Jefferson Davis

The American Civil War, Abolition, Jefferson Davis

During the Civil War, Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederate States and Abraham Lincoln led the United States. Both were born in Kentucky, several months apart, Davis on June 3, 1808. The Lincolns moved to Indiana soon after, then to Illinois, while the Davis' moved to a small plantation in Mississippi.

Jefferson was the tenth child of Samuel Davis, a planter. Jefferson's father was not wealthy, but the oldest son, Joseph, became well-to-do and helped the boy. Jefferson attended academies in Kentucky and Mississippi, and in 1821 he entered Transylvania University in Kentucky. Three years later he was appointed to West Point and was graduated in 1828, becoming an officer in the United States Army.

He served in frontier posts in Illinois and Wisconsin and in the Black Hawk War in 1832. In 1833 he fell in love with Sarah Taylor, the daughter of his commandant, Col. Zachary Taylor. The colonel did not approve of the match; so Davis resigned his commission in June 1835. Sarah went to an aunt in Kentucky, and there the two were married. Joseph helped him establish a plantation (Brierfield) on land in Mississippi. Within three months the young couple fell ill with malaria and Sarah died.

Davis spent the years following the tragedy living quietly at Brierfield. In 1845 he married Varina Howell (see Davis, Varina). By this time he was a successful planter. He developed a deep devotion to Southern plantation life and his own attitude toward his slaves led him to deny fiercely all Northern claims that slavery was cruel.

Elected to Public Office

He was elected a representative to Congress in 1845, but he resigned the next year when the Mexican War broke out. He became a colonel of Mississippi volunteers and served under his former father-in-law, now General Taylor. At the battle of Buena Vista, Davis and his regiment probably saved the American army from defeat. Davis was severely wounded. This action made him widely known as "the hero of Buena Vista." It also convinced him that he was a military genius. This belief later handicapped him in his relations with Confederate commanders.

In 1847 Mississippi sent him to the United States Senate. His ability as a speaker soon made him a Democratic leader, championing the South and slavery. In 1851 he resigned to run for governor of Mississippi. He was defeated; but he re-entered public life when Franklin Pierce became president in 1853. Davis became secretary of war, serving until the end of Pierce's term in 1857.

Mississippi again sent him to the Senate. By this time the tension between the North and the South over slavery was at fever heat. Davis took an unyielding attitude in favor of slavery. In 1860 he helped nominate a proslavery Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, to run against both Abraham Lincoln, the Republican nominee, and Stephen A. Douglas, the northern Democratic nominee. This party split caused Lincoln to be elected.

President of the Confederacy

Southern bitterness made secession inevitable. On Jan. 21, 1861, Davis made an impassioned speech to the Senate and resigned. When the Southern states formed the Confederacy he hoped to be named commander of the Confederate forces. Instead he was named president. He was inaugurated on Feb. 18, 1861.

Despite poor health, Davis assumed his new duties. At first his administration was highly popular. Time brought military reverses, and criticism began. He took more power into his hands, until even his own officials at Richmond complained.

As the blockade of the Southern coasts became more effective, the uneven struggle appeared hopeless. Still confident, Davis declared in his last message of March 13, 1865, that success might yet be secured. Less than 30 days later Lee surrendered. Soon after, Davis was captured by United States troops near Irwinsville, Ga.

Davis was confined at Fortress Monroe. His sufferings there aroused the sympathy of the Southern people. Even those who had found fault with his policies now regarded him as a martyr. After two years he was released on bail. Davis was not indifferent to the personal liberty of his people, but he was dictatorial in manner. He was not as flexible as many other politicians, but many who knew him idolized him. He maintained warm friendships with onetime slaves as well as old friends in the North.

As soon as he was free he journeyed to Canada and Europe to try to regain his health. Upon his return to the United States he tried to retrieve his broken fortunes. His business ventures proved failures, and in 1878 he retired. The rest of his life was spent writing his book 'The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government'. He died in New Orleans on Dec. 6, 1889. A monument now stands in Richmond to the memory of "Jefferson Davis, the first and only President of the Confederate States of America."

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