Born June 3, 1808
Died December 6, 1889
New Orleans, Louisiana
President of the Confederate States of America
Jefferson Davis served as the president of the Confederate States of America during its four years of existence. He was the South's political leader during the Civil War and the counterpart of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry). "On each side there was one man who stood at storm center, trying to lead a people who would follow no leader for long unless they felt in him some final embodiment [expression] of the deep passions and misty insights that moved them," Bruce Catton wrote in The Civil War. "This man was the President, given power and responsibility beyond all other men . . . Abraham Lincoln, in Washington, and Jefferson Davis, in Richmond."
Davis faced an extremely difficult job as president of the Confederacy, but he was well qualified to do it. He had proven himself as a military leader during the Mexican War (1846–48), and he was a respected U.S. senator who had also served as secretary of war. Davis also had some shortcomings that made his job more difficult. For example, he was stubborn, he found it difficult to admit when he was wrong, and he had trouble dealing with other strong personalities. Although he could not leadthe South to victory in the Civil War, Davis remained deeply committed to the Confederate cause until the end.
Supports slavery as a youth
Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in southwestern Kentucky. He was the youngest child in a large family. His father, Samuel Davis, was a tobacco farmer and horse breeder who moved the family to Louisiana when Jefferson was two years old. A short time later, the Davises bought a plantation (a large farming estate) near Woodville, Mississippi. They also purchased a number of slaves to work in their cotton fields.
Black people were taken from Africa and brought to North America to serve as slaves for white people beginning in the 1600s. The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slave-holders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. States in the Northern half of the United States began outlawing slavery in the late 1700s. But slavery continued to exist in the Southern half of the country because it played an important role in the South's economy and culture.
Growing up in Mississippi, Davis came to believe that slavery offered the best possible life for black people. He felt that blacks were incapable of living on their own, so they needed white people to give them food, clothing, shelter, and religion. He thought that black people in Africa lived as savages, while black slaves in the South were relatively civilized. Compared to many other slaveowners, the Davis family treated their slaves well. For example, they taught their slaves to read and write and allowed them to handle discipline among themselves, rather than resorting to whipping and other harsh punishments. Since his only experience was with his family's slaves, however, young Davis did not realize that many other people were cruel to their slaves.
Receives military training
After Davis's father died in 1824, his older brother, Joseph, took over care of the family and the plantation. Joseph was a successful and respected man, and he managed to obtain an appointment to the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point for his youngest brother. But Davis proved to be a troublemaker at the school. He often skipped class, kept his room messy, and hung out at a local tavern that was strictly off-limits to students. Davis managed to graduate from West Point in 1828, but he finished near the bottom of his class.
Like most West Point graduates, Davis took a position with the U.S. Army. His first assignment was as a frontier soldier in the Pacific Northwest, where his job was to keep the peace between white settlers and Indians. He served in the infantry (the military division in which soldiers fight on foot) until 1833, then transferred to the cavalry (the military division in which soldiers fight on horseback). During this time, he developed a reputation for arguing with his superior officers.
In 1835, Davis resigned from the army in order to marry Sarah Knox Taylor. She was the daughter of his commanding officer, future U.S. president Zachary Taylor (1784–1850). Zachary Taylor was not impressed with Davis and discouraged the union, so the young couple eloped (ran away secretly to get married). Davis convinced his new bride to move to his family's plantation in Mississippi. Shortly after they arrived, however, they both contracted malaria (a serious disease carried by infected mosquitoes). Davis recovered, but his wife died just a few months after their wedding. Since he had asked her to move to the South, he felt responsible for her death. He spent the next several years in seclusion on his family's plantation. In 1845, he married Varina Howell, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a Mississippi landowner. They eventually had six children together—four boys and two girls.
Argues for states' rights in the U.S. Congress
Also in 1845, Davis was elected to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Congress. At this time, he became known as a defender of slavery and of states' rights. The role of the national, or federal, government was still being defined in the mid-1800s. People who supported states' rights wanted to limit the power of the federal government. They wanted individual states to have the right to decide important issues for themselves without interference from the national government. "The Union is a creature of the states," Davis once said. "It has no inherent power. All it possesses was delegated [granted] by the states."
In the eyes of Davis and other Southern politicians, one of the most important issues that should be decided by the states was slavery. Growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong, and they urged the federal government to take steps to limit it. Some people wanted to outlaw slavery altogether, while others just wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, Davis and many other Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.
After serving two years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Davis resigned to join the army fighting the Mexican War. The United States fought Mexico to gain territory that eventually formed parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and California. As colonel of the First Mississippi Rifles, Davis proved himself to be a good military leader who maintained his cool under fire. His performance earned the respect of his former father-in-law, Zachary Taylor, and several other important military men. By the time a foot wound forced him to leave his command, he had become a well-known war hero.
Backs the decision of Southern states to secede from the Union
Upon leaving the army in 1848, Davis was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1853, President Franklin Pierce (1804–1869) asked Davis to join his cabinet (a group of trusted advisors who head various departments of the government) as secretary of war. Davis performed well in this position. He increased the size of the U.S. Army in a short period of time, and also introduced new, state-of-the-art weapons. When Pierce's term ended in 1857, Davis reclaimed his seat in the U.S. Senate.
Davis continued to argue in favor of slavery and states' rights in the U.S. Congress. Along with other Southern lawmakers, he warned that the Southern states would secede from (leave) the United States if an antislavery candidate was elected president in 1860. "We would declare the government at an end, even though blood should flow in torrents throughout the land," Davis stated.
Davis knew that the North would not allow the South to leave without a fight. For this reason, he hoped that the federal government would agree not to interfere with slavery in the South or in new states and territories. But his hopes for compromise were dashed when Abraham Lincoln, who opposed slavery, was elected president. The Southern states reacted by seceding from the United States and forming a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. With their enemies in control of the U.S. government, they felt that the only way they could protect their rights as independent states was to leave the Union.
Becomes president of the Confederate States of America
Davis and the other Southern lawmakers resigned their seats in the U.S. Congress in January 1861. Then Davis went home to his plantation in Mississippi. He told his family and friends that he did not want to play a role in the political leadership of the Confederacy, but that he would accept a military command if the North and South went to war. In February 1861, however, a messenger arrived at Davis's home and informed him that he had been selected as president of the new nation. He was stunned by the news, but felt it was his duty to accept the position. Davis became provisional (temporary) president of the Confederacy on February 9, 1861, and then was elected to a six-year term as president on November 6, 1861.
Despite Davis's protests, many people in the South believed that he was the most qualified man for the job. "Few men in the United States in 1861 seemed better prepared by training and experience to undertake the leadership of a nation at war than Jefferson Davis," Steven E. Woodworth wrote in Jefferson Davis and His Generals. "Davis had graduated from West Point, managed a large plantation, commanded an entire regiment in battle . . ., and been an unusually active secretary of war and an effective senator. He was honest, courageous, determined, and completely devoted to his duty as he understood it."
For six weeks, Davis tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the North. He still wanted to avoid a war if possible. One of the issues he hoped to resolve was the presence of federal troops at Fort Sumter, located in the middle of the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina. He viewed these troops as a symbol of Northern authority and asked Lincoln to remove them. When negotiations failed, Davis ordered Confederate forces to open fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The Confederacy gained control of the fort, but the Civil War had begun.
Faces difficult task as president during the Civil War
Davis faced a number of challenges once the war started. He had to appoint military leaders and raise an army to defend the Confederacy. Since the United States Army was controlled by the North, he had to convince individual Southern states to send men, weapons, ammunition, and supplies for the war effort. One of Davis's first mistakes involved choosing his close friends to be generals in charge of the Confederate Army, regardless of their qualifications. For example, he appointed his West Point classmate Leonidas Polk (1806–1864) as commander of all Confederate troops in the West (the area west of the Appalachian Mountains). But Polk had never served in the military. After leaving West Point, he had immersed himself in the study of religion and become an Episcopal bishop. After a few early victories in minor skirmishes, Polk turned out to be a disaster as a general.
On the other hand, Davis failed to take advantage of the talents of other military men. For example, the flamboyant Pierre G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893; see entry) had led the capture of Fort Sumter and had been a hero at the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Battle of Manassas) in Virginia. But Davis and Beauregard did not get along. As a result, Davis went out of his way to avoid giving Beauregard any significant responsibility after mid-1862. Of course, Davis also had some notable successes in his choice of generals. For example, he placed another fellow West Pointer, Robert E. Lee (1807–1870; see entry), in charge of the Confederacy's most vital army. Lee won a number of important battles over much larger Union forces and became the South's greatest general.
Part of the problem Davis experienced in selecting Confederate military leaders was due to his own personality. He trusted his own abilities far beyond those of others, and he found it difficult to admit that he was wrong. "Davis was all iron will and determination, a rigid man who might conceivably be broken but who could never be bent, proud almost to arrogance and yet humbly devoted to a cause greater than himself," Catton explained. The president was highly involved in military matters throughout the war. He made frequent visits to troops in the field and often consulted with his generals about strategy. As a result, the Southern people and media tended to place the blame on him when things went badly.
Another problem Davis encountered in leading the Confederacy during the war years involved the culture of the South. The Southern states had seceded from the Union in order to assert their right to make important decisions for themselves, without interference from the national government. Yet Davis needed to create a strong national government for the Confederacy in order to manage the war effectively. The South would have no chance of winning against larger, better organized Union forces if each state insisted on fighting on its own. "The kind of government Southerners wanted was not the kind that could fight and win an extended war," Catton noted. "The administration had to have broad wartime powers, but when Davis tried to get and use them he was bitterly criticized; fighting against strong centralized government, he had to create such a government in order to win." This issue created problems between Davis and the Confederate Congress.
Davis also suffered personal tragedies during the Civil War. In 1863, Union forces conquered Mississippi and destroyed his plantation, forcing members of his family to become refugees. In 1864, his six-year-old son, Joseph, fell from the balcony of the Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia, and was killed. But the pressures of his job as president did not allow Davis to grieve for his son. At that time, Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry) had pushed the Confederate Army back almost to Richmond. The responsibility of sending thousands of young men to their deaths in battle also wore on the president. He developed physical problems, such as severe headaches and stomach ulcers, that were related to the stress of his job.
Refuses to admit defeat
In April 1865, it became clear that Union forces were about to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Davis and other leaders of the Confederate government fled south to Greensboro, North Carolina. Once they arrived, they learned that the South's main army had given up the fight—Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. But Davis refused to admit defeat and vowed to continue fighting. Some of his advisors worried that the president had lost touch with reality, because everyone else seemed to recognize that the Southern cause was lost.
As Union forces approached Greensboro, Davis took his family even further south. He was finally captured near Irwinville, Georgia, on May 10, 1865. As Union troops surrounded their camp, Davis's wife, Varina, threw her shawl over him to hide his face. The Northern press changed the story in order to humiliate Davis and make him seem like a coward. They claimed that he had tried to avoid capture by wearing women's clothing.
Davis was charged with treason (betraying his country) and put in prison. At first, his captors treated him very harshly. They chained his legs, limited his food and exercise, and prevented him from seeing his family. But this treatment only made Davis a hero in the eyes of the Southern people. The U.S. government eventually offered to pardon (officially forgive) him for his crimes, but Davis refused to accept the offer. He insisted that he had committed no crime because the South's secession was legal. He wanted to make his case before a Virginia jury. But Northern leaders did not want Davis's case to go to trial, because they were afraid a jury would decide he was right. Instead, the government dropped the charges and released Davis in 1867, after he had spent two years in captivity.
Shows no regret for his actions
Davis recovered in Canada for a while after his release from prison, then returned to Mississippi. Since his home had been destroyed and he had very little money, he relied on the help of Southern supporters to care for his family. In 1881, Davis published a book about the Civil War from his point of view, called The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. He justified his own actions and refused to apologize, which made some people angry. "Were the thing to be done over again, I would do as I then did," he stated. "Disappointments have not changed my conviction." Davis lived out his remaining years near Biloxi, Mississippi, and never tried to have his American citizenship reinstated (it was eventually restored by President Jimmy Carter [1924– ] over one hundred years later). He died on December 6, 1889, at the age of eighty-two. His was the largest funeral ever held in the South, with an estimated two hundred thousand mourners attending.
Immediately after the Civil War, many people blamed Davis for the South's defeat. But historians now believe that there was nothing Davis could have done to bring victory to the South. "Davis certainly made mistakes, but no one can point to one thing or another that he could have done that would have changed the outcome of the war," William C. Davis, Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani wrote in Civil War Journal: The Leaders. Davis's popularity grew over time, as Southerners came to regard him as a representative of everything that was good about the Old South. He did the best he could in a difficult situation, and he remained devoted to the Confederate cause until the end of his life.
Where to Learn More
Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library. [Online] http://www.beauvoir.org (accessed on October 9, 1999).
Burch, Joann Johansen. Jefferson Davis: President of the Confederacy. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998.
Davis, William C., Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani. Civil War Journal:The Leaders. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1997.
Eaton, Clement. Jefferson Davis. New York: Free Press, 1977.
Jefferson Davis Memorial Home Page. [Online] http://www.pointsouth.com/csanet/greatmen/davis/davis.htm (accessed on October 9, 1999).
King, Perry Scott. Jefferson Davis. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1990.
The Papers of Jefferson Davis Home Page. [Online] http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~pjdavis/jdp.htm (accessed on October 9, 1999).
Strode, Hudson. Jefferson Davis, American Patriot. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955.
Woodworth, Steven E. Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.
The Two Civil War Presidents: Davis and Lincoln
Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln never met. But the two men are forever linked in history as the presidents of the opposing sides in the American Civil War. They share a number of striking similarities, but also some notable differences.
Both men were born in Kentucky, separated by only one hundred miles in distance and eight months in age. But Davis moved south to Mississippi as a boy, while Lincoln moved north to Illinois. Davis's family grew prosperous by using slaves to work on their cotton plantation. As a result, Davis became a strong supporter of slavery. In the meantime, Lincoln raised himself from poverty through education and hard work. He strongly opposed slavery.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Davis seemed to be more qualified to lead his country's war effort. After all, he had graduated from West Point, proven himself as a military leader during the Mexican War, and served the U.S. government as secretary of war. In contrast, Lincoln had very limited military experience. Although he had joined the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War (a war between the Sauk tribe and the U.S. government in 1832), he later joked that he had "fought mosquitoes and led a charge on an onion patch."
Although Davis had more military training, Lincoln possessed many other traits that made him a great commander in chief. For example, he was able to analyze situations quickly and make good decisions. He was also better at dealing with difficult people than Davis and more able to handle the extreme pressure of the job. Both men faced well-organized and vocal opposition to their policies during their time in office. In fact, both are more highly regarded and popular now than they were during the Civil War.
Since the two men played opposite roles during a crucial period in American history, historians have often drawn comparisons between them. In most cases, these comparisons reflect negatively on Davis. But as William C. Davis, Brian C. Pohanka, and Don Troiani noted in Civil War Journal: The Leaders, "It is unfair in many ways to criticize Davis because he was not Abraham Lincoln; nobody else has been Abraham Lincoln either."
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 was born the tenth child of Samuel and Jane Davis on June 3, 1808. Though he was born in Christian County (now Todd County), Kentucky , Davis's family moved to a small plantation in Mississippi when he was quite young. When Davis was seven, he went back to Kentucky to attend St. Thomas's College, a Roman Catholic seminary, though his family was Baptist. After two years, he returned to Mississippi to attend local schools.
Davis attended classes at a few different colleges, then in 1824 he pursued a degree at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He ranked twenty-third of thirty-three in the graduating class and became a second lieutenant in the U.S. army .
Davis spent nearly seven years in various military posts along the frontier in Wisconsin and in unsettled portions of Illinois . Generally his assignments were routine, but occasionally he fought against Indians. In 1832, he participated in the Black Hawk Indian War and accepted the surrender of the famed Sauk chief Black Hawk (1767–1838). After his promotion to first lieutenant of dragoons (horse-mounted cavalry divisions) in 1834, Davis led several expeditions into Kiowa and Wichita (Native American) villages.
In 1833, Davis was stationed at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin. The commander in charge, Colonel Zachary Taylor (1784–1850), who later became a U.S. president, had a daughter, Sarah Knox. Davis and Knox fell in love, and in May 1835 Davis submitted his resignation from the army. Married on June 17, he and his bride went to Mississippi to establish a plantation on land given to them by Davis's brother. Unfortunately, they both caught severe fevers, and Sarah died on September 15, 1835.
Devastated by his wife's death, Davis spent the next ten years mostly in seclusion at his plantation. While he enjoyed the company of his brother, Joseph Davis, who owned a nearby plantation, Davis focused mainly on managing his own plantation and reading. It was during this time that he began to form his opinions regarding politics.
When Jefferson Davis emerged from seclusion, he immersed himself in Mississippi politics and high society. His brother had become one of the wealthiest men in the South, and Jefferson Davis enjoyed the status of being part of his family. Davis met and married the young socialite Varina Howell on February 25, 1845. Always loyal and devoted to her husband, she would share his trials and triumphs and fight battles alongside and for him. Together they had four sons and two daughters, though the four sons would die before Davis.
Davis became a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress in December 1845. The outbreak of the Mexican-American War (1846–48), however, led him to resign the following June. Accepting a position in command of a volunteer regiment, Davis went to Mexico with his soldiers to join his former father-in-law and commander, General Taylor.
Davis and his “Mississippi Rifles” played an important part in the campaign and earned heroic honors at the Battle of Buena Vista. Upon his return in 1847, the Mississippi legislature appointed him to finish an unexpired U.S. senatorial term. Reelected in 1850, Davis was a vocal member of his party and the chairman of the Senate's Military Committee.
Party and doctrinal loyalty led Davis to resign his Senate seat in 1851 to enter the governor's race in Mississippi. The election followed the heated debates and passage in Congress of the Compromise of 1850 . This legislation, which resolved where slavery would be allowed and banned in new western territories after the Mexican-American War, stoked southern passion about their supposed right to slavery . Talk of secession hung in the air. Devoted to the national union through lineage and patriotism, Davis was also dedicated to the concept of state independence. He campaigned well on a platform that stressed the rights of a united South, and he lost by only one thousand votes.
Davis returned to life as a planter until 1853, when his friend, U.S. president Franklin Pierce (1804–1869; served 1853–57) appointed him as secretary of war. Davis's service was marked by progressive and innovative ideas. Recognizing that military operations in the desert of the western states required different methods, he worked to introduce new and more appropriate tactics and weapons. He worked toward establishing routes for a transcontinental railroad. He also was involved in expanding the U.S. capitol and sometimes served as the navy secretary.
The road to secession
At the end of his term as secretary of war, Davis promptly returned to a Senate position. The country was wrapped in debates concerning the expansion of slavery in 1857, and violent clashes had begun to break out within the states. That year the Supreme Court handed down a verdict in the Dred Scott case. It ruled that neither federal nor state laws could interfere with the rights of slaveholders. Calling slaves a form of property, the Court said that the U.S. Constitution protected slaveholders’ rights. This challenged the concept of “popular sovereignty,” which allowed each state and territory to allow or outlaw slavery according to its own wants. Along with the voices of Americans who opposed slavery as an immoral violation of the human rights of slaves, debates concerning the rights of slaveholders and the relative powers of the federal and state governments set the country on the path to the American Civil War (1861–65).
By 1858, Davis was well aware of the increasing difficulties in preserving the Union . The Dred Scott decision triggered a series of events that led to the split of the Democratic Party into northern and southern factions. As a strong proponent of slavery and southern society, Davis defended the Court's decision. His own dedication to the nation was challenged by his love of the South.
The crisis reached a breaking point when the nation elected a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), in 1860. Republicans officially supported maintaining slavery where it existed but blocking it from expansion. However, the South viewed Lincoln's election as a move toward complete abolition of slavery nationwide.
In the Senate, the Committee of Thirteen was created in December 1860 to find a solution to the crisis. As part of the committee, Davis saw little hope for compromise and reluctantly advised secession. On January 21, 1861, Davis announced the secession of Mississippi and formally withdrew from the Senate and Washington, D.C.
President of the Confederacy
Davis and his family returned to his plantation in Mississippi, where he accepted a position as major-general of the state troops. Then a general convention of the seceding states elected Davis as the temporary president of the provisional government of the Confederate States of America . Though he felt better qualified for the military command, Davis dutifully accepted the political post. He was inaugurated on February 18, 1861. A year later, he was inaugurated as the regular, and eventually only, president of the established Confederacy.
As of early 1861, Davis hoped for a peaceful course to secession. He spoke of the Confederacy as a product of evolution and growth rather than revolution. Realistically, though, Davis knew war was a real possibility and that the South was unprepared. He urged the creation of a strong centralized government with a national army and navy that would control military operations over the states.
Failure of negotiations with the U.S. government led to a crisis at Fort Sumter, South Carolina , in April 1861. The Union's refusal to abandon the federal fort in Confederate territory led to a military confrontation. This was the incident that sparked the start of the Civil War.
Davis's performance as the Confederate leader gathers both praise and criticism from historians. Certainly Davis was completely devoted to the task. He organized his armies with skill and kept a close eye on his generals. Working to build morale and loyalty in the border state of Virginia , he moved the capital of the Confederacy to Richmond in May 1861. He also pressed controversial legislation that forced citizens to support the war effort. The Conscription Acts (1862), which called for a mandatory draft of white men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five for three years of service, kept the Confederate armies manned. An impressment program allowed the armies to commandeer supplies for the men and animals. While he supported tough taxes, Davis endorsed a program by which taxes could be paid with food or supplies that would help to support the armies.
Davis remained a devoted and dedicated leader to the Confederate states to the very end. Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) evacuated Richmond on April 2, 1865, and surrendered to the Union a few days later at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. Davis at first attempted to lead a refugee government but eventually approved surrender by mid-April. Admitting that the Confederacy had been overthrown, Davis headed south in an attempt to leave the country. On May 10, the federal cavalry captured him in Irwinville, Georgia .
Davis served two years in prison awaiting trial for treason. Efforts by his family and many others to gain his release finally succeeded. Released on bail in May 1867, he was never brought to trial. He would never waver in his belief in the cause of the Confederacy and in the right of a state to secede from the nation.
The twilight years
Jefferson Davis's last years were a struggle to regain health and financial stability. His fortune was wrecked, his home was a ruin, and his health was impaired. A family friend provided a home and it was there that Davis devoted his last years to writing two autobiographical memoirs. His Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government was published in 1881, and the Short History of Confederate States appeared in 1889. Davis died on December 5, 1889, at the age of eighty-two.
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.”
Davis, Jefferson.  1971. The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.
David F. Ericson
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
(b. June 3, 1808; d. December 5, 1889) U.S. representative and senator, Mexican War hero, and president of the Confederacy.
Jefferson Davis, best known as president of the Confederate States of America, is credited with shaping the Confederacy and leading it in the Civil War. In the years before the war, he served as Mississippi representative and senator, and was also a hero in the Mexican War. The defeat of Davis's Confederacy reshaped American society and government as well as the U.S. Constitution.
Born in Kentucky to a farmer of modest means, Jefferson Davis moved to Mississippi as a child and is most identified with that state, which was then on the frontier. He was educated at Transylvania College and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1828. Afterward, he was an army officer, serving in the infantry and the dragoons in the Northwest (now Wisconsin and Michigan) and Southwest (now Oklahoma), until 1835. He resigned to marry his first wife, who died soon after their marriage. He then became a successful cotton planter at Davis Bend, near Vicksburg, Mississippi. He married Varina Howell in 1845, and they eventually had six children, only one of whom survived to marry and have children of her own.
In the early 1840s Davis became interested in politics and joined the Democratic Party, of which he was to be a lifelong member. He was in his first term in the House of Representatives when he was elected to lead a volunteer regiment in the Mexican War. As colonel of the Mississippi Rifles he fought heroically in the Battle of Monterrey and again in the Battle of Buena Vista, where he was seriously wounded. Soon after Davis returned home in 1847, the governor of Mississippi appointed him to represent Mississippi in the Senate, and he was soon elected to that position. He was an effective chairman of the Military Affairs Committee and a strong defender of Southern interests, including the extension of slavery. In 1851 he ran for governor, losing in a very close race. In 1853 President Franklin Pierce appointed him secretary of war. He was a success in this position, upgrading the course of study at West Point, increasing the size of the army and its pay, surveying various possible routes to the Pacific for railroads, importing camels for army use in the deserts of the West, and supervising many construction projects in Washington, such as the new dome for the Capitol and the Washington Aqueduct. He also took a great interest in
scientific inventions and was a trustee of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1861, while Davis was serving as senator, Mississippi voted to secede from the United States. Davis left Washington reluctantly to follow his state. He hoped for a high military appointment in the Confederate army, but because of his experience in politics he was elected president of the new nation. During the four years of the Civil War, he was devoted to the Confederate cause. Despite his dedication, he was criticized for being too concerned with details, too rigid, and too loyal to old friends; but he won admiration for his military skills, his convictions, his honesty and integrity, and his choice of Robert E. Lee to command the Army of Northern Virginia. Davis's overriding belief in the power of the states over that of the central government proved quite a stumbling block when he found himself in charge of a national administration, the strength of which was essential to waging war.
During the conflict, the South was overwhelmed by the North's much larger resources in manpower, money, and industry. The protection and extension of the institution of slavery, which white Southerners believed key to their economy and way of life, were the underlying reasons for war. In the end, these goals proved indefensible, both practically and morally. Also, the existence of slavery made it all but impossible to secure the foreign aid from England or France, along with other foreign nations, that would have helped the South.
In April 1865 Union forces seized Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Davis fled southward but was captured in May. He was indicted for treason and for a time was believed to be involved in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Imprisoned for two years, Davis was never tried and never regained his U.S. citizenship. He traveled, became the president of an insurance company, wrote his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), and retired to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He died in New Orleans in 1889 and is buried in Richmond.
Cooper, William J., Jr. Jefferson Davis, American. New York: Knopf, 2000.
Davis, Jefferson. Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches, edited by Dunbar Rowland. 10 vols. Jackson, MS: Department of Archives and History, 1923.
Davis, Jefferson. The Papers of Jefferson Davis, edited by Haskell M. Monroe, Jr., et al. 11 vols. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971–2003.
Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
"The Papers of Jefferson Davis." Rice University. Available from <http://jeffersondavis.rice.edu>.
Lynda Lasswell Crist