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Jefferson Davis and History Through Biography

Stephen Graham | University of Wolverhampton

A blue-and-white photograph of Jefferson Davis, dated to 1862.
Jefferson Davis, pictured in 1862. Can the study of his early life really increase our understanding of the American Confederacy? Unknown photographer (Wikimedia Commons).

In March 2022, the UK Government announced the publication of the 'Model History Curriculum'. This initiative, produced by ministers in conjunction with leading educators and historians, will seek to promote inclusivity by emphasising Britain's place in the current global context, promoting to students the diverse and nuanced factors that have contributed to the society we live in today. The desired outcome of the reform will be to broaden the scope of historical study, increasing student concepts of historical context and improving historiographical capability through the understanding of wider perspectives.

The new curriculum will be a deliberate – and quite correct – departure from the tired and narrow 'Henrys and Hitler' model of historical study, widening the potential for interpretation and analysis of current society. To what extent, however, will it help learners understand societies different from our own, particularly those whose cultural and moral outlook now appears alien and abhorrent? As Tom Holland has pointed out, our understanding of non-Western – often pre-Christian – morals can often be viewed from our perspective as though through a screen of static, not tuned to our sensibilities. There remains a case, therefore, for the study of the individual lives of those who grew up in – and in some cases came to embody – the regimes whose values our society has battled and rejected in the course of its development.

An example of such an individual would be Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America; the non-canonical addendum to the list of American leaders, overshadowed in history both by his total loss of the Civil War and by the superior personal qualities of his opponent, Abraham Lincoln. Stubborn and egotistical where Lincoln was tactful and good-humoured, the character of Davis would come to disadvantage the Confederacy's war effort to the same extent as the breakaway states' deficits in population, resources, and infrastructure. The stark contrast between both men was summed up by William J. Cooper in his 1970 Journal of Southern History article 'A Reassessment of Jefferson Davis as War Leader' – 'Lincoln wanted to win; Davis wanted to be right.'

To a mind such as Davis, there was no concept of his being anything other than right. After a political career spent lobbying Congress for the proliferation of 'Southern values' – with a particular emphasis on slavery – in the USA's newly-acquired Western territories, he led the Confederacy with the unshakeable belief that his principles represented the continuing mission of the Founding Fathers. Cessation from the abolitionist North was, to Davis, the only logical conclusion to a political crisis stemming from 'perversion of the Northern mind'; what he viewed as the bigoted denial of Southern liberty. It was a personality ill-befitting a commander-in-chief, which would lead Davis to a series of poor military appointments and strategic decisions that would contribute significantly to the Confederacy's complete defeat. In order to understand it fully, however – and, by extension, the very driving force of the South's war – we must examine the journey that brought Davis to his position and appreciate how wider cultural context can be understood through its effect on an individual.

A picture depicting Jefferson Davis' plantation.
Brierfield, Jefferson Davis's plantation home by the Mississippi River. When this sketch was taken in 1866, the house served as a school for freed slaves. A.R. Waud (Wikimedia Commons).

Davis's total dedication to Southern culture and the institution of slavery was firmly rooted in his early life. Born into a plantation-owning family who had amassed considerable lands and wealth through the exploitation of subjugated labour – and patriotically named after sitting president and Declaration of Independence author, Thomas Jefferson – Davis's childhood was spent between the states of Mississippi and Kentucky, where human ownership was accepted as a central tenet of American life. This belief, in the society Davis grew up in, was held in the selectively libertarian spirit of the Revolution, in which the white man's divinely appointed mission was to 'civilise' other races. This hierarchical position – yet to become the social Darwinist vogue of nineteenth-century Europe – would come to be described by Davis as the South's 'decree of God'.

Such righteous assuredness had been quick to manifest in the young Davis, whose position of privilege would provide numerous opportunities. His entry to West Point as a teenage cadet in 1824 was due to the influence of his elder brother Joseph, who would also later provide the capital for Davis's career as a plantation owner. Davis's brief military career, however – while more extensive than the militia experience of Lincoln – would also provide scope to display his inflated sense of self-belief. When court-martialled for drunkenness, Davis would mount a written defence mixing feigned regulatory ignorance, pedantry over what constitutes a public house, and haughty moralist outrage ('I do trust that the Court will bear in mind the maxim that it is better a hundred guilty should escape than one righteous person be condemned'). Resigning his army commission after a second court-martial – for insubordination – he embarked on a career in politics, with the establishment of a Transcontinental Railway linking the South to the Western Territories as his passion project.

Here too, however, his judgement was clouded by personal conviction. Dismissing surveyor reports on the proposed route of the railway, Davis ensured via sympathetic contractor appointments that the track passed through slave territories. Ignoring the prevailing opinion on the unsuitability of the Western climate to slave industries, Davis insisted on the profitability of slaves as domestic servants and mine workers. Much like his attempt to police Western natives by utilisation of a mounted camel corps, his theory was proven to be misguided.

Such was the personality, however, who came to unanimous nomination to the Confederate presidency by their constitutional convention; the fact he had both military and political experience at all seemed to override the quality of those careers. With Davis's sense of destiny bolstered by his hailing in the press as 'our noble warrior president', upon whose shoulders 'the mantle of Washington falls gracefully', he was an ideal figure to harness the remarkable fighting spirit of the cessationist states. His temperament, though, would be ill-suited to supreme command. A judge of character solely based on dedication to the cause, Davis would make political appointments to his key fronts, often at the expense of more experienced and talented generals. While this was not a problem unique to the Confederacy – Lincoln was also guilty of such appointments but would deal with clashes over command with his customary wisdom – the character of Davis, combined with personal war-aims which were at odds with the objectives of his subordinates, exacerbated the paucity of suitable officers to an extent that would ultimately cost the war.

Davis would preside over a fractious command culture which, as the conflict progressed, painted him further into a corner of being unable to replace his generals and unwilling to accept his role in their failure. Even the legendary team of Davis and Robert E. Lee – whose initial failures were forgiven by Davis on account of his loyalty – was far from Southern historians' harmonious depiction of shared objectives and effective communication. The main point of contention was strategy; where Lee favoured the Napoleonic model of 'offensive defence' at key points and sought the final set-piece battle of annihilation, Davis believed in maintaining a defensive line along the impossible length of the entire Confederate frontier. If this attritional struggle was lost, the President believed that the public's dedication to the cause would lead to guerrilla conflict in occupied zones.

A picture of Robert E. Lee, Confederate general.
Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy's star general. His accord with Davis was entirely down to the fact he refused to voice his concerns over strategic and military differences. E. & H.T. Anthony (Wikimedia Commons).

All too aware of the risks posed to the South's scarce manpower and resources by Davis's vision, Lee avoided a clash with his commander-in-chief by simply allowing his objections to go unaddressed, leading the President to believe himself and his star general to be in complete accord. This suited both men while Lee continued to bring morale-boosting success in the field, but his silence over Davis's diversion of men and materiel to his ideological battleground of the Western Theatre would prove disastrous.

Davis had siphoned strength from several of his generals to assist the beleaguered Braxton Bragg, widely considered to be the Confederacy's worst commander. Uninspiring, unimaginative, and thin-skinned, Bragg's short temper and spirit-breaking discipline saw him loathed by officers and men alike. He was not rated militarily due to his over-reliance on frontal assaults and hesitance to follow up on a breakthrough, but he had achieved early successes on the quiet front of Florida, which was enough for Davis to promote him to full general and entrust him with his most important command. If Bragg was an unsuitable appointment, his inadequacies were only worsened by Davis's neglectful management. With no clearly defined structure of command or lines of communication, Bragg's expected coordination of multiple forces across an enormous zone of responsibility was merely entrusted to Davis's vague confidence in his generals as patriotic Confederates.

A picture of Braxton Bragg, looking past the camera, possibly at his failed military career.
Braxton Bragg. Considered the Confederacy's worst general, he was promoted through loyalty before being left to flounder by his commander-in-chief. Unknown photographer (Wikimedia Commons).

Instead, predictably, arguments over command jurisdiction and personal rivalries soon resulted in a total breakdown of communications. While Joseph E. Johnston – who shared none of Lee's tact over his loss of materiel to Bragg – would disobey or deliberately misunderstand orders from Davis over the perceived curtailment of his authority, Bragg found himself chasing his subordinate Edmund Kirby Smith, who raced ahead to Kentucky in an attempt to avoid being brought under Bragg's command. As well he might: when Bragg finally faced Union forces at the Battle of Stones River, he was drawn into an artillery trap at the cost of thousands of soldiers, resulting in the final loss of the confidence of his men. Davis, due to the communications lag, did not learn of this for weeks.

The failure was Davis's own doing, but such was his investment in the Western campaign, and the lack of a suitable replacement for Bragg, that he could not back down. As the press levelled accusations of incompetence at Bragg and favouritism at Davis for his inability to remove him, the President reacted in his typical manner – he looked elsewhere to apportion blame. This he found among the Confederate Congress, whose objections to his legal reforms and introduction of forced conscription were already fostering an atmosphere of mutual distrust. Increasingly isolated, Davis's bunkered actions were coming to be viewed by his political colleagues as despotism.

Davis, however, would not be deterred. Despite a lack of a plan, he ordered an invasion of Tennessee to be led by John Bell Hood, another beneficiary of the President's cronyism. The campaign was a disastrous repeat of the Kentucky adventure, with command and communications failures resulting in a three-week delay in operations which allowed the unready Union sufficient time to regroup and repel the invaders. With this final gamble, the war was all but lost.

Even at the last, Davis would not be persuaded from his path. As war drew to a close in 1865, like a deluded dictator sitting in his crumbling office, he authorised an invasion of Arizona to be undertaken by a non-existent force of Californian volunteers. It would be the final illustration of Jefferson Davis's unsuitability as a commander, and of his ideological blindness in relation to his conduct, and to his cause.

It was Davis's immovable certainty in himself that had proven to be the Confederacy's ultimate weakness, a view that came to be held by several generals after the war – even if more able commanders could have prevented the South's military disasters, they would have counted for nothing without the direction of a suitable commander-in-chief. It was the political monomania of Jefferson Davis, spurred on by his unshakeable belief in his righteousness and that of the society that had produced him, which led ultimately to the overturning of that society and its systems. Having hoped to be a righteous man among a hundred guilty, Davis instead found himself cast in history as a warning against ideological blindness, and the politicisation of military campaigns.

While the widening of the scope of historical study, therefore, is a thing to be applauded and encouraged, it must not come at the cost of biographical study. As with all studies, the tiniest details can often have the farthest implications. As the new curriculum is rolled out to the coming generation of historians, hopefully the nuance of multiple approaches can be addressed and encouraged.


Further Reading:

  • Gabor S. Boritt (ed.), Jefferson Davis's Generals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

  • Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Warfare (London: Simon & Schuster, 2002).

  • William C. Davis, Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).

Stephen Graham is a historian and writer, having recently completed his MA in Military History at the University of Wolverhampton with a dissertation on the origins of Luftwaffe doctrine in nineteenth-century Prussian policy. His first full-length work, The Faces of Fascism – Mussolini, Hitler and Franco: Their Paths to Power, was released in June 2023. He lives and works in Edinburgh.


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