SOLD President Davis is Freed from Prison and Flees to Canada

1) Davis’ Release, As Reported by His Attorney That Very Day 2) Davis’ Notification of his Arrival in Canada.

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After fleeing Richmond at war’s end, Jefferson Davis and his party were captured in Georgia on May 10, 1865 by a body of Union cavalry. He was taken to Fort Monroe and placed in irons. The irons were removed but he was confined for some time in an unheated, open casemate. A...

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SOLD President Davis is Freed from Prison and Flees to Canada

1) Davis’ Release, As Reported by His Attorney That Very Day 2) Davis’ Notification of his Arrival in Canada.

After fleeing Richmond at war’s end, Jefferson Davis and his party were captured in Georgia on May 10, 1865 by a body of Union cavalry. He was taken to Fort Monroe and placed in irons. The irons were removed but he was confined for some time in an unheated, open casemate. A month later, his first indictment for treason was handed down. He was not afforded a trial, however, as the result of jurisdictional questions and a report from the Secretary of War and the Attorney General that Virginia was the proper place for the trial, and that it was not yet possible to hold a U. S. court in that state. Davis remained the most hated man in the north and pressure to try him continued. In May 1866, he was again indicted for treason, this time by a grand jury sitting at Norfolk under Judge John C. Underwood, who had to flee Virginia in 1861 because of his support for Abraham Lincoln. Charles O’Conor, a renowned New York lawyer who had known Davis in Washington, volunteered his services to head the accused ex-Confederate president’s defense team.

O’Conor was an Irish-American active in defense of the rights of immigrants and Roman Catholics, and had risen to the top of the legal profession. He played an important part in the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1846, and served as U.S. Attorney for New York from 1853-1854. O’Conor was a states’ rights Democrat who often supported southern positions but opposed secession. As South Carolina readied to secede, he presided over what became known as the Pine Street Meeting, held December 15, 1860, to try and dissuade the people of the south from that course. For a northern lawyer with his standing to act as Davis’ chief counsel was a milestone for the Davis defense.

In June 1866, at a session of the court held in Richmond, Davis’s lawyers urged that the trial be held without delay; but the government declined to proceed on the indictment, citing the importance of the trial and the necessity of preparation for it. The judge refused to admit the prisoner to bail so Davis remained incarcerated at Fort Monroe under the same poor conditions. Whether his treatment was intended to break his health, his two year confinement had the effect of doing so.

Months passed and still the trial did not proceed. Chief Justice Salmon Chase remained unwilling to hold court in Richmond, and the U.S. attorney at Richmond was unwilling to bring Davis to trial without the Chief Justice sitting on the case. Secretary of War Stanton, who had wanted to see Davis face a jury, saw the unending delays and knew about Davis’ frail health. He became concerned that Davis’ death in prison was possible and would be embarrassing to the United States. Moreover, as the anger of the war began to wane, many northerners openly questioned the wisdom of trying Davis, arguing that to bring to trial the head of the late Confederate States would reopen the whole subject of the constitutionality of secession. If Davis should be acquitted, the Confederate cause would appear to have been justified. Northern sentiment toward Davis was also becoming more forgiving. Horace Greeley, Governor John A. Andrew, Senator Henry Wilson, industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt and others began to advocate better treatment for Davis as part of a general reconciliation between the sections. With high government officials seemingly ready to relent, the time was ripe to attempt Davis’ release from prison.

On May 1, 1867, Judge Underwood granted a writ of habeas corpus presented by O’Conor, the object of which was to have Davis released on bail. Stanton, unwilling to affirmatively agree, looked away while President Johnson ordered the commander of Fort Monroe to “have the body of Jefferson Davis” in Richmond to appear before the court “on the second Monday in May, 1867, ” which would be the 13th. On May 11, Davis left Fort Monroe, was taken to Richmond and housed under guard at the Spotswood Hotel. The next day O’Conor explained to Davis the simple procedure he had worked out with government lawyers for the hearing.

On May 13, Davis was brought into court, entering on the arm of his jailor, General Burton. O’Conor was there to conduct his case, and William Evarts was on hand to represent the government. When the case was called, Evarts announced that the government was not ready to try it, whereupon O’Conor moved that the prisoner be admitted to bail. Davis’ advocates were concerned that Judge Underwood might refuse bail, and indeed Underwood did question whether the offense of treason was bailable. However, no objection being made by the government, the judge gave his opinion that the court could then use its discretion. He held that the charge was bailable and set the bond at $100,000. O’Conor signed the bail bond. Waiting in the court room were Horace Greeley, abolitionist Gerrit Smith, and a number of other distinguished northerners who had come to sign it as well. The editor of the New York Tribune, whose excoriation of Davis during the war had been unsparing, was now preaching universal amnesty, and he had come to Richmond to put this into practice. Smith was there because he objected to Davis being held in prison for years without a trial. These northerners were showing true courage because the bailing of Davis remained highly unpopular where they came from and they were pilloried for it. As the bondsmen come up to sign, Davis exhibited cheerfulness and shook their hands, meeting Greeley for the first time. After the document had been signed, the judge announced: “The marshal will discharge the prisoner.”

The Davises felt it unsafe to stay in the United States and immediately left Richmond for New York, where they had a chance to be together at leisure at O’Conor’s country estate. After a short time there, they went straight to Montreal, the place to which their children had been removed after the war and where they were in the care of Mrs. Davis’ mother. They arrived in Montreal about May 21, 1867.

Jefferson Davis’ Release, As Reported by His Attorney That Very Day

The very day Davis was released, O’Conor wrote a detailed account of the event for his wife.

Autograph Letter Signed, Richmond, May 13, 1867, to Mrs. O’Conor. “I regretted extremely that you did not come. All our arrangements worked like a charm. The judge is a shocking beast, but as if affected by the grace and good manners of his company he behaved like a perfect gentleman. Everything took precisely the right direction. We arranged to give ten bondsmen each in $10,000 for Mr. Davis’ appearance if the government ever call upon him to stand a trial but there was such a rush to get in that I was obliged to change it into twenty at $5,000 each and even that was not enough. After the number was full one man burst into tears exclaiming that he would never see a happy hour again unless he was let in, so we had to give more bail than the government had asked for. When the judge directed that the prisoner be discharged, irrepressible peals of applause rang through the court room. Secessionists who had opposed their country pressed for admission as bondsmen and were not accepted because needless. They were very much crest-fallen. One poor negro was heard to say I wish I could be admitted. It seemed as if the era of good feeling was come. The business is finished. Mr. Davis will never be called upon to appear for trial.

”General Burton, a worthy gentleman-like and soldierly man who has commanded at Fort Monroe for a year…and treated Mr. Davis most courteously, put on his undress when the proceedings were finished…He says that so great a change in the countenance of a people he never witnessed. Yesterday and early today every face was clouded with melancholy and apprehension; but says he, after the discharge pleasure beamed on every countenance. These southern people have a most princely courtesy. My treatment I will relate when I get home. You would have been feted and Ernest kissed by boys and girls. Poor Davis there, wasted and careworn, was almost killed with caresses. Very little children seemed to have caught the fever of delight and his lips were in some danger of being worn out in returning blandishments. I never saw in all my life before so much weeping. It was mainly strong men who wept. But of course, they were tears of joy. And it is a fact that most of these people were reduced from affluence to actual need by the secession. A store keeper and his frail and feeble-looking boy about as old as Ernest came to grasp the President’s hand. They had lost all they possessed in the fire lit by a Confederate general at the evacuation of Richmond. My boy and I, said he, cleared 100,000 bricks with our own hands. We worked throughout as laborers, the store is up, it is stocked and we hope to do well yet. God bless you, said he, kissing the President’s hand, whilst his modest, slender boy was content to shake it looking up at the vanquished chief with extreme affection and reverence. The devotion of this people is wonderful.

”Now for a task. It is absolutely necessary that Mr. Davis should at once go quietly to Canada. He leaves at midnight in a steamer for New York and about the time this letter reaches you will arrive with his wife, a lady relative, a nurse and a little girl. Quiet and secrecy for the day or two that he must remain in New York are necessary. I could not avoid inviting the party to Fort Washington. They will stay only a day or two. I know this will be a great burden to you. But for once, we must stand it…”

Jefferson Davis Notifies the O’Conors of his Arrival in Montreal and Reflects on his Time in Prison

Autograph Letter Signed, Montreal, May 22, 1867, to Mrs. O’Conor. “When to many acts of kindness ever to be gratefully remembered you expressed a wish to hear of my safe arrival, you should have counted the cost of the permission thus given. My trip was so devoid of incident that like the weary knife grinder, I have no tale to tell. My children were assembled here to receive me and were all in good health. They have grown so much that it is not easy to realize they are the same whose images have been present to me in the dreary period of my long imprisonment. The happy hours I spent in your hospitable mansion have afforded me many pleasant reflections and one regret. Yes there remained to me the hope that though there is seemingly many obstacles to a reunion, the future changes in my posture may prolong an acquaintance which on my part has so rapidly matured and so sincerely cherished. The deep obligations I am under to your noble husband, the grand simplicity of his character, did not permit me to express to him; and this forms an additional reason for desiring an opportunity to manifest my appreciation of them. My plans are yet to be formed. As soon they are decided on Mr. O’Conor will be informed of them and I wish should they lead me to any place you would like to visit, that you draw Mr. O’Conor from the round of professional labors which occupy him so that we might see you both where his leisure would be a compensation for the want of the charms of your home. If my brief stay with you shall cause you to be surprised at the tenacity with which I cling to its associations, you will remember my circumstances and if you can measure their effect will believe how much more I feel than is expressed. Mrs. Davis will write to you and can so much better than myself convey to you her grateful esteem that I will not attempt to anticipate. With my kindest remembrance to your son and to your husband…”

This is the most important account of Davis’ release we have seen, coming from his lead attorney in a confidential letter to his wife written the day of the event and informing her that the Davis’s were on their way to the O’Conor home. Both letters remained in the O’Conor family until 2007 when we acquired them.

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