Photo Essays

Jefferson Davis, Rebel President

Posted 2/21/2020 By The Civil War Monitor

Jefferson Finis Davis holds the distinction of being the lone president of the Confederate States of America during its brief but significant existance. Born in Kentucky in 1808, Davis had lived a full and important life before the outbreak of the Civil War. He had graduated from West Point and fought in the Mexican-American War before serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Mississippi, as President Franklin Pierce's secretary of war, and as a United States Senator (also representing Mississippi). What follows is a photographic look at Davis—from the time of the secession crisis to his death in 1889. 


U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis in 1859
Jefferson Davis as he appeared in 1859—during his tenure as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. After Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, Davis wrote the state's governor, "Judge what Mississippi requires of me and place me accordingly." He was promptly made a major general in the Army of Mississippi. (Library of Congress)
On February 9, Davis easily won election as provisional president of the Confederacy during a constitutional convention that met at Montgomery, Alabama. He was inaugurated on February 18. In this illustration published a month later, Davis addresses an enthusiastic crowd from the balcony of Montgomery's Exchange Hotel on February 16. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)
Varina Davis Richmond Virginia
A month after the fall of Fort Sumter, Davis moved his government to Richmond, where he'd live with his wife, Varina, and their children in a house on K Street that would be known as the White House of the Confederacy. In November, Davis was elected to a full six-year term as Confederate president; he was inaugurated on February 22, 1862. Above, left: Varina Davis. Above, right: The White House of the Confederacy. (Both Library of Congress)
The new Confederate president soon became the focus of great interest in the North, where various newspapers published his likeness, as in this illustration from Harper's Weekly in June 1861 that shows Davis (third from right) surrounded by the members of his cabinet. (Harper's Weekly)
Davis would also become a frequent subject for northern artists and cartoonists, who returned to him regularly throughout the Civil War. Above: Christopher Kimmel's 1861 work "The Outbreak of the Rebellion in the United States," a grand allegory of the Civil War that depicts Davis (at far left) beneath a palm tree about whose trunk winds a poisonous snake. (Library of Congress)
Other early war northern depictions of Davis portrayed the Confederate president as both a fool and a ghoul. Above, left: "Jeff Davis on the Right Platform," an 1861 cartoon that shows a cowardly Davis on the gallows, above a "Secession Trap" door, declaring, "O dear! O dear! I don't really want to secede this way—I want to be let alone." Above, right: "Jeff Davis Reaping the Harvest," a macabre cartoon published in Harper's Weekly in October 1861. (Library of Congress; Harper's Weekly)
Of course, not all wartime depictions of Davis were critical or disrespectful. Shown here is a distinguished-looking Davis on a $50 Confederate States of America banknote. (National Museum of American History)
Davis' likeness also adorned a number of wartime envelopes, including this pro-Confederate one from Mississippi that celebrates Davis as "Our First President." (Library of Congress)
Throughout the conflict, Davis was regularly depicted with his U.S. counterpart, Abraham Lincoln, such as in this cartoon published in June 1863 in which the two presidents decide the fate of Clement Vallandigham, leader of the antiwar northern Democrats knows as Copperheads. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)
After four long years of bloody conflict, the fall of the Confederacy came swiftly. On April 3, 1865, with Ulysses S. Grant's army on the verge of capturing Richmond, Davis and his cabinet fled the Confederate capital and headed south. After learning of Robert E. Lee's surrender about a week later, Davis headed to North Carolina and then Georgia, where he held his final meeting with his cabinet on May 5. Above: Davis and other Confederate officials flee through Georgia in this sketch published in Harper's Weekly. (Library of Congress)
On May 9, Davis and his band—which now included his wife, Varina—camped at Irwinville, Georgia. The following morning, Varina described the scene as Union forces caught up to them and took them prisoner. "Just before day the enemy charged our camp yelling like demons.... I pleaded with him to let me throw over him a large waterproof wrap which had often served him in sickness during the summer season for a dressing gown and which I hoped might so cover his person that in the grey of the morning he would not be recognized. As he strode off I threw over his head a little black shawl which was around my own shoulders, saying that he could not find his hat...." The rumor soon circulated throughout the North that Davis had been captured wearing women's clothing in an attempt to fool and evade his captors—a scene repeatedly depicted, as in this illustration, in the weeks following the event. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)
These cartes de visite—two of countless numbers printed in the wake of Davis' capture—effectively furthered the tale of the Confederate president's rumored costume on his final day of freedom. (Both Library of Congress)
On May 19, Davis was emprisoned in a casemate (depicted above in a sketch by Alfred Waud) at Fort Monroe, Virginia, while he awaited trial for treason. Davis would be released on bail two years later but remained under indictment until President Andrew Johnson issued a blanket pardon to ex-Confederates on Christmas Day 1868. (Library of Congress) 
After his pardon, Davis served as the president of an insurance company in Tennessee for several years but otherwise struggled to find a new career amid continuing financial difficulties. In 1877, he was invited to stay at "Beauvoir," the plantation house of an estate in Biloxi, Mississippi, owned by a longtime family friend. Davis remained there for years and wrote his memoirs of the Civil War. He died on December 6, 1889, at age 81 after falling ill during a trip to New Orleans. Above: Three generations of the Davis family (including Jefferson, center, and Varina, right), plus an unidentified servant, at Beauvoir in 1884 or 1885. (Library of Congress)
Jefferson Davis' coffin is driven in a horse-drawn wagon through the French Quarter in New Orleans on December 11, 1889. An estimated 200,000 people lined the streets during the procession. Davis' body was laid to rest in a vault in Metairie Cemetery; it was moved to Richmond and reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in 1893. (Library of Congress)


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