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100 Years Ago

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Civil War
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Feature Article on Jeremiah Ferree. Topic: CIVIL WAR & PEOPLE
Written by Rich Wallace in June, 1995


From the beginning of recorded military history, victory was never really considered complete unless the enemy commander was captured or killed. Certainly, the death of Hitler in May, 1945 added a touch of finality to World War II. However, the escape of Saddam Hussein ended the Persian Gulf War with a hollow ring. As the Civil War moved to a close with the events at Appomatox Courthouse in May, 1865, the northerners were seeking that same feeling of closure. Some just wanted Confederate President Jefferson Davis captured, but many others expected his execution to follow a speedy trial for treason . But where was Davis? As the news spread that he had escaped with members of his family, the union army launched a manhunt that captivated the entire country. Among the key figures in this drama was a young soldier from Sidney. This is his story.

Jeremiah Dixon Ferree was a bright young man. By early 1864 seventeen year old J. D. Ferree, as his friends called him, was teaching school at the Line School in Sidney. All that changed when the dashing young Major Frankenberger of the First Ohio Cavalry stopped in Sidney on a recruiting trip. Ferree immediately enlisted and dismissed his classes. It was February 21, 1864. He was off to be a horse soldier.

The unglamorous reality of war soon set in. The First Ohio participated in the battle of Nashville and numerous other engagements. The fighting conditions were miserable. Ferree and his men lived on parched corn only for eight days straight as they fought their way to Macon, Georgia. During one stretch, they engaged the Rebels for 30 consecutive days. It was late April, 1865 when the news of the assassination of Lincoln and the fall of Richmond was received. Soon they would be going home!

On May 1, 1865 a call went out for volunteers. Men of "discretion and courage" were needed for one last assignment. "We were told it would be a secret and dangerous expedition" Ferree would later recall. The thirty-five men were given confederate uniforms and revolvers. Their mission: capture President Jefferson Davis.  Captain Yeoman, the leader of this band of daring soldiers, addressed them as follows: "President Johnson has offered a $100,000 reward for his (Davis') capture, dead or alive...Now if we run onto him and he has less than 200 men with him, by the eternal I am going to attack him. If there is anyone here who will not ride where I lead, let him come forward." No one did. Final plans were made.

Ferree and the others met at night, but during the day they mingled among the rebel soldiers and gathered information. Their first narrow escape came when they were confronted by a confederate Calvary major. The men were asked to identify their unit. When Captain Yeoman reported they were the Fourth Mississippi, the major replied: "I guess not, Captain, that is my regiment. I'll see about this." The disguised Yanks beat a hasty retreat.

Each day brought them closer to Jefferson Davis and his family. Disaster was narrowly averted again when they entered Covington, Georgia. Ferree and the other men mingled among many armed confederates. After leaving, they traveled out of town for a short distance when they decided to return and take another road. Ferree later recalled: "Just before we were about to enter the town, we met a negro who said: 'The Rebs think youse is Yanks and they are waiting for you.' He directed us to another road and we missed them."

Yeoman's group encountered more trouble from union troops than the confederates. They were arrested several times. They were released when Captain Yeoman produced a copy of their orders, which only he carried. This slowed their pursuit of Davis. On another occasion, Ferree and two others were captured by the Twelfth Ohio Cavalry when Yeoman was not with them. Lady Luck intervened again. Ferree remembered: "Fortunately the company (that captured us) was from Shelby County. I recalled the name of Daniel Clark, a member of the campany who was raised west of Sidney. I asked for him and he rode out and recognized me." Ferree and his men were released.

Captain Yeoman would send a courier back to the general staff every day with new leads. Ferree and the others drew closer to Davis. One night J.D. and several others made the acquaintance of a family of confederate supporters. Passing themselves off as South Carolina soldiers, Ferree and his cohorts received a warm reception from the family (including their two very beautiful daughters). When supper was finished, they retired to the parlor to sing the most popular confederate ballads. Afterwards, the father began to question them. Ferree remembered "We had to be at our wits end all the time he talked with us." Although they accepted an invitation for breakfast, by the next morning the men were many miles away. As the noose around Jeff Davis drew tighter, Ferree and the others got within twenty miles of him. On May 10, 1865 Davis was captured by elements of the First Wisconsin and Fourth Michigan near Irwinville, Georgia. He was alone except for his family and a few friends.

A grateful government did not forget. Ferree was promoted to 1st Sargent of his company for his service. Several years after the war, Congress passed legislation rewarding those who participated in the capture of Davis. By that time J.D. Ferree was home in Sidney teaching school. He explained to his comrades at the Neal Post of the G.A.R.: "Our squad was placed on an equality with those who captured (him) because we had run all the risk in securing the information that resulted in his capture. Captain Yeoman received $3000. I received $366.25." While teaching school, Ferree enrolled a new pupil named Arvesta Line. The attraction was apparently immediate. Ferree left teaching. The two were married on September 29th, 1870. They spent sixty-one happy and companionable years together, raising six children along the way.

J. D. and his brother Edwin opened up a saw mill just east of Pasco which they operated for many years. After retiring in 1915, Ferree moved to Sidney and bought the residence at 722 S. Main Avenue. He lived there until his death in 1932. Incredibly, of the 35 men who volunteered for this dangerous mission, another besides Ferree was from Shelby County. Private James H. Jeffries grew up near Houston. After the war, he moved to Fort Scott, Kansas, and was never heard from again. Time healed many of the wounds of war. Jefferson Davis spent two years in prison but never stood trial for treason. To the last of his days, he tried to win by his pen what he could not accomplish on the battlefield by working on his memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Davis survived both Lee and Grant, dying penniless in 1889 at the age of 81.


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