I sure have been getting a lot of questions lately that could easily be answered via Google or Wikipedia. Since I am a kind, helpful gentleman, I’ll answer it, though.
Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War — elected as provisional President for the first year by the provisional Confederate Congress. In November 1861, the people of the Confederacy elected Davis as their President. He ran unopposed and carried the electoral votes of all 11 Confederate states. The Confederate Presidency, like the Confederate Constitution, was largely modeled after the U.S. version. In the Confederacy, however, the President was limited to one, six-year term, so if the Confederacy had survived, Davis’s Presidency would have ended in February 1868.
As the war came to a close in April 1865, Davis and his family joined other top rebels and fled south, hoping to get out of the country instead of facing arrest and possible treason charges, which could have resulted in his execution. President Lincoln and General Grant actually hoped that Davis would make it out of the country so that the nation could work on healing rather than punishing Southern leaders. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson had no sympathy for Davis or top Confederate officials.
Some Confederate leaders did escape to Cuba, Mexico, Canada, and Europe, but Davis was captured by federal troops in May 1865 and imprisoned in harsh conditions in Virginia for two years as federal authorities decided what to do with him. He was charged with treason, but many were calling for his release, including Northern leaders and even abolitionists who had violently opposed Davis and the Southern slave states. Many of them helped contribute to a $100,000 bond which secured Davis’s release. Charges were eventually dropped and Davis lived until 1889.
On this day in 1889, the first and only President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, died at the age of 81 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Davis was one of the last surviving major political figures of the Civil War at the time of his death, and in the nearly quarter-century since Appomattox, Davis had spent a brutal year in federal prison before being released in 1866 and then tried to rebuild his reputation and finances in the remaining years of his life.
After his death on December 6th, Davis lied in state in New Orleans for several days and over 100,000 people paid their respects before he was buried in Metairie Cemetery. In 1893, the family of Jefferson Davis decided to exhume his body for reinterment in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The funeral procession from New Orleans-to-Richmond passed through many of the South’s biggest cities and was very similar to the funeral procession through the North of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. After the largest funeral in the history of the American South, Jefferson Davis was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery, near former U.S. Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler.
For obvious reasons, no official notice of Davis’s death was taken by the United States Government — the only time a former Secretary of War’s death had not resulted in an official tribute. While some other high-ranking members of the Confederacy later served in the U.S. Government — including Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens who was elected to Congress and Governor of Georgia after the Civil War — Davis was barred from holding elective office following the war. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter and the United States Congress posthumously pardoned and restored the citizenship of Jefferson Davis.
(Originally posted March 13, 2010)
The muddy waters of the mighty Mississippi River resembled a powerful waterfall that had been dyed brown and laid horizontally between the states of Mississippi and Louisiana as the raging currents tormented a steamboat in 1845. Just days prior to leaving office, President John Tyler had annexed Texas and the new President, James Knox Polk, was at the forefront of a charge headfirst into war with Mexico with the goal of territorial expansion in order to make the United States a truly continental nation. On the Mississippi steamboat were two men who would make a major impact on that war with Mexico and its aftermath.
It was a chance meeting. Neither man knew that the other was on board the steamboat until they shockingly stumbled upon one another. General Zachary Taylor, 60, was commander of the United States Army’s First Department at Fort Jessup, Louisiana. It had been over ten years since one of his highly-regarded subordinates, Jefferson Davis, fell in love with his daughter while he was stationed at the same Wisconsin frontier fort as the Taylor family. It had been ten years since Davis and that daughter, Sarah, eloped and were married in Kentucky. And it had been ten years since that daughter was stricken with malaria and died just three months into her marriage. Zachary Taylor would have been satisfied with never seeing Jefferson Davis again, but ten years later, the son-in-law he never wanted was standing in front of him on a steamboat in the middle of the Mississippi.
In the ten years since his beloved wife’s tragic death, Jefferson Davis had created a successful and quiet career as a cotton planter at his plantation, Brierfield, near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Davis spent most of his time on his plantation, rarely heading into town, rarely visiting with guests. His health was precarious after barely surviving the strain of malaria that killed Sarah, and his heart was broken. Davis reclusively spent several years grieving and working and mastering the business of planting and farming and overseeing his property — property which included slaves.
Yet Davis — a West Point graduate and former soldier — hungered for more than life on a plantation. Davis wanted to serve his country and was interested in politics. When he wasn’t working his plantation, Davis studied his collection of books, especially those concentrating on history, law, and political theory. With his older brother and neighbor, Joseph Emory Davis, Jefferson launched into political discussions and his eye wandered towards political opportunities. Davis began corresponding with local and state officials in Mississippi and his name became one of interest in Mississippi politics.
In December 1843, Jefferson Davis met Varina Howell at his brother Joseph’s home, Hurricane plantation. Davis was captivated by Howell’s charm and beauty, and Varina was equally impressed by Davis. At just 17 years old, Varina was 18 years younger than Jefferson upon meeting each other and the age difference caused some difficulty for a potential romance, particularly with Varina’s parents who were barely older than Davis. A month after meeting Varina, Jefferson proposed to her. When he asked permission from Varina’s parents, he found the same stonewall that he faced when asking for Sarah Knox Taylor’s hand in marriage. This time, however, it wasn’t Jefferson’s military background that caused problems; it was the age difference and the fact that Davis was an active Democrat while the Howell family were loyal Whigs.
The Howell family eventually relented and gave their blessings to the young couple. Jefferson Davis and Varina Howell were married on February 26, 1845 at the Howell family home, The Briars, in Natchez, Mississippi. This time, the bride’s parents were in attendance, but once again no one from the Davis family showed up for the wedding. After the wedding, the Davises headed south to Davis’s sister’s home in Louisiana — the same home that Sarah Knox Taylor died while visiting immediately following Jefferson’s first wedding. Davis and his second wife paid their respects at Sarah’s grave and managed not to be stricken by illness as they continued south to New Orleans and back to Brierfield.
The newlyweds faced troubles during the early years of their marriage and one of the biggest struggles was Jefferson Davis’s entry into the world of Mississippi politics. After several years of “retirement” at Brierfield following Sarah’s death and before his marriage to Varina, Davis was ready to enter the arena and serve his state. In 1844, Davis was selected as a Presidential elector by Mississippi’s Democratic Party and he campaigned vigorously for the election of James K. Polk, the eventual President. His work as a Presidential elector made his name well-known in Mississippi and he was elected to his first political office as a member of the United States House of Representatives.
Just months after marrying Varina, Davis went to Washington to take his seat in the United States House of Representatives. Davis arrived in Washington as the fever for war with Mexico was rising and he was certainly one of President Polk’s biggest supporters in Congress. In May, Davis voted to declare war on Mexico and shortly afterwards, he was named colonel in command of the 1st Mississippi Regiment. Resigning his seat in Congress, Colonel Davis headed home to Mississippi and assumed command of his regiment in New Orleans before they sailed to Mexico in September 1846.
The words and tone and emotions of the surprise Mississippi steamboat summit between Jefferson Davis and Zachary Taylor are lost to history, probably because their conversation was private and held in a segregated area of the boat to protect themselves from eavesdroppers. Whatever was said mended the strain in the relationship between the two men who Sarah Knox Taylor had loved the most and a friendship, if not a familial relationship blossomed from that point forward. Always respectful of General Taylor, the Jefferson Davis who emerged from the steamboat meeting was a loyal friend of Taylor for the rest of their lives. Taylor, too, felt a kinship with Davis and would later write to Davis that he considered Jefferson and his brother “near and dear relatives”.
When Davis took command of the 1st Mississippi regiment about 18 months after his emotional reunion with Zachary Taylor, he found himself playing a waiting game in Mexico while other American forces moved forward in order to support, supply, and attack. General Taylor and Colonel Davis were reunited once again at the Battle of Monterrey and Davis proved himself to be as good of a soldier as his superiors had suggested he was when he was stationed on the frontier after graduating from West Point. Davis’s soldiers fought hard for their commander and Davis himself was a brave and active soldier.
Not content with merely ordering his troops into battle, Davis threw himself into skirmishes and fought with daring in dangerous situations. At the Battle of Buena Vista, Davis fought with great bravery and — with the help of future Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s artillery — played a major role in the Zachary Taylor’s Army’s victory against the Mexicans. During the battle, Davis was shot in the foot and, severely wounded, had to be placed on his horse by soldiers. When it was suggested that he leave the battlefield, Davis refused and despite the protestations of other soldiers, remained in the saddle until victory was certain. When the fighting ceased, Davis was commended for his performance and his once-reluctant former father-in-law General Zachary Taylor said, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I.”
Towards the end of the war, President Polk promoted Davis to the rank of brigadier general. Foreshadowing his arguments during secession debates and the Civil War, Davis refused Polk’s appointment, arguing that a militia appointment by the President was unconstitutional and that those powers belonged to the states, not to the federal government. A month after declining President Polk’s commission in 1847, Davis was appointed by the Governor of Mississippi to temporarily fill a vacant seat in the United States Senate. In 1848, Davis won an election to fulfill the remainder of the term of the Mississippi Senate seat he was appointed to.
Senator Davis quickly became very powerful in Washington. He was a genuine war hero and a passionate defender of state’s rights. He carried himself with effortless dignity and was considered a gentleman and honorable soldier. Davis had great integrity and was widely respected by his fellow Democrats and his rival Whigs. Also, Washington took notice that Jefferson Davis was extraordinarily close with the new President of the United States — even though they were from completely different political parties and held some very different opinions on the future of the United States.
James Knox Polk was extraordinarily popular and not even 50 years old on Election Day 1848, but he had committed himself to just one term as President. Polk had orchestrated the Mexican War, prosecuted it to its conclusion, and achieved his goal of westward expansion for the United States. Polk was reed-thin with long, straight gray hair that draped across his shoulders and deeply set, brooding eyes which were filled with melancholy and surrounded by dark rings. An Andrew Jackson-protege from Tennessee, Polk had no friends, no hobbies, no children, and no interests besides working constantly and without vacation. The meticulous diaries he kept during his Presidency show him to be ambitious, driven, impatient and sometimes petty, but Polk followed through on every campaign promise he made and worked himself so hard that he died just three months after leaving office.
Polk’s single term commitment and the U.S. victory in the Mexican War opened the field up to potential Presidential candidates, but it was clear that a war hero was what the American people were hoping to elect. In General Zachary Taylor, they found a man that they respected and admired and who epitomized leadership and strength to a growing nation. Taylor, however, had never shown any interest in politics. In 40 years as a soldier, Taylor had moved around dozens of times throughout the country to frontier outposts, territorial headquarters, and isolated forts. At 62 years old, Taylor had never even voted in an election let alone stand as a candidate for election. Both parties — Democrats and Whigs — were interested in making Zachary Taylor their candidate and both parties feared that he would join the opposition. In the end, General Taylor declared himself a Whig — mostly because he didn’t like the way he was treated by the Democratic President Polk during the war — and in November 1848, he won a resounding victory.
Jefferson Davis was a loyal Democrat and pledged his support to his party’s candidate, Lewis Cass, but Davis did not campaign for Cass as he had in 1844 for Polk. In a letter to Taylor, Davis outlined why he was supporting his party’s nominee and assured his former father-in-law that his support was strictly along party lines, not anything personal. Taylor understood Davis’s political quandary and appreciated his letter, but he didn’t need Jefferson Davis to beat Lewis Cass. In March 1849, Zachary Taylor was sworn in as the 12th President of the United States.
Throughout 1849 and 1850, Davis advised his father-in-law despite their political differences. Davis very much wanted President Taylor to succeed and was one of his closest confidants as the nation debated the admission of states carved out of the new territory gained during the Mexican War. Southern states were seeking to allow new states to choose their destiny and be admitted to the union as slave states, but northern states were seeking to limit slavery to the Southern states already holding slaves and to exclude the possibility of slavery in the new Southwestern territories acquired from Mexico. Davis was a strict and passionate defender of state’s rights and slavery and was one of the leaders of the Southern fight to help slavery gain a foothold in New Mexico and Utah, if not all the way to the Pacific Ocean .
President Taylor was a slave-owner from the South — the last President to own slaves while in office — and, though he was a Whig, Southerners and Democrats hoped that he was a member of their constituency and would support their efforts to protect slavery. However, Taylor felt that slavery had no place in the new territories and states being created from the spoils of the Mexican War that he had helped win. Angry Southerners felt betrayed and threatened rebellion and Taylor threatened to personally lead the Army to quash any possible rebellion by his fellow Southerners, stating that he would hang rebels “with less reluctance than I had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.”
Jefferson Davis was in complete disagreement with his former father-in-law and close friend, but they attempted to work together to find a middle ground as Congress attempted to push through compromises, measures which eventually became the Compromise of 1850. Davis opposed the Compromise of 1850, proposing that slavery be allowed to flourish in from coast-to-coast in all states located below the Missouri Compromise Line of 1820 (36º30’ N) and demanding nationwide compliance with returning fugitive slaves to the owners that they had escaped from. Davis was fighting a losing battle with the Compromise of 1850, but he never wavered from his beliefs and he continued working closely with President Taylor to find the best course for the preservation of the union.
On July 4, 1850, President Taylor sat through a couple hours of patriotic Independence Day speeches at the Washington Monument, which was under construction at the time. It was a blistering hot day, but Taylor had spent hours in the heat in Mexico and didn’t seem particularly affected by it, taking a leisurely stroll near the White House with friends and family following the Independence Day festivities. When Taylor returned to the White House, he ate a large bowl of cherries, which he washed down with iced milk. Several hours later, he summoned his doctor, complaining of cramps.
Over the next few days, President Taylor’s condition worsened and doctors worked frantically to help him recover. Weakened by diarrhea and vomiting, it quickly became clear to Taylor himself that he would not survive. At his bedside throughout the final hours was Jefferson Davis — his political opponent, the man who he didn’t want to allow his daughter to marry, his Army subordinate, his loyal friend. Details are sketchy, but some historians believe President Taylor’s last words were spoken to Davis, “I am about to die. I expect the summons very soon. I have tried to discharge my duties faithfully. I regret nothing, but I am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.” Shortly before 11:00 PM on July 9, 1850, Taylor died at the age of 65, and was succeeded by his Vice President Millard Fillmore.
On July 13, 1850, Zachary Taylor’s funeral was held in the East Room of the White House that he had moved into just one year earlier. The newly inaugurated President Fillmore was in attendance and Taylor’s pallbearers included such political giants as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and his opponent in the 1848 Presidential election, Lewis Cass. Seated prominently amongst Taylor’s family was the son-in-law that “Old Rough and Ready” never wanted — Jefferson Davis.
Davis and Taylor both opposed the Compromise of 1850 for different reasons. Davis’s opposition was due to his belief that a further restriction on slavery would result in a loss of state’s rights amongst the Southern states that already held slaves. Taylor’s opposition was because he felt compromise would only temporarily postpone a sectional crisis that might lead to an eventual civil war. Taylor’s successor, President Fillmore, was not opposed to compromise and following Taylor’s death, the Compromise of 1850 was pushed through Congress and signed by Fillmore. As Taylor had predicted, it only delayed a sectional crisis which flared into the Civil War a decade later.
In 1851, Jefferson Davis resigned from the Senate to campaign for Governor of Mississippi, narrowly losing to his Senate colleague Henry Foote. Davis and Foote were Mississippi’s two Senators, but they did not enjoy a close relationship. On several occasions, the two men clashed violently and came close to settling their differences in a duel. On Christmas Day 1847, a disagreement after breakfast at the boardinghouse they both roomed in resulted in Davis attacking Foote before the two men were separated by friends. Their argument continued and Foote punched Davis, but despite his still-injured foot from the Mexican War, Davis was more imposing physically, knocked Foote to the ground and beat him senseless until he was pulled off by friends and other boarders. Fuming, Davis threatened to kill Foote, but tensions cooled and they somewhat tolerated each other for the remainder of their service together in the Senate.
After resigning from the Senate and losing his gubernatorial bid in Mississippi, Davis was left without a political office, but he kept busy writing and speaking throughout the South. Returning to his Brierfield and managing his plantation was something that he had looked forward to doing, and he was able to spend more time with Varina and they welcomed their first child, Samuel, in 1852. As the 1852 Presidential race heated up, Davis wholeheartedly threw his support behind Franklin Pierce, a friend whom he had met in 1838 and a fellow veteran of the Mexican War. Pierce was a northerner from New Hampshire, but pro-slavery. In fact, Pierce’s support for slavery and state’s rights were so well aligned with the South that he was championed over many Southern candidates for the Democratic nomination by Southerners themselves.
Davis energetically campaigned for Pierce against the Whig candidate, General Winfield Scott, another Mexican War hero, but not quite as popular as Zachary Taylor was four years earlier. In November, Pierce routed Scott and won the Presidency, and Davis’s support for the President-elect was not forgotten. Davis had planned on running for Governor again in 1853, but Pierce wanted to offer him a spot in his Cabinet and Southerners urged Davis to accept so that the state’s rights voice was strong within the executive branch. Shortly after his inauguration, President Pierce offered Davis the War Department and Davis accepted.
So, in March 1853, Jefferson Davis was 44 years old and once again a close confidant of the President of the United States. More importantly, he was a powerful voice within the federal government for the state’s rights argument being made by the Southerners in the lead up to the Civil War. He was also Secretary of War, in charge of one of the most important and influential departments in the entire United States government.
Over the next four years, Secretary of War Davis worked closely with President Pierce to build the War Department and modernize the United States military. Davis built a stronger, faster, better organized force and implemented procedures and strategies never before used within the American military. Beginning in 1853, Davis began crafting and shaping a fiercely efficient fighting force that would — in less than a decade — help destroy the rebellion that Davis was destined to soon lead.
(Originally posted March 11, 2010)
The term “American” has been genericized over the past two centuries, much like people classify all tissue as “Kleenex” or label all cola soft drinks as “Coke”. “American” is the label given to the people of the United States, mostly because we “Americans” hijacked the term even though there are North Americans, Central Americans, South Americans, and Native Americans. Technically, there have been scores of American Presidents, but only 43 men have served as President of the United States of America (Barack Obama is President #44, but don’t forget — Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms, so he was #22 and #24).
However, there was one American President born within the borders of this country who also ruled as a President within the borders of this country — an American President ignored in most books on Presidential history despite leading his country during a great war. He isn’t pictured on any currency and his face isn’t etched into Mount Rushmore, but it is etched into Stone Mountain in Georgia, and there are states that built statues of him and celebrate his birthday as a holiday. If you go to the White House in Washington, D.C., you won’t find his portrait, but if you go the White House of Richmond, Virginia, you will find one amongst plenty of other artifacts. His role in history is heavily debated and sometimes forgotten, but he was an American President during this country’s most difficult time period and his name was Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.
Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808 in what was then Christian County, Kentucky, but is present-day Fairview, Todd County, Kentucky. Davis was born less than a year and about 100 miles away from where his future adversary Abraham Lincoln was born. Davis was the tenth and final child of Samuel and Jane Davis, which is why he was likely given the middle name Finis — Latin for “the end”. Samuel Davis served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and spent time in Georgia and South Carolina before moving to Kentucky approximately 10 years before their youngest son was born.
Following Jefferson’s birth, the Davis family spent time moving around Kentucky and Louisiana before finally settling in Mississippi where Jefferson started school at the age of 5. Davis entered Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky in 1823, but left to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1824 when he received an appointment from President James Monroe.
Jefferson Davis’s four years at West Point were difficult. Samuel Davis died as Jefferson entered the military academy, and the young cadet looked to his older brother, Joseph Emory Davis, as a father figure and for financial support. Davis also had an issue with authority and with the rigid regulations of the United States Army. In 1828, Davis graduated 23rd out of 32 classmates and had 327 demerits on his record, including violations for insubordination, absence, inattention, neglect of duty, spitting on the floor, public drunkeness, firing his musket from the window of his room, unecessary noise, having his hair too long at inspection, and dozens of other reasons. In comparison, the man who would later become Davis’s top General during the Civil War — Robert E. Lee — graduated the following year second in his class and had a grand total of zero demerits on his record. While at the academy, Davis arrested twice for alcohol-related incidents — in 1825, he was court-martialed for visiting Benny Haven’s pub and on Christmas Day 1826, Davis was arrested and confined to his quarters for his part in providing the alcohol to cadets that was the catalyst for the “Eggnog Riot”.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant upon graduation in 1828, Jefferson Davis was assigned to frontier military posts in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, and eventually attached to the First Infantry Regiment in Fort Crawford, Wisconsin under the command of Colonel Zachary Taylor. Taylor commanded the First Infantry during the Black Hawk War of 1832, and while Davis didn’t actually see combat during the war, he was placed in charge of escorting the captured Chief Black Hawk to prison in St. Louis, Missouri when hostilities ended.
While stationed in Wisconsin under the command of Taylor, Davis’s behavior as a soldier was better than his behavior as a cadet at West Point, yet he still found himself running into trouble and adhering to the rules and regulations of army life. Davis squabbled with his superiors and some colleagues from time-to-time, and after a run-in with Major Richard Mason, Davis was arrested, charged with insubordination, and court-martialed in February 1835. While the tribunal in charge of Davis’s trial found him guilty of several acts of insubordination and unbecoming conduct, they also decided that these acts did not constitute criminality and acquitted him. Following the court-martial, Davis requested a furlough from the military for personal reasons and resigned from the Army several months later.
Despite his troubles with Army colleagues and superiors, rules and regulations, Jefferson Davis was highly-regarded as a soldier. Colonel Zachary Taylor had promoted him and thought well of his military abilities. Lieutenant Colonel David Twiggs — who served with Davis at Fort Winnebago, Wisconsin — requested that Davis be assigned to his command in New Orleans in 1835, writing “I have no hesitation in saying that he is as well, if not better qualified for that duty, than any officer of my acquaintance.” And, Brigadier General Matthew Arbuckle — the man who presided over Davis’s court-martial — reluctantly accepted Davis’s resignation from the Army, noting that Davis was “a young officer of much intelligence and great promise.”
The court-martial bruised Davis’s pride and honor as a soldier and gentleman, but it wasn’t the main reason behind his resignation. Davis’s older brother, Joseph Emory, was a successful planter in Mississippi and Davis wanted to take advantage of business opportunities to make some money and begin a family. Plus, Davis had fallen in love, and this love had also caused a strain with a powerful military colleague.
In Fort Crawford, Wisconsin, Jefferson Davis was second-in-command to Colonel Zachary Taylor. Taylor — who would eventually be elected President of the United States in 1848 — liked Davis personally, considered him a skilled soldier, and felt that the young lieutenant had a great future ahead of him in the military. At some point in 1832, Davis met Taylor’s 18-year-old daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Davis and Sarah fell in love and began spending time together, but Zachary Taylor opposed of the romance. When Davis asked permission of Colonel Taylor to take his daughter’s hand in marriage, Taylor refused and banned Davis from visiting his home as a guest. A lifelong soldier himself, Taylor knew that Army life — especially on the frontier — was harsh and unhappy. Although his oldest daughter had married a soldier, Taylor stated, “I will be damned if another daughter of mine will marry into the Army. I know enough of the family life of officers, I scarcely knew my own children or they me.”
Professionally, the relationship between Zachary Taylor and his subordinate remained strong mainly because Taylor thought so highly of Davis’s abilities as a soldier. Personally, however, there was great animosity when Taylor refused to give his blessing for Davis to marry Sarah and then forbade them to visit each other. Davis and Sarah resorted to the help of friends in order to meet quietly within the small confines of Fort Crawford, but their love continued to flourish. In 1833, they became engaged and hoped that Colonel Taylor would eventually relent and give them his blessing.
He didn’t. Taylor, in fact, promoted Davis to first lieutenant with the Dragoons at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. While this could have been a strategy to post Davis far away from his fiancee in Wisconsin, there is no evidence that Taylor acted in any manner that was harmful to Davis’s military career. As he said many times, Taylor believed Davis was an exceptional soldier and the promotion to the Dragoons regiment was offered as a professional courtesy, not to further a personal vendetta. Davis himself was honored by and happy with the promotion, and accepted his new position with zeal.
Though separated by distance and finding themselves apart for over two years, Jefferson Davis and Sarah Knox Taylor’s love for one another did not dissipate. They wrote letters to one another and though Davis was worried that Sarah would marry someone else, her feelings for him never weakened. Sarah’s letters reassured him that she wanted to marry him, but Davis was almost apologetic to her because he realized that Zachary Taylor would never give them his blessing and their eventual marriage might separate Sarah from her family and friends.
It was not until after Davis resigned from the Army following his court-martial in February 1835 that he was able to reunite with Sarah. Knowing that they could not meet in Wisconsin and finding St. Louis undesirable, Davis and Sarah were reunited in Kentucky and planned for the wedding. Hoping to receive a last-minute blessing from her father, Sarah talked with Zachary Taylor just before she left Fort Crawford, Wisconsin on a steamboat to Louisville. Taylor was still opposed to the marriage, but not as adamantly as he previously was.
When Sarah’s steamboat departed Fort Crawford, Zachary Taylor wrote two letters. The first letter was to his sister in Louisville, stating that if Sarah was determined to marry Jefferson Davis, he would accept her decision and hoped that his sister would host the wedding at her home in Louisville. The second letter was to Sarah and was a “kind and affectionate letter” which included “a liberal supply of money”, according to Sarah. Sarah was grateful for her father’s letter and support, but it was clear that her parents were still not pleased with her decision to marry Davis and they did not attend the wedding. On the day of her wedding, Sarah wrote to her mother, “I know you will still return some feelings of affection for a child who has been as unfortunate to form such a connexion without the sanction of her parents; but who will always feel the deepest affection for them whatever may be their feelings toward her.”
On June 17, 1835, Jefferson Finis Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor at Beechland, the estate of the bride’s widowed aunt near Louisville, Kentucky. Along with the bride’s parents, nobody from Jefferson Davis’s family attended the wedding. Sarah’s aunt, of course, hosted the wedding, but she also was grateful for the attendance of her older sister Ann and her husband, numerous cousins, and two of Zachary Taylor’s brothers. Sarah’s cousin, Richard Taylor, served as Jefferson’s best man.
Following the wedding, the newlyweds left Louisville and may have visited St. Louis before heading to their new home near a bend in the Mississippi River in Mississippi called Davis Bend. While the young couple got settled and started building their home at Davis Bend, they stayed with Davis’s oldest brother and the primary landowner of Davis Bend, Joseph Emory Davis and his wife. Jefferson threw himself into the work of planting crops and beginning his career as a Mississippi planter and Sarah enjoyed her role as a wife and partner in this new life that the young couple was building together. While she missed her family and wrote to her siblings, Sarah felt happy with her husband and hopeful about their future. In a letter to her mother on August 11, 1835, Sarah wrote, “Do not make yourself uneasy about me, the country is quite healthy.” It was the last sentence she ever wrote or spoke to her parents.
Shortly after Sarah sent her letter to her mother, she accompanied Jefferson on a trip south to meet Jefferson’s sister, Anna Smith, and stay at her home Locust Grove in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Soon after their arrival in Louisiana, Jefferson became ill and Sarah began showing signs of sickness the very next day. Both husband and wife were ravaged by high fevers and chills, and it quickly became clear that they were suffering from malaria. Jefferson and his wife were quarantined in separate rooms and after several days both were suffering from delirium and near-death. On September 15, 1835, Jefferson awoke from his state of delirium to the sound of Sarah singing her favorite song, “Fairy Bells”. Struggling to rise from his sickbed, Davis reached the side of his beautiful, 21-year-old wife just as she died. They had been married for only 90 days.
Sarah was buried at Locust Grove and Jefferson was devastated. He was also gravely ill with malaria and his survival was not expected, but about a month later he had recovered enough to return home to Mississippi before traveling to Havana, Cuba to further rehabilitate his health. For the rest of his life, Davis suffered from recurring fevers and chills that were related to the strain of malaria that sickened him and killed his wife in 1835. For the rest of his life, Davis also grieved over the loss of Sarah Knox Taylor. Over fifty years later, he still remembered her with great sadness and when a man found a letter written to Jefferson from Sarah and asked if Davis wished to have the letter, Davis responded by letting the man know that receiving the letter from his first love would bring him great happiness. At the time, Jefferson Davis was 81 years old and just months away from his own death.
With Sarah gone, Jefferson Davis returned to Davis Bend to grieve and to start the life as a planter that he had envisioned spending with Sarah. For the next decade, Davis worked hard at building his cotton plantation, Brierfield, and overseeing the slaves that worked it. For the next decade, as he focused on commercial pursuits and tried to move past the tragedy of losing Sarah, Jefferson Davis was virtually a recluse, rarely leaving his plantation or hosting visitors. The quite “retired” life of a planter was all that interested Davis and all that he saw for his future.
While Jefferson Davis was devastated over the loss of his wife, his former commander Zachary Taylor was devastated over the loss of his daughter. Taylor’s fears about Sarah living the harsh life of a military wife didn’t come to fruition, but the bigger nightmare of his daughter’s death was realized instead. Taylor harbored resentment towards Davis for taking his daughter from him, and for not taking care of her properly once they were married. Taylor continued his successful military career as Davis grew as a plantation owner, and by the 1840’s the United States and it’s thirst for expansion had the country headed towards war with Mexico, and one of the nation’s top generals was Zachary Taylor.
Soon, the duty of defending his country that had been instilled in Jefferson Davis while he was a cadet at West Point and a soldier on the frontier, led him to join the forces heading to war with Mexico.
Soon, Jefferson Davis would be reunited with his former commander, his former father-in-law, and the future President of the United States — Zachary Taylor.
Soon, Jefferson Davis’s quiet life as a Mississippi planter would be interrupted by war, duty, and war once again.