On Jefferson Davis’s Capture

Yesterday I finished reading Yael Sternhell’s wonderful book, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South, which explores various aspects of mobility in the Confederate South.  The author argues that what could be seen on the roads throughout the South tells us quite a bit about Confederate nationalism, the collapse of slavery and a strictly defined racial hierarchy, and defeat.

Her brief discussion of the capture of Jefferson Davis caught my attention:

On May 10, while camping outdoors in the piney woods near Irwinville, Georgia, Davis and his party were captured.  Two Union cavalry regiments, searching for the presidential party, raided their camp at daybreak with no specific knowledge of who was staying there.  In the confusion of the raid, Davis tried to escape from his tent and into the woods, but a Federal officer noticed him attempting to get away and called him to stop.  With a carbine gun pointed at him, Davis had no choice but to surrender.  Much has been made of the fabricated story that he was dressed as a woman when caught.  Yet the true significance of the circumstances of his capture lies in the fact that he was apprehended not only in flight, but in the woods.  Davis was forced to follow the ways of his former slaves and take refuge within the alternative geography they had used for generations to hide from the bloodhounds and armed patrollers who chased them without mercy.  The Civil War did not end with Robert E. Lee’s dignified surrender at Appomattox.  It ended with Jefferson Davis, in the forest, staring in fear at a group of white men who were coming to get him.  The war had reduced even the most elevated of masters, the Confederate president, to a desperate runaway. [p. 192]

This is one of the most insightful books I’ve read about the Confederacy this year.  I only wish I had this when writing my own essay on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.

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10 thoughts on “On Jefferson Davis’s Capture

  1. David Rhoads

    Kevin, does this book include a discussion of the practice of slaveholders “refugeeing” slaves south and west out of the paths of Federal armies? It’s a subject I’ve become interested in but I haven’t been able to find much beyond anecdotal information.

    Reply
    1. Mark DC

      I did read of an eye witness who said he saw slaves two abreast walking in columns as far as you could see — going South, after Lincoln issued EP. I forget where I saw this.

      Reply
  2. Bryan Cheeseboro

    “[The Civil War] ended with Jefferson Davis, in the forest, staring in fear at a group of white men who were coming to get him. The war had reduced even the most elevated of masters, the Confederate president, to a desperate runaway. ”

    Wow, I never thought of Davis’ flight and capture quite like this. Once again, what goes around comes around. I have to say I’m glad the top man of the CSA got to see what it felt like to be hunted down like an animal.

    Reply
  3. David Silkenat

    I just finished this book as well. I found it really insightful, especially in the way she compared the white movements during the war to the slave experience. In particular, I found the parallels between the passport system for whites that developed in Richmond and elsewhere and slave passes enlightening. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that comparison made before.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I completely agree re: the passport system. The only thing that I wanted to hear more about was Southern Unionism. Sternhell spends a few pages on it, but given the amount of attention on areas such as the Shenandoah Valley I wanted more on how the movement of armies and civilians shaped national identification.

      Reply
      1. David Silkenat

        There are a lot of new ideas in this book that would be starting points for future research. There were places where the evidence was a little thin, but the ideas could serve as foundational for new scholarship.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I gather from reading her acknowledgments that the book is based on her dissertation. If so, I bet some of the conceptual points made are fleshed out even more. The one thing I appreciate is that the author did not go overboard on the conceptual analysis. This is just the kind of subject that would send your average post-modernist right off a cliff. :-)

          Reply
      2. Margaret D. Blough

        Kevin-Clayton Newell does that in “Lee v. McClellan: The First Campaign”. He points out that the northwest counties of Virginia were not primarily settled from people from the Tidewater & Piedmont areas of Virginia. The primary settlement pattern was the heavily German/Scotch-Irish one that started in Pennsylvania & then continued moving down the Ohio looking for good farmland. These included ethnic/religious groups, especially among the Germans, that had no use for slavery. They had also felt historically shortchanged by the Tidewater/Piedmont areas in terms of state government.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          That last point is thoroughly explored by William Freehling in The South vs. The South.

          Reply

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