James Swanson: Was Jefferson Davis Captured in a Dress?

Roundup: Talking About History

[James Swanson is a senior legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation and author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (William Morrow 2006).]

On Sunday, May 14, 1865, Benjamin Brown French, commissioner of public buildings for the District of Columbia, left his home on Capitol Hill to buy a copy of the Daily Morning Chronicle. “When I came up from breakfast I went out and got the Chronicle,” he wrote in his journal, “and the first thing that met my eyes was ‘Capture of Jeff Davis’ in letters two inches long. Thank God we have got the arch traitor at last.”

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles also noted the Confederate president’s capture in his diary: “Intelligence was received this morning of the capture of Jefferson Davis in southern Georgia. I met [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton this Sunday P.M. at Seward’s, who says Davis was taken disguised in women’s clothes. A tame and ignoble letting-down of the traitor.”

The story of Jefferson Davis’s capture in a dress took on a life of its own, as one Northern cartoonist after another used his imagination to depict the event. Printmakers published more than 20 different lithographs of merciless caricatures depicting Davis in a frilly bonnet and voluminous skirt, clutching a knife and bags of gold as he fled Union troopers. These cartoons were accompanied with mocking captions, many of them delighting in sexual puns and innuendoes, and many putting shameful words in Davis’s mouth. Over the generations, fact and myth have comingled concerning the details of Davis’s final capture. Had he borrowed his wife’s dress to evade the Union cavalry? How much of the unflattering postcapture cartoons, news reports, and song lyrics sprang from the deep bitterness Northerners held for the man who symbolized the Confederacy?...

comments powered by Disqus