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    Controversy Over the Details of the Capture of Jefferson Davis

    [Capture of Jefferson Davis]. Archive of Statements and Letters from the Papers of Robert Burns describing (and quarreling about) the events surrounding the dramatic capture of Jefferson Davis as he fled Union captors in women's clothing following the disintegration of the Confederate government in May 1865. The largest part of this archive consists of twenty-two letters written by eyewitnesses and other members of the Union cavalry unit-the Michigan 4th-which noticed Confederate President Davis dressed in women's clothing and then arrested him. Robert Burns, the collector of these statements and letters, was a lieutenant colonel in Company C of the 4th Cavalry. Also included are a Jefferson Davis Pen Nib and Jefferson Davis Cloak Button, both from the collection of Alfred B. Purinton. The nib measures 1.5" and was most likely with Davis at his capture. The button is from a woman's cloak (possibly belonging to Varina Davis) that Davis wore during his failed attempt to escape. Alfred B. Purinton of Company I of the 4th Michigan Cavalry cut the button off of the "woman's waterproof cloak" that Davis was wearing, according to the handwritten note attached to the button. Purinton was breveted first lieutenant for his actions during the capture.

    The outline of the story of the capture runs roughly like this: the Michigan 4th Cavalry, searching for the absconding Confederate president, entered a camp of tents in Irwin County, Georgia, in early May 1865 and immediately put up pickets. Unbeknownst to them, Confederate President Davis was in one of those tents with his wife and sister-in-law. Lieutenant Julian George Dickinson commanded the pickets in the camp. Davis, wearing some women's clothing, Varina Davis (his wife), and Miss Howells (his sister-in-law), left the tent to fetch water at a nearby spring. According to some eyewitnesses, Dickinson granted the three "women" permission to leave the camp for water, though this is a point of disagreement. While the three were on their way, Private Andrew Bee, Corporal George M. Munger, and Corporal James Bullard saw them and noticed that one of the three wore cavalry boots. The three soldiers immediately rode to them and arrested Davis. Dickinson's role in this affair is one of the major points of disagreements among members of the 4th Cavalry, but the biggest point of contention is exactly what Davis was wearing during his arrest. Davis himself later asserted in his book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, that, in his haste to leave the tent, he inadvertently put on his wife's cloak as she threw her shawl over his head (The Rise and Fall, Vol. II, New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1881, 701-702). Many of the soldiers in the 4th Cavalry, however, said Davis wore a black gown, a shawl over his head and beard, and a black cloth under the shawl to cover his head and his identity.

    The documents in this lot, comprised of over twenty individual statements and letters, mostly dated between 1875 and 1877, are themselves full of drama as eyewitness members of the 4th Michigan Cavalry debate amongst themselves the events surrounding the capture. In the mid-1870s, Robert Burns initiated correspondences with these men in his search for answers to account discrepancies. (Burns was not among the party that arrested Davis; he was bivouacking at a nearby plantation.)

    Among the members of the 4th Michigan Cavalry whose statements or letters of their accounts of the arrest are included here are the three Union soldiers who noticed Davis' cavalry boots and made the initial arrest: Private Andrew Bee (1 letter), Corporal George M. Munger (1 letter), and Corporal James Bullard (1 letter). Others letters and statements included are from General James H. Wilson (3 letters); Lieutenant Leonard C. Remington (1 letter); Brigadier General Benjamin D. Pritchard (2 letters); Corporal David J. Curry (1 letter); F. E. Stevens (1 letter); R. J. Vans[?] (1 letter); C. K. Backus (1 letter); and Robert Burns (9 letters). A statement, dated October 19, 1877, is also included. Some letters are drafts and retained copies.

    In addition to the numerous letters and documents, pen nib, and button are newspaper clippings; a carte de visite of Lieutenant Julian Dickinson signed by him; transcripts of many documents and letters; Robert Burns' copy of an imprint entitled The Capture of Jeff. Davis: A Paper Read Before Michigan Commandery... January 9th, 1889, written and delivered by Lieutenant. Dickinson (15 pages); The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (February 1890) with an account of the capture of Davis written by John Nicolay and John Hay; The Atlantic Monthly, September 1865, which includes a six-page article entitled "Running at the Heads": Being an Authentic Account of the Capture of Jefferson Davis written by George W. Lawton (this article is mentioned in other letters and articles included in this archive); inside the Atlantic Monthly article is a tipped-in manuscript written by Robert Burns concerning the events of Davis' capture. This archive has been well preserved and organized and is worthy of much more research.


    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    April, 2013
    11th Thursday
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