Davis, Jefferson (18081889), a United States and Confederate political leader. He was the president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, 186165. Davis believed in slavery, state sovereignty, and the right of secession. He saw the war as a struggle to protect the rights of the states against encroachment by the federal government. Davis was chosen president because of his previous success in politics and the military. However, as president he worked poorly with his cabinet and the governors of the Confederate states. The South came to consider him arbitrary and tyrannical.
Davis designed a defensive military strategy that many historians believe cost the Confederacy victory. After the war, he was eventually granted amnesty and took no further part in politics.
Davis was born in Todd County, Kentucky. He and his family moved to Mississippi when he was about three. In 1828 he graduated from West Point and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He served at various frontier posts until resigning from the army in 1835. In that year, he married Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor (later the 12th President of the United States). Three months after their marriage, she died of malariaan illness from which Davis himself periodically suffered. Davis went into almost total seclusion for nearly seven years. In 1845 he remarried. His second wife was Varina Winnie Howell (18261906), a talented and outgoing woman from an aristocratic Mississippi family. She and Davis had six children.
Davis was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives from Mississippi in 1845. He resigned a year later to command a regiment in the Mexican War. In 1847 Davis was appointed by the governor of Mississippi to fill out an unexpired U.S. Senate term. He was elected to the Senate the following year. In 1851 he resigned and ran unsuccessfully for the governorship of Mississippi.
Davis served as secretary of war during the Pierce Presidency, 185357. During this period, he influenced the administration to pursue the Gadsden Purchase (1853), by which the United States gained territory in what is now Arizona and New Mexico. In 1857 he was reelected to the Senate.
In January, 1861, after Mississippi had seceded from the Union, Davis once again resigned his Senate seat. The following month, the Provisional Confederate Congress elected Davis president of the Confederacy. Before the Civil War began in April, 1861, Davis appealed to the North to allow the South to secede peaceably, claiming that the states had a legal right to do so under the U.S. Constitution.
After the collapse of the Confederacy in April, 1865, Davis was captured in Georgia by Union cavalry. He was imprisoned at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Although charged with treason, Davis was never brought to trial. He was released in 1867, on bail provided by a group of Northerners, one of whom was the abolitionist Horace Greeley. Davis, along with other Confederate leaders, was denied the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote, until the General Amnesty Act of 1868.
Davis spent the last part of his life at Beauvoir, a friend's estate that he later inherited, near Biloxi, Mississippi. While visiting New Orleans, Davis died of a respiratory ailment. He was buried there but later reinterred in Richmond, Virginia. Davis's birthday, June 3, is celebrated as an official holiday in several Southern states.
In 1881, Davis wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which recorded his views on the Civil War. Varina Davis, his second wife, wrote Jefferson Davis, Ex-President of the Confederate States of America: A Memoir (2 volumes, 1890).