I’d really like to do a documentary on Jefferson Davis. Some of my readers complain when I mention him as a President, but he WAS an American President True, he was not a President of the United States, but as President of the Confederate States, he led the other half of the country during the Civil War, actually served as Commander-in -Chief for a few weeks longer than Abraham Lincoln, and played a very important role in American history that I feel is often overlooked outside of the former Confederacy.
Plus, Davis’s impact goes beyond his Presidency. He was a hero of the Mexican-American War and an influential member of Congress. Under President Pierce, Davis was arguably the greatest Secretary of War in American history — he was innovative, a top-notch organizer, and modernized the U.S. military. In fact, Davis was largely responsible for turning the U.S. military into a powerful, efficient force that overpowered Davis’s Confederate military a decade later. During his time in Pierce’s Cabinet, Davis played a major role in early planning of the Transcontinental Railroad, and oversaw the expansion and construction of the United States Capitol building. In fact, the Capitol as we see it today was mainly due to the work and support of Jefferson Davis.
On top of all that, Davis had a fascinating and tumultuous personal life. He barely made it through West Point without being kicked out. He eloped with the daughter of the military commander he served under on the frontier after West Point — a commander who just so happened to be future President Zachary Taylor. That marriage ended tragically just a few weeks after the wedding when the newlyweds contracted malaria. Taylor’s daughter (Davis’s new wife) died and Davis barely survived himself.
After several years of depression, Davis eventually remarried — to a granddaughter of a former New Jersey Governor — and their relationship lasted the rest of their lives, despite ups and downs. Davis’s second wife was not only First Lady of the Confederacy, but often filled in as White House hostess during the Pierce Administration because of the problems that President Pierce’s wife had.
At one point, Davis and his former father-in-law, Zachary Taylor, stumbled upon each other by chance on a riverboat and buried any hard feelings they might have had. Davis served bravely under Taylor in Mexico and advised Taylor once the General was elected President, despite being from different parties. Davis was at Taylor’s side when the President died in office in 1850. Davis’s friendship with Franklin Pierce was even more remarkable and even continued during (and after) the Civil War, leading many to consider Pierce a traitor to the Union.
There’s even more drama that could be covered. Like his Union counterpart, Lincoln, President Davis had a young son tragically die during the Civil War. When the war ended, Davis was captured and imprisoned under harsh conditions while Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, decided what to do with the former Confederate President. Eventually, prominent Northerners petitioned for Davis to be released, as did Pope Pius IX.
Davis ended up outliving most of the principals of the Civil War. He wrote a lengthy, two-volume history of the Confederacy and became a Southern icon — the symbol of the “Lost Cause”, and far more popular and respected in retirement among Southerners than he had been as President when his prickly personality and micromanaging style caused problems between him and his fellow Confederates.
When Davis died at the age of 81 in 1889, a massive funeral was held — the largest funeral in Southern history and one of the biggest in American history. Even today, Davis’s birthday is celebrated as a state holiday in several former states of the Confederacy.
Anything having to do with the former President of the Confederate States of America will be controversial, but Jefferson Davis is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in American history and, as I’ve tried to illustrate in this quick run-through of his life, he was also a fascinating personality. I think we’re way overdue for a PBS “American Experience” documentary on his life.
(So, if you’re listening, PBS and “American Experience”, consider this my pitch, okay? I should also note that “American Experience” is my favorite long-running television series by far! Also, I’m ready, willing, and able to write the Jefferson Davis episode for scale. Hell, I’ll do it for some chicken wings, a Pepsi, a few DVDs, and my name in the credits! Let’s make it happen.)
I had been so near the office (the Presidency) for four years, while in the Cabinet of (Franklin) Pierce, that I saw it from behind the scenes, and it was to me an office in no way desirable. The responsibilities were great; the labor, the vexations, the disappointments, were greater. Those who have intimately known the official and personal life of our Presidents cannot fail to remember how few have left the office as happy men as when they entered it, how darkly the shadows gathered around the setting sun, and how eagerly the multitude would turn to gaze upon another orb just rising to take its place in the political firmament.
Worn by incessant fatigue, broken in fortune, debarred by public opinion, prejudice, or tradition, from future employment, the wisest and best who have filled that office have retired to private life, to remember rather the failure of their hopes than the success of their efforts. He must, indeed, be a self-confident man who could hope to fill the chair of Washington with satisfaction to himself, with the assurance of receiving on his retirement the meed awarded by the people to that great man, that he had ‘lived enough for life and for glory,’ or even of feeling that the sacrifice of self has been compensated by the service rendered to his country.
You ordered the very best book about Jefferson Davis, so good choice. William J. Cooper is a damn good historian and one of the foremost experts on Davis. He also published a smaller book that is a collection of essays on Davis, Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era. I would also recommend Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour by William C. Davis.
The book that Jefferson Davis wrote following the Civil War, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, is interesting in that it is a history of the Confederacy and the Civil War from the perspective of the Confederate President. However, it is a dry and difficult read — even by the standards of the 19th century. I have it in two volumes, but there may be an abridged version out there.
Oh, and while it’s far from a definitive look at the life of the Confederate President, I did write a three-part essay on Jefferson Davis a while back that you can read here on Dead Presidents:
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.
(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.