How a North Dakota family ended up with Confederate President Jefferson Davis' sword

A Wisconsin soldier contributed to a historic capture, before moving to Dakota Territory, leaving a legacy for his descendants.

A historical drawing depicts Confederate President Jefferson Davis, on the run from Federal troops while wearing a dress disguised.
A photograph of an 1865 lithograph by Wheeler & Ely, depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis, on the run from Federal troops, disguised in a woman's dress. He was captured on May 10, 1865.
Courtesy / Library of Congress

Men generally aren’t commended for trying to sneak a peek up a woman’s skirt, but one North Dakotan helped in a historic capture by doing so.

That North Dakotan’s name was Arne Ranum, a young Norwegian man and Civil War soldier.

Ranum’s parents came to the United States in 1864, first settling in Wisconsin before moving to the Mekinock area in the Dakota Territory in 1879. While in Wisconsin, 18-year-old Arne Ranum joined the Wisconsin Cavalry for the Union Army. Ranum took part in many famous Civic War battles during his service, including the Sherman March and the Siege of Richmond. It was looking up a skirt, however, that would give him special recognition for his service.

Members of the Wisconsin Cavalry and the 4th Michigan Cavalry were chosen for an important expedition: to capture the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Among the first soldiers chosen from the Wisconsin Cavalry for the special expedition force was Ranum.

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Although both cavalries were sharing the common objective to capture Davis dead or alive and bring him back to Union Headquarters, the two made it a competition to see who could make the capture. Both cavalries rode hard for the coast, where Davis was planning to board a steamer for Europe. Michigan snuck ahead while Wisconsin took a rest, but the swift Wisconsin cavalry soon passed them.


On May 10, 1965, They approached a creek near Confederate headquarters. A soldier came out waving a white flag of surrender. According to the Grand Forks County Heritage Book, “The forces noticed a tall wash woman at the creek with a water harness across her back and were aroused by her awkward walk.”

Arne Ranum approached the woman and lifted her skirt with the tip of his saber to reveal man’s trousers and shiny combat boots. It was Jefferson Davis. Davis reached for his revolver, but Ranum covered him with his musket. Davis’ daughter came running and crying for Ranum not to shoot her father, and Davis made no further attempt to escape. Davis was arrested and taken to Fortress Monroe.

Ranum was awarded Davis’ saber for his part in the capture, and according to the Grand Forks County Heritage Book, it was then given to his grandchildren in Grand Forks. Arne Ranum received an honorable discharge following the Civil War and made his way to the Dakota Territory with his family. He is buried in the Ness Lutheran Church Cemetery at Mekinock.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from Humanities North Dakota. It is edited for presentation on Forum Communication Co. sites by Jeremy Fugleberg, editor of The Vault. See all the Dakota Datebooks at,  subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at

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