Jefferson Davis Finally Imprisoned

May 22, 1865 (Monday)

On this date, Jefferson Davis was removed from the steamer Clyde and taken to his cell inside Fortress Monroe. Below are four accounts, including that of Davis himself, of this day.

The "capture" of Jeff Davis, copyrighted on this date.
The “capture” of Jeff Davis, copyrighted on this date.

Lieut. Col. Benjamin D. Pritchard, Fourth Michigan Cavalry

We remained on shipboard until the 22d instant, disposing, meanwhile, of all the prisoners except Davis, Clay, and families, in obedience to orders from General Halleck, and as per receipts in my possession. On the afternoon of that day the prisoners Davis and Clay were transferred, under orders from the same source, to the casemates of Fortress Monroe and turned over to Brevet Major-General Miles, the Fourth Michigan Cavalry acting as special escort, after which it was temporarily assigned quarters within the fort.

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Virginia Clay-Clopton, wife of Clement Clay:

On the morning of May 22d a sultry, drizzling rain fell. It was a day exactly calculated to induce melancholy even in the stoutest-hearted. To us, eagerly alert to learn what we might of our fate, it was unspeakably distressful. Shortly after breakfast my husband came quietly into our stateroom. “There is no longer any doubt,” he said,”that this fort is the one destined for Davis and me! I have just been notified that we are expected to take a ride on a tug. I am convinced we shall be taken to Fortress Monroe. I can’t imagine why they do not come out boldly and tell us so, but be sure this is our farewell, my wife!” We took leave of each other in our stateroom, nor did I leave it to follow Mr. Clay to the deck. I stood, instead, at the fourteen-inch window of my cabin, alone with my thoughts.

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As Mr. Davis passed the aperture, he stopped for a second to say good-bye to me, then he, too, disappeared. A few moments passed, and then the weeping of children and wailing of women announced the return of the stricken family. I heard a soldier say to Mr. Davis’s little son, “Don’t cry, Jeff. They ain’t going to hang your pa!” and the little fellow’s reply, made through his sobs.

“When I get to be a man,” he cried, “I’m going to kill every Yankee I see!”

When the child approached my door and I caught him in my arms and tried to cheer him, his resentment quickly changed to a manly tenderness; and, putting his baby lips up for a kiss, he said, “My papa told me to keep care of you and my Mamma!”

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Varina Davis:

On the next day a tug with a company of German soldiers came up. Our little Jeff ran to us, pale with horror, and sobbed out, “They say they have come for father, beg them to let us go with him.” Mr. Davis went forward, and returned with an officer, saying, “It is true, I must go at once.” He whispered to me, “Try not to weep, they will gloat over your grief,” and the desire to lessen his anguish enabled me to bid farewell quietly. Mrs. Clay preserved the same self-control. His parting from our children was a sacred sorrow, in which the people on deck participated so far as observation without sympathy would go. We parted in silence. As the tug bore him away from the ship, he stood with bared head between the files of undersized German and other foreign soldiers on either side of him, and as we looked, as we thought, our last upon his stately form and knightly bearing, he seemed a man of another and higher race, upon whom “shame would not dare to sit.”

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After a few hours Colonel Pritchard left us here, and asked me for my waterproof, which I thought would disprove the assertion that it was essentially a woman’s cloak, and gave to him. Such provisions as we had were taken from us, and hard tack and soldier’s fare was substituted. Captain Grant, of Maine, however, was a humane man, and did his best for us. The effort was made to get a physician for my sister, who was exceedingly ill, but Dr. Craven accounts for our inability to do so in his “Prison Life of Jefferson Davis,” p. 77, by saying that the orders were to allow no communication with the ship. We were now visited by a raiding party, headed by Captain Hudson. They opened our trunks and abstracted everything they desired to have. Among these articles were nearly all my children’s clothes. My boy Jeff seized his little uniform of Confederate gray, and ran up to me with it, and thus prevented its being taken as a trophy. A very handsome Pennsylvania flag, which had been captured by General Bradley Johnson in battle, was also taken out of my trunk. Then Captain Hudson valiantly came with a file of men to insist upon having my shawl, and said he would take everything I had if I did not yield it to him, though he offered to buy me another to replace it. It was relinquished, as anything else would have been to dispense with his presence.

We were anchored out a mile or two in the harbor, and little tugs full of mockers, male and female, came out. They steamed around the ship, offering, when one of us met their view, such insults as were transmissible at a short distance. Some United States officers visited the ship, of whom I have no clear memory, except of the ” Roland” Mrs. Clay gave them for the “Oliver” they offered. Two or three of them looked into my sister’s state-room, with whom Mrs. Clay was sitting. She said, “Gentlemen, do not look in here, it is a ladies’ state-room.” One of them threw the door open and said, “There are no ladies here ; ” to which Mrs. Clay responded, “There certainly are no gentlemen there.” They retired swearing out their wrath.

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Jefferson Davis:

After some days’ detention, Clay and myself were removed to Fortress Monroe, and there incarcerated in separate cells. Not knowing that the Government was at war with women and children, I asked that my family might be permitted to leave the ship and go to Richmond or Washington City, or to some place where they had acquaintances, but this was refused. I then requested that they might be permitted to go abroad on one of the vessels lying at the Roads. This was also denied; finally, I was informed that they must return to Savannah on the vessel by which we came.

This was an old transport-ship, hardly seaworthy. My last attempt was to get for them the privilege of stopping at Charleston, where they had many personal friends. This also was refused—why, I did not then know, have not learned since, and am unwilling to make a supposition, as none could satisfactorily account for such an act of inhumanity. My daily experience as a prisoner shed no softer light on the transaction, but only served to intensify my extreme solicitude.

Bitter tears have been shed by the gentle, and stern reproaches have been made by the magnanimous, on account of the needless torture to which I was subjected, and the heavy fetters riveted upon me, while in a stone casemate and surrounded by a strong guard; but all these were less excruciating than the mental agony my captors were able to inflict. It was long before I was permitted to hear from my wife and children, and this, and things like this, was the power which education added to savage cruelty; but I do not propose now and here to enter upon the story of my imprisonment, or more than merely to refer to other matters which concern me personally, as distinct from my connection with the Confederacy.

The man who led the rebellion and would by any measurable standards be guilty of treason would spend but two years in prison. During which, he would complain bitterly about his treatment – a subject he would not drop even after his hasty release.

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2 thoughts on “Jefferson Davis Finally Imprisoned

  1. You might find Varina Davis letter to Blair’s very interesting, as she admits, essentially, Davis was dressed as a woman, and specifically tells Blair that she told the Union soldiers Davis was her mother. Finding her letter to Blair’s, in library of Congress, was a pivotal point for me personally, when I learned that historians and Souther apologist were well aware of her letter and other even more inexcpliabe actions and words by Davis, simply not mentioned, or glossed over. jeffdavisdresss.blogspot.com

    1. Yes! I’ve seen that. I thought I used it in a post, but it’s possible that I left it out. At any rate, it was a wonderful find.

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