Thursday, May 7, 2015

Hitting the wrong jackpot in Georgia

WATKINSVILLE, Ga.
     Let's face it: If Stoneman's raiders were all Jefferson Davis had to worry about, the Confederate president would have gotten away. 
     Listening to the veterans, you would think they were hot on his heels. Stoneman's commander, Gen. George Thomas, gave equal credit to Gen. William Palmer (leading Stoneman's cavalry) and Gen. James H. Wilson (whose Fourth Michigan regiment captured Davis May 10 in Irwinville, Ga.). "Gen. Wilson held the bag, and Palmer drove the game into it," Thomas wrote.
     But when you study the maps, you realize that Palmer's troopsStoneman's raiderswere well over a hundred miles away when Davis was caught. 
     Nor was it entirely the fault of the Tennesseans who were blamed for letting Davis escape from Washington, Ga. Davis actually left Washington two days before the Union troops got there. 
     Instead, the esteemed Gen. Palmer was trusting bad intelligence that no doubt was being fed to him by Confederates.
     On May 7, Palmer received information from Wilson, who had a spy in Davis' escort, reporting that the Confederate president was just 25 miles south of Athens. Instead, Davis was 90 miles away in Sandersville. Palmer's troops never went further south than Milledgeville, which was then the capital of Georgia. That's 130 miles from Irwinville.
     On May 8, Palmer sent a battalion to check out what he thought was a credible report that Davis had passed through Fair Play, which was near Madison, Ga. (not the modern community of Fair Play west of Atlanta). They were obviously on the trail of a sizable Confederate force. 
     But when the Yankees caught them May 9 in Conyers, Ga., President Davis was not among them. Instead, it was Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler, who had been effectively setting a smokescreen for Davis since May 4. 
     Gen. Wheeler was an important prizeespecially in the eyes of Stoneman, who had been taken prisoner by Wheeler's cavalry the previous July in the Battle of Sunshine Church. The Yankees put Wheeler on a spotted pony and marched him off to custody in Athens.
     "The debt of Sunshine Church was paid in full," Stoneman's biographer Ben Fuller Fordney wrote, alluding to Stoneman's statement at the beginning of the raid: "I owe the Southern Confederacy a debt I am anxious to liquidate, and this offers a propitious occasion."
     This wasn't the only near miss of the pursuit. On May 7 near Watkinsville, Pennsylvania troops hunting for Davis captured seven Conestoga wagons carrying close to $2 million in gold, silver, and bonds, not to mention $4 million in Confederate dollars. The wagons also contained the private baggage of two rebel generals, Pierre Beauregard (whom Stoneman had outfoxed at Salisbury) and Gideon Pillow. 
    They first thought this might be the missing Confederate treasury, which was presumed to be traveling with Davis. The bounty posted by Gen. Wilson on President Davis specified, "Several millions of specie, expected to be with him, will become the property of the captors."
     However, this turned out to be private property, belonging to the Bank of Macon, who sent it toward Atlanta to avoid confiscation by Gen. Wilson.
     Union Col. Charles Betts (who would receive the Medal of Honor for his service April 11 with Stoneman's Raid) arranged to have the treasure shipped to Athens and then Augusta for safekeeping. Our war correspondent Capt. Henry Weand later reported with pride that "all the captured money and other property had been returned to the owners without the loss of a dollar."

 
Jefferson Davis caught up with his wife and children near Dublin, Ga., May 7, 1865

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