Jefferson Finis Davis
Jefferson Davis was born in Christian City, Kentucky on June 3, 1808. When you think of the challenges that faced Davis during the Civil War, few men of any nation confronted those so great. His fate and the fate of the Confederacy were so linked, that their strengths and weaknesses are almost analyzed as one.
You may presume that Davisís family would have come from a long line of Southerners, but actually he was only the second generation from the South. His grandfather was from Pennsylvania, who moved to Georgia where Jeffersonís father was born. However, the Davis family soon adopted the manners, traditions and beliefs of the South, becoming as much a Southern family as some of the oldest families there.
Although raised as a Baptist, Jefferson attended a Catholic School in Kentucky, went to Jefferson College outside of Natchez, Mississippi, then attended Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. With one year before he would have graduated, he left Transylvania, accepting an appointment at the Military Academy at West Point. Following his half-hearted career there as a cadet, he graduated twenty-third in a class of thirty-two in June of 1828. Davis then spent the next seven years in the army, attaining the rank of first lieutenant before resigning his commission to become a planter in Mississippi.
During this same year in 1835, he married Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of General and future President Zachary Taylor. Happily married, tragedy stuck when just three months later she died of malaria. Ten years passed before Jefferson would marry again, when in 1845 he married Varina Howell from Natchez, Mississippi. As the years passed, her influence on him while he was living and after his death, was tremendous.
The year that Jefferson and Varina married, he decided to enter politics, when as a Democrat, he was elected to Congress. From this point forward, he remained in public life, except for a short period of service during the Mexican War, and two years from 1851 to 1853.
During his service in the House of Representatives, he became an advocate of Southern rights, a position of beliefs he would maintain until his death. When the war with Mexico began in 1846, he resigned his seat in the House, and was appointed a colonel in the 1st Mississippi Rifles. During the victorious campaign in Mexico, Davis became well-known following the Battle of Buena Vista where his regiment stopped the enemyís cavalry charge, wounding Davis in the foot in the process. Although he was unable to continue in the war as a result of his injury, the success of his regiment made him a hero. Furthermore, his regimentís success gave Davis the belief that he possessed extraordinary, military ability.
When the war with Mexico ended, Jefferson returned to the Senate representing the state of Mississippi. Wanting to run for governor, he resigned from the Senate to do so, yet was unsuccessful in the election in 1851. Out of politics momentarily, he returned in 1853 when Franklin Pierce was elected President of the United States, to serve as his secretary of war. He served as such successfully by improving and modernizing the army, protecting the frontier, and exploring routes for a transcontinental railroad. Now a very influential man, it was Davis that initiated the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a measure that intensified the already heated sectional feelings. As a result, to many, Jefferson Davis was considered the total power behind President Pierce.
Four years later in 1857, Davis returned to the Senate and remained as such until 1861 when the state of Mississippi seceded from the Union. Although Davis was a strong supporter of Southern rights as well as slavery, he still attempted a compromise in the divided Democratic party that would have avoided secession, but was unsuccessful upon the election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. President. Consequently, he made his farewell speech to the Senate on January 21, 1861. He had expected that as a result of his military success in Mexico, as well as secretary of war, that he would receive a high military command in the newly formed Confederacy. Instead, he was shocked and had regrets, that the Confederate Convention in Montgomery, Alabama had elected him as the new provisional president of the Confederacy.
But Davis was not the man who should have been elected president of the Confederacy. Davis was a stubborn man, who was narrow-minded, and seldom willing to compromise on issues, never seeing the greater goals that could be achieved. But, his devotion to the South was without question, and in support of his Southern beliefs, he was willing to work tirelessly toward preserving these ideals. Even his wife Varina said upon his election as provisional president; "He did not know the arts of the politician and would not practice them if understood." It turned out that she was right. But in defense of the South, at this time in 1861, he was probably the best man available.
Jefferson Davis was inaugurated on February 18, and became the president of the new permanent Confederate government on February 22, 1862, after the Confederate capital was moved from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia. Now as president, in one of his first messages, he said that he desired peace, in that all the Confederacy wanted was to be left alone, to continue their own traditions and beliefs. Still, from its inception, the Confederacy was preparing for war. In selecting his cabinet members, the selection process was based mostly on political debts owed, rather than the best man for the position. Davis seldom interfered in his executive departments and usually listened to his counsel of ministers. He did however, interfere with the War Department, so much so that his war secretaries became known as merely his pawns. This resulted in Davis having six secretaries of war in four years. Additionally, Davis frequently placed his buddies from the Mexican War as well as those people he liked when he served under President Pierce, giving them high, responsible positions that they kept, in spite of the fact that they were unfit or unsuited for the position. Two examples were the appointment of Lucius B. Northrop who remained commissary general until public pressure forced Davis to replace him, and General Braxton Bragg who remained in his army command, in spite of increasing evidence that he was incompetent in this position. Another of Davisís problems was his own belief that he possessed a great knowledge of military affairs. He would frequently lecture to his generals, except Robert E. Lee. Still, Davis, like the majority of his generals, held so much attention to the defense of their capital at Richmond, that they ignored the Western commands, one of the reasons the South lost New Orleans. Another of President Davisís flaws was his bad choice of foreign diplomats and his misunderstanding of Europeans toward the South and slavery.
But with the bad, Davis also possessed strengths. Not to be denied was his indestructible belief in the cause of the South. Davis worked so tirelessly toward these goals that he often neglected his health. One of his greatest achievements was even though he remained dedicated to his friends he put in high places, although at times believing them unsuited, he did constantly support General Robert E. Lee. This was unquestionably his noblest effort. Had he not, the Confederacy would have surely been lost much sooner.
Still, the failure and fall of the Confederacy cannot be blamed entirely on Davis, although itís internal problems can be. Because there were no formal political parties in the South, this soon divided the Confederacy into pro and anti-Davis groups, making Davis the major issue. When problems arose, Davis was never able to recognize them as opposition, but merely believed them to be mistakes. There have been very few men in history who believed as Davis did in his own faultless integrity.
In April 1865, when the capital at Richmond fell to the Union, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet members attempted to get away. Davis, steadfast in his beliefs, still believed in the Confederacy, even after Generals Lee and Johnston surrendered their armies. The war was over and Davis had lost, yet it was not until his cabinet members and generals united in opposition to him did he finally accept defeat.
On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis was captured near Irwinsville, Georgia and was sent to prison at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Once incarcerated, the Federal government was not sure exactly what to do with him. Although a treason trial was planned, in time, feelings against him died down, and Davis was released on bail in May 1867. Never prosecuted, the case against him was eventually dropped.
Following his release, Davis traveled to Canada and Europe then returned and settled in the South at Beauvoir, his plantation near Biloxi, Mississippi. Here he wrote his famous book titled: The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, that was published in 1881. In his book he wrote about the many weaknesses that impeded him as president, but told little about the inner workings of the Confederacy. Davis did reveal a great deal about himself, because in his on mind, he could not separate himself from the Confederacy, believing them to be one.
On December 9, 1889, Jefferson Davis died at Beauvoir. Although few in the South truthfully loved him, he was respected and honored as the true, proud symbol of the lost cause, unapologetic to the end.
Copyright© John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.