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Davis’ cabinet among most influential men in U.S. politics

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Editor’s note: Information for this story was gathered from several memoirs, historical documents and two history professors at the University of South Carolina.

The men gathering in the front yard of William Elliott White’s home in Fort Mill had been among the most influential in American politics.

John Breckinridge had been U.S. vice president and an 1860 presidential candidate. As vice president in 1861, Breckenridge officially announced that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president.

Judah Benjamin was a noted lawyer who turned down an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jefferson Davis had been U.S. secretary of war, working to enlarge and better equip the army. As secretary of war, he also oversaw the expansion of one of the most iconic buildings in America, the U.S. Capitol.

Stephen Mallory had been a senator from Florida, interested in naval affairs. He would forever change the ways navies fought wars.

George Trenholm was a Charleston shipper, among the richest businessmen in the country.

At the center of it all was Davis, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, secretary of war for U.S. President Franklin Pierce, a former senator from Mississippi, and slave owner.

He was a man of conflicting character.

Davis would often solicit opinions from others, sometimes asking people to write long letters supporting their views. But when he made a decision, only his words counted.

Arriving in Charlotte on his retreat from Richmond, Davis told residents he had “committed errors and very grave ones,” but was dedicated to the “preservation of the true principles of constitutional freedom.”

He was aloof, but got the most intense loyalty from his friends, and sometimes even his enemies.

Yet, by the end of the war, it was his generals, Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston, who decided that further fighting would be senseless and surrendered.

But most of all, Davis was passionate about the cause of the Confederacy.

While all others were telling him the war was lost – including his wife, Varina – Davis held steadfast, saying he would not leave “Confederate soil while a Confederate regiment is on it.”

Davis stayed true to his word. The last Confederate troops were surrendered June 2 by Gen. Kirby Smith in New Orleans – they very troops Davis had hoped would help keep the Confederacy alive.

Covering the war

The Civil War is the first war that was reported almost in “real time.” The invention of the telegraph and the camera resulted in relatively fast communications, letting newspapers report on events within days.

Hundreds of journalists covered the war. During Davis’ retreat, Frank Vizetelly of the Illustrated London News joined the president’s column in Greensboro, N.C., and stayed with him through South Carolina. Vizetelly covered the war from before the battle of Manassas in 1861 to just before Davis’ surrender four years later.

The social media of the day was letters and diaries. After the war, hundreds of memoirs were written.

The result is a rich, and maddening, treasure. Rich because of the variety of sources, maddening because even with all material there are still gaps. For example, what did Davis, or his cabinet members, Breckinridge or Benjamin, say when they spent the night in Yorkville, now York, on April 27, 1865?

The Yorkville Enquirer newspaper did not write about Davis’ stay.

Dr. James Rufus Bratton, his Yorkville host, wrote in his memoirs that residents “gathered around the house to offer their tokens of respect and sympathy, for him and his cause for which he continued.”

Bratton made no mention of whether Davis spoke, and other accounts suggest either Secretary of State Benjamin or Secretary of War Breckinridge offered a few words of encouragement.

Nonetheless, the collective works represent an intimate view on the last days of the Confederacy. The timeline to the right is assembled from memoirs of Jefferson and Varina Davis, various cabinet members and their wives, soldiers’ accounts and from material at the Springs Close Family Archives and the Historical Center of York County.

Also assisting was Don Doyle, McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, and Tom Brown, an associate professor history at USC.

The Final Days of the Confederacy

March 31, 1865: With Gen. Robert E. Lee unable to hold Richmond, the Confederate capital, Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina; her sister Maggie Howell; four children; and three slaves leave the city by train for Charlotte.

April 2, 1865: Jefferson Davis and his cabinet leave Richmond by train for Danville, Va.

April 9, 1865: Lee surrenders at Appomattox Court House to U.S. Gen. Ulysses Grant. Col. Robert Moorman Sims of Lancaster County is the first of several Confederate riders to approach Union lines with a white truce flag. Sims returns to South Carolina after the war for a long career of public service, including as Rock Hill mayor.

April 10, 1885: Davis and his cabinet leave Danville for Greensboro, N.C. Three days later, Varina Davis leaves Charlotte for Chester via the Charlotte and South Carolina railroad.

April 14, 1865: U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater and dies the following day.

April 15, 1865: Davis and the cabinet depart Greensboro for Charlotte. Among those protecting the column is Col. John. W. White of Fort Mill and the 6th Regiment of S.C. volunteers. White and his brother, Sam, will be one of the eyewitnesses of the final cabinet meeting at the home of William Elliott White.

Sam White’s memories will be used by his grandson, Elliott White Springs, to write the historical marker that now is located on the White home front lawn in Fort Mill on Steele Creek Road.

April 19, 1865: Davis arrives in Charlotte and receives word of Lincoln’s death.

“The president and members of the cabinet, with one great accord, greatly regretted the occurrence,” Postmaster General John Regan writes. “We felt that his death was most misfortune for the people of the Confederacy because we believed it would intensify the feeling of hostility in the Northern States against us.”

April 26 1865: Last full meeting of the full cabinet at the William Pifer house in Charlotte. Pifer is the son-in-law of William Elliot White of Fort Mill. Attorney General George Davis resigns.

April 26, 27, 28, 1865: Davis in York County

May 1, 1865: Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton, hoping to reach Davis, rides to Yorkville, swimming the Catawba River with his horse in the dark of night. Hampton writes to Davis: “It will give me great pleasure to assist you if I can do so and you may rest assured that I shall stick to our flag as long as one can be found to uphold.” Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler is shocked at Hampton’s “broken appearance.” Hampton’s wife, Ann, living temporarily in Yorkville, convinces him his duty is done. Hampton would later be elected governor in a campaign that is considered to be one of the bloodiest in state history as he suppresses black voters.

May 3, 1865: Mallory, who started the Confederate Navy from scratch and helped pioneer ironclads and submarines, resigns. He is caught in LaGrange, Ga., on May 20, 1865, and imprisoned until March 1866.

May 4, 1865: Benjamin resigns, departing the column under the guise of a Frenchman who doesn’t speak English. “I am going to the farthest place from the United States, if that takes me to the middle of China,” he says. Benjamin escapes to England and never returns to the United States.

May 4, 1865: Breckenridge tries to reach Davis in Washington, Ga., but the president’s smaller, faster column has left. After Davis’ capture, Breckenridge flees to Cuba and then to Europe, Canada and back to Europe. He returns to his native Kentucky when U.S. President Andrew Johnson issues a general amnesty to all Confederate veterans on Dec. 25, 1868.

May 10, 1865, Davis, his family and Reagan are captured. Reagan is imprisoned and released in October 1865. He returns to Texas, were he is elected to the U.S. House in 1876 and the U.S. Senate in 1886.

Jefferson Davis was imprisoned and released in May 1867. There are several attempts to prosecute him for his wartime actions, but none go to trial.

Davis returns to Mississippi, where he declines appointment as senator from Mississippi and presidency of what is now Texas A&M University. He writes his memoirs.

The Confederate States of America cabinet

President: Jefferson Davis (1808-1889): Elected to six-year term as president. Former U.S. senator from Mississippi; U.S. secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce.

Secretary of state: Judah Benjamin (1811-1884): Lawyer and sugar plantation owner from Louisiana; U.S. senator from Louisiana. U.S. President Franklin Pierce wanted to appoint him to the U.S. Supreme Court. Served in the Confederate cabinet from 1861 to 1865 as attorney general, secretary of war and finally secretary of state.

Attorney general: George Davis (1820-1896): N.C. lawyer named Confederate cabinet’s fourth attorney general in 1864.

Secretary of the treasury: George Trenholm (1824-1876): Charleston businessman invested in banks, cotton, hotels, railroads, steamships and wharves. Appointed the second treasury secretary in 1864; resigns in Fort Mill.

Secretary of war: John Breckinridge (1821-1875): Kentucky lawyer; vice president for James Buchanan; 1860 presidential candidate of the Southern Democrat Party; Confederate general; fifth Confederate secretary of war, appointed in 1865.

Secretary of navy: Stephen Mallory (1831-1873): Florida lawyer; U.S. senator; appointed Confederate secretary of Navy in 1861.

Postmaster general: John Reagan (1818-1905): Texas lawyer and judge; U.S. House of Representatives from Texas; appointed postmaster general, 1861; named to replace Trenholm as treasurer at the Fort Mill meeting. After the war elected to U.S. House and Senate from Texas.

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