Civil War Profiles: Burton Harrison: Fort Delaware’s solitary prisoner


As the Civil War’s dying embers flickered before going out, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was attempting to escape capture in Southern Georgia after having abandoned the capital at Richmond in April 1865. Davis’ objective was to join Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in Alabama, or cross over into the Trans-Mississippi Department and continue the war with Gen. Kirby Smith’s forces.

Davis was on a perilous journey with a $100,000 U.S. government bounty on his head. His wife and children, a handful of government officials, and personal aides and servants accompanied Davis, including his 26-year-old private secretary, Burton Norvell Harrison, whom author Burke Davis described as “a dignified, Yale-trained Virginia aristocrat.”

In “The Long Surrender,” Davis relates that when this contingent reached the outskirts of Irwinville, Union cavalry from the command of Maj. Gen. James Harrison Wilson, based in Macon, captured the party on May 10, 1865. Wilson later became an adopted Delawarean when he married Ella, daughter of the 1st Delaware Regiment’s Col. John W. Andrews, and settled in Wilmington (see Coastal Point, Nov. 25, 2011).

Davis’ fate was imprisonment at Fort Monroe, while Burton Harrison ended up a prisoner at Fort Delaware. Initially, however, Harrison was held briefly at Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., before transferring to Old Arsenal Penitentiary located on present-day Fort McNair for two months, during which the Lincoln conspirators were incarcerated, tried, convicted and sentenced — four of them meeting death at the end of a rope in the prison yard.

In “Fort Delaware Notes, February 2011,” R. Hugh Simmons relates that, after their capture, the separation of Davis from his young aide was an emotional one, with tears shed. Harrison’s close affiliation with Davis, who was under suspicion for conspiracy in the Lincoln case, merited him “solitary confinement in a 4-by-8-foot dark cell for five weeks.” Permitted a daily walk on the grounds, Harrison witnessed “the gallows and four newly filled graves” of those who already paid the price.

Harrison arrived at Fort Delaware in late July but continued to be in solitary confinement. While not officially permitted communication with family members, he discovered that letters could be smuggled out of the prison. The war being over, by August, Harrison was one of only two prisoners remaining at Fort Delaware.

Harrison wrote to his female interest, Virginia socialite Constance Cary, now living in Baltimore, that the prison had a good library, and he was able to keep his mind occupied despite his solitude. He speculated he was being held as a potential witness in the event President Davis was implicated in Lincoln’s assassination.

Through the efforts of his legal representative, Baltimore attorney C. Bohn Slingluff, prison authorities freed Harrison from solitary confinement and permitted Constance to get a glimpse of Burton — but not an actual visit. She saw him from the inner court of the fort, under guard in his casemate, “alive and well, waving his hat like a school boy.”

Harrison’s petition for release was at first blocked by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who claimed he could prove “Harrison’s personal involvement in the Lincoln assassination plot. Holt’s position, however, was opposed by recommendations from Missouri congressman Frank Preston Blair Jr., Gen, Ulysses S. Grant and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, all who favored Harrison’s release. This occurred on Jan. 25, 1866, the final prisoner held at Fort Delaware.

Surprisingly, Burton decided to settle in New York to resume his law studies, and was admitted to the bar of the New York Supreme Court in December 1866. This gave him credentials to assist in the defense of Jefferson Davis, still in confinement at Fort Monroe. He sat beside the former Confederate president in court when Davis was released on bail in May 1867.

Later that year, Burton took Constance as his wife. She would eventually gain the limelight as a popular author of 25 novels, as well as magazine articles and short stories, over a long career. She adopted the curious nom de plume Refugitta — perhaps an allusion to her wartime status.

In “Virginia Scenes in ’61” from Gramercy Book’s “Civil War Stories,” Constance described how the execution of John Brown for inciting a slave rebellion had poisoned the atmosphere of her previous idyllic life in Virginia’s plantation society. The Civil War would soon follow.

Burton and Constance Harrison enjoyed a long and prosperous life together. The former Confederate who was under suspicion and in jeopardy at Fort Delaware became a prominent and productive member of the reunited states of America.

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 at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.