Letter to Varina Howell Davis by Jefferson Davis


In this letter to his wife, written after the Confederacy surrender, Davis describes in detail the circumstances and causes of their defeat and offers direction on how she might store or sell their belongings in order to flee their home and reunite with him.


Charlotte, N.C 23 April 65 [1]


I have been detained here longer than was expected when the last telegram was sent to you.  I am uncertain where you are and deeply felt the necessity of being with you if even for a brief time, under our altered circumstances.  Gov. Vance and Genl. Hampton propose to meet me here and Genl. Johnston sent me a request to remain at some point where he could readily communicate with me. [2] Under these circumstances I have asked Mr. Harrison to go in search of you and to render you such assistance as he may.  Your Brother William telegraphed in reply to my inquiry that you were at Abbeville and that he would go to see you.  My last despatch was sent to that place and to the care of Mr. Burt.  Your own feelings will convey to you an idea of my solicitude for you and our family and I will not distress by describing it.

The dispersion of Lee’s army [3] and the surrender of the remnant which remained with him destroyed the hopes I entertained when we parted.  Had that army held together I am now confident we could have successfully executed the plan which I sketched to you and would have been to-day on the high road to independence.  Even after that disaster if the men who “straggled” say thirty or forty thousand in number, had come back with their arms and with a disposition to fight we might have repaired the damage; but all was sadly the reverse of that.  They threw away theirs and were uncontrollably resolved to go home.  The small guards along the road have sometimes been unable to prevent the pillage of trains and depots.

Panic has seized the country.  J. E. Johnston and Beauregard [4] were hopeless as to recruiting their forces from the dispersed men of Lee’s army and equally so as to their ability to check Sherman [5] with the forces they had.  Their only idea was to retreat of the power to do so they were doubtful and subsequent desertions from their troops have materially diminished their strength and I learn still more weakend their confidence.

The loss of arms has been so great that should the spirit of the people rise to the occasion it would not be at this time possible adequately to supply them with the weapons of War.

Genl. Johnston had several interviews with Sherman and agreed on a suspension of hostilities, and the reference of terms of pacification.  They are secret and may be rejected by the Yankee govt.- to us they are hard enough, though freed from wanton humiliation and expressly recognizing the state governments, and the rights of person and property as secured by the Constitutions of the U. S. and the several states.  Genl. Breckenridge was a party to the last consultation and to the agreement.  Judge Reagan went with him and approved the agreement though not present at the conference. [6]

Each member of the Cabinet is to give his opinion in writing to day, 1st upon the acceptance of the terms, 2d upon the mode of proceeding if accepted.  The issue is one which it is very painful for me to meet.  On one hand is the long night of oppression which will follow the return of our people to the ‘Union”; on the other the suffering of the women and children, and courage among the few brave patriots who would still oppose the invader, and /who/ unless the people would rise en masse to sustain them, would struggle but to die in vain.

I think my judgement is undisturbed by any pride of opinion or of place, I have prayed to our heavenly Father to give me wisdom and fortitude equal to the demands of the position in which Providence has placed me.  I have sacrificed so much for the cause of the Confederacy that I can measure my ability to make any further sacrifice required, and am assured there is but one to which I am not equal, my Wife and my Children.  How are they to be saved from degradation or want is now my care.  During the suspension of hostilities you may have the best opportunity to go to Missi. and thence either to sail from Mobile for a foreign port or to cross the river and proceed to Texas, as the one or the other may be more practicable.  The little sterling you have will be a very scanty store and under other circumstances would not be counted, but if our land can be sold that will secure you from absolute want.  For myself it may be that our Enemy will prefer to banish me, it may be that a devoted band of Cavalry will cling to me and that I can force my way across the Missi. and if nothing can be done there which it will be proper to do, then I can go to Mexico and have the world from which to choose a location.  Dear Wife this is not the fate to which I invited when the future was rose-colored to us both; but I know you will bear it even better than myself and that /of us two/ I alone will ever look back reproachfully on my past career.

I have thus entered on the questions involved in the future to guard against contingencies, my stay will not be prolonged a day beyond the prospect of useful labor here and there is every reason to suppose that I will be with you a few days after Mr. Harrison arrives

Mrs Omelia behaved very strangely about putting the things you directed — Robt says she would not permit to pack, that she even took groceries out of the mess chest when he had put a small quantity there.  Little Maggie’s saddle was concealed and I learned after we left Richmond was not with the saddles and bridles which I directed to be all put together.  At the same time I was informed that your saddle had been sent to the Saddlers and left there.  Every body seemed afraid of connexion with our property and your carriage was sent to the Depot to be brought with me. a plea was made that it could not go on the cars of that train but should follow in the next, specific charge and promise was given but the carriage was left.  The notice to leave was given on Sunday, but few hours were allowed and my public duties compelled to rely on others, count on nothing as saved which you valued except the bust and that had to be left behind.

Mrs. Omelia said she was charged in the event of our having to leave, to place the valuables with the Sisters and that she would distribute every thing.  I told her to sell what she could, and after feeling distrust asked Mrs. Grant to observe her; and after that became convinced that she too proba-bly under the influences of her husband was afraid to be known as having close relations with us     Kiss Maggie and the children many times for me.  The only yearning heart in the final hour was poor old Sara wishing for “Pie cake”, and thus I left our late home.  No bad preparation for a search of another.  Dear children I can say nothing to them, but for you and them my heart is full my prayers constant and my hopes are the trust I feel in the mercy of God.

Farewell my Dear; there may be better things in store for us than are now in view, but my love is all I have to offer and that has the value of a thing long possessed and sure not to be lost.  Once more, and with God’s favor for a short time only, farewell —





The Papers of Jefferson Davis


[1] The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Rice University. 23 April, 1865. 

[2] North Carolina Governor Zebulon Baird Vance; Former Senator from South Carolina, Wade Hampton III; Joseph Eggleston Johnston, Confederate General for the Departments of North Carolina and  Southern Virginia. 

[3] Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. 

[4] P. G. T. Beauregard, General of the Confederate Army of Mississippi. 

[5] William Tecumseh Sherman, Major General of the Union Army under Grant. 

[6] John Breckinridge, Southern Democratic candidate for President of the United States against Lincoln, Douglas, and John Bell (1860); Vice-President under James Buchanan (1857-1861);  John Henninger Reagan, Secretary of the Treasury for the Confederate States. 

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