Ethan Allen Hitchcock was quite satisfied to learn Jefferson Davis was not only captured just after the Civil War ended, but captured in women’s clothes.
Hitchcock disliked Davis not only for his role in the Civil War, but for personal reasons.
He graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, commissioned a third lieutenant and quickly rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army. He served in the Seminole War in Florida and as the right-hand man of Gen. Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War.
Hitchcock was a devoted scholar, an admirer of Spinoza and a collector of books on alchemy and flute music.
The Mexican-American War disgusted him. “We have not one particle of right to be here,” he wrote in his diary.
I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors. We have outraged the Mexican government and people by an arrogance and presumption that deserve to be punished. For ten years we have been encroaching on Mexico and insulting her…. Her people I consider a simple, well disposed, pastoral race, no way inclined to savage usages….
Hitchcock liked and admired Winfield Scott, which would work to his disadvantage. Scott ran for president of the United States against Franklin Pierce, and lost. Pierce then named Jefferson Davis as his secretary of war. Hitchcock believed he did it partly because of Davis’ ‘violent hostility’ toward Scott.
In 1855, Hitchcock was ordered to serve under a commander he viewed as brutal and ignorant. To avoid that, he asked Scott for a leave of absence. Scott granted it. Then he asked for an extension, but he was denied, due to what he called Jefferson Davis’ ‘rude and unwarrantable interference.’ Hitchcock resigned and moved to St. Louis, where he pursued his writing and philosophical studies.
After the Civil War broke out, Hitchcock was commissioned a major general and went to work in the War Department. After the war ended, the news reached him on May 14, 1865, that Jefferson Davis had been captured by Union troops. Not only that, but he was captured in women’s clothes. Gideon Welles, secretary of the Navy, called it ‘a tame and ignoble letting-down of the traitor.’
It wasn’t quite like that, though the Northern press was happy to depict Davis as a cross-dressing coward, undermining attempts to portray him as a hero. Davis and his wife Varina were sleeping in a tent in southern Georgia when they were awakened by gunfire. Mrs. Davis begged him to escape while he could. Inside the dark tent, Jefferson Davis grabbed his wife’s cloak, thinking it was his, and Mrs. Davis gave him her shawl to put over his head to hide his identity.
They didn’t get far. Union soldiers captured them and took them to Fort Monroe in Virginia. Some of the soldiers on the scene spread the word that Davis had been dressed like a woman. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton quickly realized the cross-dressing gossip could serve as useful propaganda. Mrs. Davis was ordered to turn over her cloak and shawl.
Her cloak was very much like a man’s, and it wasn’t unusual in those days for men to wear shawls. Since the garments didn’t help the story, Stanton had them locked in a War Department safe, where they remained for decades.
Hitchcock commented philosophically on Davis’ capture in his diary:
May 14. Jefferson Davis is captured–in curious guise! Now he may find leisure to make his peace with God for his part in the great crime of the South.