Gloating Union generals cooked up the myth that Jefferson Davis was captured in his wife’s clothes.
The 4th Michigan Cavalry trooper swiveled in his saddle, drew his carbine and aimed toward a figure trying to walk unnoticed from a large canvas tent into nearby woods.
“Halt!” he cried.
The figure stopped, threw off a shawl and raglan overcoat to reveal a fine gray suit, and turned toward the trooper.
It was just after dawn on May 10, 1865, and the five-week flight of Jefferson Davis, the president of the defeated Confederate States of America, had ended in a south-central Georgia clearing about a mile north of Irwinville.
Davis, his cabinet and what was left of the Confederate government had fled Richmond on April 3, carrying with them the remains of the Confederate treasury—about $500,000 in gold and silver. Momentous events had occurred in the meantime: General Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, and President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. Yet Davis had managed to keep moving south, his group continually getting smaller, not quite sure where they would end up.
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had finally turned his attention to pursuing the Confederate leader on April 26, the day after Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was cornered and killed in a Virginia barn. Stanton ordered Maj. Gens. George Stoneman in Knoxville, Tenn., and James H. Wilson in Macon, Ga., to try to intercept Davis. Spies informed Wilson that the Davis group was in Charlotte, N.C., and Wilson arranged for a 1st Ohio Cavalry lieutenant named Joseph A.O. Yeoman and 20 other troopers to infiltrate Davis’ column by posing as Rebels. When Yeoman sent word that the column could be taken, Wilson sent two cavalry units—the 1st Wisconsin under Colonel Henry Harnden, and the 4th Michigan under Colonel Robert H. Minty—to do the job. Minty, however, chose to stay behind, delegating command to Lt. Col. Benjamin Pritchard.
But neither Federal group knew the other’s exact location the morning of May 10 when 25 men of the 4th Michigan swept into the camp of Davis and his escort from the south, and the 1st Wisconsin sneaked in from the north. The Union units ended up firing at each other, killing two men and wounding one from the 4th Michigan and severely wounding three from the 1st Wisconsin.
The confusion gave Davis an opportunity to attempt a getaway. Davis’ secretary, Burton Harrison, recounted that one Federal trooper remained near the Davis tent while all the others went toward the firing. Varina Davis quickly grabbed her overcoat, placed it on her husband’s shoulders, then tossed a shawl over his head. She came out of the tent and spoke to the trooper, trying to get him to move off. Harrison went out and managed to get the trooper to turn and face him while Jefferson Davis emerged from the tent and started for the woods. But as he was walking away wearing the overcoat and shawl, the cavalryman turned and spotted him.
Davis thought for a few seconds about using an old Indian trick to cup his hands under the trooper’s stirrup and throw him out of the saddle. But Varina, standing near the trooper and seeing his carbine, rushed over to shield her husband. As recounted in Clint Johnson’s new book Pursuit, Davis realized the danger to his wife and surrendered—and unwittingly became the butt of national controversy and ridicule because of his clothing.
It took three days for official word of Davis’ capture to reach Washington, and the announcement created a myth. The overcoat and shawl the well-meaning Varina had placed on her husband’s shoulders would morph in subsequent reports into a lady’s dress or even a hoop skirt, bringing Davis nationwide derision.
After Pritchard’s men captured Davis and his group on May 10, Pritchard escorted the group’s slow-moving wagons on the journey to Macon as some of his troopers sang, “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.” As the column neared Macon on May 13, word of the capture was relayed to Minty, who in turn informed Wilson, who wired Stanton—bringing national attention to Davis and his supposed wearing of his wife’s dress. Wilson wrote years later that Minty had told him, “General, we have captured Jeff Davis, and by jingo, we got him in his wife’s clothes!”
In his memoir Wilson wrote, “It flashed through my mind that Davis’s capture would be hailed throughout the North as the end of the Rebellion, and if he really were caught in his wife’s clothes, it would overwhelm him and the Confederate cause alike with ridicule.” Wilson telegraphed the news to Stanton, adding that Davis had brandished a Bowie knife, though other accounts from those present said Davis was unarmed.
The persistent reports about Davis wearing his wife’s clothes proved too much for one 4th Michigan officer, who wrote an account in a postwar newspaper but declined to sign his name: “Besides the suit of men’s clothing worn by Mr. Davis he had on when captured Mrs. Davis’ large waterproof dress or robe, thrown over his own fine gray suit, and a blanket shawl thrown over his head and shoulders. This shawl and robe were finally deposited in the archives of the war department at Washington by order of Secretary Stanton. The story of the ‘hoopskirt, bonnet and calico wrapper’ had no real existence and was started in the fertile brains of the reporters and in the illustrated papers of that day. That was a perilous moment for Mr. Davis. He had the right to try to escape in any disguise he could use.”
Private James H. Parker of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry wrote 12 years after the war that while he had no special regard for Davis, “I defy any person to find a single officer or soldier who was present at the capture of Jefferson Davis who will say, upon honor, that he was disguised in women’s clothes….I go for trying him for his crimes, and, if he is found guilty, punishing him. But I would not lie about him, when the truth will certainly make it bad enough.”
Abraham Lincoln had once suggested that he wouldn’t mind if the Confederate brain trust fled the country. But Andrew Johnson was president now and he reviled the vanquished leaders, and Stanton, his secretary of war, wanted revenge.
When Davis arrived in Macon on May 13, he met for an hour with General Wilson. The general recalled that Davis expressed his sorrow about Lincoln, “that a man of so much sensibility and kindliness had been succeeded in the presidency by Andrew Johnson, for whom he seemed to fear would be governed by a vindictive and unforgiving temper toward the Southern people.”
Davis had good reason to be wary—the Federal poster advertising a $100,000 reward for his capture had accused him of inciting the assassination. Davis was confident those allegations about Lincoln would never stick, but he was more worried about what other charges the U.S. government might bring against him.
In his 1912 book Under The Old Flag, Wilson recalled that Davis had told him, “I have no doubt, general, the government of the United States will bring a much more serious charge against me than that, and one which will give me much greater trouble to disprove.” That charge was treason. “Of course I understood this as an allusion to his well-known public actions in connection with secession and the war against the Union,” Wilson wrote. Though charged with no crime, Davis was taken to a cell at Fortress Monroe, Va.
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.