The Hunt for Jefferson Davis

The president was on the run. He hadn’t just gotten away; he had been evading his pursuers for some time. This man had been the president of the Confederacy, and now he was the most wanted man in the country, overseeing the few remaining people and things that belonged to the breakaway country. By this time, the Civil War had ended for all intents and purposes: there was no army under his control anymore, but there was a loyal group of men who were helping him live on the run. And there was no telling how long he would live this way. Whereas his soldiers had laid down their arms and many had already returned home to begin their post-war lives, this man had been fleeing for some time—perhaps because the consequences of his actions were outside his control and were no longer applied to his soldiers or even his top advisors; those consequences would flow directly to him now. There loomed the possibility that those in power in Washington would see to his imprisonment or even his execution. Confederate president Jefferson Davis could take heart, as a Mississippian, that perhaps President Andrew Johnson—a Tennessean—would see to those federals going easy on Davis, but that was just a hope, a wish. And that would only be a possibility if Davis was captured.

The men seeking Davis were federal cavalrymen, and they were searching for their target near the Ocmulgee River which snakes its way through Macon, Georgia and on further south. The country the men passed through “was nearly a pine barren, thinly inhabited, but showing some, though very few, good plantations.”[i] Some days, the air had been warm, the roads dusty, but the weather would then break: “rain fell in torrents, accompanied by thunder and lightning.”[ii] One Lieutenant-Colonel, Harnden, had learned of a train of wagons and ambulances which had left Macon and was moving to the west; although it seemed like this could have been a caravan transporting Davis, Harnden had heard that Davis was traveling alone and doubted that they would find their man there. But they may have found that man’s woman, Mrs. Davis, riding along in one of those wagons. That would be something, and so Harnden ran the plan up the line to see if he had authorization. Harnden’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Pritchard, approved pursuing the train, and so Harnden went after it.

With Harnden’s mission being unlikely to bear fruit, Pritchard went on his own march along the river when “he found a negro watching his master’s broken-down wagon” and learned from him that “when the party with the train came to pay the ferryman, the latter went to strike a light, and in fact did pay him a ten-dollar gold-piece and a ten-dollar Confederate note,—a circumstance, which, with other things, made Pritchard believe that Davis crossed the river with the train.”[iii] Considering there was a road that ran parallel with the road on which the train traveled, there remained the possibility that Davis was in the habit of traveling away from, but alongside, the train—ready to flee if trouble came to the train but taking advantage of the train’s size and resources. Pritchard dispatched thirteen of his best mounted men from each company to follow the road to the train while the remainder of those under his command would “patrol and picket the river.”[iv]

Pritchard and his group of federals arrived in the town of Irwinville in the middle of a moonlit night but found neither Davis nor his caravan nor the regiment of fellow federals under Harnden’s command; they paused there, nonetheless, as the men were nodding off and sliding from atop their horses.[v] There would not be a peaceful night of sleep, however, as a woman began screaming that some men, “burners” she called them, had taken hams from her smoke-house; she said, “There’s a camp of our men out there, two hundred of them, and they will pay you’ns for pestering me!”[vi] Then, “a negro boy belonging to the woman was pulled out of bed, and having ‘allowed’ that he knew of this camp, and had been to it, he was promptly taken to the head of the column to serve as a guide.”[vii] Pritchard assumed that what the woman spoke of was, in fact, Davis’ camp and dispatched a group of men to go to the other side of the camp and “prevent escape in that direction when he should charge in from this side; he also moved his command forward about a mile, and then quietly waited for day to break.”[viii]

Dawn came, and the federals were ready to do the work. They thought it would be “the finishing stroke to the Rebellion” and a “crowning proof and act of patriotism.”[ix] As daylight came, one could see that the camp had woods nearby: an ideal place for one to hide from potential captors. When the federals entered the camp, all was quiet: there were no guards, just wagons, horses, tents, and men, many still sleeping. The federals split up and began raiding the camp, and one private, James H. Lynch, spotted a “horse saddled and bridled, with holsters and travelling-bag, held by a black man in front of one of the tents, at once clapped the muzzle of his Spencer to the head of the ‘boy,’ and secured the animal.”[x] This was no ordinary horse: it was Davis’ “well-trained and fleetest saddle-horse.”[xi] Gunfire broke out, and the casualties came: one federal lieutenant and his men headed toward the gunfire, “crossing a slough of mud and water” only to be “greeted with a volley that killed two of his men and severely wounded himself in the left arm.”[xii] Pritchard’s men got to Davis’ horse before Davis could mount it and ride off; and that “he had relied upon his horse for safety is evidenced from the fact that his arms and money (gold) were on the saddle.”[xiii] The federals found what they believed to be Davis’ tent. One private, Andrew Bee, “went to the entrance of Davis’ tent, and was met by Mrs. Davis, ‘bareheaded and barefoot,’ as he describes her, who putting her hand on his arm, said,—‘Please, don’t go in there, till my daughter gets herself dressed!’”[xiv] Bee waited a few minutes, and then “a young lady (Miss Howell) and another person, bent over as with age, wearing a lady’s ‘waterproof,’ gathered at the waist, with a shawl drawn over the head, and carrying a tin pail, appear[ed] and ask[ed] to go to ‘the run’ for water.”[xv] Mrs. Davis then appeared and said, “For God’s sake, let my old mother go to get some water!”[xvi] The soldiers watched, and several, including a Corporal Munyer, watched and “discovered that the ‘old mother’ was wearing very heavy boots for an aged female, and the Corporal exclaimed,—‘That is not a woman! Don’t you see the boots?’—and, spurring his horse forward and cocking his carbine, compelled the withdrawal of the shawl, and disclosed Jeff Davis.”[xvii]

Davis “struck an attitude, and cried out,—‘Is there a man among you? If there is, let me see him!’ ‘Yes,’ said the Corporal, ‘I am one; and if you stir, I will blow your brains out!’”[xviii] Davis retorted, “I know my fate and might as well die here.”[xix] But no harm was done to him other than stripping him of his feminine attire and revealing that “he was dressed in a complete suit of gray, a light felt hat, and high cavalry boots, with a gray beard of about six weeks’ growth covering his face.”[xx] He said “he thought that our Government was too magnanimous to hunt women and children that way.”[xxi]

Those wounded in the raid were given full rations including “Jeff’s wines and other ‘amenities’ captured.”[xxii] Mrs. Davis “assumed the responsibility of the disguise, saying she put the clothing on the ‘President.’”[xxiii] She cut a different figure from her husband: he with his “ill expression of countenance, slim, spare, and under six feet, while she [was] quite fair and of good size.”[xxiv] Both of them broke into tears during the voyage with the federals, and they read their Bible together; sometimes, Davis called the soldiers “Vandals,” but the soldiers—some of whom had been prisoners at Andersonville, “spoke of him without malice; they only asked for justice, as they recalled their fearful experience” at the notorious prison.[xxv] Davis’ captured staff members “submitted with better grace than he” but when speaking to Davis continued to remove their hats and address him as “President Davis.”[xxvi] People came “in great crowds” to see Davis, and his captors did not know whether the crowds came “to sympathize with him, or to do him honor” or “simply seeking to gratify their curiosity.”[xxvii] Some federal reinforcements came from Macon to Hawkinsville to greet the captors and their captive; the federals’ band had “drawn up beside the road to play ‘Yankee Doodle’” as the soldiers passed “but so eager were the performers to see Davis, that they forgot their music, and the tune came to a laughable break-down.”[xxviii] Then, the band struck up “Old John Brown,” with the band putting in the words, “And we’ll hang Jeff Davis on a sour-apple-tree” in the song “with gusto,—which so affected him that he pulled down the curtain of his ambulance.”

[i] The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XVI, No. 95, September 1865, at 342.

[ii] Id. at 342-43.

[iii] Id. at 343.

[iv] Id.

[v] See id.

[vi] Id. at 344.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id. at 345.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Id. at 346.

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] Id.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] Id.

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