After arriving in Danville on April 3 and setting up the Confederate government in its new capital, Confederate President Jefferson Davis waited almost one week to hear from Gen. Robert E. Lee.

With telegraph lines severed north of Danville, Davis could no longer communicate with Lee in a timely manner, so he sent an 18-year-old lieutenant, John S. Wise, on April 5 by train to find Lee. He got as far as the town of Green Bay before finding Yankee cavalry instead and then went the rest of the way on horseback to find Lee north of Rice’s Station, according to Lawrence McFall Jr., a Danville and Civil War historian in his book “Danville in the Civil War.”

Returning to Danville on April 8, Wise reported to the mansion of Maj. William T. Sutherlin, where Davis was staying and which now houses the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History. He reported that from what he had seen and heard, he was sure Lee must surrender. McFall recounts that “a simultaneous shudder went through the cabinet.”

The next day on April 9, Palm Sunday, Davis finally received a dispatch sent by Lee on April 6 before his defeat at Saylor’s Creek.

Davis responded by telling Lee ample provisions awaited his hungry army in Danville and stressed the need for him to win a victory north of the Staunton River.

Lack of supplies

The chaotic situation in Richmond the day of the evacuation had prevented Davis from receiving an appeal from Lee for supplies to be sent to Amelia Court House, according to an essay “To Danville: A Government on Wheels” McFall published in “Virginia At War 1865.”

“At that moment, freight cars in Danville held 1.5 million rations of meat and 500,000 rations of bread, ready for delivery. Tragically, Federal soldiers intercepted the order and sent a false follow-up order to trainmaster J.H. Averill to hold the train instead,” McFall writes. “The first train was ready to leave the rail yard when Averill got the decoy message, thus preventing the foodstuffs from reaching Lee’s hungry army.”

Without supplies, the Confederate soldiers had been relying on foraging from the countryside as they retreated from Petersburg to Appomattox.

“They were very hungry, not starving, but the men in the ranks continued to exhibit a vigorous fighting spirit. Had they been starving I seriously doubt they would have maintained such an esprit de corps as they displayed at Saylor’s Creek, Farmville, High Bridge and Appomattox,” said McFall.

Unaware of the surrender

Earlier in the day on Palm Sunday found Davis and several cabinet members at church at a special service at the Episcopal Church on the corner of Main and Jefferson streets. They were, of course, unaware of the surrender taking place at Appomattox Court House.

It wasn’t until the next afternoon — on April 10 — that Capt. William Pinkney Graves, the former commander of the Danville Blues, who had been sent to bring news back from Lee, returned with the confirmation of Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Many erroneously believe that the end of the Civil War came with Lee’s surrender, but Lee surrendered only his forces, even though he was general-in-chief of the Confederate States Army.

“The Army of Northern Virginia, led by Lee, was the largest of the Confederate armies, and Lee surrendered only because he was surrounded. Had there been an escape route, he no doubt would have continued fighting,” McFall said. “There were comments by some that his army should escape as best they could and begin a campaign of guerilla warfare. Lee said ‘no.’ As general-in-chief of the CSA armies, Lee saw his duty as surrendering only ‘his’ army under his direct command because of, perhaps, his personal moral code.”

McFall also said that the defiant Davis would never have agreed to a total surrender anyway. His plans were to proceed westward and connect with the Army of the Trans-Mississippi.

“A hint of this defiance can be detected in his final proclamation penned in Danville on April 4,” he added.

When Graves arrived, Davis was meeting with several of his cabinet members at the Benedict House, a large two-story brick home on Wilson Street that was being used as executive office space for the Confederate government.

“The president read the message and silently handed it to the others. Passing the dispatch from hand to hand, each in turn carefully read the dismaying message,” McFall recounts. “To add to their gloom, around noon a thunderstorm began raging, and a steady downpour continued the remainder of the day. Mother Nature seemed to be mocking the Confederacy’s failure.”

It was time to prepare for another evacuation.

On the run

McFall said that even if the government’s departure from Richmond the week before had appeared chaotic, it had at least had been planned for some time and could have been considered a “strategic withdrawal for the readjustment of Lee’s defensive position.”

There were no plans to leave this time — the evacuation was only flight, he said.

Davis worked into the evening as a train was readied for the government’s departure. Delays plagued the departure, and the underpowered engine didn’t pull out until 11 p.m.

Upon leaving the home of Maj. William T. Sutherlin, and his wife, Janie, where Davis had been a guest, Mrs. Sutherlin offered him a small bag of gold. According to her accounts, Davis’s composure broke for the first time, as recorded by John H. Brubaker III in his book “The Last Capital.”

He writes, “(Davis) held her hand and, with tears in his eyes, said, ‘No, I cannot take your money. You and your husband are young and will need your money, while I am old and don’t reckon I shall need anything very long.’”

Davis then gave her a small gold pencil as a keepsake, walked down to a waiting carriage and cavalry escort, looked back at the mansion and ordered the carriage to the train depot.

On the train

Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory recorded details of the depot as being “reached through mud knee deep and with the utter, darkness, the crowding of the Quartermaster’s waggons [sic], the curses loud and deep of soldiers, organized and disorganized, determined to get upon the train in defiance of the guard … all seasoned with sub rosa (secret) rumors that the enemy had already cut the Greensboro [rail]road, creat[ing] a confusion such as it was never before the fortune of old Danville to witness.”

The government officials entered the train cars and waited silently for the damp wood to build enough steam to power the engine.

A somber Davis originally had a seat to himself until a general asked if his daughter could sit beside him. He moved over and one recorder of history notes she was of “loquacity irrepressible.”

Anxious passengers knew Union cavalry ambushes could be ahead of them. The normal five-hour train trip to Greensboro stretched into more than 10, and the train passed over a trestle north of Greensboro only shortly before it was burned by Union cavalrymen.

They finally reached their destination as unwelcome guests, according to McFall, with the Confederacy falling down around them.

As the train carrying the quickly collapsing Confederate government left Danville’s train station, the city’s fateful week ended.

“(Danville) was released from a burden it would not voluntarily have chosen,” Brubaker writes.

An overcrowded city

Since April 9, more than 3,000 Confederate troops had moved to Danville for its defense.

In addition, ordinary citizens had come from across the state to the city in an attempt to find safety, making finding lodging impossible, according to McFall.

Danville, already overcrowded since the war began, had reached the point of overflow.

“Many were simply ‘herding together’ with friends and acquaintances beneath any shelter available. A sidetracked boxcar was deemed suitable for a large group of ladies, including a bridal party forced prematurely from a planned ceremony in Richmond,” he writes. “Fires appeared throughout the rail yard as the homeless prepared their meager meals.”

Then, a week after Lee’s surrender, thousands of soldiers, most of them hungry, arrived in Danville and tried to depart on the trains. One trainload found themselves suddenly rocked by a shock wave and rained down upon by debris and human remains. The Danville Arsenal, full of unused ordnance, had exploded when marauders battered down the doors and somehow ignited a spark.

It took six hours for all the ordnance to burn or explode. Fourteen victims, including children, lost their lives. Two women passing by at the time had their dresses catch fire and jumped into the Dan River to extinguish the flames, drowning in the process. Nothing but a hole in the ground remained of the Danville Arsenal, which had been one of the reasons bringing the Confederate government to the city.

Back to just a city

Order was soon restored, however.

“Danville knuckled under quickly with the arrival of the Union Sixth Corps on April 27,” said McFall. “It was necessary to keep Federal troops in town well into the summer, however. The town’s good financial situation helped return things to normalcy by the end of the year.”

Danville’s week as the Last Capital of the Confederacy had begun with a train pulling in and ended with a train pulling out. It was time to welcome soldiers home, back to farm and family; return the Sutherlin Mansion back to its family; and, as the rest of the Confederate armies fell, start the long process of healing a nation.

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Elzey is a freelance writer for the Register & Bee. She can be reached at or (434) 791-7991.

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