History of the American Civil War: Jefferson Davis and Cabinet Flee
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History of the American Civil War: Jefferson Davis and Cabinet Flee


By Lincoln Mint

Sunday, April 2, 1865. Jefferson Davis had sent his wife south for safety and now, immaculate in gray, he sat erect and aloof in his customary pew in St. Paul’s Church, Richmond. The service had just begun when the sexton tiptoed down the aisle and handed the President a telegram. It was from General Lee, "... I advise that all preparation for leaving Richmond be made tonight." Davis quietly left the church.

The Confederate Cabinet met. The Government would move that night to Danville. All afternoon, amid the growing disorder of lawless elements in the city as word leaked out, documents and records were hastily packed. The Confederate treasury, $500,000 in gold and silver coins, gold bricks, and silver bars, went at once by special train, guarded by sixty naval cadets. The Presidential train followed that night.

For a week Danville was the Confederate capital. Then came unofficial word of Lee's surrender, and the Government entrained for Greensboro, North Carolina, barely escaping Union cavalry raiders. There Davis received word from Lee himself. It was the death-blow of the Confederacy but Davis in blindness of courage and singleness of purpose refused to accept it. In his deliberate isolation as President he had lost touch with reality. Escape to the Trans-Mississippi to continue the fight was his final fantasy. It was a decision that did himself and the Confederacy a disservice: From the dignity of a defeated nation’s leader he became now merely a hunted fugitive.

Salisbury, and then Charlotte, where he learned of Lincoln's assassination. One by one, now, as the flight continued, his Cabinet dropped away: in North Carolina, Attorney General Davis; in South Carolina, Treasury Secretary Trenholm; in Georgia, Navy Secretary Mallory. Secretary of State Benjamin separated at the Savannah River, and War Secretary Breckinridge shortly after. Only Postmaster General Reagan remained.

With $100,000 reward on his head, Davis, reunited with his wife, camped in a pine woods near Irwinsville, Georgia. Federal cavalry pounced on them and ransacked the camp for the Confederate gold. But most of it was gone, largely in paying off soldiers met along the route of flight. Davis was captured in his wife’s cloak and shawl, hastily donned by mistake in the darkness. But the final ignominy was to come: the shackles in the casemate cell in Fort Monroe.

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