Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

THE DAY THE PRESIDENT CAME TO TOWN


    April of 1865 saw the end of the bloodiest and most divisive four years in American History.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet fled Richmond one week before General Lee's surrender at Appomattox.   Davis's plan called for an escape to Texas where the remaining Confederate forces would combine to fight a guerilla type war against the North.   This week marks the 150th anniversary of the day the President came to town.



   Jefferson Davis arrived on May 4th in Washington, Ga. where the Confederate Cabinet held its last session.  Davis and his family headed in two different directions.  The main party paused at Warthen and went south to Sandersville around noon on the 6th of May. Acting Confederate Treasury Secretary John Reagan transacted the last business of the Confederacy in Sandersville.  Davis moved on toward the Oconee River in the area east of Ball's Ferry, with the intentions of camping there for the night.  Shortly after their arrival at Ball's Ferry on the Irwinton to Wrightsville Road, President Davis, whom it has been said were planning a westward course,  and his escorts learned of a plan to attack the wagon train of Mrs. Davis which was pressing southward on a converging path.


   Fearing for his family's safety, Davis pressed south along the river road.  Whenever possible they had to travel off the edge of the road in order to hide their trail and prevent visual observation.  After several hours of difficult travel through thick pine woods Davis and his party arrived just before dawn in the Mt. Pleasant and Frog Level communities,near the Laurens County home of E.J. Blackshear.  As the two parties came together, each, at first thought the other was the enemy.  Davis’s pickets discovered that it was Mrs. Davis, the children, and the rest of the party who arrived at the Blackshear home earlier that evening.   After a short reunion, the Davis family had breakfast and then made their plans to resume their journey.  By then,  they knew that Union forces would not be far behind.

     The Union Army had already begun to search for Jefferson Davis.  The best cavalry regiment was selected to proceed east toward Dublin where they would cross the Oconee River and hopefully pick up the trail of Davis's wagon train.  Davis's train of light wagons and ambulances crossed at the Dublin ferry early on the morning of the seventh of May.  From there they proceeded into the center of town.  As was the case of his previous traveling habits, Jefferson Davis traveled separately from the train.  He crossed below  the Dublin Ferry mounted on a fine bay horse.  Davis then proceeded to the southeastern edge of town. 

     Davis never came into town but remained in the area now bounded on the north by Madison Street, east by Decatur Street, south by the railroad, and west by South Franklin Street. 

     The wagon train pulled into Dublin late Sunday morning.  In those days,  Dublin was a small village which had practically died out during the war.  A Confederate officer dismounted and approached the store of Freeman H. Rowe.  Freeman Rowe, a native of Connecticut, operated his mercantile store on the southwest corner of the courthouse square in the spot where the Hicks Building now stands.  Rowe, who had been in Dublin nearly twenty years, advised the officer of the terrain and roads in the county.  He advised the party to proceed south down the Jacksonville Road, which is today known as the Glenwood Road.  While the party was stopped, the Davis's carriage driver, John Davis, noticed a young black girl, Della Conway, approaching him.  After the eventual capture of Jefferson Davis, John Davis would return to Laurens County where he would find and marry Della Conway.  They would live  in Laurens County for forty years before moving to Dodge County where they lived the rest of their lives.  Mr. Rowe extended an invitation to Davis to dine at his house at the southwest corner of Rowe Street and Academy Avenue. Owing to the necessity of pressing on, the officer graciously declined the invitation,  but he did accept freshly cooked food from the Rowe kitchen.  

A detail was sent down to the President to advise him of the direction of travel.  They joined Davis a few miles south of town and proceeded down toward Turkey Creek.  The wagon train first started down the Jacksonville Road (Georgia Highway 19) but shortly moved over to the Telfair Road (U.S. Highway 441). 

 According to the maps of the Union Army Corps of Engineers,  the main road south would have been the Telfair Road (U.S.Highway 441) down to Turkey Creek, after crossing the creek, Davis and his party turned more to the southwest near or along the present day Payne Road and the City of Rentz. Following Snow Hill Church Road and the Old Eastman Road south from the Cadwell area, Davis and his band camped in the forks of Alligator Creek, most likely on the high ground  just below the Laurens-Dodge County line. 

Through the eastern portion of then Pulaski County, Davis continued on along the present day Airport Road.  After crossing the current Highway 46, Davis maintained his southwesterly course until he ran headlong into a overflowing Gum Swamp Creek, a major tributary of the Little Ocmulgee River.  The President’s forward observers found a place to attempt a crossing in the swollen waters of a wide and treacherous swamp.   

After a long day of arduous travel of less than 15 miles, the Confederates came to rest on the western side of the creek, west of Parkerson Church.  The spot was marked in the 1920s by Davis’s carriage John Davis, who returned to the area to mark the exact spot of the camp site, located on the southeast corner of Jefferson Davis Memorial Road and Parkerson Church Road.

From that point, Davis and his band left early on the morning of the 9th along or near Friiendship Baptist Church Road toward the Five Points community arrived at noon at the Levi Harrell farm.  During the rest of the day, the caravan moved south to Rhine, where they turned west  toward Abbeville. 

















     As Jefferson Davis was leaving the campsite at the Blackshear Plantation, Col. Harnden and the Wisconsin Cavalry were preparing to leave their campsite near Marion in Twiggs County.  The cavalry pushed down the Old Macon Road until they came to it’s intersection with the Hawkinsville Road.  The crossroads was then and is now known as Thomas Cross Roads.  The Hawkinsville Road, also known as the Blackshear Trail or Blackshear's Ferry Road, followed an old Uchee Indian trail from Augusta to southern Alabama.  As the Federals were approaching the crossroads, they learned that a contingent of several hundred paroled Confederate cavalry soldiers from General Johnston's army had just passed through there on their way home. This information seemed to be a little alarming to Col. Harnden because the men were mounted and as a precautionary measure he sent Lieutenant Orson P. Clinton and twenty men southwest to Laurens Hill on the Hawkinsville Road to reconnoiter that area.  During the war,  Laurens Hill had been the location of a Confederate commissary of arms and supplies.   As the cavalry approached Laurens County, they ran into small groups of Confederates. 

Harnden proceeded to the ferry where he arrived at 5:00 o'clock in the evening of May 7th.  It was just a few miles north of the ferry where Davis had camped the night before.

         Just as Davis was passing through Laurens County, so were John C. Breckinridge, a Confederate field offficer and the former Vice President of the United States under James Buchanan. Breckinridge hid out on the east side of the river, opposite Dublin and made his way down to Jacksonville, Georgia, the county seat of Telfair County.  The lackluster general, managed to escape to Florida, Cuba, Great Britain and Canada. 







    Following on a more westerly course was Judah P.  Benjamin. Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State and a United States Senator from Louisiana,  left Davis and his party and too moving quietly and almost alone.  Benjamin managed to escape to Florida within a week or so, escaping to Europe and safety.







Freeman H. Rowe



Upon arriving in Dublin, Harnden noticed that the people were considerably excited at their presence.  In an effort to disguise their true reason for being in Dublin, Harnden instructed his men to tell the townspeople that they were establishing courier posts between Macon and Savannah.  The First Wisconsin bivouacked on the flat area between the town and the river, probably along the main road down to the ferry.  Today that road would have been Jackson Street down to Dudley’s Motel and from that point running behind the motel to East Gaines Street to the Dublin ferry, which was located at the mouth of Town Creek just above the Riverwalk Amphitheater.  Colonel Harnden was approached by several of the town’s gentlemen, who insisted that he spend the night in their homes. Colonel Harnden, suspicious and not used to such attention, kindly declined their invitations and remained with his men.

The gentlemen’s insistent requests aroused Harnden’s suspicions that something big was going on.  Questions brought about evasive answers.  Harnden, still oblivious to the fact that he had missed Davis by slightly more than a half day, concluded that it must have been some more important members of Johnston’s army.  Dublin was filled with Confederate officers, all still in uniform, though the war had been effectively over for four weeks.  The officers stood in small groups, eyeing every movement of Harnden’s men with foreboding glances.  Uneasy and dead tired from riding twenty four out of the last thirty six hours, Harnden and his men bedded down for the night.

As Harnden was on the verge of collapsing into sleep, his servant, Bill,  came into his tent to awaken the Colonel with some important news.  Bill, who had been a slave belonging to a staff officer under the command of Confederate general Braxton Bragg and who had waited on General Bragg personally, was left behind when Bragg’s forces were dislodged from Tennessee in 1863. Harnden described Bill as “homely as a hedge hog, but a perfect tyrant over the other darkies.” Harnden trusted Bill, whom he also described as “being true as steel and very intelligent.”  Bill told Colonel Harnden that he found a colored man who wanted to tell him something.  “What is it?” the Colonel asked as he strained to see the man in the pitch black dark night.  Harnden managed to see some of his eyes and knew that he had important information.  The man told Harnden that Jefferson Davis had been in town that day.  Harnden asked the man how he knew it was Jeff Davis.  “Well,” he said, “all the gentlemen called him ‘President Davis’ and he had his wife with him and she was called, ‘Mrs. Davis’.”  (Above) The man told Harnden that Davis had come over the river on a ferry on a nice number of wagons and fine horses.   He added that another large party came into town but did not cross the river.  This group may have been the party of Gen. J.C. Breckenridge, a Confederate General and former Vice President of the United States, who was hiding out in East Dublin.  Gen. Breckinridge barely escaped capture in Laurens Co. and hid out in Telfair Co. for a few days. He later escaped to England.  

Harnden’s suspicions about the gentlemen in Dublin were confirmed when Judge Freeman Rowe, (Rowe House left) who had offered the hospitality of his home to him, had offered the same hospitality to Davis earlier that morning.    Harnden was fearful that the Negro man’s testimony was a ruse to get him to follow the wrong trail, much the same as Judge Rowe had attempted to do.  Harnden trusted Bill’s opinion on the veracity of the informant’s statement.  Bill told the Colonel, “Certain, sure, Colonel, you can believe him, he’s telling God’s truth.”  



To verify the man’s statement, Harnden sent a couple of men down to the ferry to query the ferryman as to who was brought across the river.  “He was either too stupid, ignorant, or obstinate to give us any information of importance,” lamented Harnden, who regretted not complying with the wishes of his sergeant who wanted to “throw the old scamp into the river.”  Harnden returned to his bivouac and summoned Lt. Hewitt, who had been sent to Laurens Hill with thirty men to reconnoiter the area which had once housed a Confederate commissary. 

   Harnden ordered Lt. Lane to remain in Dublin with forty-five men.  Lane’s mission was to scout up and down both sides of the river in hopes of gaining further information as to Davis’s route. Harnden set out with seventy-five men following the trail which had been given to him.  There were no good roads, only trails.  It was dark, very dark.  The cavalrymen were going in circles and during the night, they wound back up in Dublin. 

Despite the misdirection from F.H. Rowe, they proceeded down the Jacksonville Road.  At Turkey Creek, a woman confirmed that a wagon train had passed the afternoon before.  From this point the cavalry entered the unpopulated pine regions of southern Laurens County. They saw few people and quickly lost track of the wagons due to the rain.  While the calvary were attempting to find the trail, a man approached on horseback. Denying that he knew anything,  the man confessed upon threats by the cavalry. He disclosed that the wagon train stopped for the night about eleven miles away.  He guided the cavalry to that spot in the forks of Alligator Creek.  Col. Harden picked up the trail, followed it for a short time and eventually lost it again.  Shortly thereafter the cavalry came upon another guide who,  upon payment for his knowledge,  guided the cavalry to the southern side of the forks of Alligator Creek,  where the trail was again revealed.  After they crossed Gum Swamp Creek, the cavalry stopped for the night as nightfall approached. 
  
Davis left the rest of the party moving southwesterly toward Abbeville on the morning of the 8th.  The torrential rains continued to cripple his escape, but allowed Davis to delay his capture by a day because even the faster cavalry units could not follow washed out trails.  Davis reached the banks of the Ocmulgee in the late evening.  After he  crossed the river, Davis made his camp in a deserted house on the outskirts of Abbeville.  Most of the townspeople knew nothing of his presence due to the heavy rainfall.   The rest of the wagon train crossed the ferry just after midnight.  About 3:00 o'clock on the morning of the ninth a courier was sent by President Davis warning the wagon train of the presence of Union Cavalry in Hawkinsville - only a few miles to the northwest.   

On the last full day of freedom and with only a few moments of sleep the members of the Confederate wagon train pulled out of camp from Abbeville early in the morning of the 9th.  They stopped to rest and a cook a sunrise breakfast about eight to ten miles below Abbeville.  The relentless rains continued to plague the flight of the Confederates.  Davis caught up with the rest of the party in the late afternoon.  With the men and horses completely exhausted, the party crossed a small creek north of Irwinville to camp for the night. 

    It became increasingly apparent that in order to escape to the Trans Mississippi area that President Davis and his party should go ahead before camping for the night.  Davis promised that he would move ahead after a quick meal.  With the last reports of the Union Army in Hawkinsville and no sign of any pursuit, Davis decided to stay with the party for one more night.  


   Just before light on the morning of the ninth, Col. Harnden broke camp and moved toward the Ocmulgee.  He then quickly moved down the river road to Abbeville.  There they were overtaken by the advance scouts of the 4th Mich. Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. Ben Pritchard.  Col. Harnden sent Lt. Clinton to the point while he returned to Abbeville.  They continued on the Irwinville Road until nine o'clock that evening.  After traveling forty five miles and not wanting to warn Davis of his presence with a noisy river crossing, the Wisconsin Cavalry halted for the night in a field on the north side a small creek a little over a mile from the Confederates.  The Mich. Cavalry moved north from Irwinville.  Three hours before dawn the Wisconsin and Michigan cavalry soldiers were poised to surround the camp.  Neither regiment knew of the other's presence.  Shots rang out!  The Union Soldiers were firing at each other.  Two men were killed.

     While the two Union regiments were violently bringing the search for Davis to an end, the actual capture of Jefferson Davis was peaceful.  At the instant the firing on the north side of the creek began,  the Michigan Cavalry charged through the Davis's campsite. Davis gave himself up when he felt his wife was being threatened. The Confederates were arrested and taken to Macon.  From Macon, Jefferson Davis was sent to Fortress Monroe Prison in Virginia. 






     While the southern half of Middle Georgia escaped the ravages of battle, it was the site of the last major event of Civil War.  The most critical event in the capture occurred in Dublin, where the Wisconsin Cavalry first learned of Davis's route.  If Col. Harnden had been here a day earlier, then the capture would have been made in Laurens County.  If he been delayed by a couple of days, the capture may have never occurred. 

Ironically, Henry Harnden was a southerner by birth.  The Harndens, a well respected family of Wilmington, North Carolina, served in the forefront of the defense of the port city during the American Revolution.  Born in Wilmington in 1823, Harden moved to Wisconsin in early adulthood.  He enlisted as a private in Company D of the First Wisconsin.  For his acts of valor and meritorious service, Harnden quickly promoted up the chain of  command.  Harnden led a charge against a superior force at Scatterville in 1862, capturing a large number of Confederate prisoners and munitions.   He was severely wounded while leading an attack at Burnt Hickory.  In March of 1865, Harnden was temporarily breveted a Brigadier General in the Union Army.  After the end of his military career, Col. Harnden served in the Wisconsin state assembly.  He served as a trustee of the Soldier’s Orphan Home, a United States Assessor, and a Collector of Internal Revenue.  Harnden spent the last year of his life as Commander of the Wisconsin Department of the Grand Army of the Republic.  He died in 1900 and was buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison.

As Davis and his party attempted to elude capture by Federal authorities along their secretive and meandering path through the countryside of the Carolinas and Georgia, Davis rode with John Taylor Wood, John H. Reagan, Francis Lubbock and William Preston Johnston,  four remarkable members  of President Davis’s senior staff.   This  quartet of Davis’s most trusted and experienced aides provided invaluable services to the President, his family, and members of his staff.   With his primary destination being Texas, Davis assembled a group, which included three Texans and one naval officer, just in case the alternate plan of fleeing by ship to England was necessary.   When Davis was informed of a possible attack on his family in the main wagon train, Colonels Wood, Lubbock and Johnston aided Davis in his frantic and eventually successful search for his family, which culminated at the home of E.J. Blackshear at the intersection of the current day Ben Hall Lake Road and Willie Wood Road.   Secretary Reagan remained with Mrs. Davis and her children during the ordeal and acted as the leader of the wagon train when the group approached the Dublin store of Freeman H. Rowe in the mid morning of May 7th seeking directions as to the best and most direct route to the southwest.  

John Taylor Wood graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1853.  Wood, a son of an Army surgeon, served in the Mexican War and in the Mediterranean Sea.  In April 1861, the native of Minnesota, resigned his commission in the Federal navy to assume a neutral stance in the burgeoning conflict.  Six months later, Wood received a commission as a First Lieutenant in the Confederate Navy.    Lieutenant Wood was assigned to duty along the eastern shore of Virginia.   He served aboard the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia, aka C.S.S. Merrimac, which was destroyed in its legendary encounter with the U.S.S. Monitor.  During the next two years, Wood led a series of successful raids against Union ships along the Virginia coastline.  For his valuable service to Confederate President Davis, Lt. Wood was promoted to Commander.  At the same time, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Confederate Calvary, a unique distinction in any military force.   

Known for his daring military exploits, Wood played a vital role as a liaison between the two branches of the Confederate military and the civilian government.  In the last summer of the war, Commander Wood took command of the CSS Tallahassee and made effective attacks on Federal ships along the Atlantic coast.  Near the end of the war, Wood was promoted to the rank of Captain.  As the government of the Confederacy began to crumble in the last weeks of the war, Captain Wood was summoned to Richmond to aid Davis and his cabinet in their attempted escape from Federal authorities.  While most members of Davis’s cabinet left Davis during his flight, Wood remained with Davis all the way to Irwinville, where he was captured.  Wood managed to escape a long prison sentence and made his way to Cuba and then to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he became a businessman.  Wood died at the age of seventy-four in 1904. 

John H. Reagan floundered around during his youth before he set out for Texas to seek his fortune.  Reagan served as a soldier, surveyor and scout before he became an attorney. Reagan rose in the political ranks first as a county judge, a member of the 2nd Texas Legislature and finally as a United States Congressman in 1857. Upon the secession of the Confederate States in January 1861, Cong. Reagan resigned his seat in Congress and returned to Texas.  Reagan represented Texas in the Secession Convention in Montgomery.  He was appointed by the Confederate government as Postmaster General of the Confederacy.  His tight management of the Postal Service led to criticism by the Southern people.  After the resignation of George A. Trenholm, Reagan briefly assumed the duty of Treasury Secretary of the Confederacy until he was captured along with Davis near Irwinville.  

Reagan was confined to solitary confinement along with Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens for twenty-two weeks at Fort Warren.    After urging his fellow Texans to cooperate with the Federal occupation of their state, he returned in political disgrace.   The opinions of is fellow politicians and constituents reversed and Reagan was returned to the favor of the Democratic party.   He was easily elected to Congress in 1874 and remained in office until 1887.  Cong. Reagan served a brief stint as a United States Senator before resigning to become the first Railroad Commissioner of Texas.  Commissioner Reagan served as Commissioner of Railroads until 1903.  At the age of eighty-six, Reagan, “The Old Roman of Texas,” died in Palestine, Texas in January 1905.  
Francis Lubbock, a native of Beaufort, South Carolina, migrated to Texas in 1836. Lubbock was first appointed Clerk of the House of Representatives and later  as Comptroller of the Republic of Texas by President Sam Houston.   Lubbock resigned his position to serve a sixteen-year term as the district clerk of Harris County, Texas.   In 1857, he was elected Lieutenant Governor of the “Lone Star” state.  After the secession of the Southern states in 1861, Lubbock was elected Governor of Texas.   

 Gov. Lubbock opted not to seek a second term as governor and seek a post in the Confederate military instead.  After serving a brief term in Louisiana,    Lubbock was made a Colonel and given a position on the staff of President Davis.  The two developed a close personal relationship. Col. Lubbock  was with the President when he was captured in Irwinville.  After nearly eight months of solitary confinement in a Federal prison, Lubbock returned to Texas for a career in ranching and business.  He served as State Treasurer from 1878 to 1891.   Gov. Lubbock died in June 1905 at the age of eighty-nine.

William Preston Johnston, a native of Kentucky, was raised by his maternal grandfather General William Preston.  Johnston’s father General Albert Sidney Johnston, a former Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas and a military hero in his own right, was one of the most revered and admired generals in the Confederate Army until he was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.  William Johnston graduated from Yale in 1852 and studied law at the University of Louisville at Louisville, Kentucky, where he took up the practice of law.    During the war, Johnston was given a position as an aide-de-camp to Jefferson Davis. Johnston was with the president until the final moment of his capture at Irwinville.

After the war, Johnston accepted a position chair of the history and English departments at Washington & Lee University by that’s school’s first president, Gen. Robert E.  Lee.  After ten years of teaching at the Virginia college, Johnston moved to Louisiana, where in 1880, he accepted the presidency of Louisiana State University.  In 1884, he became the first president of Tulane University.   During his teaching career, Johnston published several volumes of poetry, wrote numerous magazine articles and authored a biography of his father.  He died in 1899 and was buried in Lexington, Virginia. 

Decades after the capture, Col. Henry Harnden pointed to the moment that a Negro slave walked into his tent between the courthouse and ferry in Dublin and told the Wisconsin cavalryman of Jefferson Davis’ recent presence as the key to his capture.  Had that man not come forward, Harnden doubted if he would have ever captured the fleeing Confederate leader. 


Jefferson Davis Highway Marker
in front of Dublin's Southside Fire Station
Intersection of S. Jefferson Street and 
Saxon Street. 



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