When the Confederate States of America was formed by secessionist southern states starting in February 1861, Jefferson Davis was selected as the new nation’s first and only president. A former U.S senator from Mississippi, Davis led the Confederacy throughout the Civil War until its defeat and dissolution in 1865.
As president of the breakaway Confederate government, Jefferson Davis bears the complex legacy of overseeing a war to preserve slavery against the Union during one of the most pivotal eras in American history.
Davis’ Early Career
Jefferson Davis was born in Kentucky in 1808. After a career as a U.S. Army officer, Davis became a cotton planter and politician in Mississippi, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1845. He resigned to command a regiment in the Mexican-American War, where he fought with distinction.
Davis then served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce from 1853-1857 before joining the Senate. His military and government experience as a passionate defender of Southern interests made him a natural choice for Confederate president.
Selection as Confederate President
After Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, seven slave-holding southern states voted to secede before Lincoln took office. They formed a new republic – the Confederate States of America. Within its provisional constitution, Jefferson Davis was selected unanimously to a six-year term as the Confederacy’s first president.
Davis was inaugurated on February 18, 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama which was the first Confederate capital. A West Point graduate, Davis seemed an ideal commander-in-chief for the rebellion. The office carried broad powers including war-making, diplomacy, and executive authority.
Administration of the Confederacy
As Confederate president throughout its brief existence from 1861-1865, Davis oversaw the secession of seven more states and the mobilization of armies to fight the Civil War against the Union. He appointed his military commanders and tried to coordinate strategy and support the war effort from Richmond, the second Confederate capital.
Davis also led the economic and political administration of the breakaway southern states during wartime. He attempted, with mixed results, to gain international legitimacy for the new slave-holding nation among European powers. Davis’ leadership was tested by internal feuds, supply troubles, and worsening military fortunes over time.
End of the Confederacy
In April 1865, after four years of destructive civil war, the Confederate armies under General Lee could fight no more. Davis and his officials were forced to flee Richmond in defeat as Union forces moved to occupy the Confederate capital.
Davis aimed to meet up with remaining Confederate troops to continue resistance, but on May 10, 1865 he was captured by Union cavalry in Georgia. Just over a month later the last holdout Confederate forces surrendered, marking the permanent end of the Confederacy just months after Lincoln’s assassination.
Jefferson Davis was arrested for treason but never tried. In relevant part due to intervention by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson, he was released after two years and died at age 81 in 1889.
Davis’ Complicated Legacy
As president of the Confederacy, Davis upheld the constitutionality of secession and the right of slave states to independence under the banner of states’ rights. This stance followed logically from his background but permanently tarnished his place in history as an opponent of national unity and racial equality.
While a skilled administrator and steadfast to his beliefs, Davis made missteps in handling the Confederate war effort and faced immense challenges in trying to win independence for the breakaway slaveholding states.
In many Southern eyes a heroic emblem of their “Lost Cause,” Davis remains a controversial figure across America for his role leading the defeated rebellion that cost 600,000 lives defending slavery against the progress of history.
FAQs about Jefferson Davis
When was Jefferson Davis president of the Confederacy?
Jefferson Davis served as president for the entire existence of the Confederacy from February 1861 until May 1865.
Where was the capital of the Confederacy located?
The Confederate capital was originally in Montgomery, Alabama in 1861, then moved to Richmond, Virginia from 1861-1865.
How was Davis captured at the end of the Civil War?
Davis was captured by Union cavalry on May 10, 1865 in Irwinville, Georgia while fleeing from Richmond after its fall.
Did Jefferson Davis fight in the Civil War?
No. Although a former soldier, the only Civil War service of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was in the political and administrative management of the war effort.
How long did Jefferson Davis live after the Civil War?
Davis was released from imprisonment in 1867 and lived for over two more decades, passing away in New Orleans in 1889 at age 81.
In summary, Jefferson Davis served as the first and only president of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865, leading the breakaway southern states in their failed Civil War bid for independence defined by the aim of preserving slavery.