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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Capture of Jefferson Davis and the 4th Michigan Cavalry Reward

Updated: May 5, 2023

by Gordon Thorsby

It was yesterday May 2, but in1865. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was surrendered. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee was surrendered ten days prior and most Union soldiers were returning to Washington for the Grand Review. President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated two weeks prior on April 14 and the largest manhunt in U.S. history caught up with John Wilkes Booth on April 26. Most of the other conspirators had been rounded up. Vice-President Andrew Johnson was now President and all was chaotic. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy was still at large.

On this 2nd day in 1865, a proclamation was made offering a reward of $100,000 for the capture of Jefferson Davis. Union cavalry hunted the countryside in South Carolina attempting to catch up with the party of cabinet members. The story of his capture is documented. This is the story of the reward.

Davis with his train of wagons and buggies were about to cross the Ocmulgee River 70 miles south/southeast of Macon, GA moving to the Florida state line when Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Pritchard and a detachment of the 4th Michigan Cavalry caught up with them. The 4th wasn't the only cavalry unit nearby. Reward could be a motivator for surviving solldiers and according to the records it was but a short while when Col. Henry Harnden and the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry rode into the camp to claim capture. A debate was to begin here because the 4th was acknowledged the captor. Harnden claimed his regiment was wronged because the 4th was going to be awarded and the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry was due at least half credit.

To resolve the matter, Assistant Adjutant General Col. E.D. Townsend was ordered to investigate the matter. He reviewed the reports from witnesses and prepared a detailed over 55-page report on the captiure and the distribution of reward if actually due.

Townsend's conclusion as to the question who captured Davis was as he stated:

“It must be held that the regiment or detachment of Col. Pritchard were the actual captors and that it is among the officers and men who constituted such detachment that specific reward for the capture of ‘Davis’ is to be divided.“

The 1st Wisconsin Cavalry was not to be excluded. He added, “How the activity and zeal … must be recognized to commend the regiment only if to hardly less honorable mention. “

In other words, kudos to you guys but no cash is happening for the 1st Wisconsin. The report went on the state that precisely 128 officers and men made up the Michigan detachment that captured Davis. The remainder of the regiment was picketing a crossing at the Ocmulgee River downriver at the time. Their reasons for not being together were logical. Pritchard hand-picked these 128 troopers because the regiment had done hard riding and fighting. The had been on Wilson's Selma Alabama all cavalry raid. The 4th came east, crossing at Columbus GA to pursue Davis and the regiment’s mounts were badly broken down. The 128 troopers had mounts that could still ride somewhat hard if needed.

Townsend in his final recommendation was that every man in the regiment receive the reward portions because their efforts were as part of the regiment. The report continued by specifying th breakdown of the reward to each specific soldier in the regiment and the amount of their. Pritchard received 1/10 or 10,000 a nice sum of the time. Captains received 729.60, lieutenants received 555.88, and staff officers like quartermaster officers and commissary officers received slightly higher sums. Soldier reward amounts descended from there. Sergeants received $250.15. corporals, 187.61 and finally to privates who earned $166.76. The privates' share was a pittance of an amount compared to Pritchard but still almost a year’s income for many.

No officer superior to Pritchard was to receive a penny, not Generals Minty, not James Wilson, and not Major. Gen. George H. Thomas. Townsends application of the recommendation was "through their effort goes the reward."

The recommendation was signed by Col. E.D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant General and co-signed by Judge Joseph Holt, Judge Advocate General. A couple of months later, Holt would preside over the trial of the Lincoln Assassination conspirators. Holt was also trial judge in the famous court-martial of Gen. Fitz-John Porter.

Note: Townsend’s recommendation was combined with the matter of the distribution of the reward for the arrest of the Lincoln assassination conspirators and John Wilkes Booth.


National Archives, Washington DC. Page 208 Letters Received by the Adjutant General, 1861-1870 - Fold3

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