Davis, Jefferson

Born: 1808-06-03 Todd County, Kentucky

Died: 1889-12-06 New Orleans, Louisiana

Jefferson Davis was a U.S. Army officer, U.S. Senator, U.S. secretary of war, and president of the Confederate States of America. Born into a family of farmers, Davis was uncertain of the year of his birth; he for years believed it was 1807, but in later life settled on 1808. Davis moved with his family to the Louisiana Territory when he was very young and then to Woodville, Mississippi. His father sent him to St. Thomas College, in Springfield, Kentucky, when he was eight years old. After two years at St. Thomas College, Davis returned to Mississippi and attended local academies. In 1823, he matriculated to Transylvania University, where he studied for one year. His father died the following year and his eldest brother, Joseph Emory Davis, arranged for him to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Davis matriculated to West Point in 1824 and graduated in 1828, finishing twenty-third out of a class of thirty-three. Upon graduation, Davis received a commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, spending the next six and a half years on garrison duty in the West. In 1833, he began courting Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor, but the future president did not approve of the relationship. Davis was found guilty of insubordination in an 1835 court martial, resigned from the army, and returned to Mississippi. In June 1835, he married Sarah. She died only three months later, and Davis spent the next few years working on his brother’s plantations. There, he became involved in the slave agriculture economy and Democratic politics. Davis ran unsuccessfully for the Mississippi legislature in 1843, but in 1845, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1845, he married Varina Howell, with whom he had six children.

A rising Democrat, Davis came to admire John C. Calhoun, and he devoted his career as representative to defending states’ rights and urging territorial expansion. He served in U.S. House from March 1845 to June 1846, when he resigned to a accept a commission as colonel of the First Mississippi Rifles during the Mexican War. The regiment served well at Monterrey and Buena Vista, and Davis’ exploits made him a hero upon his return to Mississippi. In 1847, he accepted appointment to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat left vacant upon the death of Jesse Speight. Highly aggressive and combative, Davis soon became embroiled in the first of a half dozen duels that typified his senatorial career. Retaining his strong expansionist inclinations, Davis favored annexing huge portions of Mexican territory, and argued that the Gulf of Mexico belonged to the United States. He also began to defend slavery and southern interests in the territories. Davis resisted any attempt by the federal government to limit slavery’s spread westward and opposed the Compromise of 1850. He remained in the Senate from August 1847 to September 1851, when he resigned to run for governor in Mississippi. Davis failed to win the governor’s race, and considered retiring from politics, but in 1852, he returned to Washington as Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war. He was effective in the cabinet, favored annexation of Cuba, and supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Davis returned to the U.S. Senate in 1857, proving more protective of the South but not yet a secessionist. Placing himself in opposition to Stephen A. Douglas, Davis supported John C. Breckinridge in the election of 1860 but again did not favor secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election. As a member of the Senate’s Committee of Thirteen, Davis offered to support the Crittenden Compromise if Republicans did likewise. In January 1861, he withdrew from the Senate and accepted a commission as major general of the Mississippi militia. Davis’ moderation during the Secession Crisis made him an attractive candidate for president of the Confederacy, and in February 1861, the Provisional Congress elected him president. In February 1862, Davis won election as president for a six-year term.

Despite his initial reluctance to embrace disunion and secession, Davis embraced his role as leader of the Confederacy. He built a highly centralized federal government, often putting him at odds with state leaders. He also became directly involved in the military affairs of his generals and attempted to actively direct the Confederate war effort. Davis advocated a strategy of defending the Confederacy with opportunistic offensive assaults, which proved successful for the war’s first two years and closely aligned him with Robert E. Lee. He was also the driving force behind Confederate conscription, further infuriating many of his political allies and subordinates, and, like Lincoln, suspended the writ of habeas corpus. In order to keep the Confederate economy going and supply the war effort, he took measures that came close to nationalizing the South’s economic resources. These actions likely extended the Confederacy’s ability to defend itself but also made Davis increasingly unpopular with politicians and citizens. His commitment to the Confederacy remained constant, even during the war’s final months, and he was one of the last Confederate leaders to accept Union victory.

Paul D. Escott, “Davis, Jefferson,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6:201-4; Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1949 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1950), 1061; James M. McPherson, Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief (New York: Penguin, 2014); Gravestone, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA.