Jefferson Davis - Sole President of the Confederacy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Jefferson Davis - Sole President of the Confederacy

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We feel that our cause is just and holy; we protest solemnly in the face of mankind that we desire peace at any sacrifice save that of honour and independence; we ask no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which we were lately confederated; all we ask is to be let alone; that those who never held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms.

Jefferson Davis was the first leader of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Eventually he came to be disgraced and something of a joke in the North, but was idolized in the South. What can be said of Jefferson Davis is that he believed what he was fighting for was just and right - as the patriots in the American Revolution had.

He was born on 3 June, 1808 in Todd County, of western Kentucky. In fact, another future president was born in the western part of Kentucky within a year of Jefferson Davis - Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson was born to a family with a military reputation. His father and uncles served in the American Revolution and his older brothers served in the War of 1812.

The Davis family did not linger in Kentucky for long - they moved to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. As he became older, Jefferson was home-schooled, and was sent to Transylvania University in Kentucky for education. President James Monroe appointed him to West Point Military Academy in 1824, and he graduated within four years with the rank of Second Lieutenant.

Just like Abraham Lincoln, Davis was an officer in the Blackhawk War, but unlike Lincoln his unit saw action. In fact, as Blackhawk1 was captured by the Americans, Davis was in charge of him. In 1833, he was promoted to First Lieutenant and led men into war against Indians. In 1835, he left the army and married Sallie Knox Taylor, who was the rich daughter of Zachary Taylor - who would lead the United States in the Mexican-American War and eventually become President. However, his new wife died after only three months.

Within ten years, he remarried to a wealthy socialite named Varina Howell. Despite owning a plantation named Briersfield, it didn’t command his attention so he occupied himself with other things. In 1843, he was sent as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention where his speech was well received by the crowd. His belief was that the states should be more powerful than the Congress, that Texas should be annexed into the Union (it was a major issue at the time) and that the Federal government was restricted to the powers of the Constitution.

As an advocate for the rights of states, Davis became well known in his state. With no prior office, he was elected to the US Congress as a representative of the state of Mississippi and first took office in 1845. He remained active on the floor, particularly for a new Congressman until his resignation from Congress in 1846.

As the Mexican-American War began (which Davis helped to start by pushing for the annexation of Texas, which had an unclear border), Davis was made Colonel of the First Mississippi Riflemen regiment. He joined his former father-in-law General Zachary Taylor at the Rio Grande to control what Americans claimed to be the southern border of Texas. Leading competently, Davis's regiment was one of the most disciplined and well trained in the army. They took Monterey in September, 1846, but Davis received little attention for this. At the battle of Buena Vista, Davis was wounded, but still led his men to a bold victory. A strong artillery assault ordered by Captain Braxton Bragg prevented defeat.

In 1847, as the term of enlistment for Davis and his regiment ran out, the governor of Mississippi appointed him Senator after the elected Senator died in office. He took a seat, and the state legislature (in those days, the state’s assembly elected the US Senators), gave him a full term. His time in the Senate was an important one. He believed that the Missouri Compromise (an old system of deciding if states were to be slave or free and when to admit them) should apply to land gained from the Mexican War.

Back in Mississippi, the Democratic governor refused to be renominated so Davis accepted the role while resigning from the Senate. He was narrowly defeated for the governorship, and left without public office. He spent time the next few years out of the public eye. In 1853, he was coaxed out of retirement when newly elected President Franklin Pierce handed him the position of Secretary of War.

He served ably for his time there, until 1857 when he was elected to the US Senate again. He assumed his Senatorial seat in March and the chair of the Committee of Military Affairs. In the Senate, he was a conservative man, generally preferring the preservation of the Union, and was considered a respected spokesmen for the South.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the US, he knew that states would attempt to secede and spoke out in Congress to encourage reconciliation. However, when the south seceded, and he realised his state would also secede, he adapted to the times. When Mississippi seceded, Davis took a leave of absence, and was given command of Mississippi Confederate forces - the position he had sought.

However, with his extensive experience in government, military history and conservative politics, he would make a good candidate for president in the Confederacy. Davis was about the third choice of political pundits. Georgia’s Alexander Stephens was nearly nominated, but he was too pro-Union before the secession (even being considered for a cabinet post by Lincoln) to unite the south. Two other prominent politicians wouldn’t serve, and radical politicians who initiated secession were too controversial.

The Confederate Congress elected him as the provisional President of the Confederacy until an election could be held. He was inaugurated in the Confederate Capital of Montgomery, Alabama. On 18 February, 1861, he was elected President of the Confederacy for a six-year term, with Alexander Stephens as his Vice President.

The Presidency

The Confederate Constitution was arranged differently than the US Constitution. The Central government didn’t have much power, so he wasn’t able to raise much money or make military decisions without encountering resistance from the governors of the states - as the Confederacy was founded on the idea of the states having more power than the Federal government.

Governors, judicial officials and the public were constantly checking up on Davis to keep him from becoming another ‘tyrant’ with too much power. In war, this was crippling to the Confederate efforts, but Davis was able to do his darndest. The more radical Confederates also fought political battles with him when they should have been focusing on the battles in the war.

Nevertheless, the Confederacy mustered powerful tough armies. The Army of Northern Virginia, under Robert E Lee, was one of the most powerful and long lasting. Davis selected many competent generals that would help level the ground against the Union. He made mistakes, ignoring the advice of several senior men who wanted Braxton Bragg gone, instead opting to keep his friend Braxton Bragg in command of his army even after he mismanaged the battle of Chattanooga.

His personality sometimes came into conflict with his objectives, and he didn’t work well with PGT Beauregard or Joseph Johnston - who were among the most powerful Confederate Generals. He was also rigid, often unfair and a hypocrite. He was one of the most vocal supporters of states’ rights before the war, but by the end he had come to believe a Federal government had to have certain powers, as he found that they were limited by states’ rights philosophies. Despite this, he was truly passionate about the cause of the seceded states.

Fall of the Confederacy

In early 1865, Union forces led by Ulysses S Grant took control of Petersburg, the city just next to Richmond, the new Confederate capital. As Petersburg fell to Grant, it was well known that there wasn’t much to stop a Union advance into Richmond. They say that when Davis was told of Petersburg’s fall, he was in church and ran out to prepare the government to flee. Everyone in the church knew that this meant the Yankees were going towards the capital.

The Confederacy and its armies were falling apart and Davis had to flee. He refused to let the Confederacy die, even when Robert E Lee and Joseph Johnston surrendered their armies to Ulysses S Grant and William Sherman respectively. The whole Confederate government, and many of the state governments were in disarray. Davis acted more like a fugitive than a president. On 15 April, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, DC by John Wilkes Booth. Davis said that while he didn’t really like Lincoln, he thought that there were many more people he would rather see killed. Some people wanted the Confederates to practice guerrilla war rather than accept defeat. Davis accepted this, even though the more highly respected Robert E Lee suggested the South accept its failure.

If the Confederacy fails, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a Theory.

Davis was captured on 10 May, in Irwinville, Georgia. As the story goes, he was wearing a piece of his wife's clothing that he used to disguise himself as he fled. He was embarrassed - not only had he lost his country, he lost his masculinity. He was detained in Fort Monroe, until he was indicted for treason in 1866, and released the next year. He was never tried for treason in court.

Following his release, he was elected to the US Senate as President Andrew Johnson declared the southern states part of the US again. However, the Congress denied his election and turned him and Senators from other seceded states away. He went into business, and also wrote the ‘The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government’. Retiring to his plantation, now much less lucrative with the fall of slavery, he largely stayed out of the public eye.

He died on 5 December, 1889 in New Orleans, Louisiana. An elaborate funeral was held, and many southerners mourned his passing. He is buried in Richmond, Virginia.

Further Reading

1The leader of a native confederation against the Americans.

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