Americans were divided on how or whether to punish Davis. The government could prosecute Davis for alleged participation in the Lincoln assassination, for the mistreatment of Union prisoners of war, or for leading a rebellion against the United States. U.S. president Andrew Johnson favored murder charges. Many abolitionists and lawmakers opposed punishing Davis, and instead preferred a Reconstruction plan that would punish the former Confederacy. Yet many civilians wrote the president asking for Davis to be hanged; some even volunteered to construct the gallows. The Davis issue remained prominent in public discussion in 1865 until it gave way to other Reconstruction issues, such as the rights of black freedmen. When the Lincoln conspirators' trial failed to establish a connection to Davis, Johnson settled on treason charges.
After enduring two years of imprisonment and nearly four years of uncertainty, Davis became a free man. The incomplete prosecution of his case and others' gave clear indication that the government intended Reconstruction to realign southern society rather than punish a select few leaders for causing the rebellion.
October 1865 - While incarcerated at Fort Monroe, former Confederate president Jefferson Davis is transferred from a small room called a casemate to more spacious quarters in the officers' hall.
May 1866 - Varina Howell Davis takes up residence at Fort Monroe, where her husband, former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, is imprisoned.
May 13, 1867 - A bail bond of $100,000 for Jefferson Davis is posted and accepted; among those signing the bond are Cornelius Vanderbilt, Horace Greeley, and Gerrit Smith, the radical abolitionist who helped to fund John Brown in 1859. Davis is released and the indictments for treason are dismissed.
December 25, 1868 - U.S. president Andrew Johnson's Fourth Amnesty Proclamation absolves former Confederate president Jefferson Davis of any guilt for participation in the Civil War.
February 15, 1869 - U.S. Attorney enters "nolle prosequi" into the record for United States v. Jefferson Davis, thus ending the case.
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First published: March 9, 2010 | Last modified: March 5, 2014
Contributed by Daniel James "Jim" Flook, a seasonal Park Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park and a PhD candidate at the University of Florida. He specializes in legal and constitutional history and the American Civil War era. His dissertation concerns the use of constitutional rhetoric in public policy debates in the North during the Civil War.