Loyal to the Last, Part 2
On May 2, 1865, CONFEDERATE Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler rode into Washington, Georgia, with a small group of officers and soldiers. There, he expected to meet President Jefferson F. Davis and aid him in his flight south. Practically speaking, the Civil War was over, and Davis was a wanted man. That very day, U.S. President Andrew Johnson offered a $100,000 reward for Davis's capture.
Wheeler found the town ringed by Federal soldiers, and Davis gone. The Confederate president had been forced to hurry south with his family some 12 hours earlier, escorted by a small group of loyal soldiers. Wheeler had sworn to protect Davis, but there seemed little he could do now. Blue-coated Federal soldiers were everywhere, and Wheeler had to worry about his own escape.
In our last issue we presented the first half of Wheeler's recollections of this final chapter of the Confederacy, originally published in The Century Magazine in 1898. The second half appears below, lightly edited for clarity.
As we went along we were joined by other soldiers and officers.... We met so many of these stragglers that, in their interest and my own, I was obliged to say frequently: "Gentlemen, we must break up again; we are too large a body."
One evening, toward dark, we were suddenly overtaken by a force of about 40 Federal soldiers, who galloped down the road, firing upon us as they approached. I stopped at the first favorable point and, with a gallant private soldier, M.A. Whaley, fired upon and checked the advancing Federals. It was soon dark, and we turned off the road and sought the cover of thick pine undergrowth. The Federals knew we were in the woods and halted in the main road directly opposite us. I sent two men back to find out, if possible, what these Union soldiers were doing. My men saw no better way of obtaining this information than by sauntering up to them coolly, as if they were Confederate stragglers going home. One of the first remarks they heard was this: "They had fine equipment and bouncing horses; it must be Davis and his men." I myself had meantime crept up close enough to hear them talking and overheard similar words. There was no doubt that we would be hotly pursued.
I immediately went back to the men in the woods and waited anxiously for the
return of my two scouts. Presently they came, their appearance showing that they
had been in trouble. They brought with them two Federal guns, which they had
captured in a curious way. It seems that the officers, becoming suspicious, had
placed them under arrest and sent them, guarded by two soldiers, to a
neighboring house for supper. Arrived there, the guards had stood their guns in
a corner and fallen to at a tempting meal, in the midst of which my men had
sprung up suddenly, seized the guns of their captors, and made them prisoners.
Then, cautioning them not to leave the house on
pain of being shot, they had made their escape and rejoined me.
I saw at once the danger that menaced us and, calling my men to the saddles,
told them we could not remain a moment where we were. I again divided my forces,
retaining with me but three officers, our two Negro servants, and three or four
privates. We rode all that night, taking by-paths when possible, and frequently
riding through the woods in the hope that the enemy would lose our trail and
About sunrise we drew rein in an open space and, seeing a Negro, gave him money to bring us food. He went away and presently returned with dishes and cups containing a steaming breakfast. Having eaten, we wrapped ourselves in blankets and lay down on the ground for a few hours of the sleep we so much needed.
The Negro, meantime, in taking back the plates, knives, and forks, had
been intercepted by the Federal soldiers, who had been pursuing us more closely
than we knew. They had followed our tracks along the road and found the point
where we had entered the woods. After that they had a plain trail before them.
The Negro's appearance had aroused their suspicions, and they were not long in
into betraying our presence. Advancing stealthily to the place where we were sleeping, they came upon us quickly and, before we could resist, were standing around us, guns in hand. The chase was up; we were captured; the spot being, as I learned afterward, a few miles east of Atlanta.
The Federal soldiers did not fire upon us; there was no need of that, for we
were at their mercy; but some of them took aside our Negro servants, and I could
see them pointing to me and asking questions. Presently an officer approached me
and, talking about various things, kept looking sharply at the collar of my
coat. Some time before, as a precaution, I had removed the three stars of a
general; but the cloth underneath showed a different color from the rest, so
that the marks of the stars could be seen quite plainly. I saw that our captors
had discovered our identity and, after taking counsel with my officers, I asked
the Federal leader if he was aware of the agreement
that had been arrived at between [Union Major General William T.] Sherman and [Confederate General Joseph E.] Johnston regarding the parole of Confederate soldiers. [The generals had agreed that all Confederate soldiers who reported or surrendered to a Federal officer east of the Chattahoochee River could return home on parole.] He said he was. "Then, sir," said I, "as we are in the territory covered by that agreement, being east of the Chattahoochee River, I wish to take advantage of its provisions and will declare to you the true names of these gentlemen and myself."
This I did, but the officer, in some doubt, replied that he did not feel
justified in setting us free, but must insist on our going with them until he
could consult with his superiors. Accordingly, we took to the saddle again, and
were taken as prisoners to Conyers, Georgia, and from there we were taken, also
on horseback, to Athens, where I was given the freedom of the town on parole.
Although comfortable quarters were offered me for the night, I preferred to
sleep out with my men during the two days we
remained in Athens.
Having been brought by rail to Augusta, we were placed on a tug. We here found ourselves fellow prisoners with a most distinguished company; for there were on board Jefferson Davis and his family, who, as we learned, had been captured by Lieutenant Colonel [Benjamin] Pritchard and a squad of about 60 men; [Confederate Vice President] Alexander H. Stephens; C.C. Clay [Clement Claiborne Clay, Jr.], who had been a United States senator from Alabama, and Mrs. Clay, one of the most brilliant women in the South; Colonel [Francis] Lubbock of Texas; Colonel Burton Harrison, the president's secretary, whose distinguished record suggests that of his talented wife; Postmaster General [John H.] Reagan; and Colonel William Preston Johnston, now president of Tulane University, then an aide to President Davis.
We soon started down the river, and upon reaching Savannah were transferred to a large river steamboat, which conveyed us to Hilton Head [South Carolina]. At this point Mrs. Davis sent her Negro servants ashore with a letter to [Brigadier] General Rufus Saxton, United States Army, asking him to see that they were treated kindly and given any advantages which their new condition warranted. This left Mrs. Davis without servants, and I remember spending many an hour of the voyage walking the deck with little baby Winnie in my arms.
We were guarded on the steamboat by men of Colonel Pritchard's who, as I said, numbered about 60, and were in high spirits over the knowledge that the reward of $100,000 for the president's capture would be theirs, as indeed it was, after some trouble in the division. I think their elation of mind contributed to render them less strict in performing their ordinary duties than they should have been, and they were more disposed for enjoyment now than for serious work. At any rate, there happened, on the first morning out, an incident that nearly rendered possible our escape in a way that would have been in the highest degree dramatic.
I was at this time a young man of intensely active, energetic disposition, and the free, fierce life of the battlefield which I had been leading for four years had developed in me a certain enjoyment of adventure. I also felt that [because] Mr. Davis had especially selected me at Charlotte to devote myself to preparations for his escape, it was my privilege, as well as my duty, to seize upon any possible opportunity which might be presented. The intense feeling we had heard expressed against Mr. Davis, and the great anxiety felt and expressed by his friends, furnished additional incentive, and I earnestly sought to devise some means of escape.
Soon after leaving Savannah I discovered an opportunity that seemed to me the best we could hope for. The steamboat was a large three-decker, not unlike the big excursion boats that ply about New York. On the upper deck were stationed our guard of soldiers, with their guns; but when breakfast time came I saw that they would have to go below. I supposed that they would go down in sections, relieving one another; but it turned out differently, a simple incident contributing to what seemed an act of negligence. For some reason., we prisoners were sent down to breakfast first, before the soldiers, who were grumbling and hungry.
Finally we came up, in great good humor, for the meal had been an excellent
one, and the soldiers went tumbling down below to take their turn, leaving their
guns stacked on the upper deck and only two sentinels to guard them. Then I saw
our chance and,
calling Preston Johnston, pointed to the stairway, narrow and steep, that led up to where the guns were. In quick words I showed him how easy it would be for us to rush upon the two sentinels, overpower them, take possession of the guns, and then of the boat. There were ten of us, able-bodied men, and with the other soldiers all below, and the guns in our hands, we would soon be masters of the situation.
We discussed a plan in a hurried consultation. "What will we do with the boat when we have got her?" was suggested.
"Sail to the Florida coast, the Bahamas, and finally to Cuba, if necessary," I replied.
"We have not got fuel enough."
"We can burn the decks," I replied.
"Would it not be an act of piracy?" was asked.
I contended that it would not. A state of war still existed; our armies west
of Georgia were intact and were opposed by large Federal armies. We were
prisoners of war, guarded by Federal soldiers, and the life of our president was
and no more sacred duty devolved upon us than to exercise every effort to assist in his escape and ensure his safety.
I contended that people who would regard this as piracy were those who had for all these years regarded us as very much in that light, and I insisted that right-thinking, chivalrous people, even including Federal officers, could not but commend the spirit by which we were actuated.
Word was brought to Mr. Davis, who was in his cabin, but he did not seem to give approval; and while we were arguing and discussing, the time of our opportunity passed, and the soldiers came back upon the deck. It was too late, and nothing came of all my fine imagining. But I have often wondered what would have happened....
Arrived at Hilton Head, we were all transferred to the steamer Clyde, and on
her steamed away for Fortress Monroe [off Hampton Roads, Virginia], guarded by
the gunboat Tuscarora. The voyage from Augusta occupied seven or eight days, and
were given entire freedom of movement on the vessel.
I saw a good deal of Alexander H. Stephens while on the steamer, for we occupied a stateroom together, and I was surprised to find the vice-president so apprehensive of the future. He seemed to expect that the gravest consequences would follow his arrest. I remember reasoning with him to prove that he was in no such danger as he thought. I spoke of his many friends all over the United States, referring to his Savannah speech and his well-known conservative views, and ventured the opinion that people in the North would be rather disposed to make a hero of him rather than to treat him harshly.
"No, my young friend," he replied, with an emphasis I cannot forget, "I look forward to a long, if not a perpetual, confinement."
"But if you feel that way about yourself," I said, "What do you think will happen to President Davis?"
Mr. Stephens answered in great agitation: "My young friend, don't speak of that--don't speak of that." I think he feared, as many others did, that Mr. Davis would be executed.
As for President Davis himself, he showed not the slightest trepidation, but reviewed the situation as calmly as if he had no personal interest in it. He discussed the war, the men and its incidents, in the same dispassionate way that a traveler might speak of scenes and incidents in some foreign land.
He was affable and dignified, as usual, and if he felt any fear, he certainly showed none. Nor would his fine sense of humor and propriety allow him to take advantage of another plan that we had made for his escape from the tug while en route from Augusta to Savannah. This plan, which could doubtless have been carried out successfully had Mr. Davis approved of it, was as follows:
Two sentinels were on guard day and night at the rear end of the vessel, which was approached by two companionways, and it was our purpose to have Mr. Davis walk to the rear at night, at a certain moment when Preston Johnston and I would have concealed ourselves near the sentinels. Then, choosing his moment, Mr. Davis was to leap overboard, throwing his hat from his head at the same moment, so as to have two black objects in the river, the purpose of this being to deceive the sentinels should they succeed in firing. But it was our purpose to prevent them from using their guns, by throwing ourselves upon them suddenly, and either wresting the weapons from them or managing to discharge them in the air.
I dare say President Davis was influenced in his refusal to approve this plan by the realization that his escape would serve no useful purpose, since the Confederacy had virtually ceased to exist and his personal efforts could be of no further benefit to the cause. And perhaps he took a certain inward satisfaction in the knowledge that by refusing to escape he would cause the Federal government more embarrassment than if he did not. He had perhaps heard of [President Abraham] Lincoln's remark to a member of his cabinet: "If Mr. Davis could only escape unbeknownst to us, it would be a very good thing."
On reaching Fortress Monroe, we were taken off the vessel, Mr. Davis and Senator Carr being held as prisoners in the fort, under [Major General Nelson A.] Miles; Mr. Reagan and Mr. Stephens being transferred to the gunboat Tuscarora and carried to Fort Warren; Mr. Harrison being sent in a man-of-war to Washington City [D.C.]; while the rest of us were put aboard the steamer Maumee and brought to Fort Delaware, where we were placed in strict confinement. Here I remained for about a month, our party having as a guard an officer, a sergeant, three corporals, and 36 men. Two sentinels stood in front of my open door day and night; nor was I permitted to speak, read, or write. For breakfast I received a piece of bread and a piece of meat on a tin plate. For dinner they gave me a piece of bread and a tin cup of soup with a small chunk of meat in it. For supper I had a piece of bread and a cup of water. I considered this very good prison fare, and I did not complain.
On the first or second night of my imprisonment I heard someone speaking to me from the door and found it was a sentinel, one of my old soldiers, who had served in the First Dragoons. He wished to serve me now.
"I'll get you out of here, General," he said. "The talk is that they are going to treat you roughly. All you have to do is to go to the sinks, drop down into the river and swim ashore."
I saw that the plan could be easily carried out, but I refused to take advantage of it. I did not see what good to the cause could come through my escaping; I was not alarmed about myself, and I knew the soldier would be subjected to most serious punishment. So I thanked the sentinel and told him I would stay where I was. He was evidently disappointed.
"Isn't there something I can do for you, General?" he said.
"Nothing, unless it is to get me a newspaper." The next day one of the latest Philadelphia papers was thrown into my room.
On about the thirtieth day of my confinement a messenger came up to say that [Brigadier General Albin F.] Schoepf, who was in command of the fort, wanted to see me. The corporal's guard formed at once, and I fell in, as prisoners do, between two soldiers. Then we marched away, but had gone only a few rods when the messenger, who had forgotten part of his instructions, came running after us and said: "General Schoepf says he must come without a guard."
Rather surprised at this, I walked in the direction indicated and soon found myself in the presence of the commanding officer, who said very politely: "I suppose, General, you think I've been rather harsh with you." I told him that, on the contrary, I had appreciated several acts of kindness extended to me, doubtless by his orders. After some talk about his original instructions regarding myself, and explaining to me that he had been ordered to treat me with no less severity than would have been shown Jefferson Davis himself, he held up a paper, saying: "Read that." It was an order from Washington for my release, on signing the same parole as had been given to [Confederate General Robert E.] Lee's and Johnston's armies. As nearly as I remember, the words of the parole were: "I promise, on my honor, that I will not take up arms again until I have been exchanged." As there were at this time no prisoners to be exchanged, this was equivalent to a pledge to remain at peace.
Having put my name to the paper, I was a free man, and General Schoepf at once, with great cordiality, invited me to dine with him. I declined with thanks, saying that I preferred to spend the few hours before I should leave in the prison with my friends, who would have messages for me to take.
Some time before the boat started that was to take me across the river, word was brought me that two ladies desired to see me. It turned out that they were devoted women who for months had done untold good to the Southern cause by their sympathy and personal ministrations to prisoners. Every day it had been their habit to make the journey to Fort Delaware from Philadelphia, two hours each way, bringing flowers and baskets of food and delicacies for prisoners, some of them in the hospitals, and doing everything in their power to brighten the lot of the poor fellows who were languishing there. They kindly insisted that I should accompany them to their home in Philadelphia, where they gave me the first good meal I had had in many a day and a comfortable bed to sleep in, and then saw me safely on my journey to New York the next morning. They were noble women, and the South had thousands like them.
My own troubles were now over, for I had plenty of friends in New York to assist me. It is unnecessary for me to go into the further details of Jefferson Davis' imprisonment, which is a matter of history. He was held at Fortress Monroe for about two years, and then released. Mrs. Davis and her children had been sent back to Georgia shortly after our arrival at Fortress Monroe.
Peter Cozzens is a frequent contributor to CWTI. His article Smokescreen at Honey Hill appeared in our February 2000 issue.