mr. Semple, a bonded officer of the Navy, and his assistant, Mr. Titball, who were to conceal it under the false bottom of a carriage and to take it to Charleston, Savannah, or to some other point on the coast, and ship it to Bermuda, Nassau, or to our agent in England, for account of the Confederate Government. Before this shipment was made, by an understanding between the President and Cabinet, I directed the Treasurer to pay out a portion of the money to a number of officers, and possibly to others, which was done.

The President, as I learned after coming up with him again, expected me to bring along the Confederate paper money. But as it was packed in large boxes, and I had no means of securing its transportation, I was unwilling that it should fall into improper hands, and, after conferring with and securing the approval of the Secretary of War, I ordered this money brought to my hotel, and, having caused a good wood fire to be made in a wide fire-place, directed the Acting Treasurer to burn it, which he did under protest. The last I saw of the silver bullion, said to amount to about $36,000, a Confederate commissary by the name of Moses was having it thrown from a wagon into an open warehouse on the square in Washington.

The meeting ended with Davis asking Captain Given Campbell of Basil Duke’s cavalry brigade to select a small number of men to act as his escort. He was following his wife’s advice and going off on his own.

“I knew nearly all of these twenty personally,” wrote Duke after the war. “Among them were Lieutenants Lee Hathaway and Winder Monroe of my brigade. Escort and commander had been picked as men who could be relied on in any emergency, and there is no doubt in my mind that, if Mr. Davis had really attempted to get away or reach the trans-Mississippi, this escort would have exhausted every expedient their experience could have suggested, and, if necessary, fought to the death to accomplish his purpose.

“I have never believed, however, that Mr. Davis really meant or desired to escape after he became convinced that all was lost. I think that, wearied by the importunity with which the request was urged, he seemingly consented, intending to put himself in the way of being captured. I am convinced that he quitted the main body of the troops that they might have an opportunity to surrender before it was too late for surrender upon terms, and that he was resolved. that the small escort sent with him should encounter no risk in his behalf. I can account for his conduct upon no other hypothesis. He well knew ā€” and he was urgently advised ā€” that his only chance of escape was in rapid and continuous movement.”

And with that, Jefferson Davis was gone, leaving behind him five brigades of cavalry and what remained of his Cabinet (some of whom would catch up soon enough). Secretary of War John Breckinridge was in charge of the troops and effectively mustered out the lot of them.

Basil Duke, one of those who were left behind, wrote this of his final days as a Confederate soldier:

“Immediately after Mr. Davis’s departure the greater portion of the troops were notified that their services would be no longer needed, and were given a formal discharge. Their officers made arrangements for their prompt surrender. General Breckinridge requested Colonel W. C. P. Breckinridge and myself to hold a body of our men together for two or three days, and, marching in a direction different from that Mr. Davis had taken, divert attention as much as possible from his movements.

Robert Toombs' house in Washington, Georgia.
Robert Toombs’ house in Washington, Georgia.

“We accordingly marched with 350 men of our respective brigades toward Woodstock, or Woodville,–I do not certainly remember the name. I moved upon one road; Colonel Breckinridge, with whom the general was, upon another. We were to meet at the point I have mentioned. I arrived first, and halted to await the others. I found that a considerable force of Federal cavalry was just to the west of the place, and not more than three miles distant. The officer in command notified me in very courteous terms that he would not attack unless I proceeded toward the west, in which event he said he would, very much to his regret, be compelled ‘to use violence.’

“He said that he hoped I would think proper to surrender, as further bloodshed was useless and wrong; but that he would not undertake to hasten the matter. I responded that I appreciated his sentiments and situation, and that I would give the matter of surrender immediate and careful consideration. That evening Colonel Breckinridge arrived. He had encountered a body of Federals, who had made to him almost the identical statement the officer in my front had addressed to me. He had parleyed with them long enough to enable General Breckinridge, with one or two officers who were to accompany him in his effort to escape, to get far enough away to elude pursuit, and then, telling them where he wished to go, was allowed to march by upon the same road occupied by the Federal column.

“The men of the previously hostile hosts cheered each other as they passed, and the ‘Yanks’ shouted, ‘You rebs better go home and stop this nonsense; we don’t want to hurt each other!’ The colonel brought an earnest injunction from General Breckinridge that we should both surrender without delay. We communicated his message to our comrades, and for us the long agony was over.”

And so Jefferson Davis rode south, catching up swiftly with his wife. Behind him trod John Reagan and others, hurrying as they could to catch the President. Somewhere, beyond the roads they now ran, was the Yankee Cavalry.1



  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; Papers of Jefferson Davis; A Long Shadow by Michael B. Ballard; The Long Surrender by Burke Davis. []

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