Why's That: The Allegan man who made Civil War history
The event happened 157 years ago this week.
Tuesday marked an important Civil War anniversary, one with a West Michigan connection. On May 10, 1865, the Union Army captured Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, near the small South Georgia community of Irwinville. Our question-asker Sally Goddard said one officer gets particular credit for taking Davis into custody.
“A gentleman from Allegan who went off to the Civil War, last name was Pritchard,” she said.
Full name: Benjamin Dudley Pritchard – or B.D. Pritchard as he was commonly known. He returned to Allegan after the war and did well for himself, as did some other West Michigan Civil War officers. A few years ago, a History Channel series, “The Curse of Civil War Gold,” claimed they had tapped a secret source of wealth.
The series followed treasure hunters who say Davis stashed gold near his camp. Supposedly, officers including Pritchard got ahold of it and eventually brought it back to Michigan.
The series went on hiatus after two seasons without resolving the claim. But Sally thinks it was thoroughly researched. She’s curious how Pritchard became so successful after the war.
Chasing Jefferson Davis
To find out more about Pritchard we look to the Allegan County Historical Society, based in a stately house that’s actually an old jail in downtown Allegan.
Vice President Scott Kuykendall is the Society’s expert on B.D. Pritchard. Kuykendall said in 1862 Pritchard had recently begun a law career, but he set it aside to join the Union Army. It was the second year of the Civil War.
“Because he was educated, he was given the option of, ‘if you can raise 100 men, we will give you your own company,’” Kuykendall said.
Pritchard raised the men, and ended up commanding Company L of the Fourth Michigan Cavalry, which saw battle in Tennessee and Georgia. But its greatest moment was capturing Jefferson Davis. The Confederate president had fled Virginia about a month before, after General Robert E. Lee's surrender. By the time the Union Army caught Davis, he wasn’t just wanted for his role in the insurrection. Many people thought he’d helped to assassinate President Lincoln, who died April 15, 1865.
“This is less than a month after that happened. And at that point in time, everything's on the table,” Kuykendall said.
The Fourth Michigan Cavalry, then stationed in Georgia, was one of several units directed to look for Davis. Pritchard and his men eventually found Davis’ camp and surrounded it before dawn on May 10, 1865. The First Wisconsin Cavalry found the camp too, and in a deadly mistake, the two units exchanged fire.
“Which started the ruckus of the encampment,” Kuykendall said.
After the capture word got around that Davis tried to flee the camp dressed as a woman, a claim showman P.T. Barnum ran with, as did many cartoonists. Kuykendall said in fact, Davis came out of his tent wearing his wife’s robe and shawl, perhaps as a disguise, perhaps so he could stay warm after he fled.
But he never got that far. The Union Army men stopped him.
Davis then asked Pritchard and the First Wisconsin’s commander which one of them was in charge, in the hopes they would get distracted trying to pull rank on each other, Kuykendall said.
“Davis was a senator before the war, from Mississippi. So he was very good at debating. He thought he was going to take these two guys here and have his way with them verbally,” he explained.
But Pritchard, who was “pretty good in the courtroom himself,” sidestepped the bait and demanded Davis reveal his identity.
“Davis is like, ‘Well, I'm not going to tell you who I am. It doesn't matter,’” Kuykendall said.
“And that's when Pritchard said, ‘Well, we've been sent here to track down and capture Jefferson Davis. So I'm going to call you Jefferson Davis.’
"And so finally Davis admitted, ‘Yep. I am indeed Jefferson Davis.’”
Upstairs in Old Jail Museum’s military room, Kuykendall points out a foot-long revolver in a case – the gun Pritchard carried during the capture.
“That artifact, just, I mean, it was there,” Kuykendall said.
He added that capturing Davis made Pritchard a national hero.
“He probably never bought a meal in a restaurant the rest of his life,” he said.
Coming back to Allegan
After Pritchard returned home, he helped establish Allegan’s public-school system and had a long, fruitful career as a banker.
Kuykendall said the Allegan County Historical Society has no position on the “Civil War gold” theory put forward by the History Channel. But speaking for himself, Kuykendall suggested you don’t need secret riches to explain Pritchard’s success. The man was a lawyer, a banker and a celebrity.
In other words, “he had individuals that wanted to invest with him,” Kuykendall said.
Pritchard also got legitimate prize money for capturing Davis – a share of a $100,000 U.S. Government reward. Accounts vary on whether Pritchard received $2000 or $3000, or roughly $35,000 to $55,000 in today’s dollars.
However, our question-asker Sally Goddard still thinks there’s something to the treasure theory laid out in “The Curse of Civil War Gold.”
“I think there’s, there’s more to tell,” she said.