The myth of Jeff Davis, the Confederate president who never existed, has been debunked by historians.

The confederate gold found 2018 is a myth that has been around for years. It is said that the confederate army buried $4 billion worth of gold in Georgia, but it has never been found.

The spectacular arrest of the vanquished Confederate President—in truth and fiction

In mid-July 1865, former Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor stepped into a prison cell at Fort Monroe, Va., where the occupant, Jefferson Davis, greeted him with a quiet handshake after a lengthy journey from New Orleans. Taylor had already visited with President Andrew Johnson, as well as many legislators and generals, in Washington, D.C., to seek authorization to meet Davis, the imprisoned former president of the disbanded Confederate States of America and Taylor’s brother-in-law. A standing order prevented ex-Confederates from visiting the nation’s capital at the time of the meeting with Johnson, a restriction prompted by suspicions circulating around the city that another presidential murder plan was in the works. However, Taylor, the son of former President Zachary Taylor, understood how to manipulate politicians and was quickly able to convince Davis to meet him.

Davis was prohibited from having any visitors, including family members, until Taylor arranged for a meeting with him. President Lyndon B. Johnson had been extremely hands-on early in Davis’ imprisonment, allowing only guards to enter his cell, so Taylor’s unexpected visit was quite welcome. Davis, who was “pallid, old, gray, bent, [and] weak,” cried, “This is nice, but no more than I expected of you.” Davis asked whether he was being blamed for the Confederate loss as the two men discussed the state of the war-torn South. Taylor corroborated Davis’ suspicions, but speculated that the attacks on Davis’ reputation were being launched by individuals trying to win favor with the federal government.

Uncloaking the Jeff Davis Myth

A one-day-before-his-capture reward poster for Jefferson Davis. During their escape, the children in this postwar photograph were with their parents. (Bridgeman Image/Gilder Lehrman Collection)

Despite the fact that Davis and Taylor spent the entire day catching up, neither left a record or made any mention of the plethora of drawings and articles currently circulating in the Northern press, perpetuating the claim that the former president was captured in Irwinville, Ga., on May 10, 1865, dressed as a woman. The chance to portray the former Confederate president as having been caught in women’s attire in tales and engravings—humiliation based on hearsay and unconfirmed accounts—proved tempting to most of the print media. President Abraham Lincoln had been subjected to similar abuse during the war, with Confederate-friendly British publications such as Southern Punch and the Southern Illustrated News frequently mocking him.

Since the Confederate capital fell and Davis and his entourage fled south from Richmond on April 2, he had been a target of ridicule for countless Northern newspapers, which were quick to publish any nugget of news about the Confederate president’s desperate attempt to avoid capture, likely racing ahead of established fact to please their readers.

Davis and his followers crossed into Georgia in early May, when he was reunited with his wife, Varina, who had left Richmond on her own. Captain George Moody, a former commander of the Madison Light Artillery (Madison “Tips” or Tipperarys) who was on his way home to Louisiana, commanded Varina’s guard. Varina remembered Moody as a “very gentlemanly bodyguard” who had offered to accompany her “as a friend and protection” and was a Davis family neighbor.

The combined Davis wagon train was unaware that after being sent by Union Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, portions of two experienced Yankee regiments, the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry and the 4th Michigan Cavalry, were zeroing in on their location. Despite the fact that both troops were able to collect comparable information, Wilson for whatever reason did not order the commanders to cooperate together.

According to the first intelligence reports, Davis was accompanied by 600–700 soldiers, prompting Brevet Colonel Henry Harnden, commanding the 1st Wisconsin, to question his superior whether his allocation of 150 men would be adequate for the mission. Wilson stated to a subordinate that he believed Davis’ escort was “greatly demoralized” and “would be inadequately equipped.” Lt. Col. Benjamin D. Pritchard, the leader of the Michigan troops, commanded a bigger force of 459 cavalrymen, essentially leveling the odds against the suspected number of soldiers in the escort.

Meanwhile, Davis and his friends were stranded due to severe weather. The route for their caravan’s wagons was continuously obstructed by mud and fallen branches that littered the road. People and animals alike eventually became exhausted and had to come to a stop. On the 10th of May, after midnight, everyone was fast asleep. The escape party’s commanding commanders neglected to deploy pickets to protect themselves. Davis had already decreased the number of his military retinue in order to minimize the likelihood of getting apprehended.

Uncloaking the Jeff Davis Myth Only Margaret and “Winnie” Davis (shown) out of the Davises’ six children lived to be 21. Jefferson Jr. (top left) and William (above right) died in 1878 and 1872, respectively. In April 1864, Joseph perished in a fall from the Confederate White House. (Alamy Stock Group/Universal Images Group North America)

Pritchard and his Michiganders arrived in neighboring Irwinville an hour later. The site of the Confederate encampment immediately outside town was revealed by residents. The horses crept up to within a few hundred yards of the weary presidential party, where they waited until daybreak. Harnden’s Wisconsin soldiers had received essentially the same information about Davis and had rode north, bivouacking close to rest until dawn, unbeknownst to Pritchard. Wilson’s failure to have his troops work together meant that neither group was aware of the other’s presence. According to Harnden, his commander’s orders were “that if there was a fight and Jefferson Davis is wounded, General Wilson would not feel particularly terrible about it,” which set the stage for a potentially fatal confrontation.

The residents of the Davis camp were still deep sleeping when morning broke. Both groups of Union cavalry mounted their mounts and started advancing toward the camp at approximately the same time, inadvertently colliding with each other first. The two commanders spotted shadowy horse men approaching them in the early haze and opened fire. Two soldiers from the 4th Michigan were killed and another was injured as the smoke cleared and the fog disappeared. In the short battle, three soldiers from the 1st Wisconsin were badly wounded. Pritchard deduced that the guns shooting were all Spencer repeating carbines, a weapon he assumed only Northern soldiers would have, and he demanded a truce. He “hallooed” to the soldiers across the smoke-filled woods and got the answer “First Wisconsin,” which brought him tremendous comfort.

Uncloaking the Jeff Davis Myth During the tense Secession Winter of 1860-61, Jefferson and Varina Davis stood in Washington for these quarter-plate tintypes, just before Jefferson departed to become Confederate president. (Collection of John O’brien)

The Davises were startled awake by the friendly fire incident. The president went outside his tent, mistaking the fighters for a gang of renegade Southerners who had been following them for over a day. Davis thought that as president, he would be sympathetic to the party, and that he would be able to calm them down. He soon realized his mistake, identifying the riders as Federals as the sun rose higher in the sky. Davis’ first impulse was to protect his family, but when his wife urged him to go, he immediately abandoned that plan.

“When [her husband] saw them [Federal cavalrymen] deploying a few yards away, he started down to the little stream hoping to meet his servant with his horse and pistols, but knowing he would be recognized, I pleaded with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof raglan [very similar to what Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination the previous month] whic I knew he would be recognized,” Varina said I tossed over his head a little black shawl that was over my own shoulders as he walked away, realizing that he couldn’t locate his hat. I dispatched my colored lady after him with a bucket of water once he began, thinking that he would pass unnoticed. He didn’t try to conceal himself, and he didn’t agree to any deception.” Davis’ version of the events was almost identical to his wife’s. Davis recalled reaching for what he believed was his black raglan to cover his light gray clothes, but instead grabbed Varina’s.

When he tried to flee, many members of their party were close. (The closest was Moody, a former Davis political opponent who subsequently sent a letter to his wife in which he did not dispute any of the Davises’ stories.) Varina tried to divert a lone approaching Yankee corporal by saying that only women were in the family tents, possibly willing to fabricate any scenario to assist her husband get away. Another member of the gang tried to lead the Federal away while she did so.

Uncloaking the Jeff Davis Myth A drawing of Davis disguised as a woman and wielding a Bowie knife (above right) was a big hit. Davis made a point of subsequently posing in the outfit he said he was wearing when he was apprehended. Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo; Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

The corporal, on the other hand, saw two people heading away from him, one of whom was wearing boots. He asked, pointing at the departing booted figure, “Who is that?” “That is my mother,” Varina responded, still determined to do all she could to assist her husband in escaping. The corporal raised his gun and motioned for the mysterious person to come to a stop. Varina screamed, causing her husband to come to a halt and remove his coat and scarf. When she saw that the soldier’s rifle was still aimed at Davis, she rushed forward and threw her arms around him, desperately screaming at the Union soldiers not to fire. Davis’ life was most likely spared because of her courage. After seeing his commander trembling, a member of the president’s party put his own blanket over his shoulders.

All of the Davis party members quickly surrendered and then watched as their captors rifled through their things. The theft of Varina’s spare hoop skirt and subsequently the abandoned shawl and raglan, which appeared to be stolen for much more sinister purposes than the simple purchase of a memento, was particularly noteworthy. The Davis family was exposed to Yankee cavalrymen chanting, “We’ll Hang Jeff Davis from a Sour Apple Tree,” as the two parties made their way toward Wilson’s headquarters in Macon, Ga., a song that undoubtedly disturbed the Davises’ small children.

President Obama’s Own Words

Jefferson Davis got a letter and newspaper clipping from his old buddy, William Mercer Green, Episcopal bishop of Mississippi, ten years after his imprisonment. Davis was blunt in his response to his venerable friend about the article’s author, a man named Charles F. Hudson, who was a captain with the 4th Michigan Cavalry at the time and had received a brevet to major for distinguished service in the arrest of the former Confederate president. Davis remembered him as a boozed-up robber. Hudson’s discussions with Varina Davis, according to the president, were untrue and ridiculous. When John Reagan, a former Confederate postmaster general who was accompanying Davis at the time, pointed Hudson out as the soldier who had taken his saddle bags, Davis claimed it was the first time he saw him. Hudson’s assertions that “I was caught in the disguise of a woman’s clothing” were false, as Davis stated. “She did outfit Mr. Davis in her clothes and would not deny it,” Varina allegedly told Hudson. “That clothing seems to have been a water resistant cloak and a shawl, by his own admission; nowhere is the hoop skirt and petticoat and the sun-bonnet, which has been the basic of so many malicious diatribes and pictorials,” Davis replied. “A short time before the day [of his capture], I went to sleep in my travelling dress, grey frock coat and trousers, the latter worn inside heavy cavalry boots, on which remained a pair of conspicuous brass spurs of unusual size…[my wife] entreated me to leave, and to a water proof ‘Raglan’ which I threw over my shoulders [and] added one of her shawls, as I stepped out of the tent, shivering…” –R.H.H.

A mounted horseman waved a broadside in Davis’ face, which revealed out to be a wanted poster offering a $100,000 prize for his arrest. The broadside falsely accused Davis of being involved in Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865.

Wilson sent a message to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reporting Davis’ arrest before the captives arrived at his headquarters. Davis “hurriedly put on one of Mrs. Davis’ gowns” in his failed escape attempt, according to the report’s wording. Davis was also accused of brandishing a Bowie knife at the corporal on the scene, which was false. Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck later informed the public, saying, “If Jeff Davis was caught in his wife’s clothing, I humbly recommend that he be transported north in the same habiliments.”

Stanton was the one who sent the questionable dress story to The New York Times, which published a big headline on May 14 that read, “Davis Taken.” “His Wife, Sister, and Brother Secured” [Davis’ sister and brother were not with him]; “Cowardly Behavior of the Head of Southern Chivalry”; “He Put on His Wife’s Petticoats and Tries to Sneak Into the Woods”; and “Not Having Changed His Boots, the Brogans Betray Him” were all incorrect subheads.

Wilson’s follow-up report included no mention of Davis being dressed as a woman or even in disguise. “As to the tale which became very popular at the time, that Davis put on a hoop-skirt, and was dressed as a woman, I know but very little of it; but believe it developed out of the soldier’s comment, that, when he stopped him, he had his wife’s shawl on him,” Harnden, who was on the scene, acknowledged.

Uncloaking the Jeff Davis Myth During the Civil War, men often wore simple shawls, as seen in the picture on the left. Varina, on the other hand, put her feminine paisley-decorated shawl over Davis’ shoulders in the midst of the chaos. (Beauvoir; Dana B.Shoaf collection)

Lieutenant Julian Dickinson, adjutant of the 4th Michigan, is believed to be the mastermind behind the fiction that Davis was dressed in women’s clothes. “Davis put on for concealment a black shawl wrapped tightly over his head and shoulders, through the folds of which I could see his gray hairs,” Dickinson said to a group of historians in 1899. Except for his spurred boot heels, he was dressed in a woman’s long black garment that totally hid his body. Mrs. Davis’ traveling gown, which she later wore on her return march to Macon.” This story contrasts from that of the corporal who claimed to be Davis’ only prisoner.

In the rush to get away from the Yankees, it appears doubtful that Davis would have had time to put on one of his wife’s outfits. If the riders that appeared out of the fog were Confederates, as Davis first assumed, the idea that he would welcome them in women’s clothing defies belief. The long number of questionable possibilities, coupled with Harnden’s and Wilson’s unwillingness to endorse them, leads to a slew of dubious conclusions. Furthermore, despite having sufficient chance to do so, 4th Michigan soldier Joseph Odren was a direct witness to Davis’ arrest but failed to say anything about the president being dressed in feminine clothes.

Stanton was undoubtedly pleased to learn that the story of Davis being apprehended while wearing his wife’s clothes had been picked up by a number of publications throughout the nation. Hundreds more insulting drawings and lithographs depicting Davis in female attire would also circulate, extending the hoax even further. Despite the fact that it took many years, all of the captors were eventually able to share the substantial prize for Davis’ capture. It’s usually always the case that the winner of a fight gets the final word, and this is no exception. Unfortunately for Davis, the story was made up. 

Richard H. Holloway is the president of the Civil War Round Table of Central Louisiana and works for the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism.

The confederate gold value is a myth that has been around for a long time. There are many different ideas of what the value of the Confederate gold might be, but one thing is for sure – it’s not worth it.

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