Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

JEFFERSON FINIS DAVIS
(June 3, 1808–December 6, 1889)

Jon L. Wakelyn

In order to set the historical record straight on the life and accomplishments of her much maligned late husband—the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis—the grieving but determined widow Varina Howell Davis (q.v.) plunged into her account with the claim that “he was universally regarded, both at home and abroad, as pre-eminently the representative of a great era, a great cause, and a great people” (1:1). She had indeed described something of the swirl of defensiveness that has come down through history of a man considered by many to have been overmatched and underzealous for a revolutionary task, while many others claim no other could have done a better job. In her life of Davis, based mostly on his unpublished memoirs and her memory usually of the good times, Mrs. Davis gives historians a portrait at once distant and personal but often confused about the many skills her husband needed to govern a region in insurrection against its own country. Varina also had described a man deeply loyal to the idea of his native land, yet the leader of those who would make a separate nation. The true record of his accomplishments must then relate to a man confused over what his proper activities were to have been.

Perhaps another look at that leader’s life will allow us to grasp the contradictions between talent and motivation that so marked his long and often useful life. All accounts of his early life state that young Jefferson Davis was raised in a successful border and later Deep South family. Rough, outgoing, and filled with a certain devilishness, Jefferson Finis was the youngest son of Samuel Emory Davis, a Revolutionary War veteran and an ever-moving small farmer. His mother was Jane Cook, whom his father met and married in Georgia. Soon after the war they left Georgia with their growing family and headed for the fertile lands of southern Kentucky. Eventually they settled in Hopkins ville, Christian County (later Todd County), where Jefferson was born on June 3, 1808. Like many a small slaveowner, Samuel and his sons worked hard to produce a meager crop. But they did not find success in Kentucky, and they

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