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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
Pritchard and his officers heard firing behind the camp and soon discovered that their men were fighting other Union soldiers of the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, and they were killing each other. Greed for gold and glory contributed to the deadly and embarrassing disaster. The firing between the two regiments created tensions on both sides. Their failure to capture the expected Confederate treasure exacerbated their anger and humiliation. They blamed each other for the fratricide, accused each other of appropriating leads about Davis’s whereabouts during the chase, and fought over the reward money.
It was only after the deadly skirmish that Pritchard realized he had captured the president of the Confederate States of America. One member of Davis’s party later described the captive’s rough treatment: “A private stepped up to him rudely and said: ‘Well, Jeffy, how do you feel now?’ I was so exasperated that I threatened to kill the fellow, and I called upon the officers to protect their prisoner from insult.”
May 10, 1865, was thus the end for Jefferson Davis’s presidency and his dream of Southern independence. But it was also the beginning of a new story, one he began to live the day he was captured.
News spread of Davis’s capture—and with it the story of his apprehension in women’s clothes. The great showman P. T. Barnum knew at once that the garment would make a sensational exhibit for his fabled American Museum of spectacular treasures and curiosities in downtown New York City. He wanted the hoop skirt Davis had supposedly worn and was prepared to pay handsomely. Barnum wrote to Secretary of War Stanton, offering to make a $500 donation to one of two worthy wartime causes, the welfare of wounded soldiers or the care of freed slaves.
It was a hefty sum—a Union army private’s pay was only $13 a month—and that $500 could have fed and clothed a lot of soldiers and slaves. Still, Stanton declined the offer. The secretary had other plans for these treasures. He earmarked the captured garments for his own collection and ordered that they be brought to his office, where he planned to keep them in his personal safe along with other historical curiosities from Lincoln’s autopsy, John Wilkes Booth’s death, and Davis’s capture.
The arrival in Washington of the so-called petticoats proved to be a big letdown. When Stanton saw the clothes, he knew instantly that Davis had not disguised himself in a woman’s hoop skirt and bonnet. The “dress” was nothing more than a loose-fitting, waterproof raglan or overcoat, a garment as suited for a man as a woman. The “bonnet” was a rectangular shawl, a type of wrap President Lincoln himself had worn on chilly evenings. Stanton dared not allow Barnum to exhibit these relics in his museum. Public viewing would expose the lie that Davis had worn one of his wife’s dresses. Instead Stanton sequestered the disappointing textiles to perpetuate the myth that the cowardly “rebel chief” had tried to run away in his wife’s clothes.
The image of the Confederate president masquerading as a woman titillated Northerners but outraged Southerners. Eliza Andrews, a young woman who had witnessed Davis pass through her town of Washington, Georgia, during his escape, condemned the pictures in her diary: “I hate the Yankees more and more, every time I look at one of their horrid newspapers . . . the pictures in Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s tell more lies than Satan himself was ever the father of. I get in such a rage . . . that I sometimes take off my slipper and beat the senseless paper with it. No words can express the wrath of a Southerner on beholding pictures of President Davis in woman’s dress.”
A wave of sheet music artwork and satiric lyrics followed the caricatures in newspapers and prints. Davis would spend two years imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, before his release on bail. The federal authorities would never prosecute him. He survived Lincoln by 24 years, wrote his memoirs, and became the South’s most beloved living symbol of the Civil War. Although he devoted the rest of his life to preserving the memory of the Confederacy, its honored dead, and the Lost Cause, Jefferson Davis could never dispel the myth of his capture dressed as a Southern belle. The legend has endured to this day.