Jefferson Davis: Leader of the Confederacy

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
In 1861, the United States split into two warring sides. The Union to the North was headed by President Abraham Lincoln, while the Confederates in the South were led by Jefferson Davis. In April of that year, a battle broke out between the two sides at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. This marked the beginning of a long and horrific battle between Northern and Southern Americans. Today, Southern leader Davis holds a reputation as a steady and sometimes controversial figurehead of the Civil War. These are the events that built the leader of the Confederacy into the man we remember today.

Early Life and Family

Davis was born to Jane and Samuel Emory on June 8, 1808, in Fairview, Kentucky. He was the youngest of ten children, and named after President Thomas Jefferson, of whom his father was a great admirer. Throughout his childhood, the Davis family moved several times - from Kentucky to Louisiana to Mississippi. At an age when most young men would cease their education and move into the workforce, Davis’ older brother encouraged him to continue. In 1818, Davis began his studies at Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi.
When his education was complete, Davis attended the United States Military Academy at West Point. Graduating 23 of 33 students, Davis was not the star of his class. He became known for his role in the Eggnog Riot during Christmas of 1826, in which students snuck whiskey into the academy to make eggnog. Despite this, Davis still managed to graduate with some acclaim, landing him a place at the 1st Infantry Regiment at Fort Crawford in Michigan. He was assigned under Zachary Taylor, future president of the United States.
When Davis was 27, he fell in love with Sarah Taylor, the daughter of his commander. Upon seeking permission to marry her, Davis was refused, as her father did not want his daughter to have the life of military wife. David understood, but after consulting his brother, decided to resign from the military. He and Sarah wed on June 17 of 1835. Tragedy struck in August of that year, when the young couple contracted either malaria or yellow fever while traveling to Louisiana to visit Davis’ sister, Anna. Sarah succumbed to the illness, dying at the age of 21, just three months in her new marriage. Davis slowly recovered, but it’s thought that he never fully regained his strength.

The Beginnings of a Career in Politics

In October 1845, Davis decided to run for a position in the United States House of Representatives. He easily won a seat for the state of Mississippi. While he did step away to fight in the Mexican American War 1846, by 1847 he had returned to Congress. Honoring his achievements during the war, the governor of Mississippi appointed Davis to a vacant seat in the United States Senate. 

Jefferson Davis.The following year, Davis was named the chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. He hadn’t been in the Senate for even year when he resigned to enter the race for governor of Mississippi. At the center of his campaign was the Compromise of 1850, which deemed the territory gained from the Mexican American War as neither free nor slave states. Davis lost, but this did not stop him from being politically active. When Franklin Pierce became president, he appointed Davis as his Secretary of War in 1853. Under Davis’ guidance, the army saw an increase in wages, watched their numbers rise from 11,000 to 15,000, and began using the powerful rifles Davis favored during the Mexican American War.
By 1858, Davis was returning to the Senate, faced with the possibility of a secession of the South. He believed each state was its own entity, and had the right to leave the nation if it so chose. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president and South Carolina officially left the nation, Davis once again resigned from the Senate and returned to Mississippi. More and more states followed South Carolina’s decision, and the newly formed Confederate States of America needed a leader. In 1861, a constitutional congress met in Montgomery, Alabama, where they considered Davis and Robert Toombs of Georgia for president. Davis won easily, and was inaugurated on February 18, 1861.

The President of the Confederate States of America

From the beginning, Davis was adopting a daunting role in leading the American South in its secession from the Union. Throughout his presidency, he faced many difficult decisions. The first and one of the most symbolic was demanding the retreat of Union soldiers from Fort Sumter, making clear that if refused, Confederate troops would be forced to take militaristic action. On April 12, Davis gave the word to attack the Union forces at the fort. By the end of the fighting on April 14, the Confederate army had regained possession, and neither side had experienced any casualties.
Davis largely made major military decisions of his own. He had a small circle of advisors, but took their advice with a grain of salt. Some modern historians believe that this led to many crippling defeats of the Confederacy. The Battle of Antietam in Maryland, and the Confederate Heartland Offense in Kentucky stripped the Confederacy of valuable soldiers and artillery. The three-day battle at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania was also a devastating loss for the Confederacy.
After several such failures, Davis became the source of steep criticism from his peers. When he lost at Gettysburg, Vicksburg also fell, giving the Union army control of the Mississippi River. Davis was said by his generals to have been plagued with poor coordination and management of his army. Personal disputes with generals in the Confederacy led to a break in the line of leadership. He regularly spoke to politicians and generals but dismissed the general public. For Davis, this meant an inability to attain a sense of Confederate nationalism.

A political cartoon mocking Davis’ perceived treatment in prison.Between lower taxes in the South, little interest from Europe in Southern trade, and an inflation of 600% by 1864, Davis began witnessing riots from Americans in the South. People were robbing and looting stores, and accusing Davis of only having the interests of the rich and powerful at heart, yet Davis refused to back down.

Final Days in the Confederacy and His Death

 In April 1865, Davis received a note from his general Robert E. Lee revealing the final surrender of the Confederacy. Almost immediately, Davis and his cabinet made arrangements to flee to Havana, Cuba, where leaders could forge a new plan before returning to the states, though this plan never made it to fruition. When Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, his successor Andrew Johnson put out a $100,000 bounty for Davis, believing him to have been involved in the murder. On May 5, Davis officially dissolved his cabinet, therefore ending the Confederacy of the United States.
Davis and his family were captured that summer, and Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia. He was brought to trial and convicted of treason, and spent two years in prison before being released on a $100,000 bail. On Christmas Day in 1868, President Andrew Johnson pardoned every person convicted for their acts during the Civil War, including Davis.
The years following Jefferson’s release were met with economic and social strife. He eventually found work at the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Tennessee. In November of 1889, Davis developed a severe case of malaria from which he never recovered. He died on the evening of December 5. A funeral procession was held through downtown New Orleans, and he was later buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Virginia.
Throughout his career, Davis played many roles in the United States Government. His influence allowed him to easily win the bid for President of the Confederate United States, but his ill experience in coordinating and leading an opposition resulted in many critical losses during the Civil War. To commemorate his memory, many memorials to Davis have been erected in states across the nation that curious onlookers can visit today.