Civil War Profiles: Davis’ flight and Lincoln’s assassination


Washingtonians first learned on the morning of April 3, 1865, that the Civil War would soon end after four long years, when a telegraph operator in Washington excitedly shouted out a war department window that “Richmond has fallen!” President Abraham Lincoln, who was at Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s City Point headquarters near Petersburg, Va., at the time, decided to visit the captured Confederate capital.

Carl Sandburg relates in “Lincoln: The War Years” that Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his entourage had fled Richmond the previous day for safer locales in the South to avoid capture. Over the next two weeks, Davis, several cabinet officials and support personnel hauled their belongings, as well as the government archives and treasury, by rail and wagons, attempting to reach the safety of residual military forces to continue the war.

As Burke Davis describes in “The Long Surrender,” Davis’ contingent traveled by train to Danville, Va., and remained there until April 10. Moving on to Greensboro, N.C., they stayed there until the 15th. There, they learned the devastating news that Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox, Va., on April 9.

Fear and chaos raged in the small town of Greensboro, clogged by straggling soldiers from the Confederate armies. Davis and his fellow travelers “were shocked by the cold reception they found there.” They continued to flee southward, passing through Lexington, Va., and Salisbury, N.C.

Meanwhile, as cited in Roy Basler’s “Collected Works,” Lincoln officially congratulated Grant for his “magnificent success” in capturing Richmond. He accepted Grant’s invitation to visit the capital and, along with his youngest son, Tad, stepped ashore in Richmond on April 4, which happened to be Tad’s 12th birthday.

The Lincolns, father and son, strolled through a seemingly deserted city with only a few sailors accompanying them. Sandburg explains, however, “Suddenly sprang out black folk, some silent and awe-struck, others turning somersaults and yelling with joy as though their voices and bodies could never tell what they wanted to tell.”

Driven to make personal contact vicariously with the fugitive Davis, Lincoln trekked to the executive mansion at 12th and Clay Streets. One of the military aides noted that he acted in “a boyish manner” as he went through the rooms and sat in a chair where Davis had held meetings with his advisors.

Following his “vacation” away from Washington and his experiences in the Confederate capital, Lincoln arrived back in the capital on April 9, amid the stirring news from Appomattox about Lee’s surrender. Two days later, a crowd gathered at the White House, demanding comments from their president. He responded with conciliatory words toward the South.

Among the crowd outside the White House that evening was John Wilkes Booth. Michael Kauffman writes in “American Brutus” that Booth listened carefully for signs that the president intended to pursue a radical policy toward the dissolving Confederacy. When Lincoln spoke of “the elective franchise for the colored man,” Booth vowed, “Now, by God, I’ll put him through.”

New York World correspondent George Alfred Townsend reported in exhaustive detail the events that resulted from those words. The Georgetown, Del., native published a series of “letters” to the public concerning the assassination of Lincoln, a description of Booth the assassin, the pursuit of the conspirators, their capture, Booth’s death in Virginia while attempting to escape, and the execution or imprisonment of his collaborators.

When Davis learned of the death of his enemy and counterpart at the hands of Booth, he reacted cautiously at first. Later, he commented that, if the story were true, “I fear it will be disastrous for our people, and I regret it deeply.” As William C. Davis pointed out in his biography of Jefferson Davis, the Rebel president was well aware of the “malignant feeling” toward him and the “old-line Southern aristocracy and its leaders” that then-vice-president Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, had expressed.

Davis flight in search of security would continue, for that portion of the South that had yet to capitulate. His wife, Varina, and their children joined him along the escape route. Their fate was in the hands of Union cavalry under the command of Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson, which was driving deeply into Alabama and Georgia. Fate intended that their paths would soon cross.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan’s latest book is “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (May 2015). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.