President of the Confederate States
|In office |
February 18, 1861 – May 10, 1865
|Vice President(s)||Alexander Stephens|
|Preceded by||None (Creation)|
|Succeeded by||None (Dissolution)|
23rd United States Secretary of War
|In office |
March 7, 1853 – March 4, 1857
|Preceded by||Charles Magill Conrad|
|Succeeded by||John Buchanan Floyd|
|Born||June 3, 1808 |
Christian County, Kentucky
|Died||December 6, 1889 |
New Orleans, Louisiana
|Political party||Conservative (Southern) Democrat|
|Spouse||Sarah Knox Taylor |
Jefferson Finis Davis (June 3, 1808 – December 6, 1889) was an American statesman and advocate for States' Rights. He is most famous for serving as the only President of the Confederate States of America, leading the rebelling southern slave states (the Confederacy) to defeat because of a lack of soldiers and supplies toward the end of the American Civil War, 1861-65. Davis was never touched by corruption, but he lacked the resources and experience to overcome his counterpart Abraham Lincoln, and was unable to defeat a more industrially developed Union. His insistence on independence even in the face of crushing defeat prolonged the war—Davis was an incredibly strong believer in the rights of the people to "alter or abolish governments whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established," noting such in his first inaugural address. Sam Houston of Texas uttered perhaps the most succinct characterization of Davis when he said the Mississippian was "ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard." After Davis was captured in 1865, he was held in a Federal prision for two years, then released with no charges being brought against him.
Before the Civil War, Davis served in the Mississippi Legislature, the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. He fought in the Mexican-American War as a colonel of a volunteer regiment. Later he became Secretary of War in the cabinet of U.S. President Franklin Pierce.
Davis was born on a farm in Christian County, Kentucky, near the border with Todd County. (His birthplace is now the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site.) Davis himself was unsure of his birth year. He wrote: "there has been some controversy about the year of my birth among the older members of my family, and I am not a competent witness in the case, having once supposed the year to have been 1807, I was subsequently corrected by being informed it was 1808, and have rested upon that point because it was just as good, and no better than another." 
Davis was the last of the ten children of Samuel Emory Davis and his wife Jane. The family had a long tradition in American history. The younger Davis's grandfather immigrated to the United States from Wales and had once lived in Virginia and Maryland, working as a public servant. His father, along with his uncles, had served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War; he fought with the Georgia cavalry and led in the Siege of Savannah as an infantry officer. His older brothers also served. During the War of 1812, three of Davis's brothers fought the British, two of them serving under Andrew Jackson and receiving his commendation for bravery in the Battle of New Orleans.
During Davis's youth, the family moved several times, in 1811 to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and in 1812 to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. In 1813, Davis began his education together with his sister Mary, attending a log cabin school a mile from their home. Two years later, Davis entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory, a school operated by the Dominican Order in Washington County, Kentucky. At the time, he was the only Protestant student.
Davis went on to Jefferson College at Washington, Mississippi, in 1818, and to Transylvania University at Lexington, Kentucky, in 1821. In 1824, Davis entered the United States Military Academy (West Point). He completed his four-year term as a West Point cadet, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in June 1828 after he graduated.
Davis was assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment and was stationed at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin. His first assignment, in 1829, was to supervise the cutting of timber on the banks of the Red Cedar River for the repair and enlargement of the fort. Later the same year, he was reassigned to Fort Winnebago. While supervising the construction and management of a sawmill in the Yellow River in 1831, he contracted pneumonia, causing him to return to Fort Crawford.
The next year, Davis was dispatched to Galena, Illinois, at the head of a detachment assigned to remove miners from lands claimed by Native Americans. His first combat assignment was during the Black Hawk War of the same year, after which he was assigned by his colonel, Zachary Taylor, to escort Black Hawk himself to prison at Jefferson Barracks—it is said that the chief liked Davis because of the kind treatment he had shown. Another of Davis's duties during this time was to keep miners from illegally entering what would eventually become the state of Iowa.
In 1833, Davis was promoted to first lieutenant of the Regiment of Dragoons and made a regimental adjutant. In 1834 he was transferred to Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory. Around this time, Davis had fallen in love with Colonel Taylor's daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Her father did not approve of the match, so Davis resigned his commission and married Miss Taylor on June 17, 1835, at the house of her aunt near Louisville, Kentucky.
The marriage proved short. The newlyweds both contracted malaria, and Davis's wife died three months after the wedding on September 15, 1835, at the Louisiana home of his sister. Davis recovered, sailing for Havana, Cuba, and then to New York City. In 1836, he retired to Brierfield Plantation in Warren County, Mississippi.
The year 1844 saw Davis's first political success, as he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, taking office on March 4 of the following year.
He married again on February 26, 1845, this time to the socially prominent Varina Howell.
The year 1846 saw the beginning of the Mexican-American War. He resigned his House seat in June, and raised a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, becoming its colonel. On July 21 they sailed from New Orleans for the Texas coast. This regiment was of particular note in that Davis armed it with percussion rifles and trained the regiment in their use, making it particularly effective in combat.
In September of the same year, he participated in the successful siege of Monterrey, Mexico. He fought bravely at the Battle of Buena Vista on February 22, 1847, and was shot in the foot. In recognition of his bravery and initiative, commanding general Zachary Taylor is reputed to have said, "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was."
President James K. Polk offered him a Federal commission as a brigadier general and command of a brigade of militia. He declined the appointment, arguing that the United States Constitution gives the power of appointing militia officers to the states, and not to the Federal government.
The Senate made Davis chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. When his term expired, he was elected to the same seat (by the Mississippi legislature, as the Constitution mandated at the time). He had not served a year when he resigned (in September 1851) to run for the Governorship of Mississippi on the issue of the Compromise of 1850, which Davis opposed. This election bid was unsuccessful, as he was defeated by Henry Stuart Foote by 999 votes.
Left without political office, Davis continued his political activity. He took part in a convention on states' rights, held at Jackson, Mississippi in January 1852. In the weeks leading up to the presidential election of 1852, he campaigned in a number of Southern states for Democratic candidates Franklin Pierce and William R. King.
Pierce won the election and made Davis his Secretary of War. In this capacity, Davis gave to Congress four annual reports (in December of each year), as well as an elaborate one (submitted on February 22, 1855) on various routes for the proposed Transcontinental Railroad. The Pierce administration ended in 1857. The president lost the Democratic nomination, which went instead to James Buchanan. Davis's term was to end with Pierce's, so he ran successfully for the Senate, and re-entered it on March 4, 1857.
His renewed service in the Senate was interrupted by an illness that threatened him with the loss of his left eye. Still nominally serving in the Senate, Davis spent the summer of 1858 in Portland, Maine. On the Fourth of July, he delivered an anti-secessionist speech on board a ship near Boston. He again urged the preservation of the Union on October 11 in Faneuil Hall, Boston, and returned to the Senate soon after.
On February 2, 1860, as secessionist clamor in the South grew ever louder, Davis submitted six resolutions in an attempt to consolidate opinion regarding states' rights, including the right to maintain slavery in the South, and to further his own position on the issue. Abraham Lincoln won the presidency that November. Matters came to a head, and South Carolina seceded from the Union.
Though an opponent of secession in principle, Davis upheld it in practice on January 10, 1861. On January 21, 1861, he announced the secession of Mississippi, delivered a farewell address, and resigned from the Senate.
Four days after his resignation, Davis was commissioned a Major General of Mississippi troops. On February 9, 1861, a constitutional convention at Montgomery, Alabama named him provisional president of the Confederate States of America and he was inaugurated on February 18. In meetings of his own Mississippi legislature, Davis had argued against secession; but when a majority of the delegates opposed him, he gave in.
In conformity with a resolution of the Confederate Congress, Davis immediately appointed a Peace Commission to resolve the Confederacy's differences with the Union. In March 1861, before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the commission was to travel to Washington, D.C., to offer to pay for any Federal property on Southern soil, as well as the Southern portion of the national debt, but it was not authorized to discuss terms for reunion. He appointed General P.G.T. Beauregard to command Confederate troops in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina. The government moved to Richmond, Virginia, in May 1861, and Davis and his family took up his residence there at the White House of the Confederacy on May 29.
Davis was elected to a six-year term as president of the Confederacy on November 6, 1861. He had never served a full term in any elective office, and that would turn out to be the case on this occasion as well. He was inaugurated on February 22, 1862. On June 1, he assigned General Robert E. Lee to replace the wounded Joseph E. Johnston in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, the main Confederate army in the Eastern Theater. That December, he made a tour of Confederate armies in the west of the country.
In August 1863, Davis declined General Lee's offer of resignation after his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. As Confederate military fortunes turned for the worse in 1864, he visited Georgia with the intent of raising morale.
Davis has received criticism over his conduct of the military affairs of the Confederacy. Until late in the war, he resisted efforts to appoint a general-in-chief, essentially handling those duties himself; on January 31, 1865, Lee assumed this role, but it was far too late. Davis insisted on a strategy of trying to defend all Southern territory with ostensibly equal effort, which diluted the limited resources of the South and made it vulnerable to coordinated strategic thrusts by the Union into the vital Western Theater, such as the capture of New Orleans. He made other poor strategic choices, such as allowing Lee to invade the North on two occasions while the Western armies were under very heavy pressure. Davis has been faulted for poor coordination and management of his generals. This includes his reluctance to relieve his personal friend, Braxton Bragg, defeated in important battles and distrusted by his subordinates; he relieved the cautious but capable Joseph E. Johnston and replaced him with the reckless John Bell Hood, resulting in the loss of Atlanta and the eventual loss of an army.
On April 3, 1865, with Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant poised to capture Richmond, Davis escaped for Danville, Virginia, together with the Confederate cabinet, leaving on the Richmond and Danville Railroad. He issued his last official proclamation as President of the Confederacy, and then went south to Greensboro, North Carolina. On May 10, he was captured at Irwinville, Georgia, and held as a prisoner for two years in Fort Monroe, Virginia.
|President||Jefferson Davis||25 February 1861–(10 May)1865|
|Vice President||Alexander Stephens||25 February 1861–(11 May)1865|
|Secretary of State||Robert Toombs||25 February 1861–25 July 1861|
|Robert M. T. Hunter||25 July 1861–22 February 1862|
|William M. Browne (acting)||7 March 1862–18 March 1862|
|Judah P. Benjamin||18 March 1862–May 1865|
|Secretary of the Treasury||Christopher Memminger||25 February 1861–15 June 1864|
|George Trenholm||18 July 1864–27 April 1865|
|John H. Reagan||27 April 1865–(10 May)1865|
|Secretary of War||Leroy Pope Walker||25 February 1861–16 September 1861|
|Judah P. Benjamin||17 September 1861–24 March 1862|
|George W. Randolph||24 March 1862–15 November 1862|
|Gustavus Smith (acting)||17 November 1862–20 November 1862|
|James Seddon||21 November 1862– 5 February 1865|
|John C. Breckinridge||6 February 1865–May 1865|
|Secretary of the Navy||Stephen Mallory||4 March 1861–(20 May)1865|
|Postmaster General||John H. Reagan||6 March 1861–(10 May)1865|
|Attorney General||Judah P. Benjamin||25 February 1861–17 September 1861|
|Wade Keyes (acting)||17 September 1861–21 November 1861|
|Thomas Bragg||21 November 1861–18 March 1862|
|Thomas H. Watts||18 March 1862– 1 October 1863|
|Wade Keyes (acting 2nd time)||1 October 1863–4 January 1864|
|George Davis||4 January 1864–24 April 1865|
On May 19, 1865, Davis was imprisoned in a casemate at Fortress Monroe, on the coast of Virginia. He was placed in irons for three days. Davis was indicted for treason a year later. While in prison, Davis arranged to sell his Mississippi estate to one of his former slaves, Ben Montgomery. Montgomery was a talented business manager, mechanic, and even an inventor who had become wealthy in part from running his own general store.
The next year, after imprisonment of two years, he was released on bail which was posted by prominent citizens of both northern and southern states, including Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Gerrit Smith, who, as a member of the Secret Six, had earlier supported John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. Davis visited Canada, Cuba and Europe. In December 1868, the court rejected a motion to nullify the indictment, but the prosecution dropped the case in February 1869.
In 1869 Davis became president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee. Upon Robert E. Lee's death in 1870, Davis presided over the memorial meeting in Richmond. Elected to the U.S. Senate again, he refused the office in 1875, having been barred from Federal office by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In 1876, he promoted a society for the stimulation of U.S. trade with South America. Davis visited England the next year, returning in 1878 to "Beauvoir." Over the next three years there, Davis wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Having completed that book, he visited Europe again, and traveled to Alabama and Georgia the following year.
He completed A Short History of the Confederate States of America in October 1889. Two months later, Davis died in New Orleans at the age of eighty-one. His funeral was one of the largest ever staged in the South and ran a continuous march from New Orleans to Richmond, Virginia, day and night. He is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.