The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Davis, Jefferson

1182090The American Cyclopædia — Davis, JeffersonRobert Carter

DAVIS, Jefferson, an American soldier and statesman, born June 3, 1808, in that part of Christian co., Ky., which now forms Todd county. Soon after his birth his father removed to Mississippi, and settled near Woodville, Wilkinson county. Jefferson Davis received an academical education, and was sent to Transylvania college, Ky., which he left in 1824, having been appointed by President Monroe a cadet in the military academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1828. He remained in the army seven years, and served as an infantry and staff officer on the N. W. frontier in the Black Hawk war of 1831-'2, and in March, 1833, was made first lieutenant of dragoons, in which capacity he was employed in 1834 in various expeditions against the Comanches, Pawnees, and other hostile Indian tribes. He resigned his commission June 30, 1835, and having married the daughter of Zachary Taylor, afterward president of the United States, but at that time a colonel in the army, he returned to Mississippi, and became a cotton planter. For several years he lived in retirement, occupied chiefly with study. In 1843 he began to take an active part in politics on the democratic side, and in 1844 was one of the presidential electors of Mississippi to vote for Polk and Dallas. In 1845 he was elected a representative in congress, and took his seat in December of that year. He bore a conspicuous part in the discussions of the session on the tariff, on the Oregon question, on military affairs, and particularly on the preparations for war against Mexico, and on the organization of volunteer militia when called into the service of the United States. In his speech on the Oregon question, Feb. 6, 1846, he said: “From sire to son has descended the love of union in our hearts, as in our history are mingled the names of Concord and Camden, of Yorktown and Saratoga, of Moultrie and Plattsburgh, of Chippewa and Erie, of Bowyer and Guilford, of New Orleans and Bunker Hill. Grouped together, they form a monument to the common glory of our common country; and where is the southern man who would wish that that monument were less by one of the northern names that constitute the mass?” While he was in congress, in July, 1846, the first regiment of Mississippi volunteers, then enrolled for service in Mexico, elected him their colonel. Overtaking the regiment at New Orleans on its way to the seat of war, he led it to reënforce the army of Gen. Taylor on the Rio Grande. He was actively engaged in the attack and storming of Monterey in September, 1846; was one of the commissioners for arranging the terms of the capitulation of that city; and distinguished himself in the battle of Buena Vista, Feb. 23, 1847, where his regiment, attacked by an immensely superior force, maintained their ground for a long time unsupported, while the colonel, though severely wounded, remained in the saddle until the close of the action. At the expiration of the term of its enlistment, in July, 1847, the Mississippi regiment was ordered home; and while on his return he received at New Orleans a commission from President Polk as brigadier general of volunteers, which he declined accepting, on the ground that the constitution reserves to the states respectively the appointment of the officers of the militia, and that consequently their appointment by the federal executive is a violation of the rights of the states. In August, 1847, he was appointed by the governor of Mississippi United States senator to fill a vacancy, and at the ensuing session of the state legislature, Jan. 11, 1848, was unanimously elected to the same office for the residue of the term, which expired March 4, 1851. In 1850 he was reëlected for the ensuing full term. In the senate he was chosen chairman of the committee on military affairs, and took a prominent part in the debates on the slavery question, in defence of the institutions and policy of the slave states, and was a zealous advocate of the doctrine of state rights. In September, 1851, he was nominated for governor of Mississippi by the democratic party, in opposition to Henry S. Foote, the candidate of the Union party. He resigned his seat in the senate on accepting the nomination, and was beaten in the election by a majority of 999 votes; a marked indication of his personal popularity in his own state, for at the “convention election,” two months before, the Union party had a majority of 7,500. After his defeat he remained in retirement until the presidential contest of 1852, when he delivered speeches in behalf of Gen. Pierce in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana. In 1853 he was appointed by President Pierce secretary of war, which post he held till the inauguration of President Buchanan in 1857. His administration of the war department was marked by ability and energy, and was highly popular with the army. He proposed or carried into effect, among other measures, the revision of the army regulations; the introduction of camels into America; the introduction of the light infantry or rifle system of tactics; the manufacture of rifled muskets and pistols and the use of the Minié ball; the addition of four regiments to the army; the augmentation of the seacoast and frontier defences; and the system of explorations in the western part of the continent for geographical purposes, and for determining the best route for a railroad to the Pacific ocean. On his retirement from the war department he reëntered the senate for the term ending March 4, 1863. In the 35th congress he was conspicuous in the discussions on the French spoliation bill, which he opposed, and on the Pacific railroad, for the southern route of which he was a zealous advocate. He was also prominent in the contest growing out of the Lecompton constitution for Kansas, in which he opposed Mr. Douglas, and in the settlement of which by the Kansas conference bill he took a chief part, declaring in a letter to the people of his state that the passage of that bill was “the triumph of all for which we contended.” In the 36th congress, which met in December, 1859, he was the recognized leader of the democrats in the senate. His name for years had been frequently mentioned as a candidate of the democratic party for the presidency. In the summer of 1858 he made a tour of the eastern states, and in October addressed a democratic meeting in Boston, and a few days later a similar meeting in New York. In reply to an invitation to attend a festival in Boston in January, 1859, to celebrate the birthday of Daniel Webster, he wrote a letter expressing strong Union sentiment, and concluding thus: “I send you my cordial greetings to the friends of the constitution, and ask to be enrolled among those whose mission is, by fraternity and good faith to every constitutional obligation, to insure that, from the Aroostook to San Diego, from Key West to Puget Sound, the grand arch of our political temple shall stand unshaken.” He failed, however, to receive the nomination for president in 1860, and on the assembling of congress in December of that year he took an active part in the conspiracy which planned the secession of the southern states from the Union. He was a leading member of the secret caucus of the senators from Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, which met on the night of Jan. 5, 1861, in a committee room of the capitol, and framed the scheme of revolution which was implicitly and promptly followed at the south; and he was chairman of the executive committee of three appointed by that caucus “to carry out the objects of the meeting.” The other members were John Slidell of Louisiana and Stephen R. Mallory of Florida. Their plan was to hasten the secession of the southern states, of which South Carolina alone had yet openly left the Union; to call a convention of the seceded states at Montgomery; to accumulate munitions of war; to organize and equip a force of 100,000 men; and lastly, to hold on as long as possible to the southern seats in congress, in order to paralyze the government, and to gain time for the south to arm and organize. Mississippi seceded Jan. 9, 1861; but it was not till the 21st of that month that Mr. Davis made his farewell speech in the senate, and departed for his home. Soon after his arrival there he was appointed commander-in-chief of the militia of the state, with the rank of major general. In a speech to the Mississippi legislature in December, 1862, he said: “I then imagined that it might be my fortune again to lead Mississippians in the field, and to be with them where danger was to be braved and glory won. I thought to find that place which I believed to be better suited to my capacity, that of an officer in the service of the state of Mississippi.” On Feb. 4, 1861, the confederate congress met at Montgomery, organized a provisional government for the seceded states, and on the 9th, by a unanimous vote, elected Jefferson Davis “president of the Confederate States of America.” He arrived at Montgomery on the 16th, and was inaugurated on the 18th, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia having been inaugurated as vice president about a week earlier. There can be no doubt that in this selection of the president of the confederacy the congress ratified the previous choice of the southern people, who almost unanimously regarded Mr. Davis as the man best fitted for the position by ability, character, and political and military experience. He selected for his cabinet Robert Toombs of Georgia as secretary of state, Leroy P. Walker of Alabama as secretary of war, Charles G. Memminger of South Carolina as secretary of the treasury, Stephen R. Mallory of Florida as secretary of the navy, Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana as attorney general, and John H. Reagan of Texas as postmaster general. The last three continued in the cabinet as long as the confederate government maintained its existence. Toombs, Walker, and Memminger were sooner or later supplanted by others. In his speeches on his way to Montgomery Mr. Davis expressed himself in a confident manner as sure of ultimate success. In one he said: “England will recognize us, and a glorious future is before us. The grass will grow in the northern cities, where the pavements have been worn off by the tread of commerce. We will carry the war where it is easy to advance, where food for the sword and torch awaits our armies in the densely populated cities. The enemy may come and spoil our crops, but we can raise them as before; they cannot rear again the cities which took years of industry and millions of money to build. We are now determined to maintain our position, and make all who oppose us smell southern powder and feel southern steel.” In marked contrast, however, to these confident menaces, Mr. Davis, in his first message to the confederate congress, April 29, concluded an argument in defence of the right of secession with the remark, “All we ask is, to be let alone,” a phrase which gave rise to numerous caricatures and parodies. A fortnight earlier Mr. Davis had ordered Beauregard, the confederate general at Charleston, to reduce Fort Sumter, the attack on which began the civil war. On May 20 the confederate government was transferred from Montgomery to Richmond, and a few days later Mr. Davis followed it. On the journey to Richmond he was received with every demonstration of popular favor and exultation, and his first days in the new capital were devoted to ovations, reviews of troops, and speeches to the multitude. An army of 50,000 men, commanded by Beauregard and Johnston, had been gathered in northern Virginia. In July the Union troops advanced toward Manassas, and were routed in the battle of Bull Run. Mr. Davis left Richmond on the morning of the battle, intending to take command in person; but the victory was won before he arrived. On his return to Richmond he was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd, to whom he addressed a short speech, in which he said: “We have taught them a lesson in their invasion of the sacred soil of Virginia; and a yet bloodier and far more fatal lesson awaits them unless they speedily acknowledge that freedom to which you were born.” A period of inaction on the part of the confederates followed their success at Bull Run, which it is said was in accordance with the policy adopted by the president in opposition to the advice of the generals, who were in favor of concentrating the southern forces in Virginia and invading the north. Mr. Davis preferred the policy of diffusion, and of standing on the defensive. These and other differences of opinion resulted in an estrangement between Mr. Davis and Generals Beauregard and Johnston, which continued through the war. Mr. Hunter of Virginia, who in the summer of 1861 had succeeded Mr. Toombs as the confederate secretary of state, and who was a person of the highest consideration, having during the ensuing winter offered some advice about the conduct of the war, was haughtily reminded that his department did not comprise military affairs; he sent in his resignation next day, and was succeeded by Mr. Benjamin, who, originally attorney general, had been temporarily assigned to the war department upon the resignation of Mr. Walker. In November, 1861, a presidential election was held throughout the confederacy, and Mr. Davis was chosen president for the full term of six years, and Mr. Stephens vice president. On Feb. 18, 1862, the first congress under the permanent constitution of the Confederate States assembled in Richmond. On the 22d Mr. Davis was inaugurated president. His inaugural address, and his subsequent message, sent to the congress a few days afterward, were largely devoted to explanations of the recent disasters to the confederate arms at Roanoke island and Fort Donelson, and to confident predictions that the period was near at hand “when our foes must sink under the immense load of debt which they have incurred.” One of the first measures of the confederate congress after the inauguration was the passage of a conscription law, to which Mr. Davis reluctantly assented. The conscription undoubtedly saved the confederacy for a time; but it established at Richmond a military despotism, which was warmly opposed in many quarters of the south, and especially in Georgia, whose governor, Joseph Brown, came out against the measure in proclamations and speeches, and drew Mr. Davis into a correspondence which lasted several months. On the approach of McClellan's army to Richmond in the spring of 1862, President Davis declared martial law for ten miles around the city, and supplanted the civil authorities by a military police, under Gen. Winder, which continued in power to the end of the war. The reason given for this step was that a Union sentiment was being developed as McClellan advanced, which made summary arrests of suspected persons necessary, and that a new police was required to guard against political conspiracies. In December, 1862, Mr. Davis visited the confederate camps in the western department, spending several weeks in obtaining information as to the conditions and wants of that section of the confederacy. During this excursion he visited the capital of Mississippi, and made an address to the legislature, defending the conscription law, and ending with the declaration that “in all respects, moral as well as physical, the confederacy was better prepared for war than it was a year previous.” This declaration was justified by the facts of the case. The confederacy was undoubtedly in its best estate and strongest condition at the end of 1862 and the beginning of 1863. The proclamation of emancipation by President Lincoln, to take effect Jan. 1, 1863, called out from Mr. Davis, in his next message to the confederate congress, an indignant commentary on the cruelty of a measure by which “several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination.” He pronounced the emancipation proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” In April, 1863, in compliance with a request of the confederate congress, he issued an address to the people of the south, in which he said: “Alone and unaided we have met and overthrown the most formidable combinations of naval and military armaments that the lust of conquest ever gathered together for the subjugation of a free people. We began this struggle without a single gun afloat, while the resources of our enemy enabled them to gather fleets which, according to their official list, published in August last, consisted of 437 vessels, measuring 840,000 tons, and carrying 3,026 guns. To oppose invading forces composed of levies which have already exceeded 1,300,000 men, we had no resources but the unconquerable valor of a people determined to be free. . . . . The contrast between our past and present condition is well calculated to inspire full confidence in the triumph of our arms. At no previous period of the war have our forces been so numerous, so well organized, and so thoroughly disciplined, armed, and equipped as at present.” Three months later these brilliant prospects were clouded by the defeat of Gen. Lee at Gettysburg on July 3, and the equally disastrous surrender on the following day of Gen. Pemberton at Vicksburg, with 27,000 men, soon followed by that of Port Hudson with 6,000. These conspicuous failures were the signal for a fierce arraignment of the administration of President Davis in all parts of the Confederate States. He was held responsible for the advance into Pennsylvania, though it had been advised by Gen. Lee, and had been made with the exultant approval of the whole south. He was charged with unworthy partiality in appointing his personal favorite Pemberton to the command in the southwest; and Pemberton himself, a northerner by birth, was accused of having betrayed his command. To add to the discontent produced by these severe military reverses, the finances of the confederacy became in 1863 hopelessly depreciated. They had never been on a sound basis, nor were they ever well managed; but the disasters of July, 1863, caused such a decline in confederate currency that it became almost worthless. The annual message of President Davis to congress in December, 1863, frankly stated the peril of the position, and indicated as the three great wants of his government men, money, and food. The army of northern Virginia had lost more than a third of the force with which it invaded Pennsylvania; the losses of the western array were still greater. To remedy these deficiencies the president recommended “restoring to the army all who are improperly absent, putting an end to substitution, modifying the exemption law, restricting details, and placing in the ranks such of the able-bodied men now employed as wagoners, nurses, cooks, and other employees as are doing service for which the negroes may be found competent.” For the financial troubles no remedy could be found. Mr. Memminger, whose administration of the treasury department had proved a palpable failure, resigned, and Mr. Trenholm took his place with a reputation for financial talent from which much was expected. But no talents, no ingenuity could arrest the downward tendency of the confederate currency. There was little coin in the country, the people would not submit to taxation, and enormous issues of paper promises to pay stimulated a general spirit of speculation, which accelerated the downfall of the already tottering structure of the confederacy. Equally difficult of remedy was the deficiency of food. With the loss of Kentucky and Tennessee the confederacy lost the main source of its supplies of meat. The army was already on half rations, and the management of the confederate commissary department was a cause of much complaint against the president, who was charged with keeping for personal reasons an unfit man, Col. Northrop, at the head of it. A committee of the confederate congress, however, who investigated the matter, made a report which amply vindicated the commissary general. It was not his mismanagement, but the failure of the resources of the confederacy, that was reducing the army to starvation. The same excuse can also be assigned for the alleged indifference of Mr. Davis to the sufferings of the Union prisoners, who were unquestionably insufficiently fed; though no excuse can be given for the ill treatment to which they were subjected by brutal jailers acting under the authority and control of the confederate president. It is said by confederate writers that President Davis displayed unusual energy and skill in preparing for and carrying on the campaign of 1864, which it was felt by both parties was likely to decide the issue of the war. It opened with confederate successes in Florida, in the southwest, and in North Carolina; which however were of little importance compared with the great struggle in Virginia between Lee and Grant, and the brilliant march of Sherman upon Georgia and through Georgia to the sea. The confederate general in command of the forces opposed to Sherman was Joseph E. Johnston, between whom and President Davis no great cordiality had existed since the beginning of the war, while during the progress of events in Georgia a marked difference of opinion had developed itself. Early in 1864 Mr. Davis had warmly approved an offensive campaign, while Gen. Johnston maintained that it would be impolitic to risk a battle, and insisted upon standing on the defensive. The result of this conflict of opinion was that on July 17, 1864, an order was issued to Gen. Johnston requiring him, as he had “failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta,” to turn over the command of his army to Gen. Hood. This change of commanders in the very crisis of a great campaign was loudly complained of by a large portion of the southern press, and was imputed to personal motives on the part of the president. These criticisms were apparently justified by the ill success of Hood in attempting to arrest the advance of Sherman, and his consequent evacuation of Atlanta on Sept. 1. This great blow to the confederacy caused President Davis to visit Georgia, partly to attempt to restore harmony in that state and to check the advance of Sherman. Governor Brown was notoriously disaffected to the confederate administration, and to President Davis, whom he charged with total disregard of the rights of the states. Mr. Davis, in repeated interviews, sought to convince the governor that he was mistaken in this particular, but to no purpose. On his way to Hood's army Mr. Davis made a speech at Augusta, in which he said: “Four years we have stemmed the tide of invasion, and to-day are stronger than when the war began; better able now than ever to repulse the Vandal who is seeking our overthrow. . . . All things are fair; and this confederacy is not yet played out, as those declare who spread their own despondency over the whole body politic.” He also addressed the citizens of Macon, admitting the perils of the situation, and concluding thus: “If one half of the men now absent from the field would return to duty, we can defeat the enemy. With that hope I am now going to the front. I may not realize this hope; but I know that there are men there who have looked death too often in the face to despond now.” On Sept. 18 he reached Hood's headquarters, and reviewed the army, making a speech of encouragement, and promising a speedy advance northward. This advance was made. Hood's army marched into Tennessee, expecting to deter Sherman's advance by cutting his communications; but the movement left Georgia and South Carolina unprotected, and Sherman, regardless of the force in his rear, marched with little molestation upon Savannah, and thence toward Richmond. Southern writers friendly to Mr. Davis maintain that Hood's campaign was not planned or authorized by the president, while those not friendly to him assert just the contrary. Hood himself, in taking leave of his army in January, 1865, said in speaking of his unfortunate campaign, “I alone am responsible for its conception.” The whole situation was succinctly described by Sherman in a telegram to Washington: “Hood has crossed the Tennessee. Thomas will take care of him and Nashville, while Schofield will not let him into Chattanooga or Knoxville. Georgia and South Carolina are at my mercy, and I shall strike.” The conquest of Georgia and South Carolina, the disasters amounting almost to destruction of Hood's army in Tennessee, the defeats of Early in the Shenandoah valley, the steady advance of Gen. Grant upon Richmond, and especially the reëlection of Mr. Lincoln, and the evident determination of the north to continue the contest till the Union was restored, had produced at the beginning of 1865 a despondent conviction in the south that the struggle was hopeless. The confederate congress which assembled in November, 1864, was palpably demoralized, and made a signal display of timidity and vacillation. It did little in the way of legislation, and its occupation during the winter was mainly crimination of the president. Mr. Davis, on the contrary, was still confident and resolute, and with the concurrence of Gen. Lee was planning schemes for concentrating forces to oppose and destroy the army which Sherman was rapidly leading northward from Savannah and Columbia. One of the measures he proposed was the emancipation and enlistment of slaves as soldiers; but this, which might have been of service earlier in the war, came too late. Another measure which attracted great attention at the time was to authorize commissioners to hold a conference with President Lincoln, with a view to discussing terms of peace. The commissioners appointed were Stephens of Georgia and Hunter and Campbell of Virginia, who on Feb. 3 met President Lincoln and Secretary Seward on a steamer anchored in Hampton roads, and had a conference which lasted for several hours, but resulted in nothing. President Davis now began to make preparations for the abandonment of Richmond and retirement to an interior line of defence near the Roanoke river. A part of his plan involved the union of the armies of Lee and Johnston and the defeat of Sherman by their combined forces. Grant's defeat of Lee, however, at Five Forks on April 1, made this plan impracticable. On April 2, while seated in his pew during divine service in St. Paul's church, Mr. Davis received a note from the confederate war department communicating the news of Lee's defeat, and the consequent necessity of removal from Richmond. His family had been sent southward some days before, and at 8 P. M., attended by his personal staff, members of his cabinet, and several other officials, he left Richmond on the train for Danville, where he issued a proclamation declaring that the capital had been abandoned only in order to leave the army free to act. “Relieved from the necessity of guarding particular points, our army will be free to move from point to point, to strike the enemy in detail far from his base.” He declared it to be his purpose never to submit, and exhorted his countrymen “to meet the foe with fresh defiance and with unconquered and unconquerable hearts.” An attempt was made to keep up at Danville the forms of government, but this was abandoned in little more than a week, when the news arrived that Lee's army had surrendered to Grant. Mr. Davis and his party then went by railroad to Greensboro, N. C. Here he met Johnston and Beauregard, who plainly told him it was useless to continue the struggle. From Greensboro he proceeded to Charlotte, where he remained about a week, and where he heard of the assassination of President Lincoln. A few days later he heard that he was accused of having instigated the assassination, and that a proclamation had been issued offering $100,000 for his apprehension. He still contemplated resistance. His plan was to cross the Mississippi with some troops that had joined him from Johnston's army, which, added to the force beyond that river, would make an army respectable in numbers and abundantly supplied from a productive and unexhausted country. Before putting this design into execution, however, he sought an interview with his wife, who had preceded him with a small escort; and having overtaken her, he was encamped near Irwinville, Ga., May 10, when a body of Union cavalry commanded by Gen. J. H. Wilson captured his camp and arrested him. At the moment of his arrest he had on his wife's cloak, and with an empty bucket in his hand was seeking to escape under the pretence of being a woman going for water to a neighboring spring. He was conveyed to Fortress Monroe, where he arrived May 19, and where he was confined for two years. In May, 1867, he was brought before the United States circuit court at Richmond on a charge of treason, and was admitted to bail, the charge of complicity in the assassination of Lincoln being dropped, as there was no evidence to substantiate it. He made a brief stay in Richmond, where he was well received by the people, and went thence to New York, and then to Canada. In the summer of 1868 he went to England, a mercantile house in Liverpool having offered to take him as a partner without any capital. On arriving in England he became satisfied that the offer was one which he had best not accept. He made a brief visit to France, and soon returned to America. At the term of the United States circuit court held in Richmond in December, 1868, a nolle prosequi was entered in his case, and he was accordingly discharged. He was included in the general amnesty of Dec. 25, 1868. Since his discharge he has lived at Memphis, Tenn., where he is president of a life insurance company. In June, 1871, he had a public reception at Atlanta, Ga., and made a speech in which he said that he still adhered to the principle of state sovereignty, but declared that the power of the Union was too great to be resisted. He also said, “ I don't believe I did any wrong, and therefore don't acknowledge it.” — See “The Life of Jefferson Davis,” by Frank H. Alfriend (1868), and “The Life of Jefferson Davis,” by Edward A. Pollard (1869). Both of these works are by southern writers, the first being friendly to Mr. Davis, the second inimical. See also Craven's “Prison Life of Jefferson Davis” (1866).