Jefferson Davis

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Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis (June 3, 1808December 6, 1889) was an American soldier and politician. He served in the U.S. Congress and as a U.S. Secretary of War in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce. He is most famous for serving as the only President of the Confederate States of America throughout the American Civil War (also known as the War Between the States).


Early life and military career

Jefferson Davis was born June 3, 1808 on a farm in Christian County, Kentucky, near the border with Todd County. Davis, the last of the ten children of Samuel Emory Davis and his wife, Jane, had come from a family of rich American history. The younger Davis's grandfather had immigrated to the United States from Wales and had once lived in Virginia and Maryland, working as a public servant. His father, along with his uncles, had served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, his father serving with the Georgia cavalry and leading in the battle of Savannah as an infantry officer. His older brothers also served. During the War of 1812, three of Davis's brothers fought the British, two of them serving under Andrew Jackson and receiving his commendation for bravery in the Battle of New Orleans.

During Davis's youth, his family moved several times, in 1811 to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and in 1812 to Wilkinson County, Mississippi.

In 1813, Davis began his education together with his sister Mary, attending a log cabin school a mile from their home. Two years later, Davis 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. In 1824, Davis entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York as a cadet.

Jefferson Davis successfully completed his four-year term of study at West Point, and graduated as a Second Lieutenant in June 1828. He was assigned to the 1st Infantry 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 Native Americans. His first combat assignment was during the Black Hawk War of the same year, after which he escorted Black Hawk himself to prison—it is said that the chief liked Davis because of the kind treatment he had shown. Another of Davis's duties during this time was to keep miners from illegally entering what would eventually become the state of Iowa.

In 1833, Davis was promoted to First Lieutenant of the 1st Dragoons and made a regimental adjutant. 1834 saw his transfer to Fort Gibson. On June 17 1835, Jefferson Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor at the house of her aunt near Louisville, Kentucky. Sarah's father, then-Colonel Zachary Taylor, would go on to become a General and later U.S. President. On June 30, 1835, Davis resigned from the U.S. Army.

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Jefferson Davis

Marriage, plantation life and politics

The marriage proved short. The newlyweds both contracted malaria, and Davis's wife died three months after the wedding at the Louisiana home of his sister. Davis recovered, sailing 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.

1844 saw Jefferson Davis's first political success, as he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, taking office on March 4 of the following year.

He married again on February 26 1845, this time to socially prominent Varina Howell.

Second military career

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Statue of Jefferson Davis

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. 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 a federal commission as a Brigadier General and command of a brigade of militia. 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. (Editor Note: Sources disagree as to this date). 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 Stuart Foote by 999 votes.

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 11 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 on 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. In meetings of his own Mississippi legislature, Davis had argued against secession; but when a majority of the delegates opposed him, he gave in.

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 and his family took up his residence there at the White House of the Confederacy 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, leaving on the Richmond and Danville Railroad. 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 with Postmaster General John Henninger Reagan and former Texas governor Francis R. Lubbock.

Imprisonment and retirement

On May 19 1865, he was imprisoned in a casemate at Fortress Monroe, on the coast of Virginia. The casemate was wet, unheated, and open to the weather, leading many to believe that his captors intended him to die in prison. He was placed in irons on the 23rd, but released from irons on the 26th at the recommendation of a physician. Davis was not indicted for treason until a year later (May 1866) due to the constitutional concerns of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.

The next year, after imprisonment of two years, he was released on bail which was posted by prominent citizens of both northern and southern states, including Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt who had become convinced he was being treated unfairly. He 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 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. He is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

In 1978 his US citizenship was posthumously restored by Congress.

Preceded by:
Charles Magill Conrad
United States Secretary of War
Succeeded by:
John Buchanan Floyd
Preceded by:
President of the Confederate States
Succeeded by:

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