Jefferson Davis (June 3, 1808 - December 6, 1889) was an American soldier and politician, most famous for serving as President of the Confederate States of America throughout the American Civil War.
Early life and first military career
Jefferson Davis was born on a farm in Christian County, Kentucky (now called Todd County). He was the last of ten children of Samuel and Jane Davis. The Davis family relocated several times during Jefferson's youth, to Saint Mary Parish, Louisiana in 1811, and to Wilkinson County, Mississippi the next year.
Davis began his education in 1813, together with his sister Mary, at a log cabin school a mile from their home. Two years later, he entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Washington County, Kentucky. He went on to Jefferson College at Washington, Mississippi in 1818, and to Transylvania University at Lexington, Kentucky in 1821. Davis entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1824 as a cadet.
Jefferson Davis successfully completed his four-year term of study at West Point, and graduated as a Second Lieutenant. He was assigned to the US 1st Infantry Division and stationed at Fort Crawford. His first assignment, in 1829, was to supervise the cutting of timber on the banks of the Red River for the repair and enlargement of the fort. Later the same year, he was reassigned to Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin. 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 American Indians. His first combat assignment was during the Black Hawk War of the same year, after which he escorted Black Hawk himself to prison. In 1833, he was promoted to First Lieutenant of the US 1st Dragoon Division and made a regimental adjutant. 1834 saw his transfer to Fort Gibson. On June 17, 1835, Jefferson Davis married Miss Knox Taylor, daughter of Colonel (later General and President) Zachary Taylor, and on June 30, he resigned from the Army.
Marriage, plantation life and politics
The marriage proved short. The newlyweds both contracted malaria, and Mrs. Davis died three months after the wedding at the home of Jefferson's sister in Louisiana. Jefferson recovered, sailed for Havana, Cuba, and then to New York City. In 1836, he retired to Brierfield plantation in Warren County, Mississippi.
The subsequent years proved uneventful, as Davis supervised the production of cotton at Brierfield, and studied political science. He decided to put his studies to use in 1843, by entering a career in politics. He ran for the Mississippi House of Representatives as a Democrat, and engaged in a debate with his opponent, Seargent S. Prentiss, on election day. However, Davis's efforts proved unsuccessful, and he lost the election. The next year, he traveled around Mississippi campaigning for James K. Polk and George M. Dallas in the presidential election of 1844. He married Varina Howell on February 26, 1845.
1844 saw Jefferson Davis's first political success, as he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, taking office on March 4. (Some sources claim that he took office sometime in early December 1845, which would imply that he was appointed by the governor of Mississippi to fill an unexpected vacancy in the office.)
Second military career
1846 saw the beginning of the Mexican-American War. Davis must have looked favorably upon the war, seeing that the United States stood to acquire a considerable amount of land south of the Missouri Compromise line into which Southern institutions could expand. He resigned his House seat in June, and rejoined the Army. On July 18, he was elected colonel of the first regiment of Mississippi riflemen, and sailed from New Orleans for the Texas coast three days later.
In September of the same year, he participated in the successful siege of Monterrey, Mexico. He also fought, and was wounded, at the next major battle, at Buena Vista, Mexico on February 22, 1847. In June, the Army offered him an appointment as a Brigadier General of a militia unit. In traditional Southern style, he declined the appointment on grounds of constitutionality and states' rights. The United States Constitution, he argued, gives the power of appointing militia officers to the states, not to the federal government.
In July 1847, Davis was mustered out of Mexico. He was appointed to the Senate, to serve out the remaining four years of the term of the late Jesse Speight. (Sources disagree as to this date as well.) The Smithsonian Institution appointed him a regent in the end of December of that year.
Return to politics
The Senate made Davis chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs (now Armed Services). When his term expired, he was elected to the same seat (by the Mississippi legislature, as the Constitution mandated at the time). He hadn't served a year when he resigned (in September 1851) to run for the governorship of Mississippi. This election bid was unsuccessful, as he was defeated by Henry S. Foote.
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 U.S. presidential election, 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 in February 22, 1855) on various routes for the proposed Transcontinental Railroad. The Pierce administration expired 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 19 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, and to further his own position on the issue. Abraham Lincoln, a known opponent of slavery, won the presidency that November. Matters came to a head, and South Carolina seceded from the Union.
Though an opponent of secession in practice, Davis upheld it in principle on January 10, 1861. On the 21st of that month, he announced the secession of Mississippi, delivered a farewell address, and resigned from the Senate.
Leadership of the Confederacy
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 the 18th.
He immediately appointed a Peace Commission to resolve the Confederacy's differences with the Union (USA). Not wishing, however, to rely on paths of negotiation, he appointed P.G.T. Beauregard to lead Confederate troops in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina. The government moved to Richmond, Virginia in May, 1861, and Davis took up his residence there on the 29th.
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 this was not destined to be the first. He was inaugurated on February 22, 1862. On May 31, he assigned General Robert E. Lee to command the Army of Northern Virginia, the main Confederate army. 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 on account of some criticism. As Confederate military fortunes turned for the worse in 1864, he visited Georgia with the intent of raising morale.
On April 3, 1865, with Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant poised to make a right flanking maneuver and encircle Richmond, Davis escaped for Danville, Virginia, together with the Confederate cabinet. Six days later, he proceeded to Greensboro, North Carolina. On April 16, he made a break for Meridian, Mississippi, but was captured at Irwinville, Georgia on May 10.
Imprisonment and retirement
On the 19th, he was imprisoned in a gun room at Fortress Monroe. He was placed in irons on the 23rd, but released on the 26th at the recommendation of a physician. Davis was not indicted for treason until May, 1866.
The next year, he was released on bail, visited Canada, and sailed for New Orleans, Louisiana via Havana, Cuba. In 1868, he traveled to Europe. That December, the court rejected a motion to nullify the indictment, but the prosecution dropped the case in February of 1869.
That same year, Davis again 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 law.
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 near Biloxi, Mississippi. 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 of 1889. Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans on December 6, 1889, at the age of 81.