Monday, November 7, 2022

Jefferson Davis Came to Danville Twice

Most Danvillians know the story of the Confederate government evacuating from Richmond to Danville.  President Jefferson Davis, his cabinet, and many other officials arrived in Danville by the Richmond and Danville Railroad on Monday afternoon, April 3, 1865.  Here they received a warm welcome from the mayor and the townspeople. 

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

President Davis became a guest at the stately home of Major William T. Sutherlin on the outskirts of town.  Other cabinet members also became guests at other fine Danville homes.  And space was assigned for the necessary government offices.  It was hoped that the government would remain in Danville for a time.

However, the situation changed quickly.  Less than six days later, about noon on Sunday, April 9, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. Word of the surrender reached Danville the next day.  It was feared that Union troops could arrive at any time, so the decision was made to move further south.  President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government left Danville for Greensboro on a Piedmont Railroad train at 11 p.m. on Monday, April 10, 1865.

The Confederate First Lady, Varina Howell Davis, passed through Danville a few days ahead of the President’s arrival. For her safety, he had sent her ahead to Charlotte where he had rented a home for the family.  Varina traveled with their children (Maggie age 8 or 9, Jefferson Jr. age 7, Willie age 4, and Varina Anne a.k.a. Pie Cake or Winnie age 9 months), an informally adopted black son four- to six-year-old Jim Limber, Varina’s sister Maggie Howell, two servants, and the President’s trusted private secretary Burton Harrison as escort.  The party also included the two daughters of Treasury Secretary George Trenholm and Midshipman James Morris Morgan.  In addition to his duty as a guard for the party, Morgan was also the fiancé of Betty Trenholm.

Davis Children -- Jefferson Jr., Maggie, Varina Anne, and Willie with Jim Limber

Historians disagree on when the party left Richmond – either March 29 or March 30, 1865.  Due to the poor condition of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, they did not arrive in Danville the next day.  While Danville extended its usual hospitality and offered for the party to stay, they continued on, arriving in Charlotte on Tuesday, April 4.

Skipping ahead many years, the Davis family took up residence in Biloxi, Mississippi.  While traveling, Jefferson Davis died in nearby New Orleans on December 6, 1889, at the age of 81.  A grand funeral was held drawing larger crowds than even for Carnival.  Jefferson Davis was temporarily interred in the tomb of the Army of Northern Virginia at Metairie Cemetery.  

Soon after, Varina moved to New York City to be near to publishers of her husband’s memoirs and because the hot climate of the Mississippi coast was bad for her health. She likely passed through Danville when she moved and perhaps on other occasions.  Danville was, after all, a railroad hub at that time and is still on the line to New Orleans.

It was not until July 1891 that Varina Davis decided that her husband’s final resting place should be Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  She visited Richmond later that year to select a specific site.  It was also decided that the reburial would take place on May 30, 1893, though this was later changed to May 31.  Of course, Jefferson Davis’s body would be transported from New Orleans to Richmond by rail.

At the request of the state governments, the body would lie in state at their capitals – Montgomery, Atlanta, and Raleigh – and then be carried north through Keysville, Virginia, to Richmond.  However, the people of Danville pleaded urgently to have a stop in their town – the Confederacy’s last capitol.  This was agreed once officials of the Richmond and Danville Railroad assured the organizers that this would not affect the schedule in Richmond. 

Thus, the funeral train backtracked to Durham and Greensboro, and then north to Danville.  It arrived at 9:00 p.m. on May 30, 1893.  As it rolled into the station, a choir sang “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”  About 6,000 people were assembled and so crowded the train that soldiers were forced to press them back with their rifles.  Few ever saw the casket in the funeral car. 

Every church bell in Danville rang on the second visit of Jefferson Davis as the funeral train departed for Richmond.

Ballard Michael; A Long Shadow (1985)
Clark, James C.; Lat Train South (1984)
Collins, Donald E.; The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis (2005)
Davis, Burke; The Long Surrender (1985)
Johnson, Clint; Pursuit (2008)
Swanson, James; Bloody Crimes (2010)