Do you ever sit back and think about why we know the historical figures we know? You know, the Washington’s, the Churchills, the Stalins of the world. Normally, we become familiar with these kinds of characters because they played some massively influential role in history. I mean, George Washington is the Founding Father of the United States. It’s hard not to know someone like that. Now, there’s a general trend with the exact type of person deemed “important enough to study.” Normally, it’s a major political leader during a time of serious change or chaos.
And we spend quite a bit of time analyzing the heads of state in particular, especially with major wars. And while this is almost always true, it’s not that way for the Civil War, at least not in the way you would expect. Unlike most military conflicts, we almost exclusively focus on Robert E Lee and Ulysses Grant, the generals during the Civil War. We talk a little bit about Abraham Lincoln, but, really, that’s about it.
Who we don’t focus on, is the president of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis. I’m sure for many of you, this is your first time ever hearing that name, and I totally understand why. Because prior to deciding to make this podcast episode, I’d never heard of him either. There’s another really fascinating element to Jefferson Davis because he’s the leader of the bad guys. I don’t know about you, but I like the bad guys, as any loyal Biocast listener will know.
There’s something fascinating about the way their brains work. You don’t have to get too far out of your own shoes to understand someone like Lincoln, or Churchill, or Washington. I’m sure just about anyone can sit down and articulate the reasoning of any of those guys very easily without even really thinking about it. But what about the Hitler’s, and the Stalins, and the Jefferson Davis’s of the world. Not so much.
And you know what else, Jefferson Davis probably admired a lot of the same people you do, at least if you’re an American. I mean, the guy is literally named after Thomas Jefferson. And as we go through the story you’re going to see that there’s a lot more gray to the story of the Civil War then you could have ever possibly imagined. The black and white Good vs Evil narrative that we were all taught in public school is actually extremely over simplified and ignores a lot of key facts.
This is quite possibly one of the most chaotic times in American history. And at the center of all this chaos is Jefferson Davis. Someone who’s professional life is a complete disaster but an often-overlooked fact is that his personal life was extremely tragic. On top of losing the love of his life just three months into their marriage, he also suffered from a number of terrible illnesses that made daily life almost unbearable. He also suffered from serious injuries from the Mexican-American war. This guy really had it rough. The Life of Jefferson Davis.
Davis was born in 1808 and in keeping with the times he had nine brothers and sisters. His father named him after Thomas Jefferson who hadn’t even become president by that point. His family was primarily descendant from the British Isles. He had some English and Welsh heritage and many of his ancestors had been in America when it was still a bunch of colonies. He also had a grandfather that served in the American Revolutionary War. But what’s interesting to note is that Davis was primarily raised by his older brother, Joseph Emory, who was 23 years older than him.
The family moved around a couple times but eventually settled down in Mississippi. Joseph, who eventually began acting as Davis’s surrogate father, encouraged him to pursue education and even got him into a Catholic school, St. Rose Priory, where he was the only non-catholic student. Jefferson Davis, like many of the settlers in early America, is what you would call a wasp. A white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. And he was not about to stray from tradition. There has been a historical animosity between Catholics and Protestants and Catholicism had a very bad wrap in the new world. The United States was supposed to be a country of religious freedom but there’s always at least a little bit of baggage that comes with you when you have two groups killing each other for hundreds of years.
Three of his older brothers fought in the War of 1812, and his family was very much ideologically aligned with the American values of the time. And the family was definitely an up and coming one. That older brother, Joseph, who was raising Davis was a killer lawyer and eventually became one of the richest men in Mississippi. Of course, can already guess he had a plantation, but the good news is that he actually had some of the best living conditions for his slaves. He provided free medical care and decent living conditions.
Now, there isn’t a whole lot of information about his early life, but I really think that the reason Davis was raised by his older brother was because his parents were just getting too old at this point. I mean, think about it. Their first son was 24 by the time they had Jefferson Davis. And let’s not forget this is the early 1800s. Medicine is terrible. The life expectancy was a fraction of what it is today.
By the time Davis was becoming a teenager, he began attending the United States Military Academy, aka, West Point. It’s actually pretty funny too because while he was there, Davis was part of the eggnog riot. Basically, a bunch of these West Point Cadets snacking a bunch of whiskey during the Christmas of 1826.
Now, if you know anything about alcohol and West Point, you know the two don’t mix very well. In fact, alcohol was very deadly substance in the early American days because people had a tendency to get really drunk and go crazy. Many colleges throughout the country had to literally ban alcohol because people would get drunk and start rioting. West Point was no exception.
20 Cadets were eventually court-marshalled and luckily for Davis, he wasn’t. There’s actually another event that almost got him court-martialed as well and this one involves a place called Benny Havens Tavern, which was somewhat infamous for selling alcohol to cadets who just couldn’t help themselves. It was just two miles away from campus and the cadets were strictly forbidden from visiting this place. Despite it being against the rules for a very long time, it’s been called, “the most famous establishment in all West Point history.” Interesting enough, Edgar Allan Poe visited this establishment a couple of times when he was a cadet. He’s supposed to have said Benny Heaven was, “the sole congenial soul in the entire god-forsaken place.” It didn’t really matter where you were going to end up in life, Benny Havens Tavern was a place of alcoholic sanctuary for the cadets at West Point Military Academy.
Anyway, Jefferson Davis and a couple of his buddies made their way down to the tavern one bright Sunday morning. They walked with some pep in their step because they were especially looking forward to getting hammered on this particular. But as they made their way through the trail to their beloved tavern, they came across a man. This man was Ethan Allan Hitchcock. Known to all the West Point cadets as Captain Hitchcock, commandant of cadets.
Each of the young men were arrested and scheduled for trial by general court-martial. On August 3rd, Davis was brought to the court and his first argument was that the new regulations were ex post facto, or, in other words, they made new regulations after the incident and tried to apply those regulations to him. The court rejected this claim. After that, the court basically accused him of drunkenness, and he actually argued against the claim. He denied he’d been drinking that day, and even Captain Hitchcock backed up his claim. According to Hitchcock, the entire group of young men were under the influence except for Davis. He was nearly dismissed for this offense, but luck ruled in his favor, and he was given another chance.
And here’s the kicker, it was only about a year later he does the exact same thing, and gets caught again. Davis and a friend headed over to Benny Havens Tavern but they received word that a West Point official was on the way. After hearing the news, they made a dash back to their posts. On the Speedy March back, Jefferson fell and tumbled about 60 ft down into a river bank. Luckily for him, he grabbed a small tree which took some of the force out of his fall but it’s severely mangled his hand. His friend looked over the edge and yelled, “Jeff, are you dead?” Davis later wrote about the experience that he kind of wanted to laugh but was just in way too much physical agony to do so. This little episode landed him in the hospital for 4 months.
Despite leaving his post, probably being drunk on the job, falling grades, and now months and months in the hospital, he received no serious punishment for any of his actions.
But just because he was nearly court-martialed a couple of times didn’t necessarily mean he was going to stop his wild behavior. He still regularly did things like make noise when everyone was trying to study, leave his room a mess, there are even accounts of him firing his musket out of his bedroom window. I mean, you just can’t make this stuff up. Jefferson Davis was kind of hilarious.
He eventually made it through West Point and one of his very first assignments in the military was actually escorting a Native American tribal leader to prison. Blackhawk. And something you wouldn’t expect to hear is that Blackhawk actually wrote about the treatment he received from Jefferson Davis saying that he was kind, compassionate, and sympathetic with his flight as a prisoner. On top of personally treating him with respect, Davis also prevented onlookers from coming onto a ship that was being used to move Blackhawk. Blackhawk was something of a celebrity or a villain in the United States and a lot of people would have loved to have come on board and make something of a spectacle out of his capture. The fact that Davis didn’t let this go on was a pretty pretty noble action. Blackhawk later wrote in his autobiography about Jefferson Davis that he was quote a good and Brave Young chief.
You always have those situations in these stories where you get a piece of information that completely turns the entire narrative on its head and really makes you rethink your previous opinions. Maybe this guy wasn’t all bad, you have to think to yourself sometimes.
And the cool thing about his time in the military is that it’s very different compared to the military today. Instead of fighting for oil in the Middle East, people during this time served in the military primarily to keep the peace between frontier settlers and Indians. And Jefferson did a pretty good job of this throughout his career. He had his little spats with Idians from time to time, like anyone, but they were fairly infrequent. That doesn’t mean he took a weak approach for the Indians either he gained their respect on a number of occasions. There was one incident in Wisconsin that really give you a good picture of how things went, “On a reconnaissance patrol out from Fort Winnebago, Lieutenant Davis and his party encountered a group of Indians. One blocked the path, and the others attempted to turn Davis’s unit in the wrong direction. Davis acted promptly. Charging the block heater, Davis grasp him by the hair and dragged him for a distance. This quick action so disconcerted the Indians that Davis and his men proceeded without further challenge.” Tough but fair.
Now, there are quite a few people who had worked with him or under him that spoke very highly of the way he conducted him. Despite being praised by just about everyone, he still didn’t really care for military life. He was just kind of there because he didn’t really have anywhere else for me. He’s supposed to have written to his brother, “I cannot say that I like the army, but I know of anything else to do that I would like better.” The fact that he was living the military life despite not really caring for it probably explains why he was so rambunctious during his time at West Point.
But when he officially became part of the military, he did a good job of leaving the immaturity behind at West Point. He was no longer in constant struggle against rules, regulations, and his commanding officers. He had a few personal disagreements with other officers from time to time, but there’s only one incident that really had the potential to ruin his career. And it basically boils down to a commanding officer interpreting Jefferson’s behavior as rude. Being rude to people in real life is normally not a big deal, but in the military it can get you into some serious trouble especially when it’s someone with a higher rank than you. Now the funny thing about the situation is that the court found him guilty of the specified charge which was basically that he was highly disrespectful, insubordinate, and participated in contemptuous conduct. But the court assigned no criminality to any of them. Really, Jefferson has his reputation to thank for getting him out of this one because it really just came down to whether or not he was worth keeping or getting rid of as far as the Army was concerned. But they wouldn’t keep him for that long anyway.
Just a couple of months later, he would resign from the military in pursuit of the next big adventure in his life. A young woman named Sarah Knox Taylor. Davis had been seeing Sarah Knox Taylor since about 1832. They were crazy for each other and it wasn’t long before they were making plans for marriage. And here’s the cool part, Sarah was the daughter of Zachary Taylor, the future president of the United States. And he denied Jefferson the opportunity to marry his daughter because he didn’t want his daughter to be subjected to the military lifestyle. And understandably so, it’s oftentimes, not a great life, especially at this particular time in history where literal years can go by without seeing your family. Aside from that though, Zachary Taylor really had no animosity toward Jefferson Davis and you can bet your rear end that this contributed to him resigning from the military. For a career path, Davis really didn’t have anywhere else to go but that didn’t matter to him. He was going to be with Sarah whether he was in the military or not or owning a business or whatever else. He was willing to take that risk to be with her.
And here’s the really touching part about their relationship. There was an entire 18-month period where they didn’t see each other at all. Man, that’s a long time. And there’s only one surviving letter between the two. It reads, in part, “Oh! How I long to lay my head upon the breast which beats in unison with my own, to turn from the sickening nights of worldly duplicity and look in those eyes so eloquent of purity and love.”
After their marriage, they went down to Mississippi to spend some time together. Davis also began building a plantation that was going to be the future of their economic standing. Davis’s older brother who had been the one who raised him, Joseph, was going to help them establish a life together. One of the many nights where Sarah had sat down to write to her family, she wrote an e really ironic question in one of them. She ended one letter with, “do not make yourself uneasy about me; the country is quite healthy.” That sounds a little weird, doesn’t it? It does at least until you understand the context of antebellum America.
This was a time before we had a good understanding of sickness and disease so there was a strong association with warm and humid areas and getting sick. It went something like if enough humidity and heat got packed up and concentrated in an individual area for long enough, the people there would get sick. We know now that this isn’t exactly how it works, but that’s how they perceived it, and when someone said “this or that area is healthy” it really meant it wasn’t too humid or hot. So, when Sarah reassured her family that the country was “healthy” she was saying that it hadn’t been too hot and humid.
Toward the end of the summer around August particularly, The newlywed couple decided to take a trip down to Louisiana to visit Sarah’s sister, Anna Smith. It was very soon after their arrival that both Davis and Sarah fell deathly ill with malaria. And the malaria in the Southern United States during this time was particularly atrocious. This has to do with the fact that certain bacteria was transported from Africa, namely with slaves, and when it came to the Southern United States it absolutely flourished. An invasive species. And it was especially prominent in the Lower Mississippi River Valley area.
For the next couple of weeks, they both experienced severe chills, high fevers, nausea, and severe headaches. The records aren’t clear about the kind of medical treatment the couple received, if any. After weeks and weeks of this suffering, things came to a head on September 15th 1835. Davis awoke from his bed to hear Sarah singing her favorite song, “Fairy Bells.” And within moments, she was dead. Just 21 years old. Just married for 3 short months. Davis was in shambles. I’m sure you could imagine the emotional trauma that’s inflicted upon a person when they lose the person they love. This took a real toll on him, not just in the short-term but for years and years and even the rest of his life. He wrote in his autobiography that for the next couple of years he lived in great seclusion after her death. There’s a family story that, years later, Davis was going through an old trunk when he saw one of Sarah’s old slippers and it caused such an intense emotional reaction, even after all those years, that he lost consciousness. I think there’s a very solid argument that he never really recovered from Sarah’s death.
The next couple years of his wife were very private were the only person he had much contact with was his brother Joseph. He built up his own plantation, purchased a number of slaves, and studied history, politics, and philosophy. It wouldn’t be until 1843 when he finally started to enter public life again, almost a decade after Sarah’s death. He was selected as one of six presidential electors for the 1844 presidential election and he also campaigned for Democratic candidate James K Polk. In 1844 he met a young girl who would become his future wife, Varina Howell. She was the granddaughter of the New Jersey governor Richard Howell, so she was part of the ruling class, definitely a strategic marriage in some ways. They got engaged within a month of meeting and got married on February 26th 1845.
Around 1845 or so, Davis made the decision to run for Congress. In October of that year he traveled to Woodville Mississippi to give a speech. Now here’s the interesting part. He went there a day early to visit his mother who just so happen to live there only to discover that she had died the day before. After the funeral he rode the 40 miles back to where he lived to deliver the news and then rode all the way back to Woodville to deliver his speech. The traveling time was about a hundred and twenty miles overall which doesn’t seem like a lot today but you got to remember they didn’t have cars during this time. That’s a long time for a horse and carriage. Despite all the trouble, and the loss of his mother, the speech went well and he was elected to the House of Representatives.
When James K. Polk became president of the United States he had a very expansionist policy which eventually sparked the Mexican-American War. The situation is a little tricky too, because Texas, which had previously been an independent country took a certain amount of territory from Mexico without much resistance. According to Texas, it’s land went all the way down to the Rio Grande. But according to Mexico, the real border was 130 miles north of the Rio Grande. War officially broke out on April 25th 1846 and Davis would actually go on to volunteer to fight even though he was a little old and a very sickly man. He still broke down with bouts of malaria at times, and had acute neuralgia, which is a nerve disorder where you get severe pain in the face, it’s been called one of the most painful known ailments.
Davis’s real motivation for going and fighting in the war was his reputation though. He wrote to his sister, “It may be that I will return with a reputation over which you will rejoice as my mother would have done.” This has always been a common tactic for advancing a political career. I mean, the vast majority of American presidents have been in the United States military in some way shape or form throughout history. Look at World War II for example. Every president from Dwight Eisenhower to George H. W. Bush served during that war. Although, I think Davis put himself at serious Risk by going to fight in war despite all of his health problems.
It was definitely a serious challenge but that didn’t stop Davis from fighting heroically for the United States. There was one occasion during the war where Davis showed extreme bravery. This was the Battle of Monterey and coincidentally enough, the Commanding General was Zachary Taylor, Sarah’s dad. Apparently Davis had fought so ferociously that Taylor was supposed to have said, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.” Honestly, props to Davis to being able to win over the respect of his former father-in-law. That was most certainly no easy task to accomplish. Now, just because he fought well didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of suffering too. At the Battle of Buena Vista he was shot in the foot. Ouch. And the really painful part is that he had to suffer from these injuries for the rest of his life and that was on top of all of the stuff that was already wrong him. I mean, this was someone who just had endless physical suffering throughout his entire life.
As Davis returned to the political scene, he found himself in a very lucky situation. So what happened was there was a man, a Democrat, Jesse Speight, who was a US Senator from Mississippi. He died in May of 1847 and left this seat vacant. The governor of Mississippi, Albert Brown, appointed Davis to fill out the rest of the term. And there’s a real lesson there. A good reputation is one of the most important things in your life. Having people who will vouch for you and who admire your work will bring you insane amounts of value over the course of your life. Just think where Davis would have ended up had he not had this good reputation. When you literally get your former father-in-law to praise you, your reputation is going to bring you anywhere you want to go. And if you really start to think about it, every great historical figure started out with a good reputation during their lifetime.
Now, most of his early career in the Senate dealt with the main issue of the day which was whether or not newly expanded upon territories should be slave states or not. Davis also wanted to invade Cuba because the Spanish were right off the coast of the United States which posed a potential threat. And then, in 1849 he was appointed as the chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs. And interesting enough, he took a really big risk just a year into his term when he resigned to run for the governorship of Mississippi. He lost by a thousand votes and just left him without political office. I didn’t stop him from being political and he still continued to take part in conventions throughout the country and campaign on behalf of Southern Democrats such as Franklin Pierce and William R. King. This turned out to be a good way to spend his time because Franklin Pierce was elected to be president of the United States. And he returned the favor to Davis by making him the Secretary of War in 1853.
And while he held this position, he was slowly understanding the military landscape in the newly developed Nation. He knew that the South lacked the military capacity of the north possessed. Not only that, they also had a much higher population. One glance at the populations and you understand that there was no way the South was ever going to win this war. The southern states had a combined population of 9 million people. Compare that to the 22 million from the north. That’s an insane difference and it’s the kind of difference that you can’t fight against. Fighting that war was a lost cause from the very beginning. You cannot take on an army that outnumbers you more than 2 to 1. It’s just not possible, at least when you’re on the same level of technological sophistication, but bringing that into the equation also favors the north which had rapidly industrialized a lot more than the South did.
Davis may have been a Confederate sympathizer, slave-owner, and Southerner, but he did everything he could to prevent this war. And now is a good time to get into the entire debate over the true cause of the American Civil War. Despite the historical significance of the entire situation, most people don’t really understand what really went on here. It’s not a black and white situation. Pardon the pun.
Now, before I get into the South version of events and their argument I want to be clear that I’m not some kind of Confederate sympathizer. Slavery is an evil institution especially when you throw in a racial component where people are literally born into slavery with no realistic chance of ever being freed. Furthermore, by stepping away from slavery, it also encouraged business owners and entrepreneurs to invest in labor-saving devices which eventually created the Industrial Revolution. Do you want to know why the north industrialized first?
It’s because they got rid of slavery first. If you have access to free labor in the form of slaves, you have absolutely no incentive to invest in labor-saving devices and this stunts the growth of your civilization. Do you know why the ancient Romans and Greeks never became as technologically sophisticated as we are today? It’s because they had slavery and never challenged it. Not for a second. They easily could have industrialized but because they kept this free labor floating around no one ever doubled down on labor-saving technology and that’s what creates advanced civilizations. Now let’s get into the southern side of the story.
So first of all, tensions had been rising over the issue of slavery. The South relied on slavery for a couple of important reasons. For one, the South was much more agriculturally inclined. It was easier to grow stuff down there. And farm work comes with a lot of labor. Even today in the 21st century with our modern technology, there’s still a lot of labor so you can only imagine how much it would require of someone to run a farm of any meaningful size by themselves or by paying for their labor. It got very expensive if you paid for that labor.
The North had a much easier time parting with slavery because they embraced industrialization and diversified their economy much better than the South did. It’s also has a lot to do with the fact that it’s hard to have a farm in the north. It’s cold. Plants die in the cold. And as Jefferson Davis points out in his post-war writings, the North could pretend to be the moral superior because it didn’t destroy their economy to end slavery. It would however destroy the Southern economy. He also attacked the Abolitionist Movement for wanting radical change too quickly. Davis was very Progressive in his treatment of slaves. He treated them very well and gave them happy and content lives. For one, it was the moral thing to do and secondly you actually get more labor out of someone when you treat them with a little bit of respect so it was also the pragmatic option as well. And also, this was a state rights issue. It was the responsibility and the duty of the individual state to maintain or abolish slavery, at least in a legal sense. He boldly denounced the abolitionists for their, “indecent intrusion on the domestic affairs of others – I ask what remedy do you propose?” And he did honestly have a point here.
The South built their entire economies on this one institution and the idea that some holier-than-thou Yankees were gunna tell them what to do in their own state irked a lot of people. And you could almost understand where this resentment came from. A resentment that eventually led to war. No one wants to be judged and talk down to. And it’s when you bring it to the personal level that you really understand how much people had invested in slavery. Now imagine you had spent your entire life working and building up a plantation. A plantation whose entire business model revolved around slaves working the land that you would sell in the local markets. Imagene the personal ruin that comes upon you and your family when that all goes away. Some of these plantations had been in the family since before the Revolutionary War. Abolishing slavery in the South meant a lot of big powerful families were gunna lose everything. And you want to see some real political turmoil? Try taking away the financial power of the wealthiest people in your Society.
Another one of these Civil War related debates revolves around the question as to how many people actually owned slaves. Different people claim different things for different reasons. Of course, politics is behind it all. But I’m not arguing for a political reason I’m arguing for the truth. Fact number one, according to the 1860 census of the United States, 5% of Americans owned slaves. That’s a very small number of people, especially because the vast majority of slaves belong to one of those giant plantations where they just owned hundreds of slaves. It’s basically the 1% of the time. The same type of people today who have billions and billions of dollars would have had hundreds and hundreds of slaves back then because it was a valuable asset. Fact number 2, which is often ignored by Confederate sympathizers and other types of people, the vast majority the slave population lived in the South. It differed from state to state but the average is around 26% of Southern families owned slaves. You also had some states like South Carolina and Mississippi where they were closer to 50% of families owning slaves.
So, the whole narrative of the South coming together to defend the slaves of a few rich people doesn’t really hold any weight. And that brings us to fact number three. If most people in the South could have afforded slaves they probably would have bought them. Not because they were bad people or anything oh, they were very typical of the time. And I really want to encourage you not to pass any judgment on these people because they were really just a product of their time. Imagine you had been born in Mississippi to a family of wealthy plantation owners. Your entire family fortune is tied up in the institution of slavery. Are you really about to become a progressive abolitionist and fight against the thing that made you and your family rich? Probably not. There’s an idea from Martin Luther King jr. during the Civil Rights era where he made the argument that he was fighting against immoral institutions and laws, not people who had been led astray by the culture they were born into. I think that kind of sentiment applies just as much to the Antebellum South as it does the Civil Rights period.
Getting back to the story, tensions were absolutely horrendous by 1860. And things became irreparable when Abraham Lincoln was elected as president of the United States in 1860. Contrary to what most people think of Lincoln, he was not an abolitionist. He was part of the Free-Soil movement where he basically believe that slavery was evil but it was up to the state to deal with that evil and he was against the Abolitionist Movement because they were just a little bit too radical for him. This was not the election outcome South Carolina wanted and they officially seceded from the Union on January 9th, 1861. Things were especially sad for Davis because he knew what was going to happen.
The state of Mississippi made the decision to secede from the union on January 21st 1861, a day that Davis would call, “the saddest day of my life.” Say what you will about the man, but Jefferson Davis loved the United States. He was not just a biological son of the Revolution, he was an ideological one as well. He wanted nothing more than for this great experiment to be a success. But he saw the failure of the country with secession. Especially because anyone with a little bit of common sense could have guessed a war was just over the horizon. After all was said and done, Davis returned to his home state of Mississippi. At first, he was made the major general of the army of Mississippi. But a constitutional convention in Montgomery Alabama made him the president of the Confederate States because he had widespread support from nearly the entire Southern world. And the interesting thing is that he didn’t really want to be the president. He accepted the position reluctantly. His wife, Marina later wrote that when he had received the word that he would be the president that, “Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family.” And considering how things ended up, an evil really had befallen their family.
One of the big controversies when the South seceded had to do with Union Military outposts on Confederate soil. Davis sent word to Washington that he was willing to pay for any federal property as well as pay off the southern portion of the national debt, but Lincoln refused to meet with any of them.
The Union Military refuse to evacuate the bases and Union politicians refused to make any kind of deal with the Confederates. Given the circumstances, it’s really easy to make the case that the north really was the aggressor in this war. From the Confederate perspective, your newly developed Federation of states starts off with foreign military personnel occupying your lands. And they refused to withdraw them or to even make a deal. It wasn’t long before Davis kind of got the hint that the north wasn’t going to be playing ball. so he ordered Confederate troops in the Charleston South Carolina vicinity to get prepare to take Fort Sumter. At first, they laid Siege to the Fort knowing that they wouldn’t be able to live in there forever. There was only a little over a hundred soldiers so they were going to have to leave eventually for supplies.
This is were Lincoln comes in with one of these sneaky political loophole kind of moves. He didn’t legally acknowledge the Confederate states and maintained that he could just continue to resupply all of these forts because they were the property of the Union. To him, making any kind of arrangement or deal with the Confederates was acknowledging them as a sovereign entity and he was not about to do that. Lincoln’s goal was to preserve the Union. He knew the only way the nation was going to prosper was going to be in unity. And a really good analogy is to compare the United States to the European Union. You see, the real European history there have just been these small divided states that were constantly in struggle against one another. Your civilization can hardly achieve greatness when you’re constantly fighting your neighbors. This is why the biggest what ifs of History revolve around people who could have United Europe.
There are a couple of people who could have done so but really the two big names you have to know are Napoleon and Hitler. They understood that uniting the continent would create a super power on the global stage that would allow them to basically take over the world. The same was the case for the United States. Or you could think about it another way. You could take the divided route and be like the Balkans where you’re just a bunch of extremely divided hostile nations or you can take the route China went and unite everyone. Do you want a bunch of little Bosnias and Serbias or do you want one big China. Lincoln’s goal was to keep the United States United. And one of the big misconceptions is that he had some noble idea of freeing the slaves. This was just not the case. He wrote to American author and cultural critic, Horace Greeley, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.” Lincoln just wanted the country he loved to prosper. But regardless of Lincoln’s motivations, Davis gave word to bombard Fort Sumter and by the time April came around, the Civil war had officially begun.
I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of the Civil War details. This episode is running a little long as it is and given the difference in population and industrialization, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the Confederacy stood no realistic chance of winning this war. What I will address during this war time are the strategic failures of Jefferson Davis. There’s always a lot of debate over what really went wrong.
A couple of the big reasons most people agree on are that he put people into positions of power because they were his friends, you know, standard nepotism, he printed way too much money which caused the inflation rate to skyrocket beyond control, the Confederacy also had a harder time collecting taxes both because the area was much more rural and the taxes were lower than in the Union. And here’s the kicker, he regularly clashed with State governors over the issue of states rights because they wanted to withhold their militias from national service.
Davis may have had a really good track record up until this point, but his presidency of the Confederate States is the biggest failure of his life. He didn’t rally the south. He didn’t deal with issues on the home front. He didn’t even give his generals enough autonomy to do their jobs. He was even intrusive and overbearing with Robert E. Lee.
You could really make the case that the reason he failed so drastically was because he was more suited to have been in general himself. Let’s face it, Davis may have been a decent politician but he was really good at the military. And during his presidency, he just couldn’t stomach the idea of letting other people deal with the military side of things. And when you contrast Davis and all his military experience with Lincoln who had basically no military experience, it really makes sense. The president isn’t supposed to directly command the military. They are supposed to appoint generals who do that. Lincoln had no issue with this because he knew his own capabilities as a general and Military strategist. Davis, however, did not. Now the Confederacy was already at a disadvantage but Davis most certainly contributed to the defeat whereas Lincoln was a really decent wartime president. He may not have been that great, but he wasn’t horrible, which is really all you can ask for at the end of the day, isn’t it?
Toward the end of the war, when it was very apparent that there was no turning the tide, Davis was sick just like you was for most of his life. Now while him and his wife were attempting to flee, she threw her overcoat on his shoulders to keep him warm. He was very sensitive to the cold and it probably wouldn’t have taken much to actually kill him. Let’s not forget this was a very sickly man who has probably been under extreme stress for the last 5 years now. This was probably the worst way things could have ended though. The fact that he had his wife’s overcoat on his shoulders lead to the widespread rumor that he was trying to flee in women’s clothes. He was basically the laughingstock of the country for an entire generation. As you might expect, he was imprisoned for a couple of years but he eventually got pardoned by Andrew Johnson. Johnson was taking the approach of trying to unite the North and the South after this very turbulent time in our history. He pardoned not only Jefferson Davis but everyone who was part of the Confederacy.
Life was extremely difficult for Davis after the war. He wasn’t kept in prison but his reputation was completely ruined. You really couldn’t do anything. You know how sometimes a person will post something to social media thats so ridiculously stupid that it goes viral and they can never really operate in public life ever again? This was the 1800s equivalent. Despite the horrible way things ended, Davis never joined the Klu Klux Klan or anything like that. He definitely had his criticisms of the way the north created the south after the Civil War, but overall, he was a strong proponent of reconciliation.
He wanted the nation to move forward from this terrible time in our history. He spent the last couple years of his life trying to justify his actions as well as the Confederacy. He wrote a Short History of the Confederate States of America and The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. He still stands as a symbol of Southern Pride and Confederate resistance despite his massive failure during the civil war both militarily and politically. Him and his wife had six children. 3 of them died in childhood and only one went on to raise a family, so there are people alive today who are his direct descendants.
Jefferson Davis was born into a backwards culture at a terrible time in American history. The greatest tragedy of his life was the death of Sarah Knox who he loved so dearly. The second biggest tragedy of his life was his presidency of the Confederate States. He lived to see the two things on this Earth he cared most about die right before his very eyes. He must have suffered in ways I wouldn’t even wish upon my worst enemy. And that was the life of Jefferson Davis.