The Flight of Jefferson Davis
On alighting in Greensboro on Tuesday, April 11, 1865, President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet found a much different welcome than they experienced in Danville. Greensborians knew of the raids being conducted nearby by General George Stoneman and feared that assistance to the Confederate government would worsen their plight. The doors of their homes were closed. But during their stay, the men of the own assured an ample supply of liquor for the Cabinet and the ladies provided pies and other delicacies.
Only one Cabinet member was taken in by a local resident – the ailing Treasury Secretary Trenholm by former North Carolina governor John Motely Morehead at his Blandwood Mansion (above). Some historians say this was less an act of kindness than an effort to have the Secretary exchange Morehead’s Confederate securities for gold or silver.
While President Davis may have been offered other lodging, he stayed with his first wife’s nephew, John Taylor Wood. Wood, the grandson of President Zachary Taylor, a Confederate naval hero, and an aide to the President, had moved his family from Richmond to Greensboro several weeks earlier. Much of what we know about Jefferson Davis’s flight comes from Wood’s diary. In his family’s modest apartment, he furnished President Davis with a small second-story room. In Flight Into Oblivion, A. J. Hanna reports the house was located on the site that later became the National Theater – about a block from the depot.
The National Theater in its heyday (above) and the site today (below). The site of John Taylor Wood's apartment will soon be lofts.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Confederate Cabinet occupied a dilapidated leaky passenger car and a boxcar on a siding nearby. The cars served as both their quarters and their offices. The railyard today is shown below.
Shortly after the arrival of Davis and most of his Cabinet, General P. G. T. Beauregard also arrived in Greensboro by train from Raleigh and set up his headquarters in boxcars near the Cabinet car.
The next day, April 12, General Joseph E. Johnston also steamed into town and set up offices in one of Beauregard’s boxcars. The two generals conferred that morning before being summoned by President Davis to his own boxcar offices.
Johnston and Beauregard expected to brief the President on military conditions. Instead, the President spoke of gathering conscripts and deserters to quickly field an army large enough to continue the war. On hearing the generals’ opinions that this would be impossible, Davis dismissed the meeting until the following day.
On the morning of Thursday, the 13th, President Davis called a cabinet meeting in the small apartment of John Taylor Wood. The generals later joined this meeting. Neither Johnston nor Beauregard offered any hope of carrying on the war. They estimated Confederate strength at 25,000 men while Union forces totaled 300,000. Johnston suggested it would be a crime to continue the effort and urged the president to negotiate for peace. Polling his cabinet, Davis found all but one in agreement. Reluctantly, Davis dictated a letter to be transmitted to Union General Sherman.
Late on the 13th or early on the 14th, the President received official word from General Robert E. Lee about his surrender at Appomattox. This telegram convinced the President that the government must move further south for its safety.
Packing began on Friday the 14th. Because Union General Stoneman had cut the railroad lines, travel would have to be by the unpaved roads and trails of the time.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Union President Lincoln was preparing for the ill-fated evening at Ford's Theater.
On Saturday, April 15, at about the time of Lincoln's demise, the Confederate government left Greensboro in wagons, ambulances, and on horseback. As in Danville, the government’s departure resulted in rowdy troops and Greensborians raiding the Confederate warehouses for food and supplies.
It should have been during the Confederate government’s five days in Greensboro that President Davis realized the futility of additional combat. It seems, however, that he vacillated between the desire to remain true to Confederate cause and to return to his beloved family that he believed to be in Charlotte.
Overall, the Confederate government was not treated to the fine southern hospitality for which Greensboro is still so well known. This was a harbinger of things to come.