Davis struggled to lead the Confederacy to independence in the United States Civil War.
Born in Christian (now Todd) County, Kentucky, on June 3, 1808, he grew up in Mississippi, studied at a Roman Catholic school in Kentucky and at Transylvania University, and entered West Point in 1824. After graduation in 1828, Davis served at frontier military posts and in the Black Hawk War before resigning in 1835.
Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachery Taylor, on June 17, 1835 at the home of her aunt, near Louisville, Kentucky. Both of the newlyweds contracted malaria, and she died three months later at the Louisiana home of his sister. Heartbroken over her death, Davis moved to an isolated Mississippi plantation close to that owned by his brother Joseph. There he spent 10 years managing the plantation and studying.
In 1845, he married Varina Howell, and in the same year he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat.
Davis soon left (1846) to command Mississippi troops in the Mexican War. He was prominent in the Battle of Buena Vista (February 1847), where he was wounded. After the war, he was appointed (August 1847) a U.S. senator from Mississippi, but he resigned in 1851 to make an unsuccessful campaign for governor of Mississippi.
He was an outstanding secretary of war (1853-1857) in the cabinet of Franklin Pierce, and then returned to the Senate, where he became a spokesman for the South. As a senator he often stated his support of slavery and of states' rights, and as a cabinet member he influenced Pierce to sign the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which favored the South and increased the bitterness of the struggle over slavery. In his second term as senator he became the acknowledged spokesman for the Southern point of view. He opposed the idea of secession from the Union, however, as a means of maintaining the principles of the South. Even after the first steps toward secession had been taken, he tried to keep the Southern states in the Union, although not at the expense of their principles. When the state of Mississippi seceded, he withdrew from the Senate. On February 18, 1861, the provisional Congress of the Confederate States made him provisional president.
He was elected to the office by popular vote for a 6-year term and was inaugurated in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, on February 22, 1862. For the next 4 years Davis gave his complete devotion to the Southern cause, but he was far from an ideal chief executive. Davis failed to raise sufficient money to fight the American Civil War and could not obtain recognition and help for the Confederacy from foreign governments. He was in constant conflict with extreme exponents of the doctrine of states' rights, and his attempts to have high military officers appointed by the president were opposed by the governors of the states. The judges of state courts constantly interfered in military matters through judicial decisions.
Davis was nevertheless responsible for the raising of the formidable Confederate armies, the notable appointment of General Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Virginia, and the encouragement of industrial enterprise throughout the South. His zeal, energy, and faith in the cause of the South were a source of much of the tenacity with which the Confederacy fought the Civil War. Even in 1865 Davis still hoped the South would be able to achieve its independence, but at last he realized defeat was imminent and fled from Richmond.
He was in poor health for much of the war. He discouraged disagreement, and, as a result, many of those close to him were sycophants. He sometimes insisted on keeping loyal friends in office despite overwhelming evidence of their incompetence. Regarding all opposition as directed at him personally, he wasted valuable time and energy quarreling over unimportant matters, and he was unwilling to delegate authority. He has also been accused of neglecting the civil aspects of government to concentrate on the military. Davis's greatest weakness was his inability to get along well with people. He was stiff and formal, unwilling to concede small points to win large objectives. As one Confederate official noted in 1864, Davis seemed "to possess a most unenviable facility for converting friends into enemies." As a result, he quarreled long and often with Confederate congressmen, generals, governors, and the press. Largely because of these limitations, Davis lacked popular appeal. He was unable to win wholehearted cooperation for such unpopular but necessary measures as conscription, the impressment of supplies, and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Nor was he able to deal with such problems as refugees, inflation, and the shortage of necessities. He became increasingly unpopular as the war continued.
In fairness, it must be said that the winning of Southern independence was probably impossible and that Davis did not receive the support that he should have. Much of the opposition to him came from short-sighted men who put personal status or their state's interests above the cause of the Confederacy, or from honest men who were unable to understand that successful modern war demands the sacrifice of some state rights and personal liberties to the common cause.
In April 1865, as the Confederacy was collapsing, Davis fled from Richmond, Va., hoping to continue the war from the Deep South or from west of the Mississippi, or to organize a government in exile.
On May 10, 1865, federal troops captured him at Irwinville, Georgia. From 1865 to 1867 he was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. Davis was indicted for treason in 1866 but the next year was released on a bond of $100,000 signed by the American newspaper publisher Horace Greeley and other influential Northerners. In 1868 the federal government dropped the case against him. His suffering during his imprisonment won him the affection of the Southern people, who came to regard him as a martyr to their lost cause.
Believing that he had done nothing to be pardoned for, he refused to seek a pardon and remained ineligible for public office.
From 1870 to 1878 he engaged in a number of unsuccessful business enterprises. Davis retired to his home near Biloxi, Mississippi (an estate that he inherited from a generous family friend). He devoted himself to writing in defense of the South in general and himself in particular. His Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government was published in 1881.
Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans, on December 6, 1889. His grave is in Richmond, Virginia.The Life and Death of Jefferson Davis, A. C. Bancroft, 1889
Mouseover to Expand