Henry Harnden.

The capture of Jefferson Davis; a narrative of the part taken by Wisconsin troops online

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SB 310 525




! I












THE following account of the part taken
by the First Wisconsin Cavalry in the
Capture of Jefferson Davis was originally
prepared substantially as it is now pre
sented, at the request of Comrades of
the G. A. R., and has already been given
before a number of the different Posts.
It has been put into its present form for
the reason that it is believed it will be a
pleasure to the surviving members of the
regiments, and to their children and
friends to have the same for convenient

My personal recollection has been re
freshed as far as possible by re-reading
the official records and reports made at
the time, and also by letters and corre
spondence had with persons who took
part in the capture. I have endeavored
to make it as correct as possible, and the


4 Preface.

more so on account of the very unfortu
nate collision which took place between
the First Wisconsin and the Fourth
Michigan Cavalry, mention of which it
seems almost necessary to make in any
narrative concerning the matter. I have
endeavored to tell a plain story in a plain
way, and as such I submit it to the judg
ment of my comrades who took part with
me in the struggle which occurred almost
a generation since.


Madison, November 8, 1898.

Gbe Ston? of tbc Capture of

~j* FTER the defeat of Hood s
J^ \ army at Nashville, Tennes-
VS> see by General Thomas,
on the 1 5th and 1 6th of December,
1864, the Union cavalry under Gen
eral Wilson pursued the retreating
rebels until the remnants of their
army escaped across the Tennessee
river into Mississippi. General Wil
son encamped his cavalry at Gravelly
Springs and Waterloo, along the
line of the Tennessee, preparatory
to the commencement of his great
raid through Alabama and Georgia,
which resulted in the rout of the

6 The Capture of

rebel General Forest, and the scat
tering and capture of the greater
part of his army, also the capture
of Selman and Montgomery, Ala
bama, and Columbus and West-
point, Georgia, finally winding up
with the capture of Macon, Georgia.
The First Wisconsin Cavalry com
posed a part of these forces, and
bore a conspicuous part in all that
was accomplished on this, the great
est and most successful cavalry raid
of the war.

The rebel army which General
Thomas defeated at Nashville was
the same that had opposed General
Sherman from Chattanooga to At
lanta the previous summer, and
was, at the time of the battle of
Nashville, composed of about forty
thousand of the best troops of the
confederacy, but so total was their
defeat and rout that when they

Jefferson Davis. 7

finally got across Tennessee, there
was only about twelve thousand of
their infantry left. General Wilson,
with the First, Second, and Third
Divisions of the Cavalry Corps, and
three batteries of artillery, about
fifteen thousand men, crossed the
Tennessee river on the nth day of
March, 1865, at Chickasaw, Ala
bama, arriving at Macon, Georgia,
April 20, 1865.

While resting quietly in camp
about two miles north of the city on
the evening of May 6, 1865, I re
ceived orders to report at once to
headquarters. I mounted my horse
and rode over to headquarters as or
dered. I there found General J. G.
Croxton in command, in the absence
of General McCook. The General
informed me that it was reported
that Jeff. Davis was in South Caro
lina, making his way south into

8 The Capture of

Georgia, that a portion of his cab
inet was with him, and that they
were accompanied by six or seven
hundred men; that I had been se
lected to command a detachment of
one hundred and fifty men from the
First Wisconsin Cavalry to go and
endeavor to cut him off and capture
him if possible; that I must march
immediately and not wait for rations.
I enquired if he thought one hun
dred and fifty men a sufficient num
ber to take on the expedition. He
replied "That in the opinion of
General Wilson, it was." He said
that the escort of Davis was greatly
demoralized, and many were leaving
him; that they would be poorly
armed, and it was doubtful if they
would fight at all, but if they should
fight, he would risk our being able
to take care of them. He also said
the country through which our route

Jefferson Davis. 9

lay was very poor, and that it would
be difficult to subsist a large party,
and that we must start immediately
and not wait for rations, adding, as
I left him, that if there was a fight
and Jeff. Davis should get hurt,
General Wilson would not feel very
bad over it.

I then returned to my camp, and
soon had a detail of one hundred and
fifty men selected, all well armed
and mounted, ready to march.

It was about sunset when we
passed through Macon, and crossed
the bridge over the Ochemulgee
river, and then took a line of march
towards Savannah. General Crox-
ton had furnished me with a large
map of Georgia, so that I was able
to shape our course correctly. Dur
ing the night we came to a planta
tion where there was forage, so we
halted and fed our horses. Up to

io The Capture of

this time the men had no idea as to
where we were going or for what
purpose we had been ordered out.

When ready to mount our horses,
I made known the object of our ex
pedition. I frankly told them that
if we encountered Davis and his es
cort they would greatly outnumber
us, and were probably the pick of
the Confederate army; that they
would no doubt fight desperately;
that it would be a battle to the death,
and that Jeff. Davis must not be
allowed to escape in any event, but
as we had never been whipped, I
had no fear of being whipped now.
All of which was greeted with

We continued our march all night
and the next day (May 7th) until
near evening, when we arrived at
Dublin, a considerable town, sit
uated on the west bank of the Oconee

Jefferson Davis. n

river. I had sent out scouting par
ties during the night and day, to en
deavor to get information in regard
to parties who were continually
crossing our road, to ascertain if
some of them might not be the
Davis party, but these men always
proved to be from General John
ston s army, who, having surren
dered a short time before to General
Sherman, were going home on pa

These diversions caused our march
to be somewhat delayed. Upon ar
riving at Dublin I noticed the people
appeared considerably excited at
our presence, but I caused it to be
given out that we were establishing
courier posts between Macon and
Savannah, a little piece of strategy
allowable in a military campaign.
We bivouaced on a flat between the
town and the river. I had several

12 The Capture of

invitations from gentlemen to take
up my quarters at their houses, and
for some reason they appeared quite
anxious I should do so; all of which
surprised me, as I had never been
the recipient of such attentions be

By some means I got an inkling
that a party with wagons had passed
through the town that day, but to
my questions as to who they were I
got only evasive answers, but I
finally concluded it was some sutler
from Johnston s army. The town
was full of rebel officers in uniform,
and as they stood in groups by
themselves, talking, I thought their
looks boded no good to us. Po
litely declining all invitations, I
made my bivouac with the com
mand, and being weary with thirty-
six hours of duty, twenty-four of
which had been spent in the saddle,

Jefferson Davis. 13

we threw ourselves upon the ground
to sleep.

For several months I had been
served by an old colored man named
"Bill." He had been a slave and
owned by a staff officer of General
Bragg. He had often waited upon
General Bragg as well as his master,
but when the rebels were hustled
out of Tennessee by General Rosen-
cranse in 1863, Bill got left behind
and fell in with us, and I employed
him. He was as homely as a hedge
hog and a perfect tyrant over the
other darkies, but he was as true as
steel to me, and withal very intelli
gent. He happened to be with us
on this expedition.

I had scarcely lain down to sleep
when "Bill" came and touched me.
"Colonel, Colonel," he said, "wake
up; I have found a colored man who
will tell you something." "Well,

14 The Capture of

what is it?" said I. It was dark as
pitch, but I could see the whites of
their eyes, and I knew they had
something important to tell.

The man said Jeff. Davis had been
in town that day. I said, "How
do you know it was Jeff. Davis?
what makes you think so?" "Well,"
he said, "all the gentlemen called
him President Davis, and he had his
wife with him, and she was called
Mrs. Davis."

He said they had come over the
river on a ferry. They had a num
ber of nice wagons with them, and
some fine saddle-horses led behind
the wagon in which President Davis
and his wife rode. He further said
that they were going to dine with
Judge Rose (Judge Rose was one of
the gentlemen who had been so per
sistent in urging me to spend the
night at his house), but before they

Jefferson Davis. 15

could get the dinner ready they
heard something that made the party
leave in a hurry, going south on the
river road. He further stated that
there was another large party that
did not come over the river. I ques
tioned him closely, and his answers
appeared straight, but I was fearful
of a trick to send me off on some
side-track. I said to Bill, "Do you
think he is telling me the truth, and
that I ought to believe him?" "Sar-
tin, shoor, Kurnel; you can believe
him; he is telling you God s troof."
It will be seen that if Bill had not
been with us we would have known
nothing of Davis having crossed our
track, and we would have gone the
next morning toward Savannah, and
Jeff. Davis would in all probabilities
have escaped capture and got away
into Cuba, in company with Judah

1 6 The Capture of

P. Benjamin and others, or across
the Mississippi to Kirby Smith.

To get a little more information I
called up a couple of men and went
down to the ferry and interviewed
the ferryman as to whom he had
brought over the river that day, but
I could get nothing out of him. He
was either too stupid or ignorant, or
too obstinate, to give us any infor
mation of importance. I have al
ways been sorry that we did not
throw the old scamp into the river,
as my sergeant wanted to do.

As soon as we got back to the
bivouac I called up the men to sad
dle for a march. Lieutenant Hew
itt, with thirty men, had been left
back at some cross-roads and had
not yet come up, so detailing Lieu
tenant Lane, with forty-five men to
remain at Dublin, and scout from
there up and down the river, I with

Jefferson Davis. 17

the balance (seventy-five men),
started south in the direction the
Davis party was reported to have
taken. It was very dark and the
roads in the pine woods were only
trails. We soon became confused,
and after wandering around for some
time, found ourselves coming into
Dublin again. Picking our road
once more, and daylight coming, we
struck out on the river road at a
rapid gait, on the morning of
May 8th. Five miles out we
came to Turkey creek where we
found the bridge torn up. While
the bridge was being repaired, I
strolled up to a log house near by
and questioned the woman in regard
to the party who had crossed the
evening before.

She said a large party had passed,
but she did not know who they were,
but she said that a couple of the

1 8 The Capture of

gentlemen had been in her house
and drank some milk, and she
showed me a little scrap of paper
which she said they had dropped.
I saw it was a piece of a Richmond
paper of recent date. A bright lit
tle girl standing by, said she had
heard one gentleman call the other
Colonel Harrison, and the other was
addressed as Mr. President. Upon
my inquiring as to how they were
dressed, she said they were almost
as handsomely dressed as I was,
but their coats were not alike.
Pointing to my shoulder-straps, I
inquired if they had such things on
their coats, she said "No, they had
not, but one had stars on his collar
and gold on his sleeves, but the
other had nothing, and neither one
was like mine." The child s descrip
tion convinced me that one was an
officer of high rank and the other

Jefferson Davis. 19

Jeff. Davis. So convinced was I
that I had really now got on the
track of Jeff. Davis, that I wrote a
dispatch and started a courier with it
to General Wilson, but the man was
captured by some confederates,
taken into the woods, robbed of his
horse and equipments and left to
make his way to Macon on foot,
which he did, but not until after my
return there.

The bridge being repaired we
pushed on again through the pine
woods. The wagon tracks could
now be plainly seen, but it soon
commenced to rain a regular pour-
down and the tracks we were fol
lowing were obliterated. We were
now in the great pine woods of the
south, the soil nothing but white
sand with scarcely an inhabitant,
and soon lost all track of the party
ahead, but still pushed blindly on.

20 The Capture of

I sent parties circling around to find
the road, but they were unsuccess
ful. They, however, found a horse
man and brought him to me. In
reply to my questions, he said he
knew nothing of any party, that he
was only a poor citizen hunting
some lost sheep.

I noticed that he was riding a fine
horse. I told him that I would take
his horse and he could hunt his sheep
on foot. At this he began to plead
earnestly. I told him to quit lying
and tell me where the wagons were
that had been somewhere near there
the evening before and I would let
him go with his horse. He then
confessed he did know where the
party had camped over night, but it
was eleven miles away and in an
other direction entirely from that in
which we were headed.

"Guide us there," said I, "and

Jefferson Davis. 21

you will have your horse, otherwise
you go home on foot;" to this he
agreed. In order that this man
might not lose his way I had him
ride between two good men with
loaded carbines. He took us in a
westerly direction to where the Davis
party had been in camp, but they
were gone.

According to promise, I dismissed
the guide, and he left us in a hurry.
We found here a poor plantation
and a little forage, which we appro
priated from the owner. I inquired
where the wagon party had gone;
he did not know, but thought they
had crossed Gum swamp, and that
the rains had so raised the water
that it would be impossible for us
to get through.

"Get your horse," I said, "and
guide us through to the other side
of the swamps and we will go,

22 The Capture of

otherwise we shall stay and eat you
out of house and home." He then
quickly got his horse and led the
way through the swamp, where the
water for miles was up to the sad

Dismissing this guide, we pushed
on through those dense woods, over
a fairly plain track until darkness
compelled us to halt for the night.
During the night there came up a
terrible storm of wind, rain, thunder
and lightning, and, as if to add to
our already discomfort, several great
trees came down with a crash in our
near vicinity, but our weariness was
such that we were disturbed but for
a moment.

As soon as it was light enough
to see, on the morning of May Qth,
we pushed on in a southeast direc
tion, until we struck the Ochemulgee
river, the same we had crossed be-

Jefferson Davis. 23

fore at Macon. Continuing down
the river some distance, we came to
a ferry. By our haste to get over,
the boat was damaged so that only
a half load of horses could be taken
over at a time. This delayed us a
couple of hours, then we pushed on
a few miles to a little town called

By inquiring, we learned that a
party with wagons had passed
through the town during the night and
that they had gone towards Irwins-
ville. We halted and fed our horses
and then started on the road to
wards Irwinsville. Just as we were
moving out we saw four soldiers in
United States uniform, coming
down the road from the north. They
informed me they belonged to the
Fourth Michigan Cavalry, Lieuten
ant-Colonel Pritchard commanding,
and that the regiment was near at

24 The Capture of

hand. Sending on our detachment
under Lieutenant Clinton, I rode,
accompanied by my orderly, to
meet Colonel Pritchard. After in
troducing myself, I inquired if he
had any news of Jeff. Davis. He
said he had not, but that he had
been ordered with his regiment to
Abbeville to patrol the river and to
prevent Davis from crossing. He
also informed me that his orders
were to encamp at Abbeville and
guard the crossings of the Ochemul-
gee, and he gave me no intimation
that he intended any other course.
He had left Macon since I had, but
up to this time had heard nothing
of Davis. As his errand was the
same as mine, I thought it my duty
to give him all the information in
my possession, in regard to the
movement of Davis. I told him
that we had been on the track of

Jefferson Davis. 25

Davis for three days, and that Davis
with one party had crossed over the
Ochemulgee during the night and
gone towards Irwinsville, but there
was a larger party of confederates
who were somewhere the other side
of the river. He inquired if I
needed any more men, I said not
unless he could spare some rations
as our party had next to nothing to
eat. He said they had marched
suddenly and had no rations.

Bidding him good-bye, my or
derly, James Aplin, and I, left him
and pushed on and overtook our
party. We shortly came to the
place where the Davis party had
lunched. They had left so recently
that their fires were still burning.
We continued to march on until
dark, when coming to a swale where
there was water and a little grass,
we halted to rest and graze our

26 The Capture of

horses. All we had for rations was
a little damaged corn-meal. We
lay down to rest for a spell, but be
fore the break of day, we were in
in our saddles again.

At this time I felt confident that
we were in the near proximity to
the Davis party, and had only
halted so as not to come upon them
in the night. I expected that Davis
would camp on the other side of a
river ahead, and I thought if we at
tempted to cross the ford in the
dark, Davis would take the alarm
and escape.

May loth, putting forward an ad
vance guard of a sergeant, George
Hussey, and six men, with instruc
tions to keep a little ahead and to
keep a sharp lookout for the enemy,
we moved on. We had made but
a mile or so when our advance guard
were fired upon suddenly, by what

Jefferson Davis. 27

I judged to be twenty or thirty mus
kets. Galloping forward at the head
of ten men, I met the sergeant with
his party coming back with several
of his men wounded. He said they
had run into the enemy s pickets
and had been fired upon. I directed
the sergeant to follow and then
dashed on, when we were met with
another volley, so close that their
fire came right in our faces, and the
bullets rattled like hail on the trees.
I could just see the forms of the
men on account of the darkness.
Seeing that they were in consider
able force and determined to stand
their ground, I got my men into line
and dismounting a part, we ad
vanced on the enemy. After giving
us a third volley we opened fire on
them and they then retreated into
a swamp.

8 The Capture of

It was now getting a little light.
At this time a man called my atten
tion to about one hundred mounted
men who were coming down on our
left flank. He said, "Colonel, there
is more than a hundred of them
coming." I said, "Never mind
boys, we will whip them yet." Di
recting Sergeant Horr, with ten
men of Company A, to pursue the
party who had fired on us first and
retreated, and not to let them rally,
I next turned my attention to the
new comers who were between us
and the light. The new comers
opened fire on us as they approached.

Forming a line facing the ap
proaching enemy, we opened upon
them with our repeating rifles (Spen
ser carbines). They were soon
thrown into confusion. I had left
part of my men under Lieutenant
Clinton, mounted; seeing that the

Jefferson Davis. 29

enemy were in confusion, I now or
dered Clinton to prepare for a sabre
charge. Two of the men hearing
me and understanding I had ordered
the charge, drew their sabres and
putting spurs to their horses, dashed
at the enemy.

I called them back not being quite
ready, as I wanted to give our foot
men time to replenish their maga
zines. Just as I was about to give
the final order to charge, Sergeant
Horr came running up and said we
were fighting Union men. That he
had captured one of them and thus
ascertained the fact. At hearing
this I rode in front of our line and
shouted to "stop firing," which soon
ceased on both sides. Riding for
ward, the first man I met was Col
onel Pritchard. So surprised was I
that for sometime I could not realize
that it was Colonel Pritchard, but as

30 The Capture of

soon as I knew him, I asked him
how it was that he was there fight
ing us.

He explained that after parting
with me the day before, at Abbe
ville, twenty-five miles distance, and
ascertaining from me that Davis had
already got across the river, and
finding that there was another road
to Irwinsville, he had selected one
hundred and fifty of his best men,
well mounted, and by marching all
night had arrived at Irwinsville be
fore daylight. Hearing that a party
with wagons was camped out a little
ways from the town, he had marched
out toward it, guided by a negro.
He had sent twenty-five men around
to the back of the camp, and it was
these men who had mistaken us for
enemies, had fired upon us so reck
lessly with such unfortunate results.

He said some of his men had just

Jefferson Davis. 31

taken possession of the camp, which
was only about fifty yards away. I
inquired if Jeff. Davis had been cap
tured. He answered that he did
not know who had been captured,
as he had not been to the camp him
self. In this unfortunate affair, two
of the Michigan men were killed,
one officerand several men wounded.
Of the Wisconsin men three were
wounded, but none were killed.

Colonel Pritchard and I rode into
the Davis camp together, which was
just across a little swale, only a few
rods from where our skirmish took
place. The first person we saw in
the camp was Mr. John H. Reagen,
the Postmaster-General of the late
Confederacy, lately the United
States Senator from Texas. He
said, "Well, you have taken the old
gentleman at last." I said, "Who
do you mean?" He said, "I mean

32 The Capture of

President Davis." Please point
him out," said I. "There he stands"
said he, pointing to a tall, elderly,
and rather dignified looking gentle
man, standing a short distance
away. We rode up, dismounted
and saluted, and I asked if this was
Mr. Davis. "Yes," he replied, "/
am President Dams." At this the
soldiers set up a shout that Jeff.
Davis was captured.

Up to this time none of the men
who actually arrested him, knew
that he was Jeff. Davis. One sol
dier said, "What! that man Jeff.
Davis? That s the old fellow that
when I stopped him had his wife s
shawl on." About this time we,
that is Mr. Davis, Colonel Pritchard
and myself were the center of a cir
cle, composed of soldiers and others
of the Davis party. In the back
ground some soldiers set up a song:


First Wisconsin Cavalry. Brevet Brigadier General of

Volunteers, 1865.

Jefferson Davis. 33

"We will hang Jeff. Davis on a sour
apple tree," to the tune of John
Brown, which did not add to his
comfort in the least.

In the camp were two tents and
eight ambulances, each drawn by
four mules. There were also sev
eral fine saddle horses. Besides
Jeff. Davis, there were Mr. Reagan,
Colonel Harrison, Mrs. Davis, her
sister, Miss Howel, and a number
of rebel officers from Johnston s
army and a lot of teamsters, serv
ants and others, but no fighting

It appears that when the fighting
began, Mr. Davis was sleeping in
his tent. Alarmed at the noise, he
hastily arose and threw a shawl, or
dressing-gown around him, and
started out, but meeting a soldier,
was stopped and ordered back into
his tent. It was some time before

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Online LibraryHenry HarndenThe capture of Jefferson Davis; a narrative of the part taken by Wisconsin troops → online text (page 1 of 4)