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Useful Notes / Jefferson Davis

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"If the Confederacy fails, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a Theory."

Jefferson Finis Davis (June 3, 1808 – December 6, 1889) was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.

Prior to this, Davis actually lived a very interesting life. He went to West Point, and he fought in the Black Hawk War between Midwest settlers and the Native American tribes there (ironically, Abraham Lincoln also fought in this war). Davis served under future President Zachary Taylor, and, against Taylor’s wishes, married the man’s daughter, Sarah, in 1835. She died three months later, and Davis was never really the same after that, even after he married again in 1845.

Davis was elected to the House of Representatives in 1845 (representing Mississippi), but resigned less than a year later to fight in the Mexican-American War. He fought very bravely in the war, reached the rank of Colonel, and met with President James K. Polk a few times. He then completed the term of a Mississippi Senator who died while in office. After a failed attempt at becoming Governor of Mississippi, Davis served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. He was then elected to the Senate again, and spent most of his term making speeches against secession. Although he did believe that each state had to right to secede, his service as Secretary of War led him to (correctly) believe that the North was stronger than the South. When Mississippi seceded in 1861, he resigned from the Senate and would later call it the saddest day of his life.


Less than a month later, Davis was chosen as the President of the Confederacy for his political and military experience. He actually wanted to serve as the leader of the Confederate forces, though. Davis initially sought a peaceful way to maintain the independence of the Confederacy, but he gave up when Abraham Lincoln refused his proposals and the Union-controlled Fort Sumter in South Carolina was attacked. Thus, The American Civil War began. Davis was well aware that the South was outmatched by the North both in terms of resources and manpower, and from the beginning he determined to fight a mainly defensive war, while lobbying for support from England and France to help win international recognition as a new nation.

Unfortunately for Davis, running the South during this very difficult time proved to be too much for him. It didn’t help that the relationship between the state and federal governments of the Confederacy were looser than in the North, where the federal government has clear authority over state governments.note  Or that his Cabinet members often fought with both Davis and each other. Or that no foreign nation would come to the Confederacy’s aid despite his pleas. Or that the Southern economy collapsed during the war, and that Davis’ decision to fix it by printing loads and loads of bills only made things so much worse. From start to finish, the Southern economy's currency inflated by over 9000%. Still, Davis knew that the Confederacy had fewer forces and fewer resources than the Union, so he decided to fight a largely defensive war. He appointed Robert E. Lee to defend Virginia, which saved the Confederate capital of Richmond for a few years. In early 1865, Lee warned that he could no longer defend Richmond, and Davis was forced to flee, along with his cabinet. After a final meeting in Danville, he went south with the intention of sailing to Europe with his wife, but he was captured before they reached the coast of Georgia. Urban Legend states that he dressed as a woman to avoid capture, but in reality he only put on his wife’s overcoat because it was cold that morning. Davis was captured, charged with treason, and imprisoned for two years. A trial was never held, despite the fact that Davis wanted one, because the members of President Andrew Johnson's cabinet argued about whether or not charges of treason could be proven. After two years of imprisonment, Davis was released on bail of $100,000, which was posted by prominent citizens including Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Gerrit Smith. Davis remained under indictment until he was released from all liability by the presidential amnesty issued by Johnson on December 25, 1868.


Since Davis could not hold public office again, he struggled for much of his post-war life. His business ventures typically ended with failure. In fact, he probably would have lived in poverty if it wasn't for the generosity of wealthy Southern author Sarah Dorsey, who let him live with her and left her plantation and wealth to him in her will. He wrote two popular books about the Confederacy during his last few years, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government and A Short History of the Confederate States of America. He also went on tours asking Southerners to accept that the North won and pledge loyalty and goodwill to the Union, which redeemed him in the eyes of many bitter Lost Cause-supporters. Privately, though, Davis hated the Reconstruction policies of the North and was also against giving African Americans the right to vote. After he died, the South held a very, very large funeral in his honor in New Orleans. Nearly a century later, Jimmy Carter restored the citizenship of the deceased Davis.

Needless to say, you'll get different opinions on Davis depending on whom (and where) you ask. In the Southern states that seceded, he is largely remembered, more-or-less, as a hero who tried his best to defend the Confederacy from the Union forces. There are monuments, streets, and schools honoring him in these states. In the North, he’s basically remembered as the guy who lost to Abraham Lincoln and praise to him is typically laughed off. Due to his support of slavery and his beliefs that whites were racially superior, the African American community isn’t very fond of him. Historians usually don’t think very highly of his leadership abilities, although there is a growing opinion that he himself was a potentially competent leader stuck in a position that called for far more than mere competence. Remember the Rule of Cautious Editing Judgment.

Fun fact: Barack Obama, through his white mother, is related to Jefferson Davis. The first African American in Congress, Hiram Rhodes Revels, was elected to the Senate from Davis' state of Mississippi, but to the other Senate seat.

Davis in fiction:

  • Appears in the second arc of the soap opera North And South (starring a young and dashing Patrick Swayze in his Star-Making Role). He is played by Lloyd Bridges. Davis here is given a bit of a Historical Villain Upgrade. (He is portrayed as more pro-succession then he ever was in real life, as well as being a bit of an air-headed blowhard.)
  • He is mentioned in passing in the biopic Lincoln as The Ghost by Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley).
  • In the Alternate History series Decades of Darkness, where New England secedes in the early 1800s, Davis eventually becomes President of the US — ironically, at the same time that Lincoln is President of New England. For even more irony, it's Davis who ends up assassinated, with Lincoln attending his funeral.
  • He is prominently featured in the mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, which features an alternate history in which the South wins the war.


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