Chasing, Capturing and Releasing Confederate President Jefferson Davis is one exciting story!
Author Clint Johnson, North Carolinian journalist and re-enactor, does not care for Jeff Davis. He is entitled. Biographers and historians should have a point of view, and he is not alone. For 150 years there have been long lists of people who disliked Jefferson Davis.
Davis’ virtues and his failings are basically the poles of the characteristic. He was loyal to his friends (exclusionary), unfailingly courteous (aloof and remote), unflagging in his convictions (rigid and unbending), and above all, unyielding integrity (he could never admit to being wrong ).
History has not covered him in glory, but it does not smear him with garbage, either. The fallacies of his efforts to escape seem to live on in our imaginations far more than the actual truths involved. Whether author Johnson likes ol’ Jeff or not, he is fair; his judgments are insightful. His research is excellent.
President Abraham Lincoln himself had told a few people, notably Generals Grant and Sherman, that he would personally prefer that Jefferson Davis (and some other top Confederates) “escape the country”, believing that it would shorten the time to heal the wounds. Had Lincoln lived, that may well have been the case. But Lincoln was assassinated only a week after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, and the chase was on bigtime.
Davis, sincerely believing he had obligations as the political head of the Confederate government, despite its obvious death throes, made efforts to create a government on wheels. The falsehood that he absconded with the Confederate treasury is a half-truth. He did fill a train car with the treasure, but it was meant to pay the soldiers. Davis was insistent about that; he did not take a dime, nor would he. It would have been totally out of the “good side” of his character. He had lost all his fortune and property, but he still would not raid the till any more than Lincoln would have.
The Confederate President, and indeed most Southerners, did not learn of Lincoln’s assassination until days, and possibly weeks after the event. Davis was shocked. He was further shocked (but not surprised) when he, personally, was indicted as a co-conspirator. This fallacy was widely believed in the North, given the tenor of the times. It was blatantly false, and within a month, all evidence pointing to Davis dissolved into nothingness. Nevertheless, the charges would linger. Then, of course, there were the charges of treason. A horrible war had just been fought. Hundreds of thousands of men were now dead. Someone had to take the blame.
Jefferson Davis’ escape route was basically a half-hearted effort to either a) go west, over the Mississippi River, and create a guerilla-type of sub-army to keep the war going; or b) reach Florida or some other coastal area where a ship might be found to take him out of the country. He further had the personal need to reunite himself with his wife and four young children – ages ten down to less than a year old. He had sent them to safety shortly before Richmond fell.
Reuniting with Varina and the kids happened somewhat by accident. And it is that episode that lingers in historic fantasy: Jeff Davis trying to escape in woman’s clothing. It was false as well, but it made a terrific story, and did more damage to Davis by ridicule than could possibly have been done elsewise. The newspaper cartoonists had a field day. But the truth of the matter was far more mundane. He had picked up his wife’s raincoat by mistake (she was a large woman – nearly as tall as he was), and she had thrown a shawl over his head for added protection against the weather and the cold. Not nearly as good a story as the pantaloons and hoopskirts that continues to this day.
Possibly the most interesting part of Pursuit (a very interesting book), is the long incarceration of Davis in Fortress Monroe under the weasly snot-nosed General Nelson Miles, the long list of prominent Northerners who volunteered to post bail and defend (pro bono) the ex-Confederate President, and finally – the real kicker – the reasoning behind his release and non-trial.
Davis himself wanted a trial. That was part of his character: a chance to take the national stage and defend his position that secession was lawful under the U.S. Constitution. (Charges that he was complicit in Lincoln’s assassination were dropped.) The trial for treason never came. After two years in prison, Davis was freed on bail, and his case was never pressed. Why? The country was ready to “Hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.” Maybe Lincoln had a hunch.
Author Johnson does a masterful job of making a complicated and difficult case understandable to the layman. And it is a case worth reading about.
PURSUIT: The Chase, Capture, Persecution and Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, by Clint Johnson, Citadel Press/Kensington Publishing Company, 2008 – $24.98