Jefferson Davis: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

Jefferson Davis occupies a unique place in American history, as he was a prominent political figure who became the president of a nation formed in rebellion to the United States.

Before siding with the rebellion of the slave states in 1861, Davis had a fairly illustrious career. He had served in the U.S. Army and had been wounded while serving heroically in the Mexican War.

Serving as secretary of war in the 1850s, his interest in science inspired him to import camels for use by the U.S. Cavalry. He also served as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi before resigning to join the rebellion.

Many might have believed that Jefferson Davis would one day become president of the United States.

Accomplishments of Davis

Engraved portrait of Jefferson Davis
Jefferson Davis. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Life span: Born: June 3, 1808, Todd County, Kentucky

Died: December 6, 1889, New Orleans, Louisiana


Jefferson Davis was the only president of the Confederate States of America. He held the office from 1861 until the collapse of the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War, in the spring of 1865.

Davis, in the decades before the Civil War, held a number of positions in the federal government. And before becoming a leader of the slave states in rebellion, he was viewed by some as a plausible future president of the United States.

His accomplishments are judged, of course, differently than any other American politician. While he held the Confederate government together in nearly impossible circumstances, he was considered a traitor by those loyal to the United States. And there were many Americans who believed he should have been tried for treason and hanged at the conclusion of the Civil War.

While advocates for Davis point to his intellect and skill in governing the rebel states, his detractors note the obvious: Davis strongly believed in the perpetuation of slavery.

Political Support and Opposition

illustration of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate cabinet
Jefferson Davis and the Confederate cabinet. Getty Images

In his role as Confederate president, Davis began his term with widespread support within the states in rebellion. He was approached about becoming the president of the Confederacy and claimed not to be seeking the position.

Opposed by:

Davis, as the Civil War continued, gathered a number of critics within the Confederacy. An irony was that Davis, before secession, had consistently been a forceful and eloquent advocate for states' rights. Yet trying to manage the Confederate government Davis was inclined to impose the rule of a strong central government.

Presidential Campaigns:

Davis never campaigned for the presidency of the Confederate States of America in the sense that politicians in the United States campaigned. He had essentially been selected.

Family Life

Jefferson and Varina Davis
Jefferson and Varina Davis. Getty Images

After resigning his military commission in 1835, Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of Zachary Taylor, the future president and an Army colonel. Taylor strongly disapproved of the marriage.

The newlyweds moved to Mississippi, where Sarah contracted malaria and died within three months. Davis himself contracted malaria and recovered, but often suffered ill health as a lingering effect of the disease. Over time, Davis repaired his relationship with Zachary Taylor, and he became one of Taylor's most trusted advisers during his presidency.

Davis married Varina Howell in 1845. They remained married for the rest of his life, and they had six children, three of whom lived to adulthood.

Early Career

Jefferson Davis grew up in Mississippi and was educated at Transylvania University in Kentucky for three years. He then entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduated in 1828 and received a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army.

Early Career:

Davis served as an infantry officer for seven years before resigning from the Army. During the decade from 1835 to 1845, he became a successful cotton planter, farming on a plantation called Brierfield, which had been given to him by his brother. He also began buying slaves in the mid-1830s, and according to the federal census of 1840, he owned 39 slaves.

In the late 1830s, Davis took a trip to Washington and apparently met President Martin Van Buren. His interest in politics developed, and in 1845 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat.

With the beginning of the Mexican War in 1846, Davis resigned from Congress and formed a volunteer company of infantrymen. His unit fought in Mexico, under General Zachary Taylor, and Davis was wounded. He returned to Mississippi and received a hero's welcome.

In 1847 Davis was elected to the U.S. Senate and obtained a powerful position on the military affairs committee. In 1853 Davis was appointed secretary of war in the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce. It was probably his favorite job, and Davis took to it energetically, helping to bring important reforms to the military.

In the late 1850s, as the nation was splitting over the issue of slavery, Davis returned to the U.S. Senate. He cautioned other southerners about secession, but when slave states started leaving the Union, he resigned from the Senate.

On January 21, 1861, in the waning days of the administration of James Buchanan, Davis gave a dramatic farewell speech in the U.S. Senate.

Later Career

Following the Civil War, many in the federal government, and the public, believed Davis to be a traitor responsible for years of bloodshed and the deaths of many thousands. And, there was strong suspicion that Davis had been involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps even having ordered Lincoln's murder.

After Davis was apprehended by Union cavalry, while trying to escape and perhaps keep the rebellion going, he was locked up in a military prison for two years. For a time he was kept in chains, and his health suffered from his rough treatment.

The federal government eventually decided not to prosecute Davis, and he returned to Mississippi. He was financially ruined, as he had lost his plantation (and, like many other large landholders in the South, he had, of course, lost a large part of his property, his slaves).

Davis, thanks to a wealthy benefactor, was able to live comfortably on an estate, where he wrote a book about the Confederate government. In his final years, in the 1880s, he was often visited by admirers.

Death and Funeral

Davis died on December 6, 1889. A large funeral was held for him in New Orleans, and he was buried in the city. His body was eventually moved to a large tomb in Richmond, Virginia.

The veneration of Jefferson Davis remains a controversial subject. Statues of him appeared throughout the South following his death, and, because of his defense of slavery, many now believe those statues should be taken down. There are also periodic calls to remove his name from public buildings and roads which were had been named in his honor.