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. James Swanson, who has written a new book “Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse“, has thoroughly researched the matter. He has also written an article in the Fall American Heritage Magazine on the subject. Here are his conclusions.
First the background: Eight days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Confederate President Davis fled Richmond with his entourage, meeting up six weeks later in Georgia with his wife, Varina. They made camp on May 9 near Irwinville.
Davis told his aides he would leave camp during the night. He was dressed for the road: a dark, wide-brimmed felt hat; a signature wool frock coat of Confederate gray; gray trousers, high black leather riding boots. His horse was saddled and ready to ride.
The Yankees were closing in. Seconds, not minutes counted. Before he left, Varina asked him to wear an unadorned raglan overcoat, also known as a “waterproof” to provide some sort of disguise. As he strode off she threw over his head a little black shawl which had been around her own shoulders, because he could not find his hat.
After a brief skirmish the Yankees realized they had captured the President. The news of his capture spread quickly, along with the story of his apprehension in women’s clothes. The image of him masquerading as a woman titillated northerners but outraged Southerners.
Of course we know the “rest of the story”. He served two years before his release on bail and would never be prosecuted. He survived Lincoln by 24 years, wrote his memoirs, and became the South’s most beloved living symbol of the War. However, the myth of his capture dressed as a Southern belle continues to this day.