New Book on Jefferson Davis reveals the U.S. Government’s Uncertainty on Secession’s Legality

For more information: Clint Johnson 336-982-4456 or

Most of the nation’s citizens, governments, news organizations, and historical committees have ignored the 200th birthday of Jefferson Davis on June 3, 2008, out of fear that any recognition of the treasonous Confederate president who lost the Civil War is politically incorrect. At the same time, those same people are planning massive recognition of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 2009, believing that the man who won the Civil War was one of the nation’s best presidents for preserving the Union.

But what would the public think if Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson, and the cabinet who served both Lincoln and Johnson all feared Davis could prove secession was legal before the U.S. Supreme Court?

Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution and Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis (June 3, 2008 , Kensington Press) by Clint Johnson starts with Davis’s curiously leisurely escape from Richmond through southern Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina until he was captured May 10, 1865, in southern Georgia. The second part of the book takes the most detailed look yet at the oft-repeated charge that Davis was captured in women’s clothing.

The third part of the book looks into Davis’s initial imprisonment, where he underwent what could be described as government-supervised torture for five days before a newspaper blew the whistle on what was happening inside the military prison. The last part of the book examines why the United States government kept Davis in prison for two years without ever bringing him to trial for the assassination of President Lincoln (his name was mentioned 72 times in the closing arguments of the Lincoln Assassination Trial prosecutor), or treason for leading the Confederacy.

Writer Johnson found evidence in Lincoln’s own words and actions that the president wanted Davis to escape the country without interference from the United States government – exactly the opposite of what happened after Lincoln’s assassination. Once Lincoln was dead, the Radical Republicans in Congress and William Seward, Lincoln and Johnson’s secretary of state, demanded Davis be tried for some crime such as the murder of Lincoln, attempted murder of Seward, and treason for leading the Confederacy.

But, as early as May 1865, members of Johnson’s cabinet were expressing doubts in meetings, letters and journals that secession is treason or even illegal under the Constitution. Instead of quickly bringing Davis to trial to forever answer the question of secession’s legality, the government kept Davis in prison while regularly denying him both a court date and bail. Over time the cabinet and the nation’s newspapers began to fear that giving Davis a public forum in a court room would result in the previously unthinkable – the United States would be blamed for the 620,000 deaths of the Civil War and not the Confederacy.

One of the most remarkable findings in Pursuit is the story of how U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase met in private with Davis’s attorneys (all Northerners working at no charge) and told them how to argue in front of him. Fearing losing the Davis case if it went before the entire U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. attorney general dropped all charges against Davis.


"If you bring these leaders to trial, it will condemn the North, for by the Constitution, secession is not a rebellion. His [Jefferson Davis] capture was a mistake. His trial will be a greater one. We cannot convict him of treason."

— Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, 1867