Who was Jefferson Davis?


Jefferson Davis is arguably the MOST misunderstood and under appreciated man in the historical tapestry of America. He was a man of his times, and that is why few of us today truly know what this man did for his country, America. A true Patriot and a reluctant secessionist, but who was he? 

Jefferson Finis Davis, the son of Samuel Emory and Jane Cook Davis, was born June 3, 1808 in Fairview, Christian (now Todd) County. Of Welsh descent, Samuel Davis had fought in the American Revolution. As a reward for his services in the war, he received a grant of land near Augusta, Georgia. As a small farmer he tilled his land with the assistance of a few slaves. Davis heard of excellent land that could be obtained in Kentucky and decided to move there. The Davis family moved to Kentucky in 1793. After staying briefly in Mercer County they moved to a 600-acre tract in Christian County where Samuel Davis built a four room log house complete with the first glass windows to be seen in the area. 

Although the Davis family had established a farm and bred blooded horses on their Kentucky land, by 1810 the family returned to the Deep South. For a year they lived in Louisiana before moving to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. There, Jefferson Davis began his formal education at age five. Dissatisfied with his son’s school, Samuel Davis decided to send his seven year old son to be educated in Kentucky. Davis entered a school of the Dominican Order near Bardstown and Springfield. After nearly two years in the Dominican school, Davis returned home at the insistence of his mother.

Davis resumed his education in Mississippi at Jefferson College and at the Academy of Wilkinson County. In 1821 at age thirteen, he returned to Kentucky to attend Transylvania University in Lexington. Transylvania had an excellent reputation as the best institution of higher learning west of the mountains. Davis passed his examinations for the senior class at Transylvania with honors.
US Brigadier General 
Jefferson Davis, 1847
However, due to his father’s urging he accepted an appointment as a cadet at West Point. On July 12, 1828, he graduated from West Point. He served in various posts in the army for four years. In 1832 he met Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor. Davis resigned from the army and the couple married in 1835. The newlyweds moved to Natchez, Mississippi where he began a career as a planter. Within three months of their arrival, both he and his wife contracted malaria. On September 15, 1835, Knox Taylor Davis died of the disease at age 21. After a long convalescence, he recovered. Grief stricken over the death of his wife, he remained in seclusion for several years. 

In 1845 Davis married Varina Anne Howell. He returned to politics and won election to Congress. In less than six months he left the House of Representatives to become a colonel of a Mississippi regiment in the Mexican War (1846-1848). Wounded in the foot, he returned to Congress on crutches. 

The governor of Mississippi appointed him to the United States Senate to finish the term of the recently deceased Senator Speight. Davis won a full term as Senator in 1850.

In 1851, he resigned as Senator to run for Governor of Mississippi. He lost by 999 votes and found himself out of all offices. 

However, Davis remained in politics and spent 1852 campaigning in the South for Franklin Pierce in the presidential election. Pierce was successful and Davis was rewarded by Pierce with the post of Secretary of War. 

One of the many unremembered but long lived accomplishments during Davis time as Secretary of War was his innovative program of introducing Camels as Pack Animals for the U.S. Army in the South Western Territories as approved by Congress on March 3, 1855. At the outbreak of the War Between the States the camel were either sold to private parties or escaped captivity. The descendants of those camels roamed the South West into the 1900's. 
Davis held the position of Secretary of War until the end of the Pierce administration in 1857. Having re-made himself at a very high political level, Davis once again entered the Senate in March 1857. In 1858 Davis made two public speeches against secession but events were moving very quickly at this time and gathered even more support when Abraham Lincoln was elected President. 

Davis believed that the South was in danger of being swamped with the ideas and beliefs of the North. He feared that the traditional way of life in the South was threatened by the powers that existed in Washington DC. However, he did not support the idea of secession, though he did believe it was the right of each state to decide for itself whether it should stay in the Union or not.
 
He left the Senate in 1861 when Mississippi formally withdrew from the Union and he returned to the State. Here in front of the State Legislature Davis argued against secession from the Union. However, he was outvoted and went with the majority decision. Why was Davis so anti-secession at this time? It is almost certain that his was a pragmatic approach. As a former Secretary of War, Davis would have known, and help build, the potential military capability of the North compared with the South. Therefore, he would have known that one was far more able to conduct a long drawn out war than the other.

On February 18 1861, Davis was elected as the provisional President of the Congress of the Confederate States.  Before Fort Sumter was attacked in April 1861, he sent a Peace Commission to Washington, which offered to purchase Union land in the South and pay off the South’s share of the national debt. However,this offering came to nothing.
 
Davis was formally elected President for a six-year tenure as President on November 6, 1861 and was inaugurated on February 22, 1862.  
 
Davis was very much the political head of the Confederacy and no one deemed it a useful move to challenge him in this role. His first move was to try to get European recognition for the Confederacy and to build up much needed trade with Europe. The North’s blockade of Southern ports was highly effective and there was little that Davis could do about it. The key result of this was that the South was constantly short of money and the situation got a lot worse as the war dragged on. They were up against an enemy that had a rapidly expanding industrial base, a much greater population base and a better (though not brilliant) financial position.  
 
However, Davis believed passionately in the cause and many rallied behind him.
 
His power base ended when he and the government left Richmond. On May 10, 1865, he was caught at Irwinville in Georgia. 

He was imprisoned in Fort Monroe until 1867. An attempt was made to try to indict Davis for treason in 1866 but nothing came of this and he was released on a bond of $100,000. 

Jefferson Davis and Family 1885
In 1868, the case against Davis was dropped but his citizenship was stripped.

On his release from prison until 1878, he put his energy behind a number of business ventures. 

In 1875 he returned to his birth place in Fairview KY for a visit. Huge crowd came out to see and hear from the former President of the Confederacy, he had become a Legend.

From 1878 until his death on December 6th 1889 in New Orleans, he lived quietly near Biloxi in Mississippi. 

Jefferson Davis was buried in Richmond Virginia.