Assuming a nearly impossible job, Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War of 1861-1865. He tried to mold the South into a new nation that could battle for independence against the North, although the South had only one-fourth of the North’s white population, and almost no industrial infrastructure. Despite many faults as a politician, including high sensitivity to criticism, Davis valiantly led the South’s war efforts against overwhelming odds. He remained the chief spokesman and apologist for the South until his death; his book, “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” (1881) gives his views of the Civil War.
Davis was born in Kentucky, his mother’s 10th child. He graduated from West Point in 1828 and then served as an officer on the frontier for seven years. His first wife, a daughter of future president Zachary Taylor, died in 1835 of malarial fever, only three months after they were married. Grief stricken, Davis lived in seclusion for the next seven years, reading extensively. In 1845 Davis was elected to Congress and married Varian Howell, age 19.
He became a national hero for winning the battle of Buena Vista in 1847, during which he was severely wounded. He was Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce in 1853. As tensions mounted prior to the Civil War, Davis urged peace and conciliation, although he believed that states had a right to secede. After Lee’s surrender, Davis fled Richmond but was captured in Georgia. He was imprisoned for two years, and then released. His funeral in 1889 was the greatest the South had ever seen.