efferson Davis was a U.S. senator from Mississippi, secretary of war, and, most
famously, president of the Confederacy. He was born in Christian (later Todd)
County, Kentucky, to Jane Cook Davis and Samuel Emory Davis, who were frontier
farmers. The exact year of his birth was not recorded. When he was a young boy,
the family moved to the Louisiana Territory, then to Mississippi. He was
educated at St. Thomas College, a Catholic boarding school, for two years,
before resuming his studies at academies near his family's home in Mississippi.
He attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, for one year
beginning in 1823. His father died the next year. Jefferson's eldest brother,
Joseph, secured his sibling an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West
Point. His record as a cadet (1824-1828) was one of rowdy behavior and mediocre
Upon graduation the army commissioned Davis as a lieutenant and assigned him to
the West. He saw little action, however, even during the Black Hawk War (1832),
most of which he missed while away on furlough. In 1835 a military court found
Davis guilty of showing disrespect toward a superior officer, but determined
that it was not a military offense. Unhappy with the decision as well as with
army life, he resigned. In June 1835 he married Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter
of Zachary Taylor; she died three months later of yellow fever or malaria. Davis
helped manage his eldest bother's plantations for several years. During that
time he read extensively and became interested in public affairs, developing
into a Democratic partisan and an advocate of states' rights and territorial
In 1843 Davis was defeated in a race for state legislator, but the next year he
was elected to Congress. In 1845 he married Varina Howell. With the commencement
of the Mexican War, Davis resigned from Congress to join the Mississippi
volunteers. He performed skillfully at the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista,
for which he became a hero in his home state. In August 1847 the Mississippi
legislature recognized Davis's new stature by appointing him to fill the U.S.
Senate seat left unoccupied upon the death of Jesse Speight. In the Senate,
Davis chaired the Committee on Military Affairs, promoted territorial expansion,
and defended slavery, states' rights, and Southern interests. He staunchly
opposed the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to settle the issues raised by
the Mexican War, and countered unsuccessfully with a proposal for extending the
Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean (anticipating the Crittendon
Compromise of 1861).
Davis resigned from the Senate in September 1851 to run for governor of
Mississippi, but was defeated in a close election. In the spring of 1853
Franklin Pierce, the new Democratic president, named him to be secretary of war.
Davis proved to be a competent administrator who strengthened the U.S. army by
insisting on improved training and equipment, merit promotions, and expanded
arsenals, defenses, and personnel. He dispatched survey teams to lay out routes
for a transcontinental railroad, which he supported for national security
reasons. He also advanced Southern views within the Pierce administration.
Davis was reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1857, again serving as chair of the
Military Affairs Committee. When the Democratic party split in the election of
1860, he supported the Southern candidate, John Breckinridge. Davis did not
endorse immediate secession following Lincoln's election, but worked for
compromise and supported the ill-fated Crittendon Compromise. When Mississippi
seceded from the Union, Davis resigned his Senate seat. He accepted with
reluctance the presidency of the newly proclaimed Confederate States of America.
As chief executive of a region seeking independence against a stronger opponent,
Davis faced great obstacles. He has been praised as an intelligent, flexible,
and effective administrator, but he lacked the crucial ability to inspire and
lead the populace. He has been criticized for making unsound appointments, not
paying enough attention to the western military theater, and ignoring the
suffering of the general population. He interpreted the emergency powers under
the Confederate constitution broadly and consequently oversaw the use of a
military draft, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and the government
regulation or control of key industries. After the northern elections in 1864,
Davis proposed to arm the slaves and to free them as a reward for military
service. Despite intense opposition, the Confederate Congress approved a revised
version of his plan.
When the Civil War ended in Confederate defeat, Davis was arrested and
incarcerated at Fort Monroe (Hampton, Virginia) for two years. After being
paroled, he published a two-volume The Rise and Fall of the Confederate
Government, which defended the right of secession. He engaged in several
unsuccessful business ventures, then died of pneumonia while in New Orleans.