Jefferson Davis (1861-1865)
Source: Library of Congress
The Presidential "Good":
The Presidential "Bad":
His Legacy: Though the Confederacy did not gain their independence from the United States, given the disadvantages that they had going into the war, they were able to exist far longer than most would have ever predicted at the time. Though military victories, usually led by General Robert E. Lee, greatly helped keep the fight going, Davis gave everything he had to the Confederacy and the cause. No matter who had had the position, it was a near impossible task to ask of anyone to lead this new country. But Davis threw himself into every part of the government, doing his best to oversee everything and to make the best decisions that would hopefully lead the Confederacy to victory, though he turned out to be a very ineffective leader. He never wavered on the Confederate cause and remains a symbol of Southern pride. He is a controversial figure to this day. Many in the South celebrate his birthday, and many markers, memorials and monuments had been placed in his honor. But there are also many who consider him a traitor, and also find his views that slavery was an acceptable practice a very unacceptable position and mindset.
- The last of ten children; was named after Thomas Jefferson, who his father greatly admired
- Moved twice in his youth, first to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, then to Wilkinson County, Mississippi
- Was extremely well educated; began attending school when he was 5, attended Jefferson College in Mississippi at the age of 10, then Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky at the age of 13
- His father died when he was 16 years old; shortly afterwards Davis went to West Point in New York state, where at the end of four years he graduated 23rd out of 33 in his class
- Initially focused on a military career, which took him to places like Wisconsin and Mississippi; it was in Wisconsin after the Black Hawk War that Davis met future president Zachary Taylor, and more importantly, Taylor's daughter Sarah
- Sarah and Davis were in love and wanted to marry, but Taylor greatly disapproved as he did not want his daughter to have a husband in the military; Davis drafted a letter of resignation, which was sent just after he had not returned from an approved leave of absence; without Taylor's knowledge or approval, Davis & Sarah married in Lexington, Kentucky on June 17, 1835
- Davis & Sarah moved to Mississippi, where Davis was given a plantation called Brierfield by one of his older brothers who lived nearby
- In August 1835, Davis & Sarah went to Louisiana to visit one of Sarah's sisters. Both of them contracted malaria, and Sarah died on September 15 at the young age of 21, just three months after their marriage
- To recover from malaria & losing his wife, Davis traveled to Cuba along with one slave, James Pemberton. They would continue their travels once Davis was better to New York City and Washington City (now D.C.), and then both returned to Brierfield.
- Davis focused on developing his plantation and studying history and politics; he purchased slaves, having 75 in his possession by 1845. James Pemberton, his first slave, was put in charge of overseeing the plantation, which was a very unusual position for any slave to have.
- In 1844, a 35-year old Davis met Varina Banks Howell, just 17; within a month he asked for her hand in marriage and she accepted, even though her family had some doubts given their age and different backgrounds
- Davis & Varina would have six children, though only three survived to adulthood
Before the Presidency:
- Became active in politics and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1845; less than six months later he left to become a Colonel of a Mississippi regiment, as the U.S. became involved in a war in Mexico (Mexican War, 1846-1848).
- In February 1847, fought bravely during the Battle of Buena Vista, during which he was shot in the foot. He was given much praise about his bravery and initiative. His first father-in-law, General Zachary Taylor, that had never approved of him or agreed to the marriage of his daughter Sarah, told him after this battle that "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was."
- President Polk would offer Davis a promotion to Brigadier General but Davis declined, stating that that the U.S. Constitution gave the power of appointing militia officers to the states, so therefore it was not in Polk's power to give him the promotion
- Returned to his U.S. House position, while still on crutches from his foot injury, but shortly after was appointed by the Governor of Mississippi to the U.S. Senate to finish the term of a recently deceased Senator. He would win a full term in the 1850 election.
- Six months after winning his U.S. Senate run in 1850, Davis resigned to run for governor of Mississippi. He would lose by 999 votes.
- Appointed to Secretary of War in 1853 by President Franklin Pierce, where he served until 1857
- Was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1857, and served until he resigned in 1860 after his home state of Mississippi seceded from the Union
After the Presidency:
- Davis was captured on May 10, 1865; nine days later he was imprisoned at Fortress Monroe on the coast of Virginia. Irons were riveted to his ankles, he was allowed no visitors, and the only book he was allowed was the Bible.
- During his imprisonment his health greatly declined, to the point where the attending physician warned that his life was in danger; it was not until Autumn 1865 that he was given better quarters. When the head General was transferred in mid-1866, it was then that Davis was given an apartment in the officers' quarters, and Varina & their young daughter Winnie was allowed to join him.
- Davis was eventually indicted for treason, a significant time after he had already been imprisoned. After two years he was finally released on bail for $100,000, which was raised by people in not only the South but also the North, as many felt the U.S. government acted inappropriately by not following the Constitution when it comes to the justice system and the rights of someone charged with a crime. The prosecution would drop the case against him two years later in 1869. However, Davis would be stripped of his U.S. citizenship.
- Davis & Varina at first found it difficult to find a place where he could work and they could live peacefully. He went to Canada, Cuba & Europe in search of work.
- He was elected back into the U.S. Senate by the people of Mississippi in 1875, but he refused the office as he was no longer a citizen and technically could not serve
- Davis returned to his old home in Kentucky for awhile in 1875, where he was met with great support and affection
- In 1877, Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a wealthy widow who had heard of his difficulties, invited the Davis family to stay at her estate of Beauvoir, near Biloxi, Mississippi. She provide him with a cabin to live in, and assisted him with his writings. She was severely ill, and in 1878 she updated her will, leaving Beauvoir and all of her financial assets to Davis. She would die in 1879.
- Over two years Davis wrote "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government", which was published in 1881. It would justify secession and the fight for their freedom, as well his perspective regarding those four years.
- Visiting New Orleans, Louisiana in September 1889, Davis became ill with acute bronchitis complicated by malaria. He would die almost three months later on December 6, with his wife Varina holding his hand.
- The funeral procession from New Orleans to his final resting place in Richmond, Virginia, was elaborate and thousands lined along the route to pay their respects. Even slaves that had worked in the Confederate White House returned to Richmond to pay their respects.
- Though many prominent Confederates had their citizenship restored (sometimes after their death), Jefferson Davis had to wait the longest. With a Senate Joint Resolution on October 17, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the law restoring his citizenship. Carter referred to it as the last act of reconciliation in the Civil War.
Related Places to Visit:
Museum of the Confederacy
1201 E. Clay Street
Richmond, VA 23219
The Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) owns the world's most comprehensive collection of artifacts and documents related to the Confederate States of America, totaling over 130,000 items. The majority of these items were donated directly from the soldiers and families that lived through that era.
In operation since 1896, visitors can visit the Confederate White House and go through the beautiful museum that has some of the most impressive collections, including items from Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, and so many other prominent Confederate individuals.
Membership is very unique here, as you not only gain free admission to the White House, Richmond Museum and also the new Appomattox Courthouse museum, but also access to special numerous historical documents on the website such as private letters from the time, and free access to the Eleanor S. Brockenbrough Archives (by appointment).
Photography by Visions on Fourth Street
Jefferson Davis State Historic Site
258 Pembroke-Fairview Rd.
U.S. Highway 68-80
Fairview, KY 42221
The Jefferson Davis State Historic Site marks the birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. There contains a monument, which resembles the Washington Monument obelisk in Washington, D.C. Given that both George Washington and Jefferson Davis were the first President's of their perspective countries, the Davis monument was built with a similar resemblance.
The 351-foot structure is the fourth tallest monument in the U.S., and is the tallest "poured in place concrete" obelisk in the world. There is an elevator to take visitors up to the top, which offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside.
After the death of Davis in 1889, groups throughout the South began plans to erect a memorial to the Confederacy's only President. Former Confederate General Simon Bolivar Buckner proposed the plan that resulted in the monument you see today.
The site was dedicated on June 7, 1924, and became part of the Kentucky State Parks system.
The site is open May 1 to October 31. In addition to the monument and museum, there is a gift shop, picnic areas and a playground.
Photography by Visions on Fourth Street