400 North Main Street
City Directories and History: The Armistead Burt House is significant to Civil War history as it served as the location of President Jefferson Davis’ last Council of War.
Despite a number of military surrenders in the preceding months, Davis was determined to continue the struggle for an independent Confederacy. He planned to rally the troops in Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor’s Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana, cross the Mississippi, and join with forces there. Davis was steadfast in this resolve when he reached Abbeville and took up quarters at the home of his personal friend, Major Armistead Burt. During the meeting in the southeast parlor with John C. Breckenridge, Braxton Bragg, Generals Duke,
Ferguson, Dibrell, and Vaughn, Davis was advised that any attempt to continue the war would inflict more misery on the South, striking the death knell of the Confederate government. Because of this final meeting, Abbeville is known as the “Grave of the Confederacy.” The two-story frame house, built in the 1830s, is Greek Revival in style. Four square columns support a pedimented two-story portico. Floor-length shuttered windows open onto the main portico on either side of the front door. Ornamental brackets surround the home’s entablature. The acreage contains an original separate kitchen outbuilding. The gardens were designed in the 1830s by an English landscaper named Johnson. The narrow entrance drive, originally a carriage road, circles before the front steps where a dismount stone still stands. Listed in the National Register April 3, 1970; Designated as a National Historic Landmark October 5, 1992. [Courtesy of the SC Dept. of Archives and History]
“This handsome, historic antebellum residence is located in Abbeville and stands in a spacious triangle of land at the point where N. Main Street and Greenville Street join, just two blocks north of the town square. It takes its name from the Stark family who have lived here for over fifty years. James S. Stark, the head of this family, was a merchant-planter and a classic example of the finest up-Country South Carolina gentleman. Today the house is occupied by his two daughters, Mrs. Fanny Stark McKee and Mrs. Mary Stark Davis.
It was built circa 1850 by David Leslie, a relative of the Starks. Since this time it has been occupied by several families: the Leslies, the Simonds, the Burts, the Calhouns, and the Starks. Here on May 2, 1865, the last meeting of the Confederate Cabinet was held. At this time, Major Armistead Burt, distinguished lawyer and congressman, occupied the house. Following this event, the house was called the Burt House or Burt Mansion for many years until it became known as the Stark House.
Today it stands stately and proud as Abbeville’s grandest residence. Set far back from the street, surrounded by splendid old trees, and with its main entrance set off by a white columned piazza, it is what can only be described as a fine old house. To commemorate the Confederate Cabinet Meeting or Council of War held here, the people of Abbeville have erected a votive marker. On one side of this stone is recorded the historical facts of the meeting and on the other is a replica of the Seal of the Confederate States of America with its laconic inscription: Deo Vindice.”
Information from: Names in South Carolina by C.H. Neuffer, Published by the S.C. Dept. of English, USC
While attending St. Pauls Church in Richmond, VA on April 2nd 1865, Jefferson Davis received a message from General Lee telling him he had to evacuate the Confederate capital immediately because the Confederate troops were being forced to abandon their defense of Petersburg. Davis quietly left the church and that evening he and several members of his cabinet including Secretary of State Judah Benjamin boarded a train bound for Danville, VA. The slow moving train arrived in Danville the next day. The group spends the next week in Danville hoping Lee’s Army can rendezvous with Johnston’s Army.
In order to be more secure from Federal cavalry, Davis and those members of his cabinet who had followed him to Danville set out again, this time for Greensboro, NC on April 10th aboard another slow moving train. Davis and his party arrive in Greensboro the next day and there they learn that Lee has surrendered his army at Appomattox on the 9th. General John C. Breckinridge, the former Vice-President and current Confederate Secretary of War join the party in Greensboro.
Although most in the leadership of the Confederacy know that the end is near, Davis is living in a dream world. He believes there are thousands of Confederates in Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama ready to join the fight. Generals Beauregard and Johnston are more realistic and think a meeting should be arranged with Sherman to discuss terms of surrender. Although Davis reluctantly agrees to the meeting, he and the rest of the cabinet leave Greensboro, NC on horseback on April 15th and head toward Charlotte, NC. Davis’s wife, Varina, and his three children travel ahead to Abbeville, SC.
On April 17th, Generals Sherman and Johnston meet at Durham Station to discuss peace. It is during this meeting that Sherman learns that Lincoln has been assassinated. Sherman takes the position that the Confederate government no longer exists, but that state governments of the south do exist. The meeting produces a draft which calls for amnesty for Confederate soldiers, allows them to return to their state capitals, and pledges the Federal government to recognize all the state governments once an oath of allegiance is made. Sherman is apparently unprepared for the severe criticism the agreement will receive in Washington. Davis, too, is reluctant to accept the terms of the agreement.
On April 18th, Davis and his party arrive in Charlotte, NC where they will spend a few days. Here the Confederate president hears of Lincoln’s assassination for the first time. He shows little remorse. On April 26th Johnston surrenders his army. On May 2nd, President Davis and a dwindling number of cabinet members and their escorts reach Abbeville, SC. As more and more cabinet officials resign their positions and leave the group, Mr. Bearss humorously described how the remaining cabinet members take on more and more titles. Accusing the Confederate government of complicity in the murder of Lincoln, a $100,000 reward is offered for the capture of Jefferson Davis. On May 3rd, the Confederate cabinet and a few of its generals hold their last meeting. A dejected Davis finally resigns himself to the fact that the war is over.
The Davis group was transporting what was left of the federal treasury in the form of specie, gold and silver. Because the soldiers traveling with the group have not been paid in two months, there was a concern the soldiers would simply take the gold and silver and mutiny. To quell this possibility, the soldiers each received the $26 they were owed.
As Davis and his fellow travelers made their way into GA, two groups of federal soldiers, one from MI and one from WI, were competing to capture Davis first and claim the reward. On May 9 Davis and his group set up camp in two tents a mile north of Irwinville, GA. As dawn broke on chilly May 10th morning, President Davis, his wife, Postmaster-General Reagan, and Burton Harrison, the president’s secretary Davis were captured. Davis was found near his campsite wearing his slave’s ragland and shawl. In the days that follow, in an effort to emasculate Davis, it was falsely reported the Davis was captured in disguise wearing women’s clothing.
With the Lincoln assassination trial going on in Washington and the uncertainty that Davis may have played in the conspiracy, Davis is placed under heavy security. On May 22 Jefferson Davis arrived at Ft. Monroe, VA where a special cell, casement #2, has been prepared for him. Mr. Bearss went in to great detail describing the cell and how it well it was guarded. Even though Davis weighed a mere 150 pounds, Assistant Secretary of War Dana ordered that Davis be placed in shackles. Six days later, the shackles were removed. He was soon given better treatment and was eventually provided with more comfortable quarters.
Over the next five months, with the help Davis’s wife, Varina, public sentiment began to change. Some thought that the Federal government had gone too far in its treatment of Davis. Others were concerned that Davis was being seen as a martyr. A few prominent lawyers working pro bono on Davis’s behalf filed a writ of habeas corpus. With this, Judge Underwood formally charged Davis with treason. Bond was set at $100,000. Davis was released when bail was posted with the help of several unlikely benefactors including Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Garrett Smith. Over time, the Federal government came to realize that a trial for treason would be difficult to prosecute and Davis is never brought to trial. Charges were dropped in May of 1867.
His ordeal now over, Davis settled with his family at Beavoir, an estate near Biloxi, M.S. Davis refused to ask the Federal government for his citizenship to be reinstated. He died in 1889 and is buried in Hollywood in Richmond, V.A.
Ed Bearss ended his talk with a plea for the Civil War historical community to preserve Ft. Monroe. Mr. Bearss reminded us that more historically important events took place in Ft. Monroe than any of our other coastal forts. Information courtesy of: Jefferson Davis’ Flight, Capture, and Captivity by Edwin C. Bearss – 2008
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