Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com
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(Originally posted April 14, 2010)

Washington, D.C. was gloomy for a multitude of reasons when Jefferson Davis returned to the nation’s capital in March 1853 to join President Franklin Pierce’s Cabinet as Secretary of War.  Sectional crises were flaring up throughout the United States over slavery and state’s rights.  The threat of secession was spoken of in boardinghouses, the halls of Congress, and the White House.  The Compromise of 1850 was hanging on by a thread and the new President was in deep mourning over the tragic loss of his only surviving child who had been killed in a railroad accident while the Pierce family was en route to Washington for the inauguration.

President Pierce is not remembered for much else besides being terribly forgettable and a poor executive during one of the nation’s most trying eras, but he put together a solid Cabinet that, to this day, is the only Cabinet to remain intact throughout an entire Presidential term.  Jefferson Davis was reluctant to accept Pierce’s appointment as Secretary of War because his intention was to make another run for Governor of Mississippi in 1853.  Initially, Davis respectfully declined Pierce’s nomination citing commercial pursuits, an urge to contribute to Mississippi state politics, family concerns, and poor health, but the insistence of the President and the need for another advocate for state’s rights in President Pierce’s administration eventually led Davis to relent and accept the position.

There was perhaps no one more eminently qualified to control the War Department in 1853 than Jefferson Davis — a West Point graduate who served many years in uniform, a Mexican War hero, a well-known and well-respected politician with Congressional connections and legislative skills, and a close friend to the new President.  Davis’s personal abilities were also ideal for the bureaucracy that the War Department of the 1850’s had become with far-flung military outposts, frequent Indian skirmishes, political generals, supply difficulties, outdated modes of thinking and strategizing, and scores of Mexican War veterans settled throughout the ever-expanding United States. 

Davis was somewhat of a visionary and his biggest asset when he was commanding troops as a soldier was his engineering and organizational ability.  As Secretary of War, Davis attacked the inefficient War Department and the disorganized U.S. military with zeal and pushed forward ideas that were ahead of his time, brilliantly creative, and sometimes totally bizarre gambles which simply did not work.  By bringing a fresh perspective and new school of thought to the Cabinet, Davis was able to modernize and shape the military into a disciplined and efficient machine.  Some of Davis’s innovations as War Secretary made a significant impact on the Army and certainly helped prepare the military of the United States for their next conflict.  Unfortunately for Davis, he was on the wrong side of that next conflict and had to face the same military that he had very recently turned into a ferocious fighting force as Secretary of War. 

Davis’s tenure in the War Department was marked by the energetic efficience and frenetic pace that was a trademark of Jefferson Davis and his work ethic.  Immediately upon taking office, Davis set out to relearn everything he knew about the nation’s military and the citizen bureaucracy which administered it.  What he found was a tangled chain of distant frontier outposts and decrepit coastal fortifications and a force of less than 10,000 men scattered throughout the now-continental United States.  The ultimate management of all commissions, paperwork, supply, maintenance, payroll, and strategic military planning landed on the desk of the Secretary of War and his War Department workforce of less than 100 men.  Davis was in a position that begged for the delegation of some responsibilities, but Jefferson Davis was not one to delegate.  Today, we would call Davis a micromanager and that’s exactly what he did as War Secretary (and later as the Confederate President). 

One impact that Davis immediately made on the War Department was his refusal to play the patronage game long used by politicians who won elections and found themselves in power.  Instead of tossing out War Department employees with differing political views and replacing them with loyal Democrats, Davis made it clear that he would retain or hire people based only on merit, not their political ideology.  This caused some issues with his fellow Democrats — especially those in Congress who relied on patronage to honor debts and earn votes — and Davis ran into problems throughout his term because of his stubborn personality and constant attempts to keep the War Department as non-political as possible.   

Disagreements with Congress is something that most, if not all, high-ranking government officials end up doing at some point during their careers and clashes with other government officials was also to be expected of a man in Davis’s position with Davis’s temperament.  For the most part, these quarrels occurred privately and passed quickly, but the public was very aware of the long and vicious battle between Jefferson Davis, the civilian administrator of the War Department and United States Army, and Winfield Scott, the highest-ranking soldier in the nation and commanding General of the United States Army.

The feud between Davis and General Scott was not a new development fueled by President Pierce’s appointment of Davis as Secretary of War.  Davis had routinely criticized Scott since the Mexican War and Scott hated Davis because of Davis’s connection to Zachary Taylor.  The top two Generals during the Mexican War, Scott and Taylor were professional rivals and strongly disliked one another personally.  Taylor felt Scott was heavily favored by Democratic President James K. Polk which allowed Scott to be in a position of command for some of the Mexican War’s most important battles, and that the General received too much credit for things that he wasn’t responsible for.  Scott, in turn, was disgusted by Taylor’s relaxed command and tendency to dress sloppily and disregard the military’s uniform code.  Although he was a Democrat, Davis was steadfastly loyal to Taylor, his former father-in-law, and openly criticized Scott on numerous occasions. 

Taylor was the Whig nominee and elected President in 1848, but died in office less than two years later clearing the path for the anti-slavery Scott to make a run at the White House in 1852.  It was that election that Franklin Pierce emerged as a dark-horse candidate and trounced Scott on election day.  Jefferson Davis campaigned hard for Pierce, speaking in towns, writing articles, gathering endorsements, and once again criticizing Scott, using his platform to not only promote Pierce but to defend the now-deceased Taylor.  In one memorable speech, Davis called Winfield Scott, “proud, petulant, vain and presumptuous”.  Scott had detested Davis before the 1852 Presidential campaign and the feeling was mutual.  Now, the two men had to work together in the same building and Scott also had to work with the man who had just defeated him for the Presidency, Franklin Pierce.

The Davis-Scott feud exploded almost immediately after President Pierce’s inauguration when Davis refused to approve a request for reimbursement of travel expenses that the General submitted and questioned Scott about fuzzy expenses from the Mexican War that were still unaccounted for.  As they argued about money and military matters, Scott packed up his command and relocated his headquarters in New York — a move he had also made when Zachary Taylor was President and which confirmed the petulance which Davis had accused him of. 

Throughout Pierce’s term, the Secretary of War and the General-in-chief of the United States Army disagreed, argued, threatened, and accused.  Scott implied that he wasn’t accountable to anyone but the President, and Davis gave Scott a civics lesson on the chain of command.  The letters between the two men grew longer and longer and were filled with more bitterness and resentment as the years passed.  Some letters were over 30 pages long and so vicious that they likely would have forced a duel if Scott was the same age as Davis.  Scott, in fact, accused Davis of trying to instigate a duel.  In response, Davis taunted Scott, noting that the old General was “unwilling to act upon the sentiment which makes a gentleman responsible to any one whom he assails.”  Basically, the Secretary of War was implying that his General-in-chief was a coward.

Because of their hatred for one another and Scott’s decision to set up headquarters in New York, Davis and the General didn’t see one another in person more than once or twice during Pierce’s Presidency.  Still, the vitriol grew more-and-more vicious.  In one of their later exchanges, Davis wrote that Scott’s “petulance, characteristic egoism and recklessness of accusation have imposed upon me the task of unveiling some of your deformities marked by querulousness, insubordination, greed of lucre and want of truth.”  Scott ended his response to that attack with a taunting “what’s next?” and followed up in one of his final letters to Davis by noting “compassion is always due to an enraged imbecile.”  Davis ended their long war of words by simply writing that he was “relieved from the necessity of further exposing your malignity and depravity.”

With so much time and energy spent attacking Winfield Scott, it’s difficult to imagine Jefferson Davis being effective at his job, but Davis was perhaps the most active and influential War Secretary in United States history other than Lincoln’s Civil War-era Secretary, Edwin M. Stanton.  Davis embedded himself in every bureaucratic and ideological process involving the military and its future.  Setting out to eliminate waste and ensure that the officers in place were the best possible choices, Davis hired people, fired people, pushed people into retirement, and was the force behind every promotion or appointment from 1853 to 1857.  Much like his opposition to political patronage and reliance on the merit system, Davis disliked the Army’s seemingly corrupt and inefficient seniority system.  This tradition, however, was too entrenched for even Davis to circumvent and the seniority system remained (and remains) in place.

What Davis excelled at as Secretary of War was acting upon his imaginative ideas about modernizing and reorganizing the military and the military’s strategic planning.  He increased the size of the military, supplied the soldiers with better materials and more technologically advanced weaponry, redesigned uniforms and equipment, and instead of being the bureaucratic brick wall that the Secretary of War normally tended to be, Davis was actually the best advocate in Washington when it came to pushing for pensions for widows and orphans of soldiers who died in service to their country.  Davis also beefed up the weapon arsenals of armories throughout the nation, improved coastal fortifications, and championed road-building on the frontier and newly-acquired territories. 

In 1853, Congress assigned the War Department the task of scouting possible routes for a transcontinental railroad and Davis savored the opportunity.  Four different engineering expeditions set out towards the Pacific surveying the topography and searching for the best possible route for a transcontinental railroad.  Davis was excited about the reconnaissance parties because he expected the surveys to reveal a Southern route which would be ideal for railroad construction.  Sectional interests surely played a part in this expectation.  Davis knew that a Southern route for the transcontinental railroad would give the South a certain amount of economic leverage over Northern interests and trade, and railroad construction would encourage further growth and settlement in the slave states, which would result in more power for those states when it came to Congressional representation.  Unfortunately for Davis, the reconnaissances didn’t give him the definitive answer about the transcontinental railroad that he had hoped for.  While a Southern route to California through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona was possible, a Northern route appeared to be just as feasible, if not more.  Political squabbles about the transcontinental railroad and the sectional crises which led to the Civil War postponed a decision on the best route until Lincoln’s Presidency, and construction on the Northern route began in the 1860’s.     

As a reformer, Jefferson Davis often tried to buck tradition and approach running the military from a new direction, so it is no surprise that he was an innovator as Secretary of War.  Thinking of the soldiers in the field and his own experiences during the Mexican War, Davis designed uniforms that allowed soldiers to handle weather conditions better and worked hard at trying to provide his men with rifles that were more accurate, lighter to carry, and faster to reload.  When war broke out in the Crimea in 1854, Davis sent a trio of officers to Europe to observe the belligerent militaries in battle and studied everything from offensive and defensive maneuvers to supply and transportation in order to provide the United States military with the ability to study new strategic tactics and military sciences from the other side of the world. 

One of Secretary Davis’s most famous innovations was the creation of the United States Camel Corps.  After the Mexican War and the Gadsen Purchase gave the United States new territories in present-day Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, the military began fighting small skirmishes and wars with Indian tribes in that vast dry and arid climate.  Davis lobbied Congress for an appropriation in order to purchase camels to use as an experimental regiment.  Camels were better equipped to handle the desert climate, could go longer without water, and had the ability to not only provide transportation for soldiers, but also weaponry such as light infantry and cannon.  Some Congressmen openly scoffed at the idea, but it wasn’t a joke.  Napoleon had used camels in his Egyptian campaigns, and Arabs and Turks had long used them for military purposes.  In 1856 and 1857, several dozen camels were shipped to the United States and delivered to Texas.  For the most part, the camels worked extremely well.  They handled rough terrain better than horses and soldiers were impressed by their strength and endurance.  The problem was that camels were ill-tempered and soldiers were loyal to their horses and mules, who were less moody than the camels.  Also, the camels and horses were not able to work closely together as the camels frightened the horses when in close quarters.  Although the experimental Camel Corps continued after Davis left the War Department, the idea fell apart as the Civil War and the construction of railroads left the Camel Corps obsolete.  With the collapse of the Camel Corps, many of the camels were sold to private owners and some escaped into the desert.  As late as the 1940s, there were still reported sightings of wild camels in southern Texas.

As Secretary of War and perhaps the closest confidant of President Pierce, Davis exerted a powerful influence over the Cabinet and the government itself.  Some of his fellow Cabinet members felt that Davis and the President were too close and that Davis could do no wrong in Pierce’s eyes.  Pierce certainly entrusted Davis with many of the most important projects of his Presidency.  When Congress passed bills to expand the Capitol and construct a massive aqueduct to supply Washington, D.C. with water, Pierce ordered all construction to be handled by Davis’s War Department. 

Unsurprisingly, Davis was intimately involved with both construction efforts.  After helping to design the aqueduct, Davis made a speech at the groundbreaking ceremony where he shoveled the first piece of dirt.  With the Capitol expansion, Davis helped make decisions on some of the most intricate of details and even commissioned studies on proper acoustics for the Senate and House chambers.  Davis also closely scrutinized the design of the Liberty statue which crowns the dome of the Capitol to this day and objected to the first two proposals for Liberty’s headgear before selecting a crown of eagle feathers shaped like a helmet “without being a helmet (for that symbolizes war) and to serve as a cap without being a cap (for that belongs to manumitted slaves).”

Jefferson Davis was undoubtedly a great Secretary of War and superb manager of his governmental department.  He reorganized and modernized the military in many different ways, and helped bring innovations to the weapons the field soldiers carried and the strategies their commanders studied.  Davis worked tirelessly to improve the Army and put the best qualified men in the most important positions.  However, Davis’s term as Secretary of War also foreshadowed certain leadership deficiencies that crippled him as President of the Confederate States of America.  Davis was quick to argue and hold grudges with those that he disagreed with professionally or disliked personally.  His tendency to micromanage all aspects of his department and his inability to delegate even menial jobs to subordinates resulted in mistakes and miscalculations.  And despite his creativity and ingenuity and innovations, Davis was not progressive enough as a leader to inspire change in any other manner besides pushing his ideas through with his authority and power.  This resulted in political clashes and personality conflicts that haunted Davis and President Pierce throughout the entire Pierce Administration.

In 1856, the United States was descending towards Civil War and Franklin Pierce was unpopular even amongst his own party.  It became clear that not only would Pierce not be re-elected, but that the Democratic Party might become the first political party in American history to deny renomination to an incumbent President.  Davis was suggested by some as a potential Democratic nominee, but his loyalty to his close friend Pierce prevailed over his ambition for the highest office in the land.  Plus, it seemed impossible for any Southerner to be elected at that moment in the heavily-divided nation.  Pierce was a Northerner with Southern sympathies and he was being abandoned by his own party.  A Southerner with Southern sympathies probably had no chance.  President Pierce lost his bid at renomination and the Democrats replaced him with James Buchanan who replaced Pierce on March 4, 1857.

That same day, Jefferson Davis resigned as Secretary of War and took the oath to once again become a Senator from Mississippi.  The Mississippi State Legislature had elected Davis to the Senate and rejoining that forum gave the South a powerful voice in the sectional crisis which was dividing the nation.  The return to the Senate was marked by illness and difficult decisions, and just less than four years later, the United States dissolved into war.  

On the morning that their term ended, Jefferson Davis paid a visit to Franklin Pierce in the White House.  The men had grown very close in the previous four years.  President Pierce suffered from deep depression from his numerous family tragedies and drank heavily, but his mood was almost always brightened by paying a visit to the Davis home.  “May your days be many, your happiness great, and your fame be in the minds of posterity as elevated and pure as the motives which have prompted your official action,” Davis told the outgoing President and noted that he was saving copies of his correspondence with Pierce in order to give to his son “in remembrance of your much valued confidence and friendship for his father.”  When Davis officially tendered his resignation to the President, Pierce took his hand and warmly told Davis “I can scarcely bear the parting from you, who have been strength and solace to me for four anxious years and never failed me.”  Several hours later, James Buchanan was President, Jefferson Davis was once again a Senator from Mississippi, and Franklin Pierce was preparing to return home to New Hampshire.  Their next meeting would be nearly ten years later, in Jefferson Davis’s prison cell as Davis — also an ex-President by that time — awaited trial for treason.

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