Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. His honesty, character, and devotion elevated his cause above a quest for the perpetuation of slavery to a crusade for independence.
History has served Jefferson Davis badly by placing him opposite Abraham Lincoln. Davis is grudged even the loser's mite, for Fate chose Robert E. Lee to embody the "Lost Cause." Yet Davis led the Confederacy and suffered its defeat with great dignity, and he deserves a better recollection.
Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in what is now Todd County, Ky. The family soon moved to Mississippi. After attending Transylvania University for 3 years, he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1828. He served in the infantry for 7 years. At Ft. Crawford, Wis., he fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of post commandant Zachary Taylor. Col. Taylor disapproved of the proposed match. Davis resigned his commission in 1835, married Sarah, and took her to Mississippi; within 3 months she died of malaria. Davis contracted a light case of it, which, combined with grief, permanently weakened his health. From 1835 to 1845 he lived in seclusion at Brierfield, a plantation given him by his brother, Joseph. He and Joseph were close, shared reading habits, argued, and sharpened each other's wits and prejudices.
During these quiet years Davis developed a Southerner's fascination for politics and love for the land. In December 1845 Davis and Varina Howell, his new bride, went to Washington, where Davis took a Democratic seat in the House of Representatives. The Davises made a swift impression. Varina entertained well; Jefferson earned notice for his eloquence and the "charm of his voice."
War with Mexico interrupted Davis's congressional service. He resigned in 1846 to command a volunteer regiment attached to Zachary Taylor's army. Col. Davis and his men won quick approval from the crotchety old general, and the earlier hostilities between the two men were forgotten. Distinguished service by Davis's outfit at Monterey, Mexico, was followed by real heroism at Buena Vista (Feb. 22, 1847). Wounded, Davis returned to Mississippi and received a hero's laurels. In 1847, elected to the U.S. Senate, Davis became chairman of the Military Affairs Committee. But in 1851 Mississippi Democrats called him back to replace their gubernatorial candidate, thinking that Davis's reputation might cover the party's shift from an extreme secessionist position to one of "cooperationist" moderation. This almost succeeded; Davis lost to Henry S. Foote by less than 1,000 votes.
U.S. Secretary of War
When President Franklin Pierce appointed Davis secretary of war in 1853, Davis found his happiest niche. He enlarged the Army, modernized military procedures, boosted soldiers' pay (and morale), directed important Western land surveys for future railroad construction, and masterminded the Gadsden Purchase.
At the close of Pierce's term Davis reentered the Senate and became a major Southern spokesman. Ever mindful of the Union's purposes, he worked to preserve the Compromise of 1850. Yet throughout the 1850s Davis was moving toward a Southern nationalist point of view. He opposed Stephen A. Douglas's "squatter sovereignty" doctrine in the Kansas question. Congress, Davis argued, had no power to limit slavery's extension.
At the 1860 Democratic convention Davis cautioned against secession. However, he accepted Mississippi's decision, and on Jan. 21, 1861, in perhaps his most eloquent senatorial address, announced his state's secession from the Union and his own resignation from the Senate and called for understanding.
Davis only reluctantly accepted the presidency of the Confederate States of America. He began his superhuman task with very human doubts. But once in office he became the foremost Confederate. His special virtues were revealed by challenge—honesty, devotion, dedication, the zeal of a passionate patriot.
As president, Davis quickly grasped his problems: 9 million citizens (including at least 3 million slaves) of sovereign Southern states pitted against 22 million Yankees; 9,000 miles of usable railroad track against 22,000; no large factories, warships, or shipyards; little money; no credit, save in the guise of cotton; scant arms and no manufacturing arsenals to replenish losses; miniscule powder works; undeveloped lead, saltpeter, copper, and iron resources; and almost no knowledge of steelmaking. Assets could be counted only as optimism, confidence, cotton, and courage. Davis would have to conjure a cause, anneal a new nation, and make a war.
With sure grasp Davis built an army out of state volunteers sworn into Confederate service—and thus won his first round against state rights. Officers came from the "Old Army" and from Southern military schools. Supplies, arms, munitions, clothes, and transportation came from often reluctant governors, from citizens, and, finally, by means of crafty legerdemain worked by staff officials.
When supplies dwindled drastically, Davis resorted to impressing private property. When military manpower shrank, Davis had to ask the Confederate Congress for the greatest military innovation a democracy could dare—conscription. In April 1862 Congress authorized the draft.
Nor was Davis timid in using his armies. Relying usually on leaders he knew, he put such men as Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, James Longstreet, Thomas J. Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Robert E. Lee in various commands. He developed a strategy to fit Confederate circumstances. Realizing that the weaker side must husband and hoard yet dare desperately when the chance came, Davis divided the Confederate military map into departments, each under a general with wide powers. He sought only to repel invaders. This strategy had political as well as military implications: the Confederacy was not aggressive, sought nothing save independence, and would fight in the North only when pressed. Davis's plan brought impressive results—First Manassas, the Seven Days, Second Manassas, and the clearing of Virginia by September 1862. Western results seemed equally promising. Shiloh, while not a victory, stabilized the middle border; Bragg's following campaign maneuvered a Union army out of Tennessee and almost out of Kentucky.
These successes led Davis to a general offensive in the summer and fall of 1862 designed to terrify Northerners, themselves yet untouched by war; to separate other, uncertain states from the Union; and to convince the outside world of Southern strength. Though it failed, the strategy had merit and remained in effect. Checks at Fredericksburg, Holly Springs, and Chancellorsville stung the North. When Union general U. S. Grant moved against Vicksburg in spring 1863, it looked as though he might be lost in Mississippi, with Gen. Joseph Hooker snared in Virginia's wilderness.
But Grant's relentless pressure on Vicksburg forced Davis to a desperate gamble that resulted in the Battle of Gettysburg, the loss of Vicksburg, and a cost to the South of over 50,000 men and 60,000 stands of arms. Men and arms were irreplaceable, and Davis huddled deeper in the defensive.
Davis had tried perhaps the most notable innovation in the history of American command when he adopted the "theater" idea as an expansion of departmental control. Joseph E. Johnston became commander of the Department of the West, taking absolute power over all forces from the Chattahoochee River to the Mississippi River, and from the Gulf of Mexico to Tennessee. It was a great scheme for running a remote war and might have worked, save for Johnston's hesitancy in exercising his authority. Davis lost faith in his general but not in his plan.
In 1864, after Atlanta's fall, Davis approved Gen. John Bell Hood's plan of striking along William T. Sherman's communications into Tennessee, with the hope of capturing Nashville. Logistical support for this bold venture was coordinated by P. G. T. Beauregard, the new commander of the Department of the West. But Beauregard also distrusted his own authority. Hood failed before Nashville; but by then things had so deteriorated that the blame could hardly be fixed on any one in particular.
Innovation was essential: the armies had to be supported—and in this quest Davis himself changed. Ever an advocate of state rights, he became an uncompromising Confederate nationalist, warring with state governors for federal rights and urging centralist policies on his reluctant Congress. Conscription and impressment were two pillars of his program; others included harsh tax laws, government regulation of railroads and blockade running, and diplomacy aimed at winning recognition of Confederate independence and establishing commercial relations with England and France. Davis came to advocate wide application of martial law. Finally he suggested drafting slaves, with freedom as the reward for valor. These measures were essential to avoid defeat; many were beyond the daring of the Confederate Congress.
Congress's inability to face necessity finally infuriated Davis. Though warm and winning in personal relations, he saw no need for politicking in relations with Congress. He believed that reasonable men did what crisis demanded and anything less was treason. Intolerant of laxity in himself or in others, he sometimes alienated supporters.
As Confederate chances dwindled, Davis became increasingly demanding. He eventually won congressional support for most of his measures but at high personal cost. By the summer of 1864 most Southern newspapers were sniping at his administration, state governors were quarreling with him, and he had become the focus of Southern discontent. The South was losing; Davis's plan must be wrong, the rebels reasoned. Peace sentiments arose in disaffected areas of several states, as did demands to negotiate with the enemy. Davis knew the enemy's price: union. But he tried negotiation. Yet when the Hampton Roads Conference in February 1865 proved fruitless and Davis called for renewed Confederate dedication, the Confederacy was falling apart, and there was almost nothing to rededicate. Confederate money had so declined in value that Southerners were avoiding it; soldiers deserted; invaders stalked the land with almost no opposition. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865; Johnston surrendered on April 26. Davis and a small party were captured at Irwinville, Ga., on May 10.
Years of Decline
Accused of complicity in Lincoln's assassination, and the object of intense hatred in both North and South, Davis spent 2 years as a state prisoner. He was harshly treated, and his already feeble health broke dangerously. When Federal authorities decided not to try him for treason, he traveled abroad to recuperate, then returned to Mississippi and vainly sought to rebuild his fortune.
Through a friend's generosity Davis and his family received a stately home on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Here from 1878 to 1881 Davis wrote Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. And here, at last, he basked in a kind of fame that eased his final years. He died in New Orleans on Dec. 6, 1889, survived by Varina and two of their six children.
A primary source is Dunbar Rowland, ed., Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches (10 vols., 1923), which includes an autobiography in volume 1. Biographies include Varina H. Davis, Jefferson Davis: A Memoir (1890); William E. Dodd, Jefferson Davis (1907); Allen Tate, Jefferson Davis, His Rise and Fall (1929); Robert W. Winston, High Stakes and Hair Trigger: The Life of Jefferson Davis (1930); Robert McElroy, Jefferson Davis: The Unreal and the Real (2 vols., 1937); and Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis (3 vols., 1955-1964). See also Burton J. Hendrick, Statesmen of the Lost Cause (1939); Robert W. Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet (1944); Frank E. Vandiver, Jefferson Davis and the Confederate State (1964) and Their Tattered Flags (1970). □
"Jefferson Davis." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/jefferson-davis
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Receiving a Mississippi cotton plantation from an older brother, Davis married the daughter of Gen. Zachary Taylor, but she died three months later. In 1845, he married Varina Howell and began a political career with election to the House of Representatives.
During the Mexican War, Davis commanded a Mississippi regiment with distinction at the Battle of Monterrey (1846) and the Battle of Buena Vista (1847), where he was wounded. Returning a hero, he was appointed U.S. senator in 1847, resigning to run unsuccessfully for governor in 1851. Under fellow Democrat Franklin Pierce, he served effectively as secretary of war, 1853–57, adopting improved rifled muskets; increasing pay; and obtaining four new regiments from Congress, which doubled the size of the regular army to protect western expansion.
A staunch states' rights Democrat as well as the owner of many slaves, Davis justified black slavery and championed Southern economic and territorial expansion to counter growing Northern influence. Returning to the Senate in 1857, Davis became a leader of the Southern bloc as well as head of the Military Affairs Committee. In the crisis following Lincoln's election, Davis was not a secession leader, but he resigned the Senate when Mississippi seceded in January 1861, and was immediately given command of his state's militia as a major general.
Chosen as president by the Confederate provisional government established at Montgomery, Alabama, Davis was inaugurated in February 1861. Subsequently, he was elected to a six‐year term as president of the Confederate States of America and inaugurated at Richmond, Virginia, in February 1862.
As president of the Confederacy and commander in chief of its armed forces, Davis led the South's military effort in the Civil War and also tried to deal with wartime economic and political matters. Despite his dedication to the task, Davis did not prove as politically able or publicly inspiring a war leader as U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Both presidents realized increased centralization was necessary for the war effort, but the South was much more resistant to such reduction of states' rights. As the war dragged on with diminishing hope and increasing deprivation, domestic political opposition mounted against Davis, who seemed politically and temperamentally hard put to deal with the rising dissent in the Confederate Congress and the Southern statehouses.
As a commander in chief who was also a West Pointer, war hero, and former secretary of war, Davis had considerable confidence in his own military judgment. He was closely involved with the army, particularly its organization and strategy, and became engaged in arguments with many of his generals. In his assignments, Davis made some excellent choices, such as Robert E. Lee, and some poor ones, such as Braxton Bragg. For a long time, Davis failed to have a general in chief at Richmond to administer the army, and the burdens of personally performing that task contributed to his debilitation.
Strategically, Davis believed that the Southern forces must protect all of the Confederacy, east and west, and preserve territory rather than overthrow enemy armies. He sought to divide the South's outnumbered military resources to block logical avenues of approach, and to concentrate two or more large commands—particularly via railroads—to confront any major Union advance. It was a strategy that was ultimately overwhelmed by simultaneous advances from numerous numerically superior Union armies. Despite the claims of his contemporary critics, most experts consider Davis to have been a sound strategist and a competent commander in chief under extremely adverse circumstances.
With the Confederacy collapsing, Generals Lee and Joseph E. Johnston surrendered their armies in April 1865 against the wishes of Davis, who wanted to continue the war. Fleeing south, the Confederate president was captured at Irwinville, Georgia, in May, and imprisoned in Fortress Monroe on charges of treason. He was released on bail in May 1867 after his physical and emotional health had deteriorated. Davis refused to take the oath of allegiance, and in 1881 published a history of the Confederacy. He died in 1889.
[See also Civil War, Military and Diplomatic Course; Confederacy, the Military in the; Confederate Army.]
Lynda L. Crist, et al., eds., The Papers of Jefferson Davis, 9 vols., 1971–.
Clement Eaton , Jefferson Davis, 1977.
Paul D. Escott , After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism, 1978.
William C. Davis , Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour, 1991.
William J. Cooper
"Davis, Jefferson." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/davis-jefferson
"Davis, Jefferson." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved April 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/davis-jefferson
Davis, Jefferson 1808-1889
Jefferson Davis will always be associated with the Confederate States of America. There is a certain irony in this association. Although he was president of the Confederacy, Davis was not the “fire-eater” that South Carolina secessionist Rhett Barnwell Butler was. He did not favor immediate secession upon Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency and in fact served on the Committee of Thirteen that fashioned the Crittenden Compromise select committee that attempted to compromise the Union back together again during the lame-duck congressional session of 1860-1861. He was not known for his public defenses of slavery or states rights, as another reluctant secessionist, James Henry Hammond, was. Davis’s major contribution to those debates was post hoc. He wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881) well after the Civil War ended. As a prominent Mississippi planter, Davis had always supported slavery and states rights, but his association with those causes was forged during the war, not prior to it.
Prior to the war, Davis had a notable military and political career. He graduated from West Point in 1828 at the age of twenty. He served as an army officer until 1835, when he resigned his commission to marry his first wife and develop a plantation on land that his older brother had provided him. He also became active in Democratic politics. By the time he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1845, Davis was a wealthy cotton grower and slaveholder. At the outbreak of the Mexican War, he left Congress to serve as an officer in the Mississippi militia. Davis and his unit served with distinction at the Battle of Buena Vista. Upon his return to Mississippi in 1847, he was appointed and then elected to the United States Senate. In 1851 he resigned to unsuccessfully run for governor of Mississippi but he soon returned to Washington, D.C., as Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war. After the Pierce administration left office, Davis was again elected to the Senate. His final Senate term ended in January 1861, when Mississippi seceded from the union.
Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America. As president of the Confederacy, Davis faced a number of military and political crises. The opinions of historians vary as to how successfully he met those crises but they almost invariably compare him unfavorably to his Union counterpart. Yet there are a number of parallels. Both Lincoln and Davis oversaw the creation of strong states that heavily taxed and conscripted their male citizens to pursue their war efforts. Both Lincoln and Davis involved themselves in day-today military decisions and seemed plagued by inept generals. Both Lincoln and Davis ultimately decided to recruit African-American soldiers, though, in Davis’s case, the war ended before the policy could be implemented.
At the conclusion of the war, Davis was among a number of Confederate leaders and generals who were imprisoned for treason. President Andrew Johnson eventually ordered all of them released except for Davis, whose case became entangled in impeachment politics. After Davis had been in military custody for two years, he finally appeared in civil court and was granted bail. The federal government eventually decided not to prosecute him. During the last twenty years of his life, Davis experienced financial difficulties and continuing ill health but his popularity in the former Confederate states never waned. By the time of his death, he had come to personify the South’s “lost cause.”
SEE ALSO Confederate States of America; Cotton Industry; Lee, Robert E.; Lincoln, Abraham; Mexican-American War; Plantation; Selective Service; Slavery; Slavery Industry; U.S. Civil War
Cooper, William, Jr. 2000. Jefferson Davis, American. New York: Knopf.
Davis, Jefferson.  1971. The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.
David F. Ericson
"Davis, Jefferson." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/davis-jefferson
"Davis, Jefferson." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved April 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/davis-jefferson
Jefferson Davis, 1808–89, American statesman, President of the Southern Confederacy, b. Fairview, near Elkton, Ky. His birthday was June 3.
Davis's parents moved to Mississippi when he was a boy. He was given a classical education at Transylvania Univ. and was appointed to West Point, where he was graduated in 1828. He spent the next seven years in various army posts in the Old Northwest and took part (1832) in the Black Hawk War. In 1835 he married the daughter of Zachary Taylor, but she died three months later. Davis spent the next 10 years in the comparative quiet of a Mississippi planter's life. In 1845 he married Varina Howell.
Early Political Career
Elected (1845) to the House of Representatives, he resigned in June, 1846, to command a Mississippi regiment in the Mexican War. Under Zachary Taylor he distinguished himself both at the siege of Monterrey and at Buena Vista. Davis was appointed (1847) U.S. Senator from Mississippi to fill an unexpired term but resigned in 1851 to run for governor of Mississippi against his senatorial colleague, Henry S. Foote, who was a Union Whig. Davis was a strong champion of Southern rights and argued for the expansion of slave territory and economic development of the South to counterbalance the power of the North. He lost the election by less than a thousand votes and retired to his plantation until appointed (1853) Secretary of War by Franklin Pierce. Throughout the administration he used his power to oppose the views of his Northern Democratic colleague, Secretary of State William L. Marcy. Davis favored the acquisition of Cuba and opposed concessions to Spain in the Black Warrior and Ostend Manifesto difficulties, and he also promoted a southern route for a transcontinental railroad, therefore favoring the Gadsden Purchase. Reentering the Senate in 1857, Davis became the leader of the Southern bloc.
The Confederacy and After
Davis took little part in the secession movement until Mississippi seceded (Jan., 1861), whereupon he withdrew from the Senate. He was immediately appointed major general of the Mississippi militia, and shortly afterward he was chosen president of the Confederate provisional government established by the convention at Montgomery, Ala., and inaugurated in Feb., 1861. Elected regular President of the Confederate States (see Confederacy), he was inaugurated at Richmond, Va., in Feb., 1862. Davis realized that the Confederate war effort needed a strong, centralized rule. This conflicted with the states' rights policy for which the Southern states had seceded, and, as he assumed more and more power, many of the Southern leaders combined into an anti-Davis party.
Originally hopeful of a military rather than a civil command in the Confederacy, he closely managed the army and was involved in many disagreements with the Confederate generals; arguments over his policies raged long after the Confederacy was dead. Lee surrendered without Davis's approval. After the last Confederate cabinet meeting was held (Apr., 1865) at Charlotte, N.C., Davis was captured at Irwinville, Ga. He was confined in Fortress Monroe in Virginia for two years and was released (May, 1867) on bail. The federal government proceeded no further in its prosecution of Davis. After his release he wrote an apologia, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881). He was buried at New Orleans, but his body was moved (1893) to Richmond, Va.
See his papers, ed. by H. M. Monroe, Jr., et al (13 vol., 1972–); biographies by W. E. Dodd (1907, repr. 1966), H. Strode (4 vol., 1955–66), W. C. Davis (1991), and W. J. Cooper, Jr. (2000); V. H. Davis, Jefferson Davis: A Memoir (1890); B. J. Hendrick, Statesmen of the Lost Cause (1939); M. B. Ballard, Long Shadow: Jefferson Davis and the Final Days of the Confederacy (1986); W. C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (1992); J. T. Glatthaar, Partners in Command (1994); J. M. McPherson, Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief (2014).
"Davis, Jefferson." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/davis-jefferson
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"Davis, Jefferson." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/davis-jefferson
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