Jefferson Davis is a man who is more infamous than famous. What do you know about him from your history books and history classes? One of the most-told stories is probably that of his capture. Rumors spread and entered into the American conscience regarding what Davis was wearing at the time of his arrest: It was said that he was arrested wearing women's clothing, but in fact he was only wearing his wife's rain cape. This isn't quite the picture that is depicted as him in a dress, bloomers, and bonnet. Shouldn't we be as truthful about those we consider to be enemies as we are about our American heroes? So who was Jefferson Davis?
Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, the youngest of ten children. Two years after his birth, his family moved to the frontier. The oldest son, Joseph, stayed in Hopkinsville, Kentucky to study law while the rest of the family joined their father Samuel Davis as they moved and settled for the last time. Samuel and his wife, Jane Davis, would live on several hundred acres where he would grow cotton and name it Poplar Grove. Davis had little memories of those early years but he did remember the "unparalleled devotion" of his brothers to America as they went off to fight in the War of 1812.
Samuel Davis imparted to his children that "knowledge is power" and sought to provide educations for their children. Jefferson Davis attended St. Thomas, a Catholic boys' school, for two terms starting in 1816. He learned Latin and Greek which would stick with him all his life. After returning home at his mother's request, Davis was sent to Jefferson College briefly and then Wilkinson County Academy. He was educated at Wilkinson Academy until 1823 when his father arranged for him to attend Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. While Davis attending school, his father died.
After the death of his father, Davis' older brother, Joseph, succeeded in getting an appointment to West Point. On March 11, 1824, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun issued Jefferson Davis a commission as a cadet. By leaving Transylvania University, he would no longer be an incoming senior but would instead be a freshmen at West Point.
In the first year, Davis studied mathematics which included algebra, calculus, geometry, trigonometry, analytic geometry, French with grammar and vocabulary, reading French military manuals, and being drilled on the field. In addition to studying, Davis also found himself getting into trouble. He missed guard mounting, disobeyed orders, did not keep his room clean, and even had his hair too long for which he earned a demerit. While he spent the majority of his four years at West Point getting in trouble, he felt the experience had changed him and convinced him that West Point had made him a soldier. He graduated twenty-third in a class of thirty-two students in 1828.
After his graduation, Jefferson Davis served at outposts in the frontier territories of Wisconsin and Michigan. In the 1800s, there were problems in the area between the United States government and the Indians who lived in the territory stemming back to a disputed 1804 Treaty. In the 1830s, part of the Sauk tribe that lived in the area wanted to resist American expansion. Black Hawk emerged as a leader. He would lead raids and battles in what would come to be known as the Black Hawk War. Lieutenant Davis would escort Black Hawk and other Indian prisoners during the war.
While at Fort Crawford in the Michigan Territory, Davis met Sarah Knox Taylor – daughter of Colonel Zachary Taylor. Jefferson and Sarah were married on June 17, 1835. Davis resigned his army commission and planned, with the help of his brother, to become a Mississippi planter.
|Zachary Taylor (image from WPClipart.com)|
Life as a Planter
Joseph Davis gave his brother eight hundred acres twenty miles south of Vicksburg, MS. Davis named his plantation "Brierfield." Shortly after their marriage, both Davis and his wife fell ill to malaria. Davis survived but just three short months after their marriage, Sarah died on September 15, 1835. For the next seven years, he visited his brother's library and read books about law, philosophy, and history.
During the Christmas season of 1843, Varina Howell visited Hurricane (Joseph Davis' plantation). Varina and Davis quickly fell in love and on February 26, 1845 the two were married. It was during their courtship that Davis began showing more and more of an interest in politics. In 1845, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives for Mississippi.
War with Mexico
With the start of the Mexican-American War in 1846, things changed again for Davis. He was elected colonel of a volunteer regiment organised at Vicksburg called The Mississippi Rifles. Colonel Davis led his soldiers at Monterrey on September 21, 1846. They continued south under the command of General Zachary Taylor, his former father-in-law, to Buena Vista. Early on February 21, 1847, Davis was shot in the right foot but he remained in his saddle until sunset and the American victory. He returned home a hero and was appointed to finish the term of a Senator who had died. He served in the Senate after winning his own election until 1850.
|Battle of Buena Vista|
Secretary of War
In 1853, President Franklin Pierce named Davis the United States Secretary of War. He held himself responsible for all that occurred in his department and did not delegate. He did not promote the spoils system nor foster sectional favoritism during his time as Secretary of War. He oversaw the increase in the size of the army from ten thousand to fifteen thousand men. Improvements were made in uniforms and equipment. New arsenals and forts were constructed.
Final Term as U.S. Senator
Davis was elected again to the United States Senate in 1857 from Mississippi. The topic of slavery was at the forefront. People took sides and Davis argued in defense of the constitutional right of states to choose their own institutions which included slavery. With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, many feared that slavery would be abolished. South Carolina seceded from the United States and one by one other states followed. On January 21, 1861, Davis resigned from the Senate.
A New Government
After the secession, delegates from the states met in Montgomery, Alabama. A constitution was drafted and on February 9, 1861, Jefferson Davis was unanimously elected as the president of the Confederate States of America. He would lead the new nation through its entire existence as the Civil War was fought until it ended at Appomattox.