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Jefferson Davis's Arrest at Irwinville: The True Story of a Dramatic Episode

Georgia's Landmarks, Memorials and Legends Volume 1

Chapter II
Jefferson Davis's Arrest at Irwinville: The True Story of a Dramatic Episode

TWO miles to the west of Irwinville, in what is today a dense thicket of pines, there occurred at the close of the Civil War an incident concerning which a host of writers have produced for commercial purposes an endless amount of fiction. It was here, in the gray morning twilight of May 10, 1865, while encamped on land today the property of Judge J. B. Clement, of Irwinville, that Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, was overtaken by the Fourth Regiment of Michigan Cavalry and put under arrest. More than half a century has elapsed since then; and happily with the flight of time some of the fairy tales of this dramatic period, when the imagination was inflamed by passion, have been dispelled. To prejudice the popular mind against Mr. Davis and to bring upon him speedily the punishment to which he was exposed by reason of his fallen fortunes, there appeared in the Northern papers a story concocted by some evil genius with malice aforethought to the effect that when arrested the President was clad in his wife's calico wrapper and that, among other articles of feminine attire which he wore at this time, were a hoop-skirt and a sun-bonnet.

Shades of Ananias! The facts are these: Mrs. Davis, with four of her children, left the Confederate capital, under an escort, several days in advance of the final evacuation of Richmond. Mr. Davis followed in the course of a week's time, proceeding southward by slow stages. It was not until Lee and Johnston had both surrendered that he ceased to cherish some hope of ultimate success. After the final meeting of the Confederate Cabinet in Washington, Ga., he leisurely resumed his journey toward the trans-Mississippi region, there quietly at home to await results. It was not in the character of a fugitive that he bade adieu to his friends in the little Georgia town; and so deliberate was he in the matter of saying farewell that Dr. H. A. Tupper, an eminent Baptist divine, with whom he stopped, turned to Judge Garnett Andrews and said:

''I really believe that Mr. Davis wishes to be captured.'' 1

It is certain that he manifested every sign of indifference, though he must have known that the country was full of armed men who were panting like blood-hounds upon his track. Word having reached him of a conspiracy on the part of desperate men to rob the wagon train in which Mrs. Davis was journeying, he hastened to overtake her, going some distance out of the direct line of travel. Such a change in his plans meant that he was certain to be either arrested or killed; and, turning to the faithful comrades in misfortune who accompanied him, Mr. Davis urged them to feel in nowise bound to attend him upon this hazardous trip. But not a man in the party availed himself of this loop-hole to escape danger. Mrs. Davis, in the course of time, was finally overtaken; and the President, with his party, was preparing to move in advance of her when, just at the hour of dawn, on May 10, 1865, he was suddenly halted. Besides the members of his family there were with Mr. Davis at the time the arrest was made, Postmaster-General John H. Reagan, Captain Moody, of Mississippi, an old friend; Governor Lubbock, of Texas; and two members of his personal staff, Colonel Burton Harrison and Colonel William P. Johnston. At this point we will let Postmaster-General Reagan continue the thread of the narrative. Says he: 2

''Under cover of the darkness, Colonel Pritchard (a Federal officer) moved to where we were, and posted one battalion in front of us and another across the creek in our rear, and each took the other in the dimness of the morning for Confederates. Both battalions were armed with repeating rifles and a rapid fusillade occurred between them, with the result that one or two were killed and a few wounded. When this firing occurred the troops in our front galloped upon us. The Major of the regiment reached the place where I and the members of the President's staff were encamped, about a hundred yards distant from where the President and his family were located. When he approached me I was watching a struggle between two Federal soldiers and Governor Lubbock. They were trying to get his horse and saddle bags away from him and he was holding on to them and refusing to give them up; they threatened to shoot him if he did not, and he replied—for he was not as good a Presbyterian then as he is now—that they might shoot and be damned but they would not rob him while he was alive and looking on. I had my revolver cocked and in my hand, waiting to see if the shooting was to begin. "Just at this moment the Major rode up, the men contending with Lubbock disappeared, and the Major asked if I had any arms. I drew my revolver from under the skirt of my coat and said to him, 'I have this.' He observed that I had better give it to him. I knew that they were too many for us and surrendered my pistol.

I asked him then if he had not better stop the firing across the creek. He inquired whether it was not our men. I told him that it could not be; that I did not know of an armed Confederate within a hundred miles of us, except our little escort of half a dozen men, who were not then with us. We learned afterwards that they, or the most of them, had been captured at Irwinville. The Major rode across the creek and put an end to the skirmish. 

"When the firing began. President Davis afterwards told me, he supposed it to be the work of the men who were to rob Mrs. Davis's train. So he remarked to his wife: 'Those men have attacked us at last; I will go out and see if I cannot stop the firing; surely I have some authority with the Confederates.' Upon going to the tent door, however, he saw the blue-coats, and turned to his wife with the words,' 'The Federal cavalry are upon us.'" He was made a prisoner of war.

''As one of the means of making the Confederate cause odious, the foolish and wicked charge was made that he was captured in woman's clothes; besides which his portrait, showing him in petticoats, was afterwards placarded generally in show cases and public places in the North. He was also pictured as having bags of gold on him when captured. This charge is disproven by the circumstances attending his capture. The suddenness of the unexpected attack of the enemy allowed no time for a change of clothes. I saw him a. few minutes after his surrender, wearing his accustomed suit of Confederate gray."

Colonel William P. Johnston confirms the Postmaster-General's statement in regard to the President's apparel. Says he: 3 "Mr. Davis was dressed as usual. He had on a knit woolen visor, which he always wore at night for neuralgia; and his cavalry boots. He complained of chilliness, saying that some one had taken away his raglan, or spring overcoat, sometimes called a waterproof. I had one exactly similar, except in color. I went to look for it and either I, or some one at my instance, found it and he wore it afterwards. His own was not restored." Governor Lubbock testifies to the same effect. Mr. James H. Parker, of Elburnville, Pa., a Federal soldier who witnessed the arrest makes this statement: 5 "I am no admirer of Jeff Davis. I am a Yankee, full of Yankee prejudice; but I think it wicked to lie about him or even about the devil. He did not have on at the time he was taken any such garment as is worn by women. He did have over his shoulders a waterproof article of clothing, something like a Havelock. It was not in the least concealed. He wore a hat and did not carry a pail of water on his head." Mr. T. H. Peabody, a lawyer of St. Louis, one of the captors of Mr. Davis, declared in a speech before Ransom Post, of the G. A. R. that the hoop-skirt story was purely a fabrication of newspaper reporters. 6 So the whole affair resolves itself into something like the compliment which an old parson paid one of his deacons in the church:

"Said Parson Bland to Deacon Bluff
Seated before the fire:
Deacon, I like you well enough
But you're an awful liar."

Endnotes:

1  Letter of Dr. H. A. Tupper to Dr. J. Wm. Jones, dated Richmond, Va., December 25, 1889, and reproduced In the Davis Memorial Volume, pp. 399-401, Atlanta, 1890.

2  Memoirs of John H. Reagan, pp. 219-220, New York and Washington, 1906. Senator Reagan lived to be the last surviving member of the Confederate Cabinet.

3  Davis Memorial Volume, p. 404, Atlanta, 1890.

4  Ibid., 408.

5  Ibid., 407.

6  Ibid., 402.

Lucian Lamar Knight, Georgia's Landmarks, Memorials and Legends, Volume 1 (Atlanta: The Byrd Printing Company, State Printers, 1913), 13-17.

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