Study Guide

Jefferson Davis in Gettysburg Address

By Abraham Lincoln

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Jefferson Davis

The differing biographies of Jefferson Davis and Abe Lincoln prove two things: 1) Kentucky is the birthplace of some super famous dead men and 2) neighbors don't always agree on fundamental things.

Jefferson Davis was born less than a year before and 100 miles from Abraham Lincoln, his historical nemesis. But there's more to Jefferson Davis' life than the four years he presided over the Confederacy. Davis was the youngest of 10 children and named in honor of founding father Thomas Jefferson.

Pretty ironic, huh?

Davis was in the military for many years, until the daughter of his commanding officer (and future president Zachary Taylor) captured his heart and made him rethink the hard life of a soldier. He retired his command to start anew. This fresh start was cut short by tragedy, however, when his new bride died of an illness only a few months later.

After a period of mourning and reclusiveness, Jefferson Davis re-emerged into the realm of politics. He met his second wife and started a family while winning a seat in Congress. After a brief interruption, Davis continued to climb the political ladder, becoming a senator from Mississippi in 1848. He even served as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce.

Things changed with the secession of South Carolina in 1860. Several Southern states soon followed suit, with Davis' home state of Mississippi ditching the Union just a few weeks later in January 1861. Like future top general Robert E. Lee, Davis' loyalty to his home state won out over his opposition to succession. Due to his prestigious military and political records, he was a no-brainer when it came time to choose someone to lead this ragtag band of states.

And so Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the first president of the Confederate States of America on February 18th, 1861.

From the start, Davis was in a tough position. The South was vastly outnumbered and lacked the manufacturing resources that the North had at its disposal. The Confederacy had a few advantages: they were fighting on home soil and didn't need to conquer the North to declare victory. They also had an A-list squad of officers, led by Robert E. Lee.

But Davis mismanaged his government by filling it with close friends and associates rather than more qualified officials. And his grand strategy of trying to protect each Confederate state equally forced him to spread thin his forces, making them susceptible to Union attack.

Lee's surrender marked the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis was quickly caught and jailed. He posted bail and fled the country until he was officially pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Barred from holding federal office again, Davis dedicated the rest of his life to a number of other causes. He became the first president of Texas A&M University and a renowned author after publishing his account of the history of the Confederacy. He died of a prolonged illness in 1889.

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