Jefferson Davis

Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. Vol. III. Boston, MA, USA: The Biographical Society, 1904

Davis, Jefferson, soldier and statesman, was born in Christian county, Ky., June 3, 1808; son of Samuel and Jane (Cook) Davis, and grandson of Evan Davis. The exact place of his birth is known as Fairview, Todd county, and a Baptist [p.160] church occupies the site of the weather boarded double log cabin in which he was born. His father was in the military service of Georgia and South Carolina in the war of the American Revolution and commanded a company of infantry which he had recruited. He settled on a farm near Augusta, Ga., after the war, was clerk of Richmond county; married Jane Cook, a beautiful young woman of Scotch-Irish descent; removed to the Green river country of Kentucky, and there engaged in tobacco planting and in raising blooded horses. Samuel's father, Evan Davis, married a widow by the family name of Emery, and was one of the three brothers who came from Wales to America in the early part of the eighteenth century, settled in Philadelphia, Pa., and removed to Georgia, then a colony of Great Britain. Jefferson was the youngest of ten children, five sons and five daughters, and of the sons three served in the war of 1812, the fourth being drafted to stay at home. The fifth, Jefferson, was then but five years old. Samuel Davis carried his family to Bayou Têche, La., but finding the place unhealthful removed to a plantation near Woodville, Wilkinson county, Miss., where he was an extensive planter. Jefferson attended the log schoolhouse until 1815, when he was sent to St. Thomas college, in Washington county, Kentucky. He made the journey on the back of a pony, and the company of which be was a member stopped with and were entertained by Andrew Jackson at the "Hermitage," for several weeks. While there General Jackson asked young Davis what he would like to be, and the lad answered, "a soldier''; and subsequently, through Jackson's influence, be received his appointment to the U.S. military academy. St. Thomas college was in charge of Dominican monks and he remained there two years, the youngest and most of the time the only Protestant boy in the school. He then attended Jefferson college, Adams county, Miss., and afterward the county academy of Wilkinson where he was fitted to enter Transylvania university, Lexington, Ky., by the master, John A. Shaw of Boston, Mass. He entered the sophomore class of Transylvania university in September, 1821, where he was the first scholar in the class, passed examination for admission to the senior class, and left before graduating, having been appointed to a cadetship in the U.S. military academy in November, 1823, by President Monroe. He was graduated from the academy in 1828 as brevet 2d lieutenant of infantry and was ordered to report to the school of practice at Jefferson barracks, St. Louis, Mo. In 1829 he directed the rebuilding of Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien, cutting and sawing the timber and rafting it down the river at great risk from many attacks of hostile Indians. This was the first lumbering done in Wisconsin. He took part in the Black Hawk war, 1830-31, and the conquered Indians, including their chief, were prisoners under his care. He subsequently received the thanks of Black Hawk for his courtesy to the conquered. He was promoted 1st lieutenant in the first dragoons, March 4, 1833, "for gallant service," and resigned from the army, June 30, 1835. He then went directly to Louisville, Ky., where he was married to Sarah Knox, daughter of Col. Zachary Taylor, to whom he had been engaged for two years but had failed to secure her father's permission to marry. The marriage took place at the home of the bride's aunt, a sister of Colonel Taylor, and in the presence of the colonel's two sisters, his brother and his son-in-law. The marriage was in no way an elopement, although not sanctioned by the father, and the estrangement between Colonel Taylor and Lieutenant Davis was not healed during the lifetime of Mrs. Davis, who only lived three months. They located on the Brier field tract, a part of the plantation of his brother, Joseph E. Davis, near Vicksburg, Miss., which he accepted in exchange for his interest in his father's slaves who had passed into the service of his older brother. The young couple contracted malarial fever and while on a visit to Locust Grove plantation near Bayou Sara, La., owned by his sister, Mrs. Luther Smith, Mrs. Davis died, Sept. 15, 1835. Mr. Davis spent the winter of 1835-36 in Havana, Cuba. He returned to Mississippi by way of New York in 1836 and visited Washington, where he met President Van Buren and many other distinguished national men, among them Franklin Pierce. He remained on his plantation, the Brierfield, and at the Hurricane, the home of his brother, for the next nine years. In 1843 he was urged, as the most popular man of the county, to be a candidate for the Democratic or State Rights party for representative of Warren county in the state legislature. He ran only to poll the vote, as the county gave always a large Whig majority. He was unsuccessful, but closed the canvass with a notable fifteen-minute debate with S. S. Prentiss, the popular Whig orator, and came off very well in the argument. [p.161] In 1844 he was chosen a presidential elector at large from Mississippi on the Polk and Dallas ticket. He was married at "The Briers," near Natchez, Miss., Feb. 26, 1845, to Varina, daughter of William Burr Howell, who served with honor in the battles on the lakes in the war of 1812, and granddaughter of Gov. Richard Howell of New Jersey. Mr. Davis was elected a representative in the 29th congress, and was an earnest supporter of war measures in determining the Mexican question. He resigned his seat in congress in June, 1846, having in his absence been elected to the colonelcy of the 1st Mississippi volunteer rifles. He joined the regiment in New Orleans, July 21, 1846, and there shipped on the steamship Alabama to reinforce General Taylor on the Rio Grande, landing at Brazes and marching thence to the mouth of the Rio Grande. His command was transported by steamer to Comargo where General Taylor was encamped, preparatory to marching upon. Monterey. After the three days' storming of Monterey, in which Colonel Davis greatly distinguished himself, he was appointed with Governor Henderson of Texas and General Worth of the U.S. army, a commissioner, to meet a like number appointed by the Mexicans to arrange the terms of capitulation. He twice saved the day at Buena Vista and was the leader of a brilliant charge in which his regiment, when only 280 strong and unsupported, resisted the attack of a Mexican brigade of lancers, numbering more than ten to one of the Mississippians. Colonel Davis was severely wounded in the foot and was reported to General Taylor as among the killed. In his dispatch of March 6, 1847, announcing the victory at Buena Vista, the commanding general complimented Colonel Davis for his coolness and gallantry. The 1st Mississippi rifles with its colonel and lieutenant-colonel severely wounded and its nine hundred and twenty-six men reduced to three hundred and seventy-six, were ordered to New Orleans, which port they reached, June 9, 1847. Their term of enlistment had just expired and they were given an ovation in which S. S. Prentiss delivered the address to which Colonel Davis replied. While he was still in Mexico he was appointed by President Polk brigadier-general of volunteers in recognition of his valor and efficiency, which honor he declined on the ground that the constitution provided for such appointments to be made by the states and not by the Federal government. The death of Senator Jesse Speight left a vacancy in the U.S. senate and Governor Brown of Mississippi at once named Colonel Davis to the position, and the legislature unanimously confirmed the appointment. He took his seat in the United States senate, Dec. 6, 1847. He was appointed on the committees on military affairs, the library, and pensions, and was made a regent of the Smithsonian institution then in process of organization and had a formative influence on that board. He advocated in committee and on the floor of the senate the Cuss "Ten regiment bill" devised to provide a police force to maintain peace on the Mexican border and prevent the calling out of the volunteer militia of the states except on extraordinary occasions. In this measure he was opposed by Calhoun and Webster. The treaty of peace, copies of which were laid before congress by President Polk, July 6, 1848, rendered this increase of the army unnecessary. Mr. Davis was made chairman of the committee on military affairs during the session of the 31st congress, receiving thirty-two votes to five for all other candidates. During this congress he refused the command of an expedition to liberate Cuba, proffered by General Lopez and accompanied by a deposit of $100,000 to provide for his family and the premium of $100,000 more when the expedition succeeded. When asked to name the officer who he thought promised the wisest conduct of the expedition, Senator Davis suggested Major Robert E. Lee, who, however, after consulting with Mr. Davis, also declined, on the ground that his acceptance would be inconsistent with his duties as an officer of the U.S. army. In the senate Mr. Davis was a decided state rights advocate. He opposed the compromise measures advanced by Mr. Clay and the nullification principles of Mr. Calhoun as departures from the constitutional rights of the states, but continued to maintain the most friendly relations with both statesmen. Nevertheless he always expressed his willingness to meet any practicable compromise which would be guaranteed to be a finality. He accompanied the remains of Mr. Calhoun to Charleston, S.C., as one of the escort of honor, appointed by the senate. He was re-elected to the U.S. senate in 1851 and resigned in October, 1852, to take up the canvass for governor of Mississippi, in order to test the will of the people. He declined to be nominated as the candidate for governor and it was accepted by General Quitman, who after the disasters to the Democratic party in the September election for delegates to the state convention, declined to finish the canvass. With only three weeks intervening before the election, Mr. Davis, though confined to his room with acute amaurosis, agreed to enter the canvass as the Democratio candidate. In three weeks he changed fifteen thousand votes, but was defeated and returned to his plantation expecting to enjoy some years of private life. President Pierce, with whom he had been domesticated for a winter when they were both young, in making up his cabinet in [p.162] 1853, urged upon Mr. Davis the acceptance of the portfolio of war and he reluctantly took his place in the executive family, March 4, 1853. His conduct of the department is a matter of public record. The army was judiciously but emphatically strengthened; the coast was more fully defended; the coast survey and geodetic observations were extended; and the fields of astronomy, zoölogy, botany and meteorology were fully exploited. He ordered the survey for the construction of the Pacific railways, added to the fortifications of the New England and Pacific coasts; repressed Indian hostilities; and provided for the more speedy transportation of guns and ammunition in case of need. He recommended national armories, urged the extension of the pension system to widows and orphans of soldiers and took the initiatory measures for a retired list. He also had charge of the enlargement of the national capitol by the addition of the two wings to provide a new senate chamber and hall of representatives and the construction of a more imposing dome to the structure. Under his administration the Washington aqueduct and Cabin John Bridge was built, the largest single span arch in the world. President Pierce's cabinet presents the only instance in the history of a presidential administration in which no change was made in the personnel. Mr. Davis was returned to the U.S. senate by the legislature of Mississippi in 1857 and took his scat, March 4, immediately on leaving the cabinet. On a visit to Boston he spoke at Faneuil hall on Oct. 12, 1858, on the condition of the country and the dangers besetting it. He pleaded for the protection of the independence of the states for which New England and all the states fought, and for a strict construction of the constitution, framed and adopted by the founders. In his speech he instanced, as an evidence of the dignity and individuality of the states, the refusal of Governor Hancock to call upon President Washington when on a visit to Boston, an early and emphatic testimonial in favor of state rights and the privileges of states as superior to the union formed by the states. He congratulated Massachusetts as being among the earliest advocates of state rights and community independence. In the Democratic national convention at Charleston, S.C., in 1860, the delegates from Massachusetts gave him their forty-nine undivided votes in unbroken succession as their candidate for the presidency. On Jan. 9, 1861, Mississippi passed the ordinance of secession, but Senator Davis was not officially notified of the act until January 21, during which time he was straining every nerve to prevent secession, but when South Carolina seceded, he, in company with Senators Yulee, Mallory, Fitzpatrick and Clay, withdrew after explaining his purpose to the senate, He remained some time in Washington to test the question of whether the seceding senators would be arrested, and then went to Mississippi. He reached Jackson, Miss., where he found Governor Pettus's commission, making him major-general of the state militia, dated Jan. 25, 1861, awaiting him, and at once proceeded to organize the state into militia districts and to secure arms and ammunition. At the convention of the seceding states at Montgomery, Ala., while Mr. Davis was on his plantation arranging his affairs preparatory to taking the field, on Feb. 9, 1861, he was elected provisional president and Alexander H. Stephens vice-president of the Confederate States and he was notified of the election while in his rose garden at Brierfield, Miss. He delivered his inaugural address at the capitol, Montgomery, Ala., on Monday, Feb. 18, 1861, and at once began the direction of a Confederate government organized on the basis of state rights, under a constitution largely copied from that of the United States, which was not sufficiently specific on the reserved rights of the states. He appointed as his cabinet: Robert Toombs of Georgia, secretary of state; Leroy P. Walker of Alabama, secretary of war; Charles G. Memminger of South Carolina, secretary of the treasury; Stephen R. Mallory of Florida, secretary of the navy; Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana, attorney-general; and John H. Reagan of Texas, postmaster-general. When Virginia seceded, Mr. Davis urged the removal of the capital to Richmond, as the salient point of attack, and the seat of government was removed, July 20, 1861. The battle of Manassas was fought July 21, 1861, and he was on the field throughout the engagement, witnessing the first victory of the Confederate army. A general election was held in the Confederacy in November, 1861, and Mr. Davis was chosen president for six years without opposition. The 1st congress of the Confederate States under the constitution met at Richmond, Va., Feb. 18, 1862, and Mr. Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederate states, Feb. 22, 1862. On Feb. 27, 1862, the Confederate house of representatives created the office of commanding-general of the Confederate forces, with the approval of the president. On May 31, 1862, President Davis was present on the battlefield of Seven Pines, Va., and after Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was wounded he assigned Gen. Robert E. Lee to the command [p.163] of the army, of northern Virginia. On March 1, 1862, Gen. Leroy Pope Walker resigned the portfolio of war, and Judah P. Benjamin was appointed his successor. In April a general reorganization of the cabinet followed. Judah P. Benjamin was confirmed as secretary of state and of war; C. G. Memminger as secretary of the treasury; S. W. Mallory as secretary of the navy; J. H. Reagan as postmaster-general; and Thomas H. Watts as attorney-general. The only change before this official one had been the appointment of R. M. T. Hunter as secretary of state, early in 1861, to succeed Secretary Toombs, who resigned to enter the army, and when Secretary Hunter soon after resigned to enter the Confederate senate, Judah P. Benjamin took his place. Upon the resignation of Charles G. Memminger, secretary of the treasury in 1864, President Davis appointed George A. Trenholm of South Carolina to succeed him, and when dissatisfaction arose as to theof the war department by Secretary Benjamin he was succeeded by John C. Breckinridge in March, 1865. President Davis visited the army operating in the west, and directed the general conduct of the war with much skill, keeping the expectations of the people at a high point by his cheerful assurances of the hopeful condition of affairs. He left Richmond when Lee's lines were broken, and while making his way to the trans-Mississippi under escort of a small party, hoping to rally the southwestern army, he was captured at Irwinsville, Ga., May 10, 1865, taken to Fort Monroe and confined as a state prisoner for two years, first in a gun casemate heavily ironed, and afterward he was allowed more freedom. On May 8, 1866, he was indicted for treason by the grand jury of the U.S. court for the district of Virginia under Judge Underwood, at Richmond, and on June 5, 1865, Charles O'Conor and James T. Brady of his counsel urged before the court then in session at Richmond, that the trial proceed, or the prisoner be bailed. The court refused either, and on May 13, 1867, the prisoner was brought before the court at Richmond on a writ of habeas corpus issued by Judge Underwood at Alexandria, Va., May 1, 1867, and on May 14 he was delivered to the civil authorities and admitted to bail on the sum of $100,000. The bail bend was signed by many prominent public men including Horace Greeley, Gerrit Smith, Augustus Schell, and Horace F. Clark, the last two also representing Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was brought to trial at Richmond, Va., Dec. 3, 1867, and after hearing the arguments, Chief Justice Chase was in favor of quashing the indictment. Judge Underwood opposed, and the case was certified to the supreme court to decide, when a nolle prosequi was entered by the government. His name was included among those under the general amnesty of December, 1868. Mr. Davis declined always to take the oath of allegiance or ask pardon, consequently he had no vote. He returned to Mississippi and was for a time interested in the Mississippi valley company, a project for encouraging trade between New Orleans and South America and European ports, which proved premature and he then repaired to Beauvoir where he commenced the preparation of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. His constituents were very desirous to test the question of his disfranchisement by sending him to the senate, but he did not desire to raise disturbing questions in the country and declined their urgent appeals. He rented a cottage known as the Pavilion, in the grounds of Mrs. Sarah A. Dorsey's residence. She was a schoolmate of Mrs. Davis, and he subsequently purchased the place. Upon the death of Mrs. Dorsey he was made executor of the estate and found by the terms of her will that he was her legatee, and in order to render it impossible for him to refuse the gift the reversion was made to his youngest daughter. In November, 1889, he visited his plantation, Brierfield, where he was attacked with the grippe and when he became very ill he attempted to return to Beauvoir house on a steamer, by way of New Orleans, but could not be moved from the house of his friend, I. U. Payne. He was followed to his grave at Richmond by thousands of his people. He published: Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (2 volumes, 1881); and his wife, Varina Jefferson Davis, who for purposes of identification assumed his name at his death, finished an autobiography begun by him and published it as Jefferson Davis, Ex-President of the Confederate States of America: A Memoir (2 vols., 1891). He died at New Orleans, La., Dec. 6, 1889.


The bio below is from the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress:
DAVIS, Jefferson, (1808 - 1889)
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Senate Years of Service: 1847-1851; 1857-1861
Party: Democrat; Democrat
DAVIS, Jefferson, (son-in-law of President Zachary Taylor), a Representative and a Senator from Mississippi; born in what is now Fairview, Todd County, Ky., June 3, 1808; moved with his parents to a plantation near Woodville, Wilkinson County, Miss.; attended the country schools, St. Thomas College, Washington County, Ky., Jefferson College, Adams County, Miss., Wilkinson County Academy, and Transylvania University, Lexington, Ky.; graduated from the United States Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., in 1828; served in the Black Hawk War in 1832; promoted to the rank of first lieutenant in the First Dragoons in 1833, and served until 1835, when he resigned; moved to his plantation, 'Brierfield,' in Warren County, Miss., and engaged in cotton planting; elected as a Democrat to the Twenty-ninth Congress and served from March 4, 1845, until June 1846, when he resigned to command the First Regiment of Mississippi Riflemen in the war with Mexico; appointed to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Jesse Speight; subsequently elected and served from August 10, 1847, until September 23, 1851, when he resigned; chairman, Committee on Military Affairs (Thirtieth through Thirty-second Congresses); unsuccessful candidate for Governor in 1851; appointed Secretary of War by President Franklin Pierce 1853-1857; again elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate and served from March 4, 1857, until January 21, 1861, when he withdrew with other secessionist Senators; chairman, Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia (Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Congresses); commissioned major general of the State militia in January 1861; chosen President of the Confederacy by the Provisional Congress and inaugurated in Montgomery, Ala., February 18, 1861; elected President of the Confederacy for a term of six years and inaugurated in Richmond, Va., February 22, 1862; captured by Union troops in Irwinsville, Ga., May 10, 1865; imprisoned in Fortress Monroe, indicted for treason, and was paroled in the custody of the court in 1867; returned to Mississippi and spent the remaining years of his life writing; died in New Orleans, La., on December 6, 1889; interment in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, La.; reinterment on May 31, 1893, in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Va.; the legal disabilities placed upon him were removed, and he was posthumously restored to the full rights of citizenship, effective December 25, 1868, pursuant to a Joint Resolution of Congress


 

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