The Federals About to Close in on Jefferson Davis

May 7, 1865 (Sunday)

“Davis’ escort has been crowded so closely on all sides that it has been disbanded,” wrote General James Wilson to John Schofield, explaining the latest bit of rumors he had heard concerning the escape of the former Confederate President. “Three regiments have given themselves up to us here, and many others are surrendering in Northern Georgia. Davis himself and a small party, variously reported from six to forty men, are supposed to have turned south from Washington. I have the Ocmulgee picketed from its head to Hawkinsville, and by 6 p. m. to-morrow will have it closely watched from Hawkinsville to Jacksonville. I have a line of stations along the railroad from Atlanta to Eufaula and Albany, and have directed McCook, at Tallahassee, Fla., to send scouts to north and eastward in all directions.”

Robert Minty
Robert Minty

This was more than enough to go on. They now had Davis’ recent position and were growing more and more certain that he was going to attempt to cross the Ocmulgee River. Haste was of some concern, but Wilson felt certain that Col. Robert Minty, commanding the Second Division of cavalry, could cut off the Southern aristocrat before he could escape to Florida or turn west for the Mississippi.

But the rumors were coming quickly and it was impossible to check every single one for accuracy. Still, Wilson gave it his best, ordering Minty to “send 115 men by rail with horses to Oglethorpe, with instructions to watch Flint River crossings as well as it can possibly be with that number of men. Send 150 men with horses to Cuthbert to watch the roads in that vicinity. These two parties are to be held in readiness to move at short notice in any direction required. Captain Brown, acting chief quartermaster, will make arrangements for transportation. The parties will go to morrow. Direct Colonel Pritchard to investigate the report concerning the thirty-five men and three wagons.”

Of course, Minty’s troopers weren’t the only ones on patrol. Every crossing of the Ocmulgee, as well as several other rivers, was soon to be guarded. Crossroads as well were well picketed.

“The troops occupied almost a continuous line from the Etowah River to Tallahassee, Fla., and the mouth of the Flint River, with patrols through all the country to the northward and eastward, and small detachments at the railroad stations in the rear of the entire line,” recorded Wilson in his official report. “It was expected that the patrols and pickets would discover the trail of Davis and his party and communicate the intelligence by courier rapidly enough to secure prompt and effective pursuit.”

And soon, Minty was off. In his report, he related:

“On the evening of the 7th instant the major-general commanding directed me to make immediate arrangements to prevent the escape of Jeff. Davis across the Ocmulgee and Flint Rivers, south of Macon. I already had pickets at all fords and ferries as far south as Hawkinsville. I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Pritchard, commanding Fourth Michigan Cavalry, to march at 6 p. m. with his regiment, move as rapidly as possible to Spalding, Irwin County, and there establish his headquarters, leaving pickets at all fords and ferries between Hawkinsville and that place, and also to picket from there to the mouth of the Oconee River, but if he found that Davis had already crossed the Ocmulgee to follow and capture or kill him. I also sent 150 men to Cuthbert, Randolph County.”

In the meanwhile, Jefferson Davis had caught up with his wife, Varina, shortly after crossing the Oconee River. They were still well north of Abbeville, which lay upon the other side of the Ocmulgee, the river soon to be heavily guarded by Federals.

Confederate Secretary of the Treasury, John Reagan recalled after the war:

During the [previous] evening, Colonel Johnston and another man, having walked down to the ferry, heard some men describing a wagon train which was moving across the country, some twenty miles to the left of our course, which they spoke of as a quartermaster’s or commissary train, and which they understood was to be robbed that night by some disbanded soldiers. From the description, Colonel Johnston knew it to be that of Mrs. Davis, the wife of the President. Mr. Davis had not seen her since she left Richmond, and had not known where she was for some time. When he received this information he ordered and mounted his horse, addressing himself to those with him, “This move will probably cause me to be captured or killed. I do not feel that you are bound to go with me, but I must protect my family.”

The entire company went along. The roads we had to travel for the most part were dim and tortuous, and it was near morning [of this date] when we reached Mrs. Davis’s camp. A Confederate captain from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and a Confederate lieutenant from Texas were acting as an escort for her and family. 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.

That day we crossed the Oconee River, and after a short drive camped for the night.((Sources:Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 49, Part 1, p515-516, 526; Part 2, p648, 651; Memoirs by John Reagan.))

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One thought on “The Federals About to Close in on Jefferson Davis

  1. What were the hundreds of thousands of Union troops during all this time? What were the Rebels doing? Did they just go home, for the most part gun-less and horse-less?

    I’d like to read more on the demobilization and the beginning of Reconstruction.

    You’ve done a wonderful job reporting on the War Between the States. And I thank you again.

    Ray Marshall
    Minneapolis

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