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This Day In History: Confederate President Jefferson Davis Was Captured

May 10, 2017

This day in history, May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis, president of the fallen Confederate government, is captured with his wife and entourage near Irwinville, Georgia.

On April 2, 1865, Virginia General Robert E. Lee informed President Davis that he could no longer protect Richmond because a defeat at Petersburg was imminent. Davis and his cabinet fled to Danville, Virginia, and Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9. Lee’s surrender of his Army of Northern Virginia effectively ended the Civil War, and during the next few weeks the remaining Confederate armies surrendered one by one. Davis refused to admit defeat and hoped to flee to a sympathetic foreign nation such as Britain or France. He weighed the merits of forming a government in exile when he was arrested by a detachment of the 4th Michigan Cavalry under Union General James H. Wilson.

Davis was wearing his wife’s black shawl when the Union troops captured him. The Northern press ridiculed him as a coward, alleging that he had disguised himself as a woman in an attempt to escape. However, Davis, and especially his wife, Varina, maintained that he was ill and  lent him her shawl to keep his health up.

Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe, Virginia and 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 to secure his freedom, and in May 1867 Jefferson Davis was released on bail as several wealthy Northerners helped pay for it.

Davis died in 1889 and was buried at New Orleans, but his body was moved to Richmond, Virginia four years later.