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Jefferson Finis Davis (June 3, 1808 – December 6, 1889) was an American politician who served as President of the Confederate States of America for its entire history, 1861 to 1865, during the American Civil War.
A West Point graduate, Davis fought in the Mexican-American War as a colonel of a volunteer regiment, and was the United States Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. Both before and after his time in the Pierce Administration, he served as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. As a senator he argued against secession but believed each state was sovereign and had an unquestionable right to secede from the Union.
Davis resigned from the Senate in January 1861, after receiving word that Mississippi had seceded from the Union. The following month, he was provisionally appointed President of the Confederate States of America. He was elected to a six-year term that November. During his presidency, Davis was not able to find a strategy to defeat the larger, more industrially developed Union. Davis' insistence on independence, even in the face of crushing defeat, prolonged the war.
After Davis was captured in 1865, he was charged with treason, though not tried, and stripped of his eligibility to run for public office. This limitation was removed in 1978, 89 years after his death. While not disgraced, he was displaced in Southern affection after the war by its leading general, Robert E. Lee.
Early life and military careerEdit
Davis was the youngest of the ten children of Samuel Emory Davis (Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, 1756 – July 4, 1824) and wife (married 1783) Jane Cook (Christian County, (later Todd County), Kentucky, 1759 – October 3, 1845), daughter of William Cook and wife Sarah Simpson, daughter of Samuel Simpson (1706 – 1791) and wife Hannah (b. 1710). The younger Davis' grandfather Evan Davis (Cardiff, County Glamorgan, 1729 – 1758) emigrated from Wales and had once lived in Virginia and Maryland, marrying Lydia Emory. His father, along with his uncles, had served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War; he fought with the Georgia cavalry and fought in the Siege of Savannah as an infantry officer. Also, three of his older brothers served during the War of 1812. Two of them served under Andrew Jackson and received commendation for bravery in the Battle of New Orleans.
During Davis' youth, the family moved twice; in 1811 to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and in 1812 to Wilkinson County, Mississippi near the town of Woodville. In 1813, Davis began his education together with his sister Mary, attending a log cabin school a mile from their home in the small town of Woodville, known as the Wilkinson Academy. 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.
Davis went on to Jefferson College at Washington, Mississippi, in 1818, and to Transylvania University at Lexington, Kentucky, in 1821. In 1824, Davis entered the United States Military Academy (West Point). He completed his four-year term as a West Point cadet, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in June 1828 following graduation.
Davis was assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment and was stationed at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin. His first assignment, in 1829, was to supervise the cutting of timber on the banks of the Red Cedar River for the repair and enlargement of the fort. Later the same year, he was reassigned to Fort Winnebago. While supervising the construction and management of a sawmill in the Yellow River in 1831, he contracted pneumonia, causing him to return to Fort Crawford.
The year after, Davis was dispatched to Galena, Illinois, at the head of a detachment assigned to remove miners from lands claimed by the Native Americans. Lieutenant Davis was home in Mississippi for the entire Black Hawk War, returning after the Battle of Bad Axe. Following the conflict, he was assigned by his colonel, Zachary Taylor, to escort Black Hawk himself to prison—it is said that the chief liked Davis because of the kind treatment he had shown. Another of Davis' duties during this time was to keep miners from illegally entering what would eventually become the state of Iowa.
Marriage, plantation life, and early political careerEdit
Davis fell in love with Zachary Taylor's daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Her father did not approve of the match, so Davis resigned his commission and married Miss Taylor on June 17, 1835, at the house of her aunt near Louisville, Kentucky. The marriage, however, proved to be short. While visiting Davis' oldest sister near Saint Francisville, Louisiana, both newlyweds contracted malaria, and Davis' wife died three months after the wedding on September 15, 1835. In 1836, he moved to Brierfield Plantation in Warren County, Mississippi. For the next eight years, Davis was a recluse, studying government and history, and engaging in private political discussions with his brother Joseph.
The year 1844 saw Davis' first political success, as he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, taking office on March 4 of the following year. In 1845, Davis married Varina Howell, the granddaughter of late New Jersey Governor Richard Howell whom he met the year before, at her home in Natchez, Mississippi.
There is a portrait of Mrs. Jefferson Davis in old age at the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library in Biloxi, Mississippi, painted by Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862-1947) in 1895 and dubbed 'Widow of the Confederacy'. It was exhibited at the Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York in 1897. The Museum of the Confederacy at Richmond, Virginia, possesses Müller-Ury's 1897-98 profile portrait of their daughter Winnie Davis which the artist presented to the Museum in 1918.
Second military careerEdit
The year 1846 saw the beginning of the Mexican-American War. He resigned his House seat in June, and raised a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, becoming its colonel. On July 21, 1846 they sailed from New Orleans for the Texas coast. Davis armed the regiment with percussion rifles and trained the regiment in their use, making it particularly effective in combat.
In September of the same year, he participated in the successful siege of Monterrey. He fought bravely at the Battle of Buena Vista on February 22, 1847, and was shot in the foot, being carried to safety by Robert H. Chilton. In recognition of Davis's bravery and initiative, commanding general Zachary Taylor is reputed to have said, "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was."
President James K. Polk offered him a Federal commission as a brigadier general and command of a brigade of militia. He declined the appointment, arguing that the United States Constitution gives the power of appointing militia officers to the states, and not to the Federal government of the United States.
Return to politicsEdit
Because of his war service, the governor of Mississippi appointed Davis to fill out the Senate term of the late Jesse Speight. He took his seat December 5, 1847, and was elected to serve the remainder of his term in January 1848. In addition, the Smithsonian Institution appointed him a regent at the end of December 1847.
The Senate made Davis chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. When his term expired, he was elected to the same seat (by the Mississippi legislature, as the Constitution mandated at the time). He had not served a year when he resigned (in September 1851) to run for the Governorship of Mississippi on the issue of the Compromise of 1850, which Davis opposed. This election bid was unsuccessful, as he was defeated by fellow senator Henry Stuart Foote by 999 votes.
Left without political office, Davis continued his political activity. He took part in a convention on states' rights, held at Jackson, Mississippi in January 1852. In the weeks leading up to the presidential election of 1852, he campaigned in numerous Southern states for Democratic candidates Franklin Pierce and William R. King.
Secretary of WarEdit
Pierce won the election and, in 1853, made Davis his Secretary of War. In this capacity, Davis gave to Congress four annual reports (in December of each year), as well as an elaborate one (submitted on February 22, 1855) on various routes for the proposed Transcontinental Railroad. The Pierce Administration ended in 1857. The President lost the Democratic nomination, which went instead to James Buchanan. Davis' term was to end with Pierce's, so he ran successfully for the Senate, and re-entered it on March 4, 1857.
Return to SenateEdit
His renewed service in the Senate was interrupted by an illness that threatened him with the loss of his left eye. Still nominally serving in the Senate, Davis spent the summer of 1858 in Portland, Maine. On the Fourth of July, he delivered an anti-secessionist speech on board a ship near Boston. He again urged the preservation of the Union on October 11 in Faneuil Hall, Boston, and returned to the Senate soon after.
As Davis explained in his memoir The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, he believed that each state was sovereign and had an unquestionable right to secede from the Union. He counseled delay among his fellow Southerners, however, because he did not think that the North would permit the peaceable exercise of the right to secession. Having served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, he also knew that the South lacked the military and naval resources necessary to defend itself if war were to break out. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, however, events accelerated. South Carolina adopted an ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860, and Mississippi did so on January 9, 1861. As soon as Davis received official notification of that fact, he delivered a farewell address to the United States Senate, resigned, and returned to Mississippi.
President of the Confederate States 1861-1865Edit
Four days after his resignation, Davis was commissioned a Major General of Mississippi troops. On February 9, 1861, a Constitutional convention at Montgomery, Alabama named him provisional President of the Confederate States of America and he was inaugurated on February 18, 1861. In meetings of his own Mississippi legislature, Davis had argued against secession; but when a majority of the delegates opposed him, he gave in.
In conformity with a resolution of the Confederate Congress, Davis immediately appointed a Peace Commission to resolve the Confederacy's differences with the Union. In March 1861, before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the Commission was to travel to Washington, D.C., to offer to pay for any Federal property on Southern soil, as well as the Southern portion of the national debt, but it was not authorized to discuss terms for reunion. He appointed General P.G.T. Beauregard to command Confederate troops in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina. He approved the Cabinet decision to bombard Fort Sumter, which started the Civil War. When Virginia switched from neutrality and joined the Confederacy, he moved his government to Richmond, Virginia, in May 1861. Davis and his family took up his residence there at the White House of the Confederacy in late May.
Davis was elected to a six-year term as President of the Confederacy on November 6, 1861. He had never served a full term in any elective office, and that would turn out to be the case on this occasion as well. He was inaugurated on February 18, 1861. In June 1862 he assigned General Robert E. Lee to replace the wounded Joseph E. Johnston in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, the main Confederate army in the Eastern Theater. That December, he made a tour of Confederate armies in the west of the country. Davis largely made the main strategic decisions on his own, or approved those suggested by Lee. He had a very small circle of military advisers. Jefferson Davis openly pushed for the acquisition of Cuba upon completion of the Civil War.
In August 1863, Davis declined General Lee's offer of resignation after his defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg. As Confederate military fortunes turned for the worse in 1864, he visited Georgia with the intent of raising morale.
On April 3, 1865, with Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant poised to capture Richmond, Davis escaped for Danville, Virginia, together with the Confederate Cabinet, leaving on the Richmond and Danville Railroad. He issued his last official proclamation as President of the Confederacy, and then went south to Greensboro, North Carolina. Circa April 12, he received Robert E. Lee's letter announcing surrender.
President Jefferson Davis met with his Confederate Cabinet for the last time on May 5, 1865 in Washington, Georgia, and the Confederate Government was officially dissolved. The meeting took place at the Heard house, the Georgia Branch Bank Building, with fourteen officials present. He was captured on May 10, 1865 at Irwinville in Irwin County, Georgia. After being captured, he was held as a prisoner for two years in Fort Monroe, Virginia.
Administration and CabinetEdit
Imprisonment and retirementEdit
On May 19, 1865, Davis was imprisoned in a casemate at Fortress Monroe, on the coast of Virginia. He was placed in irons for three days. Davis was indicted for treason a year later. While in prison, Davis arranged to sell his Mississippi estate to one of his former slaves, Ben Montgomery. Montgomery was a talented business manager, mechanic, and even an inventor who had become wealthy in part from running his own general store. However, floods ruined Montgomery's early years at the reins, and he was unable to turn an early profit. The Davis family was unwilling to forgive the debt of their former slave, and he lost the land. Montgomery never recovered, and died soon after.
After two years of imprisonment, he was released on bail which was posted by prominent citizens of both northern and southern states, including Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Gerrit Smith (Smith, a former member of the Secret Six, had supported John Brown). Davis visited Canada, Cuba and Europe. In December 1868, the court rejected a motion to nullify the indictment, but the prosecution dropped the case in February 1869.
In 1869 Davis became president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee, where he resided at the Peabody Hotel. Upon Robert E. Lee's death in 1870, Davis presided over the memorial meeting in Richmond, Virginia. Elected to the U.S. Senate again, he was refused the office in 1875, having been barred from Federal office by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He turned down the opportunity to become the first president of the Agriculture and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University).
In 1876, he promoted a society for the stimulation of U.S. trade with South America. Davis visited England the next year, returning in 1878 to Beauvoir (Biloxi, Mississippi). Over the next three years there, Davis wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Having completed that book, he visited Europe again, and traveled to Alabama and Georgia the following year.
He completed A Short History of the Confederate States of America in October 1889. Two months later on December 6, Davis died in New Orleans of unestablished cause at the age of eighty-one. His funeral was one of the largest ever staged in the South, and included a continuous cortège, day and night, from New Orleans to Richmond, Virginia. He is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
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