Mark Washburn

Civil War visit leaves a mystery for the ages

Or was he? It appears the encounter actually happened a day later.
Or was he? It appears the encounter actually happened a day later. Observer archive

In 150 years, you will probably be able to look up the history of this week and see that a president came to Charlotte and learn what he talked about.

That just goes to show you how things change. Because 150 years ago this week, a president came to Charlotte, and there’s two big mysteries: when did it happened and what was said?

One of my favorite historical touchstones in Charlotte is in the 200 block of South Tryon Street in front of McCormick & Schmick’s seafood restaurant. In the pavement is a brass plaque: “Jefferson Davis Was Standing Here When Informed of Lincoln’s Death April 18, 1865.”

Davis was the president of the unraveling Confederacy and stopped in Charlotte on the run from the Yankees. Charlotte doesn’t embrace its role in the Lost Cause, but if it did, it could make a strong case for being the last Confederate capital. It was here that Davis last met with his full Cabinet.

All that is known. What seems wrong is the date: April 18.

It is believed from various historical accounts that Davis spent the night of the 18th in Concord enjoying the hospitality of Judge Victor Barringer, who lived on North Union Street. There is even a highway marker at the site that says so.

Davis and his entourage apparently arrived in Charlotte the following day – 150 years ago today – to a welcome that was lukewarm at best. He found a city dispirited by the war and a populace unwilling to put him up for fear approaching Yankee troops would burn such a home in retribution when they arrived.

Oddly, it was a Northerner, Massachusetts native Louis Bates, who offered Davis shelter in his home on Tryon. A small crowd turned out to see Davis, and while waiting to get into the house, Davis turned to give an impromptu address.

Then came a bit drama. A courier arrived with a telegram for Davis from his secretary of war, John Breckinridge in Greensboro. It was read to the crowd.

April 19, 1865

President Lincoln was assassinated in the theater in Washington on the night of the 11th instant...

(It was actually the 14th, not the 11th.) What happened next has been debated ever since. Bates gave testimony a month later to a federal commission investigating the death of Lincoln. He made it sound like Davis was OK with the assassination, bending the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

“Jefferson Davis read that dispatch aloud, and made this remark: ‘If it were to be done, it were better it were well done.’ I am quite sure these are the words he used,” Bates testified.

Davis’ arrival was on a Wednesday. On Sunday, Davis attended service at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. In his sermon, the minister referred to the Lincoln assassination as “a blot on American civilization.”

Davis later noted that the minister had looked in his direction a little too often for comfort. “He seems to think I had something to do with the assassination,” Davis told acquaintances.

Bates’ recollection of what Davis said on Tryon Street has come under attack through the years, including some who claimed to have been there and in Davis’ own memoirs. He recalled that when the telegram was read, it was greeted with an exultant shout until Davis raised his hand to cut it off.

Davis knew Lincoln stood for mercy and forgiveness. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, did not.

“He had power over the Northern people and was without malignity towards the people of the South,” Davis wrote in his memoirs. “His successor was without power in the North, and the embodiment of malignity to the Southern people.”

Why would Bates lie?

When he died in poverty in 1893, his obituary in The Charlotte Observer offered a strong opinion.

“Bates afterward turned traitor, and informed the Federals of everything Mr. Davis said, misrepresenting him as it suited his purpose in having Mr. Davis appear as taking part in the conspiracy. It was he who falsely quoted Mr. Davis.”

Bates, the newspaper said, was not even there at the moment. He was at the station waiting for Davis, who unexpectedly came from Concord on horseback.

How Bates was treated after his testimony is one part of the story that does not lie in mystery.

“People here soon made it so uncomfortable for him that he returned North.”

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Washburn: 704-358-5007;

Twitter: @WashburnChObs.