The True Story Of The Capture Of Jefferson Davis
By Major W. T. Walthall, (Late A.A.G., Confederate Army.)
(The following article was written and ready for publication a few weeks after the appearance of that of General Wilson, which was the proximate occasion for its preparation. It was sent to the Philadelphia Times, in which General Wilson's paper had appeared, and which had agreed to publish it. In consequence, however, of protracted and unexplained delay in the fulfilment of this agreement, it was withdrawn from the office of that journal, after lying there for some months, and is now submitted to the readers of the Southern Historical Society Papers, with this explanation of the delay in its publication.)
The publication, in the Philadelphia Weekly Times of July 7th, 1877, of an article by Major General James H. Wilson, professing to give an account of the capture of the Confederate President in 1865, has not only revived a fictitious story circulated soon after that event occurred -- perhaps still current among the vulgar, though long since refuted -- but has surrounded it with a cluster of new embellishments, which had heretofore been either "unwritten history" or unimagined fiction. To which of these classes they belong, the reader may be better able to determine after an examination of the evidence which it is one of the objects of this paper to lay before him.
The keynote to the temper, as well as the truthfulness of Gen. Wilson's narrative, may be found in its first paragraph, which I quote entire:
"On the first Sunday of April, 1865, while seated in St. Paul's church in Richmond, Jefferson Davis received a telegram from Lee, announcing the fall of Petersburg, the partial destruction of his army, and the immediate necessity for flight. Although he could not have been entirely unprepared for this intelligence, it appears that he did not receive it with self possession or dignity; but with tremulous and nervous haste, like a weak man in the hour of misfortune, he left the house of worship and hurried home, where he and his more resolute wife spent the rest of the day in packing their personal baggage. Those who are acquainted with the character of Mrs. Davis, can readily imagine with what energy and determination she must have prepared her family for flight, and with what rage and disappointment she resigned the sceptre she had wielded over the social and fashionable life of 'Richmond on the James.' They may be sure, too, that although heartsick and disgusted, there was nothing irresolute or vacillating in her actions. At nightfall everything was in readiness; even the gold then remaining in the treasury, not exceeding in all $40,000, was packed among the baggage, and under cover of darkness the President of the Confederacy, accompanied by his family and three members of his Cabinet, Breckinridge, Benjamin, and Reagan, drove rapidly to the train which had been prepared to carry them from Richmond. This train, it is said, was the one which had carried provisions to Amelia Courthouse for Lee's hard pressed and hungry army, and having been ordered to Richmond, had taken those supplies to that place, where they were abandoned for a more ignoble freight. As a matter of course the starving rebel soldiers suffered, but Davis succeeded in reaching Danville in safety, where he rapidly recovered from the fright he had sustained, and astonished his followers by a proclamation as bombastic and empty as his fortunes were straightened and desperate."
Whether the tone of this extract is that of chivalrous generosity and courtesy, or of coarse and bitter vulgarity, is a minor question, which it is not necessary to discuss. Whether its statements are true or false, is one of more interest, with regard to which it will be found on analysis that there is but one positive truth in the whole passage. There are at least four positive falsehoods in relation to matters of fact, susceptible of proof; one assertion of a sort perhaps not capable of being finally tested for positive evidence, but contrary to the statements of witnesses and to all moral and circumstantial proof to which it can be subjected; and two others, with regard to which I am not fully informed, but which are at least improbable and not in harmony with known facts.
To come to particulars, the one truth is that contained in the first sentence, that a certain telegram was received on a certain day by President Davis, while seated in St. Paul's church, Richmond.
The statement immediately following, that he did not receive this dispatch "with self possession or dignity," but that be left the house "with tremulous and nervous haste, like a weak man in the hour of misfortune," is that which have classified as one perhaps not capable of being tested by positive proof; and this not from any doubt as to its entire untruth, but on account of the subjective character of the only evidence that can be applied to it. Two observers, the one self possessed and impartial, the other, either frightened himself, or imbued with the malignant spirit that seems to animate the pen of General Wilson, might form very different estimates of the demeanor of the object of their observation. General Wilson does not profess to have been a witness of what he describes, nor does he give the name of his informant, although his account is directly contrary to all the statements of actual witnesses that have heretofore been generally received. Whatever other accusations may be entertained, no one familiar with the character and history of Jefferson Davis, whether honest friend or candid foe, will believe that he ever exhibited weakness or lack of self possession in time of peril or calamity.
Let us hurry on, however, to an examination of the positive patent falsehoods in respect of matters of fact, contained in Gen. Wilson's first paragraph. (I am very desirous of avoiding hard words, but really know no euphemism for falsehood at all applicable to this case.)
1st. "He left the house of worship and hurried home." President Davis did not hurry home at all. On the contrary, he went to the executive office, which was not in the same part of the city with his home, and there called a meeting of his Cabinet, which continued in session for several hours. At this session there was no hurry or confusion. On the contrary, the calmness with which the grave questions under consideration were discussed by the principal member of the council, and his apparent indifference to his personal safety and private interests, were subjects of remark by others present. He did not go to his home until late in the afternoon.
2nd. "He and his more resolute wife spent the rest of the day in packing their personal baggage," &c. This statement and the highly colored description which follows, of the "packing" and of the "rage and disappointment" of Mrs. Davis, are pure fiction, presumably of General Wilson's own invention; for it is well known that Mrs. Davis and all the President's family had left Richmond some time before, and were at this very time either in Raleigh or Charlotte, North Carolina. The "packing" of Mr. Davis' official papers was done by the gentlemen of his personal staff; that of his wearing apparel by his servants.
It would be beyond the scope of my present purpose to pause here to pay more than a casual tribute to the soldier like and chivalrous magnanimity that could invent a story like this for the sake of making an opportunity to jeer and sneer at the distress of a lady in time of danger and calamity.
3rd. "He drove rapidly to the train, * * * accompanied by his family." This statement is merely a variation of the previous fiction, without even an atom of foundation in fact, and needs no further comment.
4th. He was also accompanied, says General Wilson, by "three members of his Cabinet, Breckinridge, Benjamin, and Reagan." He was really accompanied by five members of his Cabinet, Messrs. Benjamin, Mallory, Reagan, Trenholm, and Davis; Gen. Breckinridge was not among them, and did not leave Richmond until the next morning. The misstatement in this case is altogether immaterial. It seems to spring out of the very wantonness and exuberance of untruthfulness in the narrator; but it serves to show how much reliance may be placed upon the accuracy of his assertions in minor matters, as well as in greater.
The two other statements which, by way of abundant caution against doing any injustice even to General Wilson, I have designated merely as "improbable" and scarcely consistent with known facts, are first, that the gold in the Confederate treasury was "packed among the baggage," which from the context seems to be intended to mean that it was packed among the President's baggage; and second, that the train in which the party traveled, "it is said," was one which had carried provisions to Amelia Courthouse for Lee's army, had thence been ordered to Richmond, and had abandoned the supplies for a "more ignoble freight" accompanied. With regard to the first of these statements, it need only be said that the gold which was taken was in charge of Mr. Trenholm, the Secretary of the Treasury. How and where he "packed" it, I am not informed; but it is not at all likely that it was packed among the President's "baggage."
As to the other point, waiving all question of the nobility or ignobility of the Confederate President and Cabinet, considered as freight, it is enough to say that they traveled by a passenger train, not adapted nor employed for carrying provisions; and moreover, that, if supplies had been sent by this or any other train to Amelia Courthouse, a village on the Richmond and Danville railroad, they were no doubt sent through it, on the way to Richmond. The Commissary General of the Confederate army has shown in a recent publication (Southern Historical Society Papers for March, 1877), that no requisition for supplies to be sent to Amelia Courthouse was ever received by him or his assistants, and that the Secretary of War had no knowledge of any such. Mr. Harvie, the president at that time of the Danville road, also testifies (ibid.), that ample supplies could have been sent to Amelia Courthouse for an army twice the size of Lee's, but that neither he nor the superintendent had any notice that they were wanted there. General Wilson qualifies this particular statement by the vague limitation, "it is said," but the on dit seems to be entitled to little more credit than if it had been his own assertion.
Passing over all subordinate and incidental matters we come, in the next paragraph, to a yet more astounding historic revelation, as follows:
"It is stated upon what appears to be good authority, that Davis had, many weeks before Lee's catastrophe, made 'the most careful and exacting preparations for his escape, discussing the matter fully with his Cabinet in profound secrecy, and deciding that, in order to secure the escape of himself and principal officers, the Shenandoah should be ordered to cruise off the coast of Florida to take the fugitives on board.' These orders were sent to the rebel cruiser many days before Lee's lines were broken. It was thought that the party might make an easy and deliberate escape in the way agreed upon, as the communications with the Florida coast were at that time scarcely doubtful, and once on the swift sailing Shenandoah, the most valuable remnant of the Anglo-Confederate navy, 'they might soon obtain an asylum on a foreign shore.'"
General Wilson, it will be observed, adopts this remarkable story from some source which he does not indicate otherwise than as "what appears to be good authority." He does injustice both to its inventor and his readers, in failing to specify the authority, for it surpasses in reckless audacity of invention anything else that he has told us. To appreciate this, we must remember that the Shenandoah was at that time on the other side of the world. Indeed, if I mistake not, she had never been and never was, on or near the American coast. Cruising in remote seas, her commander was not informed of the fall of the Confederacy and close of the war until long afterward. It was late in the autumn of 1865 before she was surrendered by him to the British authorities. Blockaded as the Confederate coast was, there could have been no reasonable hope that such orders as those described could reach her and be executed, within six or eight months at the least. And even if she had been within reach, an order to a ship of war to cruise "off the coast of Florida" a coast of more than a thousand miles in extent, with all its ports in possession of the enemy -- to take off a party of fugitives at some point which could not possibly be designated beforehand, would have been too stupid a thing to have been done, or discussed even "in profound secrecy" by a government, the members of which have never been charged, even by their enemies, with total insanity.
Although the facts above stated with regard to the Shenandoah are well known, the following letter from a distinguished authority on Confederate naval history may serve to confirm them. The death of the illustrious author soon after it was written invests it with a painful interest:
Letter From Admiral Semmes.
Mobile, Alabama, August 13th, 1877.
Major W. T. Walthall:
Dear Sir: You are quite right as to the locus in quo of the Shenandoah. She was either in the North Pacific or Indian ocean at the time of the surrender. The news of the final catastrophe to our arms reached her in the latter ocean, when she struck her guns below in her hold, made the best of her way to England, and surrendered herself to the British government in trust for the conquering belligerent.
It is well known to the country that only a few weeks before the surrender of Lee, President Davis had no thought of surrender himself. His speech at the African church in Richmond, after the return of the Commission from Old Point, is ample evidence of this. If he had meditated flight from the country, as is falsely pretended by General Wilson, and to facilitate this, had desired to communicate with the Shenandoah, three or four months must have elapsed before a dispatch could reach her, and an equal length of time before she could return to the coast of Florida -- even if he had known her precise locality; which was a matter of great improbability under the discretionary orders under which the ship was cruising.
I was, myself, commanding the James river fleet in the latter days of the war, and was in daily communication with the Navy Department, and if any such intention as that mentioned had been entertained by the Executive, I think I would have been consulted as to the whereabouts of the Shenandoah and the means of reaching her. Nothing of the kind transpired.
I remain very truly yours, &c.,
General Wilson continues:
"When Davis and his companions left Richmond in pursuance of this plan, they believed that Lee could avoid surrender only a short time longer. A few days thereafter the news of this expected calamity reached them, when they turned their faces again toward the South. Breckinridge, the Secretary of War, was sent to confer with Johnston, but found him only in time to assist in drawing up the terms of his celebrated capitulation to Sherman. The intelligence of this event caused the rebel chieftain to renew his flight; but, while hurrying onward, some fatuity induced him to change his plans and to adopt the alternative of trying to push through the Southwest toward the region which he fondly believed to be yet under the domination of Forrest, Taylor, and Kirby Smith, and within which he hoped to revive the desperate fortunes of the rebellion. He confided his hopes to Breckinridge, and when he reached Abbeville, South Carolina, he called a council of war to deliberate upon the plans which he had conceived for regenerating what had now become in fact 'The Lost Cause.' This council was composed of Generals Breckinridge, Bragg, and the commanders of the cavalry force which was then escorting him. All united that it was hopeless to struggle longer, but they added that they would not disband their men till they had guarded their chieftain to a place of safety. This was the last Council of the Confederacy. Davis, who had hitherto commanded with all the rigor of an autocrat, found himself powerless and deserted. From this day forth he was little better than a fugitive, for although his escort gave him and his wagon train nominal company and protection till he had reached the village of Washington, just within the northeastern boundary of Georgia, they had long since learned the hopelessness of further resistance, and now began to despair even of successful flight."
In all this, as in what precedes it, there is scarcely an atom of truth. When Mr. Davis left Richmond he did not expect Lee to have to surrender. His preparations for defence at Danville would have been wholly inconsistent with such an expectation. Breckinridge was not "sent to confer with Johnston," nor did he find him "only in time to assist in drawing up the terms of his celebrated capitulation to Sherman." On the contrary, he arrived at Greensboro' on the 12th or 13th of May, in time to take part in a conference already in progress between President Davis and some of his Cabinet, Generals Johnston and Beauregard. Several days afterward he again met General Johnston, in response to a telegraphic request from the latter, in full time to take part in the negotiations with General Sherman, which resulted, on the 18th, not in the final "capitulation," but in the armistice which the Government of the United States declined to ratify. General Breckinridge was not present and took no part in the celebrated capitulation. See Johnson's Narrative, pages 396-407.
There was no such change of "plan", fatuous or not fatuous, as represented by General Wilson. No "council of war" was held at Abbeville. General Bragg was not at Abbeville. No cavalry commander was a member of "the last council of the Confederacy." Mr. Davis had no wagon train. But it would be tedious and unprofitable to follow the misstatements of General Wilson and expose them in detail. They are too manifold even for enumeration. Enough has been said to show how utterly unworthy of credit is his evidence in support of any statement whatever.
Admiral Semmes, in the letter above copied, has briefly noticed the falsity of the representation that President Davis had been preparing to leave the country, or had even entertained any thought of surrender. The removal of his family from Richmond was not in anticipation of such an event, but as an example to encourage what the government was recommending to the citizens in general, that all should leave that city who conveniently could, on account of the increasing scarcity of supplies. It is reasonable to presume - - and I speak only from presumption, not from any positive information -- that the possibility of having to abandon the capital had been considered by the Confederate authorities for nearly three years previous, and that some degree of preparation for removal of the archives of the government in such case may have existed during all that period; but no expectation of the necessity for an early evacuation had been entertained until Gen. Lee's telegram of the 2d April was received. General Lee himself had expected to be able to hold his position at Petersburg at least "until the roads were hardened," (to use his own expression,) and continued to entertain that hope until his attenuated lines were broken at Five Forks, on the 1st of April; nor did he anticipate, in leaving Petersburg, the series of disasters which compelled the surrender of his army, within a week afterward, under circumstances which made the surrender more illustrious than the conquest.
As to the charge that President Davis was preparing for "flight" from the country, there is not even the pretence of any evidence to support it. It is a mere calumny, without any basis of truth whatever. The only proposition of that sort of which we have any evidence, proceeded from a very different quarter - from the headquarters of the Federal army. General Sherman, in his Memoirs (pages 351-52), says that, in a conference with his general officers, pending the negotiations for an armistice, they discussed the question whether, "if Johnston made a point of it," he (Sherman) should assent to the "escape from the country" of the Confederate President and Cabinet; and that one of the council insisted that, if asked for, a vessel should be provided to take them to Nassau. He does not say whether he himself favored this proposition, or not; but General Johnston, in a note to his account of the negotiations, which Sherman pronounces "quite accurate and correct," says "General Sherman did not desire the arrest of these gentlemen. He was too acute not to foresee the embarrassment their capture would cause; therefore, he wished them to escape."
Comparing these statements with each other, and with impressions made upon others who were participants in the events of the period, there can be no doubt as to General Sherman's inclinations in the matter, "if Johnston had made a point of it;" but General Johnston made no such point. He knew, no doubt, that any proposition to abandon the country would have been promptly rejected by President Davis, and no Confederate General would have made so offensive a suggestion to him.
A week or two later, when it was proposed by one or more of his friends, that he should endeavor to reach Havana or some other West Indian port -- not for the purpose of escape, but as the best and safest route to "the Trans-Mississippi" -- he refused, on the ground that it would require him to leave the country, although it were only for a few days. Some allowance ought perhaps to be made for General Wilson's offences against truth in this particular, on the score of his inability to comprehend the high sense of official honor by which Mr. Davis was actuated. Men's ethical standards are very diverse.
General Wilson shows as little regard for common sense, or consistency for truth and candor. Thus, we find him saying that "Davis, instead of observing the armistice, was making his way toward the South with an escort." And again: "I still felt certain, from what I could learn, that Davis and his Cabinet would endeavor to escape to the west side of the Mississippi river, notwithstanding the armistice and capitulation." The armistice was one thing, and the capitulation another. The capitulation of General Johnston did not take place until after the armistice had been repudiated by the United States Government and the forty eight hours allowed for notice of its disapproval had expired. President Davis became a party to the armistice by giving it his consent and approval, but had nothing to do with the capitulation. So far was he from failing to observe the former, that he remained in Charlotte, quiescent, not only until he was informed of its rejection at Washington, but until the forty eight hours were completed, when he mounted his horse and rode off, having scrupulously observed it to the letter and the minute. This was on the 26th of April. On the same day took place, near Durham's Station, the capitulation of "the troops under General Johnston's command," which certainly did not include the President of the Confederate States, who was not "under General Johnston's command," and who had no part whatever in the transaction. Leaving General Wilson to describe the disposition made of his own troops, and to recite their movements -- a task which, in the absence of any other information, I can only presume that he has performed with more fidelity to truth than is exhibited in the other parts of his article -- I now proceed briefly to narrate the facts immediately connected with the capture of President Davis.
In doing this, it will suffice to repeat the substance, and, in general, the very words of a narrative published more than a year ago (in the Mobile Cycle of May 27th, 1876), which probably met the eye of but few who will be readers of the present article. Proceeding in either case from the same pen, it will be unnecessary to designate such passages as are repetitions of the same language by quotation marks.
The movements of President Davis and his Cabinet, after the evacuation of Richmond, on the night of the 2d of April, are related with substantial accuracy in Alfriend's "Life of Jefferson Davis" -- a great part of them in the words of a narrative written by the late Mr. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy -- until the dispersion of the party at Washington, Georgia, where Mr. Mallory parted with him. It is not necessary to go over this ground. The incidents that follow have not been so well known, but I am enabled to give them on the best authority. If there is any inaccuracy or uncertainty, it is merely with regard to minor matters of dates, places, names, &;c.
Mr. Mallory's narrative mentions the passage of the Savannah river "upon a pontoon bridge" (which was really only a ferry flat), by the President and his escort, about daybreak on the morning of one of the early days of May. The main body of the troops (perhaps a thousand cavalry, or more,) which had accompanied them, were left, under command of General Breckinridge, to follow as soon as they could cross the river, the President pushing forward with only a few gentlemen of his Cabinet and personal staff, and an escort of a single company, commanded by Captain Campbell, to the little town of Washington, in Georgia. On the way he was informed that some Federal troops in the vicinity were preparing to attack the village and capture some stores which had been deposited there, and he sent back a messenger to the officer commanding the advance of the troops left at the river, urging him to come on with his command with all possible speed.
Arriving at Washington, the President was hospitably received and entertained at the house of a private citizen, and preparations were made to resist the expected attack as effectually as possible with the small force at his disposal. He soon ascertained, however, from the reports of scouts sent out into the surrounding country, that there were none but small and scattered squads of Federal soldiers in the neighborhood.
Meantime, advices were received from General Breckinridge, to the effect that, in the demoralized condition of his troops, it was almost impossible to hold them together. They were demanding money, and he asked that the Secretary of the Treasury should send some specie, to make a partial payment to the troops, hoping by this means to prevent a disintegration of the command. The specie was sent, but the troops did not come forward.
Under these circumstances the President determined to abandon the design of taking the troops with him, and to endeavor to make his own way, with only a small party, by a detour to the southward of the parts of the country occupied by the enemy, across the Chattahoochee. It was believed that Generals Taylor and Forrest were yet holding the field in Alabama and Mississippi, and that many soldiers who had not been surrendered and paroled in Virginia or North Carolina, would join those commands and might constitute a formidable force. In the event, however, of finding the position in those States untenable, it was then his purpose to cross the Mississippi river, in the hope of continuing the struggle with the forces yet free to operate in the "Trans Mississippi Department," until the Government of the United States should agree to such terms of peace as would secure to the States of the Confederacy at least those rights which it had declared there was no intention to invade.
Calling for Captain Campbell, the President announced his purpose, and asked for ten volunteers of that officer's company, if they were to be had, with the understanding that they were to incur any danger, or endure any hardship, that might be necessary; to obey any order, and to ask no questions. The whole company promptly volunteered when the call was made, but ten trusty men were selected. With these, under command of Captain Campbell; Mr. Reagan, Postmaster General, and Colonel William Preston Johnston, Colonel John Taylor Wood (formerly of the Confederate Navy), and Colonel Lubbock, of Texas, Aids to the President, he set off on his journey toward the southwest.
How long or how far they had proceeded, we are unable to state with precision - certainly, however, not more than a day or two when they learned from some persons met with on the way that Mrs. Davis and her party were in danger of being attacked by some marauding banditti, composed of deserters and stragglers from both armies, who were prowling through the country. (The President's family, it should be understood, had been sent, by his direction, several weeks earlier, from North Carolina southward, and after a delay of some days at Abbeville, South Carolina, had passed through Washington, Georgia, only a day before his own arrival there. They were travelling in ambulances, or wagons, under escort of a few paroled Confederate soldiers. Aiming to reach East Florida, their route diverged from his own, being more to the southward and less to the westward.)
On receipt of this intelligence, Mr. Davis at once changed his course. Four of his small escort had already been detached to assist and protect a quartermaster's train going to the southward with some valuable stores. With the remaining six, and the gentlemen of his personal staff already mentioned, he struck off in the direction of his family, intending to see them safely through the immediate danger and then prosecute his own journey. Riding rapidly and without halting, they came, near midnight, to a ferry, where they learned that his family had not crossed, and must have taken another route. Here Captain Campbell reported the horses of his men to be exhausted, and proposed to wait until morning. The President, unwilling to wait, and attended only by his staff officers and two colored servants, pressed on by a bridle path to the road which it was thought Mrs. Davis' party had followed. A little before daybreak they encountered a party of men on foot, but with a number of bridles and other suspicious articles, who, on being questioned, said they belonged to the Thirty sixth Alabama regiment, and stated that a party in which were some women and children were encamped not far off. It was afterwards ascertained that these men were of the band of marauders who had been heard of. The moon, which bad shone brightly during the night, was just sinking below the tree tops, and the dark hour that precedes the dawn was probably what they were waiting for.
Riding on a little further, the President was challenged by a sentinel on guard in the woods, whose voice he recognized at once as that of his private secretary, Barton N. Harrison, Esq., who had accompanied Mrs. Davis and family, and was now keeping watch for their protection from imminent peril.
Mr. Davis remained with his family two days, until he had reason to suppose that they had passed the range of immediate danger. On the evening of the second day (which was the 9th of May) preparations were made for departure immediately after nightfall, when Colonel W.P. Johnston returned from a neighboring village with the report that a band of one hundred and fifty men were to attack the camp that night. The President, with abiding confidence in and attachment for all who had been Confederate soldiers, did not doubt that, if any such were in the party, they would desist from the attack on his appeal to them, and even take sides with him in case of conflict with others. He remained, therefore, fully confident of his ability to protect his family.
Meantime his horse, already saddled, with his holsters and blanket in place, was in charge of his body servant, and he himself was lying clothed, booted, and even spurred, when, a little after day break, the alarm was given that the camp was attacked. Springing to his feet and stepping out of the tent, he saw at once, from the manner in which the assailants were deploying around the camp, that they were trained soldiers, and not irregular banditti, and returning he so informed Mrs. Davis.
As we have said, the President was already fully dressed. He hastily took leave of his wife, who threw over his shoulders a water proof cloak or wrapper, either as a protection from the dampness of the early morning, or in the hope that it might serve as a partial disguise, or perhaps with woman's ready and rapid thoughtfulness of its possible use for both these purposes. Mrs. Davis also directed a female servant, who was present, to take an empty bucket and accompany him in the direction of the spring -- his horse, on the other side of the camp, being cut off from access by the interposition of the assailants.
He had advanced only a few steps from the door of the tent, when he was challenged by a mounted soldier, who presented his carbine and ordered him to "surrender." The answer was: "I never surrender to a band of thieves." The carbine was still presented, but the man refrained from firing -- it is but fair to presume from an unwillingness to kill his adversary -- while the President continued to advance. This was not from desperation or foolhardy recklessness, but of deliberate purpose. I take the risk of going perhaps a little beyond the limits of the authorized use of information obtained in the freedom of personal confidence, in stating that, with the rapid process of thought and formation of design which sometimes takes place in moments of imminent peril, Mr. Davis recalled an incident of his own experience that had occurred many years before. On the field of Buena Vista, while riding along a ravine in search of a slope that his horse could ascend, he was fired at and missed by the whole front rank of a squadron of Mexican cavalry on the crest of the bank above.
Remembering this, and observing that the man, who was finely mounted, was so near as to be considerably above him, he had little apprehension of being hit, and believed that, by taking advantage of the excitement of the shot, he might easily tip him from the saddle and get possession of his horse. The feasibility of this design was not to be tested, however, for at this moment Mrs. Davis, seeing only his danger, and animated by a characteristic and heroic determination to share it, ran forward and threw her arms around his neck, with some impassioned exclamation, which probably none of the parties present would be able to repeat correctly. The only hope of escape had depended upon bringing the matter to an immediate issue, and, seeing that this was now lost, the President simply said, "God's will be done," as he quietly turned back and seated himself upon a fallen trees near which a camp fire was burning.
While these events were occurring, there had been some sharp firing around the camp. It appeared afterward that the assailants had been divided into two parties, and, approaching from different directions, had encountered and fired upon each other by mistake, killing and wounding several of their own men. In the confusion consequent upon this, some of the Confederate party escaped -- among them Colonel Wood, who afterwards accompanied General Breckinridge in his perilous and adventurous voyage in an open boat from the coast of Florida to Cuba.
After some delay, an officer with a paper, on which he was taking a list of the prisoners, approached the spot where the President was sitting, and asked his name. This he declined to give it telling the questioner that he might find it out for himself, but Mrs. Davis, anxious to avoid giving provocation as far as possible, gave the required information.
When Colonel Pritchard appeared upon the scene, President Davis, under the influence of feelings naturally aroused by certain indignities offered by subordinates, and by the distress inflicted upon the ladies of his family, addressed him with some asperity. It would probably be impossible (as it always is unclear such circumstances) for any participant, or even any witness, to recite with accuracy the conversation that ensued. I may say, however, that Mr. Davis has never made any complaint of the language or demeanor of Colonel Pritchard to himself, personally. Among the remarks made in that, or some subsequent conversation, by that officer, was one to the effect that, having refused to surrender, Mr. Davis had given the soldier who demanded the surrender the right to shoot him -- a right, under the laws of war, of which President Davis was well aware at the time, and which he did not deny. As to the conversation recited by Wilson, Colonel Johnston, in his very temperate, cautious, and conscientious statement, appended to this article, avers most positively that no such remark was made (about Mr. Davis' "garb," means of "rapid locomotion," &c.,) as is there attributed to Colonel Pritchard.
It would require too much space to point out in detail all the misrepresentations in General Wilson's account of this affair. I shall copy merely a paragraph. After quoting from the account of the capture given by Pollard, who, although one of the most virulent and unscrupulous of President Davis' enemies, has rejected the contemptible fiction of the "petticoat story," he says:
"Between the two explanations given above, nearly all the truth has been told, for Davis certainly had on both the shawl and waterproof, the former folded triangularly and pulled down over his hat, and the latter buttoned down in front and covering his entire person except the feet. In addition to this he carried a small tin pail and was accompanied by his wife and his wife's sister, one on each side, both of them claiming him as a female relative and both trying to impose him upon the soldiers as such. The articles of the disguise are now in the keeping of the Adjutant General of the army at Washington, and I am assured by him that they correspond in all respects to the description given of them. From the foregoing it will be seen that Davis did not actually have on crinoline or petticoats, but there is no doubt whatever that he sought to avoid capture by assuming the dress of a woman, or that the ladies of the party endeavored to pass him off upon his captors as one of themselves. Was there ever a more pitiful termination to a career of treachery and dishonor? What greater stigma was ever affixed to the name of rebel? Many loyal men have declared that Davis should have been tried by drum-head court martial and executed -- but what new disgrace could the gallows indict upon the man who hid himself under the garb of woman, when, if ever, he should have shown the courage of a hero?"
With regard to the exact form of the fold of the shawl and the extent to which the "waterproof" was "buttoned down," General Wilson's assertions may pass for what they have already been shown to be worth. I have no evidence, and have not thought it necessary to seek any, as to the shape of the one or the dimensions of the other. Those who are curious might possibly ascertain, something on the subject by inquiry and examination at the War Department, if permission can be obtained of the Adjutant General of the army, who, according to General Wilson, is the custodian of the stolen articles of Mr. Davis' wearing apparel. It is enough to know that they were both articles which he "had been accustomed to wear." Colonel Johnston testifies, in the letter subjoined, that he himself had a "waterproof" of exactly the same sort, except in color, and that he turned this over to Mr. Davis, who wore it, after his capture, to supply the place of that of which he had been robbed. The very name ("Raglan") by which Col. Johnston describes it, and by which it is commonly known, sufficiently indicates its origin and use as an article of masculine attire. Indeed, there was no female grenadier in the President's party, whose cloak would have been capable of "covering his entire person except the feet" - he being a man of nearly six feet in height. It is also positively untrue that he "carried a small tin pail". As already stated, there was a bucket in the hands of a colored female servant, whom the narrators seem to have indiscriminately confounded with President Davis, or with Miss Howell, (who was not in company with him,) as it might serve a purpose.
But why this persistent effort to perpetuate a false and foolish story, which seems to have been originally invented for sensational purposes by a newspaper correspondent? Even if it had been true, there would have been nothing unworthy or discreditable in it. Princes and peers, statesmen and sages, heroes and patriots, in all ages, have held it permissible and honorable to escape from captivity in any guise whatever. The name of Alfred has never been less honored because he took refuge from the invaders of his country under the guise of a cowherd. It has never been reckoned as a blot on the escutcheon of Richard Coeur de Lion, that he attempted to evade the recognition of enemies (less ruthless and vindictive than those of the Confederate President) by assuming the garb of a pilgrim -- although the attempt was a failure, and he was detected and imprisoned. Not to cite the scores of instances of a like sort scattered through the pages of ancient and modern history, I do not find in our own generation any disposition to traduce the character of a late President of the United States, held in high honor by a great many Americans -- a President from whom General Wilson held his own commission -- on account of a certain "Scotch cap and cloak," which, according to the current accounts, he assumed, on the way to his own inauguration, as a means of escaping recognition by a band of real or imaginary conspirators, and in which he slipped through Baltimore undetected, and (in the words of Horace Greeley, who, nevertheless, approves the act,) "clandestinely and like a hunted fugitive." Far be it from me, in retaliatory imitation of General Wilson, to sneer at this incident as the "ignoble" beginning of a bloodstained administration, which was to have a "pitiful termination" amidst the desecration of a day hallowed by the sanctity of eighteen centuries of Christian reverence. No Southern writer has spoken in such a strain of the departed Chief, although known to us while living only as the chief of our foes. The dignity of death, no less than the respect due to the feelings of the thousands of our countrymen who hold his memory in honor, protects his name and fame from opprobrious or vindictive mention. Yet such language as we have supposed, would be less coarse, less churlish, less offensive, less brutal, than the terms which General Wilson employs in exulting over the calamities of an illustrious enemy, whose reputation is dear to myriads of his countrymen. His relations to that enemy, as captor to captive, would have created in the heart of any truly generous and chivalrous soldier an obligation of respect, forbearance, gentleness, and courtesy. Such a soldier feels toward such a prisoner a sentiment which renders him a defender and protector, rather than a defamer and calumniator.
The terms "treachery," "dishonor," "disgrace," applied by Wilson to Jefferson Davis, admit of no reply that I care to make, and require none. They are indeed "foul, dishonoring words," but the reader needs not to be told who it is that they dishonor.
The length to which this article has already been extended, leaves but little room for the remainder of the story. General Wilson gives a brief account of the march to Macon, but says nothing of the horses, watches, and other articles of plunder secured by the captors, of which we have information from other sources. It must be remembered that all, or nearly all of the thirteen private soldiers of whom be speaks -- if that was the correct number -- and some of the officers, were paroled men, not arrested in any violation of their parole, but merely acting as an escort to a party of women and children, for their protection from the thieves and marauders who were roaming through the country. The horses of these men were their own private property, secured to them by the terms of their surrender. This pledge was violated, as was also the pledge of personal immunity -- for some of them were remanded into captivity. The writer of an account of the capture, in the "Atlantic Monthly" for September, 1865, who is identified by General Wilson as an officer of his command, chuckles over the appropriation of what he elegantly and politely styles "Jeff's wines and other 'amenities'" -- that is to say, the private stores of Mrs. Davis and her family -- for Mr. Davis carried no stores -- in a tone of sportive exultation, as it were a very good thing. He tells it in a vein that reminds one of Master Slander's desire to have Mrs. Anne Page hear the capital joke about his father's "stealing two geese out of a pen." The same writer gives us, in the same jocose vein, an account of a brutal indignity offered by his "brigade band" to the illustrious prisoner, of which -- if it ever occurred -- the object of it was happily unconscious. He also tells us that "Mrs. Davis was very watchful lest some disrespect should be shown her husband;" whereas the true and manifest cause of her anxiety was the wifely apprehension that some pretext might be devised for his assassination.
General Wilson fails in some respects to do himself justice. His reception of Mr. Davis on his arrival at Macon, was more courteous and respectful than he represents it. The troops were drawn up in double lines, facing inward, and presented arms to the Confederate President as he passed between them. He was conducted, with his family, to private rooms at the hotel where the Federal commander was quartered, and a message was brought, inquiring whether he preferred to call on General Wilson, or to receive him in his own apartments. The answer was, that he would call on General Wilson, to whom he was accordingly conducted. (There was a reason for this use of the option offered, which it is not necessary to state.) The conversation that followed is not correctly reported by General Wilson, except that part of it relating to West Point, which was introduced by himself. Those who know Mr. Davis' keen sense of social and official propriety will not need to be told that what is said of his criticisms upon the principal Confederate leaders is purely fictitious. No such conversation occurred, and it is simply impossible that it could have occurred under the circumstances.
I deny the statement on the best authority, but no authority besides that of the moral evidence would be necessary to refute the assertion that the Confederate President could talk to a stranger and an enemy in a strain of gushing confidence which he never indulged in conversation with his own familiar friends. It is but charity to presume that General Wilson has confounded opinions attributed to Mr. Davis by popular rumor (whether right or wrong) with imaginary expressions of them to himself.
In the course of the interview, General Wilson abruptly and rather indelicately introduced the subject of the reward offered by the President of the United States for the arrest of Mr. Davis, and the charge against him of complicity in the assassination of Mr. Lincoln, inquiring whether he had heard of it. "I have," was the answer, "and there is one man who knows it to be a lie." "By 'one man'" rejoined Wilson, "I presume you mean some one particular man?" "I do," answered Mr. Davis; "I mean the man (Andrew Johnson) who signed the proclamation; for he knows that I would a thousand times rather have Abraham Lincoln to deal with, as President of the United States, than to have him." This was said with the full expectation that it would be reported.
The statement that he expressed apprehensions of the charge of treason, as one which it would give him "trouble to disprove," is manifestly absurd. For two years of imprisonment, and another year while on bail, the most strenuous efforts of Mr. Davis and his friends were to bring this charge of treason to the issue of a trial. This issue the Government of the United States never dared to make, but, after delays and postponements from time to time, under various pretexts, finally dismissed the charge with a nolle prosequi.
The remark about Colonel Pritchard is not correctly stated. No expression of a choice of custodians or request of any sort was made by Mr. Davis, who, from the time of his capture to that of his release, adhered to the determination to ask nothing of his captors; nor did he say or intimate to General Wilson that he had shown any lack of "dignity and self possession," or express "regret" for anything said or done at the time of his capture.
There are so many other misstatements in General Wilson's narrative that it would be a waste of time to point out and contradict them. With regard to one only of them, I may say that, in the light -- or rather under the shadow -- of the incomparable fictitiousness already exposed, it would be a sort of injustice to the people of Georgia to give any attention to what General Wilson would have us believe of their lack of sympathy with their President and his family in the hour of calamity.
To revert for a moment to the foolish and malignant "petticoat story," which, with some modification of its original draft, Gen. Wilson has attempted, at this late day, and in opposition to the slowly returning tide of peace and good will, to revive and reconstruct; it has no support from any contemporary official statement that has been given to the public. It has been repeatedly and positively denied by eye witnesses on both sides. One such denial by a Federal soldier, which was published in a Northern paper a few years ago, and has been copied more than once since its first appearance, was republished in the Southern Historical Society Papers for August, 1877. The statement of James H. Jones, President Davis' colored coachman, now a respectable citizen of Raleigh, N.C., recently republished in the Philadelphia Times, is clear and satisfactory on the same point, although it has some mistakes in names of persons, places, &c., -- as might be expected from a witness of limited education, after so long a lapse of time. Appended, also, will be found interesting letters from Colonel Wm. Preston Johnston and F.R. Lubbock, (Ex Governor of Texas), both of whom were aids to President Davis, and both in company with him when captured, and also from the Hon. George Davis, of North Carolina, who was a member of his Cabinet. Colonel Johnston's letter (from which some passages of a merely personal interest have been omitted), is singularly clear, dispassionate, and temperate in tone, and bears on its face the impress of intelligent and conscientious truthfulness. Governor Lubbock writes more briefly and with freer expression of honest indignation, but the two statements (made without any sort of concert) fully confirm each other. Mr. Davis' letter -- received after the foregoing narrative was written -- substantiates all that has been said as to events occurring at the time of the evacuation of Richmond.
Still later, but entirely independent of all other evidence, has appeared the letter of the Hon. John H. Reagan, Confederate Postmaster General, published in the Philadelphia Times, entirely corroborating the statements hereunto appended, and giving emphasis (if that were possible) to their exposure of the untruthfulness of General Wilson's narrative in its beginning, its middle, and its end.
W. T. Walthall
Letter From Colonel William Preston Johnson Late Aide To President Davis
Lexington, Va., July 14th, 1877.
Major W.T. Walthall, Mobile, Ala.:
My Dear Sir: Your letter has just come to hand, and I reply at once. Wilson's monograph is written with a very strong animus, not to say virus. It is in no sense historical. It bears upon its face all the marks of special pleading. He states, as matters of fact, numberless circumstances which could not be of his own knowledge, and which he must have picked up as rumor or mere gossip. Single errors of this sort are blemishes; but when they are grouped and used as fact and argument, they become, what you truly call them, "calumny."
For instance, Mrs. Davis is represented as leaving Richmond with the President. My recollection is that she left some weeks beforehand. Breckinridge left on horseback, and went to General Lee, rejoining Mr. Davis at Danville. I do not doubt that all the account of "the preparations for flight" is purely fictitious. His statement of the conditions of the armistice is incorrect.
* * * * * * * *
You will have the facts of our retreat and capture from many sources. My best plan is to tell you only what I know and saw myself. My testimony is chiefly negative, but in so far as it goes will probably aid you. My understanding was that we were to part with Mrs. Davis' train on the morning of the 9th. We did not, and the President continued to ride in the ambulance. He was sick and a good deal exhausted, but was not the man to say anything about it. The day previous he had let little Jeff. shoot his Derringers at a mark, and handed me one of the unloaded pistols, which he asked me to carry, as it incommoded him. At that time I spoke to him about the size of our train and our route, about which I had not previously talked, as he had said nothing and I did not wish to force his confidence. It was, however, distinctly understood that we were going to Texas. I that day said to him that I did not believe we could get west through Mississippi, and that by rapid movements and a bold attempt by sea from the Florida coast, we were more likely to reach Texas safely and promptly. He replied: "It is true -- every negro in Mississippi knows me." I also talked with Judge Reagan and Colonel Wood on this topic. The impression left on my own mind was, however, that Mr. Davis intended to turn west, south of Albany; but I had no definite idea of his purpose, whether to go by sea or land. Indeed, my scope of duty was simply to follow and obey him; and, so long as I was not consulted, I was well content to do this and no more. I confess I did not have great hopes of escape, though not apprehensive at the time of capture, as our scouts, ten picked men, were explicit that no Federals were near and that pickets were out. Both of these were errors. On the night of the 9th I was very much worn out with travel and watching, and lay down at the foot of a pine tree to sleep.
Just at gray dawn Mr. Davis' servant, Jim, awakened me. He said: "Colonel, do you hear that firing?" I sprang up and said, "run and wake the President." He did so. Hearing nothing as I pulled on my boots, I walked to the camp fire, some fifty or less steps off, and asked the cook if Jim was not mistaken. At this moment I saw eight or ten men charging down the road towards me. I thought they were guerrillas, trying to stampede the stock. I ran to my saddle, where I had slept, and begun unfastening the holster to get out my revolver, but they were too quick for me. Three men rode up and demanded my pistol, which, as soon as I got out, I gave up to the leader, a bright, slim, soldierly fellow, dressed in Confederate grey clothes. The same man, I believe, captured Colonels Wood and Lubbock just after. One of my captors ordered me to the camp fire and stood guard over me. I soon became aware that they were Federals.
In the meantime the firing went on. After about ten minutes, maybe more, my guard left me, and I walked over to Mrs. Davis' tent, about fifty yards off. Mrs. Davis was in great distress. I said to the President, who was sitting outside on a camp stool: "This is a bad business, sir." He replied, supposing I knew about the circumstances of his capture: "I would have heaved the scoundrel off his horse as he came up, but she caught me around the arms." I understood what he meant, how he had proposed to dismount the trooper and get his horse, for he had taught me the trick. I merely replied: "It would have been useless."
Mr. Davis was dressed as usual. He had on a knit woolen visor, which he always wore at night for neuralgia. He wore cavalry boots. He complained of chilliness, and said they had taken away his "Raglan", (I believe they were so called,) a light aquas-cutum or spring overcoat, sometimes called a "waterproof." I had one exactly similar, except in color. I went to look for it, and either I, or some one at my instance, found it, and he wore it afterwards. His own was not restored.
As I was looking for this coat, the firing still continuing, I met a mounted officer, who, if I am not mistaken, was a Captain Hodson. Feeling that the cause was lost, and not wishing useless bloodshed, I said to him: "Captain, your men are fighting each other over yonder." He answered very positively: "You have an armed escort." I replied: "You have our whole camp; I know your men are fighting each other. We have nobody on that side of the slough." He then rode off. Colonel Lubbock had a conversation nearly identical with Colonel Pritchard, who was not polite, I believe. You can learn from Colonel Lubbock about it.
Not long afterwards, seeing Mr. Davis in altercation with an officer, Colonel Pritchard, I went up. Mr. Davis was denunciatory in his remarks. The account given by Wilson is fabulous, except so far as Mr. Davis' remark is concerned, that "their conduct was not that of gentlemen, but ruffians." Pritchard did not make the reply attributed to him; I could swear to that. My recollection is that he said in substance, and in an offensive manner, "that he (Davis) was a prisoner and could afford to talk so," and walked away. Colonel Hamden's manner was conciliatory, if he was the other officer. If I am not mistaken, the first offence was his addressing Mr. Davis as "Jeff," or some such rude familiarity. But this you can verify. I tried just afterwards to reconcile Mr. Davis to the situation.
On the route to Macon, three days afterwards, Mrs. Davis complained to me with great bitterness that her trunks had been ransacked, the contents taken out, and tumbled back with the leaves sticking to them.
I had not seen Mr. Davis' capture. I was with him until we were parted at Fortress Monroe. Personally, I was treated with as much respect as I cared for. The officers were rather gushing than otherwise, and talked freely. Some were coarse men, and talked of everything; but I never heard of Mr. Davis' alleged disguise until I saw it in a New York Herald, the day I got to Fort Delaware. I was astonished and denounced it as a falsehood. The next day I was placed in solitary confinement, and remained there. I do not believe it possible that these ten days could have been passed with our captors without an allusion to it, if it had not been an after thought or something to be kept from us.
Very sincerely yours,
Wm. Preston Johnston.
Letter From Ex Governor Lubbock, Of Texas, Late Aid To President Davis.
Galveston, Tex., August 2d. 1877.
Major W.T. Walthall:
Dear Sir: Yours of 28th came to hand a day or two since, finding me quite busy. At the earliest moment I perused the article you alluded to in your letter, which appeared in the Weekly Times, of Philadelphia, of July 7th. It does really appear that certain parties, with the view of keeping themselves before the public, will continue to write the most base, calumnious, and slanderous articles, calculated to keep the wounds of the past open and sore. Such a writer now appears in General James H. Wilson, whose sole aim seems to be that of traducing and misrepresenting the circumstances of the capture of President Davis and his small party, who, it would appear, were pursued by some fifteen thousand gallant soldiers, commanded by this distinguished general. I shall leave it to you and others better qualified than myself, to reply to this "Chapter of the Unwritten History of the War." I have this, however, to say: I left Richmond with President Davis, in the same car, and from that day to the time of our separation (he being detained at Fortress Monroe and I sent to Fort Delaware), he was scarcely ever out of my sight, day or night.
The night before the morning of our capture, Colonel William P. Johnston slept very near the tent. Colonel John Taylor Wood and myself were under a pine tree, some fifty to one hundred feet off. Our camp was surprised just a while before day. I was with Mr. Davis and his family in a very few moments, and never did see anything of an attempted disguise or escape until after I had been confined in Fort Delaware several weeks. I then pronounced it a base falsehood. We were guarded by Colonel Pritchard's command until we reached Fortress Monroe. I talked freely with officers and men, and on no occasion did I hear anything of the kind mentioned.
Judge Reagan and myself had entered into a compact that we would never desert or leave him, remaining to contribute, if possible, to his well being and comfort, and share his fortune, whatever might befall. My bed mate, Colonel John Taylor Wood (one of the bravest and purest of men), having been a naval officer of the United States, and having been charged with violating the rules of war in certain captures made, deeming it prudent to make his escape, informed me of his intention and invited me to accompany him. I declined to avail myself of the favorable opportunity presented, telling him of my compact with Judge Reagan. He did escape.
The conduct of the captor, on that occasion was marked by anything but decency and soldierly bearing. They found no armed men -- my recollection is that there was not one armed man in our camp. Mr. Davis, Judge Reagan, Colonel William Preston Johnston, Colonel John Taylor Wood, a young gentleman (a Mr. Barnwell, of South Carolina,) who escaped, and myself, constituted the President's party. Colonel Harrison, the private secretary of the President, and a few paroled soldiers, were with Mrs. Davis and party, protecting their little baggage, &c.
Upon taking the camp, they plundered and robbed everyone of all and every article they could get hold of. They stole the watches, jewelry, money, clothing, &c. I believe I was the only one of the party not robbed.
The man and patriot, who a few days before was at the head of a government, was treated by his captors with uncalled for indignity; so much so that I became indignant, and so completely unhinged and exasperated that I called upon the officers to protect him from insult, threatening to kill the parties engaged in such conduct.
I cannot see how Mr. Davis could speak of Colonel Pritchard or his command with any degree of patience, as we all know that Mrs. Davis was robbed of her horses (a present from the people of Richmond). The money that she sold her trinkets, silverware, &c., for, was stolen, and no effort was made to have it returned to her. Time and time again they promised that the watches stolen on that occasion should be returned, that the command would be paroled, and the stolen property restored to the owners; but it was never done, nor any attempt made, that I can recall to my mind.
A Captain Douglass stole Judge Reagan's saddle, and used it from the day we were captured.
They appropriated our horses and other private property. But why dwell upon this wretchedly disagreeable subject? I hope and pray that the whole truth will some day be written, and I feel assured when it is done we of the South will stand to all time a vindicated people. As for him who is the target for all of the miserable scribblers, and of those unscrupulous and corrupt men living on the abuse heaped upon the Southern people by fanning the embers of the late war -- when he is gone from hence history will write him as one of the truest and purest of men, a dignified and bold soldier, an enlightened and intelligent statesman, a man whose whole aim was to benefit his country and his people.
I know him well. I have been with him under all circumstances, and have ever found him good and true. How wretched the spirit that will continue to traduce such a man! How miserably contemptible the party that will refuse to recognize such a man as a citizen of the country in whose defence his best days were spent and his blood freely spilt!
I have the honor to be,
Yours very respectfully,
F. R. Lubbock
Letter From The Late Hon. George Davis,
Late Attorney General of the Confederate States.
Wilmington, N.C., September 4th, 1877.
Major W.T. Walthall:
Dear Sir: Your favor of the 14th ult. and the copy of the Philadelphia "Times" were duly received, but my engagements with the courts have prevented an earlier reply.
I regret that I can give you but little information in aid of the purpose you have in mind, as I parted from Mr. Davis and the rest of the Cabinet at Charlotte; and the narrative of General Wilson professes to deal chiefly with events which occurred afterward.
I was not present at the Cabinet meeting on the first Sunday in April, 1865, when the telegram was received from General Lee announcing that his lines had been broken at Petersburg. I had that day attended service at a church to which I was not in the habit of going, and in consequence did not receive the message until about 1 o'clock, P.M. I went immediately to Mr. Davis' office, and found him alone, and calm and composed as usual. He informed me of the orders that had been given and the dispositions made for the evacuation of Richmond. After some conversation I left to make my own preparations for departure. I believe that even the intensity of Northern hatred has never doubted Mr. Davis' courage; and certainly none who know him can doubt his pride of personal character. And these admitted qualities were quite sufficient to preserve him from any unmanly display of weakness, such as General Wilson has pretended to relate. A brave man may be unnerved by a sudden and unexpected danger, but never by a danger that has been anticipated and prepared for during many weeks, (as he relates). During my intimate association with Mr. Davis, I have seen him often in circumstances of extreme trial and excitement, and sometimes of imminent danger. Especially do I recall that other Cabinet meeting which was interrupted by the intelligence that Dahlgren was at the outworks of Richmond, with nothing in his way but a raw battalion of Department clerks. And never yet have I seen him "tremulous and nervous," as "without self possession and dignity." Assuredly, such language does not truthfully describe his conduct and demeanor as I saw him on the first Sunday in April, 1865.
The unfortunate are always in the wrong; and the men of the Confederacy have had little reason to expect magnanimity, or even fairness, from their adversaries. But a generous tribute of respect and honor has been universally and ungrudgingly yielded to their women. And the soldier, professing to deal with history, who cannot sufficiently belittle a great enemy without invading the sanctity of his home to hold up his wife in half sneering, half complimentary contrast to him, does not commend himself to the confidence of an impartial world. And the judgment of the world in this instance will probably be a near approach to the truth; for the "energy and determination," the "rage and disappointment" of Mrs. Davis, so graphically described by General Wilson, are all pure fiction. That admirable lady had left Richmond some time before the evacuation, and was then in North Carolina.
This candid soldier further says: "It is stated, upon what appears to be good authority, that Davis had many weeks before Lee's catastrophe made `the most careful and exacting preparations for his escape, discussing the matter fully with his Cabinet in profound secrecy, and deciding that, in order to secure the escape of himself and his principal officers, the Shenandoah should be ordered to cruise off the coast of Florida, to take the fugitives on board.' These orders were sent to the rebel cruiser many days before Lee's lines were broken."
Who this "good authority" is we are left to conjecture; but General Wilson himself is responsible for the assertion that "these orders were sent," as he does not quote even a dubious authority for that. Was ever a more daring statement given to a credulous world? Mr. Davis and his Cabinet were so extremely concerned for their personal safety that they took the one impossible way to secure it! The Shenandoah was then, and long had been, on the broad bosom of the Pacific ocean, hunted on all sides by Federal cruisers, and without a single friendly port in which to drop her anchor. Were these orders sent around the Horn, or overland from Texas? How long would it have taken them to find her and bring her to the coast of Florida? And how long would the Federal navy have permitted her to remain there waiting for "the fugitives"?
Again: The narrative deals in pure fiction, too absurd for the wildest credulity. No such orders were issued. There were no discussions in the Cabinet, no "careful and exacting preparations for escape," and no preparations of any kind until the fall of Petersburg rendered them necessary; and then the anxiety was for the preservation of the Government, and not for the safety of its individual members. Day by day, for many months, the varying fortunes of the Confederacy were the subject of grave and anxious deliberations in the Cabinet. But never was there any plan proposed, or any suggestion made, or even a casual remark uttered, regarding the personal safety of its officers. Bad as General Wilson may think them, they were neither selfish enough nor cowardly enough for that. And as to Mr. Davis, it was well known in Richmond that his unnecessary and reckless exposure of himself was the cause of frequent and earnest remonstrances on the part of his friends.
The Northern people triumphed in arms, but they can never add to the glories of that triumph by endeavoring to depreciate and degrade the men whom they found it so difficult to conquer.
Very respectfully yours,
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. V. Richmond, Virginia, March, 1878. No. 3.
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