Jefferson Davis was the political head of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Jefferson Davis governed the Confederacy from the day the war broke out to the day it ended.
Jefferson Davis was born on June 3rd 1808 in Kentucky. He was educated in Louisiana and Mississippi. Both states were to become hubs of secessionist feelings in the lead up to the American Civil War.
After fours years at the US Military Academy, West Point (1824 to 1828), Davis served in the US army. He was forced to retire from the army due to ill health – he had contracted pneumonia while he served. He had also fallen out with his commanding officer – Zachery Taylor – who refused to give his blessing to his daughter marrying Davis. Regardless of this, both were married but it was short-lived happiness. His wife died of malaria and Davis became almost a recluse. He came out of his self-imposed exile in 1844 when he stood for the House of Representatives. He won the election and took his seat in 1845.
He resigned from Congress on the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846. He fought bravely in this was and after being wounded, his commanding officer – Zachery Taylor – is said to have told Davis that his late daughter was a better judge of men than he was.
After the war had ended, Davis resurrected his political career. Prior to this move, Davis overtly explained some of his own views. President James Polk offered Davis a commission in the militia with the rank of brigadier general. Davis turned it down stating that it was the preserve of states and states alone to make appointments to state militias and that what Polk was trying to do was interferring in the rights of states. It was to become a common theme in the run up to April 1861.
He continued his political career when the governor of Mississippi offered him the remaining years left on the tenure of the recently deceased Senator Jesse Speight. He took up the seat in December 1847. When this time expired, the Mississippi legislature electd him to serve again.
His political career then went off track for a while. In 1851, he resigned as Senator to run for Governor of Mississippi. He lost and found himself out of all offices. However, Davis remained in politics and spent 1852 campaigning in the South for Franklin Pierce in the presidential election. Pierce was successful and Davis was rewarded by Pierce with the post of Secretary of War. He held this post until the end of the Pierce administration in 1857. Having re-made himself at a very high political level, Davis once again entered the Senate in March 1857. In 1858 Davis made two public speeches against secession but events were moving very quickly at this time and gathered even more pace when Abraham Lincoln was elected President.
Davis believed that the South was in danger of being swamped with the ideas and beliefs of the North. He feared that the traditional way of life in the South was threatened by the powers that existed in Washington DC. However, he did not support the idea of secession, though he did believe it was the right of each state to decide for itself whether it should stay in the Union or not.
He left the Senate in 1861 when Mississippi formally withdrew from the Union and returned to the state. Here in front of the state legislature Davis argued against secession from the Union. However, he was outvoted and went with the majority decision. Why was Davis so anti-secession at this time? It is almost certain that his was a pragmatic approach. As a former Secretary of War, Davis would have known in great detail the potential military capability of the North compared with the South. Therefore, he would have known that one was far more able to conduct a long drawn out war than the other.
On February 18th 1861, Davis was elected as the provisional President of the Congress of the Confederate States. Before Fort Sumter was attacked in April 1861, he sent a Peace Commission to Washington, which offered to purchase Union land in the South and pay off the South’s share of the national debt. However, it unsurprisingly given the mood of the times, came to nothing.
Davis was formally elected President for a six-year tenure in office on November 6th 1861 and was inaugurated on February 22nd 1862.
Davis was very much the political head of the Confederacy and no one deemed it a useful move to challenge him in this role. His first move was to try to get European recognition for the Confederacy and to build up much needed trade with Europe. In this he failed. The North’s blockade of Southern ports was highly effective and there was little that Davis could do about it. The key result of this was that the South was constantly short of money and the situation got a lot worse as the war dargged on. They were up against an enemy that had a rapidly expanding industrial base, a much greater population base and a better (though not brilliant) financial position.
However, Davis believed passionately in the cause and many rallied behind him.
His powerbase ended when he fled Richmond rather than be taken prisoner in the city. On May 10th 1865, he was caught at Irwinville in Georgia. He was imprisoned in Fort Monrow until 1867. An attempt was made to try to indict Davis for treason in 1866 but nothing came of this and he was released on a bond of $100,000. In 1868, the case against Davis was dropped in the spirit of Reconstruction – it was felt that any trial and probable guilty verdict would inflame passions in the South again. Also if found guilty of treason, what would have been his punishment? If Davis was kept in prison for life, he could have been a figure people felt sympathetic for. If he was executed, again, it could have roused the South again. Simply releasing him neutralised this because he was now simply the man who led the South to defeat – and few would rally around that.
On his release from prison until 1878, he put his energy behind a number of unsuccessful business ventures. From 1878 until his death on December 6th 1889, he lived quietly near Biloxi in Mississippi. Jefferson Davis was buried in Richmond.