Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
Phil Leigh, New York Times
By early May 1865, a month after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at
Appomattox, most of the remaining Confederate soldiers had laid down their
arms. While some Southerners were angry, and others were relieved, nearly all
were apprehensive about the future. Many moved west and north; some
decided to leave the United States completely.
Many Southerners were pessimistic about the region’s economic future.
Partly because of the monetary value of slaves, in 1860 seven of the 10 states
with the highest per capita wealth would join the Confederacy. Much of that
wealth was wiped out, and today Virginia is the only former rebel state to rank
among the top 10 in per capita income, while five of the bottom 10 are former
Confederate states. The classic example is Mississippi, which ranked No. 1 in
1860, and 50th in the 2010 census.
It took 85 years for the South’s per capita income to return to where it was
in 1860 — an already low 72 percent of the national average. (The delay partly
reflected protective tariffs, which were injurious to the South’s export economy
and lasted until after World War II.) Not surprisingly, such concerns put
Southerners on the move, either outside the region or to less wartorn parts of
it, like Texas. In 1860 Texas ranked ninth among the Southern states in
population; 20 years later it was first.
Above all, many leaders feared being tried for treason. Although the
Appomattox agreement stipulated that surrendered soldiers could return
home, where they were “not to be disturbed by US authority so long as they
observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside,” many
Northern politicians wanted to ignore those provisions. Confederate civilian
politicians were even more vulnerable, because they could not lay claim to a
defense under the army’s surrender terms.
And Lincoln’s assassination within a week of Appomattox inflamed
Northern political blood lust. Indeed, Lee was indicted on a charge of treason
on June 7, 1865, prompting General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant to tell President
Andrew Johnson that he considered the indictment a violation of the
surrender terms as he wrote them, and would resign if the prosecution
Two of the most prominent Southerners who fled out of fear of a treason
indictment were John C. Breckinridge and Judah Benjamin. Breckinridge,
from Kentucky, was vice president under James Buchanan and an 1860
presidential candidate; he received more electoral votes than any other save
Abraham Lincoln. Although Breckinridge lost the 1860 presidential race, he
was elected a Kentucky senator. In October 1861 he was the last senator to
leave Congress to join the Confederacy. Two months later the Senate declared
him a traitor. He served as a general in the Confederate army; when Lee
surrendered, Breckinridge was the Confederate secretary of war.
Benjamin, a former senator from Louisiana, was equally senior in the
Confederacy, serving variously as attorney general, secretary of war and
secretary of state, the position he held when the Confederacy collapsed.
Two weeks after Lee’s surrender, President Jefferson Davis and his
cabinet were near Charlotte, N.C., attempting to flee the Eastern Theater and
reform the government elsewhere. Within days cabinet members started to
conclude that the situation was hopeless and began to resign. In perhaps his
greatest service to posterity, on April 26 Breckenridge instructed a subordinate
to store the Confederate government archives in Charlotte and surrender them
to the federals when the enemy occupied the city. By May 4, while camped in
north Georgia, Breckinridge and Benjamin had resigned and left the
presidential party to try to escape individually.
Before leaving, Benjamin met privately with Davis, ostensibly to arrange a
Texas rendezvous. To help finance Benjamin’s escape, Davis instructed a
subordinate to give him some gold from the remaining Confederate Treasury.
Benjamin’s final words to the postmaster general, John Regan, were: “I am
going to the farthest place from the United States, if it takes me to the middle
Benjamin bought a farmer’s buggy and disguised himself as a Frenchman
named Monsieur Bonfals who could speak but little English. Accompanied by
a rebel officer who acted as his “interpreter,” the two set off for Florida.
Shortly after crossing the state line, Benjamin’s companion left for his New
Orleans home. Simultaneously, Benjamin changed his disguise to that of a
South Carolina planter named Howard. He persuaded a nearby farmer’s
housewife to make him some illfitting homespun clothes. His immediate
destination was Tampa, where he hoped to hire a boat to take him out of the
He covered about 30 miles a day southward down the Florida peninsula,
traveling alone at night. One day a highpitched voice woke him up, saying,
“Hi for Jeff.” It was a parrot in a tree branch. Reasoning that the bird had
escaped a nearby owner, who might be sympathetic, Benjamin threw rocks at
it until it flew home. He followed it to a farmhouse, where the owner was
indeed a Confederate partisan, who helped him on his way.
For $1,500 in gold, Benjamin hired two fishermen near Sarasota to take
him to the Bahamas, a British possession. Whenever they saw federal
gunboats they hid their yawl amid mangroves and clouds of mosquitoes.
After entering the Gulf Stream beyond the Florida Keys, Benjamin
fulfilled a boyhood ambition to see a waterspout, as two of them nearly
swamped the boat. In late July he arrived in Nassau, Bahamas, where he
caught a steamer for Havana. From there Benjamin took passage for London,
where he became prosperous as a lawyer. He lived out the last two decades of
his life in London and Paris.
To make his own escape, Breckinridge shaved his prominent mustache
and instructed companions to call him “Colonel Cabell.” When he learned, on
May 14, that President Davis had been captured, he dismissed his military
escort and rode south with three other men. When they arrived in Gainesville,
Fla., he met Col. J.J. Dickison, who was renowned for leading raiding parties
through the thickets of the north Florida rivers and swamps. Dickison advised
Breckinridge to head east to reach the St. Johns River, where the colonel had a
converted federal navy lifeboat hidden.
Once aboard, Breckinridge’s party followed the river southward,
anchoring in midstream at night to avoid mosquitoes. To reach the Atlantic
Ocean they portaged from the St. Johns River to the Indian River lagoon, and
then across the barrier island to the beach. Near Palm Beach a federal ship
halted the suspiciouslooking craft, but concluded the occupants were merely
fishermen, as they claimed.
Partly due to unfavorable winds, the boat was unable to make Nassau, and
the party instead tried for Cuba. During the voyage they met a betterequipped
sloop; Breckinridge paid to switch boats. En route to Havana the Breckinridge
group was hit by a gale that nearly sank the sloop and left the men without
food or water. Fortunately, the next day they were able to hail an American
merchant ship that gave them ample drinking water. On June 10 they arrived
in Cardenas, Cuba, and when they arrived in Havana, Breckinridge was given a
In August, Breckinridge departed Havana for Britain, but soon left Europe
for Canada. He was there on Christmas Day 1868 when President Johnson
announced a general amnesty to former Confederates. Breckinridge returned
to Lexington, Ky., early the following year, where he remained until his
untimely death in 1875 at age 54.
Of course, numerous Southern leaders simply refused to admit defeat.
Most prominently Brig. Gen. J.O. Shelby, who led a remnant of his cavalry
division, several hundred men, into Mexico. They never surrendered.
Alfred Pleasanton, who once commanded the cavalry corps of the Union
Army of the Potomac, where he battled the more famous General J.E.B. Stuart,
judged Shelby to be best of all Confederate cavalry commanders. When the
war started, the 30-year-old Shelby owned a hemp plantation near Kansas
City; earlier he had been a border ruffian during the Bleeding Kansas era.
During the Civil War he was in every major battle in Arkansas and Missouri,
though by the end he was fighting in Texas.
On June 2, 1865, Shelby organized his division for a final review on open
prairie about 50 miles southeast of Dallas. Announcing that he would never
abide Yankee rule, he asked for volunteers to march into Mexico. “We will do
this: we will hang together, we will keep our organization, our arms, our
discipline, our hatred of oppression,” he said, choosing “exile to submission,
death to dishonor.”
Upon reaching Mexico City he offered his wellarmed battalion to
Emperor Maximilian, whom the French had installed as a puppet monarch.
But Maximilian turned him down in order to avoid antagonizing the United
States; instead, he offered Shelby’s men, and other refugee Confederates, free
land in the Cordoba Valley.
By the time Maximilian’s government fell, two years later, most of the
refugees, including Shelby, had returned to the United States. Back home in
Missouri, Shelby never showed signs of bitterness toward the North, but he
refused to take an oath to the Constitution until appointed a federal marshal in
1893. A few years before his death in 1897, he concluded that the passions
aroused by the debate over slavery made men “irresponsible,” and added, “I
now see I was so myself.”
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Sources: James McPherson, “Battle Cry of Freedom”; Emory Thomas,
“Robert E. Lee”; James Kibler, “Our Fathers’ Fields”; Daniel E. Sutherland,
“Exiles, Emigrants, And Sojourners: The Post-Civil War Confederate Exodus
in Perspective,” Civil War History (Vol. 31, No. 3) 1985; Bureau of Census,
Population of the United States in 1860; Bureau of Census Population of the
United States at the 10th Census; Andrew Rolle, “The Lost Cause: The
Confederate Exodus to Mexico”; Burke Davis, “The Long Surrender”; David
Eicher, “The Longest Night”; Burton Hendrick, “Statesmen of the Lost
Cause”; William C. Davis, “A Government of Our Own”; Lowell H. Harrison,
“John C. Breckinridge,” in The Confederacy: Macmillan Information Now
Encyclopedia; Jack Epstein, “A Bit of the Confederacy Survives in the Deep,
Deep South,” The Christian Science Monitor May 4, 1995; Daniel O’Flaherty,
“General J.O. Shelby”; Anthony Arthur, “General J.O. Shelby’s March,” ;
William J. Cooper and Thomas Terrill, “The American South Volume II.”
Phil Leigh is the author of three books on the Civil War: an annotated
and illustrated version of the memoirs of Confederate Private Sam Watkins
entitled ”Co. Aytch”; ”Trading With the Enemy,” about intersectional
wartime commerce between the North and South; and ”Lee’s Lost Dispatch
and Other Civil War Controversies.”