Jefferson Davis could have beat Lincoln for U.S. presidency? Here are 15 little-known facts about rebel leader

By Paul Huggins |
May 09, 2014
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Jefferson Davis the traitor, everyone knows.

That’s why Ron Sydor, park manager of the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview, Ky., said he focuses his history lessons on Jefferson Davis’ extraordinary life outside his time as president of the confederacy.

Sydor, who gained national attention four years ago for being an African American put in charge of the birthplace for the slave-holding rebel leader, was the guest speaker at Thursday night’s Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table. It was the club’s largest gathering of year as about 70 Grissom High School students from John Wilhoite’s history class joined the monthly event.

Davis knew if they went to war, it was going to be a blood bath. He tried to save the South from ruin, and they wouldn’t listen to him." – Ron Sydor

Before the Civil War, Davis was the nation’s most outstanding statesman and quite possibly could have been the 16th president of the United States had he accepted the state of Massachusetts nomination to run for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, he said. It was one of the many little-known facts of Davis’ life that Sydor shared. Here are 14 more:


  • He attended West Point – though he wanted to study law at University of Virginia instead – and was court-martialed twice. But after being found guilty, school leaders were so impressed with his oratory skills, they kept him on and President Polk pardoned him.
  • Davis was married to the daughter of future President Zachary Taylor, though against Taylor’s will. While both served together at a military outpost, Taylor, then a general, forbade Lt. Davis to have any contact with his daughter, Sarah, after Davis sided with one of Taylor’s foes in a court martial. She married Davis without her father’s consent and died three months after the wedding from malaria.
  • Davis resigned from Congress to participate in the Mexican American War, where he found himself under the command of Zachary Taylor again.
  • Davis was a natural military leader, credited with developing the V attack formation still used by the army today. While outnumbered four to one in a battle during the Mexican-American War, Davis persuaded his scared troops to stay and fight. Though wounded, he remained on the battlefield and led his men to victory.
  • As a U.S. senator, Davis ordered the first surveys for the transcontinental railroad and promoted the purchase of Panama and Cuba from Spain; he also chaired the committee for building the new capitol building.
  • As President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War, he set up the first Army Medical Corps and the first military pension. Not a single military officer resigned while he held that cabinet post. "Some feel Davis was the power behind the throne," Sydor said.
  • The descendants of 300 camels he bought for the military stationed in the Texas desert still live in the wild today with laws protecting them from hunting.
  • Though Davis waved the state’s rights banner from the moment he first arrived in Washington, D.C., he worked desperately to keep southern states from succeeding. Two reasons, he knew the South had ignored his appeals to build factories capable of producing munitions; and he was part of a three-man U.S. committee who observed the Crimean War between Great Britain and Russia. "Davis knew if they went to war, it was going to be a blood bath. He tried to save the South from ruin, and they wouldn’t listen to him," Sydor said.
  • After Davis’ wife, Varina, rescued a 7-year-old black boy from a beating from a black man in Richmond, the confederate president arranged to have the boy, named Jim Limber, freed. There were no adoption laws in Virginia at that time, but Jim Limber remained with the family until Davis’ capture after the war. The family never saw Jim Limber again.
  • Like his Union counterpart, Davis had one child die while in office after a son fell off a balcony at the White House of Confederacy in Richmond.
  • Though in his 50s and feeble from the malaria that struck him years before, it took four soldiers to hold him down while a blacksmith bound him with shackles. While under arrest at Fort Monroe, two soldiers guarded him from inside the cell, two from the outside, while 13 others were stationed nearby.
  • Davis was the defendant in the first two American court cases featuring a integrated jury of white and black men. One was grand jury, the other a petit jury.
  • After being indicted for treason, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and dropped the charges before Davis’ trial. One prevailing thought is the highest court in the land feared Davis’ knowledge of the Constitution could lead to his acquittal and thus make succession appear legal. "They were afraid of being embarrassed," Sydor said of the Supreme Court.
  • Davis was released from prison after two years when a handful of wealthy northern men paid his $100,000 bond. The group included Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

© 2014 Alabama Media Group

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