Military Wiki
Jefferson Davis
President of the Confederate States

In office
February 18, 1861 – May 10, 1865
provisional: February 18, 1861 – February 22, 1862
Vice President Alexander Stephens
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Position abolished
23rd United States Secretary of War

In office
March 7, 1853 – March 4, 1857
President Franklin Pierce
Preceded by Charles Conrad
Succeeded by John Floyd
United States Senator
from Mississippi

In office
March 4, 1857 – January 21, 1861
Preceded by Stephen Adams
Succeeded by Adelbert Ames

In office
August 10, 1847 – September 23, 1851
Preceded by Jesse Speight
Succeeded by John McRae
Member of the United States House of Representatives
In office
December 8, 1845 – June 1, 1846
Preceded by Tilghman Tucker
Succeeded by Henry Ellett
Personal details
Born Jefferson Finis Davis[1]
(1808-06-03)June 3, 1808
Fairview, Kentucky, U.S.
Died December 6, 1889(1889-12-06) (aged 81)
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
Resting place Hollywood Cemetery
Richmond, Virginia, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Sarah Knox Taylor (June–September 1835)
Varina Banks Howell (1845–1889)
Alma mater Transylvania University
United States Military Academy
Religion Episcopal
Signature Cursive signature in ink
Military service
Allegiance  United States
 Confederate States
Service/branch U.S. Army
Years of service 1828–1835
Rank Union army col rank insignia.jpg Colonel
Unit 1st U.S. Dragoons
Mississippi Rifles
Battles/wars Black Hawk War
Mexican-American War

Jefferson Finis Davis (June 3, 1808 – December 6, 1889) was an American statesman and leader of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Davis was born in Kentucky and grew up on plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and fought in the Mexican–American War as the colonel of a volunteer regiment. He served as the United States Secretary of War under Democratic President Franklin Pierce, and as a Democratic U.S. senator from Mississippi. His plantation in Mississippi depended on slave labor, like most Southern plantations. As a senator, he argued against secession, but did agree that each state was sovereign and had an unquestionable right to secede from the Union. Davis lost his first wife to malaria after three months of marriage, and the disease almost killed him as well. He had six children with his second wife, but only two survived him. He suffered from ill health for much of his life.

As President of the Confederate States of America from its beginning in 1861 to its collapse in 1865, Davis took charge of the Confederate war plans but was unable to find a strategy to defeat the larger, more powerful and better organized Union. His diplomatic efforts failed to gain recognition from any foreign country. At home he paid little attention to the collapsing Confederate economy; the government printed more and more paper money to cover the war's expenses, leading to runaway inflation.

Historians tend to attribute many of the Confederacy's weaknesses to President Davis.[2] His preoccupation with detail, reluctance to delegate responsibility, lack of popular appeal, feuds with powerful state governors, favoritism toward old friends, inability to get along with people who disagreed with him, neglect of civil matters in favor of military ones and resistance to public opinion all worked against him.[3][4] Davis is described as a much less effective war leader than his Union counterpart Abraham Lincoln.

After Davis was captured in 1865, he was accused of treason but was not tried and was released after two years. While not disgraced, Davis had been displaced in white Southern affection after the war by his leading general, Robert E. Lee. Nevertheless, many Southerners empathized with his defiance, refusal to accept defeat, and resistance to Reconstruction. Over time, admiration for his pride and ideals made him a Civil War hero to many Southerners, and his legacy became part of the foundation of the postwar New South.[5] Davis wrote a memoir entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which he completed in 1881 and which also helped to restore his reputation. By the late 1880s, he began to encourage reconciliation, telling Southerners to be loyal to the Union. He became ill in mid-November 1889 and died in early December in New Orleans at the age of 81.

Early life and first military career

Davis' paternal grandparents immigrated to North America from the region of Snowdonia in North Wales; the rest of his ancestry can be traced to England and Scotland. After arriving in Philadelphia, Davis' paternal grandfather Evan settled in Georgia and married Lydia Emory Williams, who had two sons from a previous marriage. Samuel Emory Davis was born to them in 1756. He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, along with his two older half-brothers. In 1783, after the war, he married Jane Cook; she was born in 1759 in Christian County, Kentucky, to William Cook and his wife Sarah Simpson. In 1793 the family relocated to Kentucky, establishing what is now the community of Fairview on the border of Christian and Todd counties. Samuel and Jane had ten children; Jefferson was the last and was born on June 3, 1808, on the Davis homestead in Fairview.[6][7] Samuel had been a young man when Thomas Jefferson wrote of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Jefferson was the third President of the United States in 1808, and Samuel, admiring him greatly, named his last son after the president. His son's middle name, Finis, was rarely used, but may have been chosen since he was likely to be the couple's last child.[8] Abraham Lincoln was born 8 months later, less than 100 miles (160 km) to the northeast in Hodgenville, Kentucky.[1] In the early 1900s, the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site was created near the site of Davis' birth.[9] During Davis' youth, his family moved twice: in 1811 to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and less than a year later to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Three of Jefferson's older brothers served in the War of 1812. In 1813 Davis began his education at the Wilkinson Academy in the small town of Woodville, near the family cotton plantation. 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 at the school. Davis went on to Jefferson College at Washington, Mississippi, in 1818, and then to Transylvania University at Lexington, Kentucky, in 1821.[10] His father Samuel died on July 4, 1824, when Jefferson was 16 years old.[11]

Davis attended the United States Military Academy (West Point) starting in late 1824.[12] While there, he was placed under house arrest for his role in the Eggnog Riot during Christmas 1826. Whiskey was smuggled into the academy for the purpose of making eggnog, and more than one-third of the cadets were involved. In June 1828 he graduated 23rd in a class of 33.[13] Following graduation, Second Lieutenant Davis was assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment and was stationed at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin Territory. Zachary Taylor had recently been placed in command of the fort when Davis arrived in early 1829. In March 1832, Davis returned to Mississippi on furlough, having had no leave since he first arrived at Fort Crawford. He was still in Mississippi during the Black Hawk War but returned to the fort in August. At the conclusion of the war, Colonel Taylor assigned him to escort Black Hawk to prison. Davis made an effort to shield Black Hawk from curiosity seekers, and the chief noted in his autobiography that Davis treated him "with much kindness" and showed empathy for Black Hawk's situation as a prisoner.[14]

First marriage and early career

Davis fell in love with his commanding officer's daughter Sarah Knox Taylor. Both Sarah and Jefferson sought Taylor's permission to marry. Taylor refused, as he did not wish his daughter to have a difficult life as a military wife on frontier army posts.[15] Davis' own experience led him to appreciate the basis for Taylor's objection. He consulted with his older brother Joseph, and they both began to question the value of an Army career. Davis hesitated to leave, but his desire for Sarah overcame this, and he resigned his commission in a letter dated April 20, 1835.[16] He had arranged for the letter to be sent to the War Department for him on May 12 when he did not return from leave;[17] he had made no mention to Taylor of his intention to resign.[18] Against his former commander's wishes, on June 17, he married Sarah in Louisville, Kentucky.[19] His resignation became effective June 30.[20]

Davis' older brother Joseph had been very successful and owned Hurricane Plantation and 1,800 acres (730 ha)[21] of adjoining land along the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, Mississippi. The adjoining land was known as Brierfield since it was largely covered with brush and briers. Joseph desired to have his youngest brother and his wife nearby and gave Brierfield to Jefferson, who eventually developed Brierfield Plantation there.[22]

In August 1835, Jefferson and Sarah traveled south to his sister Anna's home in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana; the home was known as Locust Grove. Their goal was to spend the hot summer months in the countryside and away from the flat river land, for their health, but both of them contracted malaria.[23] After three months of marriage, Sarah died at the age of 21 on September 15, 1835.[24][25] Davis was also severely ill,[26] and his family feared for his life as well.[27] In the month following Sarah's death, he slowly improved, although he remained weak.[27]

In late 1835, Davis sailed from New Orleans to Havana, Cuba, to help restore his health. He was accompanied by James Pemberton, his only slave at that time.[28] There Davis observed the Spanish military and sketched fortifications. Although no evidence points to any motive beyond general interest, the authorities knew that he was a former army officer and warned him to stop his observations.[28] Being bored, and feeling somewhat better, Davis booked passage on a ship to New York, then continued to Washington where he visited his old schoolmate George Wallace Jones, and soon returned to Mississippi with Pemberton.[29] For several years following Sarah's death, Davis was reclusive and honored her memory. He spent time clearing Brierfield and developing his plantation, studied government and history, and had private political discussions with his brother Joseph.[30] By early 1836, Davis had purchased 16 slaves; he held 40 slaves by 1840, and 74 by 1845. Pemberton served as Davis' overseer, an unusual position for a slave in Mississippi.[31]

In 1840 Davis first became involved in politics when he attended a Democratic meeting in Vicksburg and, to his surprise, was chosen as a delegate to the party's state convention in Jackson. In 1842, he attended the Democratic convention, and in 1843 became a Warren County Whig candidate for the state House of Representatives but lost his first election. In 1844, Davis was sent to the party convention for a third time, and his interest in politics deepened. He was selected as one of six presidential electors for the 1844 presidential election and campaigned effectively throughout Mississippi for the Democratic candidate, James K. Polk.[32][33]

Second marriage and family

Wedding photograph of Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell, 1845

In 1844, Davis met Varina Banks Howell, then 17 years old, whom his brother Joseph had invited for the Christmas season at Hurricane Plantation. She was the granddaughter of New Jersey Governor Richard Howell. Within a month of their meeting, the 35-year-old widower Davis had asked Varina to marry him, and they became engaged despite her parents' initial concerns about his age and politics. They were married on February 26, 1845.[34]

During this time Davis was persuaded to become a candidate for the United States House of Representatives and began canvassing for the election. In early October 1845 he traveled to Woodville to give a speech and arrived a day early to visit his mother there, only to find that she had died the day before. After the funeral he rode the 40 miles (64 km) back to Natchez to deliver the news, then returned to Woodville again to deliver his speech. He won the election.[35]

Jefferson and Varina had six children; three died before reaching adulthood. Samuel Emory, born July 30, 1852, was named after his grandfather; he died June 30, 1854, of an undiagnosed disease.[36] Margaret Howell was born February 25, 1855,[37] and was the only child to marry and raise a family. She married Joel Addison Hayes, Jr. (1848–1919), and they had five children.[38] They were married in St. Lazarus Church, nicknamed "The Confederate Officers' Church", in Memphis, Tennessee.[39][40] In the late 19th century, they moved from Memphis to Colorado Springs, Colorado. She died on July 18, 1909, at the age of 54.[41]

Jefferson Davis, Jr., was born January 16, 1857. He died of yellow fever at age 21 on October 16, 1878, during an epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that caused 20,000 deaths.[42] Joseph Evan, born on April 18, 1859, died at five years old as the result of an accidental fall on April 30, 1864.[43] William Howell, born on December 6, 1861, was named for Varina's father; he died of diphtheria at age 10 on October 16, 1872.[44] Varina Anne, known as "Winnie", was born on June 27, 1864, several months after her brother Joseph's death. She was unmarried as her parents had refused to let her marry into a northern abolitionist family.[45] She died on September 18, 1898, at age 34.[46][47]

Davis was plagued with poor health for most of his life. In addition to bouts with malaria, battle wounds from fighting in the Mexican–American War, and a chronic eye infection that made it impossible for him to endure bright light, he also suffered from trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve disorder that causes severe pain in the face. It has been called one of the most painful known ailments.[40][48]

Second military career

In 1846 the Mexican–American War began. Davis resigned his house seat in early June and raised a volunteer regiment, the 155th Infantry Regiment, becoming its colonel under the command of his former father-in-law, General Zachary Taylor.[49] On July 21 the regiment sailed from New Orleans for Texas. Colonel Davis sought to arm his regiment with the M1841 Mississippi rifle. At this time, smoothbore muskets were still the primary infantry weapon, and any unit with rifles was considered special and designated as such. President James K. Polk had promised Davis the weapons if he would remain long enough for an important vote on the Walker tariff. General Winfield Scott objected on the basis that the weapons were insufficiently tested. Davis insisted and called in his promise from Polk, and his regiment was armed with the rifles, making it particularly effective in combat.[50] The regiment became known as the Mississippi Rifles because it was the first to be fully armed with these new weapons.[51] The incident was the start of a lifelong feud between Davis and Scott.[52]

In September, Davis participated in the Battle of Monterrey, during which he led a successful charge on the La Teneria fort.[53] On February 22, 1847, Davis fought bravely at the Battle of Buena Vista and was shot in the foot, being carried to safety by Robert H. Chilton. In recognition of Davis' bravery and initiative, Taylor is reputed to have said, "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was."[12] On May 17, President Polk offered Davis a federal commission as a brigadier general and command of a brigade of militia. Davis declined the appointment, arguing that the United States Constitution gives the power of appointing militia officers to the states, not the federal government.[54]

Return to politics


Jefferson Davis around age 39, c. 1847

Honoring Davis' war service, Governor Brown of Mississippi appointed him to take the place of United States Senator Jesse Speight, who had died on May 1, 1847. Davis took his temporary seat on December 5, and in January 1848 he was elected to serve the remaining two years of the term.[55] In December, during the 30th United States Congress, he was made a regent of the Smithsonian Institution and began serving on the Committee on Military Affairs and the Library Committee.[56]

In 1848, Senator Davis proposed and introduced an amendment (the first of several) to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that would have annexed most of northeastern Mexico, but it failed on a vote of 11 to 44.[57] Regarding Cuba, Davis declared that it "must be ours" to "increase the number of slaveholding constituencies."[58] He also was concerned about the security implications of a Spanish holding lying a few miles off the coast of Florida.[59]

A group of Cuban revolutionaries led by Narciso López intended to forcibly liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. Searching for a military leader for a filibuster expedition, they first offered command of the Cuban forces to General William J. Worth, but he died before making his decision.[60] In the summer of 1849, López visited Davis and asked him to lead the expedition. He offered an immediate payment of $100,000 (worth more than $2,000,000 in 2010[61]), plus the same amount when Cuba was liberated. Davis turned down the offer, stating that it was inconsistent with his duty as a senator. When asked to recommend someone else, Davis suggested Robert E. Lee, then an army major in Baltimore; López approached Lee, who also declined on the grounds of his duty.[62][63]

The Senate made Davis chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs on December 3, 1849, during the first session of the 31st United States Congress. On December 29 he was elected to a full six-year term (by the Mississippi legislature, as the constitution mandated at the time). Davis 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 he opposed. He was defeated by fellow Senator Henry Stuart Foote by 999 votes.[64] 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 numerous Southern states for Democratic candidates Franklin Pierce and William R. King.[65]

Secretary of War

Jefferson Davis around age 45, 1853

Franklin Pierce won the presidential election, and in 1853 made Davis his Secretary of War.[66] In this capacity, Davis began the Pacific Railroad Surveys in order to determine various possible routes for the proposed Transcontinental Railroad. He promoted the Gadsden Purchase of today's southern Arizona from Mexico, partly because it would provide an easier route for the new railroad; the Pierce administration agreed, and the land was purchased in December 1853.[67] He saw the size of the regular army as insufficient to fulfill its mission, and maintained that salaries would have to be increased, something which had not occurred for 25 years. Congress agreed and increased the pay scale, and added four regiments which increased the army's size from about 11,000 to about 15,000.[68] Davis also introduced general usage of the rifles that he had used successfully during the Mexican–American War.[69] As a result, both the morale and capability of the army was improved. He became involved in public works when Pierce gave him responsibility for construction of the Washington Aqueduct and an expansion of the capitol, both of which he managed closely.[70] The Pierce administration ended in 1857 with the loss of the Democratic nomination to James Buchanan. Davis' term was to end with Pierce's, so he ran for the Senate, was elected, and re-entered it on March 4, 1857.[71]

Return to Senate

In the 1840s, tensions were growing between the North and South over various issues including slavery. The Wilmot Proviso, introduced in 1846, contributed to these tensions; if passed, it would have banned slavery in any land acquired from Mexico. The Compromise of 1850 brought a temporary respite, but the Dred Scott case, decided in 1857, spurred public debate. There was increasing talk of the South seceding from the Union.[72]

Davis’ renewed service in the Senate was interrupted in early 1858 by an illness that began as a severe cold and which threatened him with the loss of his left eye. He was forced to remain in a darkened room for four weeks.[73] He spent the summer of 1858 in Portland, Maine. On the Fourth of July, Davis 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.[74]

As he explained in his memoir The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, he believed that each state was sovereign and had an unquestionable right to secede from the Union. At the same time, he counseled delay among his fellow Southerners, because he did not think that the North would permit the peaceable exercise of the right to secession. Having served as secretary of war under President Pierce, he also knew that the South lacked the military and naval resources necessary to defend itself in a war. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, however, events accelerated. South Carolina adopted an ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860, and Mississippi did so on January 9, 1861. Davis had expected this but waited until he received official notification; then on January 21, the day Davis called "the saddest day of my life",[75] he delivered a farewell address to the United States Senate, resigned and returned to Mississippi.[76]

President of the Confederate States of America

Jefferson Davis is sworn in as President of the Confederate States of America on February 18, 1861, on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.

Anticipating a call for his services since Mississippi had seceded, Davis had sent a telegraph message to Governor Pettus saying, "Judge what Mississippi requires of me and place me accordingly."[77] On January 23, 1861, Pettus made Davis a major general of the Army of Mississippi.[12] On February 9, a constitutional convention at Montgomery, Alabama, considered Davis, Howell Cobb, Alexander Stephens and Robert Toombs for the office of provisional president. Stephens was the choice of every man present, except that he was unwilling to agree to fire the first shot in the anticipated war against the United States,[78] so the delegates chose Davis, who "was the champion of a slave society and embodied the values of the planter class, [as] ... provisional Confederate President by acclamation."[79] He was inaugurated on February 18, 1861.[80][81] Alexander Stephens was chosen as vice president.[82] Davis was chosen partly because he was a well-known and experienced moderate who had served in a president's cabinet. He wanted to serve as a general in the Confederate States Army and not as the president. He stated, "I have no confidence in my ability to meet its requirement. I think I could perform the function of a general." Varina later wrote that when he received word that he had been chosen as president, "Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family."[83] Nevertheless, he accepted the role for which he had been chosen.[84]

Several forts in Confederate territory remained in Union hands. Davis sent a commission to Washington with an offer to pay for any federal property on Southern soil, as well as the Southern portion of the national debt. Lincoln refused. Informal discussions did take place with Secretary of State William Seward through Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, an Alabamian who had not yet resigned; Seward hinted that Fort Sumter would be evacuated, but nothing definite was said.[85]

On March 1, 1861, Davis appointed General P. G. T. Beauregard to command all Confederate troops in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina, where state officials prepared to take possession of Fort Sumter; Beauregard was to prepare his forces but avoid an attack on the fort. When Lincoln moved to resupply the fort with food, Davis and his cabinet directed Beauregard to demand its surrender or else take possession by force. Major Anderson did not surrender. Beauregard bombarded the fort on April 12, and the Civil War began.[86]

At the start of the war, nearly 21 million people lived in the North compared to 9 million in the South. The North had vastly greater industrial capacity, built most of the locomotives, and had twice as much railroad density. Nearly all of the firearms production facilities were in the North, and some of the ingredients for gunpowder were not immediately available in the South.[87] The Union also had a well-developed navy, whereas the new Confederacy had very few naval resources.

When Virginia joined the Confederacy, Davis moved his government to Richmond in May 1861. He and his family took up his residence there at the White House of the Confederacy later that month.[88] Having served since February as the provisional president, Davis was elected to a full six-year term on November 6, 1861, and was inaugurated on February 22, 1862.[89]

In June 1862, in his most successful move, Davis 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. Davis had a very small circle of military advisers, and largely made the main strategic decisions on his own, though he had special respect for his friend Lee's views. Given the Confederacy's resources compared with the Union, Davis decided that the Confederacy would have to fight mostly on the strategic defensive. He maintained a mostly defensive outlook throughout the war, paying special attention to the defense of his national capital at Richmond. He attempted strategic offensives when he felt that military success would both shake Northern self-confidence and strengthen the peace movements there. The campaigns met defeat at Antietam in Maryland (1862) and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania (1863),[90] as well as in Kentucky during the Confederate Heartland Offensive (1862).[91]

Administration and cabinet

The original Confederate Cabinet. L-R: Judah P. Benjamin, Stephen Mallory, Christopher Memminger, Alexander Stephens, LeRoy Pope Walker, Jefferson Davis, John H. Reagan and Robert Toombs

As provisional president in 1861, Davis formed his first cabinet. Robert Toombs of Georgia was the first Secretary of State, and Christopher Memminger of South Carolina became Secretary of the Treasury. LeRoy Pope Walker of Alabama was made Secretary of War, after being recommended for this post by Clement Clay and William Yancey (both of whom declined to accept cabinet positions themselves). John Reagan of Texas became Postmaster General, and Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana became Attorney General. Although Stephen Mallory was not put forward by the delegation from his state of Florida, Davis insisted that he was the best man for the job of Secretary of the Navy, and he was eventually confirmed.[92]

Since the Confederacy was founded, among other things, on states' rights, one important factor in Davis' choice of cabinet members was representation from the various states. He depended partly upon recommendations from congressmen and other prominent people, and this helped maintain good relations between the executive and legislative branches. This also led to complaints as more states joined the Confederacy, however, because there were more states than cabinet positions.[93]

As the war progressed, this dissatisfaction increased, and there were frequent changes to the cabinet. Toombs, who had wished to be president himself, was frustrated as an advisor and resigned within a few months of his appointment to join the army. Robert Hunter of Virginia replaced him as Secretary of State on July 25, 1861.[94] On September 17, Walker resigned as Secretary of War due to a conflict with Davis, who had questioned his management of the War Department and had suggested he consider a different position; Walker requested, and was given, command of the troops in Alabama. Benjamin left the Attorney General position to replace him, and Thomas Bragg of North Carolina (brother of General Braxton Bragg) took Benjamin's place as Attorney General.[95] Following the November 1861 election, Davis announced the permanent cabinet in March 1862. Benjamin moved again, to Secretary of State; George W. Randolph of Virginia had been made the Secretary of War. Mallory continued as Secretary of the Navy and Reagan as Postmaster General; both men kept their positions throughout the war. Memminger remained Secretary of the Treasury, while Thomas Hill Watts of Alabama was made Attorney General.[96]

In 1862, Randolph resigned from the War Department, and James Seddon of Virginia was appointed to replace him. In late 1863, Watts resigned as Attorney General to take office as the Governor of Alabama, and George Davis of North Carolina took his place. In 1864, Memminger withdrew from the Treasury post due to congressional opposition, and was replaced by George Trenholm of South Carolina. In 1865, congressional opposition likewise caused Seddon to withdraw, and he was replaced by John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.[97]

Cotton was the South's primary export and the basis of its economy, and its production was dependent upon slave labor. At the outset of the Civil War, Davis realized that intervention from European powers would be vital if the Confederacy was to stand against the Union. The administration sent repeated delegations to European nations, but several factors prevented Southern success in terms of foreign diplomacy. The Union blockade of the Confederacy led European powers to remain neutral, contrary to the Southern belief that a blockade would cut off the supply of cotton to Britain and other European nations and prompt them to intervene on behalf of the South. Many European countries objected to slavery. Britain had abolished it in the 1830s, and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 made support for the South even less appealing in Europe. Finally, as the war progressed and the South failed to win enough battles, foreign powers were not convinced that the Confederacy had the strength to become independent. In the end, not a single foreign nation recognized the Confederate States of America.[98]

Strategic failures

Most historians sharply criticize Davis for his flawed military strategy, his selection of friends for military commands, and his neglect of homefront crises.[99][100] 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. This diluted the limited resources of the South and made it vulnerable to coordinated strategic thrusts by the Union into the vital Western Theater (e.g., the capture of New Orleans in early 1862). He made other controversial strategic choices, such as allowing Lee to invade the North in 1862 and 1863 while the Western armies were under very heavy pressure. Lee lost at Gettysburg, Vicksburg simultaneously fell, and the Union took control of the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy. At Vicksburg, the failure to coordinate multiple forces on both sides of the Mississippi River rested primarily on Davis' inability to create a harmonious departmental arrangement or to force such commanders as generals Edmund Kirby Smith, Earl Van Dorn, and Theophilus H. Holmes to work together.[101]

Davis has been faulted for poor coordination and management of his generals. This includes his reluctance to resolve a dispute between Leonidas Polk, a personal friend, and Braxton Bragg, who was defeated in important battles and distrusted by his subordinates.[102] He did relieve 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.[103]

Davis gave speeches to soldiers and politicians but largely ignored the common people, who came to resent the favoritism shown the rich and powerful; Davis thus failed to harness Confederate nationalism.[104] One historian speaks of "the heavy-handed intervention of the Confederate government." Economic intervention, regulation, and state control of manpower, production and transport were much greater in the Confederacy than in the Union.[105] Davis did not use his presidential pulpit to rally the people with stirring rhetoric; he called instead for people to be fatalistic and to die for their new country.[106] Apart from two month-long trips across the country where he met a few hundred people, Davis stayed in Richmond where few people saw him; newspapers had limited circulation, and most Confederates had little favorable information about him.[107]

To finance the war, the Confederate government initially issued bonds, but investment from the public never met the demands. Taxes were lower than in the Union and were collected with less efficiency, and European investment was insufficient. As the war proceeded, both the Confederate government and the individual states printed more and more paper money. Inflation increased from 60% in 1861 to 300% in 1863 and 600% in 1864. Davis did not seem to grasp the enormity of the problem.[108][109]

In April 1863, food shortages led to rioting in Richmond, as poor people robbed and looted numerous stores for food until Davis cracked down and restored order.[110] Davis feuded bitterly with his vice president. Perhaps even more seriously, he clashed with powerful state governors who used states' rights arguments to withhold their militia units from national service and otherwise blocked mobilization plans.[111]

Davis is widely evaluated as a less effective war leader than Lincoln, even though Davis had extensive military experience and Lincoln had little. Davis would have preferred to be an army general, and as president tended to manage military matters himself, delegating poorly. Lincoln and Davis led in very different ways. According to one historian,

Lincoln was flexible; Davis was rigid. Lincoln wanted to win; Davis wanted to be right. Lincoln had a broad strategic vision of Union goals; Davis could never enlarge his narrow view. Lincoln searched for the right general, then let him fight the war; Davis continuously played favorites and interfered unduly with his generals, even with Robert E. Lee. Lincoln led his nation; Davis failed to rally the South.

— William J. Cooper, Jr.

There were many factors that led to Union victory over the Confederacy, and Davis recognized from the start that the South was at a distinct disadvantage; but in the end, Lincoln helped to achieve victory, whereas Davis contributed to defeat.[112]

Final days of the Confederacy

William T. Sutherlin Mansion, Danville, Virginia, temporary residence of Jefferson Davis and dubbed Last Capitol of the Confederacy

In March 1865, General Order 14 provided for enlisting slaves into the army. The idea had been suggested years earlier, but Davis did not act upon it until late in the war, and very few slaves were ever enlisted.[113]

On April 3, with Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant poised to capture Richmond, Davis escaped to Danville, Virginia, together with the Confederate Cabinet, leaving on the Richmond and Danville Railroad. Lincoln sat in Davis' Richmond office just 40 hours later. The William T Sutherlin Mansion served as his temporary residence from April 3 to April 10, 1865.[114] On about April 12, Davis received Robert E. Lee's letter announcing surrender.[115] He issued his last official proclamation as president of the Confederacy, and then went south to Greensboro, North Carolina.[116]

After Lee's surrender, there was a public meeting in Shreveport, Louisiana, at which many speakers supported continuation of the war. Plans were developed for the Davis government to flee to Havana, Cuba. There, the leaders would regroup and head to the Confederate-controlled Trans-Mississippi area by way of the Rio Grande.[117] None of these plans was put into practice.

On April 14, Lincoln was shot, dying the next day. Davis expressed regret at Lincoln's death, and also knew that he would have been less harsh with the South than his successor, Andrew Johnson.[118] In the aftermath, Johnson issued a $100,000 reward for the capture of Davis and accused him of helping to plan the assassination. As the Confederate military structure fell into disarray, the search for Davis by Union forces intensified.[119]

President Davis met with his Confederate Cabinet for the last time on May 5, 1865, in Washington, Georgia, and the Confederate government was officially dissolved. The meeting took place at the Heard house, the Georgia Branch Bank Building, with 14 officials present. Along with a hand-picked escort led by Given Campbell, Davis and his wife were captured on May 10 at Irwinville in Irwin County, Georgia.[120]

It was reported that Davis put his wife's overcoat over his shoulders while fleeing, inspiring caricatures that portrayed him as having disguised himself as a woman while trying to avoid capture.[121] However, Davis made no attempt to disguise himself. Mrs. Davis' heavy shawl had been placed on him to protect him from the "chilly atmosphere of the early hour of the morning" by his slave James H. Johnson, who was with Davis during the Civil War and was his valet.[122] Meanwhile, Davis' belongings continued on the train bound for Cedar Key, Florida. They were first hidden at Senator David Levy Yulee's plantation in Florida, then placed in the care of a railroad agent in Waldo. On June 15, 1865, Union soldiers seized Davis' personal baggage, together with some of the Confederate government's records, from the agent. A historical marker now stands at this site.[123][124][125]


Early illustration of Jefferson Davis in prison

On May 19, 1865, Davis was imprisoned in a casemate at Fortress Monroe on the coast of Virginia. Irons were riveted to his ankles at the order of General Nelson Miles who was in charge of the fort. Davis was allowed no visitors, and no books except the Bible. His health began to suffer, and the attending physician warned that the prisoner's life was in danger, but this treatment continued for some months until late autumn when he was finally given better quarters. General Miles was transferred in mid-1866, and Davis' treatment continued to improve.[126] Pope Pius IX sent Davis a portrait inscribed with the Latin words, "Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus", which comes from Matthew 11:28 and translates as, "Come to me all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord." A hand-woven crown of thorns associated with the portrait is often said to have been made by the Pope[127] but may have been woven by Davis' wife Varina.[128] Varina and their young daughter Winnie were allowed to join Davis, and the family was eventually given an apartment in the officers' quarters. Davis was indicted for treason while imprisoned; one of his attorneys was ex-Governor Thomas Pratt of Maryland.[129]

Later years

Jefferson Davis at his home, c. 1885

After two years of imprisonment, Davis was released on bail of $100,000, which was posted by prominent citizens of both Northern and Southern states, including Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Gerrit Smith.[130] (Smith was a former member of the Secret Six who had supported abolitionist John Brown.) Davis visited Canada, Cuba and Europe in search of work.[131]

In December 1868 the federal court rejected a motion to nullify the indictment, but the prosecution dropped the case in February 1869. That same year, Davis became president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee, where he resided at the Peabody Hotel.[132] Upon Robert E. Lee's death in 1870, Davis presided over the memorial meeting in Richmond, Virginia. Elected to the U.S. Senate again, he was refused the office in 1875, having been barred from Federal office by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He turned down the opportunity to become the first president of the Agriculture and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University).[133]

During Reconstruction, Davis publicly remained silent on his opinions; but privately he expressed opinions that federal military rule and Republican authority over former Confederate states was unjustified. He considered "Yankee and Negroe" rule in the South oppressive. Like many of his contemporaries, Davis held the belief that blacks were inferior to whites. The historian William J. Cooper has stated that Davis believed in a Southern social order that included "a democratic white polity based firmly on dominance of a controlled and excluded black caste."[134]

In 1876, Davis promoted a society for the stimulation of US trade with South America. He visited England the next year. In 1877, Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a wealthy widow who had heard of his difficulties, invited him to stay at her estate of Beauvoir near Biloxi, Mississippi. She provided him with a cabin for his own use and helped him with his writing through organization, dictation, editing, and encouragement. Knowing she was severely ill, in 1878 Dorsey made over her will, leaving Beauvoir and her financial assets to Jefferson Davis and, in the case of his death, to his only surviving child, Winnie Davis.[135] Dorsey died in 1879, by which time both the Davises and Winnie were living at Beauvoir. Over the next two years, Davis completed The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881).[136]

Davis' reputation among whites in the South was restored by the book and by his warm reception on his tour of the region in 1886 and 1887. In numerous stops, he attended Lost Cause ceremonies, where large crowds showered him with affection and local leaders presented emotional speeches honoring his sacrifices to the would-be nation. Such events helped the South deal with their defeat and continued for decades after the war.[137] The Meriden Daily Journal stated that Davis, at a reception held in New Orleans in May 1887, urged southerners to be loyal to the nation. He said, "United you are now, and if the Union is ever to be broken, let the other side break it." Davis stated that men in the Confederacy had successfully fought for their own rights with inferior numbers during the Civil War and that the northern historians ignored this view.[138] Davis firmly believed that Confederate secession was constitutional. The former Confederate president was optimistic concerning American prosperity and the next generation.[139]

Davis completed A Short History of the Confederate States of America in October 1889. On November 6 he left Beauvoir to visit his plantation at Brierfield. While in New Orleans he was caught in a sleety rain, and on the steamboat trip upriver, he had a severe cold; on November 13 he left Brierfield to return to New Orleans. Varina Davis, who had taken another boat to Brierfield, met him on the river, and he finally received some medical care; two doctors came aboard further south and found him to be suffering from acute bronchitis complicated by malaria.[140] They arrived in New Orleans three days later, and he was taken to the home of Charles Erasmus Fenner, an Associate Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Davis remained in bed but was stable for the next two weeks; however, he took a turn for the worse in early December. Just when he appeared to be improving, he lost consciousness on the evening of December 5 and died at age 81 at 12:45 a.m. on Friday, December 6, 1889, in the presence of several friends and with his hand in Varina's.[141][142]

Funeral procession of Jefferson Davis in New Orleans

His funeral was one of the largest in the South. Davis was first entombed at the Army of Northern Virginia tomb at Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. In 1893, Mrs. Davis decided to have his remains reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.[143] After the remains were exhumed in New Orleans, they lay for a day at Memorial Hall of the newly organized Louisiana Historical Association, with many mourners passing by the casket, including Governor Murphy J. Foster, Sr. The body was placed on a Louisville and Nashville Railroad car and transported to Richmond.[144] A continuous cortège, day and night, accompanied his body from New Orleans to Richmond.[145] He is interred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond beneath a life-sized statue.[146]


Postwar portrait of Jefferson Davis by Daniel Huntington

Numerous memorials were created to Jefferson Davis. The largest is the 351-foot (107 m) concrete obelisk located at the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview, Kentucky, marking his birthplace. Construction of the monument began in 1917 and finished in 1924 at a cost of about $200,000.[9]

Jefferson Davis appeared on several postage stamps issued by the Confederacy, including its first postage stamp (issued in 1861). In 1995, his portrait appeared on a United States postage stamp, part of a series of 20 stamps commemorating the 130th anniversary of end of the Civil War.[147]

The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library was established at Beauvoir in 1998. For some years, the white-columned Biloxi mansion that was Davis' final home had served as a Confederate Veterans Home. The house and library were damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the house reopened in 2008.[148] Bertram Hayes-Davis, Davis' great-great grandson, is the executive director of Beauvoir, which is owned by the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.[149]

Based at Rice University in Houston, Texas, The Papers of Jefferson Davis is an editing project to publish documents related to Davis. Since the early 1960s, it has published 13 volumes, the first in 1971 and the most recent in 2012; two more volumes are planned. The project has roughly 100,000 documents in its archives.[150]

Large Davis memorial on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia

The birthday of Jefferson Davis is commemorated in several states. His actual birthday, June 3, is celebrated in Florida,[151] Kentucky,[152] Louisiana[153] and Tennessee;[154] in Alabama, it is celebrated on the first Monday in June.[155] In Mississippi, the last Monday of May (Memorial Day) is celebrated as "National Memorial Day and Jefferson Davis' Birthday".[156] In Texas, "Confederate Heroes Day" is celebrated on January 19, the birthday of Robert E. Lee;[154] Jefferson Davis' birthday had been officially celebrated on June 3 but was combined with Lee's birthday in 1973.[157]

In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, a transcontinental highway to be built through the South.[158][159] Portions of the highway's route in Virginia, Alabama and other states still bear the name of Jefferson Davis.[158] On September 20, 2011, the County Board of Arlington County, Virginia, voted to change the name of Old Jefferson Davis Highway, the original route of the road in the county; Jefferson Davis Highway, a portion of U.S. 1, retains that name.[160][161]

Jefferson Davis served in many roles. As a soldier, he was brave and resourceful.[53] As a politician, he served as a United States senator and a Mississippi congressman and was active and accomplished, although he never completed a full term in any elected position. As a plantation owner, he employed slave labor as did most of his peers in the South, and supported slavery.[22] As president of the Confederate States of America, he is widely viewed as an ineffective wartime leader; although the task of defending the Confederacy against the much stronger Union would have been a great challenge for any leader, Davis’ performance in this role is considered poor.[112] After the war, he contributed to reconciliation of the South with the North, but remained a symbol for Southern pride.[5]

In the 21st century, as the Civil War and slavery become more distant in American history, and less relevant to modern American life, Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy are more likely to be associated primarily with slavery, and Davis is more likely to be a divisive figure. Nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, there is still a divide between North and South, and some memorials to Davis have produced controversy. A portion of the Jefferson Davis Highway ran through the northwest state of Washington, far from the South, and in 2002 an effort to rename it raised public disagreement on the issue.[162] In the former Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, the Museum of the Confederacy was involved in a controversy regarding a statue of Davis donated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2008. Likewise, a statue of Abraham Lincoln, donated to the Civil War Visitor Center in Richmond in 2003, resulted in protests.[163] In early 2013, two parks in Memphis, Tennessee, which had been designated "Jefferson Davis Park" and "Confederate Park" were renamed, as was a third park named after CSA officer and early Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. This decision also sparked controversy.[164]

Robert E. Lee's United States citizenship was posthumously restored in 1975. Jefferson Davis had been specifically excluded from earlier resolutions restoring rights to other Confederate officials, and a move arose to restore Davis' citizenship as well. This was accomplished with the passing of Senate Joint Resolution 16 on October 17, 1978. In signing the law, President Jimmy Carter referred to this as the last act of reconciliation in the Civil War.[165]


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Secondary sources
  • Allen, Felicity (1999). Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart. Columbia: The University of Missouri Press. ISBN 9780826212191.
  • Ballard, Michael B. (1986). A Long Shadow: Jefferson Davis and the Final Days of the Confederacy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 9780820319414.
  • Collins, Donald E. (2005). The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 9780742543041.
  • Cooper, William J. (2000). Jefferson Davis, American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 9780307772640.
  • Cooper, William J. (2008). Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807153116.
  • Current, Richard, et al. (1993). Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Davis, William C. (1996). Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour. Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807120798.
  • Dodd, William E. (1907). Jefferson Davis. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs and Company.
  • Eaton, Clement (1977). Jefferson Davis. New York: The Free Press.
  • Escott, Paul (1978). After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. ISBN 9780807118078.
  • Hattaway, Herman and Beringer, Richard E. (2002). Jefferson Davis, Confederate President. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 9780700611706.
  • McPherson, James M. (1989). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 9780195038637.
  • Neely Jr., Mark E. (1993). Confederate Bastille: Jefferson Davis and Civil Liberties. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. ISBN 9780874623253.
  • Patrick, Rembert W. (1944). Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
  • Rable, George C. (1994). The Confederate Republic: A Revolution against Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9780807863961.
  • Stoker, Donald, "There Was No Offensive-Defensive Confederate Strategy," Journal of Military History, 73 (April 2009), 571–90.
  • Strode, Hudson (1955). Jefferson Davis, Volume I: American Patriot. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
  • Strode, Hudson (1959). Jefferson Davis, Volume II: Confederate President. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
  • Strode, Hudson (1964). Jefferson Davis, Volume III: Tragic Hero. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
  • Swanson, James L. (2010). Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780061233791.
  • Thomas, Emory M. (1979). The Confederate Nation, 1861–1865. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 9780062069467.
  • Woodworth, Steven E. (1990). Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 9780700604616. 
Primary sources
  • Davis, Jefferson (2003). Cooper, Jr., William J. ed. Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings. 
  • Davis, Jefferson (1881). The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. 
  • Rowland, Dunbar, ed (1923). Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches. Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History. 
  • Monroe, Jr., Haskell M.; McIntosh, James T.; Crist, Lynda L., eds (1971–2012). The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Louisiana State University Press. 

External links

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Charles Conrad
United States Secretary of War
Succeeded by
John Floyd
New office President of the Confederate States
Position abolished
Notes and references
1. Because of Mississippi's secession, the Senate seat was vacant for nine years before Ames succeeded Davis.

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