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Capture of Jefferson Davis by the Fourth Michigan

The Fourth Michigan Cavalry had many roles during the Civil War.One event, however, truly stands out. The capture of Jefferson Davis. On May 10th 1865, Davis was captured near Irwinville. There was a brief exchange of fire between the 4th Michigan and the 1st Wisconsin, both of which thought they were firing upon the enemy. During this time Davis attempted to escape, though sources argue on whether he was wearing women’s clothes or simply a cloak.

      On May 7th the Fourth Michigan received orders from Colonel Robert Minty saying to move down the Ocmulgee River and scout on both sides in order to find and capture Jefferson Davis. During this search the Fourth Michigan was led by Colonel Prichard. At about noon 8th the Fourth Michigan came in contact with the First Wisconson who informed them of a train of ambulances and wagons that were reported to contain Dais’s family. It was unknown if he was currently with them, however they assumed that he would join them sometime soon. At this point they were near Abbeville, Georgia. Later that night they woke the people of Irwinviille, a small village of a half dozen houses at that time, asking for information, of which they received none. At some point they were informed of a column of horses and wagons that had passed by. Following the instructions given they set up a picket and surrounded the area. They camped that night and in the morning proceeded to the camp. It was unclear who the camp belonged to upon first look. Several men observed three people dressed in women’s garb moving towards the road. It is disputed as to whether this was true. These three people were Mr. and Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Davis’ maid. Upon capture Jefferson Davis refused to give his name when asked, however his wife gave his name proudly for him.

      At the same time, down the road at the pickets, the First Wisconsin had stumbled upon the Fourth Michigan. Both groups thought the other was confederate soldiers and so broke out in fire. The two skirmished for a time, until Colonel Prichard “dashed into the line” to inform them of their mistake. The skirmish ended and the Fourth Michigan returned to the camp. Without fight the confederates with the Davis’ rode with the Fourth Michigan. With the Davis’ were their three children, one of whom was a baby at the time. One source says that the babe was a favorite of the group and at one time was passed along the line.(Bitter,Rand,Julian Dickinson)

      One thing about this event is argued among some sources. This is what Jefferson Davis was wearing during his capture. Some believe it was his wife’s traveling gown and cloak, others say just the cloak, and still others state that he simply wore his own cloak which was mistaken as a women’s.

      For the Fourth Michigan, this was the largest, most important contribution to the war effort. The capture of Davis was one of the final acts needed for the Country to begin settling into the uneasy peace that followed. Had Davis not been captured he may have gone on with his plans to get the war going again.

Jefferson Davis held many roles throughout his lifetime. In the 40’s he began to involve himself in politics. He was a supporter of state’s rights as well expansion of slavery into the territories. Davis was elected to the U.S. Congress and then was appointed to the Senate after he became a hero during the Mexican War. In 51 he left the Senate to run to be governor of Mississippi. He lost and in ’53 was appointed to secretary of war by President Franklin Pierce. He again entered Senate in ’57, only to resign during the succession. In ’61 he was chosen to be the Confederate President.  Davis focused on military strategy, choosing to neglect any domestic politics. This would end up hurting him later on. He was unable to inspire his people and could not manage opposition from congress very well. He was also a poor judge of character and protected people who turned out to be incompetent. He also would choose not to use the talents of those whom he disliked. He

 

There are many sources that read similar things about the capture of Jefferson Davis. There are a few small, disputed details, such as what Davis was wearing, but these are largely unimportant. Some questions that came up, but answers not found, were things like what was the reaction of the public to the capture of Davis? It can be assumed that in the North it was celebrated, or at the very least ignored. In the South it may have been seen as the last stand ending. Without it’s President the Confederacy was no more. There is also a question of what it meant militarily. The sources barely seemed to touch on this. The most that is mentioned is that had he not been captured he may have tried to continue to war later on. More research from more specific sources would be needed to answer these questions.

 

Primary:

Bitter, Rand, and Julian Dickinson. “The Capture of Jefferson Davis.” Mollus War Papers, Apr. 2004, suvcw.org/mollus/warpapers/MIv1p179.htm.

 

Secondary:

Seibert, David. “Pursuit of Jefferson Davis.” Pursuit of Jefferson Davis Historical Marker, 16 June 2016, www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=40013.

 

Brown, Brian. “Capture of Jefferson Davis.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, 9 May 2002, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/capture-jefferson-davis.

 

History.com Staff. “Jefferson Davis Captured.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/jefferson-davis-captured.

History.com Staff. “Jefferson Davis.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/jefferson-davis.
Champion, Brandon. “Michigan Cavalry Captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis This Week in 1865.” MLive.com, MLive.com, 12 May 2016, www.mlive.com/news/muskegon/index.ssf/2016/05/michigan_calvary_captured_conf.html