Jefferson Finis Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in Christian County, Kentucky, less than a hundred miles from where future U.S. president Abraham Lincoln would be born eight months later. Davis was one of ten children; his father owned an inn and was a veteran of the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). The family left Kentucky a few years later and Davis was raised on a small plantation in Mississippi. He returned to Kentucky to attend boarding school in Bardstown and subsequently studied at Jefferson College in Mississippi and Transylvania University in Kentucky before entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He finished twenty-third in his class in 1828 and was assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment in Wisconsin.
Davis missed the Black Hawk War (1832) due to illness—Lincoln, however, battled the Sac and Fox tribes as a member of the Illinois militia—but returned in time to escort the Indian chief into captivity. (Davis “treated us all with much kindness,” Black Hawk recalled in his autobiography.) He also returned in time to meet the daughter of his commanding officer, Virginia native and future U.S. president Zachary Taylor. Against Taylor’s objections, Davis and Sarah Knox Taylor married in 1835, but she died of malaria a few months later. Davis, having resigned his commission, followed the lead of his older brother Joseph and became a cotton farmer. He also entered politics as a Democrat, eventually winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1845, the same year he married Varina Howell.
When the Mexican War began in 1846, Davis left Congress and accepted command of the 1st Mississippi Regiment. He served under his former father-in-law at the battles of Monterrey (1846) and Buena Vista (1847). At the latter engagement, Davis was wounded and won national acclaim for helping to repulse a charge by Mexican lances. “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was,” General Taylor reportedly told him, and later that year the governor of Mississippi selected Davis to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate.
In the Senate, Davis quickly established himself as a leading advocate of slavery and states’ rights. He was also one of the leading opponents of California’s admission to the Union as a free state, a controversy that erupted during Taylor’s presidency and created chaos in Congress at the end of 1849. Southerners worried that their balance of power would be lost if California, which had been taken from Mexico, were closed to slavery. Tensions ran so high that House members engaged in fistfights and Davis reportedly challenged an Illinois congressman to a duel.
After an unsuccessful run for governor of Mississippi, Davis was appointed secretary of war by U.S. president Franklin Pierce in 1853. He proved to be the most active and effective secretary of war since the 1820s, increasing the size of the army, improving training, and establishing a medical corps. He also oversaw the introduction of the minié ball, a partially hollow, conical bullet whose great accuracy and destructiveness would account in part for the Civil War’s high number of casualties. After leaving the War Department in 1857, Davis returned to the Senate. Although generally opposed to secession, as many Southern moderates were, he nevertheless reestablished himself as a leading defender of the rights of slave states. When Mississippi left the Union in January 1861, Davis immediately resigned from the Senate.
Troubles in the Field
Shortly after returning to Mississippi, Davis learned that he had been chosen by a convention of seceded states meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, to be provisional president of the newly created Confederate States of America. While he would have much preferred serving in the Confederate army, he accepted the office on February 18, 1861, declaring that the “South is determined to maintain her position, and make all who oppose her smell Southern powder and feel Southern steel.” Davis populated his cabinet with representatives from each Confederate state and appointed the Louisiana-born Creole Pierre G. T. Beauregard to command Confederate troops at Charleston, South Carolina, where the United States still occupied Fort Sumter. When the Lincoln administration attempted to resupply the garrison, Davis authorized Beauregard to open fire, which led to its surrender on April 13, 1861.
Virginia finally seceded after the loss of Sumter and Lincoln’s subsequent call for volunteers, and in May the government relocated to Richmond. This was both a political and a strategic decision based on Virginia’s symbolic importance, sizable population (free and enslaved), industry, and agricultural resources. Although its proximity to Washington, D.C., made the move a potentially hazardous one strategically, the topography of Virginia was militarily advantageous enough to help offset the risk. In particular, the Appalachian Mountains and the state’s east-to-west-flowing rivers, such as the James and Rappahannock, served as a natural defense against invasion. Six months later, Davis won election to a six-year term as Confederate president.
In Richmond, Davis established a close relationship with Robert E. Lee, despite the Virginia commander’s early setbacks in the western part of the state. The president’s relationships with several other generals, however, would not be so good. Davis was particularly piqued with what he considered to be a less than vigorous pursuit of the enemy after the First Battle of Manassas (1861), an engagement to which he had traveled to witness personally. He directed his ire at Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston, the two principal Confederate commanders at the battle, and the resulting conflict would only intensify and become more personal over time.
A month after the First Battle of Manassas, the Confederate Congress authorized Davis to appoint five men to the rank of full general. Johnston and Beauregard were outraged to find themselves at the bottom of the list—behind the adjutant general Samuel Cooper, a “desk general” and, even worse, a New Jersey native; Albert Sidney Johnston, who had not yet seen action; and Lee, who was at the beginning of a series of humiliating defeats in western Virginia. In a letter to Davis, Johnston accused the president with having “tarnished my fair fame as a soldier and a man.” Beauregard was banished to the Western Theater and later relieved of command. He and Johnston, backed by powerful allies in and out of the Confederate Congress, would become bitter enemies of the administration. Davis, who had become “aroused” in the matter, would not forget the criticism. In fact, historian James M. McPherson has suggested that this marked a crucial difference between Davis and Lincoln: while Davis “could never forget a slight or forgive the man who committed it,” Lincoln was willing “to hold the horse of a haughty general if he would only win victories.”
Davis also had trouble with his western armies. His friendship with Leonidas Polk—an Episcopal bishop who was third cousin to former U.S. president James K. Polk—unwittingly encouraged insubordination, and Joe Johnston, since transferred, seemed to long more for a return to Virginia than for the responsibilities of his immediate command. As a consequence, a poisonous atmosphere developed in the Army of Tennessee that did much to compromise its effectiveness, and Davis, unlike Lincoln, deemed it necessary on occasion to travel outside the capital to involve himself in these contretemps.
Troubles at Home
Like Lincoln, Davis was an inviting target for disgruntled military men and politicians. His critics charged him with favoritism, citing his clear preference for West Point-educated officers. And while he brought great energy and attention to detail to his role as chief executive, his subordinates complained of micromanagement. Davis’s cabinet, meanwhile, performed unevenly. Judah P. Benjamin, for instance, served as attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state, and while he was censured by the Confederate Congress after the loss of Roanoke Island, North Carolina, in 1862, he always retained Davis’s confidence. Christopher Memminger, on the other hand, oversaw a Confederate dollar that, by the time of Lee’s surrender following the Appomattox Campaign, had a value of 1.5 cents in gold. The man who had proudly authored South Carolina’s declaration of secession resigned as treasury secretary in 1864.
Davis antagonized many with his increased willingness over time to jettison states’ rights in favor of more centralized power. Like Lincoln, he used the war as justification to suspend, on several occasions, basic liberties such as habeas corpus. To maximize the Confederacy’s mobilization of manpower, he pushed a conscription bill through the Confederate Congress in 1862, putting him at odds with his own vice president. The fact that the owners of twenty or more slaves were exempted from the draft excited class resentment and led to claims that this was a “rich man’s war.” In addition, Davis imposed taxes and regulations designed to manage the economy and support the war effort, confiscated private property, and imposed martial law. Such measures were received with great hostility in a nation where states’ rights were not only considered sacrosanct, but were the war’s justification. As a result, Davis’s attempts at fashioning a stronger national government were often obstructed by state and local leaders and protested by angry mobs.
Still, there were many successes. Mobilization was one. According to the U.S. census of 1860, the North outpopulated the South by more than two to one; yet, until late in the war, for Confederate armies to face an equivalent disadvantage in the field was unusual. (When they did, such as at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, they had the ability to conjure victory.) Military strategy was another success. Davis dubbed his grand plan “offensive-defensive,” and it emerged out of the Confederate failure early in 1862 to defend all possible invasion routes along the country’s perimeter. Benjamin resigned as secretary of war in part because he could not provide Confederate general Henry A. Wise, the former governor of Virginia, with the manpower necessary to defend Roanoke Island. As a result, the Union was better able to establish its crippling blockade of the Atlantic coast.
The new strategy was developed in collaboration with Lee and called for concentrating as many forces as possible in a single theater and onto a single field, enabling them to take swift and decisive action. “Offensive-defensive” was extremely costly in manpower and ultimately failed to overcome the weight of superior Northern manpower and resources. While the Maryland (1862) and Gettysburg (1863) campaigns were boldly offensive, they were also defeats. On the other hand, the strategy enabled the Confederacy to reverse nearly all Union gains achieved early in 1862 (when the North, following the Peninsula and Seven Days’ campaigns, had come perilously close to taking Richmond) and prolonged the war probably as long as was possible through conventional means. Davis was decidedly less enthusiastic about guerrilla, or irregular, warfare and provided such efforts only limited support.
On April 2, 1865, the Confederate government evacuated Richmond just ahead of Union forces. Davis endeavored to fight on after Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, but he found little support for his efforts. He was captured on May 10 by Union cavalry near Irwinville, Georgia, and imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Part of his bail was posted by the abolitionist Horace Greeley, who successfully battled a New York judge named John C. Underwood for Davis’s release. Underwood would oversee the writing of Virginia’s postwar constitution of 1870.
Later, Davis traveled to Canada, Cuba, and Europe, engaged in some minor business concerns, was offered the presidency of what is now Texas A&M University (he turned it down), and again was elected to the U.S. Senate (but couldn’t serve according to Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). His relationships with his slaves, according to Booker T. Washington, had always been “kindly,” “normal,” and “happy,” a “good will” that was manifested perhaps by the sale of the plantation he and his brother Joseph had run to the now-freed Ben Montgomery.
In 1881, Davis authored The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, a two-volume defense of his actions and principles that was dedicated “to the memory of those who died in defense of a cause consecrated by inheritance, as well as sustained by conviction.” Shortly after this book appeared, Davis’s reputation began to rehabilitate among southerners. “In the South,” the historian Donald E. Collins has written, “he received a resurrection in public feeling that rose to the stage of near adulation during the final three years of his life and would grow during the three years following his death to place him in the ranks of such Confederate icons as the beloved military heroes Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.” After spending most of his retirement years at Beauvoir, a Mississippi estate on the Gulf Coast, Davis died in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 6, 1889, from acute bronchitis. He was buried first in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans and then in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.