Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, the tenth son of Samuel Emory Davis, a plantation owner from Mississippi, was born in 3rd June, 1808. At seven he was sent to a boarding school in Kentucky and six years later entered Transylvania College, Lexington.

In 1824 Davis entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating in 1828 he served as a lieutenant in the Wisconsin Territory and took part in the Black Hawk War. Davis resigned his commission in 1835 and became a planter to Vicksburg.

Davis entered Congress in 1845 for Mississippi and served with distinction in the Mexican War (1846-47). Davis, a member of the Democratic Party, successfully won election to the Senate in 1848. His father-in-law, Zachary Taylor, had been elected as president. A member of the Whig Pary, Taylor supported the admission of California as a free state. Davis disagreed and led the pro-slavery faction in Congress. After the death of Taylor, Davis served as Secretary of War.

In 1860 the R candidate, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the USA. Between election day in November and the inauguration the following March, seven states seceded from the Union: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Representatives from these seven states quickly established a new political organization, the Confederate States of America.

On 8th February the Confederate States of America adopted a constitution and within ten days had elected Davis as its president and Alexander Stephens, as vice-president. Montgomery, Alabama, became its capital and the Stars and Bars was adopted as its flag. Davis was also authorized to raise 100,000 troops.

Davis took the view that after a state seceded, federal forts became the property of the state. On 12th April, 1861, General Pierre T. Beauregard demanded that Major Robert Anderson surrender Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour. Anderson replied that he would be willing to leave the fort in two days when his supplies were exhausted. Beauregard rejected this offer and ordered his Confederate troops to open fire. After 34 hours of bombardment the fort was severely damaged and Anderson was forced to surrender.

On hearing the news, Abraham Lincoln called a special session of Congress and proclaimed a blockade of Gulf of Mexico ports. This strategy was based on the Anaconda Plan developed by General Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the Union Army. It involved the army occupying the line of the Mississippi and blockading Confederate ports. Scott believed if this was done successfully the South would negotiate a peace deal. However, at the start of the war, the US Navy had only a small number of ships and was in no position to guard all 3,000 miles of Southern coast.

Major General Irvin McDowell was given command of the Union Army and in July, 1861, Lincoln sent him to take Richmond, the new base the Confederate government. On 21st July McDowell engaged the Confederate Army at Bull Run. The Confederate troops led by Joseph E. Johnson, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, James Jeb Stuart, Jubal Early, E. Kirby Smith, Braxton Bragg and Pierre T. Beauregard, easily defeated the inexperienced Union Army. The South had won the first great battle of the war and the Northern casualties totaled 1,492 with another 1,216 missing.

In January 1862 the Union Army began to push the Confederates southward. The Confederate Army now regrouped and Albert S. Johnson and Pierre T. Beauregard reunited their armies near the Tennessee-Mississippi line. With 55,000 men they now outnumbered the forces led by Ulysses S. Grant. On 6th April the Confederate Army attacked Grant's army at Shiloh. Taken by surprise, Grant's army suffered heavy losses until the arrival of General Don Carlos Buell and reinforcements.

During the fighting Albert S. Johnson was killed and the new commander, Pierre T. Beauregard, decided to retreat to Corinth, Mississippi. Shiloh was the greatest battle so far of the Civil War. The Union Army suffered 13,000 casualties and the Confederates lost 10,000. However, the Union Army, with the arrival of General Henry Halleck and his troops, were now the stronger and had little difficulty driving Beauregard out of Corinth.

The difference in manpower between the two sides now becoming more noticeable. Whereas the Union consisted of 23 states and 22,000,000 people, the Confederacy had only 9,000,000 people (including 3,500,000 slaves). Davis now announced that the South could not win the war without conscription. In April the Confederate Congress passed the Conscription Act which drafted white men between eighteen and thirty-five for three years' service.

By the summer of 1862 the main Union Army under George McClellan was ready to march on Richmond. McClellan and his 115,000 men encountered the Confederate Army at Williamsburg on 4th May. McClellan moved his troops into the Shenandoah Valley and along with John C. Fremont, Irvin McDowell and Nathaniel Banks surrounded Thomas Stonewall Jackson and his 17,000 man army.

Thomas Stonewall Jackson was under orders from President Jefferson Davis to try and delay the attack on Richmond. Jackson attacked John C. Fremont at Cross Keys before turning on Irvin McDowell at Port Republic. Jackson then rushed his troops east to join up with Joseph E. Johnson and the Confederate forces fighting George McClellan in the suburbs the city.

In May, 1862, General Joseph E. Johnson with some 41,800 men counter-attacked McClellan's slightly larger army at Fair Oaks. The Union Army lost 5,031 men and the Confederate Army 6,134. Johnson was badly wounded during the battle and General Robert E. Lee now took command of the Confederate forces.

Four months later George McClellan faced Robert E. Lee and Thomas Stonewall Jackson again at Antietam. On 17th September, McClellan and Major General Ambrose Burnside attacked with over 75,300 troops against 37,330 Confederate soldiers. Lee held out until Ambrose Hill and reinforcements arrived. It was the most costly day of the war with the Union Army having 2,108 killed, 9,549 wounded and 753 missing. The Confederates, who were now have serious difficulty replacing losses, had 2,700 killed, 9,024 wounded and 2,000 missing. Abraham Lincoln now postponed attempts to capture Richmond and ordered McClellan back to Washington with the words: "My dear McClellan: If you don't want to use the Army I should like to borrow it for a while."

Although far from an overwhelming victory, Lincoln realized the significance of Antietam and on 22nd September, 1862, he felt strong enough to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln told the nation that from the 1st January, 1863, all slaves in states or parts of states, still in rebellion, would be freed.

Throughout the autumn of 1862 the Confederate Army continued to make progress in Kentucky. However, in September, General E. Kirby Smith was halted by Union troops led by General Don Carlos Buell. in Covington. The following month General Braxton Bragg installed a Confederate government in Frankfort, Kentucky. However, this was short-lived and Bragg came under attack at Perryville (Chaplin Hills). During the battle Don Carlos Buell lost 4,211 men (845 killed, 2,851 wounded, and 515 missing) whereas Braxton Bragg lost 3,396 (510 killed, 2635 wounded and 251 missing). After the battle Bragg was forced to retreat back to Tennessee.

During the summer of 1863 Robert E. Lee decided to take the war to the north. The Confederate Army reached Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on 1st July. The town was quickly taken but the Union Army, led by Major General George Meade, arrived in force soon afterwards and for the next two days the town was the scene of bitter fighting. Attacks led by James Jeb Stuart, George Pickett and James Longstreet proved costly and by the 5th July, Lee decided to retreat south. Both sides suffered heavy losses with Lee losing 28,063 men and Meade 23,049.

In March, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was named lieutenant general and the commander of the Union Army. He joined the Army of the Potomac where he worked with George Meade and Philip Sheridan. They crossed the Rapidan and entered the Wilderness. When Lee heard the news he sent in his troops, hoping that the Union's superior artillery and cavalry would be offset by the heavy underbrush of the Wilderness. Fighting began on the 5th May and two days later smoldering paper cartridges set fire to dry leaves and around 200 wounded men were either suffocated or burned to death. Of the 88,892 men that Grant took into the Wilderness, 14,283 were casualties and 3,383 were reported missing. Robert E. Lee lost 7,750 men during the fighting.

Davis decided to build up the Army of Tennessee, now under the control of Joseph E. Johnson. His army was reinforced and by the spring Johnson had 62,000 men. When Ulysses S. Grant heard the news he gave instructions to William Sherman "to move against Johnson's army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy's country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources".

On 7th May, 1864, Sherman and his 100,000 men advanced towards Johnson's army that was attempting to defend the route to Atlanta, the South's important manufacturing and communications centre. Joseph E. Johnson and his army retreated and after some brief skirmishes the two sides fought at Resaca (14th May), Adairsvile (17th May), New Hope Church (25th May), Kennesaw Mountain (27th June) and Marietta (2nd July).

Davis was unhappy about Johnson's withdrawal policy and on 17th July replaced him with the more aggressive John Hood. He immediately went on the attack and hit George H. Thomas and his men at Peachtree Creek. Hood was badly beaten and lost 2,500 men. Two days later he took on William Sherman just outside Atlanta and lost another 8,000 men. By 31st August, Confederate forces began to evacuate Atlanta and by early September the city came under the control of the Union Army.

In August 1864 the Union Army made another attempt to take control of the Shenandoah Valley. Philip Sheridan and 40,000 soldiers entered the valley and soon encountered troops led by Jubal Early who had just returned from Washington. After a series of minor defeats Sheridan eventually gained the upper hand. His men now burnt and destroyed anything of value in the area and after defeating Early in another large-scale battle on 19th October, the Union Army, for the first time, held the Shenandoah Valley.

John Hood continued to adopt an aggressive policy in Tennessee and despite heavy losses surrounded George H. Thomas at Nashville. On 15th December, 1864, Thomas broke out of Nashville and hammered Hood's army. Thomas captured 4,462 soldiers and those still left alive fled into Mississippi and Alabama. The Confederate Army in Tennessee had now been completely destroyed.

On 15th January, 1865, Fort Fisher, North Carolina, the last port under the control of the Confederate Army, fell to a combined effort of the Union Army and the US Navy on 15th January. William Sherman, removed all resistance in the Shenandoah Valley and then marched to Southern Carolina. On 17th February, Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, was taken. Columbia was virtually burnt to the ground and some people claimed the damage was done by Sherman's men and others said it was carried out by the retreating Confederate Army.

In March William Sherman joined Ulysses S. Grant and the main army at Petersburg. On 1st April Sherman attacked at Five Forks. The Confederates, led by Major General George Pickett, were overwhelmed and lost 5,200 men. On hearing the news, Robert E. Lee decided to abandon Richmond and join Joseph E. Johnson in an attempt to halt Sherman's army in South Carolina.

Davis, his family and government officials, were forced to flee from Richmond. The Union Army took control of Richmond and on 4th April Abraham Lincoln entered the city. Protected by ten seamen, he walked the streets and when one black man fell to his knees in front of him, Lincoln told him: "Don't kneel to me. You must kneel to God only and thank him for your freedom." Lincoln travelled to the Confederate Executive Mansion and sat for a while in the former leader's chair before heading back to Washington.

Robert E. Lee was only able to muster an army of 8,000 men. He probed the Union Army at Appomattox but faced by 110,000 men he decided the cause was hopeless. He contacted Ulysses S. Grant and after agreeing terms on 9th April, surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House. Grant issued a brief statement: "The war is over; the rebels are our countrymen again and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field."

When his government collapsed in May, 1865, Davis was arrested and imprisoned for two years in Fortress Monroe. Although indicted for treason, he was not brought to trial and was released in 1867.

Davis returned to Mississippi where he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881). Jefferson Davis died in New Orleans on 6th December, 1889.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Jefferson Davis, inaugural address (18th February, 1861)

The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the States, and which has been affirmed and reaffirmed in the bills of rights of the states subsequently admitted into the Union of 1789, undeniably recognizes in the people the power to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of government. Thus the sovereign states here represented proceeded to form the Confederacy; and it is by the abuse of language that their act has been denominated revolution.

(2) Jefferson Davis, war message (29th April, 1861)

The climate and soil of the Northern states soon proved unpropitious to the continuance of slave labor, while the reverse being the case in the South, made unrestricted free intercourse between the two sections unfriendly.

The Northern states consulted their own interests by selling their slaves to the South and prohibiting slavery between their limits. The South were willing purchasers of property suitable to their wants, and paid the price of the acquisition without harboring a suspicion that their quiet possession was to be distributed by those who were not only in want of constitutional authority but, by good faith as vendors, from disquieting a title emanating from themselves.

As soon, however, as the Northern states that prohibited African slavery within their limits had reached a number sufficient to give their representation a controlling vote in the Congress, a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern states were inaugurated and gradually extended. A series of measures was devised and prosecuted for the purpose of rendering insecure the tenure of property in slaves.

Fanatical organizations, supplied with money by voluntary subscriptions, were assiduously engaged in exciting among the slaves a spirit of discontent and revolt. Means were furnished for their escape from their owners and agents secretly employed to entice them to abscond.

(3) Mary Boykin Chesnut, Richmond, Virginia, diary entry (27th June, 1861)

In Mrs. Davis' drawing room last night, the president took a seat by me on the sofa where I sat. He talked for nearly an hour. He laughed at our faith in our own powers. We are like the British. We think every Southerner equal to three Yankees at least. We will have to be equivalent to a dozen now. He said only fools doubted the courage of the Yankees or their willingness to fight what they saw fit. And now that we have stung their pride, we have roused them till they will fight like devils.

(4) Jefferson Davis, speech (4th April, 1865)

To the people of the Confederate States of America: The general in chief of our army has found it necessary to make such movements of the troops as to uncover the capital and thus involve the withdrawal of the government from the city of Richmond. For many months the largest and finest army of the Confederacy, under the command of a leader whose presence inspires equal confidence in the troops and the people, has been greatly trammeled by the necessity of keeping constant watch over the approaches to the capital, and has thus been forced to forego more than one opportunity for promising enterprises. Let us not then despond, my countrymen, but, relying on the never failing mercies and protecting care of our God, let us meet the foe with fresh defiance, with unconquered and unconquerable hearts.