The Civil War Connections Blog

The Other President

When thinking about the Civil War, I find it interesting to consider that there were two American governments operating at the same time. They were fighting one another desperately and had some important differences, but much of the Confederacy was modeled after the set up of the United States. They both had Cabinet members, Constitutions (though the Confederate one gave more power to the states than the United States did), and a bicameral Congress. They both also had presidents, and while Abraham Lincoln sought to reunited the Union and end slavery, Jefferson Davis fought to establish the Confederacy and expand slavery.

 

Jefferson Davis, between 1855 - 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

Jefferson Davis, between 1855 – 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

 

Jefferson Davis served as the first and only, President of the Confederacy during the war. Davis had graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1828, the year before Robert E. Lee graduated. While at West Point, he was put under house arrest for his involvement in what was called the “Eggnog Riot,” where some cadets smuggled whiskey into their rooms in the barracks.[1] Following his graduation he served under Colonel (and future president) Zachary Taylor. In 1835, Davis retired from the Army, so that he could marry Taylor’s daughter Sarah, despite it being against his commander’s wishes. Sarah died from disease three months into their marriage, and Davis eventually remarried Varina Banks Howell in 1844. Before his remarriage, Davis became involved in with the Democratic Party. He went to the Democratic state convention in Mississippi, and continuously gained support for the party, even becoming a potential presidential candidate in 1844, the same year him and Varina married.

With the start of the Mexican American war in 1846, Davis and a volunteer regiment joined the fight, where he clashed with General Winfield Scott. Following the end of the war Davis rejoined politics, eventually serving in both the House of Representatives and the US Senate, and then as Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War. Prior to the escalation of the disagreement over how to proceed with slavery, Davis actually spoke out against succession as a measure to be taken. He believed in the Union, and did not support succession until his own state of Mississippi withdrew and joined the Confederacy. He was inaugurated as provisional president of the Confederacy on February 18, 1861, and then again as the official president following an unopposed election on February 22, 1862. Davis is said to have struggled as president, having a hard time managing both the military decisions and the internal affairs.

Following the capture of Richmond and Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Davis fled further south into Georgia to avoid capture by the Union troops. However, he was captured on May 10, 1865, and taken to Fort Monroe, VA, where he remained imprisoned under charges of treason until 1867, until the case was dropped and he was released. Following his release he worked for an insurance agency, traveled abroad, and throughout the United States. Davis refused to take the oath of allegiance that was required for former Confederates to regain their citizenship, and he did not regain it until 1978 when it was posthumously reinstated by Congress and President Jimmy Carter. This, as Carter supposedly said, was thought to be the last act of reconstruction and reconciliation following the Civil War.

I think the role of Jefferson Davis in the Civil War is extremely interesting. He had been involved within the US government prior to the Civil War, and had initially opposed the succession of the southern states. It shows a lot that a man who was so dedicated and involved with the United States was able to succeed and lead another government in opposition to it. I think it really helps emphasize how the nation was torn apart, and even those who believed in the Union felt so strongly about the conflict that they too left it to try to install what they believed would be a better government.

 

Jefferson Davis Memorial (detail), Richmond, Va. Courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

Jefferson Davis Memorial (detail), Richmond, Va. Courtesy of the Library of Congress online.

 


[1] “Jefferson Davis,” History Channel online, Accessed April 18, 2013, http://www.history.com/topics/jefferson-davis