The Flight of Davis and Lee

Text: Gary Joyce • Photography: Gary Joyce

From the beginning of the American Civil War, "On to Richmond" became the rallying cry of Union troops. The Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 was a turning point in the war, and the bulk of both armies eventually entrenched and fought around the cities of Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia.

Petersburg was an important supply center for the Confederacy, and the longest siege in American history began in mid-June 1864 when Union troops surrounded most of the city. It ended April 2-3, 1865, with the evacuation and westward retreat of the Confederate Army. With Richmond indefensible, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his staff fled south by rail to Danville, Virginia.

Davis and his cabinet crossed the Dan River and arrived in Danville on April 3, 1865. One hundred thirty-nine years later, I was rolling there on my Kawasaki ZR-7S, along with my friend Donnie Cox on his shiny Yamaha Road Star. I rode to the city from my home in Mayodan, North Carolina, following roads (NC 770 and Berry Hill Road) that trace the curves of the Dan River. It took us just an hour to reach the historic avenues.

We visited the Sutherlin Mansion where Davis resided during the last days of the war. After watching Civil War re-enactors at the mansion, we headed to the Tobacco Warehouse District. During the war, six tobacco warehouses were turned into prisons for captured Union soldiers, and of the 7,000 soldiers held here, over 1,300 died in confinement. They're buried nearby, in the National Cemetery.

As we rode home that afternoon, I thought about that eventful week in 1865 and wondered what was going through the minds of my two great-grandfathers. They spent months in the trenches at Petersburg as soldiers in the 22nd North Carolina Infantry, and one of them was wounded when the Union army broke through the Confederate lines on April 2, 1865. Both of them managed to flee with General Lee and his army when the retreat to the west began.

Having picked up a brochure in Danville that outlines the routes of Lee's Retreat Driving Tour, I soon made plans to seek out whatever adventures lay before me along that trail. And, as fate would have it, I wasn't scheduled to work the following Friday, the day that also happens to be the anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the January/February 2007 back issue.