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Jefferson Davis, Confederate President: History & Facts

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  • 0:03 Early Years
  • 1:23 National Politics
  • 2:16 The Confederacy
  • 3:38 Leadership Flaws
  • 5:41 End of the Confederacy
  • 6:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
In this lesson, learn about Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederate States of America (1861-1865). Before the Civil War, he was a U.S. Senator from Mississippi and secretary of war under Franklin Pierce.

Early Years

Schoolchildren all across America learn the names of presidents who have led the United States. Yet, there is one American president who is excluded from this list: Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America. Let's learn more about Davis, an American president who fought for and against the United States during his long and complicated career.

Ironically enough, in 1808, Jefferson Davis was born in a state that never seceded from the Union: Kentucky. He spent most of his early years in Mississippi. He attended West Point, where he graduated in 1828. Davis's first US Army assignment was as a second lieutenant in the infantry. He left the army and got married in 1835, moving to Mississippi to maintain a plantation named Brierfield.

Over the next ten years, Davis was successful at plantation life. His first wife died shortly after their marriage, and Davis became deeply involved in Democratic politics in Mississippi. In 1845, Davis remarried, wedding the 17 year old Varina Banks Howell. During the Mexican War, Davis resumed his military career, leading a volunteer regiment from Mississippi. Davis was wounded in 1847, at the Battle of Buena Vista and was widely recognized for his bravery.

National Politics

Davis's actions during the war earned him a national reputation. He became a United States Senator from Mississippi in 1847. In 1853, Davis was appointed secretary of war by President Franklin Pierce. He served in this capacity for four years. In 1857, Davis was elected to the Senate from Mississippi once again.

During his second, and last, period in the Senate, Davis worked to try to prevent the secession of Southern states over slavery. While he believed in the right of secession, he did not believe it would be a wise move for the South. Yet, after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, South Carolina began the tide of secession that swept through the South. Mississippi seceded on January 9, 1861. Shortly after, Davis resigned from the Senate and returned to his home state.

The Confederacy

Seven states seceded that winter and began working to form a separate country in early 1861. In February, a constitutional convention chose Jefferson Davis as the interim president of the Confederate States of America. He was sworn in provisionally in February 1861. In November 1861, Davis was elected by the people of the Confederacy, and he was officially inaugurated on February 22, 1862.

From the outset, Davis faced nearly insurmountable burdens. The South was vastly outnumbered. The South had nine million inhabitants, including roughly four million slaves, while the North had over 22 million people. Davis wanted to control former Federal forts that were within Confederate territory. He was specifically concerned about Fort Sumter at Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. He appointed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard to oversee Charleston and to take the fort. In April 1861, the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, and the Civil War began.

After the onset of fighting, four more states - Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina - joined the Confederacy. The Confederate capital was soon moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia, where it would remain until 1865.

Leadership Flaws

Over the next four years, Davis was engaged daily with conducting the war. He had significantly more military experience than did Abraham Lincoln; yet, Davis struggled to manage the war. Davis was a micro manager and insisted on injecting himself into the details of what was going on in the field. After the Confederate victory at First Manassas in July 1861, Davis actually went to the battlefield and personally ordered Confederate General Joseph Johnston to launch a pursuit of the retreating Federals. Johnston disagreed with Davis, and the two men would feud for the rest of the war and throughout their lives.

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