The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Beg Your Pardon

We’re going to play the tape forward from Appomattox and explore what happened to the leaders of the Confederacy after their largest army in the field surrendered. President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate cabinet fled Richmond when their capitol city fell to federal troops on April 3. For the next month, what remained of the Confederate government moved across the South, desperately hoping to evade capture. Union troops finally caught up with Davis on May 10, in the tiny town of  Irwinville, Georgia. He was taken to Fortress Monroe in Virginia to await trial for treason against the U.S. government. But Davis wasn’t put on trial in 1865, or the year after. In fact, he was never tried at all. After two years imprisonment, Davis was released on $100,000 bail. And believe it or not, that was the most severe punishment that any of the top Confederate leadership faced in the aftermath of the war. We spoke with historian David Blight to talk about what happened to some of other rebel leaders.

An anti-Confederate cartoon depicting the artist's thoughts on the fate of Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders. Credit: Library of Congress

An anti-Confederate cartoon depicting the artist’s thoughts on the fate of Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders. Credit: Library of Congress

On the fate of famed Confederate general Robert E. Lee:

“Robert E. Lee was put under a kind of house arrest in Richmond. Now that really didn’t amount to much…he rode his horse out of Appomattox, in effect a free man — except for the fact that he did have his citizenship stripped. But Lee was freed to travel within the state of Virginia. And though declared not a citizen he had, in virtually every other way, the rights of any other American. Lee of course will only live till 1870, but he will live long enough to begin some gatherings and meetings and reunions of his surviving lieutenants…and he will begin to  at first quietly, and then fairly openly, lead a kind of Confederate officers’ effort to denounce reconstruction policies.”


On many Confederate officers choosing to leave the country — at least temporarily:

“A good number of ex-Confederates — especially in the Army — possibly as many as six thousand fled the country. Particularly in Brazil a lot of ex-Confederates went and settled, hoping they could reestablish a kind of plantation slave owning life. A fair number of those who went into self exile eventually will come back to the U.S. A famous example is Jubal Early, one of Lee’s key generals. Early first fled to Canada, then to Mexico, believing he was going to be arrested.

Many fled, by the way, believing they were going to be arrested, tried and executed for treason. They had every reason to believe in a rational way that that’s what was going to happen. When Early realized, in I think 1866 that that wasn’t going to happen, he came back to the South took up residence in his home town of Lynchburg Virginia. He would become one of the staunchest advocates of the Lost Cause tradition.“


On the thousands of pardons granted to ex-Confederates by President Andrew Johnson:

“In the summer of 1865 and into the fall of 1866, Johnson, who was from East Tennessee offered presidential pardons to ex-Confederates — particularly if they came to Washington to request them and he set up a small bureaucracy to adjudicate or to administer these pardons. The only distinction he put into that process is that anyone who owned $20,000 worth of property or more had to personally apply to the president himself. Now, that was Johnson’s old personal contempt or scorn for the planter class of the South, which he was not part of. And he blamed in many ways the planter elite of the Cotton Kingdom for the succession and for the war. He started issuing first pardons by the dozens of them pardons by the hundreds and eventually pardons by the thousands to Confederates …it’s difficult to explain except that we need to step back again to to Lincoln’s leadership. It was basically Lincoln’s vision that Reconstruction, when it came — of course, they had they had debated this ritually during the war for two years — when the war ended, and when it was possible to reconstruct the Southern states and remit them to the union, Lincoln wanted it to be as rapid as possible. He wanted lenient terms. He wanted a quick surrender. He wanted surrenders that would not result in guerrilla war.”

This segment comes from our show on 1865: the uncertain, unpredictable year following the Civil War.