Jefferson Davis (1808-89)

Figure 1.--Four children of Jefferson Davis are pictured here, Jeff Jr., Margaret (Maggie), Varina Anne (Winnie), and Billy. Notice the fishing rod Jeff Jr. is hilding and the hoop and stick Billy is holding.. Joseph and Samuel had both died before this photograph was taken after the War in 1867. There are many accounts about the Lincoln children being wild. The Davis children may have been even wilder, esecially Jeff Jr.

The only Confederate President Jefferson Davis led a long and eventful life. He was a Mississippi planter, a husband, a father, West Point graduate, war hero, Congressman, Senator, Secretary of War, and finally President of the Confederate States of America. In many ways he was a study of contrast with his northern counterpart, Abraham Lincoln. Davis was a rich, educated, war hero who did not understand the political process or have the personal skills to work with others. Lincon had none of the background of Davis, but a consummate politician. Like Lee, Davis opposed secession until his state left the Union. He was constantly out manuevered by Linclon. His lack of political skills were confounded by the unwillingness of the state's rights obsessed Confederate states to give him the war powers the Northern states allowed Lincoln. Even after the General Lee's surrender at Appomatox Court House (1865). Davis was unprepared to surrender. He rejected Lee's approach of recognizing the Federal victory and advising his men to become good citizens of the United states. Davis rejected any compromise and wanted to lead a guerrilla war that would have only further devastated the South. Federal calvary captured the fleeing Davis in Georgia (May 10, 1865). He was not as expected tried for treason after the War.



Jefferson was the son of Jane Cook and Samuel Davis. Samuel moved his family to Mississippi with two slaves and succeeded in building a successful plantation. He was a strict authoritarian father. He help build in his son's mind the idea that a successful man is one who did not brook criticism or allow his instructions to be challenged, hardly preparation for a successful politician. Jefferson did not get along well with his father who was a rigid disciplinarian.


Jefferson was the youngest of 10 children. One of his brothers, Joe, made wise investments, brought a plantation and was one of the wealthiest men in the South.


Jefferson Davis was born in a log cabin in Christian County, Kentucky on June 3, 1808. He family was middle-class. I have little information about Jeff's childhood or the clothes he wore as a boy.


Davis attended prep schools. Each had authoritarian head masters which further set his idea of a successful man being one which did not permit criticism. He was interested in the law, but his family convinced him to pursue military training. He attended West Point. There the wealthy planter's son enjoyed misbehaving, and was court-martialed for drinking. He was not at the front of the class when it was time to graduate.

Military Service

In 1828 Davis enlisted into the Army. He served on the frontier for 7 years. Davis wanted to see action on the battlefield. But early in his military career there were few opportunities. He was a head strong young man. He fell in love with the daughter of the commander of the base where he was stationed. When the commander, one Zaccary Taylor opposed the marriage, Davis at first wanted to challenge him to a duel. Davis was personally courageous. He served with distinction in two wars, the Black Hawk war and the Mexican War. He actually captured Chief Black Hawk. He performed gallantly in the Mexican War. He was as a result one of the best known American war heroes.

Political Creer

Davis' military exploits and status as a wealthy planter allowed him to easily win House and Senate seats and not his political skills. In fact he was arrogant and often offensive. As a rich planter's son and a war hero, he did not think he needed the personal skills to work with others as his loss in an actual contested political race for governor showed.

First Marrirage: Sarah Knox (1835)

Davis got bored with the Army, and not seeing action. So this younger son of a cotton planter resigned from the Army to marry a daughter of future President Zachary Taylor--Sarah Knox (1835). Taylor, who at the time was Davis' commanding officer, at first discouraged the marriage. Davis was outraged. Taylor finally relented. However, the marriage was short lived because Sarah died (1836). Taylor was at first furious, but was eventually reconciled and eventually became friendly with Davis.

Withdrawl from Public Life

Shattered by the death of his wife of 3 months, Davis secluded himself on his Mississippi plantation. He disappeared from public life for about 9 years. He used this time to read and polish his education. He was a virtual recluse on his plantation during this period. It should be noted that the Davis family by all accounts were good to their slaves. There was a hospital of sorts on the plantation for them. A dentist would occasionally be brought in. They were allowed to travel freely in errands. They were permitted to practice handicrafts and keep their earnings. Davis himself was personally close to one slave and would drink and smoke cigars with him. Davis' health was a constant problem. He struggled with bouts of malaria. He also had a bad right eye. The stress of the war as president worsened his health.

Second Marriage: Varina Howell (1845)

Davis married Varina Howell (1845). She was much younger than her husband. Howell appears to have had some mild reservations about slavery, although she never vigorously question it. She did, however, believe that secession was misguided and that the South could not win a Civil war. She loyally supported her husband, but was not hesitant to disagree with him. [Cashin] While Davis had to contend with a wife that did not hesitae to express herself, he had none of the private difficulties that Lincoln faced with his wife. I don't think Mrs. Davis was correct about the South's inability to win the Civil War. They in fact came very close to doing just that. She was correct, however, that it was foolish to seceed. The institution of slavery was inassailable as long as the South remained in the Union. Any attack on slavery would have required Senate approval and the slave states had the votes to block Senate action, especially the approval of a Constitutional amendment. Mrs. Davis was an inteligent woman and helped compolete her husban's memoir. Kate (Davis) Pulitzer, a distant cousin, was the wife nespaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer. After her husband dued, Mrs. Davis moved to New York where she wrote a column for the New York World. She apparently took to big city life.


Davis' first marriage produced no children, but his second marriage with Varina Howell produced six children. Davis loved his children and had a very affectionate relationship with them. Both Davis and Lincoln shared the sorrow of losing young children. Few of Davis' children survived him. Both Davis and Lincoln had school age children at the time of the Civil War. All of the Davis children were born before or during the Civil War. The early losses of all four of their sons was a source of enormous grief to both the Davises. Here the Lincolns and Davises had very similar exoeriebces.
Samuel Emory (1852-54): Sammuel was their first child. He died at only age 2 years. Both Davis and Lincoln shared the sorrow of losing young children.
Margaret Howell (1855-1909): Margaret married Joel Addison Hayes, Jr. (1848-1919) in 1876. She was the only Davis child to lead a long life and marry.
Jefferson, Jr. (1857-78): Jefferson Jr. was his father's namesake. He was their second son. (Samuel had died a toiddler 3 years before Jeff was born. He has been described as a rambunctious child. Like Willie abd Todd, Jeff thoroughly enjoyed life in the Confederate White House. The staff and aides as in the Washingtoin White Hoiuse indulged him. Some clled him the 'General'. The Davises were disaapointed in Jeff, Jr. He has been described as a charming young man, but for whatever reason seens to have lacked motivtion. His after the War father removed him frm the Virginia Military Accademy fearing he was about to be expelled.
Joseph Evan (1859-64): Joe was tragically killed when he fell from a banister outside the Confederate White House.
William Howell (1861-72): William was nicknamed Billy. He died tragically at only about 11 years of age, about the same age of Lincoln's son Willie who died in the White House.
Varina Anne (1864-98): Varina was the only Davis child to have a long life and surviuve her oarents. She was able to marry and have children.

Growing up in the Confederate White House

The Davises like the Lincolns appear to have been very indulgent parents. Both lost children during the War abd both lost children before the War. Lincoln an Davis were very differennt people. Linclon was a very talent glad-handing politicn. Davis has been described as imperious, espoecilly wuth people tht disagreed with him. Thevtwo we similsar, hoiwever, in tenderly treating their wives and children. Jefferson Davis Jr. had Confederate uniforms he liked to wear, but unlike the Lincoln boys, was never photograohed in them. He seems to have been as wild as Tadd and Willie, but did not have a confederate about his age. Like Tadd abd Wuillie, he had a cannon. But unlike the two Lincoln children it was not taken away, It was of course snall, but a real working cannon. There were very different udeas about child safety than is the case today. And he was allowed to use it to conduct target practice at 'Yankee' targets. He helped organize a gang of boys from the well-to-do families around the Confederate White at the top of a hill. They made war on the less-well-off boys at the bottom of the Hill. After noting Jeff Jr., coming home bruised and bloodied, his father had a talk with those boys, urging them to make peace. He had no more success with them than with Presiudent Lincoln. They told him that they liked him, but 'they were not bout hoing to make peace with those hill top boys.'

The Children's clothes

Both surviving Davis boys (Jeff Jr.) and Billy wear knicker suits in a 1867 photograph. Note both boys hold a favorite toy, a hoop. Jeff Jr. holds a top with his hoop and Billy hold the stick used to roll the hoop.
Hair: Both boys have short hair cuts, parted down the middle. Margaret wears long, but uncurled hair.
Collar : Both boys appear to wear small white, rounded collars, rather like the Peter Pan collars so popular in the 1900s.
Bow: Neither bow wears a bow. This was common 1860s fashion for younger children to wear suits and white collars without bows. Even little Billy here wears no bows. This contrasts sharply with the huge bows mothers were selecting by the 1880s.
Jacket : The two surviving boys in a 1867 photograph wear different, age appropriate jackets. The younger boy, Billy, wears a jacket that only buttons at the collar and then falls apart to show the boy's blouse. This was a style of jacket often worn with a dress or skirt by boys who had not yet been breeched. This suggests that Billy had perhaps been breeched fairly recently. His older brother Jeff Jr. wears a more mature looking jacket that was worn buttoned up. It looks like it may have Norfolk styling.
Knickers : Knickers were not novel in the 1860s, but most American boys after breeching through the 1860s were still wearing long trousers. Note that Lincoln's two younger sons, Tad and Willie, both wore long pants--although interestingly they were sometimes cut above the ankles. The kneepants which became so popular in the 1870s were still not commonly seen in the 1860s.
Stockings: Note that both boys ] wear light-colored stockings with their knickers. This was still common in the 1860s, but when older boys started wearing kneepants in the 1870s, most boys wore dark stockings.


This remarkable leader is generally pictured as an icy, distant man. Felicity Allen, a recent biographer, shows a strong, yet gentle man; a stern soldier who loved horses, guns, poetry, and children; a master of the English language; a man of powerful feelings who held them in such tight control that he was considered cold; and a home-loving Mississippian who was drawn into a vortex of national events and eventual catastrophe. Davis's Christian view of life runs like a thread throughout the book as shown by his devotion to his family, to the land, and to God. "Duty, honor, country" always occupied Davis's mind.

Reentry into Public Life

The marriage marked the reentry into punlic life and the beginning of a new life in politics. He was elected to his first term in the House of Representatives in 1846.

Mexican War (1846-48)

War broke out with Mexico (1836) Davis resigned from the House in 1847 to command a Mississippi regiment during the Mexican War. He served under his former commander and father-in-law, Zaccary Taylor. Taylor commanded the forces in northern Mexico. The major battle of Taylor's campaign occurred at Buena Vista. Taylor's force was baly outnumbered by Sahnta Ana's army. Davis performned heroically. His heroics included arranging his men for an unorthodox wedge charge. Davis' performance helped cement a personal friendship with Taylor. This was the last major battle in the north. After the battle the focus of the campaign shifted south. President Pierce qquarled with Taylor and transferred part of his command to Geberal Winfield Scott who was planning a southern campaign.

Renewed Political Career (1847-61)

Davis returned to the United States and renewerd his political career, now a natianally known figure (1847). Davis began his first term in the Senate (1847). Davis in his Washington years cut an impressive swathe through Washington society. The dashing War hero, immaculately dressed, was admired by many and the leading representative of the Southern plantation aristocracy. President Pierce appointed Secretary of War (1853). He was by vall accounts an effective administrator. He served in that posr thriughout the Pierve Adminidstration. He returned to the Senate (1857). Then in 1861 Mississippi seceded from the Union, which of course forced him to resign to support Mississippi.

The Civil War (1861-65)

Davis with his military background expected to be given command of the Confederate armies. It is one of the many ironies of history that Davis with his military eoeruence poorly managed the Confedreacy's military strategy. Incontrast, Lincoln who knew virtully nothing avout the military and had opposed the Mexican War, brilliantly oversaw Federal military strategy.

The War years

Davis did not get the military appointment he expected. Instead he was chosen president of the Confederate government (provisional, 1861--62; elected, 1862--65). He and his wife pulled up stakes, and moved to Richmond, Virginia. Like Lincon, Davis aged notably during the War. Davis was criticized for intervening in military policies and for assuming near-dictatorial executive powers. He made the most disaterous decesionn of the War, ordering the Confederates in Charleston to fire the first shoits of the War. Had thhe Federals fired the first shot, the Union slmost certainly would have lost some or all of the Border States. This would have severely hampered the Federal war effort. Without the Border Sttes, It wouuld have also affected northern opinion. Some of his military appointments, such as Hood before Atlanta were disastrous. His intolerance of disagreement, in stark contrast to Lincoln, impaired efforts build a national consensus. His failure to select competent subordinates further handicapped his effectiveness as a war president. Nevertheless, historians have judged him the best candidate for a difficult if not impossible job, for he constantly found himself opposed by Southerners who embraced extreme states' rights positions rather to support a unified Confederate Government. Davis consistently rejected any kind of political resolution of the War. He fled the Richmond, rather than surrendering after Lee attempted evacuate the army.

Desire to continue resistance

Even after the General Lee's surrender at Appomatox Court House in 1865, Davis was unprepared to surrender. He rejected Lee's approach of recognizing the Federal victory and advising his men to become good citizens of the United states. Davis rejected any compromise and wanted to lead a guerrilla war that would have only further devastated the South.


Federal calvary captured the fleeing Davis in Georgia (May 10, 1865). He was confined to a prison until Federal officials decided what to do with him. He was finally set free in 1867. While many clamored for a treason trial, he was never tried. Federal officials were concerned about the Constitutional issues a trial would raise, such as the right of secession.

After the War

Davis lived for 12 years after the War. He traveled in Europe and worked for a Memphis insurance company. He retired to write his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (2 vols. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1881). They were written at Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi. He died of the sickness that had plagued him so many times during his life, pneumonia (1889).


Felicity Allen, Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart.
Addey, Markinfield. Life of Jefferson Davis, 1890
Alfriend, Frank H. Life of Jefferson Davis. 1868
Ballard, Michael B. Long Shadow: Jefferson Davis and the Final Days of the Confederacy. 1986
Bancroft, A. C. Life and Death of Jefferson Davis. 1889
Canfield, Cass. The Iron Will of Jefferson Davis. 1978
Cashin, Joan E. First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina's Davis' Civil War. Catton, Bruce and William. Two Roads to Sumter. 1971
Craven, John J. Prison Life of Jefferson Davis. 1886
Cutting, Elisabeth B. Jefferson Davis. 1930
Davis, Burke. The Long Surrender. 1985
Davis, Jefferson. Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist. Ed. by Dunbar Rowland. 10 vols. 1923
_______. Jefferson Davis: Private Letters. Ed. by Hudson Strode. 1966
_______. The Papers of Jefferson Davis. Ed. by Haskell M. Monroe et al., 9 vols. to date. 1971-
Davis, Varina Howell. Jefferson Davis, A Memoir. (2 vols.) 1890
Davis, William C. Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour. 1991
Dodd, William E. Jefferson Davis. 1907
Eaton, Clement. Jefferson Davis. 1977
Eckenrode, Hamilton J. Jefferson Davis. 1923
Eckert, Edward K. Fiction Distorting Fact: The Prison Life. 1986
Escott, Paul D. After Secession: Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism. 1978
Evans, William A. Jefferson Davis, His Diseases and His Doctors. 1942
Everett, Frank E. Brierfield: Plantation Home of Jefferson Davis. 1971
Frey, Herman S. Jefferson Davis. 1977
Gilbert, C. E. Two Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis. 1927
Hamilton, Holman. Three Kentucky Presidents. 1978
Hendrick, Burton J. Statesmen of the Lost Cause. 1939
_______. Jefferson Davis and "Stonewall" Jackson. 1866
Jones, J. William. Davis Memorial Volume. 1890>br> Kimmel, Stanley P. Mr. Davis's Richmond. 1958
Knight, Landon. The Real Jefferson Davis. 1904
Langhein, Eric. Jefferson Davis. 1962
Lee, Robert E. Lee's Dispatches. Ed. by Douglas S. Freeman and Grady McWhiney. 1957>br> Life & Reminiscences of Jefferson Davis. 1890
Life of Jefferson Davis. By A South Carolinian. 1865
Lindsey, David. Abraham Lincoln/Jefferson Davis. 1960
McElroy, Robert M. Jefferson Davis. (2 vols.) 1937
Mann, Ambrose D. "My ever dearest friend" . . . Letters to Jefferson Davis, 1869-89. l960
Maurice, Frederick B. Statesmen and Soldiers of the Civil War. 1926
Patrick, Rembert W. Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet. 1944
Pollard, Edwin A. Life of Jefferson Davis. 1869
Quynn, Russell H. Constitutions of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. 1959
Schaff, Morris. Jefferson Davis, His Life and Personality. 1922
Strode, Hudson. Jefferson Davis. (3 vols.) 1955-64
Tate, Allen. Jefferson Davis, His Rise and Fall. 1929
Trent, William P. Southern Statesmen of the Old Regime. 1897
Vandiver, Frank E. The Making of a President. 1962
Walthall, William T. Jefferson Davis. 1908
Warren, Robert Penn. Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back. 1980
Werstein, Irving. Abraham Lincoln v. Jefferson Davis. 1959
Wiley, Bell I. Road to Appomattox. 1968
Winston, Robert W. High Stakes & Hair Trigger: The Life of Jefferson Davis. 1930
Woodworth, Steven E. Jefferson Davis and His Generals. 1990
_______. Davis and Lee at War. 1995


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