Though the time of day may change by historical account, most agree Confederate President Jefferson Davis arrived in Danville on April 3, 1865. The president arrived with a half-dozen cabinet members and other supporters to a crowd of citizens at the railroad depot on Craghead Street.
During the next seven days, the Civil War would reach its climax as Davis’ government completed its last full week of operation, desperately awaiting news of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops and delivering the last-ever proclamation to the people of the Confederacy.
In the Civil War years, Danville served numerous purposes for the Confederate Army. Chief among them was a jail camp for about 7,500 captured Union soldiers. There was not enough food for prisoners, and only 3,000 of the prisoners survived the war.
In addition to prisons, the town served as a supply depot and hospital camp for the Confederacy. Overcrowded with prisoners and deserters, some 1,300 additional people died of smallpox in 1864. Danville was on the supply line to Richmond and it was on the border with North Carolina.
One of the main people holding Danville together was Maj. William T. Sutherlin, a tobacco factory owner-turned quartermaster whose mansion became the last place the rebel government would formally meet. Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History Director Cara Burton said Sutherlin managed the town and its place in the war.
“He probably contributed more as a quartermaster and helping manage what was going on back here,” Burton said. “His background was in managing business and supplies.”
In the Sutherlin mansion, the cabinet members met and continued to operate — supplies were gathered for Lee and Davis penned a proclamation encouraging the people to remain vigilant in the fight.
However, with telegraph lines cut, communication between Lee and Davis stalled and even contributed to the general’s surrender later in the week. With no method of communication, no supplies of food ever reached Lee’s troops.
“That would have changed things a lot,” Burton said. “That was the stranglehold for Gen. Lee. What was frustrating here was Jefferson Davis and his cabinet were here, and they were literally cut off from Lee’s army.”
Burton said the Confederate government was getting sporadic information from calvary messengers and deserters, but reports were limited and inconsistent. The cabinet received no official word until the evening of April 8, when soldier John S. Wise informed Davis of Lee’s plans for eventual surrender.
The next morning, the government officials attended church for Easter service. On Monday, April 10, news of Appomattox reached the crew, and by 10 p.m. they had departed by rail to Greensboro, North Carolina.
After the surrender, Burton said Danville avoided the fate of many similar towns in the South. Citizens convinced troops to not burn bridges or buildings, allowing the town to begin rebuilding after the war.
“On both sides, they were trying to think ahead,” she said.
The cheer and hospitality of Sutherlin and other residents was noted in many first-person accounts of Davis’ time in Danville, despite the conditions of the town and the war.
“It was amazing that they accomplished as much as they did,” Burton said.