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The Other American President

Confederate President Jefferson Davis
Confederate President Jefferson Davis (US Public Domain)

There were two presidents in office when the American Civil War commenced in 1861. The North: Abraham Lincoln, a member of the pro-Union, anti-slavery Republican Party. The South: Jefferson Davis, a pro-slavery Democrat who believed firmly in states’ rights. Ironically, both politicians were born in Kentucky (a neutral state in the Civil War) and raised elsewhere.

Lincoln’s family settled in Illinois. A licensed lawyer by 1836, Lincoln married Mary Todd, who came from a Kentucky slave-owning family, in 1842. He joined the Republican Party in 1856 and was their candidate in the 1860 election, which he won. That’s enough on Lincoln. Let’s look at the other guy.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis graduated from West Point--one of his classmates being Confederate General Robert E Lee--then served seven years in the Northwest frontier where he did his utmost to keep the peace between the native Indians and the settlers, before settling down himself in Mississippi with his first bride as a cotton plantation owner in 1835. A passionate defender of slavery, Davis recognized the Negro as “inferior, fitted solely for servitude.” It’s interesting to note that slaves on his plantation fared quite nicely. Rarely beaten, they received an education and were fed and clothed well. Naively, he thought that all or at least most slaves were treated that same lenient way on other plantations, which, of course, they were not. Unfortunately, his wife, Sarah, died that same year of malaria, a disease that affected Davis on and off for the rest of his life. For the next number of years following Sarah’s untimely death, Davis lived as a virtual recluse.

In 1845, two things happened to him: He married a second time to a woman whose father happened to be a Northerner and he was elected to the US Congress. He quickly resigned his political post to fight in the Mexican War, leading the First Mississippians in battle where he became a natural leader and cool under fire. In 1847, after surviving a foot injury, he returned to public life as a war hero and a Mississippi senator. In 1853, he was appointed Secretary of War in President Franklin Pierce’s cabinet. During his time in the federal government, Davis doubled the size of the army, increased pay within the ranks, activated the use of the new breech-loading rifles, along with other modern weapons, and supervised immense public works projects such as the Washington Aqueduct and the building of the Capital Dome in Washington, DC.

In 1857, Davis returned to the Senate to keep up his fight for states’ rights and the pro-slavery movement so vital to the Southern agricultural cause. To him, and many others, Southerners were Virginians or Mississippians or Georgians first: Americans second. As far as they were concerned, there was no United States in practice. Only on paper.  In 1858, Davis warned those around him that if anti-slavery candidates such as Abraham Lincoln were elected in the coming 1860 election, the Union would collapse. And the result: war.

Still, after all this, Davis did not wish to see the South leave the Union. He hoped that the North would merely leave the South alone and let them go about their business peacefully. When Lincoln won the national election in 1860, Davis and his Southern counterparts had no choice but to promote secession. The 53-year-old Davis resigned after making a speech before the Senate by saying: “I feel no hostility to you senators from the North. In the presence of God, I wish you well.” He then departed Washington, hoping to resume his duties as a plantation owner in charge of 100-plus slaves, leaving the Southern leadership to others whom he thought were much more qualified.

On February 10, 1861, he and his second wife, Varina, were in their garden when a messenger approached them with a letter. Davis took it and nearly collapsed with grief upon reading it. At first, Varina thought a family member had died.  Instead, the Confederate convention had asked her husband to represent the South as the first President of the new Confederate States of America, a role Davis did not want to pursue. But, within the day, he decided he had no choice. They had asked him. He accepted and was inaugurated eight days later in front of 5,000 people on the front portico of the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Alabama. Shortly after that, the Confederate federal government moved to Richmond, Virginia.

Davis spent the next two months negotiating with Northern officials to bring about a peaceful closure to tensions. But, it was no use. Besides, Northern troops flying the Stars and Stripes still occupied Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor: an insult to Southerners. On April 12, Davis ordered it shelled. Thirty-six hours and 4,000 shells later, the Union fort surrendered without any loss of life. The American Civil War was on, what Jefferson Davis had feared for years long before most other Southerners had even thought about it.

Basically, from the very beginning, the Confederacy didn’t stand a chance. The North was heavily industrialized. It had the money, the population, the government infrastructure, and a vast, modern rail system. In fact, the entire Gross National Product of the South was equal to one-quarter of the state of New York. In other words, the South, a loose agricultural string of states, was not equipped for a war. All they had was cotton which they thought they could rule the world with. No one dare make war on cotton, so the South’s arrogant politicians thought, mesmerized by the fact that in 1860 their cotton exports were valued at $191 million--57 percent of all American exports. What did Clark Gable, in his Rhett Butler role in Gone with the Wind, say about the South? All he could see was “Cotton, slaves, and arrogance.”

At first, the South had better field leadership, with Robert E Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia the most prominent, receiving headlines around the world. But it was just a matter of time before the Southern financial situation cracked due to rampant inflation based on zero reserves. At the beginning of the conflict, Lincoln deployed a naval blockade on all Southern ports and it tightened more and more each year, shutting off the South from the outside world and making the Confederate dollar worthless. As soon as the war started, the South expected or at least hoped Britain and France--the two largest benefactors of Southern cotton--would step into the conflict on the side of the Confederacy. But they never did.

Furthermore, the press--especially in Richmond--targeted Davis non-stop for his running of the war. Davis showed favoritism to political friends, and he failed to get along with people who disagreed with him. His people turned against their president. The pressure appeared on him, taking years off his life. A virus hit one eye and had swollen the other. He had digestive problems, and he couldn’t sleep.  With the after-effects of malaria, he was oftentimes bedridden during his presidency. When the Confederacy capitulated, Davis was captured while escaping to Georgia and spent two years as a Union prisoner inside Fort Monroe, Virginia. He was accused of treason, but was never tried for it. Why not?

It actually goes back to the forming of the United States as a nation. When the 13 states came together as one, two important details were made very clear by the individual governments. First, they demanded the right for her people to bear arms. The reason? To protect themselves from the federal government should they become dictatorial. Second, any state could leave the Union at any time, based on a favorable vote by her legislature. The latter is what any decent lawyer representing Jeff Davis would base his defense on. And the Union knew it. While many Confederates asked for pardons and received them, Davis stubbornly refused to ask for one. Instead, he wanted to go on trial to prove that secession had been legal since the United States had been formed. Embarrassed they could lose the battle after winning the war, the Union wanted none of that. So, they released Davis and asked him to go away quietly.

Jefferson Davis funeral, New Orleans, 1889
Jefferson Davis funeral, New Orleans, 1889 (US Public Domain)

Davis spent the rest of his life a die-hard Confederate, defending slavery, states’ rights and secession. The South treated him as a hero in his last years, the direct opposite of how they looked upon him while he was running the Confederacy as president. When he died December 6, 1889 at the age of 81 in New Orleans, he received the largest funeral in Southern history up to that time: an estimated two hundred thousand mourners in attendance lining the streets.

FYI—Here in Canada, when our founding Fathers of Confederation-- including our first prime minister, John A Macdonald--established our nation in 1867, they concluded that the American Civil War was a result of too much power in the hands of the states. So, our boys created a more centralized federation with Ottawa running the show. Provincial power was secondary.


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