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A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, Including the Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861-1865, Volume I/Biographical Sketch of Jefferson Davis

< A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Confederacy, Including the Diplomatic Correspondence, 1861-1865, Volume I
Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis.

Jefferson Davis was born in that part of Christian County, Ky., which now forms Todd County on June 3, 1808. His grandfather was a colonist from Wales, and lived in Virginia and Maryland, and rendered important public service to both while they were colonies. His father, Samuel Emory Davis, was a Revolutionary soldier, as were also his brothers. During the Revolution his father served for a time with Georgia cavalry, and was an officer in the infantry in the siege of Savannah. Three of the brothers of Jefferson Davis, all older than himself, participated in the war of 1812; two of them were with Andrew Jackson, and were specially mentioned by him for gallantry at New Orleans. After the Revolution Samuel Davis removed to Kentucky, where he resided for a time, and, when Jefferson Davis was an infant, removed with his family to a place near Woodville, Wilkinson County, Miss. Jefferson Davis received his academic education in early life near his home, and then entered Transylvania College, Kentucky, but in 1824 left there to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point, having been appointed as a cadet by President Monroe; graduated in 1828, and was assigned to the First Infantry as second lieutenant; was engaged with his regiment in several battles in the Black Hawk War of 1831-32; was transferred to a new command called the First Dragoons, and on March 4, 1833, was promoted to be first lieutenant, and was appointed adjutant; was actively in the service, fighting the Pawnees, Comanches, and other Indians during the next two years; but on June 30, 1835, suddenly resigned and entered upon the duties of civil life. It is said that he was persuaded to this course by his uncle and other relatives who considered him unusually qualified to win distinction in a civil career. He married Miss Sallie Knox Taylor, the daughter of Zachary Taylor, then colonel of the First Infantry, and became a cotton planter near Vicksburg, Miss., being about twenty-seven years of age. His wife lived only a few months. In 1845, in the month of February, he married Miss Varina Howell, a daughter of William B. Howell, of Natchez, Miss. She still survives. On his farm he pursued a course of close study, preparing himself for a public life. In 1843 he entered politics in an exciting gubernatorial campaign, and acquired reputation as a popular speaker. In 1844 he was an elector for Polk and Dallas, and in 1845 was sent to Congress, taking his seat in December of that year. The Tariff, the Oregon question, the Annexation of Texas were live issues, and he took an active part at once in their discussion, giving especial attention to the preparations for war with Mexico. In a speech on the Oregon question, February 6, 1846, he spoke of the "love of the Union in our hearts;" and, referring to the battles of the Revolution, said: "They form a monument to the common glory of our common country." He advocated converting certain forts into schools of instruction for the military of the States. War having begun with Mexico, he determined to reënter military life, and promptly resigned from Congress in June, 1846, and accepted the position of colonel of the First Mississippi Volunteer Rifles, to which he had been unanimously elected. He joined his regiment at New Orleans, and proceeded with it to the Rio Grande to reënforce the army under Gen. Taylor. On September 21, 1846, he led his disciplined command in the battle of Monterey, and won a brilliant victory in the assault, without bayonets, on Fort Teneria, advancing through the streets nearly to the Grand Plaza through a storm of shot and shell, and served later on the commission for the surrender of the place. At Buena Vista his command was charged by a Mexican brigade of lancers, greatly its superior in numbers, in full gallop, in a desperate effort to break the American lines, but Colonel Davis formed his men in the shape of the letter V, the flanks resting in the ravines, exposing the enemy to a converging fire, utterly routing them. During the day he charged up and broke the Mexican lines on their right, and was seriously wounded, remaining on the field, however, until the victory was won. Later he was complimented for coolness and gallantry under fire, by General Taylor in a special dispatch. On the expiration of its term of enlistment, his regiment was ordered home. Colonel Davis was then appointed brigadier general by President Polk, but he declined the commission, on the ground that a militia appointment by the Federal Executive was not constitutional. In August, 1847, he was appointed by the Governor of Mississippi to the vacancy in the United States Senate caused by the death of Senator Spight, and took his seat December 6, 1847; was unanimously elected by the Legislature in January, 1848, for the remainder of the term, and in 1850 was reëlected for a full term. He was made Chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, and here, as in the House, he was active in the discussions of the slavery question in its various phases, the Compromise Measures of 1850, and all other important issues. He said he saw very little in the compromise legislation favorable to the Southern States, and declared that to his view of it, "it bore the impress of that sectional spirit so widely at variance with the general purposes of the Union and destructive of the harmony and mutual benefit which the Constitution was intended to secure." He favored the extension of the Missouri compromise line to the Pacific Ocean, and was at all times an earnest and ardent advocate of the rights of the States. Although just fairly entering upon a full term of six years in the Senate, with almost a certainty of continued service in that distinguished body, he resigned his seat therein after a brief service, and accepted the nomination for governor of his State. His party at the preceding election had been defeated by over seven thousand majority, and while he was defeated at the election in 1851, he reduced the majority to nine hundred and ninety-nine. After a year's retirement he was appointed Secretary of War in the Cabinet of Mr. Pierce, whom he had warmly supported for the presidency, and administered the office with great ability. He made important and valuable reforms in the military service while filling the office of Secretary of War. Among them were the introduction of an improved system of infantry tactics, iron gun carriages, rifled muskets and pistols, and the use of the Minie ball. Four regiments were added to the army, the defenses on the seacoast and frontier were strengthened, and, as a result of experiments, heavy guns were cast hollow, and a larger grain of powder was adopted. He promoted surveys of the Western Territories with a view to the construction of a railroad to the Pacific, which he had favored as a Senator, and was deeply interested in the extension of the Capitol at Washington City. At the close of Mr. Pierce's term he left the Cabinet, and in the same year (1857) again entered the Senate. He opposed the bill to pay French spoliation claims, advocated the southern route for the Pacific railroad, and opposed Mr. Douglas's doctrine of "popular sovereignty." On January 9, 1861, Mississippi seceded, and on January 24—having been officially informed of the fact—he delivered a farewell address, and withdrew from the Senate and went to his home. Before reaching his home he had been appointed by the convention of his State commander in chief of the Army of Mississippi, with the rank of major general. On February 9 he was elected President of the Provisional Government of the Confederate States, at Montgomery, Ala., and on the 18th day of the same month he was inaugurated as such President. He delivered an inaugural address that day, which he said was deliberately prepared and uttered as written, and, in connection with his farewell speech to the Senate, presented a clear and authentic statement of the principles and purposes which actuated him in assuming the duties of the high office to which he had been called. In this inaugural address, among other things, he said: "Our present political position has been achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations. It illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established. The declared purpose of the compact of the Union from which we have withdrawn was to 'establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity;' and when, in the judgment of the sovereign States composing this Confederacy, it has been perverted from the purposes for which it was ordained, and ceased to answer the ends for which it was established, a peaceful appeal to the ballot box declared that, so far as they are concerned, the government created by that compact should cease to exist. In this they merely asserted the right which the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, defined to be 'inalienable.' Of the time and occasion of its exercise they as sovereigns were the final judges, each for itself. The impartial and enlightened verdict of mankind will vindicate the rectitude of our conduct; and He who knows the hearts of men will judge of the sincerity with which we have labored to preserve the government of our fathers in its spirit. The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the United States, and which has been solemnly 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 have proceeded to form this Confederacy; and it is by abuse of language that their act has been denominated a revolution. They formed a new alliance, but within each State its government has remained; so that the rights of person and property have not been disturbed. The agent through which they communicated with foreign nations is changed, but this does not necessarily interrupt their international relations. Sustained by the consciousness that the transition from the former Union to the present Confederacy has not proceeded from a disregard on our part of just obligations, or any failure to perform every constitutional duty, moved by no interest or passion to invade the rights of others, anxious to cultivate peace and commerce with all nations, if we may not hope to avoid war, we may at least expect that posterity will acquit us of having needlessly engaged in it." Again, he said: "We have entered upon the career of independence, and it must be inflexibly pursued. Through many years of controversy with our late associates of the Northern States we have vainly endeavored to secure tranquillity and obtain respect for the rights to which we were entitled. As a necessity, not a choice, we have resorted to the remedy of separation, and henceforth our energies must be directed to the conduct of our own affairs, and the perpetuity of the Confederacy which we have formed. If a just perception of mutual interest shall permit us peaceably to pursue our separate political career, my most earnest desire will have been fulfilled. But if this be denied to us, and the integrity of our territory and jurisdiction be assailed, it will but remain for us with firm resolve to appeal to arms and invoke the blessing of Providence on a just cause." Continuing, he said: "With a Constitution differing only from that of our fathers in so far as it is explanatory of their well-known intent, freed from sectional conflicts, which have interfered with the pursuit of the general welfare, it is not unreasonable to expect that States from which we have recently parted may seek to unite their fortunes to ours under the government which we have instituted."

He insisted that he and those associated with him were " actuated solely by the desire to preserve our own rights and to promote our own welfare," and that "the separation by the Confederate States has been marked by no aggression upon others, and followed by no domestic convulsion." He said: "Should reason guide the action of the government from which we have separated, a policy so detrimental to the civilized world, the Northern States included, could not be dictated by even the strongest desire to inflict injury upon us; but, if the contrary should prove true, a terrible responsibility will rest upon it, and the suffering of millions will bear testimony to the folly and wickedness of our aggressors." Near the close of his inaugural he used these words: "We have changed the constituent parts, but not the system of government. The Constitution framed by our fathers is that of these Confederate States. In their exposition of it, and in the judicial construction it has received, we have a light which reveals its true meaning. Thus instructed as to the true meaning and just interpretation of that instrument, and ever remembering that all offices are but trusts held for the people, and that powers delegated are to be strictly construed, I will hope by due diligence in the performance of my duties, though I may disappoint your expectations, yet to retain, when retiring, something of the good will and confidence which welcome my entrance into office." In his message to Congress of April 29, 1861, shortly after the opening of the war at Fort Sumter, he made official announcement of the purpose and policy of the government at Montgomery in regard to the war. He said: "We feel that our cause is just and holy; we protest solemnly in the face of mankind that we desire peace at any sacrifice save that of honor and independence; we seek no conquest, no aggrandizement, no concession of any kind from the States with which we were lately confederated; all we ask is to be let alone; that those who never held power over us shall not now attempt our subjugation by arms. This we will, this we must, resist to the direst extremity. The moment that this pretension is abandoned the sword will drop from our grasp, and we shall be ready to enter into treaties of amity and commerce that cannot but be mutually beneficial. So long as this pretension is maintained, with a firm reliance on that divine power which covers with its protection the just cause, we will continue to struggle for our inherent right to freedom, independence, and self-government."

War followed, and was prolonged for four years, during which time Mr. Davis was continued as President. In November, 1861, an election was held under the permanent Constitution, and he was chosen President, without opposition, for six years. The first Congress under the permanent government met in Richmond on February 18, 1862, and he was inaugurated on the 22d of that month. The Confederate army in Virginia under General Lee surrendered April 9, 1865, and soon after the war ended. Mr. Davis left Richmond on Sunday night, April 2, and went to Danville, Va., and from there to Charlotte, N. C., where he remained until the 26th of April, when he left with a small force of cavalry as an escort. He reached the Savannah River and crossed it May 4, and went to Washington, Ga., where he remained a few days. In his work, the "Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government," Mr. Davis says: "When I left Washington, Ga., with the small party which has been enumerated, my object was to go to the south far enough to pass below the points reported to be occupied by Federal troops, and then turn to the west, cross the Chattahoochie, and then go on to meet the forces still supposed to be in the field in Alabama. If, as now seemed probable, there should be no prospect of a successful resistance east of the Mississippi, I intended then to cross to the Trans-Mississippi Department, where I believed Gens. E. K. Smith and Magruder would continue to uphold our cause." On May 10 he was captured by Federal cavalry, and, with members of his family, his wife and several small children, one an infant, who were traveling with him, was carried to Macon, Ga., and from there to Hampton Roads. He was then removed to Fortress Monroe, and incarcerated in a cell, his wife and family being returned to Savannah, Ga. In mentioning his imprisonment at Fortress Monroe, in his work to which reference has just been made, he says: "Bitter tears have been shed by the gentle, and stern reproaches have been made by the magnanimous, on account of the needless torture to which I was subjected, and the heavy fetters riveted upon me, while in a stone casemate and surrounded by a strong guard; but all these were less excruciating than the mental agony my captors were able to inflict. It was long before I was permitted to hear from my wife. and children, and this and things like this was the power which education added to cruelty; but I do not propose now and here to enter upon the story of my imprisonment, or more than merely to refer to other matters which concern me personally, as distinct from my connection with the Confederacy." He was kept in prison about two years, and on May 6, 1866, was indicted for treason in the United States Court for the District of Virginia. With his counsel he insisted on a prompt and speedy trial, but the government postponed the trial and held him without bail until May, 1867, when upon a writ of habeas corpus he was brought before the court at Richmond and admitted to bail, the bond being fixed at $100,000. The bond was promptly given, and he was released. After an enthusiastic reception at Richmond, he went to New York, then to Canada, and in the summer of 1868 visited England and France. While in England he declined an offer to enter upon business with a Liverpool firm. In December, 1868, a nolle prosequi was entered by the government in his case, and he was therefore never brought to trial; and in the general amnesty of that month he was included. He subsequently removed to Memphis, Tenn., and became the president of a life insurance company. In 1879 he was bequeathed an estate by a lady admirer, Mrs. Dorsey, of Beauvoir, Miss., where he went to reside and where, living a life of seclusion, he gave himself up largely to literary pursuits. Occasional public demonstrations in the South revealed the attachment of the people there for him. This was notably the case when he attended the unveiling of the statue of Benjamin Hill, in Atlanta, the dedication of a monument to Confederate soldiers at Montgomery in 1886, and when he at another time visited the Georgia State Fair, at Macon. He avoided ostentatious display of himself; but when opportunity offered, the Southern people, by imposing popular demonstrations, gave evidence of their undiminished attachment to his personal character, and their sympathy for him in his misfortunes. They believed him to be a man of the highest personal integrity, a sincere Christian, a gentleman of refined and elevated character, and one thoroughly impressed with the correctness of the political and constitutional views he held, and the rightfulness and righteousness of the cause he espoused. He devoted much time of the last years of his life to the writing of his history of the war, the "Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government," published in 1881. The purpose he had in view in preparing and publishing this work he set forth briefly but succinctly in his preface thereto in these words: "The object of this work has been from historical data to show that the Southern States had rightfully the power to withdraw from a Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered; that the denial of that right was a violation of the letter and spirit of the compact between the States; and that the war waged by the Federal Government against the seceding States was in disregard of the limitations of the Constitution, and destructive of the principles of the Declaration of Independence." He closed the second and last volume of this work with the following words: "In asserting the right of secession, it has not been my wish to incite to its exercise: I recognize the fact that the war showed it to be impracticable, but this did not prove it to be wrong; and now that it may not again be attempted, and that the Union may promote the general welfare, it is needful that the truth, the whole truth, should be known, so that crimination and recrimination may forever cease; and then, on the basis of fraternity and faithful regard for the rights of the States, there may be written on the arch of the Union 'Esto perpetua.' "

The death of Mr. Davis occurred at New Orleans about one o'clock a.m., December 6, 1889. His funeral ceremonies were worthy of the illustrious character of the deceased statesman. Public meetings were held in many cities and towns of the South to give expression to the common sorrow, and the flags of the State Capitols were placed at half-mast. His character was eulogized, and the newspapers generally, North as well as South, printed complimentary and laudatory notices of him. He was buried temporarily in New Orleans, and later his remains were removed to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, where there were erected for them a tomb and monument. A special funeral train conveyed them from New Orleans to Richmond, passing through several States. At many places convenient stops were made, that the assembled people might make respectful and affectionate tributes to his memory. The train moved day and night almost literally in review before the line of people who thronged the route and stood with uncovered heads to see it pass. It was appropriate that his remains should rest at last in Richmond, the city which was the immediate scene of his labors as the Confederacy under his guidance for four years maintained an unequal struggle for a permanent place among the nations of the earth, and which, so long defended by the immortal Lee and his heroic battalions, successfully withstood the fierce and terrible assaults of the great armies of the Union, led by brave and renowned soldiers.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).