Site of Jefferson Davis's Birthplace
Backstory and Context
Born on June 3, 1808, Jefferson Davis was the youngest child of Samuel E. and Jane Cook Davis. Shortly after his family moved from their home in Todd County, Kentucky to Louisiana in 1810 and then to Mississippi only a couple of years later. When Davis got older he pursued a military career and graduated from West Point. Growing up in Mississippi shaped Davis’s political ideas and in the 1840s he pursued a second career as a politician. Davis entered politics as a strong supporter of states’ rights and the unlimited spread of slavery to the western territories. The majority of the offices he held were appointments although he was occasionally elected for others. In 1845 he was elected to the U.S. Congress but resigned in 1846 to lead the First Regiment of the Mississippi Riflemen in the Mexican-American War. In the war he led the regiment to victory in the Battle of Monterrey and repelled a Mexican infantry charge in the Battle of Buena Vista. Regarded as a war hero to many Americans, Davis was appointed to the Senate after the war. As a senator he opposed the Compromise of 1850, especially the admittance of California as a free state. In 1851 he left the Senate to run an unsuccessful campaign for the governor’s seat in Mississippi. In 1853 Davis was appointed Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce and came back to the Senate in 1857.
Davis initially opposed secession, but he was a strong advocate for states’ rights and slavery. Therefore, when Mississippi left the Union in 1861, Davis chose to support his state. He left the Senate and in February of 1861 he was appointed as the first (and the only) president of the Confederate States of America. As president Davis was confronted with many military, economic, and social problems. Several of Davis’s contemporaries felt that Davis was not protecting states’ rights and that he was too close to his former northern allies. Davis was also a poor judge of character, supporting people incapable of fulfilling their duties and ignoring the skills and value of the people he did not like. This was especially true with his generals, assisting in the Confederacy’s military losses. Due to these factors, Southerners came to hate Jefferson Davis.
By 1865, and especially when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia in April of 1865, it was obvious that the Confederacy was going to lose the war. Also in April, the Union army made it to the city of Richmond and Davis retreated to the Deep South where he was captured in Georgia the following month. After his capture, Davis was charged with treason and served two years in prison at Fort Monroe in Virginia. During these two years Davis’s physical and emotional health declined drastically and never fully recuperated after he was freed in May of 1867. After this, he and his family travelled to Europe for two years and came back to the U.S. only to have trouble in his attempt to start a new life for himself. He was employed by an insurance company only to have the company file bankruptcy. In an attempt to resuscitate his reputation, he also wrote a two-volume book in 1881 on the history of the Confederacy titled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government; today the book is considered a very important contribution to the history of the Confederacy. This book also had the effect Davis hoped for. In 1881 the war was still fresh in people’s memories and many southerners still held onto their pride and their beliefs. In the book Davis related the South’s rebellion to the American Revolution and praised the ideas at the heart of the Confederacy, strengthening the pride of his fellow southerners. The South came to see Davis as an image of its beliefs. Davis became a hero as southerners forgot their hate for him and attempted to forget the war itself but not why they fought it.
Davis lived at the Beauvoir estate in Mississippi during his final years. In 1889 Davis died of acute bronchitis in New Orleans on December 6 approximately at 1:00am without ever taking the oath of allegiance required of Confederate politicians and veterans if they wished to become U.S. citizens again. His funeral brought several people to New Orleans to pay their respects to the late politician. Despite his death, in 1978 U.S. Congress made Davis a citizen again. Today many monuments and memorials to Davis stand in various states throughout the country.
"Jefferson Davis." Accessed on September 27, 2017. https://www.civilwar.org/learn/biographies/jefferson-davis
"Jefferson Davis." History. Accessed on December 5, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/jefferson-davis
"Jefferson Davis." Biography. Accessed on December 5, 2017. https://www.biography.com/people/jefferson-davis-9267899
"Jefferson Davis: Wartime Opinions and Afterward." Media Nola. Accessed on December 11, 2017. http://medianola.org/discover/place/1304