Portrait of Jefferson Davis

On November 6, 1861, Jefferson Davis was elected to a six-year term as President of the Confederate States of America. [Wikimedia Commons]

Jefferson F. Davis

June 3, 1808 -- December 6, 1889

A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Mexican-American War veteran, U.S. Congressman, Senator, and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis served as the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.

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Early Life

Jefferson Finis Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in Christian County, Kentucky (now part of Todd County). His birthplace was fewer than 100 miles from where Abraham Lincoln was born eight months later. Davis was the tenth and last child of Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Emory Davis and Jane Cook. In 1811, Davis’s family migrated to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and the next year, the family moved to a small plantation named Rosemont in Wilkinson County, Mississippi.

During his youth, Davis attended private schools in Mississippi and Kentucky. Between 1818 and 1821, he attended Jefferson College in Mississippi and Transylvania University in Kentucky. Davis entered the United States Military Academy in 1824, and he graduated in 1828, twenty-third in his class.

Marriage and Personal Tragedy

After graduating from West Point, army officials brevetted Davis as a second lieutenant assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin. While serving there, Davis fell in love with the daughter of his commanding officer and future President of the United States, Zachary Taylor. Possibly because Taylor disapproved of the relationship, Davis resigned his commission in 1835. The couple then married near Louisville, Kentucky, on June 17, 1835. Later that year, Davis and his wife contracted malaria. Davis recovered, but his wife died on September 15, only three months after their marriage.

U.S. Congressman

In 1836, after his wife’s death, Davis moved to Brierfield Plantation in Warren County Mississippi, where he led a reclusive life growing cotton and studying history and politics for nearly a decade. Gradually, Davis emerged from his self-imposed seclusion. He became active in politics, and he won election to the United States House of Representatives in November 1844. A few months later, on February 26, 1845, Davis married Varina Howell, the daughter of a prominent Mississippi planter.

Mexican-American War

Davis served only part of his first term in Congress. When the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) began, he resigned his seat on June 18, 1846, to assume command of the 1st Mississippi Regiment, also known as the Mississippi Rifles. During the Mexican-American War, Davis served under his former father-in-law at the Battle of Monterrey and at the Battle of Buena Vista, where he was wounded on February 22, 1847.

U.S. Senator – Part I

After the Mexican-American War, Davis resumed his political career. The governor of Mississippi selected Davis to fill a vacant seat in the United States Senate on December 5, 1847. In the U.S. Senate, Davis became a leading supporter of slavery and states’ rights. In 1851, Davis resigned his Senate seat to pursue an unsuccessful bid to become governor of Mississippi.

U.S. Secretary of War

Davis then returned to plantation life until March 7, 1853, when U.S. President Franklin Pierce appointed him as secretary of war.

U.S. Senator – Part II

As Pierce’s tenure as president neared completion, Mississippi Governor Albert G. Brown appointed Davis to a vacant seat in the United States Senate. Davis took his seat in the Senate on March 4, 1857. During his second term in the Senate, Davis remained a vocal supporter of states’ rights, but he has also opposed secession as a way to settle sectional differences between the North and South.

Civil War

President of the Confederate States of America

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, Davis resigned from the Senate and delivered a moving farewell address on January 21. A few weeks later, delegates to a constitutional convention at Montgomery, Alabama elected Davis as provisional president of the Confederate States of America. He took office on February 18, 1861.

After Virginia seceded from the Union (April 17, 1861), Davis moved the capital of the Confederacy to Richmond, Virginia in May. On November 6, 1861, southern voters elected Davis to a six-year term as President of the Confederate States of America. Inaugurated in Richmond on February 22, 1862, Davis served the next three years as the sole president of the Confederacy’s brief history.

As the newly elected president of the Confederacy, Davis faced the unenviable task of trying to form a new nation while at war with a formidable opponent. During America’s infancy, the Founding Fathers learned that it was difficult to govern a loose confederation of states. Seven decades later, Davis discovered that trying to reconcile the military imperatives for centralization with a political model based upon decentralized control was nearly impossible. That discrepancy often put him at odds with various state governors, individual legislators, and members of his own cabinet.

Davis’s personality and management style further hindered his performance. His aloof nature did not engender popular support amongst common citizens in the South. Like Lincoln, Davis’s support for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and for a conscription policy that favored the wealthy served as a source of dissatisfaction.

Commander-in-Chief

Davis’ penchant for micro-managing also limited his effectiveness as the commander-in-chief of Confederate forces in the field. His favoritism toward certain generals (Braxton Bragg in particular) and running feuds with others, like Joseph Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard, handicapped the Rebel armies.

Late in the war, many Southerners began questioning Davis’ competency as commander-in-chief. Opposition to Davis’ leadership reached a crescendo on January 23, 1865, when the Confederation Congress enacted legislation creating the post of General-in-Chief of Confederate forces. In late January 1865, Davis nominated Robert E. Lee for the position. On February 1, Samuel Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General (CSA), informed Lee that the Confederate Senate confirmed his appointment. On February 6, Cooper issued General Orders, No. 3 announcing that Lee was officially General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies.

Evacuation of Richmond

By that time, the Army of the Potomac had the Army of Northern Virginia nearly surrounded at Petersburg, Virginia. On April 2, Lee had to abandon his lines at Petersburg or face the destruction of his army. The next day, Davis and the Confederate government evacuated Richmond.

Capture and Imprisonment

After a month of trying to elude Union forces in the Deep South, Davis met with his cabinet for the last time on May 5, 1865, in Washington, Georgia and dissolved the Confederate government. Five days later, Union forces captured Davis near Irwinville, Georgia. Federal officials sent him to Fort Monroe, Virginia, and imprisoned him from May 22, 1865, through May 13, 1867.

Post-war Life

In 1867, officials released Davis on bail, contributed in part by shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. After his release, Davis spent the next two years traveling in Canada, Cuba, and Europe. In February 1869, federal prosecutors dropped all charges against Davis, but the government did not restore his citizenship. Later that year, Davis accepted a position as president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee.

Author

In 1877, novelist Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey invited Davis and his wife to live at Beauvoir, the Dorsey estate near Biloxi, Mississippi. Two years later, Dorsey died, and Davis inherited Beauvoir. While living there, Davis wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, published in 1881. Southerners warmly received the book. In 1889, Jefferson Davis completed writing A Short History of the Confederate States of America.

Death

Later that year, while traveling in New Orleans, Davis died on December 6, of unknown causes. After a large funeral, Davis was buried at the Army of Northern Virginia tomb in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans on December 11. In 1893, Davis’s body was exhumed and reburied at its final resting place in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.

Citizenship Reinstated

On October 17, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a Joint Resolution of Congress reinstating Jefferson Davis’s citizenship.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Jefferson F. Davis
  • Coverage June 3, 1808 -- December 6, 1889
  • Author
  • Keywords jefferson davis, confederate president, american civil war
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 23, 2021
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 29, 2021
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