American history students may remember that on April 9, 1865, that Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appromattox, Virginia, to effectively end the American Civil War. This is usually thought of as the last chapter in the existence of the Confederate States of America.
What is often neglected or is presented as a quick footnote in the telling, is the capture of CSA President Jefferson Davis. In May of 1865, the CSA government was still intact, but mostly ineffective. General Lee had surrendered the armies and American President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. Most people believed the war was over.
The problem was, that CSA President Davis, still at large, believed in the future of his breakaway movement. He fantasized about raising another army to resume fighing in the western portion of the Confederacy. But there was no realistic way to accomplish this. The capital city of Richmond, Virginia had already been abandoned.
Davis, and a few trusted advisors were left to establish a skeleton, temporary government in exile at Danville, Virginia. However, even that move was very shortlived because Virginia had become heavily occupied with Union soldiers.
On May 4th, Davis held the final meeting with his cabinet in Washington, Georgia in the east central part of that state. The members were paid in gold and then dispersed. Then on the 7th, Davis was reunited with his family and continued into south central Georgia.
Davis had become a fugitive because the United States Department of War assumed Davis was complicit in the Lincoln assassination. A $100,000 reward was offered to anybody who could capture Davis and his cadre.
On the night of May 9th, Davis, his wife Varina, and children were encamped near Irwinville, Georgia. The CSA President was ready to abandon camp to escape sometime in the night. His horse had been saddled, loaded with pistols and ready to ride. His three or four remaining troopers awaited the order to depart. That order never came.
At the same time, the 4th Michigan Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel B.D. Pritchard had arrived in Irwinville. Pritchard and a few of his soldiers disguised themselves as rebel soldiers and questioned a few villagers. The Union troopers learned of the whereabouts of Jefferson Davis’ party. Soon, Pritchard and his forces quietly encircled the camp and awaited daylight to avoid the chance of escape under cover of the deep shadows of the woods and swamps by Davis.
At 3:30 AM on May 10th, Pritchard’s group approached within about 30 yards of Davis’ encampment when they rushed the entire camp. Davis spotted the blue uniforms and decided to run for his horse. Before leaving his wife’s tent, Varina asked him to throw on her waterproof cloak to camouflage his clothing. She also gave him a dainty black shawl to cover his head and disguise him.
Jefferson only managed to run a few yards towards his horse when he was halted by a Union soldier. Varina ran from her tent and threw her arms around Davis to shield him from the soldier’s aim. Because he had attempted his escape in women’s overcoat and shawl, the popular press later had a field day and expanded the rumors about Davis trying to avoid capture by wearing a dress.
During Davis’ capture and ensuing melee, some of the Union soldiers began searching for the rumored Confederate treasury gold. An onrush of Union soldiers from the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry started firing upon the Michigan forces by mistake. The lack of expected loot only enraged both sides and began fighting and killing one another over the promised cash reward. Pritchard stepped in and calmed the troopers. It was at that time, the commander realized that his forces had finally captured the fugitive President of the CSA.
After his arrest, Davis and his slave valet, James H. Johnson, along with personal belongings, was placed on a train bound for Florida where Davis was placed under the care of a railroad agent.
May 19, 1865 the former CSA President was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. Fort commander, General Nelson Miles allowed no visiters nor books and leg irons were riveted to Davis’ ankles. The harsh treatment affected Davis’ health, but he wasn’t given more humane quarters until late that autumn. During his incarceration, Davis was indicted for treason.
Following two years in prison, a group of prominent Northern and Southern citizens posted $100,000 bail to allow the release of Davis. A federal court rejected the motion to nullify the treason indictment in December 1868. Then, in February of 1869, the prosecution finally dropped their case.
Later in 1869, Jefferson Davis was hired as president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company of Memphis, Tennessee. In 1875, Davis was elected to the U.S. Senate but was barred from accepting the seat because of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. It prohibits anyone who has participated in an insurrection or rebellion against the U.S. Constitution from executive or legislative office on a federal or state level.