Jefferson Davis

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Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis
Order: 1st President of the Confederate States
Vice President: Alexander Stephens
Term of Office: February 18, 1861May 10, 1865
Predecessor: None
Successor: None
Date of Birth June 3, 1808
Place of Birth: Christian County, Kentucky
Date of Death: December 6, 1889
Place of Death: New Orleans, Louisiana
First Lady: Varina Howell
Political party: Democrat
Profession: Soldier and Politician

For other uses, see Jefferson Davis (disambiguation).

Jefferson Davis (June 3, 1808December 6, 1889) was an American soldier and politician. Davis is most famous for serving as the first and only President of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War (also known as the War Between the States). Before the Civil War he served in the legislature of Mississippi, both houses of the U.S. Congress and fought in the Mexican War as colonel of a volunteer regiment. Later he became Secretary of War in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce.


Early life and military career

Jefferson Davis was born June 3, 1808 on a farm in Christian County, Kentucky, near the border with Todd County (see Jefferson Davis State Historic Site). Davis, the last of the ten children of Samuel Emory Davis and his wife, Jane, had come from a family of rich American history. The younger Davis's grandfather had immigrated to the United States from Wales and had once lived in Virginia and Maryland, working as a public servant. His father, along with his uncles, had served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, his father serving with the Georgia cavalry and leading in the battle of Savannah as an infantry officer. His older brothers also served. During the War of 1812, three of Davis's brothers fought the British, two of them serving under Andrew Jackson and receiving his commendation for bravery in the Battle of New Orleans.

During Davis's youth, his family moved several times, in 1811 to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and in 1812 to Wilkinson County, Mississippi.

In 1813, Davis began his education together with his sister Mary, attending a log cabin school a mile from their home. Two years later, Davis entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Washington County, Kentucky. He went on to Jefferson College at Washington, Mississippi in 1818, and to Transylvania University at Lexington, Kentucky in 1821. In 1824, Davis entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York as a cadet.

Jefferson Davis successfully completed his four-year term of study at West Point, and graduated as a Second Lieutenant in June 1828. He was assigned to the 1st Infantry and stationed at Fort Crawford. His first assignment, in 1829, was to supervise the cutting of timber on the banks of the Red Cedar River for the repair and enlargement of the fort. Later the same year, he was reassigned to Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin. While supervising the construction and management of a sawmill in the Yellow River in 1831, he contracted pneumonia, causing him to return to Fort Crawford.

The next year, Davis was dispatched to Galena, Illinois at the head of a detachment assigned to remove miners from lands claimed by Native Americans. His first combat assignment was during the Black Hawk War of the same year, after which he was assigned by his colonel, Zachary Taylor, to escort Black Hawk himself to prison at Jefferson Barracks—it is said that the chief liked Davis because of the kind treatment he had shown. Another of Davis's duties during this time was to keep miners from illegally entering what would eventually become the state of Iowa.

In 1833, Davis was promoted to First Lieutenant of the U.S. Regiment of Dragoons and made a regimental adjutant. 1834 saw his transfer to Fort Gibson.

Jefferson Davis had fallen in love with Colonel Taylor's 16-year-old daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Her father did not approve of the match, so Davis resigned his commission and married Miss Taylor at the house of her aunt near Louisville, Kentucky.

Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis

Marriage, plantation life and politics

The marriage proved short. The newlyweds both contracted malaria, and Davis's wife died three months after the wedding at the Louisiana home of his sister. Davis recovered, sailing for Havana, Cuba, and then to New York City. In 1836, he retired to Brierfield Plantation in Warren County, Mississippi.

The subsequent years proved uneventful, as Davis supervised the production of cotton at Brierfield, and studied political science. He decided to put his studies to use in 1843, by entering a career in politics. He ran for the Mississippi House of Representatives as a Democrat, and engaged in a debate with his opponent, Seargent Smith Prentiss, on election day. However, Davis's efforts proved unsuccessful, and he lost the election. The next year, he traveled around Mississippi campaigning for James K. Polk and George M. Dallas in the presidential election of 1844.

1844 saw Jefferson Davis's first political success, as he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, taking office on March 4 of the following year.

He married again on February 26, 1845, this time to socially prominent Varina Howell.

Second military career

Statue of Jefferson Davis
Statue of Jefferson Davis

1846 saw the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Davis must have looked favorably upon the war, seeing that the United States stood to acquire a considerable amount of land south of the Missouri Compromise line. He resigned his House seat in June, and raised a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, becoming its colonel. On July 21 they sailed from New Orleans for the Texas coast.

In September of the same year, he participated in the successful siege of Monterrey, Mexico. He fought bravely at the Buena Vista, Mexico on February 22, 1847, and was shot in the foot. In recognition of his bravery and initiative, commanding general Zachary Taylor is reputed to have said, "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was."

President James K. Polk offered him a federal commission as a Brigadier General and command of a brigade of militia. He declined the appointment, arguing that the United States Constitution gives the power of appointing militia officers to the states, and not to the federal government.

Because of his war service, the governor of Mississippi appointed Davis to fill out the Senate term of the late Jesse Speight. In addition, the Smithsonian Institution appointed him a regent in the end of December 1847.

Return to politics

The Senate made Davis chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. When his term expired, he was elected to the same seat (by the Mississippi legislature, as the Constitution mandated at the time). He hadn't served a year when he resigned (in September 1851) to run for the governorship of Mississippi on the issue of the Compromise of 1850, which Davis opposed. This election bid was unsuccessful, as he was defeated by Henry Stuart Foote by 999 votes.

Left without political office, Davis continued his political activity. He took part in a convention on states' rights, held at Jackson, Mississippi in January 1852. In the weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election, 1852, he campaigned in a number of Southern states for Democratic candidates Franklin Pierce and William R. King.

Pierce won the election and made Davis his Secretary of War. In this capacity, Davis gave to Congress four annual reports (in December of each year), as well as an elaborate one (submitted in February 22, 1855) on various routes for the proposed Transcontinental Railroad. The Pierce administration expired in 1857. The president lost the Democratic nomination, which went instead to James Buchanan. Davis's term was to end with Pierce's, so he ran successfully for the Senate, and re-entered it on March 4, 1857.

His renewed service in the Senate was interrupted by an illness that threatened him with the loss of his left eye. Still nominally serving in the Senate, Davis spent the summer of 1858 in Portland, Maine. On the Fourth of July, he delivered an anti-secessionist speech on board a ship near Boston. He again urged the preservation of the Union on October 11 in Faneuil Hall, Boston, and returned to the Senate soon after.

On February 2, 1860, as secessionist clamor in the South grew ever louder, Davis submitted six resolutions in an attempt to consolidate opinion regarding states' rights, and to further his own position on the issue. Abraham Lincoln, a known opponent of slavery, won the presidency that November. Matters came to a head, and South Carolina seceded from the Union.

Though an opponent of secession in principle, Davis upheld it in practice on January 10, 1861. On the 21st of that month, he announced the secession of Mississippi, delivered a farewell address, and resigned from the Senate.

Leadership of the Confederacy

Four days after his resignation, Davis was commissioned a Major General of Mississippi troops. On February 9, 1861, a constitutional convention at Montgomery, Alabama named him provisional president of the Confederate States of America and he was inaugurated on February 18. In meetings of his own Mississippi legislature, Davis had argued against secession; but when a majority of the delegates opposed him, he gave in.

He immediately appointed a Peace Commission to resolve the Confederacy's differences with the Union (USA). Not wishing, however, to rely on paths of negotiation, he appointed General P.G.T. Beauregard to lead Confederate troops in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina. The government moved to Richmond, Virginia in May, 1861, and Davis and his family took up his residence there at the White House of the Confederacy on May 29.

Davis was elected to a six-year term as president of the Confederacy on November 6, 1861. He had never served a full term in any elective office, and this was not destined to be the first. He was inaugurated on February 22, 1862. On June 1, he assigned General Robert E. Lee to command the Army of Northern Virginia, the main Confederate army in the Eastern Theater. That December, he made a tour of Confederate armies in the west of the country.

In August 1863, Davis declined General Lee's offer of resignation after his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. As Confederate military fortunes turned for the worse in 1864, he visited Georgia with the intent of raising morale.

Davis has received criticism over his conduct of the military affairs of the Confederacy. Until late in the war, he resisted efforts to appoint a general-in-chief, essentially handling those duties himself; on January 31, 1865, Lee assumed this role, but it was far too late for him to establish a grand strategy that could achieve success. Davis was responsible for the strategy of defending all Southern territory with ostensibly equal effort, which diluted the limited resources of the South and made it vulnerable to coordinated strategic thrusts by the Union into the vital Western Theater. He made other poor strategic choices, such as allowing Lee to invade the North on two occasions while the Western armies were losing battles and critical terrain, such as the Mississippi River. He also has been faulted for poor coordination and management of his generals in the field, notably in his reluctance to relieve his personal friend, the inept Braxton Bragg, defeated in important battles and distrusted by his subordinates; he relieved the cautious but capable Joseph E. Johnston and replaced him with the reckless John Bell Hood, resulting in the loss of Atlanta and the eventual loss of an army.

On April 3, 1865, with Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant poised to capture Richmond, Davis escaped for Danville, Virginia, together with the Confederate cabinet, leaving on the Richmond and Danville Railroad. Six days later, he proceeded to Greensboro, North Carolina. On April 16, he made a break for Meridian, Mississippi, but was captured at Irwinville, Georgia on May 10 with Postmaster General John Henninger Reagan and former Texas governor Francis R. Lubbock.


Vice President

Secretary of State

Secretary of the Treasury

Secretary of War

Secretary of the Navy

Postmaster General

Attorney General

Imprisonment and retirement

On May 19, 1865, he was imprisoned in a casemate at Fortress Monroe, on the coast of Virginia. The casemate was wet, unheated, and open to the weather, leading many to believe that his captors intended him to die in prison. He was placed in irons on the 23rd, but released from irons on the 26th at the recommendation of a physician. Davis was not indicted for treason until a year later (May 1866) due to the constitutional concerns of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.

While in prison Davis arranged to sell his Mississippi estate to one of his former slaves, Ben Montgomery. Montgomery was a talented business manager, mechanic, and even inventor who had become wealthy in part from running his own general store.

The next year, after imprisonment of two years, he was released on bail which was posted by prominent citizens of both northern and southern states, including Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt who had become convinced he was being treated unfairly. He visited Canada, and sailed for New Orleans, Louisiana, via Havana, Cuba. In 1868, he traveled to Europe. That December, the court rejected a motion to nullify the indictment, but the prosecution dropped the case in February of 1869.

That same year, Davis became president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee. Upon Robert E. Lee's death in 1870, Davis presided over the memorial meeting in Richmond. Elected to the U.S. Senate again, he refused the office in 1875, having been barred from federal office by law.

In 1876, he promoted a society for the stimulation of U.S. trade with South America. Davis visited England the next year, returning in 1878 to Beauvoir near Biloxi, Mississippi. Over the next three years there, Davis wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Having completed that book, he visited Europe again, and traveled to Alabama and Georgia the following year.

He completed A Short History of the Confederate States of America in October of 1889. Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans on December 6, 1889, at the age of 81. His funeral was one of the largest ever staged in the south. He is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution barred from office anyone who had violated their oath to protect the Constitution by serving in the Confederacy. That prohibition included Davis. In 1978, pursuant to authority granted to Congress under the same section of the Amendment, Congress posthumously removed the ban on Davis with a two-thirds vote of each house. Congress had previously taken similar action on behalf of Robert E. Lee.

Preceded by:
Charles Magill Conrad
United States Secretary of War
Succeeded by:
John Buchanan Floyd
Preceded by:
President of the Confederate States
Succeeded by:

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