Jefferson Davis, Misunderstood Patriot!

by Edward G. Georgen

Jefferson Davis is arguably the MOST misunderstood and under appreciated man in the historical tapestry of America. He was a man of his times, and that is why few of us today truly know what this man did for his country, America. A true Patriot and a reluctant secessionist, but who was he? 

Jefferson Finis Davis, the son of Samuel and Jane Davis, was born June 3, 1808 in Fairview, Christian (now Todd) County. Davis' father and uncles were soldiers in the American Revolutionary War, and three of his older brothers fought in the War of 1812. Jefferson’s Father, Samuel Davis, was rewarded for his services in the American Revolution, and received a grant of land near Augusta, Georgia.  Military Service and Patriotic themes were weaved throughout Jefferson’s life by his family.

Samuel heard of excellent land that could be obtained in Kentucky and decided to move there. The Davis family moved to Kentucky in 1793. After staying briefly in Mercer County they moved to a 600-acre tract in Christian County where Samuel Davis built a four room log house complete with the first glass windows to be seen in the area. 

Although the Davis family had established a farm and bred prized horses on their Kentucky land, by 1810 the family returned to the Deep South. For a year they lived in Louisiana before moving to Wilkinson County, Mississippi. 

In Mississippi, Jefferson Davis began his formal education at age five. Dissatisfied with his son’s school, Samuel Davis decided to send his seven year old son to be educated in Kentucky. Davis entered a school of the Dominican Order near Bardstown KY. After nearly two years in the Dominican school, Davis returned home at the insistence of his mother. 

Davis resumed his education in Mississippi at Jefferson College and at the Academy of Wilkinson County. In 1821 at age thirteen, he returned to Kentucky to attend Transylvania University in Lexington. Transylvania had an excellent reputation as the best institution of higher learning west of the mountains. Davis passed his examinations for the senior class at Transylvania with honors.

However, due to his father’s urging he accepted an appointment as a cadet at West Point. On July 12, 1828, he graduated from West Point. He served in various posts in the army for four years. In 1832 he met Knox Taylor, daughter of future President Zachary Taylor. Davis resigned from the army and the couple married in 1835. The newlyweds moved to Natchez, Mississippi where he began a career as a planter. Within three months of their arrival, both he and his wife contracted malaria. On September 15, 1835, Knox Taylor Davis died of the disease at age 21. After a long convalescence, he recovered. Grief stricken over the death of his wife, he remained in seclusion for several years. 

In 1845 Davis married Varina Anne Howell. He returned to politics and won election to Congress. In less than six months he left the House of Representatives to become a colonel of a Mississippi regiment in the Mexican War (1846-1848). 

At the Battle of Monterrey, Jefferson led his men in a successful attack on Fort Teneria. 

At the Battle of Buena Vista Jefferson and his men blocked a charge of  sword wielding Mexican Troops and he was wounded in the foot. This incident earned him nationwide fame as a Military Hero. General Zachary Taylor was forced  to admit he had misjudged Jefferson’s character. "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of man than I was," Taylor reportedly stated.

The governor of Mississippi appointed him to the United States Senate to finish the term of the recently deceased Senator Speight. Due to the wound in his foot, Jefferson returned to Congress on crutches and in continuing pain. But his respect for those whom he represented kept him active in many Congressional actions. Davis won a full term as Senator in 1850.

While in Washington DC, Jefferson was appointed to the Regents Building Committee and the Committee on Copyright.  He was an enthusiastic supporter of the then one building institute. 

In 1851, he resigned as Senator to run for Governor of Mississippi. He lost by 999 votes and found himself out of all offices. 

However, Davis remained in politics and spent 1852 campaigning in the South for Franklin Pierce in the presidential election. Pierce was successful and Davis was rewarded by Pierce with the post of Secretary of War. Two key projects he pushed and prodded for were the updating of the coastal forts and defenses, and the establishment of a Transcontinental Railroad. The forts were updated, the railroad was not to be, yet...

Davis held the position of Secretary of War until the end of the Pierce administration in 1857. Having re-made himself at a very high political level, Davis once again entered the Senate in March 1857. In 1858 Davis made two public speeches against secession but events were moving very quickly at this time and gathered even more support when Abraham Lincoln was elected President. 

Davis believed that the South was in danger of being swamped with the ideas and beliefs of the North. He feared that the traditional way of life in the South was threatened by the powers that existed in Washington DC. However, he did not support the idea of secession, though he did believe it was the right of each state to decide for itself whether it should stay in the Union or not.

He left the Senate in 1861 when Mississippi formally withdrew from the Union and he returned to the State. Here in front of the State Legislature Davis argued against secession from the Union. However, he was outvoted and went with the majority decision. Why was Davis so anti-secession at this time? It is almost certain that his was a pragmatic approach. As a former Secretary of War, Davis would have known, and help build, the potential military capability of the North compared with the South. Therefore, he would have known that one was far more able to conduct a long drawn out war than the other.

Here is the opening paragraph of Jefferson Davis’ Farewell Speech to Congress. 

“I rise, Mr. President, for the purpose of announcing to the Senate that I have satisfactory evidence that the state of Mississippi, by a solemn ordinance of her people in convention assembled, has declared her separation from the United States. Under these circumstances, of course my functions are terminated here. It has seemed to me proper, however, that I should appear in the Senate to announce that fact to my associates, and I will say but very little more. The occasion does not invite me to go into argument; and my physical condition would not permit me to do so if it were otherwise; and yet it seems to become me to say something on the part of the state I here represent, on an occasion so solemn as this. 
THE STATES ARE SOVEREIGN“

On February 18 1861, Davis was elected as the provisional President of the Congress of the Confederate States. Before Fort Sumter was attacked in April 1861, he sent a Peace Commission to Washington, which offered to purchase Union land in the South and pay off the South’s share of the national debt. However, this offering came to nothing.

Davis was formally elected President for a six-year tenure as President on November 6, 1861 and was inaugurated on February 22, 1862. 

In 1864 the Davis Family took in Jim Limber, a black child, who Varina rescued from the streets of Richmond VA. Varina states in her diaries that Jim was a part of the family, similar to what we call today a foster child. To quote Varina from her diary, “The children are well and very happy—play all day—Billy & Jim fast friends as ever … ". Does that support the claim of racism waged against Jefferson Davis, the foster parenting of a black child? No, it does not! (https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/limber_jim )
Jefferson’s power base ended when he and the shattered government left Richmond. On May 10, 1865, he was caught at Irwinville in Georgia.

He was imprisoned in Fort Monroe until 1867. An attempt was made to try to indict Davis for treason in 1866 but nothing came of this and he was released on a bond of $100,000. Among those who signed the bond are Cornelius Vanderbilt, Horace Greeley, and Gerrit Smith. Vanderbilt is the more famous of these gentlemen. Horace Greeley was the founder and editor of the New York Tribune which was one of the most widely distributed and read newspaper of that time. Gerrit Smith was an abolitionist who was best known as the man who helped fund John Brown and his insurrection in 1859.

In 1868, the case against Davis was dropped but his citizenship was stripped.

From his release from prison until 1878 he put his energy behind a number of business ventures and efforts towards reconciliation and healing the divides in the United States were paramount in his remaining years.

In 1875 he returned to his birth place in Fairview KY for a visit. A huge crowd came out to see and hear from the former President of the Confederacy, he had become a Legend. During this visit he also presented a silver set to the Baptist Church of Fairview. Many pieces from that set and the replacement pieces Varina would set later can be seen today at that church.

From 1878 until his death on December 6th 1889 in New Orleans, he lived quietly near Biloxi in Mississippi.

Jefferson Davis was buried in Richmond Virginia. 

So here we are today, judging a man with 13 honorable and decorated years of U. S. Military Service, and 15 additional years highly distinguished U. S. Government Service as not worthy of honoring because of answering the call of his constituents and serving for 4 years as a President of the Confederacy.:

UNITED STATES MILITARY SERVICE:
West Point Cadet, 1824 to 1828
U. S. Army, 2nd Lieutenant, 1828 to 1835
U. S. Army, Colonel, 1847 and 1848
UNITES STATES GOVERNMENT SERVICE
Representative to Congress, 1845 to 1847
U. S. Senator, 1848 to 1853
Secretary of War,  1853 to 1857
U. S. Senator 1857 to 1861

How many of us can lay claim to decades of honorable service to the United States and its citizens such as Jefferson Davis did before 1861? 

How many of us would respond to the call of the people to head up a new government when knowing full well what they will face, and having built much of it?

How many of us would live 20+ years trying to heal a divided nation?

Why does Jefferson Davis deserve to be honored? His LIFE of service for his fellow citizens speaks the answer loud and clear! YES!!!

As much as it pains me, may I make an illustration of the lopsidedness of judging Jefferson as he is being judged?

The “Great Emancipator” himself served a single 3 month enlistment in the Illinois Militia, never engaged in combat, 4 years as a U S Senator and 5 years as U. S. President. You will note Lincoln and Jefferson were born within a year, and 40 miles of each other. And, both men's public service and military career ended in 1865.

Yet the man who served the public longer is dismissed and ridiculed, and the other man is made a mythological hero and worshiped by many...

We can only hope that future generations look upon the current leaders that do not honor our Forefathers who sacrificed so much with the same jaded eyes and dismiss their service as not worthy of remembrance.  It would serve them right!