On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, was captured by Union troops near Irwinville, Georgia. Davis’s capture, about a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, was the effective end of the Confederacy and the four-year war that had left hundred of thousands of Americans dead.
Davis, a true believer in the cause of the Confederacy, refused to accept Lee’s surrender, believing that the South could still wage a guerilla war against the Union (clearly, Lee disagreed). With that cause in mind, Davis and his family fled Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, hoping to make it to Texas, where he believed he could continue to fight. But the Davises would only make it as far as south Georgia before they were found by Union troops.
According to a handful of accounts from the period, Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothes. The story, as it’s generally told, depicts a man desperate to escape and so, with the encouragement of his wife, Varina, he donned her overcoat and shawl and slipped into the Georgia swamp with a female servant (other accounts say he grabbed his wife's coat and shawl accidentally). Union troops spotted the two “women” and, on closer look, realized that one was wearing spurred boots. Given away by his footwear, Davis surrendered to the Union troops.
The story of Davis in women’s clothing traveled quickly to the ears of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton recognized the story as an opportunity to discredit Davis, who still had numerous sympathizers throughout the country. Historians have noted that the North gendered its victory as masculine and heroic and, in contrast, portrayed the South as feminine and weak. Davis’s flight played into that narrative, portraying the Southern leader as a coward willing to emasculate himself in order to escape. In short, manly martyrs do not wear women’s clothes. (Never mind that numerous eyewitness accounts disputed the story, including two by members of the First Wisconsin Cavalry, one of the units that captured Davis and his party and another by Davis’s coachman.)
Nevertheless, Stanton planned to exploit the account to the Union’s full advantage. But there was a slight hitch in his plan—namely, the look and style of Varina Davis’s overcoat and shawl. Mrs. Davis’s overcoat was essentially unisex, and bore a striking resemblance to the raincoats of Union soldiers. Furthermore, the shawl was also worn by many men in the mid-19th century, including Abraham Lincoln. The original plan foiled, Stanton encouraged the rumor that Davis had been captured wearing women’s petticoats, earning Davis the derogatory nickname “President in Petticoats.”
The rumor proved incredibly popular. Historian Gaines Foster writes, “Northerners delighted in the accounts of how the Confederate chieftain had tried to escape in female disguise.” Indeed, even P.T. Barnum couldn’t resist the spectacle: The circus king exhibited what he claimed to be the very clothes Davis was wearing at the time of his capture.
Numerous prints circulated of Davis in petticoats, and photography—a relatively new medium at the time—took up the theme as well. In this combination photograph (up top) produced by the Slee Brothers of Poughkeepsie, New York, and now owned by the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, Davis is depicted in the petticoats of a woman, his head, taken from a separate photographic portrait, having been imposed on another body. Here, Davis wears bonnet, shawl, and petticoats, a fanciful elaboration on the story of his capture, and the skirts are lifted to reveal his spurred boots. The Slee Brothers were one of many photography studios to use combination printing—the production of a single positive through multiple negatives—to play with the theme of Davis fleeing in women’s clothes.
Other photographs from the period depict Davis’s head superimposed on a body wearing full hoop skirts with large men’s boots also imposed over the body, as well as Davis (again in full women’s dress) sneaking through the Georgia swampland while holding a dagger. In almost all of these photographs, the boots are prominently displayed, noting Davis’s folly and a clear part of the narrative of the North’s victory.
Photography was undoubtedly a powerful tool to disseminate the story of Davis’s and the South’s defeat. Davis himself recognized the importance of the new medium: In 1869, he commissioned a photograph of himself wearing the actual clothes he had worn when captured. But the act was fruitless and, despite his insistence, the “President in Petticoats” is a story that stuck with Davis long after death.
Header image: International Center for Photography