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Jeff Davis’ Fugitive Government

By Clint Johnson
6/1/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

As Union forces capture Richmond, the Confederate president and his cabinet take a slow train into exile.

The Confederate cabinet was in full flight on the night of April 2, 1865, but what a slow, pitiful flight it was. The train’s engine herked and jerked and wheezed down the rails from Richmond toward Danville, Va., at a measly 10 miles per hour, barely four times the pace a soldier could march, and at half the pace a regiment of cavalry could have maintained—had anyone ordered any cavalry to escort the fleeing government.

The assorted cabinet secretaries and their clerks did not complain about the noisy, smoky, amenity-bare passenger cars clattering along behind the second-rate engine. They knew enough about the poor condition of the surviving Confederate locomotives to be thankful that there were any engines left in the capital that could still pull cars. No one among the government elite dared ask the president of the railroad, who had wisely decided it was also time for him to leave the city, if the cars were overloaded. There was fear that even thinking such a thought would make the engine stop in its tracks. And if it stopped, the first people to find them would undoubtedly be a Union patrol.

Confederate Congressman H.W. Bruce, who took the opportunity to get aboard the train even though the original intent was to evacuate only the cabinet members and their assistants, noted the somber mood among the passengers: “I never knew so little conversation indulged by so large a number of acquaintances together, for we were nearly all acquainted with each other, and, I may say, fellow fugitives driven by the same great calamity and wrong. Very few words were interchanged.”

Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory sat in the rocking car pondering his future even before the train steamed out of sight of the station. Just the night before he had heard the Confederate-instigated explosions that splintered the last of the assorted James River Squadron ships that he had once commanded. That mattered little, however, since Union ships would have done the same thing within a few days. The former senator, who had played such a large role in building up the U.S. Navy in the 1850s, was suddenly without a job in the Confederate government.

Mallory, bored and unable to sleep as readily as his traveling companions who had liberally partaken of the apple brandy that Treasury Secretary George Trenholm was passing around, glanced around the train car. He realized that he and the other members of the Cabinet were making history this night, and began writing down impressions in his diary of what was happening and of the people who would be with him until they escaped or were captured.

“The train moved in gloomy silence over the James River,” Mallory wrote. “A commanding view of the city was thus afforded, and as the fugitives receded from the flickering lights, many and sad were the commentaries they made on the Confederate cause.

“All knew how the route to Danville approached the enemy’s lines, all knew the activity of his large mounted force, and the chance between a safe passage of the Dan and a general gobble by [Phil] Sheridan’s cavalry seemed somewhat in favor of the gobble.”

Trenholm, a man of great wealth accumulated by owning blockade running ships, did not seem as ill as he usually did, but then again, he was sharing what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of “Old Peach.” There were 29 men and one woman, Mrs. Trenholm, in the packed train car, and most seemed to welcome the chance to drink some liquor to smooth their transition from government official to war refugee.

Judah P. Benjamin, the secretary of state, continued to be unusually jolly for a man who happened to be running from arrest on possible treason charges. Mallory wrote that Benjamin still had a smile on his face as he told tales of “other great national causes which had been redeemed from far gloomier reverses than ours.”

Congressman Bruce awoke the next morning, April 3, as the train pulled into Burkeville Station, one stop below Amelia Court House, where Lee also would be headed that day. It was obvious to the people in that village that something had gone terribly wrong in Richmond. Bruce recalled: “We stopped at every station on the way, crowds thronging to the train at each to make inquiries, for the bad news in this case preserved its proverbial reputation for fast traveling. Everybody sought to see, shake hands with and speak to the President, who maintained all the way a bold front, gave no evidence by word or appearance of despair, but spoke all along encouragingly to the people.”

Lieutenant John S. Wise, son of the former Virginia governor, Henry Wise, happened to be watching at one station when the train passed. He too focused on the Confederate president. “Mr. Davis sat at a car window. The crowd at the station cheered. He smiled and acknowledged their compliment, but his expression showed physical and mental exhaustion. Near him sat General Bragg, whose shaggy eyebrows and piercing eyes made him look like a much greater man than he ever proved himself to be.”

Wise, only 19 years old, had first seen combat a year earlier as a Virginia Military Institute cadet at the Battle of New Market, Va., under the command of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge. He was not only a keen observer of what was happening around him, but he also kept his sense of humor even as his future came crashing down in front of him.

“I saw a government on wheels. It was the marvelous and incongruous debris of the wreck of the Confederate capital. There were very few women on these trains, but among the last in the long procession were trains bearing indiscriminate cargoes of men and things. In one car was a cage with an African parrot, and a box of tame squirrels and a hunchback! Everybody, not excepting the parrot, was wrought up to a pitch of intense excitement.”

A 140-mile train trip between Richmond and Danville should have taken no more than four to five hours. The train pulled into the Danville station in late afternoon, more than 15 hours after it had left Richmond. The engineer had pushed the train no faster than 10-15 miles per hour, since he was fearful that rotted ties and pulled spikes might derail the engine and cars.

Danville, a town of 6,000 located on the Dan River just above the North Carolina border in south-central Virginia, had not experienced the heavy hand of war that had been visited upon its distant neighbors. The town’s residents welcomed the cabinet refugees, though Mallory found that the cheers for the president “told as much of sorrow as of joy.”

Major William T. Sutherlin, the town’s former unionist mayor, invited Davis to stay in his large, ornate Italian villa home situated on four acres in the center of town. Sutherlin had made a fortune before the war processing tobacco. Now he was the town’s quartermaster. Although he was only 44 years old, Sutherlin had been too ill to take a field command. He considered it an honor to host Davis, Trenholm and his wife, Mallory and Davis aide Frank Lubbock. The other cabinet members found lodgings nearby.

Davis wasted no time exploring what he considered to be the new Confederate capital. The first order of business was to inspect the town’s defenses because of an unspoken fear that Union cavalry would soon appear on the horizon. Davis probably embarrassed Danville’s military commander, who had done little during the war other than guard prisoners, by promptly declaring that the trenches that had been dug around the entire town were “as faulty in location as construction.” The Confederate president personally directed laborers to improve these defenses.

The war was not only on Davis’ mind, but he had already figured out how to win it. In 1881 he wrote in Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government that “as previously arranged with General Lee,” he expected Lee to bring his army to Danville, form a new defensive line along the Dan and Roanoke Rivers, unite his army with Johnston’s in North Carolina, and then attack Union General William T. Sherman. Davis believed, if successful, this Confederate victory in North Carolina would bring reinforcements back to the army. He then speculated that the combined armies of Lee and Johnston would be strong enough to frighten a pursuing Grant into retreating back north, as he would be “far removed from his base of supplies.”

Davis may have replayed this grand strategy in his head on the train ride from Richmond, but the last time Lee and his top generals had even discussed the possibility of linking up with Johnston had been more than three weeks earlier during a strategy meeting in Richmond. Davis now had no idea if Lee was even heading in the general direction of Danville, much less planning to move on to North Carolina. The president was planning war strategy without even knowing his top general’s on-field tactical status.

There was little to do in Danville other than wait for word from Lee. Mallory wrote in his diary that only Benjamin maintained a jolly mood as they pondered the fate of Lee, saying: “No news is good news.” Someone in the cabinet repeated a rumor claiming that Lee hadn’t alerted Davis because he was too busy chasing down Grant.

“The president was not deceived by these follies, but though he looked for disaster, he was wholly unprepared for Lee’s capitulation,” wrote Mallory.

Finally, on the evening of April 8, Lieutenant Wise arrived at the Sutherlin mansion. Just hours earlier Davis had received a telegram from Breckinridge informing him of the significantly reduced capacity of Lee’s army. Now Wise was personally confirming what Breckinridge’s short telegram had only hinted.

The young lieutenant told Davis and his cabinet members the shocking news of how Lee had lost a third of his army and several generals at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek on April 6. Then, in what was a bold move for a teenage officer, Wise advised the president that he believed Lee had been left with no option but to surrender. But Davis, refusing to accept the young lieutenant’s military estimation, simply handed Wise another set of letters and instructed him to find Lee and return with the general’s personal assessment of his situation. Although he knew the effort would prove useless, Wise did as he was told.

Earlier that morning, Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. George Stoneman had fought a skirmish with 250 Confederate cavalry at Martinsville, Va., just 30 miles from Danville. Some Union prisoners taken during the battle told their captors that Stoneman was considering attacking Danville, and the general might well have been—but not because the cabinet was in town. Since Stoneman had been out of telegraph contact with his superiors for weeks, there was no way he could have known that Davis and his officials had even left Richmond. It proved a lost opportunity for Stoneman, who was trying to regain his reputation after being blamed by Joseph Hooker for the Union’s loss at Chancellorsville. He was within a day’s ride of Danville, and his 6,000 men could have easily overwhelmed any Confederate garrison the city could muster.

Although Stoneman never tried for Danville, the implied threat was enough to make Davis and the few hundred Confederate soldiers stationed in the city nervous. Davis quickly telegraphed General P.G.T. Beauregard in Greensboro, N.C., and requested that more troops be sent to help in Danville.

Now that he knew the approximate location of Lee’s army, Davis sent an encoded message to the general early in the morning on April 9. He suggested that Lee contact Joe Johnston “before Sherman moves.”

Lee, however, never got a chance to see that message before he signed the surrender documents with Grant that afternoon at Wilmer McLean’s home in the quiet village of Appomattox Court House, nearly 90 miles to the north. Lee wouldn’t have been able to act on the president’s suggestions anyway. The Army of Northern Virginia was surrounded. It would have been suicide for Lee to try to fight a strong, well-equipped Union army that was at least four times the size of his own.

Official news of Lee’s surrender arrived that afternoon from the line of couriers who finally had established a secure means of carrying messages from Lee to Davis. This time it was no rumor; rather, word had been passed on by a courier who had run into Confederate cavalry Maj. Gen. Tom Rosser, who had decided to escape rather than surrender with Lee.

Mallory wrote that the news “fell upon the ears of all like a fire bell in the night.”

The cabinet members, Mallory noted, passed the message around, each reading it silently as if their own interpretation of the news might be different from the others.

Although no warning accompanied the news of Lee’s surrender, Davis assumed that because the Army of Northern Virginia had been surrendered, the Union Army would soon turn its attention to finding and capturing the Confederate cabinet. Davis ordered his associates to be packed and ready to leave for Greensboro in four hours, less time than he had given them to leave Richmond a little more a week before.

As was the case in Richmond, however, the inertia of evacuating was hard to overcome. Davis had ordered that the train be ready to pull out by 8 p.m., but that hour came and went as one cabinet minister after another asked that he add more cars to the train. And, as in Richmond, those who felt they were too important to be left behind lobbied to be added to the escaping party. One was Brig. Gen. Gabriel J. Rains, the man known for inventing the torpedo, or land mine. Rains asked for a place for himself and his daughters, and mentioned to Burton Harrison, who was responsible for having the train loaded, that he had some mines with him that might prove valuable during the escape. A nervous Harrison refused Rains passage, but the inventive general later persuaded Davis, his old friend, to find room for him. Rains presumably left his explosives at the train station.

It was nearly midnight before Davis arrived at the station. He climbed into his car and discovered that his seat mate was one of General Rains’ talkative daughters. The general did nothing to try to control his precocious child, who kept asking Davis question after question, apparently unaware of who he was and that he was her father’s employer. Davis, used to the questions of children, never complained and never ordered the young girl away, though observers could tell that he was clearly irritated.

Finally, more than five hours late, the train pulled out from the station, but it didn’t travel far before the old locomotive broke down from the strain of trying to pull so many heavily laden cars. More time was lost while the train was hauled back into Danville and the locomotive replaced. All the while the handful of armed guards who had been found to accompany the train peered into the darkness, looking for signs of Grant’s cavalry coming from the north and Stoneman’s cavalry from the south or west. The Confederates never saw the enemy horsemen but remained sure they were on their way.

Sometime in the early morning of April 11, with the loquacious little Rains girl beside him talking about anything and everything, Davis crossed the state line into North Carolina, breaking the intent, if not the promise, he had made just five days earlier to the Confederacy’s citizens that he would not abandon Virginia. The month-old plan of combining Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was now shattered. The Army of Northern Virginia had been surrendered and captured. For all Davis knew, Lee might already be on his way to a federal prison camp, or even to Washington, D.C., to be put on display as a trophy of war.

Apparently everyone but Davis could see that the end was near. He was still thinking ahead to the creation of new armies, even as he conceded that he would have to depend on two generals he detested: Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard. He had removed both generals from command on more than one occasion during the war; however, with no true alternative, he recently had handed the reins of the Army of Tennessee back to Johnston and had named Beauregard as commander of the Rebel forces in western North Carolina that were not attached to Johnston’s army. Davis never had a chance to put his grudges to rest. He continued fleeing south, and after reaching Washington, Ga., on May 3 he finally dismissed his government. Most of his cabinet members eventually fled to Havana, Cuba.

Back in Washington, President Lincoln celebrated Lee’s surrender at Appomattox with an impromptu speech to a crowd gathered outside the Executive Mansion. Lincoln placed no blame for the war on Davis or his cabinet. And though Davis had been on the run for several days, Lincoln had not given orders to chase him—nor did he intend to issue such an order. To his own cabinet and top generals, Lincoln made it clear that he did not want the leaders of the Confederate government captured, imprisoned or punished. He apparently didn’t even want to know where they were.

 

This article was adapted from Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution & Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, by Clint Johnson (Citadel, June 2008).

Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.  

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