May 10

This Day in History

General Interest

May 10, 1865:

Jefferson Davis captured

Jefferson Davis, president of the fallen Confederate government, is captured with his wife and entourage near Irwinville, Georgia, by a detachment of Union General James H. Wilson's cavalry.

On April 2, 1865, with the Confederate defeat at Petersburg, Virginia imminent, General Robert E. Lee informed President Davis that he could no longer protect Richmond and advised the Confederate government to evacuate its capital. Davis and his cabinet fled to Danville, Virginia, and with Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9, deep into the South. Lee's surrender of his massive Army of Northern Virginia effectively ended the Civil War, and during the next few weeks the remaining Confederate armies surrendered one by one. Davis was devastated by the fall of the Confederacy. Refusing to admit defeat, he hoped to flee to a sympathetic foreign nation such as Britain or France, and was weighing the merits of forming a government in exile when he was arrested by a detachment of the 4th Michigan Cavalry.

A certain amount of controversy surrounds his capture, as Davis was wearing his wife's black shawl when the Union troops cornered him. The Northern press ridiculed him as a coward, alleging that he had disguised himself as a woman in an ill-fated attempt to escape. However, Davis, and especially his wife, Varina, maintained that he was ill and that Varina had lent him her shawl to keep his health up during their difficult journey.

Imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe, Virginia, Davis was indicted for treason, but was never tried--the federal government feared that Davis would be able prove to a jury that the Southern secession of 1860 to 1861 was legal. Varina worked determinedly to secure his freedom, and in May 1867 Jefferson Davis was released on bail, with several wealthy Northerners helping him pay for his freedom.

After a number of unsuccessful business ventures, he retired to Beauvoir, his home near Biloxi, Mississippi, and began writing his two-volume memoir The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881). He died in 1889 and was buried at New Orleans; four years later, his body was moved to its permanent resting spot in Richmond, Virginia.

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