Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park
The Civil War was swiftly coming to an end on April 3, 1865, when the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, his wife Varina, and their children abandoned Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. On April 9, as General Robert E. Lee was surrendering his Army, Davis was attempting to avoid capture by the Union forces, apparently desiring to eventually make his way across the Mississippi River to lead southern forces that had not yet surrendered. Five weeks later, after traveling through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and into Georgia, on May 9, Davis and his party made camp near Irwinville, believing they were still one step ahead of their pursuers. But the pursuers, members of the First Wisconsin Regiment of Cavalry and Fourth Michigan Regiment of Cavalry, were nearby, ready to pounce on the Davis party the following morning.
Early on the morning of May 10, the camp was awakened by the sound of gunfire and very quickly it was surrounded by the Union cavalrymen. The Confederates did not fire a shot. In a somewhat confusing situation, Davis attempted to escape. In a letter of June 5, 1865 to Montgomery Blair, Varina Davis wrote that when her husband saw the Union soldiers, “I pleaded with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof raglan which had often served him in sickness during the summer season as a dressing gown and which I hoped might so cover his person that in the gray of the morning he would not be recognized. As he strode off, I threw over his head a little black shawl which was around my own shoulders, seeing that he could not find his hat.” She added “He attempted no disguise, consented to no subterfuge.” In his Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), Davis wrote that as the Union forces arrived he impulsively reached for what he thought was his raglan and threw it over his shoulders, either anticipating that he would need to keep warm if he escaped, or using it to hide his light-colored gray suit against the dark forest. By mistake, he had picked up his wife’s raglan because it was “so very much like my own as to be mistaken for it. As I started, my wife thoughtfully threw over my head and shoulders a shawl.” It should be noted that in the 1860s, both men and women wore shawls. In fact, President Abraham Lincoln often wore one over his shoulders during chilly weather.
Davis escaped into the woods and was quickly captured. Besides seizing Davis’ cloak, shawl, and spurs, the Union soldiers took possession of three of his pistols, a bullet mold, two toothbrushes, a plug of tobacco, and other sundries. Very quickly a story circulated that Davis attempted to escape into the woods wearing his wife’s clothing.
Davis would be imprisoned at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. He demanded a trial as the best forum for proving the constitutionality of secession, and the government requested numerous delays to prepare its case. He was released from custody on bail in May 1867. Bail was posted by, among others, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Horace Greeley, and Gerrit Smith, the radical abolitionist who helped to fund John Brown in 1859. Although an indictment for treason against Davis was finalized in March 1868, the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson further delayed the case.
That summer Congress adopted the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Section 3 provided:
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
This certainly applied to Davis, who had served as an army officer, member of Congress, and Secretary of War.
The U.S. Circuit Court, Virginia, finally heard preliminary motions in December 1868, when the defense asked for a dismissal claiming that the 14th Amendment already punished Davis by preventing him from holding public office in the future and that further prosecution and punishment would violate the double jeopardy restriction of the 5th Amendment. The court divided in its official opinion and sent the question to the United States Supreme Court. Fearing the court would rule in favor of Davis, President Johnson released an amnesty proclamation on December 25, 1868, issuing a pardon to all persons who had participated in the rebellion.
Most of the items that had been taken from Davis were sent back to him between 1874 and 1880. He would die in New Orleans on December 6, 1889, most likely of pneumonia.
In 1914, the Davis pistols were obtained by descendants of the former Confederate chief executive. On April 26, 1915, the Army Judge Advocate General responded to a request from the Assistant Secretary of War for an opinion regarding the Attorney General’s opinion of January 7, 1914, whether the War Department was authorized to turn over to Jefferson Hayes-Davis, a shawl, waterproof cloak, and spurs worn by Davis at the time of his capture. E. H. Crowder, the Judge Advocate General, wrote that the articles were in the possession of the War Department and Jefferson Hayes-Davis was the grandson of Jefferson Davis and had requested the return of the articles on behalf of the next of kin of the former owner. Crowder wrote:
In the opinion referred to the Attorney General considered whether the Secretary of War had authority to return to the executor of Jefferson Davis’ estate on the written order of all of his next of kin, a couple of pistols and accessories captured by Union soldiers in June, 1865, and sent to the War Department where they had remained thereafter, and it was held in substance that inasmuch as such property was never condemned and forfeited under the Confiscation and Abandoned Property Acts, the owner retained an interest in them, and that by reason of the President’s proclamation of amnesty and pardon of December 25, 1868, the owner’s title and right of possession thereto were revived and upon the latter’s death passed to his personal representatives, to whom the Secretary of War was authorized to surrender the property.
Crowder wrote that he was unaware of anything indicating that the principle governing the property then under consideration was different. He observed:
I do not think the fact that the shawl, waterproof cloak and spurs were worn by Jefferson Davis at the time of his capture, while such may not have been the case with respect to the other property heretofore surrendered, makes any difference in principle or affects the question of the Department’s authority to surrender them. Accordingly, you are advised that it is the view of this office that under the Attorney General’s opinion of January 7, 1914, the Department is authorized to return to Jefferson Davis’ personal representatives the shawl, waterproof cloak, and spurs referred to.
For whatever reason, the shawl, waterproof cloak, and spurs were not returned. They continued to reside at the War Department. But thirty years later that would change. In May 1945 the War Department offered the items to the National Archives. The National Archives, for some reason, accepted them. In retrospect, the National Archives and War Department probably should have determined, as was the case thirty years earlier, that the articles were private property and should be given to the Davis family. Or, the War Department could have off-loaded the artifacts on the Smithsonian Institution.
Not long after the National Archives received the articles, the Historian of the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy wrote Senator Harry F. Byrd about the Davis shawl, which she believed was in a safe at the War Department and requested that the Virginia Daughters of the Confederacy were desirous of having it presented to them to place in the Confederate Museum at Richmond, Virginia. Upon receiving this request Senator Byrd wrote Robert P. Patterson, the Secretary of War, forwarding the request and asking advice with respect to the matter. Byrd’s letter was forwarded to the Adjutant General who wrote the Judge Advocate General, requesting information on which to base a reply. The Office of the Judge Advocate General informed the Adjutant General that in its opinion the shawl “must be considered to be private property.” They enclosed a copy of the 1915 memorandum and indicated that research had disclosed that no authority existed for the presentation of the shawl to the Virginia Daughters of the Confederacy to place in their museum, in accordance with their desire. With this information in hand, and after informal coordination with the War Department Records Office of the National Archives, the Acting Adjutant General wrote the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of War with summary information regarding the shawl and enclosed a letter for him to send to Senator Byrd advising him that the shawl must be considered the private property of the next of kin of Jefferson Davis and that no authority had been found under which it could be presented to the museum.
At the end of November 1945, the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of War wrote Senator Byrd that the shawl had been delivered to the Secretary of War on May 24, 1865, and had remained in the War Department until May 9, 1945, on which date it was transferred to the War Department Records Office of the National Archives. Senator Byrd was informed that it was the opinion of the War Department that the shawl must be considered the private property of the next of kin of Jefferson Davis, “and for this reason, we do not have the authority to present it to the Confederate Museum at Richmond.”
Jefferson Davis’ private property would remain in the National Archives until the eve of the centennial of the Civil War. On February 9, 1961, the General Services Administration (which oversaw the National Archives and Records Service – the predecessor to the National Archives and Records Administration) announced that the Jefferson Davis cloak, shawl, and spurs would be, at the request of Davis’ heirs, including Jefferson Hayes-Davis, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, turned over to “Beauvoir,” the memorial to the Confederate President near Biloxi, Mississippi. The items now repose there.
In signing S. J. Res. 16 “Restoration of Citizenship Rights to Jefferson F. Davis” into Law (Public Law 95-466) on October 17, 1978, President Jimmy Carter stated:
In posthumously restoring the full rights of citizenship to Jefferson Davis, the Congress officially completes the long process of reconciliation that has reunited our people following the tragic conflict between the States. Earlier, he was specifically exempted from resolutions restoring the rights of other officials in the Confederacy. He had served the United States long and honorably as a soldier, Member of the U.S. House and Senate, and as Secretary of War. General Robert E. Lee’s citizenship was restored in 1976. It is fitting that Jefferson Davis should no longer be singled out for punishment.
Our Nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our Nation and to discredit the principles on which it was founded. Our people need to turn their attention to the important tasks that still lie before us in establishing those principles for all people.
This blog is based primarily on records found in File 000.4 Historical (9 Oct 45), Adjutant General Decimal File, 1940-1945 (NAID 895294), Records of the Office of the Adjutant General, 1917-, Record Group 407.
Clint Johnson’s Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution, and Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis (New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2008).
Also useful were:
Michael P. Musick’s “War in an Age of Wonders: Civil War Arms and Equipment,” Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, vol. 27, no. 4 (Winter 1995)
“U.S. Will Yield Garb of Jefferson Davis,” The New York Times, February 9, 1961, p. 37
“Memorial to Get Davis’ Clothing,” The Washington Post, February 10, 1961, p. B3.