150 years ago, Jefferson Davis stopped in York County

The White house in Fort Mill as it appears today.
The White house in Fort Mill as it appears today.

With the Confederacy crumbling around them, a column of cavalry – between 2,000 and 3,000 troops – stopped at the Broad River on the edge of York County on April 28, 1865.

It had taken almost three days to transverse York County, and their commander, Gen. Basil Duke of Kentucky, wished for more speed to escape Union cavalry and to protect his charges.

Their progress was slowed by wagons filled with passengers, personal items and some paperwork of the Confederacy

But the slow pace also may have been intentional. Duke’s most infamous rider was Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who wanted to maintain a semblance of normalcy even as he and the remainder of his cabinet fled south, hoping to get to either Texas or Mexico where they could continue fighting the Union or seek better surrender terms.

“Jefferson Davis is traveling like a president and not a fugitive,” Duke said.

The crossing of the Broad River was part of the retreat from Richmond, Va., after Union troops closed in on the city. Duke, Davis and the others had traveled through Danville, Va.; Greensboro, N.C., and Charlotte – all temporary capitals of the Confederacy.

Their flight ended in Irwinville, Ga., on May 10 when Davis was captured in the early morning hours.

Davis and his cabinet spent two nights in York County, one in Fort Mill – where they held what some believe to be the Confederacy’s last cabinet meeting – and one in Yorkville, now York.

While many know that Davis’ final flight came through York County, details of his journey are not as well know, hidden in seldom read diaries, letters and archives.

The documents reveal a tale of loyalty and dishonor, of compassion and hatred, and above all an allegiance for the Confederate cause. As Burton Harrison, the president’s personal secretary, observed, Davis often looked sad and dispirited during his retreat, but he could not – in his own words – “feel like a beaten man.”

The column’s journey through York County followed several days in Charlotte. After riding all afternoon on April 26, the column approached the Catawba River, where they were greeted by Col. Andrew Baxter Springs, owner of the Springfield plantation in Fort Mill. Springs, a colonel in the Confederate Army who had helped recruit and supply troops, met the convoy about 4 p.m.

He offered his home, and Davis and the cabinet, minus Secretary of the Treasury and Charleston businessman George Trenholm, spent the night at Springfield. Trenholm and his wife, Helen, stayed at the home of Col. William Elliott White, also in Fort Mill.

That evening, Davis and cabinet members played marbles with Eli Springs, 13, and Johnny Springs, 12, according to the Springs family archives. Eli is paired with Jefferson Davis and Postmaster General John Reagan, while Johnny is paired with Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and Secretary of War John C. Breckenridge.

The teams got down on the knees in the parlor, laughing and relaxing.

Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory wrote of the evening, “It was an hour of refreshing, well-contested game of marbles. Breckinridge, the best marble player since (John) Marshall, with his usually good luck, came off victorious. He is the best grown-up player in the Confederacy, if not the world.”

John Marshall was the former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jefferson Davis, in a letter that day to his wife, Varina, wrote, that Wade Hampton of South Carolina offered to command a group of Confederate forces that would lead Davis across the Mississippi River.

“The route will be too rough and perilous for you and the children to go with me – the tide of war will follow me.”

On April 27, the cabinet met in the morning at Springfield, and then moved to White’s home. During the meeting, Trenholm, who had been ill for some time, resigned, and Postmaster General John Reagan, who is late to the meeting, is appointed secretary of the treasury. He protested that his duties of postmaster and keeper of the telegraph will keep him busy, but Davis says there’s not much left in the treasury and convinces him to hold both jobs.

Trenholm fled to Chester and then Columbia, where he was arrested. He was imprisoned until October 1886 and later returned to Charleston, where became involved in charity work that included raising funds for a school for “children of all races.”

Later that day, as Davis, the cabinet and the cavalry crossed the Catawba River on a pontoon bridge – the wooden railroad bridge was burned by U.S. cavalry on April 19 – one member of the cavalry noted: “The cause has gone up. God only know what will be the end of all this.”

After crossing the Catawba, Davis and the column followed a path over what today is Cherry Road and Eden Terrace in Rock Hill. A historic marker on Eden Terrace near the Winthrop University baseball park marks Davis’ path.

The column reached Yorkville, where Davis spent the night with Dr. James Rufus Bratton, Confederate Army surgeon.

Bratton had arrived home about April 9, 1865, after serving with Confederate Army since a few days after the war began with the shelling Fort Sumter in Charleston in 1860.

According to Bratton, President Davis appear to somewhat fatigued in body and depressed in spirits, though easily aroused with his native fire; he caressed and spoke kindly to my four boys: Louis, John, Andral , and Moultrie – and when he left me in the morning and bade us good bye he observed, ‘do not expect anything just or right from the Abolition Yankee. They will never grant you your rights.”

On April 28, 1865 – 150 years ago today – Davis and the four of his cabinet members reached the Broad River and crossed it.

When Davis was captured in Irwinville, Ga., his cabinet had dwindled to one, Reagan. Most of the troops he had counted on to keeping fighting, had already surrendered, making their long walk home.

Davis and five members of his cabinet were sent to prison. Two escaped, one never returning to the United States.

One of the five cabinet members returned to the United States government: Reagan was elected to the U.S. House and Senate from Texas. Among his accomplishments was forming of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

Confederate cabinet meeting exhibit

The Fort Mill History Museum, 310 N. White St., is featuring an exhibit on the last meeting of the Confederate Cabinet at the White homestead through Oct. 31.

Related stories from Rock Hill Herald