WASHINGTON, Ga.On May 6, 1865, Gen. William Palmer sent a scathing report to Gen. George Stoneman, recommending the removal of half of his army, specifically the Kentucky and Michigan regiments commanded by Gen. Simeon Brown and the Tennessee soldiers under Col. John Miller.
"Their officers for the most part have lost all control over their men," Palmer wrote. "A large number of the men and some of the officers devote themselves exclusively to pillaging and destroying property. General Brown appears to have given them carte blanche in South Carolina, and they are now so entirely destitute of discipline that it cannot be restored in the field and while the command is living on the country."
Even as he wrote, Gen. Palmer had given the 13th Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry a silver-platter opportunity to redeem themselves by sending them to Washington, Ga., to capture Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
The Tennesseans were disappointments from the start. After setting up camp the night of May 4 in Lexington, Ga., the 200 soldiers were called out for an inspection and search. Twenty-two stolen watches were found and sent to headquarters to be returned to their owners in Athens. That was probably the last straw in Palmer's complaint to Stoneman.
The next two days were no better, as Tennesseeans scouted around Lexington May 5 and did not proceed to Washington until May 6. In the meantime, President Davis got a two-day head start.
Here are three versions of what happened May 6—none of them flattering to the Yankees.
From the Thirteenth Tennessee's regimental history:
From our war correspondent, Capt. Henry Weand, who was with Gen. Palmer at the Athens headquarters:
On the sixth we moved to Washington, Ga. Major [C.C.] Wilcox had preceded us with a strong detachment, but was met by a strong force of the enemy near town who refused to let him enter. A courier was sent back and the regiment came up at a trot and found the rebels had withdrawn. Moving into town, we found the place full of rebels, President Davis having disbanded the greater part of his escort here, and left the town on that day. Had not Major Wilcox been detained contrary to the agreement of the armistice, he would without a doubt have captured the President of the Confederacy, and this honor would have fallen to the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry instead of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry, by whom he was captured May 10 in Irwinville, Ga.
Major C.C. Wilcox
The colonel of that regiment started, and when nearing the place was met by a flag of truce under Col. [William] Breckinridge, who asked time to consider whether or not to surrender. Instead of forcing the issue, the colonel stopped and sent back to Gen. Palmer for instructions. Breckinridge having stopped the Tennesseans, Davis and his party went again in their wanderings, and after much tribulation fell into the hands of the Fourth Michigan of Gen. Wilson's command. The rebel President had only narrowly escaped the clutches of the Thirteenth Tennessee, of Gen. Palmer's command, through a lack of enterprise on the part of the Tennessee colonel.From Clint Johnson's book "Pursuit," we learn that Davis actually left Washington the morning of May 4, and by May 6 he was 60 miles away in Sandersville. Secretary of War Gen. John Breckinridge (cousin of the aforementioned William Breckinridge) remained in Washington as part of a bluff to throw the Yankees off Davis' trail.
The still-loyal secretary of war, knowing that Davis was moving south with only a tiny bodyguard, split up the remaining volunteer troops who were with him into columns and intentionally ordered them to ride away from the direction Davis was moving. ... Breckinridge was guessing that Union officers would assume Davis would be in the presence of a protective cavalry force. The plan worked, but not for long. The next day [May 6] strong Union columns spotted the two decoy Confederate columns. Both columns surrendered without firing a shot. ... Davis would not know that Breckinridge's decoy cavalry column had bought him some time until years later.So the Tennessee Yankees procrastinated, cowered, got fooled, grasped at shadows, went the wrong way, and tried to blame the whole folly on a violation of the armistice. You have to wonder if they might also have been bribed by Confederate silver (John Breckinridge had a wagonful with him) or if they intentionally allowed a fellow Southerner to get away.
Davis was headed for a Confederate refuge in Madison, Fla., when the Yankees finally caught up with him May 10. He might have escaped to Cuba, like two of his cabinet members, but he slowed down after catching up with his wife and children, who were traveling by wagon.
Why did Palmer trust such an important task to such impotent troops? He didn't have many alternatives. He needed full manpower to patrol all the possible escape routes along a 200-mile arc from Rabun Gap to Milledgeville. Washington was in the sector he assigned to the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry. In hindsight, it didn't matter whom he sent, since Davis left Washington the same day Palmer arrived in Athens.
The Tennesseans were known as good fighters, and early in the raid they had been dependable. They fought courageously in the battle of Wytheville, Va., April 3, suffering 35 killed or wounded in one of the toughest fights of Stoneman's Raid. But in the three weeks after the disciplinarian Stoneman left the raid, they became notorious for looting and terror, and they lost the respect of the other regiments.
Capt. Weand said it wasn't entirely their fault. "These Tennesseans in their present condition do not add any strength to the Union forces," he wrote. "In the beginning and during most of the war, they had suffered terrible cruelties at the hands of the rebels. They had been hunted down and shot as unworthy of any humanity being shown them. Their homes were burned and their families driven away, and all because they were loyal to the flag. Now that the tables were turned and disloyal families were at their mercy, they repaid what they had suffered by an indiscriminate pillage. The result was a demoralized command, out of which little military duty could be had, and their General knew they were in no condition to fight an organized force, no matter how small."
This clipping from the Southern Watchman of May 17, 1865—the first local newspaper in Athens following the "extra" published May 6 by the Yankees—describes the "high-handed" misbehavior of the 13th Tennessee cavalry: