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Download a chronology of Jefferson Davis’ life.
Jefferson F. Davis was born on June 3, 1808 to farmer Samuel Davis and his wife, Jane Cook Davis, in Kentucky. He was named for the then President, Thomas Jefferson. While Davis was still young, the family moved to Wilkinson County, Mississippi.
After attending a number of preparatory schools, Jefferson Davis was admitted in 1823 to Kentucky’s Transylvania University, known as the South’s Harvard. The following year, he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. As a student, he had a reputation for a fondness of drinking and socializing, which was perhaps the source of his average grades. Following his graduation from West Point in 1828 and his acceptance into the United States Army as a second lieutenant, Davis served at a number of frontier military posts, including Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien (Wisconsin) where he met and fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor. Taylor was the daughter of his commander, future president Zachary Taylor. After resigning from the Army in 1835, Davis married Taylor over the strong objections of her father. Tragically, however, the marriage was brief, as the new bride died of malaria three months after the wedding in September 1835. A grief-stricken Davis retired to "Brierfield," a Mississippi plantation given to him by his brother, Joseph.
Jefferson Davis met the second great love of his life during the Christmas holidays of 1843. Davis, then thirty-five, fell in love with seventeen-year-old Varina Howell, an attractive and intelligent young woman from Natchez, Mississippi. They were married a year later in 1845, shortly before his election to the United States House of Representatives. While her husband served in a succession of Federal offices, Varina won the favor of Washington society and was known for her wit, grace and vivaciousness.
Their marriage, though often punctuated by long separations, would last forty-four years and produced four sons and two daughters. Davis enjoyed a long and illustrious political career, most notably holding several terms as a United States senator for Mississippi; running unsuccessfully for governor of Mississippi; and serving as President Franklin Pierce’s secretary of war. When Mississippi seceded from the Union, Davis resigned his Senate seat and became the major general of Mississippi state troops. On February 9, 1861, the provisional Confederate Congress elected him president of the provisional government. Davis was informed of his new role while clipping roses in his garden. Varina would report that he received the message “as if some calamity had fallen upon him.” Davis himself would later write in his memoirs that, “I had not believed myself as well suited to the office as some others. I thought myself better suited to command in the field.” In November, he was elected to a six-year term as president of the Confederate States of America, the first and only person to hold this office.
Richmond, Virginia, was chosen to replace Montgomery, Alabama, as the capital of the Confederate States of America and Davis arrived in the city with great fanfare on May 29, 1861. He brought to the office a wealth of political, administrative and military experience. He also had his share of human failings, including a host of frequent and debilitating illnesses, an inordinate sensitivity to criticism, and an indifference to popular feeling. His leadership elicited both bitter criticism and high praise, as he undertook the difficult and perhaps impossible task of simultaneously forging a new nation and leading it in a fight for its existence.
While crowds and flowers marked the Davises arrival in the southern capital, quite the opposite was true of their departure.Davis left Richmond on the evening of April 2, 1865. The next morning, the Union Army entered Richmond and established their headquarters in what had been Davis’ executive mansion. Determined to continue the government and war, Davis relocated the Confederate government to Danville, Virginia, but after a week there kept moving to escape capture. He moved through the Carolinas and into Georgia, from there looking west to Texas, where there was still a Confederate army in the field. On May 10, 1865, he was captured in Georgia with his family and members of his cabinet and staff by Union cavalry. Indicted for treason, Davis was held in Federal custody for two years in Fort Monroe, Virginia.
Though a trial was never held and Davis never convicted, he lost his US citizenship when he refused to ask for a pardon. Barred from politics and unable to reoccupy “Brierfield”, he pursued a short and unsuccessful career as the president of a life insurance company. Davis traveled extensively before finally settling in “Beauvoir” plantation near Biloxi, Mississippi, where he wrote his memoirs entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. He died in New Orleans on December 6, 1889, and was buried there until 1893. Davis was reinterred in Richmond’s distinguished Hollywood Cemetery next to his young son, Joseph, who had perished in an accidental fall at the Confederate White House. Varina, who enjoyed a writing career in New York following his death, was also buried there in 1906.