Civil War 150: Jefferson Davis begins imprisonment at Fort Monroe

Incarcerating the fugitive leader of the defeated South

Jefferson Davis was no stranger to Fort Monroe when — as the captive head of the defeated South — he arrived off Old Point Comfort aboard the Union steamer William P. Clyde on May 19, 1865.

A decade earlier he'd come as Secretary of War, prompting not only thunderous salutes from the fort's guns but also — on one occasion — a spectacular fireworks display that lit up the sky with both his name and that of President Franklin Pierce.

The West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran also had directed the garrison in a special review at the parade ground, impressing the president, the rest of the Cabinet and their wives with his superb horsemanship and warlike bearing.

But when Davis and his captors landed at the Engineers Wharf on the afternoon of May 22, he was greeted by a traitor's corridor formed by two long lines of grim-faced, blue-clad soldiers — and it extended all the way from the dock to the imposing Water Battery and the east postern bridge.

More troops stood at attention inside the ramparts, marking the ignominious path down which the beaten Confederate leader and his guards would march to his prison cell in a ritual procession of dishonor.

Even with this humiliating reversal of fortune, however, Davis did not feel the full depths of his fall until the following day.

That's when his jailers shackled his legs in the signal moment of his darkest despair — yet also provided a figure who rarely had been popular during a brutally costly war with unexpected salvation.

"The North united in mourning their slain president — and they made Abraham Lincoln an icon of the sacrifices they'd made to save the Union," says J. Michael Cobb, retired curator of the Hampton History Museum.

"But the South united in anguish over Davis' imprisonment — and how it underscored their huge losses of life and property and the deep disgrace of their defeat. Everybody in the South suffered during and after the war — and they made Davis an icon of that suffering and loss."

A rebel scorned

Almost from the time of his May 10 capture in Georgia, Davis was the target of Northern newspapers bent on his humiliation.

Cartoon after cartoon showed a wild-eyed caricature trying to his escape his pursuers by donning a skirt, bonnet and petticoats, though — as Casemate Museum Director Robin Reed explains — the woman's overcoat he wore was likely picked up in the dark by mistake, while the black shawl that draped over his shoulders had been thrown there by his wife in an attempt to protect her ailing husband from the cold, damp weather.

Just as biting as these attacks on Davis' manhood, however, was the spectacle of his reception at Fort Monroe, where he was treated not as a former head of state but rather as a defeated traitor.

"That double line of soldiers was meant to tell him he had lost — that his so-called country had been not only defeated but conquered," says John V. Quarstein, author of several books on the Civil War in Hampton Roads.

"It also was meant to tell him that — as far as the Union was concerned — he had betrayed his trust as a West Point graduate, an officer in the U.S. Army, a United States senator and a secretary of war in a way that had completely stripped him of his honor."

The May 23 shackling figured largely in this campaign of humiliation, too, and would have been carried out right away had not Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck stayed Secretary of War Edwin S. Stanton's original orders when he arrived at the fort to witness Davis' arrival.

But the sting was just as bitter when Fort Monroe commander Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles and officer-of-the-day Capt. Jerome E. Titlow finally entered their prisoner's casemate cell with a blacksmith, his assistant and a cadre of sentries to put the defiant Davis into leg irons.

Titlow later wrote sympathetically of the dramatic struggle, in which Davis resisted violently and had to be subdued.

"I will say here that it was anything but a pleasant sight to see a man like Jefferson Davis shedding tears," the Pennsylvania artilleryman recalled.

"But not one word had he to say."

Davis himself knew exactly what the shackles and chains meant, and he later told his Union army surgeon — Lt. Col. John J. Craven — that "the object was to offer an indignity both to myself and the cause I represented.

"I resisted as a duty to … my countrymen, and to myself."

"Look at it the way Davis did," Quarstein says.

"He was a big-time slave owner — and shackling was what you did to slaves. So this was the ultimate disgrace."

Tormented icon

Two days after Davis was restrained, the news leaked to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Old Point correspondent, whose sensational May 27 story — headlined "HE IS SECURELY MANACLED" — sparked widespread disapproval among many prominent northerners.

"There were people who wanted to shoot him. There were people who wanted to hang him," Casemate Museum historian Robert Kelly says, describing the strong sentiment to punish Davis not just for treason but also the mistreatment of Union prisoners and the assassination of Lincoln.

"But there were also others who wanted to put the charges against Davis aside and get on with the business of healing the country."

So influential were these voices that — only one day after the story broke — the War Department ordered that Davis be unshackled.

Stanton started to backpedal even before that, sending Miles an artful message asking him to "Please report whether irons have or have not been placed on Jefferson Davis. If they have been, when it was done, and for what reason, and remove them."

Still, even without shackles, Davis languished in his casemate cell, which had been hastily converted from an officers quarters by bricking in the interior windows and walls, then installing stout iron bars on the gun embrasure overlooking the moat.

Almost immediately, Craven asked that his patient be permitted to resume his use of tobacco, since he was suffering intense withdrawal from his longtime habit. He also recommended that Davis be moved to other quarters because of what he described as the damp and unhealthy conditions inside the casemate.

"His health had never been good," Reed says.

"He suffered from recurring bouts of neuralgia. He suffered from recurring bouts of yellow fever, which had killed his first wife. He suffered lifelong pain from a wound he suffered in the Mexican War. And by the time he was captured and sent to Fort Monroe, he was pretty thin and haggard."

In the North, every report suggesting that Davis was being mistreated was met with widespread scorn and ridicule, including such satirical responses as a June 1865 cartoon in which a figure of Davis — complaining about the simple soldier's fare delivered by a black servant — is countered by Union soldiers describing the rotten food they faced at Libby and Andersonville prisons.

In a biting image drawn by Thomas Nash, the figure of a swooning Davis and his worried Union physicians is countered by images of Federal soldiers starving at Andersonville.

"Treason must be made odious," Nash wrote.

In the South, however, the response to each new report can be seen in the pages of the Richmond Examiner, whose descriptions of the former president's "desperate conditions" at Fort Monroe focused as much on the growing tide of sympathy among his former countrymen as the plight of his confinement.

"(He) is languishing in a long and unjust confinement that arouses the keenest emotions of the southern heart," the paper stated, despite having attacked Davis frequently and often personally during the war.

Growing freedom

Three months after being imprisoned, Davis received permission to walk outside his cell escorted by a guard.

Soon his health and diet improved, Craven reported, and his spirits rose still more after being allowed to correspond with his wife.

In early October, the conditions of his confinement relaxed again when Miles approved the surgeon's request to move Davis to more expansive quarters.

"It was a very difficult environment inside the casemate," Kelly says, "and when he's moved to Carroll Hall it helps almost immediately."

Davis himself rarely if ever complained, the historian adds, but his wife became the center of a letter-writing campaign that stirred up opposition in the North and provoked sympathy at home.

A year after watching her husband vanish inside the moat, she swayed authorities to allow her to join him at Carroll Hall. But that small victory didn't stop her ceaseless efforts to portray his treatment in the darkest and most deplorable light.

Taking her case to Washington, D.C., she proved persuasive in person, too, and on May 24, 1866, she won permission for Davis to roam inside the ramparts.

"Jefferson Davis allowed the freedom of the fort," the newspapers reported, noting how the orders came the day of her visit.

Still, another year would pass before Davis was released on bail, partly because of strong support from such prominent Northerners as publisher Horace Greeley and transportation magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt — and partly because of worry about the impact of his confinement on his health.

The charge of treason was dropped at the same time — and that would be followed in December 1868 by President Andrew Johnson's proclamation of amnesty, then in February 1869 by the government's decision to drop its case.

Martyrdom

Long before their former president's release, however, many Southerners had embraced the worst if relatively short-lived episodes of his imprisonment as a cause around which to rally.

"The Secretary of War (must want) to kill his captive rather than let him be tried," a writer to the Georgia Weekly Telegraph complained in August 1866.

"It makes no difference now what the government may do to this man, his fame is world-wide as a martyr: Davis is a martyr to the 'lost cause.' "

Those feelings intensified after Davis' death in 1889 and a funeral attended by tens of thousands.

"The Grandest Funeral Seen in the South," the New York Times reported.

"New Orleans Draped in Mourning and Thronged with Visitors."

Thousands more would turn out four years later to see Davis' funeral train as it transported his remains across the South to its final resting place in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.

Church bells tolled, choirs sang and children draped the train tracks with flowers in memory of their martyred leader.

"This is something that started at Fort Monroe," Cobb says.

"People from all over the South sent him things — letters of support, tokens of concern and affection, even little mementos made by children to remember the fallen Confederacy. And that's because they felt the same loss and suffering he did."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

Online coverage

Go to dailypress.com/history to see video and photos exploring Davis' imprisonment at Fort Monroe.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
63°