Jefferson Davis

1808 - 1889

Jefferson Davis, first and only president of the Confederate States of America (1861-65).

Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in Christian (now Todd) County, Kentucky, and educated at Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky, and at the U.S. Military Academy. After his graduation in 1828, he saw frontier service until ill health forced his resignation from the army in 1835. He was a planter in Mississippi from 1835 to 1845, when he was elected to the U.S. Congress. In 1846 he resigned his seat in order to serve in the Mexican War and fought at Monterrey and Buena Vista, where he was wounded. He was U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1847 to 1851, secretary of war in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce from 1853 to 1857, and again U.S. senator from 1857 to 1861. 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 the same year for a 6-year term and was inaugurated in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, on February 22, 1862. 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. 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. From 1870 to 1878 he engaged in a number of unsuccessful business enterprises; and from 1878 until his death in New Orleans, on December 6, 1889, he lived near Biloxi, Mississippi. His grave is in Richmond, Virginia. He wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881).