- Historic Sites
Was Jefferson Davis Captured In A Dress?
A story that the Confederate president donned a petticoat to evade capture emerged right after Union cavalrymen apprehended him in Georgia at war’s end. But is it true?
Fall 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 3
Davis had not planned on spending the night of May 9 camped with his wife and children near Irwinville. Unless he abandoned the wagon train and moved fast on horseback, accompanied by no more than three or four men, he had little chance of escape. By this time the Union was flooding Georgia with soldiers and canvassing every crossroads, guarding every river crossing, and searching every town. Furthermore, the Federals had recruited local blacks, with their expert knowledge of back roads and hiding places, to help in the manhunt for the fugitive president.
Davis told his aides that he would leave the camp sometime during the night. He was dressed for the road: a dark, wide-brimmed felt hat; a signature wool frock coat of Confederate gray; gray trousers; high black leather riding boots, and spurs. His horse, tied near Varina’s tent, was already saddled and ready to ride, its saddle holsters loaded with Davis’s pistols.
Several of the men stayed up late talking, waiting for the order to depart. It never came. Unbeknownst to the inhabitants of Davis’s camp, a mounted Union patrol of 128 men and seven officers—a detachment from the 4th Michigan Cavalry regiment—led by regimental commander Lt. Col. B. D. Pritchard, was closing in on Irwinville.
When they got close, Pritchard and a few of his men rode into town, posed as Confederate cavalrymen, and questioned some villagers. “I learned from the inhabitants,” Pritchard later recounted, “that a train and party meeting the description of the one reported to me at Abbeville had encamped at dark the night previous one mile and a half out on the Abbeville road.”
Pritchard left Abbeville and positioned his men about half a mile from the mysterious encampment. “Impressing a negro as a guide,” Pritchard recalled, “I halted the command under cover of a small eminence and dismounted twenty-five men and sent them under command of Lieutenant Purington to make a circuit of the camp and gain a position in the rear for the purpose of cutting off all possibility of escape in that direction.”
Pritchard told Purington to keep his men “perfectly quiet” until the main body attacked the camp from the front. Although, tempted to charge the camp at once, Pritchard decided to wait until daylight: “The moon was getting low, and the deep shadows of the forest were falling heavily, rendering it easy for persons to escape undiscovered to the woods and swamps in the darkness.”
At 3:30 a.m., Pritchard ordered his men to ride forward: “Just as the earliest dawn appeared, I put the column in motion, and we were enabled to approach within four or five rods of the camp undiscovered, when a dash was ordered, and in an instant the whole camp, with its inmates, was ours.”
Still inside Varina’s tent, Davis heard the gunfire and the horses in the camp and assumed these were the same Confederate stragglers or deserters who had been planning to rob Mrs. Davis’s wagon train for several days. “Those men have attacked us at last,” he warned his wife. “I will go out and see if I cannot stop the firing; surely I still have some authority with the Confederates.” He opened the tent flap, saw the bluecoats, and turned to Varina: “The Federal cavalry are upon us.”
Davis had not undressed this night, so he was still wearing his gray frock coat, trousers, riding boots, and spurs. He was ready to leave now, but he was unarmed. His pistols and saddled horse were within sight of the tent. He was a superb equestrian and certain that he could outrace any Yankee cavalryman half his age if he could just get to a horse. Seconds, not minutes, counted now.
Before he left, Varina asked him to wear an unadorned raglan overcoat, also known as a “waterproof.” She hoped the raglan might camouflage his fine suit of clothes, which resembled a Confederate officer’s uniform. “Knowing he would be recognized,” Varina later explained, “I pleaded with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof which had often served him in sickness during the summer as a dressing gown, and which I hoped might so cover his person that in the grey of the morning he would not be recognized. As he strode off I threw over his head a little black shawl which was round my own shoulders, seeing that he could not find his hat and after he started sent the colored woman after him with a bucket for water, hoping he would pass unobserved.”
“I had gone perhaps between fifteen or twenty yards,” Davis recalled, “when a trooper galloped up and ordered me to halt and surrender, to which I gave a defiant answer, and, dropping the shawl and the raglan from my shoulders, advanced toward him; he leveled his carbine at me, but I expected, if he fired, he would miss me, and my intention was in that event to put my hand under his foot, tumble him off on the other side, spring into the saddle, and attempt to escape. My wife, who had been watching me, when she saw the soldier aim his carbine at me, ran forward and threw her arms around me. . . . I turned back, and, the morning being damp and chilly, passed on to a fire beyond the tent.”
Some of the cavalrymen started tearing apart the camp in a mad scramble. They searched the baggage, threw open Varina’s trunks, and tossed the children’s clothes into the air. “The business of plundering commenced immediately after the capture,” observed Harrison. The frenzy suggested that the search was not random. The Federals were looking for something: every Union soldier had heard the rumors that the “rebel chief’ was fleeing with millions of dollars in gold coins in his possession.