Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Danville to Greensboro – April 10 and 11, 1865

The Flight of Jefferson Davis

Lt. John S. Wise
On April 8, 1865, Lieutenant John S. Wise arrived in Danville after a hard ride from General Lee’s headquarters at Appomattox. He appeared just as President Jefferson Davis and others were dining at the Sutherlin mansion. Lee had authorized Wise to make an oral report for fear that a written document might be intercepted. Though Wise, Lee reported that his army was now too far west to turn south to Danville and that his only hope was to break through Union lines. Wise also offered the opinion that Lee would be forced to surrender in just a matter of days.  As we now know, surrender occurred at Appomattox the next day.  The first word of that surrender was received in Danville on Monday, April 10.

By that time, preparations were being made to move the President and the Confederate government further south. It was feared that Danville would soon fall into enemy hands. 

(As it turned out, the absence of President Davis and his Cabinet meant Danville was no longer a primary target.  The mayor surrendered the town to Union forces on the morning of April 27, more than two weeks after Davis’s departure. Civilian control was returned in May just a few weeks later.)

Travel to the south for the President and many others would be by the Piedmont Railroad. This road, constructed between 1862 and 1864, was not in the best of condition. Due to shortages when it was built, the ties were spaced too far apart. Fully open for only a year, it had seen heavy use transporting supplies from further south to Danville and on to Richmond in support of Lee’s army. It was only a hope that that the Piedmont Railroad had not been cut by the forces of Union General George Stoneman. 

An overloaded train with the President and his Cabinet left the Danville depot near eleven o’clock that night. The train proceeded at a walking pace during the night so the engineer could verify there were tracks ahead.  Whether there were any depots along the line is unknown, but there were stations at Pelham, Ruffin, and Reidsville (the only real town along the line).  While stops were likely made for wood and water, the only known halt was to replace a failed engine five miles from Danville and still above the North Carolina border. 

The tracks, now part of the Norfolk Southern, still follow their original route. While there is little evidence of the Piedmont Railroad per se, there is a Civil War Trails marker in Reidsville. It is across Market Street from the rails in front of the retirement home of antebellum North Carolina governor David Settle Reid.  

(Having first served in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1843 to 1847, David Reid was elected the 32nd North Carolina governor seated in 1851.  In late 1854, a month before his term as governor expired, he was named to fill a vacant seat in the U. S. Senate until 1858. Later, he was one of five North Carolina delegates to the February 1861 Washington Peace Conference just before President Lincoln was inaugurated. The unsuccessful Conference sought compromise between the states and to avoid additional secessions.)

Moments after Davis’s train crossed the Reedy Fork Bridge (see map above), about ten miles north of the Greensboro depot, the bridge was burned by Brigadier General Palmer’s brigade as a part of Stoneman’s Raid on North Carolina. The Confederate government had escaped destruction by minutes.

Present Greensboro Depot

Early Greensboro maps show a wooden passenger depot near South Elm Street about two blocks west of the newer 1927 depot (above).  An historic marker for the Piedmont Railroad stands in front of the new depot.  The older depot (later part of the Richmond & Danville Railroad) was at the approximate location of today’s McGee Street at the railroad underpass (below).

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