Davis's grandfather was a colonist from Wales, living in Virginia and Maryland, and rendering important public service to those southern colonies. His father, Samuel Emory Davis, and his uncles, were all Revolutionary soldiers in 1776. Samuel Davis served during the Revolution partly with Georgia cavalry and was also in the siege of Savannah as an officer in the
infantry. Three brothers of Jefferson Davis, all older than himself, fought in the war of 1812, two of them serving directly with Gen. Andrew Jackson, and gaining from that great soldier special mention of their gallantry in the battle of New Orleans.
Davis was raised in Mississipi, attended a Roman Catholic school in Kentucky, and later studied at Transylvania University. He entered West Point at age 16 and graduated in 1828, ranked 23 out of 33 in his class. He proceeded to serve on the frontier and in the Black Hawk War in the 1st Infantry and the 1st U.S. Dragoons. He resigned his commission on June 30, 1835.
Davis's first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor, died in September 1835, three months after their marriage. Heartbroken over her death, Davis moved to an isolated Mississippi plantation close to that owned by his brother Joseph. There he spent 10 years managing the plantation and studying. In 1845, he married Varina Howell, and in the same year he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat. In 1846, he left to command Mississippi troops in the Mexican War. He was prominent in the Battle of Buena Vista, where he was wounded. After the war, he was appointed a U.S. senator from Mississippi in August 1847, but he resigned in 1851 to make an unsuccessful campaign for governor of Mississippi. He was an outstanding Secretary of War in the cabinet of Franklin Pierce from 1853-57, and then returned to the Senate, where he became a spokesman for the South.
Basically a moderate, Davis favored Mississippi's secession and hoped to be made commander of the Confederate army. Instead, he was elected president of the Confederacy and inaugurated on Feb. 18, 1861. For the next 4 years, he gave his complete devotion to the Southern cause, but he was far from an ideal chief executive. He was in poor health for much of the war. He discouraged disagreement, and, as a result, many of those close to him were 'Yes-men'. He sometimes insisted on keeping loyal friends in office, despite overwhelming evidence of their incompetence. Regarding all opposition as directed at him personally, he wasted valuable time and energy quarreling over unimportant matters, and he was unwilling to delegate authority. He has also been accused of neglecting the civil aspects of government to concentrate on the military.
Many say Davis's greatest weakness was his inability to get along well with people. He was stiff and formal, unwilling to concede small points to win large objectives. As a result, he quarreled long and often with Confederate congressmen, generals, governors, and the press.
Largely because of these limitations, Davis lacked popular appeal. He was unable to win wholehearted cooperation for such unpopular but necessary measures as conscription, the impressment of supplies, and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Nor was he able to deal with such problems as refugees, inflation, and the shortage of necessities. He became increasingly unpopular as the war continued.
In fairness, it must be said that the winning of Southern independence was probably impossible, and that Davis did not receive the support that he should have. Much of the opposition to him came from short-sighted men who put personal status or their state's interests above the cause of the Confederacy, or from honest men who were unable to understand that successful modern war demands the sacrifice of some state rights and personal liberties to the common cause.
In April 1865, as the Confederacy was collapsing, Davis fled from Richmond, hoping to continue the war from the Deep South or from west of the Mississippi, or to organize a government in exile. On May 10, he was captured by Union cavalrymen in southern Georgia. For 2 years he was held in prison and threatened with trial for treason. His suffering during his imprisonment won him the affection of the Southern people, who came to regard him as a martyr to their lost cause.
Although indicted, Davis was never brought to trial, and he was released on bond in 1867. Believing that he had done nothing to be pardoned for, he refused to seek a pardon and remained ineligible for public office. Davis enjoyed an enthusiastic reception at Richmond, Virginia, and then visited Europe. Returning home, he avoided ostentatious display, appearing before the public, however, in occasional address and writings. He counseled the South to recover its wasted resources and maintain its principles. Secession, he frankly admitted, to be no more possible, but he remained to the last an unyielding opposer of power centralized in the Federal government. He had the undiminished attachment of the people to his personal character, and sympathy for him in his misfortunes. His " Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government" was published in 1881.
Davis died at New Orleans about 1:00 A.M., on December 5, 1889, and the event was announced throughout the Union. The funeral ceremonies in New Orleans were such as comported with the illustrious character of the deceased chieftain, while public meetings in other cities and towns of the South were held to express the common sorrow, and the flags of State capitols were dropped to half-mast. Distinguished men pronounced eulogies on his character, and the press universally at the South and generally at the North contained extended and laudatory articles on his character.
The burial place in New Orleans was selected only as a temporary receptacle, while a general movement was inaugurated for a tomb and monument which resulted in the removal of the body to Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy. The removal took place by means of a special funeral train from New Orleans to Richmond, passing through several States and stopping at many places to receive the respectful and affectionate tributes bestowed by the people. The scene from the time of the departure from New Orleans to the last rites at Richmond was singular in its nature and sublime in its significance of popular esteem for the memory of the Confederate President. The funeral train moved day and night almost literally in review before the line of people assembled to see it pass. Finally in the presence of many thousands the casket was deposited in the last resting place in the keeping of the city which had so long withstood the rude alarms of war under his presidency.