20. Davis, Jefferson. Exceptional letter signed with a lengthy autograph postscript signed (“J.D.”,) 6 pages (9 ½ x 7 ½ in.; 241 x 191 mm.), “Beauvoir, Mississippi,” 8 April 1878, to his former West Point classmate, Crafts J. Wright.
After an erroneous report of the events of his capture surfaces in the Chicago Tribune, former CSA president Jefferson Davis sets the record straight and gives a gripping account of his capture by Union forces near Irwinville, Georgia at the end of the war, and denies that he attempted to escape in women’s clothing.
Davis writes in full: I have just received yours of the 2nd & 4th insts. together with the Chicago Tribune which you enclosed to me. I thank you for the affectionate zeal you manifest in my behalf. Mrs. Davis is now in Memphis & I have not the advantage of availing myself of her recollection of events. So as you ask me to answer at once I can only give you at this time my own recollections to be filled out as soon as I may with what I may learn from her.
As has been heretofore stated our little encampment was surprised by the firing across the Creek, being a combat of the Federal brigade with the other. It was then as stated so dark that the troops did not recognise each other. My coachman waked me up & told me there was firing across the Creek; as I had lain down fully dressed, I immediately arose, stepped out, & saw some cavalry deployed at large intervals advancing upon the Camp: It was not light enough to distinguish any thing distinctly, but the manner of the movement convinced me that it was not by the marauders who were expected, but by troopers; and I stepped back so to inform my wife. She urged me to leave them believing that troops would not injure them but that I would be in danger by remaining. She threw over my shoulders her own Waterproof cloak and a shawl also, and sent her servant girl, a colored woman with me as if going to the Branch for water. There were no sentinels around the tents, but a horseman advanced towards me, ordered me to halt & dropped his carbine on me. I instantly threw the shawl & cloak off, so as to be unencumbered & answering his demand for a surrender with a defiance, advanced towards him. My wife seeing this for I was still very near to the tent, ran after me & threw her arms around my neck, I then turned back, led her to the tent -- & passed around to the rear of it, to a fire which was burning there. The colored woman picked up the cloak & shawl and returned with them to the tent. All statements not in keeping with this, are false. Some time elapsed after this before I saw Col. Pritchard, he afterwards told me that he was sent in pursuit of the wagon train, that he had no expectation of finding me with it and did not know for three hours after that I was in the camp - which time he has however now reduced to ‘ten minutes’! With the addition of the purpose of which is evident, that he also thus early learned, that I was ‘disguised when captured,’ The pillage of the Camp commenced immediately & my servants, who were preparing some breakfast for my children had it snatched from the fire when it was partly cooked & this was the thieving which provoked my angry language to Col Pritchard when he at length came, & told me he was the Commanding Officer. I cannot with any accuracy answer your inquiry as to how much was lost, by the members of the party at that time. I only know that the pillage was general, rapidly & expertly executed - for example - My horse was seized, the Waterproof cloak strapped behind the saddle (similar to the one Mrs. Davis threw over my shoulders, which I had been in the habit of wearing in Richmond) was taken from the saddle, the saddle taken from the horse, one girth taken off, saddle blanket & one rein of the bridle, so that the horse & his equipment were soon in different places, even down to the minute divisoin I have stated. When I noticed this I remarked - to the minute divisions I have stated. When I noticed this I remarked - ‘You are an expert set of thieves’ One of the men with admirable coolness laughingly replied - ‘You think so, do you?’ I have no recollection of Col Pritchard even having proposed to ‘divide our supplies’ but I do remember that Mrs. Davis had some little delicacies such as were needed for her children, and that she complained to Col Pritchard of their seizure & that he promised to have all requisite supplied when we got to Macon. ‘Tis quite absurd for him, now to pretend that they were necessary for an issue of provisions to a Brigade - and I also remember that they were never replaced but that myself & family & staff when on the ship were served at a second table & provided only with the coarsest food. As to his report of a conversation with me, in which he said the garments worn by me when captured were not particularly adapted to rapid locomotion or the use of firearms - I can only regard it as an attempt to bolster up the falsehood he may have vauntingly told at some other time to Genl. Wilson or another, & will only add that if he had perpetrated such insolence he would have received an answer he could not have forgotten. Though minute in describing the expedition and the Transport ship on which my wife & children were held in captivity, after I had been immured in fortress Monroe, Col Pritchard only gives the result, of a Waterproof Cloak and a black woolen shawl, omitting putably as unimportant the fact that the trunks of my family were broken open & robbed of every article tempting to the sight, including the clothes of my infant daughter, photographic albums, medals, &c &c &c. One of these albums, by the assistance of an honest man in New York, was traced to Iowa, where a personal friend of mine recovered it, though many of the most valued family portraits had in the meantime been extracted form it. With a cool assurance, which is really laughable, a man in New York who acquired one of the medals, wrote to me sending photographs of the front and reverse and asking me to give him its history! I weary of these disgusting details, to men like yourself it must be a mortification to know that y our countrymen have behaved so meanly. So far as I know, never in the annals of civilized war did a Commanding Officer treat a prisoner of high rank among his own people in a manner so little in accordance with the usages of a soldier and the instincts of a gentlemen, as Col. B.D. Pritchard treated me while in his power. Yet had he limited himself to his official report or had he afterwards stated only the truth I should not probably have thus recorded his meanness an dishonesty.
Jefferson Davis was captured by the Fourth Michigan cavalry in the early morning of May 10, 1865, at Irwinsville in southern Georgia. With his party, known as the “fleeing Confederacy”, were Mr. John H. Reagan of Texas, his postmaster general; Captain Moody of Mississippi, an old neighbor of the Davis family; Governor Lubbock of Texas and Colonels Harrison and Johnson of his staff; Mrs. Davis and her four children, a brother and sister of Mrs. Davis, a white and one colored servant woman, a small force of cavalry, a few others and a small train of horses, mules, wagons and ambulances. Among the horses were a span of carriage horses presented to Mr. Davis by the citizens of Richmond during the heyday of the Confederacy; also a splendid saddle horse, the pride of the ex-president himself. In the postscript, entirely in his hand, Davis recounts all the horses in his entourage being looted by Colonel Pritchard.
Besides his own fine gray suit, Davis was wearing his wife’s large waterproof shawl and a blanket shawl thrown over his head and shoulders, which led to rumors that he was wearing women’s clothes in an attempt to disguise himself. Some of the most egregious and slanderous reports included one that asserted he was wearing a “hoopskirt, sunbonnet and calico wrapper”, which had little basis in truth. The shawl and robe he was wearing are believed to have been deposited in the archives of the war department at Washington by order of Secretary Stanton.
Jefferson Davis found the years following the Civil War to be difficult. After his capture, he was incarcerated at Fort Monroe, then released. He did not seek a pardon from President Johnson, as he felt it would be a betrayal of both his countrymen and his beliefs. He also refused to accept a U.S. Senate seat from Mississippi, stating that it would cause “insult and violence, producing alienation between the sections, would be the only result.” Though a man of great moral conviction and stature, he remained a controversial figure for the rest of his life, and was in essence a living anachronism for the U.S. government -- the personification of treason (in the eyes of Northerners) living peacefully within U.S. borders.
An historic and highly important letter from Davis, giving his own account of his capture by Union forces after the fall of the Confederacy.
References: This letter is published in the Rowland edition (1923) of Davis’ papers, (vol. 8, pp. 175-78), and in Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln Collector (1950), pp. 294-96
Provenance: Collection of Oliver Barrett.