Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. His honesty, character, and devotion elevated his cause above a quest for the perpetuation of slavery to a crusade for independence.
History has served Jefferson Davis badly by placing him opposite Abraham Lincoln. Davis is grudged even the loser's mite, for Fate chose Robert E. Lee to embody the "Lost Cause." Yet Davis led the Confederacy and suffered its defeat with great dignity, and he deserves a better recollection.
Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in what is now Todd County, Ky. The family soon moved to Mississippi. After attending Transylvania University for 3 years, he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1828. He served in the infantry for 7 years. At Ft. Crawford, Wis., he fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of post commandant Zachary Taylor. Col. Taylor disapproved of the proposed match. Davis resigned his commission in 1835, married Sarah, and took her to Mississippi; within 3 months she died of malaria. Davis contracted a light case of it, which, combined with grief, permanently weakened his health. From 1835 to 1845 he lived in seclusion at Brierfield, a plantation given him by his brother, Joseph. He and Joseph were close, shared reading habits, argued, and sharpened each other's wits and prejudices.
During these quiet years Davis developed a Southerner's fascination for politics and love for the land. In December 1845 Davis and Varina Howell, his new bride, went to Washington, where Davis took a Democratic seat in the House of Representatives. The Davises made a swift impression. Varina entertained well; Jefferson earned notice for his eloquence and the "charm of his voice."
War with Mexico interrupted Davis's congressional service. He resigned in 1846 to command a volunteer regiment attached to Zachary Taylor's army. Col. Davis and his men won quick approval from the crotchety old general, and the earlier hostilities between the two men were forgotten. Distinguished service by Davis's outfit at Monterey, Mexico, was followed by real heroism at Buena Vista (Feb. 22, 1847). Wounded, Davis returned to Mississippi and received a hero's laurels. In 1847, elected to the U.S. Senate, Davis became chairman of the Military Affairs Committee. But in 1851 Mississippi Democrats called him back to replace their gubernatorial candidate, thinking that Davis's reputation might cover the party's shift from an extreme secessionist position to one of "cooperationist" moderation. This almost succeeded; Davis lost to Henry S. Foote by less than 1,000 votes.
U.S. Secretary of War
When President Franklin Pierce appointed Davis secretary of war in 1853, Davis found his happiest niche. He enlarged the Army, modernized military procedures, boosted soldiers' pay (and morale), directed important Western land surveys for future railroad construction, and masterminded the Gadsden Purchase.
At the close of Pierce's term Davis reentered the Senate and became a major Southern spokesman. Ever mindful of the Union's purposes, he worked to preserve the Compromise of 1850. Yet throughout the 1850s Davis was moving toward a Southern nationalist point of view. He opposed Stephen A. Douglas's "squatter sovereignty" doctrine in the Kansas question. Congress, Davis argued, had no power to limit slavery's extension.
At the 1860 Democratic convention Davis cautioned against secession. However, he accepted Mississippi's decision, and on Jan. 21, 1861, in perhaps his most eloquent senatorial address, announced his state's secession from the Union and his own resignation from the Senate and called for understanding.
Davis only reluctantly accepted the presidency of the Confederate States of America. He began his superhuman task with very human doubts. But once in office he became the foremost Confederate. His special virtues were revealed by challenge—honesty, devotion, dedication, the zeal of a passionate patriot.
As president, Davis quickly grasped his problems: 9 million citizens (including at least 3 million slaves) of sovereign Southern states pitted against 22 million Yankees; 9,000 miles of usable railroad track against 22,000; no large factories, warships, or shipyards; little money; no credit, save in the guise of cotton; scant arms and no manufacturing arsenals to replenish losses; miniscule powder works; undeveloped lead, saltpeter, copper, and iron resources; and almost no knowledge of steelmaking. Assets could be counted only as optimism, confidence, cotton, and courage. Davis would have to conjure a cause, anneal a new nation, and make a war.
With sure grasp Davis built an army out of state volunteers sworn into Confederate service—and thus won his first round against state rights. Officers came from the "Old Army" and from Southern military schools. Supplies, arms, munitions, clothes, and transportation came from often reluctant governors, from citizens, and, finally, by means of crafty legerdemain worked by staff officials.
When supplies dwindled drastically, Davis resorted to impressing private property. When military manpower shrank, Davis had to ask the Confederate Congress for the greatest military innovation a democracy could dare—conscription. In April 1862 Congress authorized the draft.
Nor was Davis timid in using his armies. Relying usually on leaders he knew, he put such men as Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, P. G. T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, James Longstreet, Thomas J. Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Robert E. Lee in various commands. He developed a strategy to fit Confederate circumstances. Realizing that the weaker side must husband and hoard yet dare desperately when the chance came, Davis divided the Confederate military map into departments, each under a general with wide powers. He sought only to repel invaders. This strategy had political as well as military implications: the Confederacy was not aggressive, sought nothing save independence, and would fight in the North only when pressed. Davis's plan brought impressive results—First Manassas, the Seven Days, Second Manassas, and the clearing of Virginia by September 1862. Western results seemed equally promising. Shiloh, while not a victory, stabilized the middle border; Bragg's following campaign maneuvered a Union army out of Tennessee and almost out of Kentucky.
These successes led Davis to a general offensive in the summer and fall of 1862 designed to terrify Northerners, themselves yet untouched by war; to separate other, uncertain states from the Union; and to convince the outside world of Southern strength. Though it failed, the strategy had merit and remained in effect. Checks at Fredericksburg, Holly Springs, and Chancellorsville stung the North. When Union general U. S. Grant moved against Vicksburg in spring 1863, it looked as though he might be lost in Mississippi, with Gen. Joseph Hooker snared in Virginia's wilderness.
But Grant's relentless pressure on Vicksburg forced Davis to a desperate gamble that resulted in the Battle of Gettysburg, the loss of Vicksburg, and a cost to the South of over 50,000 men and 60,000 stands of arms. Men and arms were irreplaceable, and Davis huddled deeper in the defensive.
Davis had tried perhaps the most notable innovation in the history of American command when he adopted the "theater" idea as an expansion of departmental control. Joseph E. Johnston became commander of the Department of the West, taking absolute power over all forces from the Chattahoochee River to the Mississippi River, and from the Gulf of Mexico to Tennessee. It was a great scheme for running a remote war and might have worked, save for Johnston's hesitancy in exercising his authority. Davis lost faith in his general but not in his plan.
In 1864, after Atlanta's fall, Davis approved Gen. John Bell Hood's plan of striking along William T. Sherman's communications into Tennessee, with the hope of capturing Nashville. Logistical support for this bold venture was coordinated by P. G. T. Beauregard, the new commander of the Department of the West. But Beauregard also distrusted his own authority. Hood failed before Nashville; but by then things had so deteriorated that the blame could hardly be fixed on any one in particular.
Innovation was essential: the armies had to be supported—and in this quest Davis himself changed. Ever an advocate of state rights, he became an uncompromising Confederate nationalist, warring with state governors for federal rights and urging centralist policies on his reluctant Congress. Conscription and impressment were two pillars of his program; others included harsh tax laws, government regulation of railroads and blockade running, and diplomacy aimed at winning recognition of Confederate independence and establishing commercial relations with England and France. Davis came to advocate wide application of martial law. Finally he suggested drafting slaves, with freedom as the reward for valor. These measures were essential to avoid defeat; many were beyond the daring of the Confederate Congress.
Congress's inability to face necessity finally infuriated Davis. Though warm and winning in personal relations, he saw no need for politicking in relations with Congress. He believed that reasonable men did what crisis demanded and anything less was treason. Intolerant of laxity in himself or in others, he sometimes alienated supporters.
As Confederate chances dwindled, Davis became increasingly demanding. He eventually won congressional support for most of his measures but at high personal cost. By the summer of 1864 most Southern newspapers were sniping at his administration, state governors were quarreling with him, and he had become the focus of Southern discontent. The South was losing; Davis's plan must be wrong, the rebels reasoned. Peace sentiments arose in disaffected areas of several states, as did demands to negotiate with the enemy. Davis knew the enemy's price: union. But he tried negotiation. Yet when the Hampton Roads Conference in February 1865 proved fruitless and Davis called for renewed Confederate dedication, the Confederacy was falling apart, and there was almost nothing to rededicate. Confederate money had so declined in value that Southerners were avoiding it; soldiers deserted; invaders stalked the land with almost no opposition. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865; Johnston surrendered on April 26. Davis and a small party were captured at Irwinville, Ga., on May 10.
Years of Decline
Accused of complicity in Lincoln's assassination, and the object of intense hatred in both North and South, Davis spent 2 years as a state prisoner. He was harshly treated, and his already feeble health broke dangerously. When Federal authorities decided not to try him for treason, he traveled abroad to recuperate, then returned to Mississippi and vainly sought to rebuild his fortune.
Through a friend's generosity Davis and his family received a stately home on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Here from 1878 to 1881 Davis wrote Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. And here, at last, he basked in a kind of fame that eased his final years. He died in New Orleans on Dec. 6, 1889, survived by Varina and two of their six children.
Further Reading on Jefferson Davis
A primary source is Dunbar Rowland, ed., Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches (10 vols., 1923), which includes an autobiography in volume 1. Biographies include Varina H. Davis, Jefferson Davis: A Memoir (1890); William E. Dodd, Jefferson Davis (1907); Allen Tate, Jefferson Davis, His Rise and Fall (1929); Robert W. Winston, High Stakes and Hair Trigger: The Life of Jefferson Davis (1930); Robert McElroy, Jefferson Davis: The Unreal and the Real (2 vols., 1937); and Hudson Strode, Jefferson Davis (3 vols., 1955-1964). See also Burton J. Hendrick, Statesmen of the Lost Cause (1939); Robert W. Patrick, Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet (1944); Frank E. Vandiver, Jefferson Davis and the Confederate State (1964) and Their Tattered Flags (1970).