Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis
President of the Confederate States
In office
February 18, 1861 – May 5, 1865
Provisional: February 18, 1861 – February 22, 1862
Vice PresidentAlexander H. Stephens
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPosition abolished
United States Senator
from Mississippi
In office
March 4, 1857 – January 21, 1861
Preceded byStephen Adams
Succeeded byAdelbert Ames (1870)
In office
August 10, 1847 – September 23, 1851
Preceded byJesse Speight
Succeeded byJohn J. McRae
23rd United States Secretary of War
In office
March 7, 1853 – March 4, 1857
PresidentFranklin Pierce
Preceded byCharles Conrad
Succeeded byJohn B. Floyd
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's at-large district
In office
December 8, 1845 – October 28, 1846
Seat D
Preceded byTilghman Tucker
Succeeded byHenry T. Ellett
Personal details
Jefferson Finis Davis

(1808-06-03)June 3, 1808
Fairview, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedDecember 6, 1889(1889-12-06) (aged 81)
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
Resting placeHollywood Cemetery
Political partyDemocratic
Other political
Southern Rights
Sarah Knox Taylor
(m. 1835; her death 1835)

Varina Howell
(m. 1845; his death 1889)
EducationTransylvania University
West Point Military Academy (BS)
SignaturePresidential Library
Military service
Allegiance United States
Service/branchUnited States Army
United States Volunteers
Years of service1825–1835
RankUnion army 1st lt rank insignia.jpg First Lieutenant
Union Army colonel rank insignia.png Colonel
Unit1st U.S. Dragoons
Commands1st Mississippi Rifles

Jefferson Finis Davis[a] (June 3, 1808 – December 6, 1889) was an American politician who served as the only President of the Confederate States from 1861 to 1865. As a member of the Democratic Party, he represented Mississippi in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives prior to switching allegiance to the Confederacy. He was appointed as the United States Secretary of War, serving from 1853 to 1857, under President Franklin Pierce.

Davis was born in Fairview, Kentucky, to a moderately prosperous farmer, the youngest of ten children. He grew up in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, and also lived in Louisiana. His eldest brother Joseph Emory Davis secured the younger Davis's appointment to the United States Military Academy. After graduating, Jefferson Davis served six years as a lieutenant in the United States Army. He fought in the Mexican–American War (1846–1848), as the colonel of a volunteer regiment. Before the American Civil War, he operated a large cotton plantation in Mississippi, which his brother Joseph gave him, and owned as many as 74 slaves.[1] Although Davis argued against secession in 1858,[2] he believed that states had an unquestionable right to leave the Union.

Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor in 1835, when he was 27 years old. They were both stricken with malaria soon thereafter, and Sarah died after three months of marriage. Davis recovered slowly and suffered from recurring bouts of the disease throughout his life.[3] At the age of 36, Davis married again, to 18-year-old Varina Howell, a native of Natchez, Mississippi, who had been educated in Philadelphia and had some family ties in the North. They had six children. Only two survived him, and only one married and had children.

Many historians attribute some of the Confederacy's weaknesses to the poor leadership of Davis.[4] His preoccupation with detail, reluctance to delegate responsibility, lack of popular appeal, feuds with powerful state governors and generals, favoritism toward old friends, inability to get along with people who disagreed with him, neglect of civil matters in favor of military ones, and resistance to public opinion all worked against him.[5][6] Historians agree he was a much less effective war leader than his Union counterpart, President Abraham Lincoln. After Davis was captured in 1865, he was accused of treason and imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. He was never tried and was released after two years. While not disgraced, Davis had been displaced in ex-Confederate affection after the war by his leading general, Robert E. Lee. Davis wrote a memoir entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which he completed in 1881. By the late 1880s, he began to encourage reconciliation, telling Southerners to be loyal to the Union. Ex-Confederates came to appreciate his role in the war, seeing him as a Southern patriot. He became a hero of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy in the post-Reconstruction South.[7]

Early life

Birth and family background

Jefferson Finis Davis was born at the family homestead in Fairview, Kentucky, on June 3, 1808. He sometimes gave his year of birth as 1807.[8] He dropped his middle name in later life, although he sometimes used a middle initial.[a] Davis was the youngest of ten children born to Jane (née Cook) and Samuel Emory Davis; his oldest brother Joseph Emory Davis was 23 years his senior. He was named after then-incumbent President Thomas Jefferson, whom his father admired.[9] In the early 20th century, the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site was established near the site of Davis's birth.[10] Coincidentally, Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, only eight months later, less than 100 miles (160 km) to the northeast of Fairview.

Davis's paternal grandparents were born in the region of Snowdonia in North Wales, and immigrated separately to North America in the early 18th century. His maternal ancestors were English. After initially arriving in Philadelphia, Davis's paternal grandfather Evan settled in the colony of Georgia, which was developed chiefly along the coast. He married the widow Lydia Emory Williams, who had two sons from a previous marriage, and their son Samuel Emory Davis was born in 1756. He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, along with his two older half-brothers. In 1783, after the war, he married Jane Cook. She was born in 1759 to William Cook and his wife Sarah Simpson in what is now Christian County, Kentucky. In 1793, the Davis family relocated to Kentucky, establishing a community named "Davisburg" on the border of Christian and Todd counties; it was eventually renamed Fairview.[11]


During Davis's childhood, his family moved twice: in 1811 to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and less than a year later to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Three of his older brothers served in the War of 1812. In 1813, Davis began his education at the Wilkinson Academy in the small town of Woodville, near the family cotton plantation. His brother Joseph acted as a surrogate father and encouraged Jefferson in his education. Two years later, Davis entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory, a school operated by the Dominican Order in Washington County, Kentucky. At the time, he was the only Protestant student at the school. Davis returned to Mississippi in 1818, studying at Jefferson College in Washington. He returned to Kentucky in 1821, studying at Transylvania University in Lexington. (At the time, these colleges were like academies, roughly equivalent to high schools.)[12] His father Samuel died on July 4, 1824, when Jefferson was 16 years old.[13]

Early military career

Joseph arranged for Davis to get an appointment and attend the United States Military Academy (West Point) starting in late 1824.[14] While there, he was placed under house arrest for his role in the Eggnog Riot during Christmas 1826. Cadets smuggled whiskey into the academy to make eggnog, and more than one-third of the cadets were involved in the incident. In June 1828, Davis graduated 23rd in a class of 33.[15]

Following graduation, Second Lieutenant Davis was assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment and was stationed at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, Michigan Territory. Zachary Taylor, a future president of the United States, had assumed command shortly before Davis arrived in early 1829. In March 1832, Davis returned to Mississippi on furlough, having had no leave since he first arrived at Fort Crawford. He was still in Mississippi during the Black Hawk War but returned to the fort in August. At the conclusion of the war, Colonel Taylor assigned him to escort Black Hawk to prison. Davis made an effort to shield Black Hawk from curiosity seekers, and the chief noted in his autobiography that Davis treated him "with much kindness" and showed empathy for the leader's situation as a prisoner.[16]

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