On this day in 1861, Jefferson Davis, a veteran of the Black Hawk and Mexican-American Wars, begins his term as provisional president of the Confederate States of America. As it turned out, Davis was both the first and last president of the ill-fated Confederacy, as both his term and the Confederacy ended with the Union’s 1865 victory in the Civil War.
Born in Kentucky and raised in Mississippi, Davis graduated from West Point in 1828. In 1824, at the age of 26, he married his first wife, Sarah, the 16-year-old daughter of then-Colonel Zachary Taylor, against Taylor’s wishes. The marriage ended after only three months when Sarah died of malaria. Davis remarried at age 37 in 1845, this time to a prominent 17-year-old Southern socialite and budding author named Varnia Howell.
Upon his election to the House of Representatives in 1844, Davis immediately put his pro-slavery vote into action, opposing the Compromise of 1850 and other policies that would have limited the expansion of slavery into new American territories. He interrupted his political service in 1851 to fight in the Mexican-American War, during which his bravery and success prompted then-General Taylor to declare My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.
Following the war, Davis accepted an appointment to fill a suddenly vacant Mississippi seat in the U.S. Senate, but resigned after only a year to launch an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of Mississippi. Davis then campaigned for Franklin Pierce’s presidential campaign; upon winning, Pierce rewarded him with the post of secretary of war in 1853. In this capacity, Davis proved instrumental in advocating for the development of a transcontinental railroad. When Pierce lost his presidential reelection bid, Davis ran for a Senate seat and won.
Although a staunch supporter of slavery, Davis vigorously opposed the secessionist movement until 1860 when Abraham Lincoln came to power. Davis’ attempts to solidify states’ rights failed repeatedly and, disillusioned, he decided to resign from the Senate. On January 10, 1861, Davis led Mississippi in following South Carolina’s example and seceding from the Union. The following month, he was sworn in as provisional president of the Confederate States of America. (Davis was referred to as the provisional president because he had been appointed by the Confederate Congress rather than elected by the populace.) He moved his family to the southern White House in Richmond, Virginia, and prepared for a six-year presidential term.
Davis’ refusal to appoint a general commander of southern forces and his attempt to manage the Southern army and government at the same time is thought to have contributed to the South’s defeat. After the fall of Atlanta in 1865, he was captured in Georgia, clapped in irons and indicted for treason. After two years, he was finally released on bail; charges against him were not dropped until 1869. While in prison he staved off financial ruin by selling his Mississippi estate to a former slave. A rebel to the end, Davis refused to swear an oath of allegiance that would have reinstated his U.S. citizenship even after his release from prison. The time spent incarcerated impacted his health, and on December 6, 1889, Davis died in New Orleans.