The treason trial of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was supposed to be the "Greatest Trial of the Age" in 1868. But that title was claimed instead by the Senate impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.
The two trials became so intertwined that Davis's prosecution was delayed for months. While "the man they denounce as a traitor goes free," the Louisville Courier noted, Johnson "is upon his trial for high crimes and misdemeanors." Moreover, Johnson's fate could have determined whether Davis would be hanged.
The Confederate leader's prospects were grim in April 1865 after the South surrendered and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The new president, Johnson, ordered a $100,000 reward — equal to about $1.8 million now — for the capture of Davis, who was fleeing into the South.
In May, Union troops spotted the former Confederate chief in Georgia. According to the official Army report, Davis "hastily put on one of his wife's dresses and started straight for the woods," followed by soldiers "who at first thought him a woman." As it turned out, Davis had thrown on his wife's raincoat and shawl, but Northern cartoonists had a field day portraying him in skirts.
Davis was captured and taken to Fort Monroe near Norfolk, where he was put in shackles in a small guarded room. In June, a federal court in Washington accused Davis of treason, charging him with "being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil" and "wickedly devising" actions "to stir, move and excite rebellion, insurrection and war" against the United States.
Johnson demanded swift revenge.
"Treason must be made odious," he said. Yet the law should be followed. Davis was "the head devil among the traitors, and he ought to be hung," the president said. "But he ought to have a fair trial, and not be brutally treated."
It was decided that the 57-year-old Davis should be tried in Richmond, the Confederate capital. For months, officials debated how to proceed. Some feared that convicting Davis would reopen Civil War wounds. Worse, if Davis were acquitted, it would seem to legitimize the rebellion. Bail was set at a staggering $100,000. Davis sat in prison for two years as his health worsened.
Finally, even some prominent Northerners complained that Davis was being denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial. In 1867, 20 well-to-do men pitched in $5,000 each (equal to more than $90,000 apiece now) to raise the bail.
They were led by Horace Greeley, editor of the Republican-leaning New York Tribune.
"I had never seen Jefferson Davis so as to know him. There are probably few men more antipathetic in all their views, opinions, convictions, purposes than he and I," Greeley said later. But "I thought he had a right, if not tried, to be bailed."
On May 1, 1867, Davis was brought to the federal court in Richmond for the bail hearing in a courtroom in the same building that previously housed the Confederate Treasury Department. Judge John Underwood noted that a bail request for the rebel leader was "a little remarkable" and issued his decision: "The marshal will release the prisoner."
Davis took his family first to Canada, then to New Orleans and Cuba as he awaited trial, which was set for the next March.
Meanwhile, Johnson had moved from a policy of revenge to seeking unity by bringing Southern white supremacists back into the government while resisting new rights for black citizens. After Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the House impeached Johnson, and his trial in the Senate was scheduled for March 1868 — the same month as Davis's trial.
Under the Constitution, Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who was scheduled to preside over the Davis trial, was required to oversee the Johnson trial. The main government prosecutor against Davis also was called back to Washington to help defend Johnson. As a result, the Davis trial was delayed until May.
The Boston Transcript noted: Had Johnson truly made "treason odious" by hanging Davis, "Jeff Davis's trial could not have been postponed on account of his own." One observer even put the situation to poetry:
To Jefferson Davis said President Johnson
You'd better look, for your trial will be soon
Said Jefferson Davis, I'm not in a stew
And perhaps 'twould be better to say, après vous!
Johnson himself noted the irony in an interview with the New York World newspaper: "Jefferson Davis, the head and front of the rebellion, is not brought to trial, yet Congress proposes to try the President at once — for what kind of offense as compared with that of Mr. Davis, this country and Senate may perhaps justly decide."
The impeachment trial had ominous implications for Davis. If Johnson were removed from office, there was no vice president to succeed him. The speaker of the House was not made second in the line of succession until 1947, so the next in line for the presidency was the Senate president pro tempore, Sen. Benjamin Wade of Ohio, a leader of the Radical Republicans.
"Davis has been a sort of a white elephant to Johnson and the Chief Justice Chase. They have no desire to keep him, they have been puzzled how and where to try him, and they have been afraid to let him go," said the Springfield Register, a Massachusetts newspaper. "But President Wade will not stand upon technicalities or trifles. His first great card, in order to strike terror among the unreconstructed rebels in the South … will be the hanging of Jeff Davis."
Johnson escaped conviction by one vote. Because the impeachment trial dragged on into May, the Davis trial had to be delayed again. In early May, the court in Richmond approved a new $100,000 bail, with publisher Greeley and industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt each ponying up $25,000 of the total. The trial was put off until after the November presidential election, which Gen. Ulysses S. Grant won. The proceeding had been postponed so often that the Baltimore Sun said, "It is becoming by this time somewhat monotonous, and the public begins to look upon it as a bore."
The Davis lawyers then moved to quash his indictment, citing the recently passed 14th Amendment, which included a provision barring participants in the rebellion from holding public office. Thus, they argued, Davis had already been punished. In December, Chief Justice Chase voted to quash the indictment, but Judge Underwood disagreed. So the case was sent to the full U.S. Supreme Court.
On Christmas 1868, lame-duck President Johnson made the case moot by issuing a general pardon for all participants in the rebellion, including Davis.
Northern newspapers expressed outrage. Davis "should have been hung three years ago," the Chicago Tribune wrote. "But the time of hanging has passed; and the trial of Jeff Davis, the Head Centre of the rebellion, has degenerated into a farce" because of "the perfidy of Andrew Johnson, who … has determined that not a hair of Jeff's head should ever be disturbed."
Davis, who was traveling in Europe, returned to America in 1869 and was named president of the Carolina Life Insurance Co. in Memphis. He died in 1889 at age 81, still unrepentant.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter went one up on Johnson, signing a bill restoring Davis's full U.S. citizenship rights to bring a close to "the long process of reconciliation" after the Civil War. Ronald G. Shafer is a former editor at the Wall Street Journal and the author of "The Carnival Campaign: How The Rollicking 1840 Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Changed Presidential Elections Forever.”