Jefferson Davis (18081889)
The man and the hour have met, announced
the Alabama fire-eater William L. Yancey, when Jefferson
Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederate
States of America. Davis was a reluctant secessionist,
hoping that the South would remain loyal to the
Union. But when the secession movement gained momentum
in early 1861, he dedicated himself to the cause
of independence. Davis brought more experience to
his presidency than Abraham Lincoln did to his.
A graduate of West Point, he fought honorably in
the Mexican War and had been nominated for brigadier
general; he had served as a United States senator
and later as governor of Mississippi; and he had
been an able secretary of war under Franklin Pierce.
As President of the Souths hastily formed
government, he faced the twin difficulties of repelling
invading Northern armies and appeasing Southern
states rights advocates who challenged his
efforts to build a unified Confederate nation. After
an interview with Davis in late 1864, a Northern
writer for the Atlantic Monthly attributed
the Souths ability to endure to the sagacity,
energy and indomitable will of Jefferson Davis.
Without him, wrote Edmund Kirke, the
rebellion would crumble to pieces in a day.
The strain of office as President of the Confederacy
debilitated Daviss already weak body; he
suffered from nervous tension and a facial paralysis
that impaired his vision. Imprisoned for two years
after the war, Davis was indicted for treason
but was never tried. He did not apply for a pardon
and was thus ineligible to hold office again.
Davis spent his last years on a plantation in
Mississippi, writing the Rise and Fall of the
Confederate Government (1881).
Daguerreotype, circa 1858
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution