(1808 - 1889)
President of the Confederate States of America
Jefferson Davis was born June 3, 1808, in that portion of Christian county, Kentucky, which was afterwards set off as Todd county. His grandfather was a colonist from Wales, living in Virginia and Maryland, and rendering important public service to those southern colonies. His father, Samuel Emory Davis, and his uncles, were all Revolutionary soldiers in 1776. Samuel Davis served during the Revolution partly with Georgia cavalry and was also in the siege of Savannah as an officer in the infantry. He is described as a young officer of gentle and engaging address, as well as remarkable daring in battle. Three brothers of Jefferson Davis, all older than himself, fought in the war of 1812, two of them serving directly with Andrew Jackson, and gaining from that great soldier special mention of their gallantry in the battle of New Orleans.
Samuel Davis, after the Revolution removed to Kentucky, resided there a few years and then changed his home to Wilkinson county, Mississippi. Jefferson Davis received his academic education in early boyhood at home, and was then sent to Transylvania university in Kentucky, where he remained until 1824, the sixteenth year of his age. During that year he was appointed by President Monroe to West Point military academy as a cadet. A class-mate at West Point said of him, "he was distinguished in his corps for manly bearing and high-toned and lofty character. His figure was very soldierlike and rather robust; his step springy, resembling the tread of an Indian 'brave' on the war-path." He was graduated June, 1828, at twenty years of age, assigned at once to the First infantry and commissioned on the same day brevet second-lieutenant and second-lieutenant. His first active service in the United States army was at posts in the North-west from 1828 to 1833. The Black-hawk war occurring in 1831, his regiment was engaged in several of its battles, in one of which the Indian chieftain, Blackhawk, was captured and placed in the charge of Lieutenant Davis; and it is stated that the heart of the Indian captive was won by the kind treatment he received from the young officer who held him prisoner. In 1833, March 4th, Lieutenant Davis was transferred to a new regiment called the First Dragoons, with promotion to the rank of first-lieutenant, and was appointed adjutant. For about two years following this promotion he had active service in various encounters with the Pawnees, Comanches and other tribes.
His sudden and surprising resignation occurred June 30, 1835, with an immediate entrance upon the duties of civil life. His uncle and other attached friends were averse to his continuance in military life, believing that he was unusually qualified to achieve distinction in a civil career. For some time he hesitated and then yielded to their wishes. Perhaps also the attractions of Miss Sallie Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor, commanding the First infantry, to whom he became affianced, contributed to the decision. The marriage between them has been often spoken of inaccurately as an elopement, but it was solemnized at the house of the bride's aunt, near Louisville, Kentucky. Mr. Davis now became a cotton planter in Warren county at the age of twenty-seven, and while engaging successfully in this pursuit he devoted much of his time to studies that would prepare him for public life. His first appearance in political strife on a general field was in the gubernatorial canvass of 1843. He was sent as a delegate to the Democratic convention of that year and made such impressions by his speeches as to cause a demand for his services on the hustings. In 1844 his abilities were again in requisition as an elector for Polk and Dallas. In this canvass he took a firm position for strict construction, the protection of States from Federal encroachment, and incidentally advocated the annexation of Texas. The reputation which he made during this year as a statesman of the State rights school bore him into the Congress of the United States as the representative of Mississippi from his congressional district. Mr. Davis took his seat in Congress December 8, 1845, at a period when certain great questions were in issue, and with only a brief and commendable delay, took a foremost place in the discus. sions. The Oregon question, the tariff, the Texas question, were all exciting issues. It is especially noticeable in view of his after life that in these debates he evinced a devotion to the union and glory of his country in eloquent speeches, and in a consistent line of votes favorable to his country's growth in greatness. One of his earliest efforts in Congress was to convert certain forts into schools of instruction for the military of the States. His support of the "war policy," as the Texas annexation measure was sometimes designated, was ardent and unwavering, in the midst of which he was elected colonel of the First Mississippi regiment of riflemen. His decision to re-enter military life was quickly carried into effect by resignation of his place in Congress June, 1846, and the joining of his regiment at New Orleans, which he conducted to the army of General Taylor on the Rio Grande. He had succeeded in arming his regiment with percussion rifles, prepared a manual and tactics for the new arm, drilled his officers and men diligently in its use, and thus added to Taylor's force perhaps the most effective regiment in his little army. He led his well disciplined command in a gallant and successful charge at Monterey, September 21, 1846, winning a brilliant victory in the assault on Fort Teneria. For several days afterwards his regiment, united with Tennesseeans, drove the Mexicans from their redoubts with such gallantry that their leader won the admiration and confidence of the entire army. At Buena Vista the riflemen and Indiana volunteers under Davis evidently turned the course of battle into victory for the Americans by a bold charge under heavy fire against a larger body of Mexicans. It was immediately on this brilliant success that a fresh brigade of Mexican lancers advanced against the Mississippi regiment in full gallop and were repulsed by the formation of the line in the shape of the V, the flanks resting on ravines, thus exposing the lancers to a converging fire. Once more on that day the same regiment, now reduced in numbers by death and wounds, attacked and broke the Mexican right. During this last charge Colonel Davis was severely wounded, but remained on the field until the victory was won. General Taylor's dispatch of March 6, 1847, makes special complimentary mention of the courage, coolness and successful service of Colonel Davis and his command. The Mississippi regiment served out its term of enlistment, and was ordered home in July, 1847. President Polk appointed Colonel Davis brigadier-general, but he declined the commission on the ground that that appointment was unconstitutional.
In August, 1847, the governor of Mississippi appointed Mr. Jefferson Davis to the vacancy in the United States Senate caused by the death of Senator Speight, and he took his seat December 5, 1847. The legislature elected him in January for the remainder of the term, and subsequently he was re-elected for a full term. His senatorial career, beginning in December, 1847, extended over the eventful period of 1849 and 1850, in which the country was violently agitated by the questions arising on the disposition of the common territory, and into which the subject of slavery was forcibly injected. The compromise measures of 1850 proposed by Mr. Clay, and the plan of President Taylor's administration, were both designed to settle the dangerous controversy, while extreme radicals opposed all compromise and denounced every measure that favored slavery in any respect. Senator Davis advocated the division of the western territory by an extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific ocean, because it had been once accepted as a settlement of the sectional question. A majority refused this mode of settlement. On this proposition to adhere to the old Missouri Compromise line of settlement the vote in the Senate was 24 yeas and 32 nays. All the yeas were cast by Southern senators. All nays were by Northern senators except Kentucky one, Missouri one and Delaware two. Mr. Davis thought that the political line of 36 deg. 30' had been at first objectionable on account of its establishing a geographical division of sectional inter-eats, and was an assumption by Congress of a function not delegated to it, but the act had received such recognition through quasi-ratifications by the people of the States as to give it a value it did not originally possess. "Pacification had been the fruit borne by the tree, and it should not have been recklessly hewn down and cast in the fire." He regarded this destruction of the Missouri Compromise line in 1849-50 by Northern votes in Congress as dangerous to the peace of the country. In his opinion at that time the theory of popular sovereignty in the territories "was good enough in itself, and as an abstract proposition could not be gainsaid," but its practical operation, he feared, would introduce fierce territorial strife. He now. saw very little in the compromise legislation of 1850 favorable to the Southern States. According to his view it "bore the impress of that sectional spirit so widely at variance with the general purposes of the Union and destructive of the harmony and mutual benefit which the Constitution was intended to secure." He did not believe the Northern States would respect any of its provisions which conflicted with their views and interests. His attitude, however, toward the measures of Mr. Clay was not positively hostile, though it was emphatically distrustful. But during the perilous discussions of those times Mr. Davis did not align himself with any disunionists North or South. He says for himself, "My devotion to the Union of our fathers had been so often and so publicly declared; I had on the floor of the Senate so defiantly challenged any question of my fidelity to it; my services, civil and military, had now extended through so long a period and were so generally known, that I felt quite assured that no whisperings of envy or ill-will could lead the people of Mississippi to believe that I had dishonored their trust by using the power they had conferred on me to destroy the government to which I was accredited. Then, as afterward, I regarded the separation of the States as a great, though not the greater evil." The votes and speeches of Mr. Davis accorded with the instruction of the Mississippi legislature, and his public record is entirely consistent with this avowal of his devotion to the whole country and his patriotic desire to preserve it from the evils of fanaticism. Reference to this Union sentiment is not made in this sketch or elsewhere in this general work as apologetic in its bearings. But it is in rebuke of those careless or vicious statements often made against Mr. Davis and other Confederate leaders that they were for many years engaged in a conspiracy to break up the Union.
Senator Davis entered upon his new and full term as senator from Mississippi March 4, 1851, from which date there were before him six years of honor in the position he preferred to all others. There was a strong probability also that if living he would be continued in the Senate, since the Southern States were accustomed to the retaining of their eminent men in office. No man had less reason than himself for conspiracy against the government. With this advantage and under the influence of strongly conservative feeling he canvassed the State of Mississippi in 1851, bravely advocating the policy of determined resistance to sectional aggressions, and insisting that the country should be defended from the perils of Congressional usurpation. His argument was that reverence for the constitutional reservations of power would alone save the Union, and upon this view he taught that statesmen who revered the Constitution most, loved the Union best. The overwhelming sentiment of Mississippi that year was to accept the compromise measures of 1850 as a finality, and consequently the State rights party which had been organized upon a vague platform proposing to devise some undefined method of securing guarantees against sectional usurpations, was defeated. Mississippi accordingly joined the other Southern States in acquiescence with the settlement of 1850 "as a finality."
The election for governor of the State was to occur later in the same year. Governor Quitman had been nominated for re-election, but his political antecedents so decidedly committed him to disunion as to imperil his success. Therefore he withdrew from the nomination, and Senator Davis was called on by the executive committee to take his place, because his conservative record accorded more nearly than Governor Quitman's with the recent ballot of the people. It was only six weeks to the day of the election, the State rights party had been lately beaten by a majority of over 7,000 votes, Davis was at that time too sick to leave home, and acceptance of the nomination required his resignation of the high office he then held secure for nearly six years. Nevertheless he accepted the trust, resigned the senatorial office and was defeated by less than one thousand votes. Mr. Davis retired for a short time to private life, from which he was called by President Pierce, who had been elected to the presidency in 1852. At first the tender of a place in the cabinet of the new President was declined, but on further consideration he accepted the office of secretary of war. Mr. Davis had ably supported Pierce in the race of the previous year upon the platform which emphasized beyond all else the finality of the compromise measures, and the cessation of sectional hostilities. He was therefore in this as in other respects in complete agreement with the President from the beginning to the closing of his administration The duties of the war office were discharged with characteristic energy and ability, and at its close his portrait was added to others of eminent men who had enjoyed the same distinction, and it remains suspended in its proper position to this day. A few years later the friendly and confiding letter of the President to Mr. Davis expressed his painful apprehension concerning the Southern movement for secession, accompanied with the kindest expressions of regard for his former able associate in the executive department of government.
Mr. Davis went now from the cabinet of President Pierce, March 4, 1857, to re-enter the United States Senate by the election of the legislature of Mississippi. He was there assigned to the chairmanship of the committee on military affairs, opposed the French spoliation measures, advocated the Southern Pacific railroad bill, and antagonized Senator Douglas on the question of popular or "squatter" sovereignty in the territories, while on the other hand he disputed the claim set up by the Free-soilers of power in Congress to legislate against those territorial domestic institutions which were not in conflict with the Constitution. During the Kansas troubles he aligned himself with those who endeavored to prevent the dangerous hostilities which the opening of that section to occupation had produced, and when the settlement of 1858 was made by the passage of the conference Kansas-Nebraska bill, he wrote hopefully to the people of Mississippi that it was "the triumph of all for which he had contended." At that moment he believed that the danger of sectional discord was over, that peace would reign, and the Union be saved through the policy pursued by the Buchanan administration. From this date, 1859, he was nationally acknowledged as a statesman in counsel, a leader of the people, ranking among the most eminent living Americans.
With this standing among the counselors of the government, Senator Davis endeavored in the beginning of 1860 to lay the foundation for a policy which would prevent sectional agitation and unite inseparably all the States in friendly union. This policy was defined in a series of seven resolutions introduced by him in the Senate February 2, 1860, which were debated three months and adopted in May by a majority of that body as the sense of the Senate of the United States upon the relation of the general government to the States and territories. They were opposed en masse by senators who were allied with the new sectional policy upon which the presidential campaign of that year was projected. In the great conflict of that year he was mentioned extensively as a statesman suitable for the presidency, but it was fully announced that he did not desire the nomination. Regretting the breach which occurred at Charleston in his party, he sought to reconcile the factions, and failing in that, endeavored to gain the consent of Douglas and Breckinridge to withdraw their names in order that union might be secured upon some third person. On the election of Mr. Lincoln he sought with others who were alarmed by the situation some remedy other than that of immediate and separate State secession. He was appointed a member of the Senate committee of Thirteen and was willing to accept the Crittenden resolutions as a compromise if they could have the sincere support of Northern senators. His speeches in the Senate were distinguished for their frankness in portraying the dangers of sectionalism, but through the debates of that session he was careful to utter no words which could produce irritation. Mr. Stephens says that Mr. Davis indicated no desire to break up the Union. Mr. Clay, of Alabama, said, "Mr. Davis did not take an active part in planning or hastening secession. I think he only regretfully consented to it as a political necessity for the preservation of popular and State rights which were seriously threatened by the triumph of a sectional party who were pledged to make war upon them. I know that some leading men and even Mississippians thought him too moderate and backward, and found fault with him for not taking a leading part in secession." Mr. Buchanan sent for him on account of his known conservatism to secure his advice as to the safe course which the administration should pursue, and he promptly complied with the summons. Another fact bearing forcibly on his position while the States were preparing to secede is the meeting of Mississippi congressional. delegation at Jackson, called together by the governor, in which the course of their State was the subject of conference. "Mr. Davis with only one other in that conference opposed immediate and separate State action, declaring himself opposed to secession as long as the hope of a peaceable remedy remained." After the majority decided on separate State secession Mr. Davis declared he would stand by whatever action the Mississippi convention would take, but several members in that conference were dissatisfied with his course, suspecting that he was at heart against secession, and desired delay in order to prevent it. The State convention adopted the ordinance of secession January 9, 1861, and immediately after receiving the official notice Mr. Davis made an exquisitely appropriate and pathetic address to the Senate, taking leave of it in compliance with the action of his State, which he fully justified. "I do think," said he," she has justifiable cause, and I approve of her act. I conferred with her people before that act was taken, counselled them that if the 'state of things which they apprehended should exist when their convention met, they should take the action which they have now adopted." "I find in myself perhaps a type of the general feeling of my constituents toward yours. I am sure I feel no hostility toward you, Senators of the North. I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot say in the presence of my God, I wish you well, and such I am sure is the feeling of the people whom I represent toward those whom you represent. I carry with me no hostile remembrance. Whatever offense I have given which has not been redressed or for which satisfaction has not been demanded, I have, Senators, in this hour of our parting, to offer you my apology for any pain which in the heat of discussion I have inflicted. I go hence unincumbered by the remembrance of any injury received, and having discharged the duty of making the only reparation in my power for any injury offered, Mr. President and Senators, having made the announcement which the occasion seemed to me to require, it only remains for me to bid you a final adieu." With these fitly spoken words, uttered with the grace of manner for which the accomplished orator was distinguished, and with a tenderness in tone produced by the occasion, the Senator vacated the seat which he had honored and stepped away from a position of commanding dignity and power sufficient to gratify his ambition. It must be seen that the sacrifice was great. Before him the experiment of secession to be tried, according to his expressed belief, alone by bloody war--around him, as his parting words fell from his lips, the associations of a nobly patriotic life rise up and engage his thought--within him a consciousness of rectitude in present motive, and magnanimity in feeling; while a record ineffaceable by any power attested the fidelity of his past life to the general welfare of his country. The change of all conditions became peculiarly and specially great as to him, because even contrary to his wishes he was destined to become the head and front of the secession movement. His virtues would be forgotten and his name maligned through the spite and prejudice not only of the ignorant masses, but of prominent men of warped intelligence.
He is to be fairly viewed after secession as the same man who had justly earned fame in the service of the United States, but whose relations to that country were changed by the act of the State to which he owed allegiance. Surveying him at this crisis in his life we take account of his hereditary virtues, his pride of patriotic ancestry, his training in the Southern school of thought, feeling and manner, his systematic education to graduation from West Point academy, his associations from childhood to manhood with men of culture and women of refinement. We observe his physical advan-tages--a fine figure, erect and strong--in bearing, graceful when moving and pleasing in repose; his features clearly classic and betokening firmness, fearlessness and intelligence. Far he was from any hauteur of bearing, and free from the supposed superciliousness of the misunderstood Southern aristocracy. We see his mind cultivated and fruitful by reason of native power, early education, extensive reading and long communion with great thoughts on affairs of vast importance. He had self command, gained by the discipline of a soldier, which fitted him to command others; certainly also a strong willed nature to that degree where his maturely considered opinion was not lightly deserted, nor his .well-formed purpose easily abandoned. He was not the man to desert a cause which he once espoused. He was liable to err by excess of devotion. Such men make mistakes, and the Confederate President was not exempt. The insight of his general character reveals him a conservative patriot, opposing all tendencies to anarchy or monarchy, faithful to constitutional agreements and supporter of popular liberties; in his public and private life above reproach; in religion a devout believer in the Christian faith and living in the communion of his church. Such is the man who had vacated his place as senator from the State of Mississippi.
Mississippi elected him at once to the command of her State forces, a position he desired, but a few weeks later he was called by election to the Presidency of the Confederacy--a responsibility which he had earnestly shunned.
Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America and commander-in-chief of the army and navy, belongs to history, and his career is subject to full and fair treatment by just and intelligent men. The failure of his government to establish itself in permanency by the power of its armies will not be accepted as evidence against his own right to be reverenced, except by such persons as those who regard the triumphs of superior over inferior force as decisive of merit. Such persons judge men and their causes by an exploded savage theory which subjected the weak to the strong. The feudal system, Russian serfdom, and African slavery in the beginning of the horrible slave trade, rested on this basis. Men divested of that prejudice which constricts the reason will not decry the President of the Confederacy because it failed. Not the Southern people alone, but intelligent men of the finer mould of thought and feeling among all nations, are gratified by the cessation of the vituperous language of twenty-five years ago, with which even men of eminence as well as the lower sort declaimed against the exalted man who in public service for a like period of twenty-five years, filling positions in war and peace of great public trust, did not in the least degree betray the confidence which his people had reposed in him. That his career is open to adverse criticism will be conceded by his most reverent friends; but that his name, now that he is dead, should be made to wear the chains which generous justice broke from about his imprisoned living body, will not be claimed by the present generation of fairminded Americans. It is reported that Mr. Gladstone said in 1861 of Jefferson Davis that he had "created a nation," while at the same time it was being urged upon England that he was attempting to take a nation's life. Neither statement was exactly true. Mr. Davis had not created a nation. He was but the executive head of a republic which the intelligent free people of a number of large and powerful States had created. Nor had he attempted the destruction of the United States, for that government remained the same living political organism after secession that it was before. The great English statesman was not a sympathizer with the Southern secession, but he saw with clear vision that a nation in fact had come into being whose greatness was reflected in the character of the ruler it had chosen. His administration was not restrained by his antipathies. With the true greatness of his own nature he could esteem the virtues which were conspicuous in the character of such a chieftain of such a people. Jefferson Davis and the people of the Confederacy being inseperable in the reflections of mankind, the South asks only that he and they shall be judged by honorable men who have the capacities of reason and gentility to render a just judgment.
His administration of the government of the Confederate States must be viewed, as Mr. Stephens justly remarks, in the light of the extraordinary difficulties which had to be suddenly encountered by a new republic which was attacked at all points in the beginning of its formation. The errors of the administration are not so clearly observable as its wisdom. Possibly certain policies ably proposed by patriotic and capable advocates, but not adopted, might have been more efficacious than others which were pursued. It is conjecture only that a different policy would have gained the Southern cause. Possibly the offensive policy which was urged upon the Confederate President in the first months' fighting might have been better than the defensive which he was constrained to adopt. The financial system was not the best and yet some of its features were adopted or followed by the United States. Conscription was a hard measure, and perhaps the appeal for volunteers would have kept the army full. There were on these and other great problems differences of opinion, but there was rare unity in the Confederate purpose to succeed, and hence the government was maintained against forces of men, money and diplomacy leagued against it in such strength as to force the conclusion that after all the Confederate government was wonderfully well sustained for the four or more years of its existence. Nearly all the great reviewers of the Confederate civil administration and the operations of its armies agree in the verdict that both departments were well sustained by the intelligent and brave leaders at the head of affairs. The administration policy incurred special opposition at all the points above named, in regard to which President Davis in his writings concedes the fidelity and intelligence of his opposers, even admitting that in some instances his policy should have been changed. The difficult and delicate situations in which he was placed by the progress of military events often embarrassed him. His appointments were not always the best that could have been made, and his military suggestions were sometimes faulty because they were given at a distance from the field. But the constantly diminishing resources of his country, through the destructive agencies that eroded them at every point, caused the collapse of the government. President Davis did not publicly disclose any apprehensions of failure even to the last days of the Confederacy. So far as the antagonists of his government could determine from his open policy he had no thought of peace except in independence. But it is apparent from his actions in the winter of 1864 and 1865, especially after his interview with Lee and other officers, that he began to look about him for the way to peace. The commission sent to Canada to meet any parties from the United States who would counsel peace; his readiness to give audience to even such unauthorized but friendly visitors as Colonel Jacques; his two interviews with Blair and his letter to Blair to be shown to Lincoln; his appointment of Stephens, Campbell and Hunter to meet President Lincoln in an informal conference--all these indicated at the time and now more clearly disclose that the Confederate President would have consented to peace upon terms that would even subvert his presidency and consign him to private life. The defeat and surrender of the armies of Lee and Johnston dissolved the Confederate States in fact leaving nothing to be done in law but the abrogation of the ordinances of secession by the States which had erected them. As one result of the fall of the armies the President was made a captive by the military, imprisoned in chains, charged unjustly with crimes for which he demanded trial in vain, and after two years of imprisonment which disgraced his enemies was released on bond. A nolle prosequi was entered in his case in 1869, and thus he was never brought to the trial which he earnestly demanded.
After this release on bail the ex-President enjoyed an enthusiastic reception at Richmond, Virginia, and then visited Europe. Returning home, he avoided ostentatious display, appearing before the public, however, in occasional address and writings. He counseled the South to recover its wasted resources and maintain its principles. Secession he frankly admitted to be no more possible, but he remained to the last an unyielding opposer of power centralized in the Federal government. Now and then public demonstrations revealed the attachment of the Southern people, especially two occasions in Georgia, one being the unveiling of the Ben Hill statue in Atlanta, and the other an occasion in Macon, Ga., during the State agricultural fair. These popular demonstrations were of such an imposing character as to evidence the undiminished attachment of the people to his personal character, and sympathy for him in his misfortunes.
The death of the President occurred at New Orleans about one o'clock a.m., December 5, 1889, and the event was announced throughout the Union. The funeral ceremonies in New Orleans were such as comported with the illustrious character of the deceased chieftain, while public meetings in other cities and towns of the South were held to express the common sorrow, and the flags of State capitols were dropped to half-mast. Distinguished men pronounced eulogies on his character, and the press universally at the South and generally at the North contained extended and laudatory articles on his character.
The burial place in New Orleans was selected only as a temporary receptacle, while a general movement was inaugurated for a tomb and monument which resulted in the removal of the body to Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy. The removal took place by means of a special funeral train from New Orleans to Richmond, passing through several States and stopping at many places to receive the respectful and affectionate tributes bestowed by the people. The scene from the time of the departure from New Orleans to the last rites at Richmond was singular in its nature and sublime in its significance of popular esteem for the memory of the Confederate President. The funeral train moved day and night almost literally in review before the line of people assembled to see it pass. Finally in the presence of many thousands the casket was deposited in the last resting place in the keeping of the city which had so long withstood the rude alarms of war under his presidency.
(Source: Confederate Military History)