President Jefferson Davis, CSA — Civil War Snapshot

President Jefferson Davis. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) was elected President of the Confederate States of America on November 6, 1861. He led the Confederacy throughout the duration of the Civil War (1861–1865). Davis previously served as Secretary of War for the United States under President Franklin Pierce from 1853 to 1857. As Commander-in-Chief, Davis oversaw Confederate military operations. However, as time went on, the Confederate Congress replaced him in that capacity with General Robert E. Lee.

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, Davis resigned from the U. S. Senate. 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.

Jefferson Davis, Inauguration, 1861
The scene at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis. Image Source: Wikipedia.

After Virginia seceded from the Union, Davis moved the capital of the Confederacy to Richmond, Virginia. 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.

Jefferson Davis, Confederate Cabinet, 1861
Group portrait of the Confederate cabinet including President Jefferson Davis, Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Attorney General Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of the Navy Stephen M. Mallory, Secretary of the Treasury C.S. Memminger, Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker, Postmaster John H. Reagan, and Secretary of State Robert Toombs, seated and standing around a table. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Davis’s penchant for micro-managing 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 Confederate armies. Late in the war, many Southerners started to question Davis’s competency as Commander-in-Chief. Opposition to Davis’s leadership reached a crescendo on January 23, 1865, when the Confederation Congress enacted legislation that eventually led to General Robert E. Lee replacing Davis as the leader of the Confederate military.

On April 3, 1865, Davis and the Rebel government fled Richmond as federal forces closed in on the Confederate capital. On May 10, 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.

Jefferson Davis Joins the Confederacy

  • As a Senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis was generally opposed to secession.
  • However, Davis resigned his seat in the Senate in 1861, when Mississippi seceded from the Union.

President Jefferson Davis in the Civil War — 1861

  • On February 9, 1861, delegates to a Constitutional Convention at Montgomery, Alabama elected Jefferson Davis as Provisional President of the Confederate States of America.
  • Davis was inaugurated as Provisional President of the Confederate States of America on February 18, 1861.
  • In May 1861, President Davis moved the seat of the Confederate government to Richmond after Virginia seceded from the Union.
  • Davis witnessed the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). Despite the Confederate victory, he was critical of P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston for their failure to pursue retreating Union forces.
  • In September, he allowed General Leonidas Polk to remain in Columbus, Kentucky. The decision violated Kentucky’s neutrality, which led it to remain with the Union. It was a critical mistake that hurt the Confederacy.
  • On November 6, 1861, Davis was elected to a six-year term as President of the Confederate States of America.

President Jefferson Davis in the Civil War — 1862

  • In early February, Union forces captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, which led to the loss of Confederate control of Nashville and Memphis.
  • On February 22, 1862, President Davis was inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of America.
  • In March, he chose Robert E. Lee as his military advisor.
  • During the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862), General Albert Sidney Johnston was killed. P. G. T. Beauregard replaced him and fell back to Mississippi. Soon after, Beauregard resigned and David replaced him with Braxton Bragg.
  • On May 31, 1862, General Joseph Johnston was wounded during the Battle of Seven Pines. Davis sent Lee to replace Johnston.
  • In November, Davis reorganized the Confederate forces in the West and sent Johnston to command them.

President Jefferson Davis in the Civil War — 1863

  • After the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Davis called it “the most execrable measure recorded in…history.”
  • In April, there was a riot in Richmond due to a food shortage. Davis broke up the mob by threatening to call in Confederate troops.
  • July 1863 marked a turning point in the war as Confederate forces suffered significant defeats at Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) and Vicksburg (May 18, 1863–Jul 4, 1863).
  • In August, Braxton Bragg was pushed out of Chattanooga (August 21, 1863). He won the Battle of Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863) and then laid siege to the city. However, Bragg was forced to retreat to northern Georgia. Bragg resigned and Davis replaced him with Joseph Johnston.
  • In October, Davis traveled throughout the South, giving speeches and meeting with leaders in an effort to rally support for the war effort.
Braxton Bragg, Portrait
Braxton Bragg. Image Source: Library of Congress.

President Jefferson Davis in the Civil War — 1864

  • At a meeting in Dalton, Georgia on January 2, 1864, Confederate General Patrick R. Cleburne, an Irish immigrant, proposed using slaves for the Confederate war effort. The proposal was rejected.
  • On May 2, 1864, President Davis delivered a speech to the Confederate Congress, outlining his vision for winning the war. He essentially said the Confederacy needed to outlast the Union’s willingness to keep fighting.
  • In June, Robert E. Lee’s forces were pushed back to Petersburg, where Union forces laid siege to the city for 9 months.
  • Davis encouraged Joseph Johnston to move into Tennessee, but Johnston disagreed and fell back to Atlanta. Davis replaced Johnston with John Bell Hood.
  • Hood engaged Union forces, under the command of General William T. Sherman. However, Hood was forced to abandon Atlanta on September 2, 1864.
  • The Union conquest of Atlanta raised morale in the North, increased support for the continuation of the war, and boosted the popularity of President Abraham Lincoln, allowing him to win the Presidential Election of 1864.
  • From Atlanta, Sherman started his “March to the Sea” and headed to Savannah, Georgia. Sherman concluded his campaign in Savannah on December 21, 1864.
William T Sherman at Atlanta, Photograph
Sherman in Atlanta. Image Source: Library of Congress.

President Jefferson Davis in the Civil War — 1865

  • In January, the Confederate Congress replaced Davis as Commander-in-Chief with Robert E. Lee. Davis signed the legislation himself.
  • On February 3, 1865, Confederate officials, sent by Davis, meet with Union officials at the Hampton Roads Conference. The purpose is to attempt a peace settlement. No agreement was reached and the war continued.
  • After Confederate forces were forced to evacuate Petersburg (March 25, 1865), President Davis evacuated Richmond on April 3, 1865.
  • Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1863.
  • Confederate supporter John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham on April 14, 1865. Lincoln died the next morning of his wounds.
  • Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to William T. Sherman at Bennett Place on April 18, 1863.
  • On May 5, 1865, in Washington, Georgia, President Davis met with his cabinet for the last time and dissolved the Confederate government.
  • Union forces captured Jefferson Davis on May 10, 1865, near Irwinsville, Georgia.
  • Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe, Virginia from May 22, 1865, through May 13, 1867.
Jefferson Davis, Prison at Fort Monroe, 1865
This 1865 illustration by Alfred R. Waud depicts Davis in prison at Fort Monroe. Image Source: Library of Congress.

What happened to Jefferson Davis after the Civil War?

  • Davis was released on bail, part of which was posted by shipping magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and abolitionist and New York newspaper publisher, Horace Greeley.
  • After being released from prison, Davis traveled to Canada, Cuba, and Europe.
  • In February 1869, Federal prosecutors dropped all charges against Davis, but his citizenship to the United States was not restored.
  • In 1869, Davis became president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee.
  • In 1877, novelist Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey invited Davis to live at her estate, Beauvoir, near Biloxi, Mississippi, while he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.
  • In 1879, Davis inherited Beauvoir in the will of Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey.
  • His book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, was published in 1881.
  • In 1889, Davis completed writing A Short History of the Confederate States of America.
  • Davis died in New Orleans on December 6, 1889, from unknown causes.
  • He was buried in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans on December 11, 1889.
  • His body was exhumed and reburied in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery between May 27 and May 31, 1893.
  • On October 17, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a Joint Resolution of Congress reinstating Jefferson Davis as a citizen of the United States.

Learn more about Confederate President Jefferson Davis on American History Central