Skip to content

Confederate Leaders: Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis (1808 – 1889)

After West Point Davis spent the first seven years of his army career on the Northwest frontier. Eloping with Zachary Taylor’s daughter, he resigned as 1LT (1835) and settled down in Mississippi as a planter, his wife dying three months after their marriage. In 1845 he remarried and was elected the same year to the US Congress, resigning the following year to fight in the Mexican War. He was severely wounded at Buena Vista while commanding a volunteer regiment known as the “Mississippi Rifles.”

Davis declined the appointment of BG in the Regular Army in 1847 and instead was elected to the U.S. Senate. In 1853 he was appointed Secretary of War by Pierce, served four years then re-entered the Senate, serving there until Jan ’61, when Mississippi seceded.  Appointed MG of the State Militia, he was chosen provisional president of the government set up by the Confederate Congress at Montgomery, Ala., and inaugurated there on 9 Feb ’61. In November he was elected to a six-year term of the permanent government at Richmond and inaugurated on Washington’s Birthday in Feb ’62.

As the war progressed, Davis kept a close hand upon the management of the Confederate armies. His war secretaries served as little more than clerks as Davis supervised the affairs of the department. To Lee alone does he appear to have conceded preeminence. He made frequent trips to the field, arriving at First Manassas as the fight was ending, and was under fire at Seven Pines. Later he toured the Western Theater. His handling of high command was extremely controversial. There were long standing feuds with Beauregard and Johnston, and his defense of generals such as Bragg and Pemberton irritated many in the South.

David and his cabinet at the Confederate capitol, Richmond, VA

On the political front his autocratic ways fostered a large and well-organized anti-Davis faction in the Confederate Congress, especially in the senate. Issues arising from strong states rights sentiments did much to hamper Davis’ efforts. When the President suspended habeas corpus, some states reacted by refusing to hold prisoners arrested under the act. The Georgia legislature even “nullified” Davis’ act by declaring it unconstitutional. It was not uncommon for Confederate state governments to obstruct tax collection and to interfere with the process of conscription for constitutional reasons.

Newspapers proved to be a constant source of criticism of the government. The Richmond Examiner, The Charleston Mercury, and a number of other influential southern papers denounced the President regularly. Under these conditions Davis was never able to accumulate wartime powers in the Confederate Presidency such as Lincoln assumed in the North.

With the fall of Petersburg imminent Davis fled Richmond (2 Apr ’65) with his cabinet for Danville, calling on his people to resist to the last and promising the recapture of the capitol. After Lee’s surrender (9 Apr ’65) the group turned south, where Davis was captured one month later at Irwinsville, Ga. He was held for two years at Fort Monroe, accused of complicity in the Lincoln assassination. He was finally released (13 May ’67) and after travel in Europe, and several unsuccessful business ventures, he settled in New Orleans, where he died in poverty at the age of 82.

Note: Biographical information comes from the U.S. Army Center for Military History Gettysburg Staff Ride book.

Posted in Civil War.

Read Comments