Monday, December 17, 2018

The Unsuccessful International Escape of Jefferson Davis.

Johnston and Sherman at the Bennett Place
   On March 26, 1865, Federal general William T. Sherman met with US President Abraham Lincoln, General US Grant, and Admiral David Porter on the steamer River Queen near Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia. When Sherman asked Lincoln about what to do with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, Lincoln responded with a story: "A man once had taken the total-abstinence pledge. When visiting with a friend, he was invited to take a drink, but declined, on the score of his pledge; when his friend suggested lemonade, which was accepted. In preparing the lemonade, the friend pointed to the branch-bottle, and said the lemonade would be more palatable if he were to pour in a little brandy; when his guest said, if he could do so 'unbeknown' to him, he would not object." Sherman added "From which illustration I inferred that Mr. Lincoln wanted Davis to escape, 'unbeknown' to him." (Sherman, Memoirs, 2:324-328.)
   So Lincoln wanted Davis, and probably the Confederate cabinet, to simply disappear. To catch Davis and his cabinet would present unique problems for the Lincoln administration. If the leader of the "rebellious" Southern states was captured, indicted for treason, tried, found guilty, and executed, would this not be a driving factor for the resumption of the war? Or, if Davis was tried and found not guilty, well, that would lead to all kinds of other problems.

   Three weeks later, Sherman, back in North Carolina, had just met with his Confederate counterpart, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. They had discussed the surrender of not only the Army of Tennessee, but the civil officers as well. Sherman was in Raleigh, meeting with his top lieutenants. "We discussed all the probabilities, among which was, whether, if Johnston made a point of it, I should assent to the escape from the country of Jeff. Davis and his fugitive cabinet; and some one of my general officers, either Logan or Blair, insisted that, if asked for, we should even provide a vessel to carry them to Nassau from Charleston." (Sherman, Memoirs, 351-352).

Jefferson Davis
   Johnston does not come out and say that Sherman ever offered a ship to Davis and the cabinet to expedite their escape. Or does he? Meeting at the Bennett Farm outside Durham on April 18, Johnston writes that everything was agreed to "except that General Sherman did not consent to include Mr. Davis and the officers of his cabinet in an otherwise general amnesty. Much of the afternoon was consumed in endeavors to dispose of this part of the question in a manner that would be satisfactory both to the Government of the United States and the Southern people, as well as to the Confederate president; but at sunset no conclusion had been reached, and the conference was suspended..." (Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations, 403-404.) So what was satisfactory to the "Government of the United States"? The escape of Jefferson Davis? Neither Johnston or Sherman make mention of such an offer, and nothing appears in Davis's papers or in the Official Records that states such an offer was ever made. Yet, Sherman provides such a warning to John C. Breckenridge. Once the first set of terms were worked out, and sent to Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis, Sherman recalled telling Breckenridge "that he had better get away, as the feeling of our people was utterly hostile to the political element of the South, and to him especially, because he was the Vice-President of the United States, who had as such announced Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois, duly and properly elected the President of the United States, and yet that he had afterward openly rebelled and taken up arms against the Government. . . I may have also advised him that Mr. Davis too should get abroad as soon as possible." (Sherman, Memoirs, 353.)

   We know that Davis did not "get abroad" and was captured on May 10, 1865, near Irwinville, Georgia. Breckenridge did escape, making his way through Florida to Cuba, then Great Britain, and finally Cuba. Other Confederate cabinet members who fled the county include Robert Toombs, Judah P. Benjamin, and George W. Randolph (he fled in 1864). George Davis was attempting to flee when he was captured in Key West on October 18, 1865.

   Did Davis ever know that he might have escaped on a boat out of Charleston? Unlikely. Davis really didn't really seem to want to escape in the first place, holding on to the ideal of a Southern Confederacy when everyone else had already abandoned the attempt. He could have left Charlotte on April 24, when he learned of the rejection of the first set of terms between Johnston and Sherman. He could have pressed on harder when in the state of Georgia. Others, like Breckenridge and Benjamin, were able to escape successfully. But not Davis. It almost seems that Davis wanted to be captured.

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