On this day in 1861, Jefferson Davis, a former U.S. senator from Mississippi who served as U.S. secretary of war in the 1850s, receives word he has been selected president of the new Confederate States of America. Delegates at the Confederacy’s constitutional convention in Montgomery, Alabama, chose him for the job.
Davis was at his plantation, Brierfield, pruning rose bushes with his wife Varina when a messenger arrived from nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi. The presidency was not a position Davis wanted, but he accepted it out of a sense of duty to his new country. Varina later wrote of her husband’s reaction to the news: ”Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes he told me like a man might speak of a sentence of death.”
Davis said of the job: “I have no confidence in my ability to meet its requirement. I think I could perform the function of a general.” He could see the difficulties involved in launching the new nation. “Upon my weary heart was showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers, but beyond them I saw troubles innumerable. We are without machinery, without means, and threatened by powerful opposition but I do not despond and will not shrink from the task before me.”
Davis was prescient in his concerns, and drew sharp criticism during the Civil War. Alexander Stephens, the vice president, said Davis was “weak and vacillating, timid, petulant, peevish, obstinate.”
Davis remained president of the Confederacy until its government was dissolved on May 5, 1865. Less than a week later, he was captured by the Union and jailed for two years. He died at age 81 in New Orleans in 1889.