Davis, Imprisonment and Trial of

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DAVIS, IMPRISONMENT AND TRIAL OF. Jefferson Davis, the president of the former Confederate States of America, was arrested on 10 May 1865 by the Union army. Originally charged in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, Davis was placed in military

custody at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. He remained in custody until 14 May 1867, when he was released on a $100,000 bond. The editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greeley, the former abolitionist Gerrit Smith, and the business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt were among the prominent Northerners who posted the bond. Charges relating to the assassination were never substantiated. The United States government brought indictments for treason against Davis in Richmond, Virginia, the former Confederate capital, on the grounds that it was the place where the crime of treason was committed.

Salmon P. Chase, the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, was the justice assigned to try cases in the federal district courts of Virginia. The trial of Davis was initially delayed because of Chase's refusal to hear cases until military rule ended in Virginia. Once the courts were restored, the government asked for and received several delays in the proceedings. All the while, Davis eagerly sought a trial and refused all considerations of pardon. The impeachment proceedings against Andrew Johnson, which were held from March to May in 1868, and the constitutional requirement that Chase preside over those proceedings, further delayed Davis's trial.

In early December 1868 the government was prepared to go forward on an indictment for treason issued in March 1868 under a 1790 law that carried a mandatory penalty of death by execution upon conviction. Prior to the commencement of the trial, Chase suggested to Davis's attorneys that they request dismissal of the charges based on section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided for a disqualification from office for those who had taken an oath to support the Constitution and then supported the Confederacy. If this prohibition was found by the court to be a penalty, it would bar further prosecution on the basis of double jeopardy. At the start of the trial the motion was made and argued by counsel.

Chase and the local federal district judge, John C. Underwood, disagreed on the question, and the matter was referred to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final decision. On 25 December 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued a general amnesty proclamation for most Confederates. The Supreme Court dismissed the case against Davis on 26 February 1869, and lawyers for Davis were advised that a nolle prosequi (no further proceedings) was entered. A trial of Davis would have raised the ultimate legal question of the Civil War: Was secession treason?


Blackford, Charles M. "The Trials and Trial of Jefferson Davis." Southern Historical Society Papers 29 (1901): 45–81.

Bradley, Chester. "Was Jefferson Davis Disguised As a Woman When Captured?" Journal of Mississippi History vol. 36 (Aug. 1974): 243–268.

Fairman, Charles. Reconstruction and Reunion 1864–88. Part I. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Hagan, Horace Henry. "United States vs. Jefferson Davis." Sewanee Review 25 (1917): 220–225.

C. EllenConnally

See alsoTreason .

Legends Surrounding the Arrest of Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis was arrested by Lieutenant-Colonel Benjamin Pritchard of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry in Irwinville, Georgia, on 10 May 1865. An official report of the capture was given to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on 14 May 1865. This report asserts that Davis was wearing women's clothing at the time of his arrest. A New York Times account of 15 May 1865 states that Davis hastily put on one of Mrs. Davis's dresses and started to run for the woods when he was overtaken by his captors. The Northern press delighted in depicting the fallen Southern president in this unheroic disguise. The famous showman P. T. Barnum presented depictions of Davis fleeing in women's clothing to his circus audiences, thereby perpetuating this version of events.

Generations of scholars have debated the accuracy of these accounts. Davis consistently denied the allegations, going to great lengths to attempt to dispel the speculation and attacks on his masculinity. Eyewitness accounts and the statements of Davis and his wife, Varina, reveal a more accurate account of the events: Upon learning of the arrival of the federal troops, Davis emerged from his tent wearing a water-repellent cloak, or raglan, with wide, loose sleeves. This type of garment was commonly worn by both men and women, and Davis may have mistakenly picked up his wife's cloak. As he exited the tent, Varina threw her black shawl around his shoulders due to the inclement weather. When Davis was confronted by the Federal troops a few feet away from the tent, he threw off both the raglan and the shawl.

Nichols, Roy F. "United States vs. Jefferson Davis, 1865–1869." American Historical Review 31 (1926): 266–284.

Watson, David K. "The Trial of Jefferson Davis: An Interesting Constitutional Question." Yale Law Journal 24 (1915): 669–676.

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