Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America

June 3, 1807/1808–December 6, 1889


President of the Confederate

States of America




Sphinx of the Confederacy, Banny (used by his wife, Varina)


“Never joke with a child or a savage. They will not understand, and you will only destroy their confidence in you.”

Wanted: Chief Executive

Exciting temporary position with excellent chance for long-term employment!

Brand new, ambitious confederation is looking for a bold visionary to fill the job of president. Must be willing to delegate authority, balance the need for assertive executive power in a national crisis with the firm injunction against sacrificing states’ rights, cooperate with an entrenched and protective oligarchy, develop new international relationships and alliances from scratch, prepare to match the challenge of competitors, industrialize a vast agrarian civilization virtually overnight without trespassing on regional autonomies (see “states’ rights” earlier in advert.), and work flexible hours. Applicants should be able to show 10+ years military and/or legislative experience, infinite patience, proof that they are at least 35 years of age, otherworldly self-sacrifice, statesmanlike deportment, and ability to work with others. Some travel req’d. Slaveholder a plus. Position must be filled soon, as war is imminent—interested parties are urged to apply now. Base pay: $25,000*

When serving as Secretary of War for the United States in 1853, Jefferson Davis imported camels for American soldiers in the southwest. The experiment was not successful.

*To be issued in a beautiful new currency whose dies have yet to be created.

OK, so this ad never appeared in a secessionist newspaper during those tension-filled days of early 1861. But if it had, Jefferson Davis would certainly not have applied. He knew how insanely difficult the job would be and harbored no ambition for political glory beyond that which he had already achieved. Nevertheless, the job was soon his—foisted upon him by a minority of his fellow Southerners and accepted by him in accordance with a blind and very deep sense of duty.

He knew that he wasn’t the right man for the job. And in time everyone else knew it, too.

Not that his credentials weren’t impressive. Indeed, he was one of the most respected public figures in America. Born in Kentucky, his early youth was spent moving with his family to Louisiana and then Wilkinson County, Mississippi. He acquired a good education at a series of institutions: St. Thomas College in Kentucky, Jefferson College and Wilkinson Academy in Mississippi, and back in Kentucky at Transylvania University. Though a natural young scholar in some ways, he once chafed at the idea of returning to school, whereupon his father sent him into the fields. There the heat and “implied equality with the other cotton-pickers” destroyed any remaining doubts about finishing his education. His father, Samuel, died in 1824, placing Jefferson under the nominal direction of his brother Joseph, a prominent lawyer in Mississippi. With his urging and influence, Jefferson—though not initially fond of the idea—got into West Point the very year of his father’s death.

He got off to a good start at the academy, but things began going bonkers really fast. Combining ego, self-doubt, and a need to prove himself that often drew the wrong sort of attention, Davis became a hellion. That he graduated at all is quite remarkable, but graduate he did and commenced a brief career in the infantry. From 1829 through 1835, the young officer felt himself moldering in a series of frontier postings that fostered in him a growing distaste for the army life. His sole bit of excitement came in 1832 at the conclusion of the Black Hawk War, when Davis was charged with apprehending and escorting the great chief Black Hawk himself to St. Louis. He left the officer corps ignominiously three years later amidst a court-martial for insubordinate conduct. Though acquitted, a prideful Davis tendered his resignation.

By then he had developed a new occupation: loving Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of one Zachary Taylor, who would one day become the hero of Buena Vista and president of the United States. While still in uniform and under Colonel Taylor’s command at Fort Crawford, Davis had fallen hard for “Knoxie,” and she for him. Unfortunately, the colonel wanted something better for his daughter than he had been able to give her mother, and he vowed not to let her marry an officer. His rejection of Davis as a suitor for Knoxie only increased the young stallion’s ardor, fostering a heightened emotional tension at the outpost that nearly exploded into a duel between Davis and Taylor. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and Taylor ultimately allowed that the two could marry in two years’ time if they were still so inclined.

They were, and they did. Then, less than three months after marrying the woman of his dreams who had once seemed beyond reach, Davis had the evil fate of watching her die from malaria or yellow fever. He had been struck by the sickness as well, but had recovered a widower. Knoxie was just twenty-one years old.

His brother Joseph whisked him off to Cuba to recuperate and grieve, but Davis had turned a corner. After returning to the United States, he was instructed by his brother in the art and science of running a plantation that Jefferson christened Brierfield, a life that seemed as much refuge as livelihood. Demolished by Sarah’s death and convinced of his own culpability in it (he had persuaded her to move to Mississippi in the midst of fever season), he aged visibly. Even in his teens, Davis was often described as “taciturn,” “dignified,” almost shackled with a formality beyond his years—characteristics that stood in striking contrast to his drunken hooliganism at the Point. But the last vestiges of youthful rebellion were banished in this new settled adulthood at Brierfield, where he indulged a love of details—whether in agriculture, bookkeeping, or architecture—and read up on local politics as a good yeoman planter should. And while he developed sharply delineated views on the important issues of the day, it wasn’t until 1844 that he found an outlet for them as an elector from Mississippi for the presidential election. By that time he had met Varina Howell, an exceptional woman who was half his age and just as willful. They were married the following year.

His public career blossomed. He soon became a United States congressman from Mississippi and acquired a reputation for speaking, which junior representatives didn’t usually do. And one of the bills he voted for was the one that presented Mexico with a declaration of war in 1846. Interestingly, it was a ballot that helped bring an end to his first successful adventure into politics. For he was soon chosen by his electorate to don a uniform and lead the First Mississippi Rifles, which he did in Mexico with conspicuous ability and élan. A capable combat officer, he was seriously wounded at the Battle of Buena Vista and was offered the rank of brigadier general. He turned it down, however, for reasons that exposed a strict adherence to states’ rights that would one day compel him to break with the Union: Coming as it did from the president himself, the offer represented an interference by federal authority into state affairs (Davis had fought as a colonel of Mississippi militia, not as a regular officer in charge of national troops). He made a return to political life, aided immensely by his war exploits, and found himself in the United States Senate. Appointed secretary of war in the Franklin Pierce administration, he showed a capacity for hard work and attention to detail that awed and irritated his fellows in government by turns. After Pierce’s single term, Davis was sent back to the Senate.

It was in that venue, on January 21, 1861, that Jefferson Davis said his farewells to the country against which he would soon lead a bloody four-year struggle. The address embodied all that he had become since scaling the heights of national power. Influenced by such states’ rights advocates as the great John C. Calhoun, whom he viewed as a beloved mentor, Davis had consistently and fervently fought on behalf of the extension and protection of slavery and against the growing influence of free states on the federalgovernment. Though a devout nationalist, his attachments to Mississippi and increasing antagonism toward what he perceived as a threat to Southern rights and, therefore, to the “balance of power” between the sections of the country compelled him to lend his eloquence in the Senate to the chorus of those who threatened secession in the years leading up to 1860. The speech itself reflected the exhaustion he felt at having failed in attempts at peaceful rapprochement and was filled with sorrow at the break he was making and the friendships he was severing. He had known for a week and a half about Mississippi’s decision to secede and had put his hopes to avert a severing of the Union behind him. Rising from his sickbed against his doctor’s recommendations (he was suffering at the time from a debilitating attack of neuralgia), he spoke under the duress of an awful head pain. After bidding “a final adieu,” he strode out of the Senate chamber to emotional applause—from both sides—that nearly brought the roof down.

It was an American moment: A confluence of political tragedy and personal pathos that focused the nation’s attention, North and South, on the unfolding secessionist drama that had acquired a dreadful momentum all its own. Not surprisingly, Davis’s life would assume a momentum all its own, as well.

Nobody doubted that he was going to play a role in the embryonic Confederate States of America. Many began consulting him immediately on military matters, and Davis contented himself with the idea of donning a general’s uniform. Indeed, without any real effort on his part, he was made a major general of the Army of Mississippi, and with characteristic energy and dourness, he began bugging anyone who would listen about the need for arms—lots of arms. Repeatedly told that he was being a trifle alarmist, Davis—like William Tecumseh Sherman, ironically—began to worry that everyone was underestimating the scale of the nightmare that awaited them all.

He was soon made president, giving him a lot more to worry about. Chosen as a compromise between the extremist fire-eaters and the borderstate fence-sitters who had yet to back secession, Davis took the news like an accused felon takes a guilty verdict. His ashen-faced dread notwithstanding, there were plenty of things that recommended him to the job: He had been one of the nation’s most effective secretaries of war; he had shown himself to be a clear-thinking, articulate defender of Southern liberties; he was a war hero and a patrician of national stature; and he had the ability to effortlessly put people on notice as soon as he strode into a room, as if everybody knew he was about to say something gravely important (not actually necessary in a chief executive, but it helps).

Unfortunately, there was one really important thing that he wasn’t: a truly inspiring leader. His opposite in Washington wasn’t either, but Lincoln soon became one and much more. Jefferson Davis, by contrast, seemed with time to become more of the things that get in the way of effective leadership, especially in wartime. Despite his years of debating experience in the Senate, he was incapable of compromise. People who didn’t see his side of an argument after being carefully instructed in its merits were written off, almost as if they had dealt him a deeply personal blow. He was easily slighted, the result of a prickly pride that had always been there and that shaped every conflict, whether a disagreement with Varina over what to have for dinner or an argument over grand strategy with his generals. “I have an infirmity of which I am ashamed,” he admitted. “When I am aroused in a matter, I lose control of my feeling and become personal.” As a result, he played favorites, and he played them hard. He made a virtual habit out of latching on to subordinates because of personal loyalty rather than ability. He was aloof, unapproachable, “an icicle” who found it hard to become a man of the people or to exhort them to the sacrifices that confronted them. And he was by training more a bureaucrat than a chief, a fact that showed itself in Davis’s relentless preoccupation with minutiae at the expense of the big picture for which he was ultimately responsible.

Overall military strategy for the Confederacy was of primary importance: Should the South concentrate its forces to deliver several overwhelming blows, or should they be dispersed along its (extremely lengthy) borders to meet whatever challenge the North throws down? Though attracted to the former by temperament, the new president deferred mostly to the latter on account of politics: Governors complained about being left unprotected in a bitchfest that Davis would have been foolish to ignore. Nevertheless, provisions were made to allow for some concerted offensives, resulting in a hybrid strategy whose wisdom has been the subject of considerable debate ever since. Such compromises exposed the inherent conundrum of the Confederacy: How on earth does a nation based on states’ rights—i.e., the dispersal of political power—manage to triumph over a crisis that by its very nature requires the centralization of power to defeat? For the South to win, it was going to have to put on hold those very principles for which it had broken away from the Union in the first place.

To his credit, President Davis understood this. Others in power did not. So when his administration pushed through such scandalous measures as conscription (the first draft in American history), national taxation, and the commandeering of food, he drew splenetic criticism for being tyrannical, abusive—in fact, just like that power-grabbing bastard Lincoln! Whatever his hypocrisy, the bottom line is that, without Davis’s willingness to embrace war measures that looked conspicuously like a rejection of Confederate dogma, the South would’ve been defeated much sooner.

In other matters, Davis performed less impressively. He treated his war secretaries like office clerks, lost countless hours in micromanagement, bickered with subordinates and generals needlessly, and made himself all but invulnerable to opposing points of view. Nothing illustrates his weaknesses quite like the way he fumbled things with his principal generals. To be fair, his decision to keep Robert E. Lee in charge of what would become the Army of Northern Virginia after Joseph Johnston’s wounding was a stroke of brilliance. Lee ended up developing an understanding with his president that no other Southern general achieved, partly because Davis was bright enough to believe in him and give him a wide berth (as much, if not more, a credit to Lee’s ingratiating manner as it is to Davis’s vision). But in the west—the theater in which, as many historians argue, the war was truly won and lost—Davis simply blew it. P. G. T. Beauregard, the “little Creole” who opened fire on Fort Sumter and who was one of the South’s best assets, was discarded like old fruit and banished to unimportant theaters, simply because the president didn’t like him. Braxton Bragg, by contrast, whose temperament and abilities were called into question by all of his principal officers, was allowed to remain in command long after he should’ve been kicked out, simply because Davis liked him and found it difficult to process awful opinions about him. Sure, Lincoln made some pretty lousy command choices himself. But Davis had better material to work with initially and simply wasted it.

Measuring Davis’s role in the defeat of his infant nation will forever remain a subject of debate. It is even worth considering whether that nation had any chance of victory at all. By contrast, there is no doubt whatsoever about Davis’s feelings as the war effort stumbled into futility. The old stubbornness flared, and he even believed that a scorched Confederacy devoid of life would be preferable to surrender. As Richmond fell and Lee surrendered, Davis and his cabinet went on the lam like criminals in a doomed cause … which, come to think of it, they had become. He and his wife and escort were surrounded by cavalry on May 10, 1865. Davis was apprehended while attempting to escape with Varina’s shawl over his shoulders to make him look like a commoner fetching water.

It would take time for the South to accept Jefferson Davis into the pantheon of Confederate demigods. The North was far more expeditious in its judgment. Taken into custody like a common criminal, he was imprisoned in Fortress Monroe—manacled, until public outcry forced a change. He was now a feeble man who had suffered much during the war, from neuralgia, to recurring malaria and rheumatism, to an eye infected with glaucoma and herpes, to an abscessed tooth. For a nation mourning catastrophic mortality and destruction, he had become the war criminal of choice—a political figure, devoid of a “noble” uniform, who had deferred to treason and dared to make it stick. In the wake of so many corpses, his folly seemed more like murder. And he was slated to answer for it.

But that never happened. Perennially postponed, his trial became associated with a war that most folks increasingly wanted to forget. Davis never forgot, however, as was evident in his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, in which others were still held responsible for the South’s defeat. It never occurred to him to have his citizenship restored, and he died unrepentant in 1889, probably of pneumonia. “Be obedient and good citizens,” he had urged his fellow Southerners. As for Davis: When his casket was closed, a silken stars and bars was draped over it.


Jefferson Davis never knew the precise year of his birth. He once observed, “Having once supposed the year to have been 1807, I was subsequently corrected by being informed it was 1808, and have rested upon that point because it was just as good, and no better than another.”

Another story about his birth involves the origin of his middle initial, “F.” Pregnant with Jefferson when she was forty-six years old, his mother, Jane, allegedly decided with husband Samuel to name him “Finis,” in the hope that he would be the last of their ten children. It worked.


Raising hell was hardly unknown to the average West Point cadet in the early nineteenth century. But Jefferson Davis raised more than his fair share. It started early with a jaunt to Benny Havens’s, a local tavern that offered food and drink to young cadets eager to supplement their horrid academy diet—a trip that was strictly forbidden. He was arrested and convicted of his crime, though he was granted a pardon.

A year later he somehow found himself there again. In the process of fleeing the establishment upon discovering the approach of a West Point instructor, he crashed some sixty feet down a wooded precipice, incurring wounds that landed him in the academy hospital for four months. A real trouper, he recovered in time for Christmas Eve 1826, when he and a friend procured the requisite drinking supplies to fuel an evening’s insanity. The result was the notorious “Eggnog Riot,” a gloriously inebriated breakdown of discipline that climaxed with the arrest and confinement of twenty-three cadets. Though most of them were dismissed entirely from the Point, Davis managed to escape that fate on account of testimony that placed him in his room before most of the damage had begun.

Just for kicks, on the verge of graduation, he was arrested for not being in his quarters after taps. Not surprisingly, he graduated in the bottom fourth of his class in conduct.


During his earlier Senate career, while serving on the Committee on Military Affairs, Jefferson Davis became convinced that camels would make an ideal mount and beast of burden for soldiers stationed in America’s vast, arid Southwest. Others had been toying with the notion for a few years, but Davis was the first public servant to formally bring it to the government’s attention. The idea was essentially laughed at. But in 1853, he found himself in a situation to act on the idea as secretary of war. Two years later, he arranged for the importation of fifty-four camels from Turkey and Egypt, and personally translated a French manual on handling the animals. Though they met all of the secretary’s expectations and proved perfectly suited to the American desert, the camels proved anything but popular with soldiers, and the experiment ultimately died.


Born to the Davises in the midst of the Civil War, Varina Anne Davis—“Winnie”—was informally adopted in the postwar South as the “Daughter of the Confederacy.” It was widely hoped that she would eventually wed someone appropriate to her status, such as a grandson of Stonewall Jackson or Robert E. Lee, and perpetuate a kind of “royal line” of Dixie. Needless to say, Jefferson Davis was taken aback when the man who came calling on Winnie introduced himself with a New York accent. Alfred Wilkinson was his name, and he had captured Winnie’s heart during one of her trips to the North. While many diehards were scandalized, Davis apparently had had enough of grudges. In fact, he and Wilkinson grew to be fast friends. The young couple became engaged in 1889.

Sadly, Wilkinson lost his fortune a few years later, and the relationship fell apart. Winnie died a bachelorette at thirty-four.


Jeff Davis never sought a pardon, because he never believed that he had done something to be pardoned for. His citizenship was restored, however—nearly ninety years after his death. On October 17, 1978, a joint resolution by Congress that was signed by President Jimmy Carter restored the old Rebel’s citizenship, effective December 25, 1868. Davis probably rolled over in his grave.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!