‘Make Every Endeavor to Capture or Kill Jeff Davis’ – The Federals Tighten the Noose

May 8, 1865 (Monday)

It had all fallen upon Col. Robert Minty to capture Jefferson Davis. Minty, in turn, selected his own Second Brigade. To the commander, he issued these instructions:

You will move with your command in as light order as possible to-morrow, the 9th instant, marching, via Hawkinsville, to Spalding, Irwin County, at or near which place you will establish your headquarters. You will leave one regiment at some point between Folsom’s Creek and Adams, and detach another regiment to a point at or near the head of the Altamaha River.


You will have every ford and ferry on the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers from Hawkinsville to the Ohoopee River well guarded, and make every endeavor to capture or kill Jeff. Davis, the rebel ex-President, who is supposed to be endeavoring to cross the Ocmulgee south of Macon.

You will take possession of and guard all Government property which you may find, not interfering, however, with that turned over to the State authorities by the major-general commanding for the benefit of the poor. All supplies needed for your command will be taken from the country, but proper vouchers will invariably be given by your quartermaster or commissary.

Straggling, pillaging, or plundering must not be allowed under any circumstances. You can take the following wagons: Two for brigade headquarters, two; one for each regiment, three; total, five. Dismounted men and unserviceable horses will be left at this place under proper officers. Further orders will be issued designating the hour at which you will march.

The stakes, it seemed, were climbing higher. President Andrew Johnson was convinced that the highest Confederate officials were implicit in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A proclamation to that effect was issued and filtered down to General James Wilson, commanding the cavalry out of Macon, Georgia.

Wilson, in turn, sent this message to his subordinates now searching for the former Rebel president:

The President of the United States has issued his proclamation announcing that the Bureau of Military Justice has reported upon indubitable evidence that Jeff. Davis, Clement 0. Clay, Jacob Thompson, George N. Sanders, Beverly Tucker, and W. C. Cleary incited and concerted the assassination of Mr. Lincoln and the attempted assassination of Mr. Seward. He therefore offers for the arrest of Davis, Clay, and Thompson $100,000 each; for Sanders and Tucker, $25,000 each; and for Cleary, $10,000. Publish this in hand-bill; circulate everywhere, and urge the greatest possible activity in the pursuit.

For those on the hunt, it was a day of travel on the tired heels of a previous such day. “I marched the command all night and until 8 a. m. of the 8th instant,” wrote Col. Benjamin Pritchard, helming the 4th Michigan Cavalry, “having marched thirty-six miles, when I halted five hours, rested, and fed my command, moving on again at 1 p. m. I marched fifteen miles farther and encamped for the night three miles below Hawkinsville, having marched a distance of fifty-one miles inside of twenty-four hours, including all halts.”

In the meanwhile, Jefferson Davis, now reunited with his wife, decided once more to leave her, fearing that she and his family would be in too much danger. The night previous, as Secretary of the Treasury John Reagan later recalled: “We met two or three men in the road near the camp, who were interrogated by the President; from others at the camp we learned that some persons had been seen around the camp during the night; but nothing alarming had been attempted.”

Burton Harrison
Burton Harrison

Davis left Varina, his wife, in the care of Burton Harrison, his personal secretary, who later wrote that after breakfast, Davis “bade us goodbye and rode forward with his own party, leaving us, in deference to our earnest solicitations, to pursue our journey as best we might with our wagons and incumbrances.”

Harrison, weighed down by luggage, traveled much more slowly than Davis might. That night, Harrison received word from Davis that there were reports of Federal cavalry not twenty-five miles behind them.

“I started my party promptly,” recorded Harrison after the war, “in the midst of a terrible storm of thunder, lightning, and rain. As we passed through the village of Abbeville, I dismounted and had a conversation with the President in the old house, where he was lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket. He urged me to move on, and said he should overtake us during the night, after his horses had had more rest. We kept to the southward all night, the rain pouring in torrents most of the time, and the darkness such that, as we went through the woods where the road was not well marked, in a light, sandy soil, but wound about to accommodate the great pines left standing, the wagons were frequently stopped by fallen trees and other obstructions. In such a situation, we were obliged to wait until a flash of lightning enabled the drivers to see the way.”

Davis would catch up to them before the dawn.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 49, Part 1, p526, 535; Part 2, p665, 666; Memoirs by John Reagan; “The Capture of Jefferson Davis” by Burton Harrison, as appearing in The Century, Vol. 27; A Long Shadow by Michael B. Ballard. []


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