Civil War Profiles — President Jefferson Davis’ refusal to surrender

Date Published: 
April 21, 2017

Gen. Robert E. Lee’s capitulation to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Virginia town of Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, is widely regarded as the dramatic event that brought the Civil War to a close. Yet, the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, vacated Richmond, Va., prior to the fall of the capital on April 3, and was traveling southward fully intending to pursue the war from a new base of operations in Texas.

Davis’ trek, along with members of his cabinet, took him in a southwesterly direction to Danville, Va., close to the North Carolina border where he temporarily reestablished his capital. It was here the Confederate president would receive the demoralizing news that Lee had surrendered the remnants of his Army of Northern Virginia to Grant.

Burke Davis wrote in “The Long Surrender” that the train carrying Davis away from Richmond also had on board the Confederate treasury of $327,000 ($4.5 million today) to fund the government. Upon arrival in Danville, Davis issued a proclamation to the people of the South that the local newspaper labeled “a cry of desperation rather than reasoned hope”:

“We have now entered upon a new phase of the struggle. Relieved from the necessity of guarding particular points, our army will be free to move from point to point to strike the enemy … Let us but will it, and we are free….”

Meanwhile in evacuated Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln arrived to celebrate by personally touring the city. Crowds of blacks greeted him jubilantly; falling on their knees in gratitude for their liberation.

Lincoln felt moved to address the former slaves. He told them, “My poor friends, you are free — free as air…. Liberty is your birthright. God gave it to you as he gave it to others, and it is a sin that you have been deprived of it for so many years.”

In Danville on April 8, Davis learned by messenger that Lee’s army was in dire straits, and would likely be forced to surrender. Davis, nonetheless, sent Lee orders urging him to keep the army together as long as possible.

Two days later, while Davis was meeting with his advisors, the news of Lee’s surrender arrived in Danville. The president passed the message around the table, and all became silent as they considered this disastrous news.

Davis knew he had to keep moving to stay ahead of the advancing Yankee army. He had learned that Union cavalry were approaching from the west.

The Rebel president wired ahead to Gen. Joseph Johnston, the commander in North Carolina, to meet him in Greensboro. While Davis planned for the Confederacy’s survival, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin decided it was time to seek refuge in a foreign country — considering his office had been the central point for planning and funding the South’s major clandestine operations against the North.

Upon Davis’ arrival in Greensboro on the 11th, the local populace gave his entourage a cool greeting. Given the breakdown in the military situation, the people feared retaliation if they harbored the Davis government.

Wisely, Davis remained only until April 15, before moving south once again from Greensboro to Charlotte near the border between North and South Carolina. As discussed in Robert M. Dunkerly’s “To the Bitter End,” additional troubling news soon arrived regarding a meeting between Gen. Johnston and Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to discuss surrender terms for Johnston’s army that encompassed the Department of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida — a major slice of the South.

After meeting on April 17 and 18, Sherman offered Johnston terms of surrender; however, they were not acceptable to authorities in Washington. Sherman and Johnston would hold additional meetings to begin on April 25 at James and Nancy Bennett’s farm outside of Hillsborough, NC, and would continue into the early part of May.

These fast-moving events placed President Davis’s dreams of an independent South into further jeopardy; yet, he steadfastly refused to concede. Davis remained in Charlotte waiting to learn the fate of Johnston’s army.

By sheer force of his will, the Southern president was determined to reach Texas, and continue the fight employing Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith’s army of more than 60,000 troops. To accomplish this objective, as will be discussed later, Davis would have to match wits and grit with Grant — the equally determined Union commander.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, or contact him directly at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or through his website, www.tomryan-civilwar.com.