Jefferson Davis


Jefferson Davis




Jefferson Davis was the youngest of (5,7) of ten children born to his parents, (3,5) Jane (3,10) Cook (11) and Samuel Davis. (3,5) His middle name was Finis, because the couple wanted no more children after him. (11) Samuel Davis was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, (11) and a moderately prosperous farmer (5) OR a planter. (10) Jefferson was born (1,5) in a log cabin (7) in Christian (now Todd) County (8) in Fairview (5) Kentucky (1,5) on June 3rd (7,10) in 1808. (1,2) By coincidence Abraham Lincoln was also born in Kentucky, six months later. (10) The Lincolns moved on to Indiana and Illinois, (10) while the Davises moved to Mississippi when Jefferson was a boy (6,7) aged two (7) and raised there, (1,3) in Wilkinson County, (5) where his father owned a small farm (7) OR plantation (10) on the Mississippi frontier. (9) Later on he lived in Kentucky, (3) and Louisiana. (3,5) Jefferson learned how to fish, shoot, ride horses, and work on a farm. (7) He had a good childhood where his best friend was his sister Polly who was two years older than him. (7) OR his life was shaped by his brother Joseph (9,11) who was twenty-four years his senior. (9) Jefferson’s father was not wealthy, but the oldest son, Joseph, became well-to-do and helped the boy. (10) Joseph was a major influence in his life. (8,11) and saw to it that Jefferson was well educated. (11) He attended both day schools and boarding schools. (3,7) He attended academies in Kentucky and Mississippi. (10) These included the Wilkinson Academy and Catholic School St. Thomas at St. Rose Priory. (3) He continued his studies at Jefferson College at Washington, Mississippi. (3) From 1821 (10) he was given a classical education (6) OR studied to become a lawyer (7) at Transylvania University (3,6) at Lexington (3,8) Kentucky. (3,10) He was there, at the age of 16, when his father Samuel died of malaria. (7) After graduating from Transylvania, (7) his older (5,8) eldest (5) brother (5,7) Joseph (5,8) Emory (5) Davis secured the younger Davis’s (5,7) appointment to the United States Military Academy. (1,5)

Military Career 1828-35

As a military cadet, Davis’ performance was only adequate. (11) He was placed under house arrest for his role in the 1826 Eggnog Riot, which started after cadets were caught smuggling whiskey into their barracks. (9) He graduated from West Point in (1,3) June of (3) 1828 (1,3) OR 1824, (7) placed twenty-third in a class of thirty-four. (11) After graduating, Jefferson Davis served six (5) OR seven (6) years as an officer, (5,10) with the rank of lieutenant (5) in the United States Army. (5,10) He was in the frontier service, (4,7) in various army posts (6,10) in Illinois and Wisconsin (10) in the Old Northwest. (6) He was involved in some small skirmishes with Native Americans (7) and in 1832 (6,10) he took part (6,8) briefly (8,11) in the Black Hawk War. (6,8) His commanding officer was the future president, (7,10) Colonel (10,11) Zachary Taylor. (7,10)

First marriage and Plantation

He served under Zachary Taylor and fell in love with Taylor’s daughter (3,7) in 1833 (10) OR 1835. (7) Taylor refused to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to a military man because it was not a life he wished for his child. (3,7) In 1835, (4,7) Davis resigned from the military, (3,4) to marry Sarah Taylor (3) OR because of bad health, (4) OR to become a cotton planter in Mississippi. (8) The marriage took place against her father’s wishes, (10,11) after Sarah went to an aunt in Kentucky, and there (10) he married Sarah Knox Taylor in 1835, (3,5) when he was 27 years old. (5) His elder brother Joseph Davis had made a fortune as a lawyer and planter, and he played a paternal role in Jefferson’s life for many years. (9) Sarah and Jeffersons moved to Mississippi, (6,7) where his brother Joseph helped him establish (10) a large (5) cotton plantation (3,5) called Brierfield, on land (10) which Joseph had given him, (5,6) along with the slaves to work it (5,9) as many as 74 of them. (5) Both Jefferson and Sarah were soon stricken with malaria. (5,10) Sarah died three months after the wedding; (3,5) Davis spent the 10 years (6) OR eight years (11) following the tragedy living quietly (10,11) at Brierfield (10) OR Davis Bend (11) as a Mississippi planter. (6,11) Jefferson recovered slowly from the malaria, but suffered from recurring bouts of the disease throughout his life. (5)

Second Marriage

In 1845, (5,6) at the age of 36, (5) Davis married again, (5,6) to 18-year-old (5,11) Varina Howell, (5,6) a native of Natchez, Mississippi, who had been educated in Philadelphia and had some family ties in the North. (5) By this time he was a successful planter. (10) Jefferson and Varina had six children, (3,5) two girls and four boys, (11) but only the two daughters lived into adulthood. (5,11) and only one married and had children. (5)

Senator for Mississippi 1835-45

After spending several years working on his plantation, (7) Joseph managed it so that Jefferson could (9) begin his political career. (7,9) He served briefly (1) OR for ten years from 1835 to 1845 (4) in Congress (1,2) as Senator for Mississippi. (4,11) He was a US Congressman from 1845 to 1846 (4,6) in the House of Representatives. (6,7) This was the only electoral victory in his pre-Confederate career. (8,9) Davis was a Democrat (8) and became well known for his powerful speeches (7) and strong beliefs in states’ rights. (7,8) and the extension of slavery into the territories. (8,9) A slaveholder, Davis firmly believed in the importance of the institution of slavery for the South. (10,11) He developed a deep devotion to Southern plantation life and his own attitude toward his slaves led him to deny fiercely all Northern claims that slavery was cruel. (10)

Mexican War, 1846-48

When the Mexican-American war began in 1846, (3,5) Davis resigned his seat in Congress in June, 1846, to serve (6,10) as colonel of a volunteer regiment, (3,5) the Mississippi (3,10) Rifles volunteers. (3) He served (1,3) again under Zachary Taylor (6,7) now a General, (7,10) in the war with Mexico, (1,3) He gained military experience (3,4) OR he distinguished himself (6,7) by his leadership skills (7) at the siege (3,4) OR battle (11) of Monterrey and at the Battle of Buena Vista, (3,4) where he was severely (10) wounded. (4,10) At that battle of Davis and his regiment probably saved the American army from defeat. (10) This action made him widely known as “the hero of Buena Vista.” (9,10) It also convinced him that he was a military genius. (10) He was offered a promotion to brigadier general in 1847 but refused it when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. (11)

Political Career 1847-57

Senator for Mississippi 1847-51

Having become a hero in the Mexican War, (9) in 1847 Davis was appointed (6,7) by the governor of Mississippi (7) to be the U.S. Senator from Mississippi to fill an unexpired term. (6,7) He was appointed, not elected, to many of the offices he held in his antebellum career. (9) He was an opponent of the Compromise of 1850, (8,9) particularly the admission of California as a free state. (9) He resigned in 1851 (6,7) to run for governor of Mississippi (6,9) against his senatorial colleague, Henry S. Foote, who was a Union Whig. (6) He lost this election (6,8) by less than a thousand votes and retired to his plantation. (6)

Secretary for War 1853-7

In 1853 he was appointed Secretary of War by (6,7) President (7,9) Franklin Pierce. (6,7) Were it not for his later association with the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis might today be best known for his term in the federal cabinet. (2,8) He had a distinguished career (2,9) as Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. (1) (1853-1857) (1,8) He succeeded in upgrading the equipment used by the army, expanding it by four regiments, enlarging West Point, raising pay, and improving coastal and frontier defences. (8) He failed, however, to replace seniority with merit in the determination of promotions. (8) Throughout the administration he used his power to oppose the views of his Northern Democratic colleague, Secretary of State William L. Marcy. (6) Davis favoured 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 favouring the Gadsden Purchase. (6) He oversaw the construction of the new Senate and House wings of the U.S. Capitol. (1)

Senator for Mississippi 1857-61

His service in the cabinet came to an end when (8) Pierce lost the re-election. (7) Davis re-entered (9) OR was re-elected1 to (1,4) the Senate (1,2) in 1857 (1,4) as senator (2,4) for Mississippi. (2,8) He was a vocal proponent of states’ rights. (11) On the eve of the Civil War, he witnessed some of the most dramatic events in Senate history. (1)

The Slavery Issue

By this time the tension between the North and the South over slavery was at fever heat. (10) He became the leader of the Southern block, a strong champion of Southern rights (6) and a foremost spokesman for the pro-slavery interests. (8,10) Not content with defending its existence in the South, (8) Davis argued for the expansion of slave territory (6,8) OR of slavery into the territories. (9) He argued that slavery was both an economic and moral benefit to the country. (8) He argued that the U.S. Constitution was created with a good faith understanding that slavery was legitimate, and consequently it should be possible for an American citizen to travel anywhere within the country with his property, i.e. slaves. (8)

Secession Issue

He called for the economic development of the South (4,6) to counterbalance the power of the North. (6) He believed that states had an unquestionable right to leave the Union. (5) He was not an early supporter of secession, (8) and took little part in the secession movement.(6) As talk of secession filled the Senate Chamber, (1) he argued against it (5,9) in 1858 (5) and joined the “Committee of Thirteen” to seek compromise and avoid war. (1)

The Election of Lincoln

In 1860 he helped nominate a proslavery Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, to run against both Abraham Lincoln, the Republican nominee, and Stephen A. Douglas, the northern Democratic nominee. (10) This party split caused Lincoln to be elected. (10)


Southern bitterness made secession inevitable. (10) However, (6,9) on January (6,7) 9th (7) OR 21st (1,10) 1861 (3,6) South Carolina and (3) Mississippi seceded from the Union, and Davis (1,3) made an impassioned speech to the Senate (10) and resigned. (1,3) He left the Senate (1,3) and returned to Mississippi, (3,7) where he was immediately appointed major general of the Mississippi militia. (6)

President of the Confederacy 1861-5

When the Southern states formed the Confederacy (10) he hoped to be named commander of the Confederate forces, (7,10) but on February (4,7) 18th (4) OR 9th (7) 1861, (4) the provisional Congress of the Confederate States (4,6) established by the convention at Montgomery, Alabama, (6,7) chose him by acclamation (9) to be provisional president. (4,6) OR President. (7) Davis’ appointment was largely political; he was a compromise candidate chosen to appease both the moderate and radical factions in the Congress. (11) Davis, however, did not want the job. (11) Davis took it as he considered it his duty even though he was personally against secession. (7) A month later, (1,3) he was elected regular President of the Confederate States (4,6) by popular vote (4) in November (8) OR February (9) 1861 for a (4,8) full (8) 6-year (4) term, (4,8) and inaugurated at Richmond, Virginia, (4,6) the capital of the Confederacy, (4) on February 22nd, 1862. (3,4) OR February 18th, (10) 1861. (6,10) He thus became (1,2) the first and only (2,6) President of the Confederacy. (1,2) Despite poor health, Davis assumed his new duties. (10)

The War starts

Initially Davis had hoped that the North would let the South secede in peace, but he soon learned that Abraham Lincoln was not going to let the South secede peacefully. (7) Recognizing the relative weakness of the Confederacy, in terms of both population and industrial capacity, Davis advocated making military preparations while avoiding any overt act that would give the North an excuse for military action against the Confederacy. (8) He was forced by events, however, (8) and when Lincoln did not turn over Davis authorized the Confederate army (7,8) to bombard Fort Sumter (April 12-13, 1861), which gave Lincoln the chance to portray the South as the aggressor. (8) This marked the start of the Civil War. (7)

Events of the war

At first his administration was highly popular (10,11) with the Southern people. (11) He had a dignified bearing, a distinguished military record, extensive experience in political affairs, and—most importantly—a dedication to the Confederate cause. (11) Time brought military reverses, and criticism began. (10) He faced difficulties throughout the war as he struggled to manage the Southern war effort, maintain control the Confederate economy and keep a new nation united. (9) He took more power into his hands, until even his own officials at Richmond complained. (10) Although the South saw some success, eventually the larger population and wealth of the Union began to win out. (7) As the blockade of the Southern coasts became more effective, the uneven struggle appeared hopeless. (10)


What did Davis do well as President of the Confederacy? No one ever doubted his commitment to the Confederate cause, (8,9) He worked hard, and infused the southern cause with tenacity. (4) He was responsible for the raising of formidable Confederate armies. (4) He maintained warm friendships with onetime slaves as well as old friends in the North, and many who knew him idolized him. (10) He realized that the Confederate war effort needed a strong, centralized rule. (6) In 1862 (2) his decision that General Robert E. Lee should command (2,3) the Army of (3,4) Northern (3) Virginia (3,4) instead of Joe Johnston (2,8), has been described as ‘a very successful move at the time’. (3,4)


He was plagued by chronic illness, and the attributes which made him initially popular were not enough to triumph over the harsh challenges posed by his new position. (11) He was a much less effective war leader than his Union counterpart, President Abraham Lincoln. (5,8)

Political Strategy and tactics

He held less power in the South than Lincoln did in the North. (2) Strong, centralized rule’ conflicted with the states’ rights policy for which the Southern states had seceded, (4,6) and many of the Southern leaders combined into an anti-Davis party. (6) His attempts to have high military officers appointed by the president were opposed by the governors of the states. (4) These feuds with powerful state governors (5) required skilful leadership (5,8) but he was not as good as Lincoln in managing congressional opposition. (9) Perhaps the fact that he had generally been appointed, rather than elected, to political office was a handicap to his presidency. (9) The judges of state courts constantly interfered in military matters through judicial decisions. (4)


Originally hopeful of a military rather than a civil command in the Confederacy, (6) He dabbled in military matters, (8) acting as his own Secretary of War and meddling constantly in Southern military strategy. (2) He was preoccupied with detail, and reluctant to delegate responsibility. (10) His belief in his own legend as the ‘Hero of Buena Vista’ (10) handicapped him in his relations with his generals. (5,9) He was involved in many disagreements with them, and arguments over his policies raged long after the Confederacy was dead. (6)

Neglect of Domestic politics

Paying too much attention to military matters he neglected domestic politics, (9,10) and appeared indifferent to the personal liberty of his people. (10) He was not indifferent to it, but he was inflexible and dictatorial in manner. (10) Lacking the personal qualities that made Abraham Lincoln a successful president, (9) he resisted public opinion (10) and did not inspire the southern public as Lincoln did his public in the North. (9)

People skills

His early popularity was a result of war fervour and he did not have the personality necessary to sustain it. (11) His people skills were criticised: (9,10) he had the unfortunate habit of awarding prominent posts to leaders who appeared unsuccessful. (11) He showed favouritism toward old friends (10) appointing many of his fellow cadets from West Point to lead the Confederate armies. (7) He protected incompetents, such as Braxton Bragg. (9) His loyalty to such people led to bickering and quarrels throughout his administration. (11) Those who praise his promotion of (8) fellow cadet (7) Lee over Johnson are matched by those who regard it as a particularly questionable decision, (8) cited as an example of his failure to use talented men he disliked. (9) He was impatient with people who disagreed with him, (11) and refused to listen to opposing points of view. (5,8)

Economic Aspects of the War

He was never able to figure out how to defeat the better-equipped North. (2) He failed to raise sufficient money to fight the war (4) or create enough industrial capacity to prevail in the war. (2) The economy in the South became strangled by the Union’s blockades: (7) the Confederate currency was unstable (2) and became nearly worthless. (7)


He could not obtain recognition and help for the Confederacy from foreign governments. (4) The growing numbers of Confederate defeats in the latter years of the War undermined his status, (11) and the power he had rapidly decreased as the Union Army captured large parts of the Confederacy. (2)

The End of the War

Even on March 13th (10) 1865 (4,10) Davis still hoped the South would be able to achieve its independence (4,10) OR In early 1865, Davis, still hoping for Southern independence, sought peace terms. (8) OR There was little Davis could do. (7) Less than 30 days later (10) Lee surrendered (6,7) at Appomattox (7) without Davis’s approval, (6) on April 9th OR May (3,4) 10th (4) OR 19th, (3) 1865. (1,3) He realized defeat was imminent (4) OR attempted to gather forces and fight on (7) until the bitter end, even when it was clear that the Confederacy had lost. (2,7) However, he found little support. (7) The South was done fighting. (7) As the prospects for victory dimmed, (4,8) after the last Confederate cabinet meeting was held (6) in April, 1865 (6,9) in Charlotte, North Carolina, (6) the Union armies finally surrounded (9) Richmond, (9,11) and Davis (4,8) and his family (9) and the other members of the Confederate government (11) fled the city (8,9) for the Deep South (8,9) on April 2nd. (11)

Imprisonment at Fort Monroe, 1865-7

Several weeks after the Confederate surrender, (9) he was captured by Union troops (1,3) at Irwinville (4,6) OR near Irwinsville (10) in Irwin County, (3) Georgia (3,4) on May (7,9) 10th. (7,11) Davis’s life after the war was bleak. (8,9) He was imprisoned (3) for two years (1,3) from 1865 to 1867, (4) at Fortress Monroe (3,4) at Hampton, (5) in Virginia. (4,5) While he was there, in 1866, (4) he was thought, wrongly, to be a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination and (8) was charged with treason. (8,9) He was tried (3,4) OR never tried (5,6) and found guilty of treason, so he stayed in prison. (3,4) He became ill in prison. (8) His harsh confinement, which included leg shackles for a time, (8) aroused the sympathy of the Southern people (10) and restored his popularity in the South. (8) Even those who had found fault with his policies now regarded him as a martyr. (10) The charges were eventually dropped (8) and in the next year (4) he was released on $100,000 bail. (3,4) The American newspaper publisher (4) Horace Greeley and other influential Northerners put up the bail. (4,8)

Life after release

His physical and emotional health had deteriorated, and he was never the same after he was released in May 1867. (9) The federal government proceeded no further in its prosecution of Davis, (6) and in 1868 it (4) dropped the case against him. (2,4) Davis refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States and (8,9) was stripped of his citizenship and took refuge in Europe. (2) He refused to take the oath of allegiance (9) and never regained citizenship during his lifetime. (8)


As soon as he was free, (10) he and his family travelled (7,9) abroad for two years (9) to Canada (10) and Europe, (10,11) to try to regain his health. (10) He returned to the United States after a treason case against him was dropped, (2) but he had trouble making a living. (9,10) Mississippi tried to return him to the U.S. Senate, but he was not legally qualified to serve since he refused to request an official pardon from the United States for his role in the Civil War. (11)


Between 1870 and 1878 (4) he did a couple of jobs. (4,7) He first took up residence in Tennessee. (9,11) He worked in the insurance business (7,8) in Memphis (9) a number of years, (7,8) but the company failed financially. (4,8) From 1878 he lived at an estate (4,11) called Beauvoir (11) near Biloxi, (4,11) on the Mississippi gulf coast. (11) Like many of his contemporaries, Davis wrote about his wartime experiences. (11) He spent the rest of his life on his book (10) The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government’. (6,7) It was a (6,8) two-volume (8,11) apologia, (6) published in 1881 (5,6) but the work sold poorly. (8,9)

Indigence and Death

Davis became increasingly dependent upon the resources of friends and family. (8,9) By the late 1880s, he began to encourage reconciliation, telling Southerners to be loyal to the Union. (5) In 1888 he beseeched the young men of Mississippi to “lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling, and to make your places in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished—a reunited country.” (11) He never fully recovered from his illness from prison (8) and died in New Orleans (1,2) on December 6th (4,10) 1889, (1,2) at the age of 81, (3) He was buried at New Orleans, but in 1893 his body was moved to (6) Richmond, Virginia, (2,4) the former capital of the Confederacy. (2,4)

Posthumous Reputation

Ex-Confederates came to appreciate his role in the war, seeing him as a Southern patriot. (5,10) He became a hero of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy in the post-Reconstruction South. (5) A monument now stands there to the memory of “Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.” (10) Congress posthumously reinstated his American citizenship in 1978. (2,8) While not disgraced, (5) in recent years, his legacy has suffered in comparison to that of Robert E. Lee. (2,5)

1 (8) says he was only elected once

[bibliography of sources available upon request]

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