Jefferson Davis – a summary

Jefferson Davis, 1808-1889, was the first, last, and only president of the Confederate States of America.

The youngest of ten children, Jefferson Davis was born 3 June 1808 in a Kentuckian log cabin. He fought in the Black Hawk War of 1832, serving under the future president, Zachary Taylor. In 1835, Davis married Taylor’s daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Within three months of their wedding, the couple caught malaria and although Davis survived, his 21-year-old bride did not. She died 15 September 1835. The grief stricken Davis resigned from the army and became a planter, owning a successful Mississippi plantation and possessing up to 75 slaves.

Jefferson Davis and Slavery

Jefferson Davis was a great supporter of slavery and later would write, “the servile instincts [of slaves] rendered them contented with their lot”. Slavery, according to Davis, was “the mildest and most humane of all institutions” and freedom for the slave was little more than a “tempter… like the serpent in Eden”. Slaves and their masters, Davis wrote, enjoyed a “strong mutual affection”.

“The North was mad”

In 1845, Davis married again, to Varina Howell, the same year as he was elected to the US House of Representatives. Returning to the battlefield, Davis fought in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, where, wounded, he earned high praise. Between 1853-57, Davis served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce.

Although a great believer in States’ rights, Davis spoke against secession and was still urging against it when, in December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.

The saddest day of my life”

It was Davis who announced to the US Senate on 21 January 1861 that his home state of Mississippi would be withdrawing from the Union.  It was, he said, “the saddest day of my life”.

In February, Davis attended the convention in Montgomery, Alabama where the provisional government for the Confederate States of America was formed.  Davis was hoping for a commission as the commander of a military unit.  Instead, he found himself the provisional president of the seceded states.  When, on 6 November 1861, general elections were held, he was elected to serve for the full term of six years.

One of Davis’ first acts as President of the Confederacy was to appoint a Peace Commission.  Their job was to travel to Washington, DC, to negotiate payment for any federal facilities in the South along with the South’s share of the national debt.  The bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina, 12-14 April 1861, came before the commission could set out for Washington.  Any hope of a peaceful secession was gone.

“I worked night and day for twelve years to prevent the war,” he said, “but I could not. The North was mad and blind, would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came.”

Davis fought to preserve the independence of the South. During the Civil War, he introduced conscription and suggested that slaves should be made to join the Confederate army. Although Davis was better suited to life of warfare than of politics, he failed to find a strategy to defeat the Union, which was bigger, stronger and better organized.  The North, led by his northern counterpart, Abraham Lincoln, was industrialized while the South was agrarian.  The North had been training armies for almost a hundred years while the South was starting from scratch.  The support of foreign countries would have been helpful, but none were prepared to officially support the Confederacy.

Capture, arrest and imprisonment

After Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, without Davis’ approval, Davis, alongside his cabinet, fled south aboard a train, still planning on continuing the struggle. But on 10 May 1865, he was captured at Irwinville, Georgia, placed under arrest and charged with treason. He was held in dire straits in a gun emplacement within the ramparts of Fort Monroe, occasionally shackled in leg irons. His health deteriorated and finally, after two years, Davis was released.  The charges against him were later dropped but the former Confederate president was stripped of his US citizenship. (Davis was to have his citizenship restored posthumously in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter: “Our Nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our Nation and to discredit the principles on which it was founded.”)

Though pressed to enter the Senate, Davis refused to apply for the necessary pardon because, he said, “I have not repented.”

In his retirement, Davis traveled and wrote two books – The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government and A Short History Of The Confederate States of America. Two months after the completion of the second book, on 6 December 1889, Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans, Louisiana, of an undetermined cause.  He was 81.

Read more about the Civil War in The American Civil War: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also Abraham Lincoln and his legacy and the assassination of Lincoln.




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