A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Mexican-American War veteran, U.S. Congressman, Senator, and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis served as the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.
Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in Christian County, Kentucky (now part of Todd County). His birthplace was fewer than one hundred miles from where Abraham Lincoln was born eight months later. Davis was the tenth and last child of Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Emory Davis and Jane Cook. In 1811, Davis's family relocated to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and the next year, the family moved to a small plantation named Rosemont in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. During his youth, Davis attended private schools in Mississippi and, Kentucky. Between 1818 and 1821, he attended Jefferson College in Mississippi and Transylvania University in Kentucky. Davis entered the United States Military Academy in 1824, and he graduated in 1828, twenty-third in his class.
After graduating from West Point, Jefferson Davis was brevetted as a second lieutenant assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin. While serving there, Davis fell in love with the daughter of his commanding officer and future President of the United States, Zachary Taylor. Possibly because Taylor disapproved of the relationship, Davis resigned his commission in 1835. The couple then married near Louisville, Kentucky on June 17 1835. Later that year, Davis and his wife contracted malaria. Davis recovered, but his wife died on September 15, only three months after their marriage.
In 1836, after his wife's death, Davis moved to Brierfield Plantation in Warren County Mississippi, where he led a reclusive life growing cotton and studying history and politics for nearly a decade. Gradually, Davis emerged from his self-imposed seclusion. He became active in politics, and he won election to the United States House of Representatives in November 1844. A few months later, on February 26, 1845, Davis married Varina Howell, the daughter of a prominent Mississippi planter.
Davis served only part of his first term in Congress. When the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) began, he resigned his seat on June 18, 1846, to assume command of the 1st Mississippi Regiment, also known as the Mississippi Rifles. During the Mexican-American War, Davis served under his former father-in-law at the Battle of Monterrey and at the Battle Buena Vista, where he was wounded on February 22, 1847.
After the Mexican-American War, Davis resumed his political career. The governor of Mississippi selected Davis to fill a vacant seat in the United States Senate on December 5, 1847. In the U.S. Senate, Davis became a leading supporter of slavery and states' rights. In 1851, Davis resigned his Senate seat to pursue an unsuccessful bid to become governor of Mississippi. Davis then returned to plantation life until March 7, 1853, when U.S. President Franklin Pierce appointed him as secretary of war. As Pierce's tenure as president neared completion, Davis was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1856, taking his seat on March 4, 1857. During his second term in the Senate, Davis remained a vocal supporter of states' rights, but he was also an opponent of secession as a means to resolving sectional differences between the North and South. Nevertheless, when Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, Davis resigned from the Senate and delivered a moving farewell address on January 21. A few weeks later, delegates to a constitutional convention at Montgomery, Alabama elected Davis as provisional president of the Confederate States of America, and he was inaugurated on February 18, 1861.
After Virginia seceded from the Union (April 17, 1861), Davis relocated the capital of the Confederacy to Richmond, Virginia in May. On November 6, 1861, Davis was elected to a six-year term as president of the Confederate States of America. He was inaugurated in Richmond on February 22, 1862 and would serve the next three years as the sole president of the Confederacy's brief history.
As the newly-elected president of the Confederacy, Davis faced the unenviable task of trying to form a new nation while at war with a formidable opponent. During America's infancy, the Founding Fathers learned that it was difficult to govern a loose confederation of states. Seven decades later, Davis discovered that trying to reconcile the military imperatives for centralization with a political model based upon decentralized control was nearly impossible. That discrepancy often put him at odds with various state governors, individual legislators, and members of his own cabinet. Davis's personality and management style further hindered his performance. His aloof nature did not engender popular support amongst common citizens in the South. Like Lincoln, Davis's support for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and for a conscription policy that favored the wealthy served as a source of dissatisfaction.
Davis' penchant for micro-managing also limited his effectiveness as commander-in-chief of Confederate forces in the field. His favoritism toward certain generals (Braxton Bragg in particular) and running feuds with others, like Joseph Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, handicapped the Rebel armies. Late in the war, many Southerners began questioning Davis' competency as commander-in-chief. Opposition to Davis' leadership reached a crescendo on January 23, 1865 when the Confederation Congress enacted legislation creating the post of General-in-Chief of Confederate forces. In late January 1865, Davis nominated Robert E. Lee for the position. On February 1, Samuel Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General (CSA), informed Lee that the Confederate Senate had confirmed his appointment. On February 6, Cooper issued General Orders, No. 3 announcing that Lee was officially General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies. By that time, the Army of the Potomac had the Army of Northern Virginia nearly surrounded at Petersburg, Virginia. On April 2, Lee had to abandon his lines at Petersburg or face the destruction of his army. The next day, Davis and the Confederate government evacuated Richmond.
After a month of trying to elude Union forces in the Deep South, Davis met with his cabinet for the last time on May 5, 1865, in Washington, Georgia and dissolved the Confederate government. Five days later, federal forces captured Davis near Irwinsville, Georgia. He was sent to Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he was imprisoned from May 22, 1865 through May 13, 1867.
In 1867, Davis was released on bail, part of which was posted by shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. After his release, Davis spent the next two years traveling in Canada, Cuba, and Europe. In February 1869, Federal prosecutors dropped all charges against Davis, but his citizenship was not restored. Later that year, Davis accepted a position as president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1877, novelist Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey invited Jefferson Davis and his wife to live at Beauvoir, the Dorsey estate near Biloxi, Mississippi. Two years later, Dorsey died, and Davis inherited Beauvoir. While living there, Davis wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which was published in 1881. The work was warmly received in the South.
In 1889, Jefferson Davis completed writing A Short History of the Confederate States of America. Later that year, while traveling in New Orleans, Davis died on December 6, of unknown causes. After a large funeral, Davis was buried at the Army of Northern Virginia tomb at Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans on December 11. In 1893, Davis's body was exhumed and reburied at its final resting place in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.
On October 17, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a Joint Resolution of Congress reinstating Jefferson Davis's citizenship.
Cite this Entry
"Jefferson Finis Davis," Ohio Civil War Central, 2018, Ohio Civil War Central. 18 Feb 2018 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=454>
"Jefferson Finis Davis." (2018) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved February 18, 2018, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=454
- Abraham Lincoln
- Army of Northern Virginia
- Braxton Bragg
- General Orders, No. 23 (CSA)
- Joseph E. Johnston
- Message from Jefferson Davis Appointing Joseph E. Johnston to Command of the Army of Tennessee
- Message from Jefferson Davis Instructing Leonidas Polk to Join Forces with Joseph E. Johnston in Georgia
- Message from Jefferson Davis Relieving William J. Hardee from Duty with the Army of Tennessee
- Message from Jefferson Davis to Hood, Hardee, and Stewart Regarding Hood's Appointment as Commander of the Army of Tennessee
- Message from Joseph E. Johnston Reacting to Orders to Transfer Command of the Army of Tennessee to John Bell Hood
- Message to Jefferson Davis from Hood, Hardee, and Stewart Regarding Hood's Appointment as Commander of Army of Tennessee
- Mexican-American War
- P.G.T. Beauregard
- Robert E. Lee
- Ulysses S. Grant
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