Dead Presidents

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

By Anthony Bergen
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Posts tagged "Jefferson Davis"
[Davis was] head devil among the traitors, and he ought to be hung.
Andrew Johnson, on Jefferson Davis, in a letter to Hugh McCulloch, 1866
Asker Anonymous Asks:
Were there any big differences between the powers of the confederate president and u.s. president
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

There were two major differences.  The Confederate President had a line-item veto — a power that I imagine every single President of the United States in history would have loved to possess.  The other major difference is that the Confederate President was limited to a single 6-year-long term — something that several U.S. Presidents have suggested should be adopted for our Presidency.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
If you could write and produce a documentary film on any president or vice-president, which one would it be?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

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.)

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Why did Jeff Davis never become a general in the u.s. army before the civil war
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Davis actually had a shot at becoming a General about 15 years before the Civil War broke out, but he was such a vehement proponent of States’ Rights — even at that point — that he refused the honor.

Jefferson Davis had graduated (barely — he was a bit of a troublemaker) from West Point and spent the early part of his life in the U.S. Army before returning home to Mississippi to become a planter and begin a political career. When the Mexican-American War broke out, Davis, a Congressman at the time, broke a promise to his wife and volunteered to serve. While Davis saw military service partly as a patriotic duty, he also recognized possible glory on the battlefield as a launching pad to higher political opportunities.

In Mexico, Davis indeed found glory on the battlefield and his military successes, particularly at the Battle of Buena Vista, made him a bona fide war hero back in the United States. President James K. Polk was pleased to find a fellow Democrat earning praise for battlefield heroics as the military’s two biggest stars from the war turned out to be Whigs — Generals Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. With the national profiles of Taylor and Scott raised by the war, Polk hoped to elevate a Democratic hero and prevent a Whig from succeeding him as President in 1848. President Polk saw Jefferson Davis as that possible Democratic hero and promoted him to General.

The States’ Rights beliefs that would later make Jeff Davis the natural leader of the Confederacy ran deep within the Mississippian, even when they conflicted with his own ambition. When Davis volunteered to fight in the Mexican-American War, he didn’t join the U.S. Army. Instead, he joined the Mississippi State Militia — one of the many volunteer militia companies formed by states and sent to help fight alongside the U.S. Army, which was, of course, outfitted at the federal level. So, basically, while the Army and State Militias were fighting together, they were different entities with different leaders.

To try to break it down simply, as a member of the Mississippi State Militia instead of the U.S. Army, Jefferson Davis saw himself as fighting for Mississippi in conjunction with the United States. And, that leads us to why he turned down President Polk’s appointment as a General. As a member of the Mississippi Militia, Davis believed that his Commander-in-Chief was the Governor of Mississippi rather than the U.S. Army’s Commander-in-Chief — the President of the United States.

So, when Davis received his commission appointing him as General from President Polk, he responded promptly, thanking the President for the honor, praising Polk for his leadership leading up to and throughout the Mexican-American War, and outright refused the appointment, noting that he believed Polk had no Constitutional basis for giving Davis such a promotion.

To Polk’s chagrin, one of those Whig Generals — Zachary Taylor — did win the 1848 election to succeed him in the White House. Davis had won a seat in the U.S. Senate by then and, despite being a loyal Democrat, had an unique relationship with the new President — Taylor was the father of Jefferson Davis’s deceased first wife.

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.

Jefferson Davis, on the toll that the Presidency takes on its occupants, “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1”, 1881
Just ordered the biography "Jefferson Davis, American". Do you recommend any other books/articles on Jefferson Davis? I really want to learn about the Confederate president. Thank you!
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

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:

The Forgotten American President, Part I
The Forgotten American President, Part II
The Forgotten American President, Part III 

Asker bbkld Asks:
The Lincoln assassination conspiracy was a plot to assassinate the President and others. It almost worked. Several were accused, convicted, and hanged. Was anyone from the Lincoln administration itself under suspicion?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

No, there were allegations that the conspiracy involved a lot more Confederates or Southern sympathizers (including Confederate President Jefferson Davis), but there weren’t any suspicions about members of Lincoln’s Administration.  Eventually it became clear that the conspiracy was designed and driven by Booth and President Davis wasn’t involved.  In fact, Davis realized that Lincoln’s death was devastating to the South and to the upcoming Reconstruction.  Among other things, following the assassination Davis said “I certainly have no regard for Mr. Lincoln but there are a great many men of whose end I would much rather have heard than his.  I fear it will be disastrous to our people, and I regret it deeply”, “His successor is a worse man”, and, most famously, “Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has ever known.”

As for Booth’s conspiracy, it did work in the result that Lincoln was killed, but it really wasn’t a plan that Booth thought out very well.  Although Booth’s plan was to decapitate the federal government by killing Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, I think that the fact that Lincoln died and Johnson survived was far more destructive than if they had both died.  Booth was hoping that the assassinations would throw the nation into confusion and threaten the continuity of government, but if Lincoln and Johnson had died, Seward wouldn’t have become President.  The order of succession at the time designated the President pro tempore of the United States Senate next in line to the Presidency following the Vice President and would have triggered a special election later that year.  If Lincoln and Johnson both died, Senator Lafayette Foster of Connecticut would have become President and a special election would have been held in December 1865.  Next in line following Foster would have been the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax.  Continuity of government was never threatened and wouldn’t have been even if George Atzerodt had followed through on his mission to kill Vice President Johnson or if Lewis Paine’s brutal attack of Secretary of State Seward was successful (which it nearly was).  Had Booth’s targets included Senator Foster and Speaker Colfax, perhaps the conspiracy would have resulted as Booth dreamed it would.  But Atzerodt chickened out on the assassination of Andrew Johnson, Seward somehow survived Paine’s stabbing, and Foster and Colfax weren’t on Booth’s radar.

This is a question that I’ve wondered about for years because it is so interesting to imagine the two American Presidents of the Civil War meeting each other at some point and because there isn’t much to definitively tell us whether it did or did not happen.

My belief is that Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis never met each other.  Lincoln arrived in Washington, D.C. on February 23, 1861 in order to prepare for his inauguration.  On the day before Lincoln’s arrival, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the President of the Confederacy in Montgomery, Alabama.  Davis had resigned from the Senate in January to return home following Mississippi’s secession.  So, Lincoln and Davis were never in Washington at the same time after Lincoln was elected President.

There is a possibility that they crossed paths at some point during Lincoln’s single term in the U.S. House of Representatives (1847-1849), but I’ve never seen anything to suggest it.  During Lincoln’s two years in Congress, Davis was serving his first stint as a U.S. Senator (1847-1851) on the other side of the Capitol.  There weren’t nearly as many members of Congress or staffers running around the Capitol in the 1840s, so it is certainly conceivable that Lincoln and Davis met each other.  Still, they didn’t have much in common besides being born about 120 miles from one another, so other than working in the same building, there wasn’t a whole lot of things connecting the two future Civil War Presidents.  Davis was a Democrat, a war hero, building a reputation as a highly successful Southern statesman, and a popular and powerful member of the nation’s upper chamber of Congress.  Lincoln was a Whig (the GOP had not yet been born), a self-educated lawyer, and a lowly member of the House of Representatives who barely had time to unpack before his single term in Congress ended.

If they did meet, it might have been due to their links to Zachary Taylor.  Lincoln was a pretty avid supporter of President Taylor and the Taylor Administration’s policies.  Davis was a member of the opposition party but Taylor had been his former military commander as well as his former father-in-law.  Although they had once had a tense relationship, they were now very close personally and despite their political differences Davis helped advise President Taylor who had not only never held office before, but had never voted in an election.  There’s a chance that Lincoln and Davis could have come into contact with each other because of their mutual respect for President Taylor but, again, there’s nothing that points to a specific event or meeting or even a passing acquaintance.

If they did meet, it was probably just a “Yo, Jeff”/“‘Sup, Abe” situation in the halls of the Capitol.  Since we don’t even have a record of that, I’m guessing that Lincoln and Davis never met.  Because of their respective roles in the Civil War, I imagine we’d know the story if they did come into contact with one another.

Yes, Jefferson Davis was the best President that the Confederacy could have had.  It’s important to remember that the Confederacy was forming a new nation out of thin air from states in the midst of rebellion which had just declared their sovereignty and were actively preparing for some sort of insurrection or Civil War.  The leaders of the Southern states were at different degrees of rebellion.  Some were demanding Civil War, some could barely be convinced to leave the Union, and still others were determined to separate from the Union but adamant about wanting peace.

The Confederacy needed a leader who could bring all of these elements together without alienating one group or the other.  It was absolutely imperative for their cause that the Confederacy form as united and as strong of a group as possible.  Their leader needed to be able to keep that tenuous link together and make sure he could keep the radicals under the tent without scaring the moderates from the border states back into the Union, and he needed to satisfy those moderates without pissing the radicals, who were more than ready to have their state stand alone rather than entering into another union of states such as the Confederacy since they had just seceded from a union of states which they saw as a failure.

Jefferson Davis was perfect for the job.  There wasn’t anyone better equipped for it.  If there had been no Civil War or secession, we very well could have seen Jefferson Davis as President of the United States.  He was probably the most qualified man in the country for the job by the time of the Civil War.  Davis was certainly more qualified to be President than Abraham Lincoln was.  Davis had a military background — a West Point graduate who served on the frontier and was later recognized for his stellar service under fire during the Mexican War.  Davis represented Mississippi briefly in the U.S. House of Representatives but made his mark in the U.S. Senate, which he occupied a place in on two separate occasions, interrupted by his time as one of the most powerful and influential Cabinet members in history.  As President Pierce’s Secretary of War, Davis modernized and mobilized the U.S. Army, building a top-notch fighting force that, ironically, would wreak havoc on the Confederate military when Davis was the Confederacy’s President.

President Davis had all the tools necessary to lead the Confederacy.  There were other names mentioned briefly for the Presidency when the Confederacy was forming — South Carolina’s Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr. and Georgians like Howell Cobb, Robert Toombs, and Alexander Hamilton Stephens (who became Vice President) — but Davis was the smart choice and everyone knew it.

The Confederacy did hold a Presidential election, but not until November 1861.  States began seceding from the Union after Lincoln’s election in November 1860 but before Buchanan left office in March 1861.  In early February 1861, delegates from the seceded states met in Montgomery, Alabama to form a provisional Congress and elect a provisional President and Vice President.  That’s where Davis and Alexander Hamilton Stephens were first elected President and Vice President.  Despite the other names bandied about, the delegates elected Davis President unanimously.  He took office as the provisional President on February 18, 1861 — Lincoln was still two weeks away from his own inauguration.

The Confederacy’s provisional government worked quickly to build an actual framework and pass a Confederate Constitution.  Of course, it was largely based on the United States Constitution, but either way, it was adopted on March 11, 1861 and called for an the first Confederate Presidential election to take place in November 1861.  The Confederate Presidency, as set forth in the Confederate Constitution, had some small but important differences from the American Presidency.  First of all, the Confederate President was limited to one term of six years (a suggestion that some American Presidents have since called for adopting) and the Confederate President was given a line-item veto (a power that EVERY American President would have loved to have).  The Confederate President would be inaugurated on George Washington’s birthday, February 22nd, and the President elected in November 1861 would serve from Feb. 22, 1862 until February 22, 1868 (of course, the Confederacy didn’t survive past 1865).

When November 1861 rolled around, the Confederate did have their first (and only) Presidential election.  It wasn’t much of a contest, however, as the duo of Davis and Stephens ran unopposed.  Still, nearly 50,000 Confederate citizens cast their ballots and Davis won the 109 Electoral votes from all 11 Confederate states.  On February 22, 1862, President Davis and Vice President Stephens were sworn into office near the statue of George Washington on the grounds of what was now the Confederate Capitol in Richmond, Virginia.  By using Washington’s birthday as their Inauguration Day and holding their ceremonies near Washington’s statue, Davis and the Confederacy was appropriating Washington as the Father of their Country, too.

Although Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, Jefferson Davis and as much of the Confederate government’s officials, treasury, and paperwork as could be carried, pushed South to attempt to continue the fight.  Davis held one last Cabinet meeting with the few remnants of his government on May 5, 1865 in Washington, Georgia and dissolved the government.  From that point on, it was basically every-man-for-himself.  Lincoln, who by this point was dead, had hoped that Davis would escape and make it out of the country so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the trouble of capturing him and putting him on trial.  Davis made it only as far as Irwinville, Georgia, where he was was arrested by Union troops on May 10, 1865.  After nearly two years as a prisoner in often brutal conditions, charges of treason against Davis were dropped and he was released.

Who is Jefferson Davis?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

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.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Will you explain in the book why you are including Davis?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Oh, do you mean in my soon-to-be-released book, TRIBUTES AND TRASH TALK: WHAT THE PRESIDENTS SAID ABOUT EACH OTHER, which will be available in a couple of days, just in time for Christmas???

Yes, I do explain why I include Jefferson Davis in my book.  And, in case you missed it, here’s the cover to my book, designed by the oh-so-awesome Betsy Dye:


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 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.