Jefferson Davis
Timeline: Two Americas

Jefferson Davis
Portrait of Jefferson Davis

1st President of the Confederate States
February 18, 1961 - March 4, 1867

Predecessor none
Successor Alexander Stephens
Vice President Alexander Stephens
Born June 3, 1808
Christian County, Kentucky
Died December 6, 1889
New Orleans, Louisiana
Political Party Democrat
Profession Soldier, Politician

Jefferson Davis was a graduate of West Point Military Academy (class of 1828) and a veteran of the US Army. He would serve in the US House of Representatives, resign to fight in the Mexican-American War, and then return to Washington as a Senator. He was Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. When his home state of Mississippi seceded from the Union in January of 1861, Davis resigned only to be appointed and then elected the first president of the Confederate States of America.

Early Life

Born the tenth child of Samuel E. Davis and Jane Cook on June 3, 1808, young Jefferson was only a toddler when three of his older brothers fought in the Battle for New Orleans under General Jackson in 1812. He would go on to a career in the army himself, though, graduating from West Point in 1828. As a young soldier, though, he would not see battle.

While serving under General Zachary Taylor he would meet and fall in love with Sarah Knox Taylor. Since the general did not approve of the relationship, Davis resigned from the army (not having yet seen battle) and married Sarah. The two would contract malaria in Louisiana. Sarah died of the disease only three months after the wedding.

After eight years as a recluse, Davis emerged from obscurity to enter politics, becoming the Representative of the at large district of Mississippi. He served almost two terms, during which he met and married Varina Howell of Nachez. They were to have six children, only one of whom would present him with grandchildren. He resigned his seat in Washington to fight in the Mexican-American War. After Davis had been injured in the Battle of Buena Vista, President James Polk offered him a post over a militia brigade. Davis refused on constitutional grounds, believing that such a post was the state governor's to confer. It was that governor, in fact, that returned him to political office.

Political Career

Senator from Mississippi

The governor of Mississippi appointed Davis to fill a vacancy in 1846 and the legislature of Mississippi elected him to the seat in January of 1847. He rose in the ranks and was appointed chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs in 1849. However, he resigned his Senate seat to run for governor of Mississippi, losing by only 999 votes.

His political career was not over, however, for his campaigning for Franklin Pierce earned him the post of Secretary of War under that one-term president. At the end of those four years, in 1856, he won election once again as Senator from Mississippi. During this term, he was a voice of reason against talk of secession coming from other southern politicians. However, when Mississippi seceded from the union in January of 1861, he resigned and returned to Mississippi where the governor commissioned him to be a major general in the Mississippi army.

President of the Confederate States of America

Weeks later, the Congress of the CSA appointed him provisional president until elections could be held in November. He took office on February 18, 1861 and was elected as first president of the CSA in that election.

His first official act was to appoint a Peace Commission to go to Washington. The plan was to offer payment for all federal property within the CSA and the portion of the national debt that the states owed. The Commission was not authorized, however, to discuss reunion. At the same time, though, he had made sure that federal troops stationed within Confederate borders were put on notice to vacate those posts. When US Army Major Robert Anderson abandoned Fort Moultrie and secretly moved into the unfinished Fort Sumter (both near Charleston, South Carolina), he had no intention of surrendering to the new government's demands. By April, 1861, though, the fort was running out of supplies. When President Abraham Lincoln sent re-enforcements, the Battle for Fort Sumter began the War Between the States.

This War for Independence would wage for most of Davis' term as president. It saddened him as he saw men with whom he had served in politics and in battle fight each other to the death. He made frequent trips behind the lines to visit the troops and confer with his generals. Some analysts have even concluded that his decision to move the government to Richmond, Virginia, was the deciding factor in saving the Confederacy from destruction. His presence near the front lines would indeed prove the strongest factor in the determination and drive that kept the war out of the deep south until Sherman's campaign in May of 1865.

When General William T. Sherman had begun his march through Mississippi, however, he had stepped on "sacred ground" in the eyes of President Davis. The defense of Jackson became a priority as Davis personally traveled to within a hundred miles of the front. With General Robert E. Lee firmly in command of Virginia, and the Confederacy's best commanders facing Sherman in Mississippi, the Union forces were spread thin. Davis' choice to avoid crossing into US territory stood him well throughout 1865, though, and representatives from Washington began arriving in Richmond in January of 1866 to negotiate a ceasefire.

Ambassadors from both England and France began to mediate between the warring Americans in March, and hostilities began to slow considerably throughout 1866. On August 8th, a ceasefire was declared, and all US troops withdrew across the borders that had been established by the individual states at the time of their joining the Confederacy. An uneasy truce would hold for decades before an official "peace treaty" would be signed on May 8, 1885.

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