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Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis was born in Christian (now Todd) County, Kentucky. He received his education at Transylvania University in Lexington and at West Point. Davis saw brief service in the Black Hawk War, but later left the service to become a cotton planter in Mississippi. The plantation, complete with slaves, was a gift from his older brother Joseph, who was a major influence in his life. Jefferson Davis Davis represented Mississippi in Congress in 1845-46, the only electoral victory in his pre-Confederate career. He left politics in 1846 to serve in the Mexican War, fighting with distinction at Monterey and Buena Vista. He was a U.S. Senator from 1847 to 1851 and later from 1857 to 1861. Davis ran unsuccessfully for governor of Mississippi in 1851. Davis, a Democrat, established a strong record of supporting states’ rights and the extension of slavery into the territories. He was an opponent of the Compromise of 1850. Were it not for his later association withe Confederacy, Jefferson Davis might today be best known for his term in the federal cabinet. He was the secretary of war under Franklin Pierce from 1853 to 1857. During this time, he succeeded in upgrading the equipment used by the army, expanding it by four regiments, enlarging West Point, raising pay, and improving coastal and frontier defenses. He failed, however, to replace seniority with merit in the determination of promotions. Following his service in the cabinet, Davis was elected to the U.S. Senate to represent Mississippi, where he quickly became a foremost spokesman for the pro-slavery interests. Not content with defending its existence in the South, Davis advocated its extension as both an economic and moral benefit to the country. He argued that the U.S. Constitution was created with a good faith understanding that slavery was legitimate, and consequently it should be possible for an American citizen to travel anywhere within the country with his property, i.e. slaves. While not an early supporter of secession, he resigned from the Senate when Mississippi left the Union in January 1861. In February, he was appointed the provisional president of the Confederacy and was elected to a full term in November. Recognizing the relative weakness of the Confederacy, in terms of both population and industrial capacity, Davis advocated making military preparations while avoiding any overt act that would give the North an excuse for military action against the Confederacy. He was forced by events, however, to consent to the bombardment of Fort Sumter (April 12-13, 1861), which gave Lincoln the chance to portray the South as the aggressor. While no one ever doubted Davis’ commitment to the Confederate cause, many were critical of his leadership. His refusal to listen to opposing points of view, his dabbling in military matters and questionable personnel decisions, particularly the dismissal of Joseph E. Johnston, contrasted sharply with his rival, Abraham Lincoln. In early 1865, Davis, still hoping for Southern independence, sought peace terms, but was not successful. As the prospects for victory dimmed, Davis left Richmond and headed south. He was apprehended by federal soldiers in Georgia in May 1865 and imprisoned at Fort Monroe. He was thought, wrongly, to be a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination and was charged with treason. His harsh confinement, which included leg shackles for a time, restored his popularity in the South. The charges were eventually dropped, and Davis was released on a $100,000 bond raised by Horace Greeley and other Northerners. Davis’s final years were not happy ones. He had become ill in prison and never fully recovered. He worked in the insurance business a number of years, but the company failed financially. He authored a two-volume history of the Confederacy, but the work sold poorly. Davis became increasingly dependent upon the resources of friends and family. Davis had refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States and never regained citizenship during his lifetime; that was corrected by an act of Congress in 1978.