Davis was born in Durham, North Carolina, on July 24, 1913, the son of Walter Burke Davis and Harriet Jackson Davis. Displaying an early talent for writing, he won first place in a statewide high school contest for his essay “My Experience as a Snake Man in the Boy Scouts.” He enrolled at Duke University in 1931, but his father’s economic struggles forced him to leave after a year. After stints at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro (coed for a year) and Guilford College, he eventually earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He worked for the Charlotte News for ten years, beginning in 1937 as a sports reporter and editor. Then followed a four-year tenure as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and almost ten years as a columnist for the Greensboro Daily News. In 1960 he became special projects writer for Colonial Williamsburg Inc., where he worked until 1978.
Davis’s first novel, Whisper My Name (1949), was a thinly disguised portrait of a prominent Charlotte businessman who was an executive at Ivey’s Department Store. Davis soon turned his attention to historical subjects: The Ragged Ones (1951) and Yorktown (1952) showcased his sharp eye for detail and his ability to re-create the personalities of historical figures. Beginning with They Called Him Stonewall (1954), Davis focused mostly on historical nonfiction for the rest of his career.
Perhaps best known for his works on the American Civil War (1861–1865), he applied his narrative skill and eye for detail to bringing to life Confederate luminaries such as Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and J. E. B. Stuart, and published accounts of the Appomattox Campaign (To Appomattox: Nine April Days, 1865, 1959) and Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous march to the sea (Sherman’s March, 1980). Other subjects included the American Revolution (1775–1783), a biography of U.S. president Andrew Jackson, and southern industry. Davis also published a number of historical works for children as well as an instructional manual on organic gardening.
Davis received numerous lifetime achievement awards, among them election to the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame (1984), induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame (2000), and an honorary doctorate from Greensboro College (2000). During the 1980s he served as a juror for the biography category of the Pulitzer Prize. He married Evangeline McLennan in 1940, and the couple had two children, Angela and Burke III. They divorced in 1980. In 1982 Davis married Juliet Halliburton Burnett. Davis split his time between homes in North Carolina and Patrick County, Virginia, until his death on August 18, 2006.
- Whisper My Name (1949)
- The Ragged Ones (1951)
- Yorktown (1952)
- The Summer Land (1965)
- They Called Him Stonewall (1954)
- Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee and the Civil War (1956)
- Jeb Stuart: The Last Cavalier (1957)
- Marine: The Life of Lt. General Lewis B. (Chesty) Puller, USMC (1962)
- The Billy Mitchell Affair (1967)
- A Williamsburg Galaxy (1968)
- George Washington and the American Revolution (1975)
- Old Hickory: A Life of Andrew Jackson (1977)
- War Bird: The Life and Times of Eliott White Springs (1987)
- To Appomattox: Nine April Days, 1865 (1959)
- Our Incredible Civil War (1960), reprint published as The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts (1988), reprinted as The Incredible Civil War (2001)
- The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign (1962)
- The World of Currier & Ives (with Roy King, 1968)
- Get Yamamoto (1969)
- The Campaign That Won America: The Story of Yorktown (1970)
- Sherman’s March (1980)
- The Long Surrender (1985)
- History of the Southern Railway (1985)