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Benjamin D. Pritchard Captures Confederate President Davis

Benjamin D. Pritchard
(from Holland Sentinel)

Benjamin D. Pritchard served as a United States army officer. He was born in Nelson, Ohio on January 29, 1835 and unexpectedly deceased on November 26, 1907. Pritchard fought during the Civil War for the Union Army as a Calvary Officer. He was most notably known for leading a cavalry regiment whom captured the Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The history of how Davis was captured varies in detail from one source to another, which makes it difficult in knowing the exact story. Though, it is agreed by most sources that the Confederate President was found wearing lady’s clothes fleeing his encampment.

Civil War Overview

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 led to eleven southern states seceding from the Union. Lincoln, who was only in office for six weeks, saw these acts as illegal and against the idea of a single American nation.  It was then asked of Congress to provide 500,000 soldiers to deny any threat of a rebellion. In April 1861, shots were fired and the conflicts between the free North and the slave holding South erupted into full on Civil War lasting for four years between 1861 and 1865.

Near the end of the Civil War in 1865 the North was closing in on the Southern Confederates. President Abraham Lincoln was pushing for a Union victory as he knew this war was drawn out much further than he ever expected. Lincoln decided to travel south from the Capitol and meet with his is top generals William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia. There the conversation was centered on the surrender of the Confederates and the subject of Jefferson Davis was brought up. Unfortunately, Lincoln would never get to take part in the upcoming events of Davis’s capture as he was later assassinated. In May of 1865, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Confederate armies at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. At this point many Americans believed the war was over.

For some however, the future of the Confederacy was not given up. Jefferson Davis believed he could reinforce the armies and gather strength to the western parts of the Confederacy. Following the surrender of armies, Davis was forced to flee the capital of Richmond, Virginia and was accompanied by his loyalists who then made their way southwest. Their plan was to cross the Mississippi River and meet up with a Confederate General Kirby Smith who at the time hadn’t surrendered to north. The Union knew the war at its end, but without surrender of the Confederate leader it would be problematic. The search was on.

Closing In

It was on May 7th when Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Pritchard and the 4th Michigan Cavalry moved south down the bank of the Ocmulgee River scouting both sides of the river searching all ferries. The regiment at this point in the war numbered 439, out of the original 1200 men. The party marched all night for a distance of thirty-six miles and then proceeded to rest for five hours. Pritchard and his men later reached Irwinsville, Georgia around one in the morning where he passed his Michigan men off as Confederates searching for their wagon train. There a local citizen was found whom had information on the location of Davis’s party and later guided them to Davis’s encampment. Pritchard assembled twenty-five men and sent them to circle around on the opposite side of the camp with orders to stop any chance of escape. At first light the regiment charged into the camp. The Confederate soldiers soon realized they were outnumbered and surrendered without even a shot being fired. Although, north of the camp was a different scenario where sounds of guns rang out. Pritchard immediately rode towards the commotion leaving behind some soldiers to watch after the captured encampment.

At this point there are several accounts on the events that took place hereafter.

Mrs. Varina Davis:  Her account states that she pleaded with J. Davis to let her put on a larger waterproof which would help conceal him from being recognized. Then as he began to leave, Varina threw a little black shawl over his head since he could not find his hat [1, p.1].

Jefferson Davis: Davis states that he was getting what was supposed to be his overcoat, but by mistake was his wife’s overcoat. Then as he began to leave the tent his wife threw on his head and shoulders a shawl. After which he walked about fifteen yards when a trooper rode over and ordered him to stop. The trooper then leveled his carbine at Davis. Davis believed that even if the trooper did fire that he would miss and in doing so he would be able take his horse by flipping him off. But at that very moment Varina threw her arms around her husband and the chance of escape was lost [1, p.1].

Colonel Burton Harhson:  Harhson states that Davis emerged from the tent and began walking toward the woods. Then a Union soldier saw him and rode over to investigate. Mrs. Davis then proceeded to intercept the soldier to distract him. Two more soldiers rode up and one shouted for Davis to halt several times. Davis then reversed and went back to his tent [1, p.1].

It can be generalized that a few of the captured women insisted that they let their mother go for water. The woman was wearing a lady’s waterproof around her waist with shawl down over her head, and carrying a tin pail. As the women was heading towards the woods, Corporal George Munger noticed it was not a women noted by the individuals boots. Munger ordered the women to halt with his loaded carbine. It was here discovered that the individual was actually Jefferson Davis. The narrator stated that Davis cried out, “Is there a man among you? If there is let me see him.” “Yes,” said the corporal, “I am one, and if you stir, I will blow your brains out.” “I know my fate and I might as well die here,” said Davis, less defiantly. Pritchard soon returned to the encampment and learned of the news.

After much relentless pursuit, Pritchard’s regiment had successfully captured the Confederate President and later delivered Davis to Washington, D.C.


Primary Sources

  1. Sickles, John. “THE CAPTURE OF JEFFERSON DAVIS.” Military Images, vol. 28, no. 6, 2007., pp. 4
  2. Bennett, Lucy. “Capture of Jefferson Davis.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Nov 02 1903, pp. 13. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune,
  3. HELPED CAPTURE JEFFERSON DAVIS, IS DEAD AT 80.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Aug 22 1933, pp. 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune,

Secondary Sources

  1. A Selection of Stories & Facts Concerning the 4th Michigan Cavalry & the Capture of Jefferson Davis.” Military Images, vol. 28, no. 6, 2007., pp. 13 ProQuest SciTech Collection,
  2. Allegan County Historical Society. “Civil War group raising money for memorial to ‘modest guy’“. 4 Jan. 2015. Web.
  3. Joan Van Spronsen. “Benjamin D. Pritchard” 16 Feb. 2009.
  4. THE CAPTURE OF JEFF. DAVIS.” Chicago Tribune (1860-1872), May 15 1865, pp. 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune