‘The Tide of War Will Follow Me’ – Davis Continues His Retreat

April 28, 1865 (Friday)

Jefferson Davis was now on the run, though by the speed of his entourage, it might have been difficult to tell. While he was in Charlotte, North Carolina, he learned that Joe Johnston had surrendered and that John Wilkes Booth had been killed.

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The small band of cavalry which accompanied him was not thought to be incredibly loyal. He hoped that Wade Hampton could avoid the surrender and join him farther south. Actually, Davis had hoped that Johnston would feint the surrender and instead disperse his entire army to the wind so that they might meet up as one again to fight west of the Mississippi. Johnston had refused, but Hampton took him up on the offer.

Still, Davis wrote his wife on the 26th, complaining that there was “increasing hazard of desertion among the troops.” General Hampton had offered to lead them, “And thinks he can force his way across the Mississippi. The route will be too rough and perilous for you and children to go with me.”

Though Wade Hampton was his greatest hope, it was hope that began to fade in Wade Hampton. He confessed to Johnston: “If I do not accompany him I shall never cease to reproach myself, and if I go with him I may go under the ban of outlawry.” Ultimately, Davis wanted Hampton to get him out of the country, but Hampton felt powerless. “I shall not ask a man to go with me. Should any join me, they will… like myself, be willing to sacrifice everything for the cause.”

The newly-appointed Postmaster General, John Reagan, writing after the war, wrote of their stop for lunch on this date (the 28th):

At Broad River, South Carolina, we stopped on its bank to enjoy a luncheon we had brought along with us, and to take a little rest. While we were there the subject of the condition in which the war left us. came up. The property of Secretary Benjamin, situated in Louisiana, and that of Secretary Breckinridge in Kentucky, was in Federal hands. The fine residence of Secretary Mallory at Pensacola, Florida, had been burned by the enemy. My residence in Texas had been wrecked and partly burned, and my property dissipated except a farm of a few hundred acres and some uncultivated land. After we had joked each other about our fallen fortunes the President took out his pocket-book and showed a few Confederate bills, stating that that constituted his wealth. He added that it was a gratification to him that no member of his Cabinet had made money out of his position. We were all financially wrecked except Secretary Trenholm, whose wealth, we thought, might save him. But it afterward turned out that he too was bankrupt.

As Davis traveled, he kept in touch with his wife as much as possible. She was now in Abbeville, some 70 miles to the southwest, and closing. As his party moved in that direction, she took the time to Varina Davis took the time to write to her “Old Husband.”

“I have seen a great many men who have gone through [Abbeville] – not one has talked fight. A stand cannot be made in this country! Do not be induced to try it. As to the trans-Mississippi, I doubt if at first things will be straight, but the spirit is there, and the daily accretions will be great when the deluded of this side are crushed out between the upper and nether millstones.”

As for her own plans, she wasn’t sure she’d see her husband any time soon. “I think I shall be able to procure funds enough to enable me to put the two eldest to school,” he wrote. “I shall go to Florida if possible, and from thence go over to Bermuda, or Nassau, from thence to England, unless a good school offers elsewhere, and put them to the best school I can find and then with the two youngest join you in Texas – and that is the prospect which bears me up, to be once more with you – once more to suffer with you if need be – but God know those who obey Him, and I know there is a future for you.”

Davis would not reach Abbeville until May 2nd.

For the immediate, they would continue west, if they could, and hoped to meet up with Richard Taylor’s army in Citronelle, Alabama. Together, they could abandon the states east of the Mississippi and join then with Kirby Smith in Louisiana. Both Taylor and Smith had yet to surrender.

In the north, President Johnson and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wished to capture and then execute Davis for treason. The Federal cavalry was drawing nearer, but tracking even this slow-moving caravan seemed to be impossible for them. Though many in North Carolina had turned a cold shoulder to Davis, this was not true in South Carolina. Many of the white people gave faulty directions, lies, and misinformation to throw the Yankees off the trail of their once and future leader.1



  1. Sources: Memoirs by John Henninger Reagan; Letter from Varina Davis to Jefferson Davis, April 28, 1865; Bloody Crimes by James Swanson; A Long Shadow by Michael B. Ballard; The Long Surrender by Burke Davis. []

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