Jefferson Davis
Photograph by Mathew Brady, c. 1861
President of the Confederate States
In office
February 22, 1862 – May 5, 1865
Provisional: February 18, 1861 – February 22, 1862
Vice PresidentAlexander H. Stephens
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byOffice abolished
United States Senator
from Mississippi
In office
March 4, 1857 – January 21, 1861
Preceded byStephen Adams
Succeeded byAdelbert Ames (1870)
In office
August 10, 1847 – September 23, 1851
Preceded byJesse Speight
Succeeded byJohn J. McRae
23rd United States Secretary of War
In office
March 7, 1853 – March 4, 1857
PresidentFranklin Pierce
Preceded byCharles Conrad
Succeeded byJohn B. Floyd
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's at-large district
In office
December 8, 1845 – October 28, 1846
Seat D
Preceded byTilghman Tucker
Succeeded byHenry T. Ellett
Personal details
Jefferson Finis Davis

(1808-06-03)June 3, 1808
Fairview, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedDecember 6, 1889(1889-12-06) (aged 81)
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
Resting placeHollywood Cemetery,
Richmond, Virginia, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Other political
Southern Rights
Children6, including Varina
EducationUnited States Military Academy (BS)
Cursive signature in ink
WebsitePresidential Library
Military service
AllegianceUnited States
Years of service
  • 1825–1835
  • 1846–1847
Unit1st U.S. Dragoons
Commands1st Mississippi Rifles

Jefferson Finis Davis[a] (June 3, 1808 – December 6, 1889) was an American politician who served as the president of the Confederate States from 1861 to 1865. As a member of the Democratic Party, he represented Mississippi in the United States Senate and the House of Representatives before the American Civil War. He previously served as the United States Secretary of War from 1853 to 1857 under President Franklin Pierce.

Davis was born in Fairview, Kentucky, to a moderately prosperous farmer, the youngest of ten children. He grew up in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, and also lived in Louisiana. His eldest brother Joseph Emory Davis secured the younger Davis's appointment to the United States Military Academy. After graduating, Jefferson Davis served six years as a lieutenant in the United States Army. He fought in the Mexican–American War (1846–1848), as the colonel of a volunteer regiment. Before the American Civil War, he operated a large cotton plantation in Mississippi, which his brother Joseph gave him, and owned as many as 113 slaves.[1] Although Davis argued against secession in 1858,[2] he believed states had an unquestionable right to leave the Union.

Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of general and future President Zachary Taylor, in 1835, when he was 27 years old. They were both stricken with malaria soon thereafter, and Sarah died after three months of marriage. Davis recovered slowly and suffered from recurring bouts of the disease throughout his life.[3] At the age of 36, Davis married again, to 18-year-old Varina Howell, a native of Natchez, Mississippi, who had been educated in Philadelphia and had some family ties in the North. They had six children. Only two survived him, and only one married and had children.

Many historians attribute some of the Confederacy's weaknesses to Davis's poor leadership.[4] His preoccupation with detail, reluctance to delegate responsibility, lack of popular appeal, feuds with powerful state governors and generals, favoritism toward old friends, inability to get along with people who disagreed with him, neglect of civil matters in favor of military ones, and resistance to public opinion all worked against him.[5][6] Historians agree he was a much less effective war leader than his Union counterpart, President Abraham Lincoln. After Davis was captured in 1865, he was accused of treason and imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. He was never tried and was released after two years. While not disgraced, Davis had been displaced in ex-Confederate affection after the war by his leading general, Robert E. Lee. Davis wrote a memoir entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which he completed in 1881. By the late 1880s, he began to encourage reconciliation, telling Southerners to be loyal to the Union. Ex-Confederates came to appreciate his role in the war, seeing him as a Southern patriot. He became a hero of the pseudohistorical Lost Cause of the Confederacy in the post-Reconstruction South.[7]

Early life

Birth and family background

Jefferson Finis Davis was born at the family homestead in Fairview, Kentucky, on June 3, 1808. He sometimes gave his year of birth as 1807.[8] He dropped his middle name in later life, although he sometimes used a middle initial.[a] Davis was the youngest of ten children born to Jane (née Cook) and Samuel Emory Davis; his oldest brother Joseph Emory Davis was 23 years his senior. He was named after then-incumbent President Thomas Jefferson, whom his father admired.[9] In the early 20th century, the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site was established near the site of Davis's birth.[10] Coincidentally, Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky, only eight months later, less than 100 miles (160 km) to the northeast of Fairview.

Davis's paternal grandparents were born in the region of Snowdonia in North Wales, and immigrated separately to North America in the early 18th century. His maternal ancestors were English. After initially arriving in Philadelphia, Davis's paternal grandfather Evan settled in the colony of Georgia, which was developed chiefly along the coast. He married the widow Lydia Emory Williams, who had two sons from a previous marriage, and their son Samuel Emory Davis was born in 1756. He served in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, along with his two older half-brothers. In 1783, after the war, he married Jane Cook. She was born in 1759 to William Cook and his wife Sarah Simpson in what is now Christian County, Kentucky. In 1793, the Davis family relocated to Kentucky, establishing a community named "Davisburg" on the border of Christian and Todd counties; it was eventually renamed Fairview.[11]


During Davis's childhood, his family moved twice: in 1811 to St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and less than a year later to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Three of his older brothers served in the War of 1812. In 1813, Davis began his education at the Wilkinson Academy in the small town of Woodville, near the family cotton plantation. His brother Joseph acted as a surrogate father and encouraged Jefferson in his education. Two years later, Davis entered the Catholic school of Saint Thomas at St. Rose Priory, a school operated by the Dominican Order in Washington County, Kentucky. At the time, he was the only Protestant student at the school. Davis returned to Mississippi in 1818, studying at Jefferson College in Washington. He returned to Kentucky in 1821, studying at Transylvania University in Lexington. (At the time, these colleges were like academies, roughly equivalent to high schools.)[12] His father Samuel died on July 4, 1824, when Jefferson was 16 years old.[13]

Early military career

Joseph arranged for Davis to get an appointment and attend the United States Military Academy (West Point) starting in late 1824.[14] While there, he was placed under house arrest for his role in the Eggnog Riot during Christmas 1826. Cadets smuggled whiskey into the academy to make eggnog, and more than a third of the cadets were involved. In June 1828, Davis graduated 23rd in a class of 33.[15]

Following graduation, Second Lieutenant Davis was assigned to the 1st Infantry Regiment and was stationed at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, Michigan Territory. Zachary Taylor, a future president of the United States, had assumed command shortly before Davis arrived in early 1829. In March 1832, Davis returned to Mississippi on furlough, having had no leave since he first arrived at Fort Crawford. He was still in Mississippi during the Black Hawk War but returned to the fort in August. At the conclusion of the war, Colonel Taylor assigned him to escort Black Hawk to prison. Davis made an effort to shield Black Hawk from curiosity seekers, and the chief noted in his autobiography that Davis treated him "with much kindness" and showed empathy for the leader's situation as a prisoner.[16]

First marriage and aftermath

Davis fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of his commanding officer, Zachary Taylor. Both Sarah and Davis sought Taylor's permission to marry. Taylor refused, as he did not wish his daughter to have the difficult life of a military wife on frontier army posts.[17] Davis's own experience led him to appreciate Taylor's objection. He consulted his older brother Joseph, and they both began to question the value of an Army career. Davis hesitated to leave, but his desire for Sarah overcame this, and he resigned his commission in a letter dated April 20, 1835.[18] He had arranged for the letter to be sent to the War Department for him on May 12 when he did not return from leave,[19] but he did not tell Taylor he intended to resign.[20] Against his former commander's wishes, on June 17, he married Sarah in Louisville, Kentucky. His resignation became effective June 30.[21]

Davis's older brother Joseph had been very successful and owned Hurricane Plantation and 1,800 acres (730 ha)[22] of adjoining land along the Mississippi River on a peninsula 20 miles (32 km) south of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The adjoining land was known as Brierfield, since it was largely covered with brush and briers. Wanting to have his youngest brother and his wife nearby, Joseph gave use of Brierfield to Jefferson, who eventually developed Brierfield Plantation there. Joseph retained the title.[23]

In August 1835, Jefferson and Sarah traveled south to his sister Anna's home in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana; the plantation was known as Locust Grove. They intended to spend the hot summer months in the countryside away from the river floodplain, for their health, but each of them contracted either malaria or yellow fever.[24] Sarah died at the age of 21 on September 15, 1835, after three months of marriage.[25][26] Davis was also severely ill,[25] and his family feared for his life. In the month following Sarah's death, he slowly improved, although he remained weak.[27]

In late 1835, Davis sailed from New Orleans to Havana, Cuba, to help restore his health. He was accompanied by James Pemberton, his only slave at the time.[28] Davis observed the Spanish military and sketched fortifications. Although no evidence points to his having any motive beyond general interest, the authorities knew Davis was a former army officer and warned him to stop his observations. Bored and feeling somewhat better, Davis booked passage on a ship to New York, then continued to Washington, D.C., where he visited his old schoolmate George Wallace Jones. He soon returned with Pemberton to Mississippi.[29]

For several years following Sarah's death, Davis was reclusive and honored her memory. He spent time clearing Brierfield and developing his plantation, studied government and history, and had private political discussions with his brother Joseph.[30] By early 1836, Davis had purchased 16 slaves; he held 40 slaves by 1840, and 74 by 1845. Davis promoted Pemberton to be overseer of the field teams. In 1860, he owned 113 slaves.[31]

In 1840, Davis first became involved in politics when he attended a Democratic Party meeting in Vicksburg and, to his surprise, was chosen as a delegate to the party's state convention in Jackson. In 1842, he attended the Democratic convention, and, in 1843, became a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives from the Warren County–Vicksburg district; he lost his first election.[32] In 1844, Davis was sent to the party convention for a third time, and his interest in politics deepened. He was selected as one of six presidential electors for the 1844 presidential election and campaigned effectively throughout Mississippi for the Democratic candidate James K. Polk.[33]

Second marriage and family; election to Congress

Wedding photograph (a daguerrotype) of Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell, 1845
Wedding photograph (a daguerrotype) of Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell, 1845

In 1844, Davis met Varina Banks Howell, then 18 years old, whom his brother Joseph had invited for the Christmas season at Hurricane Plantation. She was a granddaughter of New Jersey Governor Richard Howell; her mother's family was from the South and included successful Scots-Irish planters. Within a month of their meeting, the 35-year-old widower Davis had asked Varina to marry him, and they became engaged despite her parents' initial concerns about his age and politics. They were married on February 26, 1845.[34]

Election to Congress

During this time, Davis was persuaded to become a candidate for the United States House of Representatives and began canvassing for the election. In early October 1845 he traveled to Woodville to give a speech. He arrived a day early to visit his mother there, only to find that she had died the day before. After the funeral, he rode the 40 miles (64 km) back to Natchez to deliver the news, then returned to Woodville again to deliver his speech. He won the election and entered the 29th Congress.[35]


Jefferson and Varina had six children; three died before reaching adulthood. Samuel Emory, born July 30, 1852, was named after his grandfather; he died June 30, 1854, of an undiagnosed disease.[36] Margaret Howell was born February 25, 1855,[37] and was the only child to marry and raise a family. She married Joel Addison Hayes, Jr. (1848–1919), and they had five children.[38] They were married in St. Lazarus Church, nicknamed "The Confederate Officers' Church", in Memphis, Tennessee.[39][40] In the late 19th century, they moved from Memphis to Colorado Springs, Colorado. She died on July 18, 1909, at the age of 54.[41]

Jefferson Davis, Jr., was born January 16, 1857. He died at age 21 because of yellow fever on October 16, 1878, during an epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that caused 20,000 deaths.[42] Joseph Evan, born on April 18, 1859, died at the age of five due to an accidental fall on April 30, 1864.[43] William Howell, born on December 6, 1861, was named for Varina's father; he died of diphtheria at age 10 on October 16, 1872.[44] Varina Anne, known as "Winnie", was born on June 27, 1864, several months after her brother Joseph's death. She was known as the Daughter of the Confederacy as she was born during the war. After her parents refused to let her marry into a Northern abolitionist family, she never married.[45] She died nine years after her father, on September 18, 1898, at age 34.[46][47] Jim Limber an octoroon (mixed race) orphan was briefly a ward of Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell Davis.[48]

Davis had poor health for most of his life, including repeated bouts of malaria, battle wounds from fighting in the Mexican–American War and a chronic eye infection that made bright light painful. He also had trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve disorder that causes severe pain in the face; it has been called one of the most painful known ailments.[40][49]

Mexican–American War

In 1846 the Mexican–American War began. Davis raised a volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, becoming its colonel under the command of his former father-in-law, General Zachary Taylor.[50] On July 21 the regiment sailed from New Orleans for Texas. Colonel Davis sought to arm his regiment with the M1841 Mississippi rifle. At this time, smoothbore muskets were still the primary infantry weapon, and any unit with rifles was considered special and designated as such. President James K. Polk had promised Davis the weapons if he would remain in Congress long enough for an important vote on the Walker tariff. General Winfield Scott objected on the basis that the weapons were insufficiently tested. Davis insisted and called in his promise from Polk, and his regiment was armed with the rifles, making it particularly effective in combat.[51] The regiment became known as the Mississippi Rifles because it was the first to be fully armed with these new weapons.[52] The incident was the start of a lifelong feud between Davis and Scott.[53]

In September 1846, Davis participated in the Battle of Monterrey, during which he led a successful charge on the La Teneria fort.[54] On October 28, Davis resigned his seat in the House of Representatives.[55][56] On February 22, 1847, Davis fought bravely at the Battle of Buena Vista and was shot in the foot, being carried to safety by Robert H. Chilton. In recognition of Davis's bravery and initiative, Taylor is reputed to have said, "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was."[14] On May 17, President Polk offered Davis a federal commission as a brigadier general and command of a brigade of militia. Davis declined the appointment, arguing that the Constitution gives the power of appointing militia officers to the states, not the federal government.[57]

Return to politics


Jefferson Davis in 1847
Jefferson Davis in 1847

Honoring Davis's war service, Governor Albert G. Brown of Mississippi appointed him to the vacant position of United States Senator Jesse Speight, a Democrat, who had died on May 1, 1847. Davis, also a Democrat, took his temporary seat on December 5, and in January 1848 he was elected by the state legislature to serve the remaining two years of the term.[58] In December, during the 30th United States Congress, Davis was made a regent of the Smithsonian Institution and began serving on the Committee on Military Affairs and the Library Committee.[59]

In 1848, Senator Davis proposed and introduced an amendment (the first of several) to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that would have annexed most of northeastern Mexico, but it failed on a vote of 11 to 44.[60] Southerners wanted to increase territory held in Mexico as an area for the expansion of slavery. Regarding Cuba, Davis declared that it "must be ours" to "increase the number of slaveholding constituencies."[61] He also was concerned about the security implications of a Spanish holding lying relatively close to the coast of Florida.[62]

A group of Cuban revolutionaries led by Venezuelan adventurer Narciso López intended to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule by the sword. Searching for a military leader for a filibuster expedition, they first offered command of the Cuban forces to General William J. Worth, but he died before making his decision.[63] In the summer of 1849, López visited Davis and asked him to lead the expedition. He offered an immediate payment of $100,000 (worth more than $2 million in 2013),[64] plus the same amount when Cuba was liberated. Davis turned down the offer, saying it was inconsistent with his duty as a senator. When asked to recommend someone else, Davis suggested Robert E. Lee, then an army major in Baltimore; López approached Lee, who also declined on the grounds of his duty.[65][66]

The Senate made Davis chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs on December 3, 1849, during the first session of the 31st United States Congress. On December 29 he was elected to a full six-year term (by the Mississippi legislature, as the constitution mandated at the time). Davis had not served a year when he resigned (in September 1851) to run for the governorship of Mississippi on the issue of the Compromise of 1850, which he opposed. He was defeated by fellow Senator Henry Stuart Foote by 999 votes.[67] Left without political office, Davis continued his political activity. He took part in a convention on states' rights, held at Jackson, Mississippi, in January 1852. In the weeks leading up to the presidential election of 1852, he campaigned in numerous Southern states for Democratic candidates Franklin Pierce and William R. King.[68]

Secretary of War

Jefferson Davis in 1853
Jefferson Davis in 1853

Franklin Pierce, after winning the presidential election, made Davis his Secretary of War in 1853.[69] In this capacity, Davis began the Pacific Railroad Surveys in order to determine various possible routes for the proposed Transcontinental Railroad. He promoted the Gadsden Purchase of today's southern Arizona from Mexico, partly because it would provide an easier southern route for the new railroad; the Pierce administration agreed and the land was purchased in December 1853.[70] He saw the size of the regular army as insufficient to fulfill its mission, maintaining that salaries would have to be increased, something which had not occurred for 25 years. Congress agreed and increased the pay scale. It also added four regiments, which increased the army's size from about 11,000 to about 15,000.[71] Davis also introduced general usage of the rifles he had used successfully during the Mexican–American War.[72] As a result, both the morale and the capability of the army improved. He became involved in public works when Pierce gave him responsibility for construction of the Washington Aqueduct and an expansion of the U.S. Capitol, both of which he managed closely. Davis had a good relationship with Pierce but clashed with and disliked Winfield Scott over things like travel expenses.[73] The Pierce administration ended in 1857 after Pierce's loss of the Democratic nomination to James Buchanan. Davis's term was to end with Pierce's, so he ran for the Senate, was elected, and re-entered it on March 4, 1857.[74]

Return to Senate

In the 1840s, tensions were growing between the North and South over various issues including slavery. The Wilmot Proviso, introduced in 1846, contributed to these tensions; if passed, it would have banned slavery in any land acquired from Mexico. The Compromise of 1850 brought a temporary respite, but the Dred Scott case, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1857, spurred public debate. Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and that African Americans had no standing as citizens under the constitution. Northerners were outraged and there was increasing talk in the South of secession from the Union.[75]

Davis's renewed service in the Senate was interrupted in early 1858 by an illness that began as a severe cold and which threatened him with the loss of his left eye. He was forced to remain in a darkened room for four weeks.[76] He spent the summer of 1858 in Portland, Maine. On the Fourth of July, Davis delivered an anti-secessionist speech on board a ship near Boston. He again urged the preservation of the Union on October 11 in Faneuil Hall, Boston, and returned to the Senate soon after.[77]

As he explained in his memoir The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Davis believed each state was sovereign and had an unquestionable right to secede from the Union. At the same time, he counseled delay among his fellow Southerners, because he did not think the North would permit the peaceable exercise of the right to secession. Having served as secretary of war under President Pierce, he also knew the South lacked the military and naval resources necessary for defense in a war. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, however, events accelerated. South Carolina adopted an ordinance of secession on December 20, 1860, and Mississippi did so on January 9, 1861. Davis had expected this but waited until he received official notification. On January 21, the day Davis called "the saddest day of my life",[78] he delivered a farewell address to the United States Senate, resigned and returned to Mississippi.[79]

In 1861, the Episcopal Church split and Davis became a member of the newly founded Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. He attended St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond while he was President of the Confederacy. The two denominations were reunited in 1865.[80]

President of the Confederate States

Davis was sworn in as provisional president on February 18, 1861, at the entrance to the Alabama State Capitol.
Davis was sworn in as provisional president on February 18, 1861, at the entrance to the Alabama State Capitol.

Anticipating a call for his services since Mississippi had seceded, Davis sent a telegraph message to Governor John J. Pettus saying, "Judge what Mississippi requires of me and place me accordingly."[81] On January 23, 1861, Pettus made Davis a major general of the Army of Mississippi.[14] On February 9, a constitutional convention met at Montgomery, Alabama, and considered Davis and Robert Toombs of Georgia as possible choices for president. Davis and Alexander Hamilton Stephens were unanimously elected President and Vice-President by the convention.[82] However, the two delegates from Texas did not vote, as not only did neither one arrive until February 15, 1861,[83] but the Texas delegation was prohibited from voting because their ordinance of secession did not officially come into effect until March 2, 1861. This made Jefferson Davis' election technically by the consent of six of the seven states of the Confederacy, with Texas not casting any votes.[84] He was seen as the "champion of a slave society and embodied the values of the planter class", and was elected provisional Confederate President by acclamation.[85][86] He was inaugurated on February 18, 1861.[87][88] Vice President Stephens and Davis feuded constantly.[89]

Davis was the first choice because of his strong political and military credentials. He wanted to serve as commander-in-chief of the Confederate armies but said he would serve wherever directed.[90] His wife Varina Davis later wrote that when he heard he had been chosen as president, "Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family."[91]

Several forts in Confederate territory remained in Union hands. Davis sent a commission to Washington with an offer to pay for any federal property on Southern soil, as well as the Southern portion of the national debt, but Lincoln refused to meet with the commissioners. Brief informal discussions did take place with Secretary of State William Seward through Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, the latter of whom later resigned from the federal government, as he was from Alabama. Seward hinted that Fort Sumter would be evacuated, but gave no assurance.[92]

On March 1, 1861, Davis appointed General P. G. T. Beauregard to command all Confederate troops in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina, where state officials prepared to take possession of Fort Sumter. Beauregard was to prepare his forces but await orders to attack the fort. Within the fort the issue was not of the niceties of geopolitical posturing but of survival. They would be out of food on the 15th. The small Union garrison had but half a dozen officers and 127 soldiers under Major Robert Anderson. Famously, this included the baseball folk hero Captain (later major general) Abner Doubleday. More improbable yet was a Union officer who had the name of Jefferson C. Davis. He would spend the war being taunted for his name but not his loyalty to the Northern cause. The newly installed President Lincoln, not wishing to initiate hostilities, informed South Carolina Governor Pickens that he was dispatching a small fleet of ships from the navy yard in New York to resupply but not re-enforce Fort Pickens in Florida and Fort Sumter. The U.S. President did not inform CSA President Davis of this intended resupply of food and fuel. For Lincoln, Davis, as the leader of an insurrection, was without legal standing in U.S. affairs. To deal with him would be to give legitimacy to the rebellion. The fact that Sumter was the property of the sovereign United States was the reason for maintaining the garrison on the island fort. He informed Pickens that the resupply mission would not land troops or munitions unless they were fired upon. As it turned out, just as the supply ships approached Charleston harbor, the bombardment would begin and the flotilla watched the spectacle from 10 miles (16 km) at sea.

Davis faced the most important decision of his career: to prevent reinforcement at Fort Sumter or to let it take place. He and his cabinet decided to demand that the Federal garrison surrender and, if this was refused, to use military force to prevent reinforcement before the fleet arrived. Anderson did not surrender. With Davis's endorsement, Beauregard began the bombarding of the fort in the early dawn of April 12. The Confederates continued their artillery attack on Fort Sumter until it surrendered on April 14. No one was killed in the artillery duel, but the attack on the U.S. fort meant the fighting had started. President Lincoln called up 75,000 state militiamen to march south to recapture Federal property. In the North and South, massive rallies were held to demand immediate war. The Civil War had begun.[93][94][95][96]

Overseeing the war effort

When Virginia joined the Confederacy, Davis moved his government to Richmond in May 1861. He and his family took up his residence there at the White House of the Confederacy later that month.[97] Having served since February as the provisional president, Davis was elected to a full six-year term on November 6, 1861, and was inaugurated on February 22, 1862.[98]

Jefferson Davis on CSA Postage stamps
Jefferson Davis on CSA Postage stamps

In June 1862, Davis was forced to assign General Robert E. Lee to replace the wounded Joseph E. Johnston to command of the Army of Northern Virginia, the main Confederate army in the Eastern Theater. That December Davis made a tour of Confederate armies in the west of the country. He had a very small circle of military advisers. He largely made the main strategic decisions on his own, though he had special respect for Lee's views. Given the Confederacy's limited resources compared with the Union, Davis decided the Confederacy would have to fight mostly on the strategic defensive. He maintained this outlook throughout the war, paying special attention to the defense of his national capital at Richmond. He approved Lee's strategic offensives when he felt that military success would both shake Northern self-confidence and strengthen the peace movements there. However, the several campaigns invading the North were met with defeat. A bloody battle at Antietam in Maryland as well as the ride into Kentucky, the Confederate Heartland Offensive (both in 1862)[99] drained irreplaceable men and talented officers. A final offense led to the three-day bloodletting at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania (1863),[100] crippling the South still further. The status of techniques and munitions made the defensive side much more likely to endure: an expensive lesson vindicating Davis's initial belief.

Administration and cabinet

The original Confederate Cabinet. From left: Judah P. Benjamin, Stephen Mallory, Christopher Memminger, Alexander H. Stephens, LeRoy Pope Walker, Jefferson Davis, John H. Reagan and Robert Toombs.

As provisional president in 1861, Davis formed his first cabinet. Robert Toombs of Georgia was the first Secretary of State and Christopher Memminger of South Carolina became Secretary of the Treasury. LeRoy Pope Walker of Alabama was made Secretary of War, after being recommended for this post by Clement Clay and William Yancey (both of whom declined to accept cabinet positions themselves). John Reagan of Texas became Postmaster General. Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana became Attorney General. Although Stephen Mallory was not put forward by the delegation from his state of Florida, Davis insisted that he was the best man for the job of Secretary of the Navy, and he was eventually confirmed.[101]

Since the Confederacy was founded, among other things, on states' rights, one important factor in Davis's choice of cabinet members was representation from the various states. He depended partly upon recommendations from congressmen and other prominent people. This helped maintain good relations between the executive and legislative branches. This also led to complaints as more states joined the Confederacy, however, because there were more states than cabinet positions.[102]

As the war progressed, this dissatisfaction increased and there were frequent changes to the cabinet. Toombs, who had wished to be president himself, was frustrated as an advisor and resigned within a few months of his appointment to join the army. Robert Hunter of Virginia replaced him as Secretary of State on July 25, 1861.[103] On September 17, Walker resigned as Secretary of War due to a conflict with Davis, who had questioned his management of the War Department and had suggested he consider a different position. Walker requested, and was given, command of the troops in Alabama. Benjamin left the Attorney General position to replace him, and Thomas Bragg of North Carolina (brother of General Braxton Bragg) took Benjamin's place as Attorney General.[104]

Davis was first depicted on CSA notes issued between April and December 1862.
Davis was first depicted on CSA notes issued between April and December 1862.

Following the November 1861 election, Davis announced the permanent cabinet in March 1862. Benjamin moved again, to Secretary of State. George W. Randolph of Virginia had been made the Secretary of War. Mallory continued as Secretary of the Navy and Reagan as Postmaster General. Both kept their positions throughout the war. Memminger remained Secretary of the Treasury, while Thomas Hill Watts of Alabama was made Attorney General.[105]

In 1862 Randolph resigned from the War Department, and James Seddon of Virginia was appointed to replace him. In late 1863, Watts resigned as Attorney General to take office as the Governor of Alabama, and George Davis of North Carolina took his place. In 1864, Memminger withdrew from the Treasury post due to congressional opposition, and was replaced by George Trenholm of South Carolina. In 1865 congressional opposition likewise caused Seddon to withdraw, and he was replaced by John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.[106]

Cotton was the South's primary export and the basis of its economy and the system of production the South used was dependent upon slave labor. At the outset of the Civil War, Davis realized that intervention from European powers would be vital if the Confederacy was to stand against the Union. The administration sent repeated delegations to European nations, but several factors prevented Southern success in terms of foreign diplomacy. The Union blockade of the Confederacy led European powers to remain neutral, contrary to the Southern belief that a blockade would cut off the supply of cotton to Britain and other European nations and prompt them to intervene on behalf of the South. Many European countries objected to slavery. Britain had abolished it in the 1830s, and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 made support for the South even less appealing in Europe. Finally, as the war progressed and the South's military prospects dwindled, foreign powers were not convinced that the Confederacy had the strength to become independent. In the end, not a single foreign nation recognized the Confederate States of America.[107]

Strategic failures

Davis in 1859
Davis in 1859

Most historians sharply criticize Davis for his flawed military strategy, his selection of friends for military commands, and his neglect of homefront crises.[108][109] Until late in the war, he resisted efforts to appoint a general-in-chief, essentially handling those duties himself. "Davis was loathed by much of his military, Congress and the public – even before the Confederacy died on his watch," and General Beauregard wrote in a letter: "If he were to die today, the whole country would rejoice at it."[110]

On January 31, 1865, Lee assumed this role as general-in-chief of all Confederate armies, but it was far too late. Davis insisted on a strategy of trying to defend all Southern territory with ostensibly equal effort. This diluted the limited resources of the South and made it vulnerable to coordinated strategic thrusts by the Union into the vital Western Theater (e.g., the capture of New Orleans in early 1862). He made other controversial strategic choices, such as allowing Lee to invade the North in 1862 and 1863 while the Western armies were under very heavy pressure. When Lee lost at Gettysburg in July 1863, Vicksburg simultaneously fell, and the Union took control of the Mississippi River, splitting the Confederacy. At Vicksburg, the failure to coordinate multiple forces on both sides of the Mississippi River rested primarily on Davis's inability to create a harmonious departmental arrangement or to force such generals as Edmund Kirby Smith, Earl Van Dorn, and Theophilus H. Holmes to work together.[111] In fact, during the late stages of the Franklin–Nashville Campaign, Davis warned Beauregard that Kirby Smith would prove uncooperative to whatever proposal the Creole general had in mind for him.[112]

Davis has been faulted for poor coordination and management of his generals. This includes his reluctance to resolve a dispute between Leonidas Polk, a personal friend, and Braxton Bragg, who was defeated in important battles and distrusted by his subordinates.[113] He was similarly reluctant to relieve the capable but overcautious Joseph E. Johnston until, after numerous frustrations which he detailed in a March 1, 1865 letter to Col. James Phelan of Mississippi, he replaced him with John Bell Hood,[114][115] a fellow Kentuckian who had shared the Confederate President's views on aggressive military policies.[116]

Davis gave speeches to soldiers and politicians but largely ignored the common people, who came to resent the favoritism shown to the rich and powerful; Davis thus failed to harness Confederate nationalism.[117] One historian speaks of "the heavy-handed intervention of the Confederate government." Economic intervention, regulation, and state control of manpower, production and transport were much greater in the Confederacy than in the Union.[118] Davis did not use his presidential pulpit to rally the people with stirring rhetoric; he called instead for people to be fatalistic and to die for their new country.[119] Apart from two month-long trips across the country where he met a few hundred people, Davis stayed in Richmond where few people saw him; newspapers had limited circulation, and most Confederates had little favorable information about him.[120]

To finance the war, the Confederate government initially issued bonds, but investment from the public never met the demands. Taxes were lower than in the Union and collected with less efficiency; European investment was also insufficient. As the war proceeded, both the Confederate government and the individual states printed more and more paper money. Inflation increased from 60% in 1861 to 300% in 1863 and 600% in 1864. Davis did not seem to grasp the enormity of the problem.[121][122]

In April 1863, food shortages led to rioting in Richmond, as poor people robbed and looted numerous stores for food until Davis cracked down and restored order.[123] Davis feuded bitterly with his vice president. Perhaps even more seriously, he clashed with powerful state governors who used states' rights arguments to withhold their militia units from national service and otherwise blocked mobilization plans.[124]

Davis is widely evaluated as a less effective war leader than Lincoln, even though Davis had extensive military experience and Lincoln had little. Davis would have preferred to be an army general and tended to manage military matters himself. Lincoln and Davis led in very different ways. According to one historian,

Lincoln was flexible; Davis was rigid. Lincoln wanted to win; Davis wanted to be right. Lincoln had a broad strategic vision of Union goals; Davis could never enlarge his narrow view. Lincoln searched for the right general, then let him fight the war; Davis continuously played favorites and interfered unduly with his generals, even with Robert E. Lee. Lincoln led his nation; Davis failed to rally the South.

There were many factors that led to Union victory, and Davis recognized from the start that the South was at a distinct disadvantage; but in the end, Lincoln helped to achieve victory, whereas Davis contributed to defeat.[125]

Final days of the Confederacy

William T. Sutherlin Mansion, Danville, Virginia, temporary residence of Jefferson Davis and dubbed Last Capitol of the Confederacy
William T. Sutherlin Mansion, Danville, Virginia, temporary residence of Jefferson Davis and dubbed Last Capitol of the Confederacy

In March 1865, General Order 14 provided for enlisting slaves into the army, with a promise of freedom for service. The idea had been suggested years earlier, but Davis did not act upon it until late in the war, and very few slaves were enlisted.[126]

On April 3, with Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant poised to capture Richmond, Davis escaped to Danville, Virginia, together with the Confederate Cabinet, leaving on the Richmond and Danville Railroad. Lincoln was in Davis's Richmond office just forty hours later. William T. Sutherlin turned over his mansion, which served as Davis's temporary residence April 3–10, 1865.[127] On about April 12, Davis received Robert E. Lee's letter announcing surrender.[128] He issued his last official proclamation as president of the Confederacy, and then went south to Greensboro, North Carolina.[129]

After Lee's surrender, a public meeting was held in Shreveport, Louisiana, at which many speakers supported continuation of the war. Plans were developed for the Davis government to flee to Havana, Cuba. There, the leaders would regroup and head to the Confederate-controlled Trans-Mississippi area by way of the Rio Grande.[130] None of these plans were put into practice.

On April 14, Lincoln was shot, dying the next day. Davis expressed regret at his death. He later said he believed Lincoln would have been less harsh with the South than his successor, Andrew Johnson.[131] In the aftermath, Johnson issued a $100,000 reward for the capture of Davis and accused him of helping to plan the assassination. As the Confederate military structure fell into disarray, the search for Davis by Union forces intensified.[132]

President Davis met with his Confederate Cabinet for the last time on May 5, 1865, in Washington, Georgia, and officially dissolved the Confederate government.[133] The meeting took place at the Heard house, the Georgia Branch Bank Building, with 14 officials present. Along with their hand-picked escort led by Given Campbell, Davis and his wife Varina Davis were captured by Union forces on May 10 at Irwinville in Irwin County, Georgia.[134]

Capture of Jefferson Davis – Illustration in New York Daily News, May 15, 1865
Capture of Jefferson Davis – Illustration in New York Daily News, May 15, 1865

Davis's wife recounted her husband's capture:

Just before day the enemy charged our camp yelling like demons. ... I pleaded with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof wrap which had often served him in sickness during the summer season for a dressing gown and which I hoped might so cover his person that in the grey of the morning he would not be recognized. As he strode off I threw over his head a little black shawl which was around my own shoulders, saying that he could not find his hat and after he started sent my colored woman after him with a bucket for water hoping that he would pass unobserved.[135]: 172 

It was reported in the media that Davis had put his wife's overcoat over his shoulders while fleeing. This led to the persistent rumor that he attempted to flee in women's clothes, inspiring caricatures that portrayed him so dressed.[136] Over forty years later, an article in the Washington Herald claimed that his wife's heavy shawl had been placed on Davis who was "always extremely sensitive to cold air", to protect him from the "chilly atmosphere of the early hour of the morning" by the slave James Henry Jones, Davis's valet who served Davis and his family during and after the Civil War.[137] Meanwhile, Davis's belongings continued on the train bound for Cedar Key, Florida. They were first hidden at Senator David Levy Yulee's plantation in Florida, then placed in the care of a railroad agent in Waldo. On June 15, 1865, Union soldiers seized Davis's personal baggage from the agent, together with some of the Confederate government's records.

A historical marker was later erected at this site.[138][139][140] In 1939, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Historic Site was created to mark the place in Irwin County, Georgia, where Davis was captured.


Illustration of Jefferson Davis in prison
Illustration of Jefferson Davis in prison
Jefferson Davis's family in Lennoxville, Québec, Canada, 1865. From Bishop's College Yearbook.
Jefferson Davis's family in Lennoxville, Québec, Canada, 1865. From Bishop's College Yearbook.

On May 19, 1865, Davis was imprisoned in a casemate at Fortress Monroe, on the coast of Virginia. Irons were riveted to his ankles at the order of General Nelson A. Miles, who was in charge of the fort. Davis was allowed no visitors, and no books except the Bible. He became sicker, and the attending physician warned that his life was in danger, but this treatment continued for some months until late autumn when he was finally given better quarters. General Miles was transferred in mid-1866, and Davis's treatment continued to improve.[141]

House of Representatives vote for a trial of Jefferson Davis, June 11, 1866
House of Representatives vote for a trial of Jefferson Davis, June 11, 1866

Pope Pius IX, after learning that Davis was a prisoner, sent him a portrait inscribed with the Latin words "Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus", which correspond to the Biblical passage of Matthew 11:28,[142][143] "Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you, sayeth the Lord".[144] A hand-woven crown of thorns associated with the portrait is often said to have been made by the Pope[145][146] but may have been woven by Davis's wife Varina.[147]

Varina and their young daughter Winnie were allowed to join Davis, and the family was eventually given an apartment in the officers' quarters. Davis was indicted for treason while imprisoned; one of his attorneys was ex-Governor Thomas Pratt of Maryland.[148] There was a great deal of discussion in 1865 about bringing treason trials, especially against Jefferson Davis. While there was no consensus in President Johnson's cabinet to do so, on June 11, 1866, the House of Representatives voted 105–19 to support such a trial against Davis. Although Davis wanted such a trial for himself, there were no treason trials against anyone, as it was felt they would probably not succeed and would impede reconciliation. There was also a concern at the time that such action could result in a judicial decision that would validate the constitutionality of secession (the Supreme Court would ultimately do the opposite, ruling in Texas v. White (1869) that secession was unconstitutional).[149][150][151][152]

The petit jury impaneled for Davis's trial for treason. Contemporary composite image from two glass plate negatives.
The petit jury impaneled for Davis's trial for treason. Contemporary composite image from two glass plate negatives.

A jury of 12 black and 12 white men was recruited by United States Circuit Court judge John Curtiss Underwood in preparation for the trial.[153]

After two years of imprisonment, Davis was released on bail of $100,000, which was posted by prominent citizens including Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Gerrit Smith.[154] (Smith was a member of the Secret Six who financially supported abolitionist John Brown.) Davis went to Montreal, Quebec, to join his family which had fled there earlier, and lived in Lennoxville, Quebec, until 1868, while his son Jefferson Jr. and William attended Bishop's College School.[155][156] He also visited Cuba and Europe in search of work.[157] At one stage he stayed as a guest of James Smith, a foundry owner in Glasgow, who had struck up a friendship with Davis when he toured the Southern States promoting his foundry business.[158] Davis remained under indictment until Andrew Johnson issued on Christmas Day of 1868 a presidential "pardon and amnesty" for the offense of treason to "every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion" and after a federal circuit court on February 15, 1869, dismissed the case against Davis after the government's attorney informed the court that he would no longer continue to prosecute Davis.[149][150][151]

Later years

Jefferson Davis at his home c. 1885
Jefferson Davis at his home c. 1885

After his release from prison and pardon, Davis faced continued financial pressures, as well as an unsettled family life. His elder brother Joseph died in 1870, his son William Howell Davis in 1872 and Jefferson Davis Jr. in 1878. His wife Varina was often ill or abroad, and for a time refused to live with him in Memphis, Tennessee. Davis resented having to resort to charity, and would accept only jobs befitting his former positions as U.S. Senator and Confederate President; several that he accepted proved financial failures.[159]

Davis sought a mercantile position in Liverpool, England. However, British companies were wary, both because Britons were not interested in Canadian mines, and because Mississippi had defaulted on debts in the 1840s, and Judah Benjamin cautioned him against countering former wartime propaganda by Robert J. Walker.[160] Davis also refused positions as head of Randolph-Macon Academy in Virginia and the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, for financial reasons.[161]

In 1869, Davis became president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee, at an annual salary of $12,000 (equivalent to $213,094 in 2020), plus travel expenses, and resided at the Peabody Hotel. He recruited former Confederate officers as agents, and the board ratified his position in 1870.[162] By 1873, he suggested that the company have boards of trustees at its various branches, and that qualification for such be that the trustee either take out a policy of at least $5,000 or own at least $1,000 in the company's stock.[163] By midyear the Panic of 1873 affected the company, and Davis resigned when it merged with another firm over his objections.[164] He also planned a "Davis Land Company" in which investors would pay $10 per share for 5,700 acres Davis owned in Arkansas. He drafted a prospectus that stated he owed more than $40,000 and his income did not amount to $200.[165]

Upon General Lee's death, Davis agreed to preside over the Presbyterian memorial in Richmond on November 3, 1870. That speech prompted further invitations, although he declined them until July 1871, when he was commencement speaker at the University of the South. Two years later Davis addressed the Virginia Historical Society at White Sulpher Springs, where Davis proclaimed southerners were "cheated not conquered" and would never have surrendered if they had foreseen Congressional Reconstruction.[166] In the summer of 1875, Davis agreed to speak at 17 agricultural fairs in the Midwest. He received criticism from the Chicago Tribune and threats to his life in Indiana, but crowds in Kansas City, Missouri, and Fairview, Kentucky, received him well. During the next two years Davis began writing his books about the Confederacy, but addressed only fellow former soldiers: first veterans of the Mexican War (before which he attacked Congressional Reconstruction), then Confederate veterans (where he promoted reconciliation).[166]

Early in Reconstruction, Davis publicly remained silent on his opinions, but privately condemned federal military rule and believed Republican authority over former Confederate states unjustified. Mississippi had elected Hiram Rhodes Revels, an African-American, as a U.S. Senator in 1870 to finish the term of Albert G. Brown. Furthermore, during the war, after Joseph Davis's departure from his plantations at Davis Bend and the Union capture of Vicksburg and the surrounding area, General Grant had continued Joseph Davis's utopian experiment and ordered that the land be leased to the freedman and black refugees allowed to settle in the area. Although Joseph Davis ultimately received the land back, many black leaders came from the plantation, which had its own political system, including elected black judges and sheriffs. After the 1867 floods changed the course of the Mississippi River, Joseph Davis sold the plantation to the former slave who had operated a store and handled the white brothers' cotton transaction, Ben Montgomery. Ben's son Isaiah Thornton Montgomery became the first black person to hold office in Mississippi when General E.O.C. Ord appointed him Davis Bend's postmaster in 1867. Ben himself was elected justice of the peace. Other black leaders during Mississippi Reconstruction with Davis Bend ties included Israel Shadd, who became speaker of the state's House of Representatives, and legislator Albert Johnson (who also served in the state's constitutional convention).[167]

Jefferson Davis considered "Yankee and Negroe" rule in the South oppressive, and said so in 1871 and especially after 1873.[168] Like many of his contemporaries, Davis believed blacks were inferior to whites. One recent biographer believes Davis favored a Southern social order that included a "democratic white polity based firmly on dominance of a controlled and excluded black caste".[169]

While seeking to reclaim Davis Bend ("Hurricane" and "Brierfield" plantations) in 1865, Joseph Davis had filed documents with the Freedmans Bureau insisting that he had intentionally never given Jefferson Davis title to the latter. After receiving first a pardon, and then the lands back, he sold both plantations to former slave Ben Montgomery and his sons, taking back a mortgage for $300,000 at six percent interest, with payments due each January 1 beginning in 1867.[170] While Joseph Davis recognized he could not farm successfully without his 375 slaves, he expected the Montgomerys could better manage the labor situation, since in 1865 they had raised nearly 2000 bales of cotton and earned $160,000 in profits.[171] However, when the Mississippi River flooded in spring 1867, it also changed course, ruining many acres and creating "Davis Island". After Joseph Davis died two years later, his 1869 will left property to his two orphaned grandchildren, as well as to his brother's children, and named Jefferson Davis one of three executors (with Dr. J. H. D. Bowmar and nephew Joseph Smith). After the Montgomery men entertained the three executors in May 1870, and he suffered losses in the Panic of 1873, Jefferson Davis decided the black men could never fulfill the land purchase contract, and filed suit against the other trustees on June 15, 1874.[172] Jefferson Davis argued his late brother had an oral agreement with Ben Montgomery that allowed Jefferson Davis to rescind the deal and that an unassigned $70,000 from the land sale represented Brierfield's value (the orphaned Hamer grandchildren said it represented declining land values). The local Chancery Court (which then had a Republican judge, and two of the three Hamer lawyers were former Confederates) dismissed Davis's lawsuit in January 1876, citing estoppel, because Davis had been acting as executor for four years despite this claim based on alleged actions in the 1840s.[173] In April 1878 (months after Ben Montgomery had died), the Mississippi Supreme Court overruled the Warren County chancery court, deciding that Jefferson Davis properly claimed the Brierfield land by adverse possession, since he had cleared and farmed it from the 1840s until the outbreak of the Civil War (more than the ten years the statute required). By that time, two of the Republicans on that appellate court had been replaced by Democrats, both former Confederate officers.[174] To actually gain possession of Brierfield, Davis needed to convince the Warren County chancery court to foreclose the mortgage, which happened on June 1, 1880, and all appeals were rejected by December 1, 1881, allowing Jefferson Davis (for the first time in his life), to gain legal title.[175]

While pursuing the Brierfield litigation, Davis took another business trip to Liverpool. This time he sought employment from the Royal Insurance Company (a fire and marine insurer) which refused him, citing Northern animosity toward the former Confederate President. Other insurers also rejected him both directly and through intermediaries. He then visited former Confederate ambassador John Slidell in Paris, but was unable to associate with a land company, either to aid the southern people or encourage emigration to the South.[176] Davis returned to the United States and blamed race as the heart of what he called "the night of despotism" enveloping the South, citing Republicans who gave political rights to blacks that made them "more idle and ungovernable than before."[177] Davis also investigated mine properties in Arkansas and backed an ice-making machine venture, which failed.[178] He was invited to Texas, but turned down the opportunity to become the first president of the Agriculture and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University) in 1876, citing the financial sacrifice. (The offered annual salary was only $4,000.)[179] The Mississippi Valley Society, based in England, sought to spur European immigration and English investment, but Davis declined to accept that presidency until salary details had been settled, though he took a speaking tour of the area to drum up public support.[180]


Joseph Davis had encouraged his brother to write his memoirs just after his release from prison, but Davis had responded that he was not capable of doing so, neither physically nor emotionally. His wartime assistant Preston Johnston had also encouraged Davis three years later. As Davis began to seriously consider the memoir endeavor in 1869, his early working title became "Our Cause," for he believed he could convert others to the rightness of the Confederacy's actions.[181] In 1875, unable to come to terms with Preston Johnston, Davis authorized William T. Walthall, a former Confederate officer and Carolina Life agent in Mobile, Alabama, to look for a publisher for the proposed book. Walthall contacted D. Appleton & Company in New York City, and editor Joseph C. Derby agreed to pay Walthall $250/month as an advance until the manuscript's completion, with the final product not to exceed two volumes of 800 pages each. Davis made minor changes and Appleton agreed.[182]

In 1877, Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a wealthy widow and writer whom he and Varina had known from childhood and who supported the Lost Cause, invited Davis to stay at her estate and plantation house, "Beauvoir", which faced the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, Mississippi. Her husband, Maryland-born Samuel Dorsey had bought Beauvoir in 1873, and died there two years later.[183] Mrs. Dorsey wanted to provide Davis with a refuge in which he could write his memoirs per the Appleton contract. She provided him a cabin for his own use as well as helped him with his writing through organization, dictation, editing and encouragement. Davis refused to accept overt charity, but agreed to purchase the property at a modest price ($5,500, payable in installments over three years).[184] In January 1878 Dorsey, knowing she too was ill (with breast cancer), made over her will with Walthall's assistance in order to leave her remaining three small Louisiana plantations and financial assets of $50,000 (equivalent to $1,270,000 in 2017) to Davis and (acknowledging his still-precarious health) if he predeceased her, to his beloved daughter, Winnie Davis.[185][186][166] Dorsey died in 1879, by which time both the Davises and Winnie were living at Beauvoir. Her relatives came to contest that last will, which excluded them and gave everything to Davis in fee simple. They argued Davis exerted undue influence over the widow. The court dismissed their lawsuit without comment in March 1880, and they filed no appeal.[187]

Upon receiving the Appleton contract, Davis had sent letters to his former associates, seeking supporting documentation. When Walthall sent two proposed chapters to New York in 1878, Appleton returned them, cautioning that it did not want a long rehash of constitutional history, but rather an account of Davis's actions as the Confederacy's president. The publisher then sent William J. Tenney, a states-rights Democrat and staff member, to visit Beauvoir to get the problematic manuscript into publishable shape. When it still failed to arrive, Derby personally traveled to Mississippi in February 1880. By this time, Derby had advanced $8,000, but Davis confessed that he had seen few pages, asserting that Walthall had the rest. Since Davis did not want to give up on the book nor return the funds (and had already mortgaged the properties he received from Dorsey), he agreed that Tenney would take up residence in a cottage at Beauvoir. On May 1, 1880, Davis severed all connections with Walthall, who had made little progress in the preceding two years.[188] Davis and Tenney then completed The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), in two volumes of 700 and 800 pages respectively.[189][190]

External video
video icon Booknotes interview with William J. Cooper on Jefferson Davis, American, April 8, 2001, C-SPAN

Although the first volume still mainly highlighted secession as constitutionally legitimate and contained Davis's speeches among the lengthy appendices, the books restored Davis's reputation among ex-Confederates. Davis downplayed slavery as secession's cause, instead blaming the North for prosecuting a destructive and uncivilized war.[191]

The Southern Historical Society had been formed in 1876 by Rev. J. William Jones (a Baptist minister and former Confederate chaplain) and Gen. Jubal A. Early. Jones became the Society's paid secretary and editor of the Southern Historical Review; Early became president and head of its executive committee. They made Davis a life member and helped him gather material for his book. They had tried to enlist him for a speaking tour in 1882, but Davis declined, citing his health and a yellow fever epidemic near Beauvoir, and made only one address in New Orleans on its behalf before 1882. Early also began visiting Davis when the Virginian visited New Orleans as supervisor in the Louisiana State Lottery Company.[192] Like Judah Benjamin, Early repeatedly advised Davis not to participate publicly in personal vendettas and old battles, despite critical books and articles by former Confederate Generals Pierre Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston. Nonetheless, when asked to speak at dedication of the Lee mausoleum in Lexington, Virginia, Davis declined when he learned Johnston would preside, and also vented in his personal correspondence. Davis also took issue with Gen. William T. Sherman in an address in St. Louis in 1884 and in a lengthy letter to the editor, and also criticized young New York politician Theodore Roosevelt for comparing him to Benedict Arnold.[193]

When touring the South in 1886 and 1887, Davis attended many Lost Cause ceremonies, and large crowds showered him with affection as local leaders presented emotional speeches honoring his sacrifices to the would-be nation. According to the Meriden Daily Journal, at a reception held in New Orleans in May 1887, Davis urged southerners to be loyal to the nation – "United you are now, and if the Union is ever to be broken, let the other side break it." He continued by lauding Confederate men who successfully fought for their own rights despite inferior numbers during the Civil War, and argued that northern historians ignored this view.[194] Davis firmly believed Confederate secession was constitutional, and he was optimistic concerning American prosperity and the next generation.[195]

In the summer of 1888, James Redpath, editor of the North American Review and a former political enemy who became an admirer upon meeting Davis, convinced him to write a series of articles at $250 per article, as well as a book.[196] Davis then completed his final book A Short History of the Confederate States of America in October 1889.

Death and burials

Funeral procession of Jefferson Davis in New Orleans
Funeral procession of Jefferson Davis in New Orleans

On November 6, 1889, Davis left Beauvoir to visit his Brierfield plantation. He embarked a steamboat in New Orleans during sleety rain and fell ill during the trip, so that he initially felt too sick to disembark at his stop, and spent the night upriver in Vicksburg before making his way to the plantation the next day. He refused to send for a doctor for four days before embarking on his return trip. Meanwhile, servants sent Varina a telegram, and she took a train to New Orleans, and then a steamboat upriver, finally reaching the vessel on which her husband was returning. Davis finally received medical care as two doctors came aboard further south and diagnosed acute bronchitis complicated by malaria.[197][198] Upon arriving in New Orleans three days later, Davis was taken to Garden District home of Charles Erasmus Fenner, a former Confederate officer who became an Associate Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Fenner was the son-in-law of Davis's old friend J. M. Payne. Davis's doctor Stanford E. Chaille pronounced him too ill to travel to Beauvoir; a Catholic nun, and four medical students who were sons of Confederate veterans, attended Davis in the Charity Hospital ambulance which took him to the Fenner home. Davis remained bedridden but stable for the next two weeks. He took a turn for the worse in early December. According to Fenner, just when Davis again appeared to be improving, he lost consciousness on the evening of December 5 and died at 12:45 a.m. on Friday, December 6, 1889, holding Varina's hand and in the presence of several friends.[199][200]

Jefferson Davis burial site at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia
Jefferson Davis burial site at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia

Jefferson Davis's funeral was one of the largest in the South, and New Orleans draped itself in mourning as his body lay in state in the City Hall for several days. An Executive Committee decided to emphasize his ties to the United States, so an American national flag was placed over the Confederate flag during the viewing, with many crossed American and Confederate flags nearby. Davis wore a new suit of Confederate grey fabric Jubal Early had given him, and Varina placed a sword Davis had carried during the Black Hawk War on the bier. A common decoration during the initial funeral was a small American flag in mourning, with a portrait of Davis in the center. The Grand Army of the Republic had a prominent role, even though the Grand Marshall was John G. Glynn, head of the Louisiana National Guard, and Georgia Governor John Gordon (head of the newly organized United Confederate Veterans) was honorary Grand Marshall.[166] While the federal government officially ignored Davis's death, many church bells rang in the South, Confederate veterans held many processions, and Senators and congressmen crossed the Potomac River to join former Confederate officials and generals in eulogizing Davis in Alexandria, Virginia.[201]

Although initially laid to rest in New Orleans in the Army of Northern Virginia tomb at Metairie Cemetery, in 1893 Davis was reinterred in Richmond, Virginia, at Hollywood Cemetery, per his widow's request.[202] Before his death, Davis left the location of his burial up to Varina, but within a day of his death The New York Times proclaimed Richmond wanted his body.[203] Varina Davis had refused to accept direct charity, but let it be known that she would accept financial help through the Davis Land Company.[204] Soon, many tourists in New Orleans visited the mausoleum. Several other locations in the South wanted Davis's remains. Louisville, Kentucky offered a site in Cave Hill cemetery, noting that two years earlier Davis had dedicated a church built on the site of his birthplace and claiming that he several times said he wanted to be buried in his native state. Memphis, Tennessee, Montgomery, Alabama, Macon and Atlanta, Georgia, and both Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi, also petitioned for his remains.[205] Richmond mayor and Confederate veteran J. Taylor Ellyson established the Jefferson Davis Monument Association, and on July 12, 1891, Varina revealed in a letter to Confederate Veterans and people of the Southern States that her first choice would be Davis's plantation in Mississippi, but because she feared flooding she had decided to urge Richmond as the proper place for his tomb.[206]

After Davis's remains were exhumed in New Orleans, they lay in state for a day at Memorial Hall of the newly organized Louisiana Historical Association.[207] Those paying final respects included Louisiana Governor Murphy J. Foster, Sr. A continuous cortège, day and night, then accompanied Davis's remains from New Orleans to Richmond.[208] The Louisville and Nashville Railroad car traveled past Beauvoir, then proceeded northeastward toward Richmond, with ceremonies at stops in Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama, Atlanta, Georgia, then Charlotte and Greensboro, North Carolina. The train also detoured to Raleigh, North Carolina, for Davis's coffin to lie in state in that capital city, having been driven by James J. Jones, a free black man who had served Davis during the war and become a local businessman and politician. After a stop in Danville, Virginia, the Confederacy's last capital, and another ceremony at the Virginia State Capitol, Davis was then interred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. Per the association's agreement with Varina, their children's remains were exhumed from Washington, D.C., Memphis and another plot at the Hollywood cemetery, to rest in the new family plot.[209]

A life-sized statue of Davis was eventually erected as promised by the Jefferson Davis Monument Association, in cooperation with the Southern Press Davis Monument Association, the United Confederate Veterans and ultimately the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The monument's cornerstone was laid in an 1896 ceremony, and it was dedicated with great pomp and 125,000 spectators on June 3, 1907, the last day of a Confederate reunion.[210] It continues to mark his tomb.[211]


Postwar portrait of Jefferson Davis by Daniel Huntington
Postwar portrait of Jefferson Davis by Daniel Huntington

Jefferson Davis served in many roles. As a soldier, he was brave and resourceful.[54] As a politician, he served as a United States senator and a Mississippi congressman and was active and accomplished, although he never completed a full term in any elected position. As a plantation owner, he employed slave labor as did most of his peers in the South, and supported slavery.[23] This gave him heavy criticism in more recent years. As president of the Confederate States of America, he is widely viewed as an ineffective wartime leader; although the task of defending the Confederacy against the much stronger Union would have been a great challenge for any leader, Davis's performance in this role is considered poor.[125] After the war, he contributed to reconciliation of the South with the North, but remained a symbol for Southern pride.[7]

Some portions of his legacy were created not as memorials, but as contemporary recognition of his service at the time.

Fort Davis National Historic Site began as a frontier military post in October 1854, in the mountains of western Texas. It was named after then-United States Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. That fort gave its name to the surrounding Davis Mountains range, and the town of Fort Davis. The surrounding area was designated Jeff Davis County in 1887, with the town of Fort Davis as the county seat. Other states containing a Jefferson (or Jeff) Davis County/Parish include Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Jefferson Davis Hospital began operations in 1924 and was the first centralized municipal hospital to treat indigent patients in Houston, Texas.[212] The building was designated as a protected historic landmark on November 13, 2013, by the Houston City Council and is monitored by the Historic Preservation Office of the City of Houston Department of Planning and Development.[213] The hospital was named for Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, in honor of the Confederate soldiers who had been buried in the cemetery and as a means to console the families of the deceased.[214]

Numerous memorials to Jefferson Davis were created. The largest is the 351-foot (107 m) concrete obelisk located at the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview, marking his birthplace. Construction of the monument began in 1917 and finished in 1924 at a cost of about $200,000.[10]

Jefferson Davis
five-cent CSA
J. Davis on Stone Mountain
1970 issue

In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, a transcontinental highway to be built through the South.[215][216] Portions of the highway's route in Virginia, Alabama and other states still bear the name of Jefferson Davis.[215] However, in Alexandria, Virginia, the city council voted unanimously to rename the highway and has solicited public suggestions for a new name.[217] In Arlington, Virginia, that city's portion of the highway was renamed Richmond Highway in 2019.[218]

Davis appeared on several postage stamps issued by the Confederacy, including its first postage stamp (issued in 1861). In 1995, his portrait appeared on a United States postage stamp, part of a series of 20 stamps commemorating the 130th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.[219][220] Davis was also celebrated on the six-cent Stone Mountain Memorial Carving commemorative on September 19, 1970, at Stone Mountain, Georgia. The stamp portrayed Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson on horseback. It depicts a replica of the actual memorial, carved into the side of Stone Mountain at 400 feet (120 m) above ground level, the largest high-relief sculpture in the world.[221]

Jefferson Davis in National Statuary Hall

The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library was established at Beauvoir in 1998. For some years, the white-columned Biloxi mansion that was Davis's final home had served as a Confederate Veterans Home. The house and library were damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the house reopened in 2008.[222] Bertram Hayes-Davis, Davis's great-great grandson, was the executive director of Beauvoir, which is owned by the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.[223] until he resigned in 2014.[224]

Based at Rice University in Houston, Texas, The Papers of Jefferson Davis is an editing project to publish documents related to Davis. Since the early 1960s, it has published 13 volumes, the first in 1971 and the most recent in 2012; two more volumes are planned. The project has roughly 100,000 documents in its archives.[225]

The birthday of Jefferson Davis is commemorated in several states. His actual birthday, June 3, is celebrated in Florida,[226] Kentucky,[227] Louisiana[228] and Tennessee;[229] in Alabama, it is celebrated on the first Monday in June.[230] In Mississippi, the last Monday of May (Memorial Day) is celebrated as "National Memorial Day and Jefferson Davis's Birthday".[231] In Texas, "Confederate Heroes Day" is celebrated on January 19, Robert E. Lee's birthday;[229] Jefferson Davis's birthday had been officially celebrated on June 3 but was combined with Lee's in 1973.[232]

Robert E. Lee's United States citizenship was posthumously restored in 1975. Davis had been specifically excluded from earlier resolutions restoring rights to other Confederate officials, and a movement arose to restore Davis's citizenship as well. This was accomplished with the passing of Senate Joint Resolution 16 on October 17, 1978. In signing the law, President Jimmy Carter referred to this as "the last act of reconciliation" in the Civil War.[233]

More recently, in response to lobbying by activists for such statues and memorials to removed, some have been taken down based both on his support for slavery as well as his support for secession.[234] Some have argued that these removals devalue his other accomplishments.[235][236][failed verification]

Screen portrayals

In films and on television, Jefferson Davis has been portrayed by,

See also



  1. ^ a b Davis 1996, p. 6, states: "Thus it was with a touch of humor, leavened by wishful thinking, that the boy born to her on June 3, 1808, found himself endowed with the middle name Finis, testimony to his father's familiarity with Latin and both parents' hope that this baby would be their last." However, Cooper 2000, p. 10, writes: "His parents also gave him a middle name, which by early manhood he dropped completely; only the initial F. survived."; and again Cooper 2000, p. 711 n. 1, writes: "Some have also questioned whether Davis ever had a middle name. He used the initial at West Point, as did his mother in her will. Again, I assume that both would not have invented it ... No evidence supports Hudson Strode's claim that the actual middle name was Finis, signaling the final child."


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  236. ^ "Jeff Davis Highway to be renamed in Richmond". 8News. December 15, 2020. Archived from the original on January 19, 2022. Retrieved January 19, 2022.


Primary sources

  • Davis, Jefferson (2003). Cooper, Jr., William J. (ed.). Jefferson Davis: The Essential Writings.
  • Davis, Jefferson (1881). The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.
  • Rowland, Dunbar, ed. (1923). Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches. Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
  • Monroe, Jr., Haskell M.; McIntosh, James T.; Crist, Lynda L., eds. (1971–2012). The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Louisiana State University Press.

Further reading