Punishing Jefferson Davis

In May 1865, following the conclusion of the Civil War and assassination of Abraham Lincoln the month prior, the President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, became the target of a manhunt. As the figurehead and chief executive of a rebellion that saw the loss of many American lives, he was wanted for a myriad of crimes, including treason and his suspected participation in the Lincoln murder plot. The bounty on his head was placed at $100,000.

According to Brian Brown at georgiaencyclopedia.org, Davis had other plans. He still held hopes that the Confederacy could become viable, despite its current state of disorganization and economic troubles that began during the war.

As the Union pursuit of Davis intensified, he and his group of advisors raced south. They fled the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Va., and held a cabinet meeting in Washington, Ga., on May 5, 1865 before officially disbanding.

Five days later, while Davis and a small group were resting in a creek bed in Irwin County, Ga., gunshots rang out. Davis scrambled from the scene, but was quickly caught. He was found with his wife’s overcoat on his shoulders, which led to the myth that he attempted to flee disguised as a woman and the popular song “Jeff in Petticoats.”

Davis was imprisoned on the Virginia coast at Fort Monroe. Guards ensured that he ate and neither attempted suicide nor escape while he awaited trial.

According to D.J. Flook’s entry on encyclopediavirginia.org, Davis was soon afforded more freedom. He was moved to a more spacious room and a year later, his wife, Varina, was allowed to move to the fort.

The media exposure helped to build sympathy for the man. Biographers have often cited the poor treatment he received, though there is no evidence that Davis felt this way. But the information helped to tear at the bonds of a fragile nation. People were split on how Davis should be punished.

In an article written in May 1865, a New York Times writer makes no bones about his position.

“There is no possible definition of the crime of treason which can relieve him from its guilt. He has “levied war” — openly, ostentatiously, avowedly — “against the United States.” The whole world has been cognizant of his treason, and more than half a million of the bravest and noblest of the land, sleep in their graves as the consequence of his crime. If that crime should not be punished, what crime should? In the strong, direct phrase of President JOHNSON, if treason such as his may go unwhipt of justice, why should laws longer remain on the statute book to punish the murderer or the robber?”

Surprisingly, some abolitionists were opposed to the trial, instead favoring sanctions against the former Confederacy. Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, also favored leniency.

Had the trial been conducted swiftly, it appears more likely that Davis could have been executed. But instead, the whole affair became a headache for President Andrew Johnson. After no link could be established between Davis and the Lincoln assassination (the charge Johnson favored), he chose to pursue treason.

As the process continued, Davis was released to civilian detainment in 1867.

In March 1868, nearly three years after apprehending Davis, U.S. officials completed the indictment; however, by this time, Johnson was facing his own impeachment proceedings. In addition, the public sentiment for leniency was growing, as they focused on issues such as rebuilding southern infrastructure and integrating African-Americans into society.

The issue at hand was the constitutionality of secession, with motions beginning in December 1868. Davis’ defense entered a motion to dismiss based on punishments received under the Fourteenth Amendment, including his inability to hold public office. The court was split and the case was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court for final judgment. Fearing the public embarrassment of an acquittal, President Johnson amnestied Davis on Christmas Day, 1868.

Davis lived out his remaining days as a respected figure in the South. He held firm in his belief that secession was constitutional, though in later years encouraged loyalty to the U.S. government.

This case is a reminder that seeking justice and punishment does not always bring about healing. Much like President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, many times forgiveness, rather than revenge, is the best path to peace.

1. Brown, Brian. Capture of Jefferson Davis. (2014, September 3). In New Georgia Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/capture-jefferson-davis

2. Flook, D. J. Jefferson Davis’s Imprisonment. (2014, March 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Jefferson_Davis_s_Imprisonment


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