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.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
(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.