Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, was a Southern planter, Democratic politician and hero of the Mexican-American War who represented Mississippi in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. He also served as U.S. secretary of war (1853-57). Davis was chosen to serve as president of the Confederacy in 1861 and held the post until the Civil War ended in 1865.
Davis was greatly influenced by his oldest brother, Joseph, a wealthy lawyer and planter who served as a father figure, particularly after their father’s death in 1824. Davis left his studies at Transylvania University in Kentucky that year to enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where Joseph’s connection had secured him an appointment.
Davis graduated four years later, finishing in the bottom third of his class; he was posted to an infantry regiment in Wisconsin. After serving only briefly in the Black Hawk War in 1832, he fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Colonel Zachary Taylor.
The couple contracted malaria just months after their wedding in 1835, and Sarah died. Having resigned his army commission, Davis retreated to his cotton plantation, Brierfield, built on land provided by his brother Joseph at Davis Bend, Mississippi.
After eight years immersed in plantation life, Davis emerged to begin a career in politics. A steadfast supporter of state’s rights and slavery, he served as a delegate to the Democratic state convention in 1840 and 1842 and ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1843.
In 1845, Davis married his second wife, Varina Howell, the young daughter of a prominent local family. The couple would have six children—four sons and two daughters—though only their daughters lived until adulthood.
That same year, Davis won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from Mississippi. It was the only electoral success of his career; all of his later posts would be appointed.
Mexican-American War Service
When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Davis resigned his congressional seat to serve as colonel of the First Mississippi Rifle regiment. As part of a force commanded by his former father-in-law, Davis distinguished himself in battle at Monterrey and Buena Vista.
General Taylor’s praise of his heroism earned Davis national acclaim, and in August 1847 the Mississippi governor chose him to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate.
Davis as Senator and Secretary of War
As a senator, Davis fiercely defended the interests of the South in the growing sectional battle over slavery that would put the nation on the path to division and civil war. He led a generation of southern Democrats who joined the proslavery crusade launched by John C. Calhoun, and continued it after Calhoun’s death in 1850.
A strong supporter of Manifest Destiny, Davis advocated for the extension of slavery into the new Western territories and the protection of slaveholders’ property rights. He opposed letting the Oregon territory bar slavery, and battled against the Compromise of 1850, especially the admission of California to the Union as a free state.
In 1851, Davis resigned from the Senate to run unsuccessfully for governor of Mississippi. Two years later, President Franklin Pierce appointed Davis as secretary of war. During his tenure, Davis focused on increasing the army’s size and improving national defenses and weapons technology, as well as providing protection for settlers in the Western territories.
From the Senate to the Confederacy
Davis returned to the Senate in 1857. He frequently clashed with fellow Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, arguing that Douglas’ doctrine of popular sovereignty didn’t do enough to protect the rights of slaveholders.
With the Democratic Party split between North and South, Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860. Davis resigned from the Senate in January 1861, after Mississippi seceded from the Union. When the Confederate Congress met in Montgomery, Alabama the following month, it unanimously chose Davis—the Southern leader with the most impressive political and military record—as president of the Confederacy.
Over the next four years, Davis struggled to balance his leadership role in the Civil War with the difficult domestic tasks involved with running a country. Like Lincoln, he faced epic clashes with his generals, state lawmakers and Congress, but he lacked the economic and military resources of his Northern counterpart.
Davis’ critics charged him with neglecting state’s rights in his efforts to form a more effective central government, favoring certain military leaders (like Braxton Bragg) despite their shortcomings, and sidelining those who disagreed with him, including Joseph E. Johnston.
Post-War Imprisonment and Later Life
On April 2, 1865, Davis and the rest of the Confederate government fled Richmond as the Union Army advanced on the Confederate capital. Union soldiers captured Davis near Irwinville, Georgia, on May 10, and he was imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe in Virginia. Indicted but never tried for treason, Davis was released on bond in May 1867.
Davis’ emotional and physical health had deteriorated during his time in prison. After two years traveling in Europe, he and his family returned to Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked for a life insurance company.
In 1876, they returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where an admirer named Sarah Dorsey let them use a cottage on her seaside plantation near Biloxi. When Dorsey died, she willed the estate, Beauvoir, to Davis and his family. He would live there for the rest of his life, publishing his account of the war in a two-volume memoir titled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government in 1881.
In December 1889, Davis died of acute bronchitis in New Orleans. Some 200,000 people lined that city’s streets for his funeral, held in Metairie Cemetery. In 1893, Davis’ body was relocated and reinterred in Hollywood Cemetery, located in the former Confederate capital of Richmond.
Civil War: Biography: Jefferson Davis. American Battlefield Trust.
Michael E. Woods, Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis and the Struggle for American Democracy (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
Jefferson Davis (1808-1889). Encyclopedia Virginia.