Sarah Anne Dorsey’s Final
By Sue Burns Moore
Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a childless, wealthy widow, was one of the most intelligent, and well-educated women that the South ever produced. Though not a beautiful woman, she was charming, capable, and held her own in any conversation. Born into the wealthy planter society of Louisiana and Mississippi, Sarah Anne spoke five languages fluently, and wrote scientific papers, historical fiction and a biography of a famous Southern general. She knew and corresponded with many of the greatest thinkers and authors of the day across the world. Author Bertram Wyatt-Davis dubbed her “a woman of uncommon mind.”
In late 1876, Sarah Anne learned that President Jefferson Davis, a lifelong friend, was virtually destitute, having been ruined financially by his years of imprisonment after the war. She offered her beautiful beach home, Beauvoir, near Biloxi, to him as a home and a sanctuary in which to write his memoirs. He accepted. Not only did she help guide and edit his work, but also, when Sarah realized that she was dying of breast cancer in early 1878, she changed her will, writing out her relatives and naming Jefferson Davis as the beneficiary of Beauvoir and all her substantial estate. She wrote, “I do not intend to share in the ingratitude of my country toward the man who is in my eyes the highest and noblest in existence.”
Although knowing her death was near, she never curtailed her generosity or her strong sense of right and wrong. Determined and committed as always, she focused on a final goal to accomplish for her beloved cause. Her last days were spent with the intent of shining the light of truth on a great lie which she knew had been perpetrated and spread across the world by the Northern press – the deliberate and oft-repeated fabrication that at the end of the war, Jefferson Davis had attempted to deceive the U. S. Army and evade capture by cowardly dressing in his wife’s clothing, pretending to be “Old Mother Davis.”
Sensational news stories and gross cartoons pictured the Confederate president fleeing in a woman’s dress, complete with hoopskirts and pretty bonnet, while clutching bags of Confederate gold. The papers were full of exaggerated or false descriptions of the event by cavalrymen of First Wisconsin and Fourth Michigan regiments who were party to the capture and who shared the $100,000 bounty. The officers generally did not support these claims, but they did nothing to openly refute them either.
Knowing that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” Sarah Anne’s plan to cancel the lie and restore the honor of her president began with commissioning an excellent artist, her sister-in-law Mary B. Leeds, wife of S. Percy Ellis, to create a full-length crayon portrait of Jefferson Davis, dressed in the clothes he was wearing when captured. It would be her gift, a visual record, to the State of Mississippi.
Sadly, on the Fourth of July, 1879, Sarah Anne Dorsey, age fifty, later called “the Mother of the Lost Cause,” lost her battle with cancer and died in the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans. Both the President and the portrait were in her sick room at the time. She was buried in the moss-draped Routh Cemetery near Dunleith, the famous face home in Natchez. In his last years, Davis would erect in Natchez a beautiful American white marble monument to his benefactress - a broken column, twelve feet high, standing upon a base four feet square.
But Sarah’s desire to refute the cowardice charge lived on beyond her, and according to an article in the New York Times, dated Feb. 16, 1880, the crayon portrait of Davis dressed in his capture clothing, and deemed a “testimonial of love for her native state,” was presented to Mississippi three months after her death. Gov. J. M. Stone notified the legislature that he had placed it in the State Library pending their approval which occurred at a later date. This explanatory letter accompanied the portrait:
BEAUVOIR, Miss., Aug. 14, 1879
His Excellency J. M. Stone, Governor of Mississippi:
DEAR SIR: The late Mrs. Sarah A. Dorsey, a few days before her decease, instructed me to present to her native state, Mississippi, the crayon portrait which accompanies this letter. It was made after a photographic likeness of myself, which was taken in the identical clothes worn when I was captured. Every article I then had on appears in the portraiture, except a pair of large spurs which were stolen from me after my capture. I had a waterproof “Raglan” and a shawl about my head and shoulders when I left the tent; but on being hailed by a cavalryman who rode a considerable distance before his comrades, I dropped both the raglan and shawl while advancing on my challenger, and thus appeared before my captors in the exact costume represented in the portrait. Faithfully yours, JEFFERSON DAVIS
This article and others like it stirred up the controversy once again. While some of the soldiers held on to their false and self- aggrandizing tales of the capture, others confirmed Jefferson Davis’s statement as to his capture and clothing. On March 27, 1895, in the pages of the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, the commanding officer at Davis’s arrest on May 10, 1865 near Irwinsville, GA, Gen. Henry Harnden stated: “It was a cold morning about daybreak when I arrested him, and he had a woman’s shawl over his shoulders. The story about hoopskirts is totally false. In grand army posts when I attempt to explain it, I am sometimes hissed.”
The Minneapolis Journal, April 15, 1906, also ran the story of G. A. Wright, a former member of Co. B, First Wisconsin Cavalry and last living Federal witness to the arrest who made this statement: “He [Davis] wore a common slouched hat, nice fine boots, coat and pants of light blue [grey] English broadcloth, taking all circumstances, he was neatly dressed.” The newspaper account ended with the observation that, “The hoopskirt story started from a remark made by a soldier to the effect that when Jeff Davis came out of his tent, his wife’s shawl was over his shoulders. This remark was telegraphed north, and was added to from time to time, so that it came to be generally believed that Davis was dressed in woman’s garb at the time.”
So what became of the disputed articles of clothing that Jefferson Davis was wearing which were confiscated by the Federal troops at the time of his arrest? They were known to be in possession of the Treasury Department in 1868. On July 5, 1908, the San Francisco Call Bulletin, reported that the items had just been found during a housecleaning in a double-sealed box in the bottom of an old iron safe in the War Department. The tin box’s first seal was plain brown paper signed by Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War stating, “Shawl, waterproof and spurs worn by Jeff Davis on day of capture, May 10, 1865.” The second, smaller seal read, “Deliver only to orders of secretary of war, or General E. D. Townsend [assistant adjutant general, U. S. Army].”
The article noted that the shawl was protected from moths by a huge block of camphor. The water proof was described as belonging to Mrs. Davis, and of gray material, fashioned clumsily with a hood and horn buttons. The paisley shawl was likened to the many which were in fashion during wartime – “wholly black, except for a three inch border of dark red and yellow woven in an East Indian design.” The brass spurs which jingled and alerted Davis’s captors were mismatched, one having a sharp rowel and the other a smaller, duller one.
The box also yielded several letters. The first was a command for Col. Pritchard in charge of the detachment that brought President Davis from Georgia to Fort Monroe where he was held captive, stating, “You will take with you the woman’s dress in which Jefferson Davis was captured,” signed by Maj. Gen. Miles. Next were copies of Gov. Stone’s letter about Sarah Anne Dorsey’s gift of the portrait, and Jefferson Davis’s statement of what he was wearing when captured. The fourth letter dated May 25, 1865, was from Gen. B. D. Townsend and was an answer to Col. Wright’s question of whether Davis was in women’s clothes. Townsend reported that he was ordered to procure the “disguise.” What he got, and subsequently turned over to the Secretary of War from Mrs. Davis, was the waterproof, a robe and a shawl. Finally, there were two bounty claim letters from soldiers – one who discovered the boots and spurs and another who said he “was the one that helped take Davis in while in the dress of his wife’s clothing.”
To be sure, the United States Government and Lincoln’s Secretary of War Stanton had in their possession the very articles in question that Jefferson Davis was wearing at the time of his capture. They knew that he was never in disguise attempting a cowardly escape. Waterproof raglans were worn by men and women, and Abraham Lincoln often put a shawl about his shoulders. The government had the proof that could have instantly cleared up the defamations of the Northern press, but they simply did not choose to. Instead, they buried the facts in sealed packages in the old iron safe, never expecting that their own deception would come to light many decades later.
Eventually Sarah’s quest for truth and honor in the story had a happy ending. In 1914, Davis’s descendants petitioned for the return for all of Davis’s relics. The Attorney General ruled that all items be given back to the face. Most were - all except the waterproof cloak, paisley shawl, and spurs which were kept and turned over the National Archives in 1945. Only in 1960 did the face actually receive these three items which were then donated to the museum at Beauvoir. Dr. Dallas Irvine, chief archivist of the War Records Division of the National Archives researched the Davis records and exhibits and concluded that Davis had on the raglan and shawl only a couple of minutes. He said, “By his own story, and he was an honorable man, he is completely exonerated of the charge of trying to escape in women’s clothing.”
Today Beauvoir is the home of the raglan waterproof raincoat. The shawl and spurs may be there as well, but according to curator Jay Peterson, although open again, Beauvoir is still in a state of restoration and preservation, sorting out the remaining treasures saved from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
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