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States: General History and Description >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Biography, A-Z
U.S. Congressman and Senator, U.S. Secretary of War, President of the Confederate States of America
Jefferson Davis was born in Christian (now Todd) County, Kentucky, on June 3, 1808, and grew up in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. He attended the county academy and Transylvania University (in Kentucky), before entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at the age of 16; he graduated from West Point near the bottom of his class in 1828.
Early Military Career
Upon graduation from West Point, Davis was sent to the Wisconsin frontier, where he fought in campaigns against Indians and took charge of Indian prisoner removal after the Black Hawk War. He resigned from the Army in 1835, with the rank of First Lieutenant.
Marriage and Family
In 1835, Davis married Sarah Taylor, the daughter of his commander, Colonel Zachary Taylor. The couple moved to Warren County, Mississippi, where Davis became a cotton planter. Sarah died of a fever within a few months after the move. After his wife's death, Davis traveled for a year to regain his own health before returning to his plantation. He sepnt the next several years studying history, economics, political philosophy, and the Constitution of the United States. He also managed his plantation successfully, and became fairly wealthy. In 1845, he married Varina Howell, whose family owned another prosperous Mississippi plantation. The couple had six children--Samuel, Margaret Howell Hayes, Jefferson, Joseph, William, and Varina Anne.
Early Political Career
Davis first became interested in politics in 1843, during the Mississippi gubernatorial campaign. He was subsequently sent as a delegate to the Democratic Convention, where he voted for the presidential ticket of James Knox Polk and George M. Dallas. In 1845, he was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he supported the annexation of Texas.
In June 1846, Davis resigned from the House to become a Colonel in a regiment of Mississippi volunteers in the Mexican War. Serving under General Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico, he distinguished himself for bravery in the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista. At Buena Vista, he fought all day with a bullet in his foot. In July 1847, President Polk appointed him Brigadier-General, but he declined the commission on grounds that the appointment was unconstitutional.
In 1847, the Governor of Mississippi appointed Davis to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of the previous Senator. That same year the State Legislature elected him to fill out the remainder of the term, and he was elected to a full term in his own right in 1850. During his time in the Senate, Davis took an active part in opposing Henry Clay's Compromise of 1850, and supported Senator rights leader. In 1851, Davis resigned from the Senate to become the candidate of the States' Rights Democrats for Governor; he lost the John C. Calhoun, a Southern states' election by less than 1,000 votes.
Davis was appointed Secretary of War by President Franklin Pierce in 1853. In this position, he improved and enlarged the Army, introduced an improved system of infantry tactics, brought in new and better weapons, and organized engineer companies to explore routes for railroads from the Mississippi River to Pacific Coast. He also tried importing camels for use in the western deserts, but this plan failed.
Reelected to the Senate in 1857, Davis advocated the rights of the South and slavery, but did not advocate secession. He opposed Stephen A. Douglas' "Freeport Doctrine," which held that people of a territory could exclude slavery by refusing to protect it, and actively opposed Douglas' presidential ambitions in 1860.
Leader of Confederacy
Davis left the Senate upon Mississippi's secession from the Union, which came soon after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. Although he was not its first choice, the Confederate States of America named him Provisional President at its convention in Montgomery, Alabama, and he took the oath of office on February 18, 1861. He was subsequently elected President by popular vote, and was formally inaugurated on February 22, 1862.
As President of the Confederacy, Davis proved to be a good administrator, but a poor planner. He faced almost continual difficulties with the Confederate Congress, and was constantly accused of mismanaging the war. Soon after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the fall of Richmond, he was captured and imprisoned at Fort Monroe. Indicted for treason by a grand jury, he was held in prison for two years but was never tried, despite his insistence that he be allowed to defend himself. In 1867, Horace Greeley and other Northern men posted his bond and he was released on bail.
Davis spent his last years at his home near Biloxi, Mississippi. He made frequent appearances at Confederate reunions, and, in 1881, published The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.
Jefferson Davis died on December 6, 1889, and was buried in New Orleans. A monument to him was subsequently erected in Richmond, and his remains were moved there in 1893. In 1931, Mississippi had a statue of Davis placed in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.
This page was last updated on February 10, 2017.