Thesis: Jefferson Davis is a politician and a firm believer in state’s rights. While he did not seek out the office of the Presidency of the Confederacy, he humbly accepted the appointment. It was a platform that was aptly aligned to his lifelong dedication of preserving America, as it was envisioned by the founding fathers.
The life of Jefferson Davis is one that is based on Confederate idealism, while simultaneously seeking to preserve American values. Every event in his life appears to culminate in the eventual election as provisional President of the Confederacy. Davis’ inauguration occurred in February 1861 in Montgomery Alabama (Britannica Online, 2015). The significance of the inauguration is highlighted by a few prior historic events. On January 9th, 1861 Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union. With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the Union in 1860, it signaled a significant threat to slavery. Slavery represented a social and economic system too vital to the well-being South (The Road to War, 2015).
Subsequently, Davis represented a symbolism of Confederate defiance of the anti-slavery movement. This is highlighted by a Declaration from the Confederate Convention in (January, 1861), where slavery was equated with the greatest material interest worldwide (The Road to War, 2015). In terms of describing Davis’ personality, terms ranged from mild mannered to false and hypocritical. According to General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, he was a man fueled by self-absorption, narcissism, and malevolence. Linton Stephens, brother of the Confederate VP considered him canting, aspiring, and deceitful. Robert Toombs of Georgia who was an opponent during the Confederate Presidency election, viewed him as a scalawag (McPherson, 2014).
Jefferson Finis Davis was born in June 3, 1808 in Kentucky. He was the 10th child of Samuel Emory Davis, with Welsh ancestry. At age three the Davis family settled on a plantation (Rosemont) at Woodville, Mississippi. At seven he was sent to a Dominican school for boys in Kentucky, where he would remain for three years. When he was 13 he entered Transylvania College, in Lexington Kentucky (Britannica Online, 2015).
In terms of earliest influences that would have to be reserved for his father and President Jefferson. His father Samuel named him Jefferson to pay homage to the President and Davis to indicate his connection with the bloodline. Another influence for Davis was the Catholic influence which he gained while at the Dominican school in Kentucky. In fact, although he desired to adopt the faith of Catholicism as a young boy he was refused as premature (Warren, 1980). Still there is speculation that his logical views on history, law, and politics may have germinated during that period. Inevitably Transylvania University and his eventual appointment to West Point were equally vital in his development. Another influence was John C. Calhoun, the Secretary of War who was driven to champion the rights of states. (Warren, 1980).
Something pivotal occurred when he was 10 and attending Wilkinson Academy. He became annoyed at the rigors and discipline associated with learning. His father informed him that his life would be influenced by head work or hand work. After a day picking cotton, he realized his destiny was headwork returning to school (Canfield, 1978). Subsequently as a fifteen year old teen Jefferson received classical education at Transylvania College at Lexington, Kentucky. While there he learned Greek and Latin. He was remembered as being attentive, thoughtful, and extremely devoted to those he cared about. At approximately age 18, Jefferson’s father passed away. Upon receiving the letter from his Sister he dealt with the loss in a cerebral and stiff manner, describing it as “sad intelligence” (Canfield, 1978).
Davis can also be described as extremely mischievous. While attending West Point he endured eleven hour days that included nine hours of recitations, and two to four of drill and military exercises. During one military exercise a fireball was ignited causing the class to flee. However, his response was to grab the bomb and throw it out the window. This was a primary example of his truculent yet bold attitude (Canfield, 1978). There was another incident where cadets (including his friends Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston) conspired to make spiked eggnog. This led to discipline where Davis was subsequently sent to his quarters. Also, when he and Joseph Johnston fell in love it a local tavern keeper’s daughter they settled it by fighting. Davis being the smaller of the two lad’s lost the battle and had enmity with Johnston from that point on (Canfield, 1978).
Following graduation from West Point Jefferson Davis spent seven years in the Army. However his future was unclear due to his ranking from the academy which was twenty-third out of thirty-three. His passion for research on a number of topics, are attributed to his unimpressive showing. His first post was at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis where he was responsible for protecting settlers from the Indians (Canfield, 1978). Due to the severity of the winters he caught pneumonia so severe he never fully recovered. This would affect his health in the latter years eventually leading to neuralgia and blindness. In 1832 he had his first taste of battle when whites and Indian’s clashed during the Black Hawk War. Following the eventual success of the Black Hawk War Davis was promoted to first lieutenant and appointed regimental adjutant (Canfield, 1978).
Several years earlier Davis had met Colonel Zachary Taylor at Fort Crawford. Colonel Taylor had a beautiful daughter named Sarah Knox Taylor barely eighteen at the time. Although smitten at the time with Sarah, Davis was forbidden to marry her per Colonel Taylor’s wishes. Following the Black Hawk War (approximately two years later) Sarah and Davis were eventually married (Canfield, 1978). This occurred despite Colonel Taylor’s unyielding reluctance. The wedding occurred on June 17th, 1835. Several weeks later Davis who had become disillusioned with the military resigned after seven years of service. Enthralled with industry and innovation (i.e. the engine propelled by steam) provided Davis with a vision of an industrialized America (Canfield, 1978).
In July 1835 Davis and his new wife Sarah traveled to Mississippi to become Southern Planters. Joseph Davis the older brother of Jefferson had gifted him land, which Davis named Brierfield. Despite the warnings from her mother to avoid the area during the hot season due to the risk of a fever, Knox persisted. In route to Mississippi the new bride and groom stopped at Sarah’s sister’s home in Louisiana. However, Malaria had caused them both to become very ill. In an unfortunate turn of events Sarah died, three months from the marriage date on September 15th, 1835. For many years Davis grieved the loss of his first bride (Canfield, 1978).Despite the tragedy, he achieved success at Brierfield, particularly due to his treatment of his slaves. His philosophy of self-governance earned the respect of the slaves. He also abided by the belief that punishment should only occur after trial and conviction by a black jury. Despite this leadership approach, Davis maintained a belief that slaves were a divine albeit unequal gift provided to the white man by God (Canfield, 1978). This philosophical perspective on slavery and their role in society greatly influenced the position of the Confederacy including Davis.
Approximately ten years following the death of Sarah Knox, Davis fell for a beautiful young lady named Varina Howell. She was the daughter of a good friend of his William Burr Howell. Following a whirlwind courtship they were wed in 1845, settling in Brierfield. Davis remained an avid reader often settling down with works by John Locke, Adam Smith, Gibbon, and Hume. Davis was eventually transitioned to politics where he earned a seat in the House of Representatives in 1845. However, the following year Davis resigned his position to support the Mexican war. As a colonel of the Mississippi Rifles infantry regiment. Despite being injured during battle he remained on the field (Canfield, 1978).
In 1847, Davis became a U.S. Senator following the death of Jesse Spaight. During that same year the Wilmot Provisio was introduced in Congress. Although it scarcely missed becoming law, it sought to bar slavery from any area obtained from Mexico following the war. This was a precursor to the conflict that would eventually become that which divided the north from the south. From 1847-1853 Davis operated as a U.S. Senator for Mississippi. In 1853 President Franklin Pierce appointed Davis to the position of Secretary of War (Canfield, 1978).
Under President Franklin Pierce’s administration Davis became a prolific secretary of war. Accomplishments included engineering the Gadsden Purchase, increased the army from eleven to sixteen thousand, and explored rail connections from Mississippi valley to the Pacific (Canfield, 1978). Davis was also an advocate and facilitator in the development of advanced weapon systems. He also sought to reorganize the command structure. Additional accomplishments include founding the Smithsonian Institution. Davis was also a key supervisor in the expansion of the U.S. Capitol building (Swanson, 2011). Following four years of service as Secretary of War (1853-1857) Davis served once again in the Senate until January of 1961 (Gettysburg Staff Ride, 1999).
After Mississippi seceded from the Union in January of 1861 Davis briefly served as Major General of the State Militia. Several weeks later however he was appointed as provisional president of the Confederate Congress. The inauguration occurred on February 9th, 1961. That November 1961 the provisional label was removed and he was appointed to a six year term (Gettysburg Staff Ride, 1999). Davis was in an unenviable position as he embarked on a journey of which there was no precedence. In fact according to some scholars the issue the South had was not with the Constitution but rather its administration. The eventual seceding of the group of Southern States was to restore what they viewed as the veracity of the Constitution. In this sense the South and President Davis professed to pursue peaceful coexistence, as opposed to war (Quynn, 1959).
In essence the objective of the Confederate Congress was to uphold the rights of State’s to retain individual liberty and authority at the local level. They resisted with absoluteness of purpose the interference by a national body of government. Specific areas of demarcation included opposing views about property rights including slavery. President Davis’ efforts to send peace commissioners to meet with Lincoln and his federal administration were bluntly rebuffed (Quynn, 1959).
It is also noteworthy that the acceptance of an appointment to Provisional President was met with initial reluctance. This is more evident by Davis’ response to the telegram when he appealed to God to spare him from the responsibility. Although the appointment to Major General was appealing, it appears that he innately understood the trials that would come from acceptance to the post of President. His ultimate acceptance appears to be a result of his sense of duty and idealism. His appointed cabinet would include Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President, Robert Toombs, Secretary of State, Howell Cobb President of the Confederate Congress, and Judah P Benjamin Attorney General and Secretary of War (Canfield, 1978).
Due to the fact there was no previous blueprint for organizing the military leadership Davis assumed a micromanagement approach. His extensive background in the development of military would serve him reasonably well in this process. However, there were some initial blunders such as the first choice of secretary of war (Leroy P Walker) who eventually became overwhelmed by the position. It is notable that each of the cabinet members were selected from the first seven seceding states. Stephen R. Mallory as secretary of navy turned out to be a worthy selection as secretary of the navy. It was necessary to employ many of the slaves as part of the labor force in order to free the whites for military service (McPherson, 2011).
The war was initiated on April 12, 1861 when Confederates attacked Union soldiers at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The war officially ended May 13, 1865 (Palmito Ranch). Prior to that Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate army to Ulysses S Grant (Appomattox Courthouse) on April 9, 1865. From a macro perspective there were ten wars that are considered the bloodiest of the Civil War. These included Gettysburg (51,000 casualties) Chickamauga (34, 624 casualties), and Spotsylvania (30, 000) (Civil War Facts, 2014).
There are many factors that Davis was working against when he fought Lincoln and the North. One disadvantage was the sheer population difference (22 million in the North versus 9 million in the South) (Civil War Facts, 2014). This meant that realistically the North had at least double the number of soldiers to fight. Another huge disadvantage is the fact that the Confederacy had only twelve percent as much industrial capacity as the North. This was especially detrimental when looking at industries such as textile goods and iron. In fact, an 1860 Census estimated that the Union states had eleven times as many ships and boats, fifteen times as much iron, seventeen times as many textile goods, and thirty-two times as many firearms (McPherson, 2011).
Being aware of these glaring deficiencies and daunting statistics led Davis to try to creatively stock the required war supplies. However even with efforts to buy weapons and arms making machinery from the North the South remained at a disadvantage. This subsequently led to insufficient resources including arms, ships, and the required machines to produce more weapons. Another issue that Davis faced was the appropriate dispersing of military in each of the seceding states. While there were demands coming from far and wide Davis responded by reminding each state of the expansive territory and the limited resources (McPherson, 2011).
In terms of leadership style Davis was such a micromanager, he directly supervised the war secretaries usurping their authority. His direct leadership style even caused him to frequently visit the field for example at the First Manassas. He had volatile relationships with those under his authority such as Beauregard and Johnston. Also, he ran up against an anti-Davis faction within the Confederate Congress. Newspapers also proved to be a thorn in his side (i.e. The Richmond Examiner and the Charleston Mercury) denouncing key decisions by Davis (Gettysburg, 1999).
Following the loss of at Richmond President Davis stood defiant refusing to concede defeat. In fact Davis had moved the capital to Danville although capture appeared inevitable. On April 5th, 1865 he encouraged his men to not become disheartened by to trust God and stand strong in the face of adversity. However, this voice of optimism was quickly changed when he was informed on April 10th, 1865 that General Lee had surrendered at Appomattox just days earlier. The war had essentially reached an end, Lincoln and the North were victorious. This was just days before Lincoln would be tragically assassinated (Werstein, 1959).
Davis was eventually captured in May, 1965 at Irwinsville Georgia. He subsequently spent two years at Fort Monroe under suspicion of being partly responsible for the assassination of President Lincoln (Gettysburg Staff Ride, 1999). On August 21, 1965 Davis wrote one of many touching Prison Letters to his wife Varina Davis. In the letter he expressed the difficult challenge of being separated from the family and sought to lift her spirits. He also warned her of the two conditions of writing, that he discuss only family matters, and that the Attorney-General review the letters prior to distribution. He also maintained his innocence and shared of his limited knowledge on what the future held for him. Finally, he encouraged her regarding his condition, letting her know that he was in God’s hands (Davis & Strode, 1995). He was finally released May 13, 1967. He lived another twenty-two years eventually passing away in 1889 at the age of 82 (Gettysburg Staff Ride, 1999).
When reflecting on the legacy of Davis there varied positions. According to Swanson (2011) his presidency will forever be marred by the slave empire it symbolized and the deadliest war in our Nation’s history. In contrast those in the South viewed him as a revered hero albeit often misunderstood one. The courageous nature of Davis is further highlighted by his accomplishments under severe health conditions. For example the malaria that struck his first wife in 1835 subsequently affected him also. This resulted in frequent and often chronic illness that resulted in pain, nausea, and headaches (Swanson, 2011).
Eventually Davis experienced corneal ulceration in his left eye that resulted in blindness. He also suffered Dyspepsia which today would be referred to as a digestive malady. This of course had a compounding effect that resulted in poor eating habits, loss of appetite, and fluctuating weight. During the war for example he suffered from bronchial issues, sleeplessness, and boils. Other writers echoed similar sentiment often attributing his compounding maladies with the increasing stress and responsibilities of his office. This subsequently led to lengthy periods (i.e. weeks) of being stuck in bed. However, this did not prevent Davis from continuing his work duties (McPherson, 2014).
In April-May 1863 Davis experienced a tremendous illness during the Chancellorsville and Vicksburg campaigns. According to the War Department Clerk he had not physically gone to the office in thirty days. Regardless of this fact he sent the War department a total of fifty-five letters during that period. Each letter contained specific instructions regarding how he wanted them to operate. There was even speculation that in addition to stress psychosomatic issues may have added to the illness that he was enduring. This could have also accounted for the perceived cantankerousness and crabbiness that he periodically displayed in his personal relationships (McPherson, 2014).
The most touching legacy is that acknowledged by those closest. Winnie Davis on December 5th, 1889 wrote a heartfelt letter to her father. Since Davis did not want his children to know how serious his illness was it was unknown to her that her father would pass away on December 6th, 1889. In the letter Winnie expressed her sadness having not been present while her father was ill. She discussed how her family was doing and the delights that she was experiencing going to events like the Opera. Her letter returned to the anxiety she felt knowing that Davis was ill. She ends the letter with words expressing her love and devotion for her father. She was grateful for his unconditional love and honesty. She ended by affirming her devotion for the man who had left an indelible mark on her life and others (Davis & Strode, 1995).
"Civil War Facts." Civil War Trust. January 1, 2014. Accessed April 29, 2015. http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/faq/.
"Jefferson Davis Biography-President of the Confederate States of America." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Accessed April 28, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/print/topic/152783.
"The Road to War (1846-1860)." The Road to War (1846-1860). April 1, 2002. Accessed April 28, 2015. http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/206/the-road-to-war-1846-1860.
Canfield, Cass. The Iron Will of Jefferson Davis. New York, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Davis, Jefferson, and Hudson Strode. Private Letters, 1823-1889. New York, New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Gettysburg Staff Ride: Briefing Book. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1999.
McPherson, James M. Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. New York, New York: Penguin Press, 2014.
Quynn, Russell Hoover. The Constitutions of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, a Historical and Biographical Study in Contrasts. New York, New York: Exposition Press, 1959.
Swanson, James L. Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase for Jefferson Davis. New York, New York: Harper Perennial, 2011.
Warren, Robert. Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1980.
Werstein, Irving. Abraham Lincoln versus Jefferson Davis. New York, New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1959.
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