Davis More Than Confederate President
Poor Jefferson Davis. In the popular imagination, he is known simply as the
earnest man who led the Confederacy to defeat and destruction. Yet as
William J. Cooper Jr. demonstrates in a superb new biography, Davis
spent most of his life as a loyal American soldier and statesman who
might well have become president of the United States - had his beloved
Mississippi not seceded.
Jefferson Davis was born in a Kentucky
log cabin and raised on a Mississippi farm. In 1824, he enrolled at the
U.S. Military Academy, where he was a mediocre cadet who chafed at rules
and restrictions; he compiled more demerits than plaudits. After
graduating from West Point, he spent the next seven years in various
Army posts in the Old Northwest.
In 1835, Davis married the
daughter of his commander, Col. Zachary Taylor, against her father's
wishes, and left the Army to become a cotton planter in Mississippi. His
bride died of malaria three months later. For 10 lonely years
thereafter, a heartbroken Davis developed Brierfield, a plantation near
Vicksburg given to him by his older brother.
During the 1840s,
Davis became a prominent states-rights Democrat and an ardent proponent
of the unrestricted expansion of slavery into the territories. He was
elected to the U.S. Congress in 1845. That same year, he married Varina
Howell, a charming woman from Natchez half his age. After their first
meeting, Howell wrote her mother: "Would you believe it, he is refined
and cultivated and yet ... a Democrat."
She recognized that Davis
was a self-righteous man of "uncertain temper" and mulish obstinacy who
assumed that "everybody agrees with him." Yet she admired his
self-confident refinement, wide and deep reading, and "winning manner of
Davis was a lean, erect man with an angular
face - high cheekbones; hollow jaws; dark, deep-set, piercing eyes; thin
lips; square chin; and prominent nose. Chronic health problems -
dyspepsia and neuralgia - made him appear haggard and careworn.
resigned his House seat in 1846 to take command of a Mississippi
regiment in the Mexican War. After returning home a wounded war hero, he
served with distinction in the Senate and as Secretary of War under
Franklin Pierce. In 1857, he re-entered the Senate, where he focused on
the right to extend slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories. He
confessed that he was "dogmatic and dictatorial" about such issues, yet
when the secession crisis unfolded, he was no "fire-eater;" he hated
the thought of leaving the Union.
Nevertheless, on Jan. 21, 1861,
having learned that Mississippi had formally seceded, Davis resigned
his seat in the U.S. Senate. It was, he said, "the saddest day of my
life." Less than three weeks later, he was named president of the
President Davis was a hard worker, ardent patriot,
and capable military strategist, but he had fatal flaws of capacity and
judgment, which Cooper meticulously documents. Davis was dogmatic in his
defense of slavery, intolerant of criticism, ignorant of public
finance, and incapable of managing his feuding generals, most of whom
were incompetent. Perhaps worst of all, Davis could not inspire public
enthusiasm or accept political compromise.
As the war ground on,
Davis struggled in vain to deal with the starvation, dissension and
desertions plaguing the quixotic Confederate war effort. In the end, as
federal troops closed in on him, he hoped to escape to Texas and mount a
guerrilla resistance movement. But he and Varina were captured in south
Georgia in May 1865.
Davis was charged with treason and
imprisoned in Fortress Monroe, Va. He suffered many humiliations while a
prisoner but remained defiant. He refused to request a pardon,
demanding instead a trial to vindicate his actions and express his
fervent belief that the South had a constitutional right to secede.
After his release in May 1867, he rejoined his family in Canada,
traveled in Europe, struggled as an insurance executive, lived off the
charity of supporters and wrote his memoirs until he died in 1889.
a distinguished professor at Louisiana State University, has succeeded
in bringing Davis back to life in all of his complexity and subtleties.
Based on a wealth of primary sources and stippled with color, texture,
and detail, his definitive new biography gives lavish attention to
Davis' career before and after the Civil War. It also provides
compelling insights into the spirited Varina Davis.
In his last
public address before he died, Jefferson Davis advised Southerners that
the "past is dead." He told the ardent defenders of the Old South to
"bury its dead, its hopes and aspirations; before you lies the future - a
future full of golden promise." It was good
advice then - and now.