UPDATED: SEP 1, 2018
ORIGINAL: MAY 11, 2015
10 Things You May Not Know About Jefferson Davis
On the anniversary of the capture of Jefferson Davis by Union forces, explore 10 surprising facts about the Confederate president.
1. Davis was not a secessionist leader.
Less than two months before his inauguration as Confederate president, U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis opposed secession for his home state of Mississippi. While Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus and other state leaders advocated immediate secession in the weeks following the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the slaveholding Davis urged caution. While he firmly believed states had the constitutional right to secede from the Union, he was among a committee of 13 U.S. senators who attempted to find a suitable compromise after South Carolina left the Union in December 1860. After Mississippi seceded in January 1861, Davis declared that his allegiance to his state required him to abide by its decision and leave the U.S. Senate.
2. As a West Point cadet, Davis was arrested for participating in the “Eggnog Riot.”
Although alcohol had been banned at the U.S. Military Academy after a rowdy Fourth of July party the year before, the teenaged Davis was among the cadets who smuggled liquor into the barracks for a yuletide drinking party before reveille on Christmas morning in 1826. Officers who discovered the illegal party placed Davis under arrest in his room. Nearly 100 other inebriated cadets, however, disobeyed officers’ orders and began to break windows, smash furniture and even draw swords against their superiors. Davis was confined to his quarters for more than six weeks, but his compliance when arrested likely spared him the fate of a dozen of his fellow cadets, who were expelled for their participation in the “Eggnog Riot.”
3. He was named after a Founding Father.
The Confederate president was named after his father’s political hero and the sitting American president at the time of his birth—Thomas Jefferson.
4. A future U.S. president was his father-in-law.
After graduating from West Point, Davis was stationed in the Wisconsin Territory under Colonel Zachary Taylor. In August 1832, near the conclusion of the Black Hawk War, Davis met the colonel’s daughter, 18-year-old Sarah Knox Taylor. The pair fell in love, but for two years Taylor denied Davis permission to marry his daughter until finally relenting. Less than three months after they wed on June 17, 1835, Sarah died of malaria. During the Mexican-American War, Davis once again served under Taylor, and his heroics at the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847 reportedly caused the American general to say apologetically to his one-time son-in-law, “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.” Taylor’s wartime exploits propelled him to win the presidential election of 1848.
5. Davis served as U.S. Secretary of War.
Just eight years before assuming the presidency of the Confederacy, Davis led the U.S. military as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, a fellow Democrat whom he had supported in the election of 1852. In his post, Davis attempted to innovate the military, advocated for the federal government to build a transcontinental railroad, supported the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico and supervised the expansion of the U.S. Capitol.
6. He established the U.S. Camel Corps.
Since horses and mules had difficulty traversing the arid territories of the West newly acquired by the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, Secretary of War Davis received congressional approval to purchase camels from the Middle East to use as military pack animals. The Camel Corps experiment showed some promise but ultimately fizzled when the outbreak of the Civil War took priority and the development of the railroad ultimately proved the idea obsolete.
7. Contrary to reports, Davis was not dressed as a woman when captured.
When Davis was seized on the drizzly predawn morning of May 10, 1865, he was wearing a loose-fitting, water-repellent overcoat, similar to a poncho, and his wife’s black shawl over his head and shoulders. Northern newspapers twisted the story and gleefully reported that Davis had been captured while disguised in women’s clothing, while popular lithographs portrayed caricatures of Davis in hoop skirts and bonnets. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton kept the overcoat and shawl from public view rather than puncture the myth.
8. Abolitionist Horace Greeley and other notable Northerners posted his bail.
Davis was imprisoned in Virginia’s Fort Monroe for two years after his capture during which time he was indicted for treason. In May 1867, he was released on $100,000 bail, most of which was posted by a surprising group—prominent Northerners including Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and Gerrit Smith, who was among the “Secret Six” who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The Northerners advocated for a speedy trial or release of Davis in order to heal the country.
9. Davis never stood trial for treason.
Ultimately, the case of United States v. Jefferson Davis never went to trial, a decision finalized in 1869. The federal government reached its decision in part because it feared that Davis would either prove to a jury that secession was legally permitted under the U.S. Constitution or he would be transformed into a martyr if convicted and executed.
10. His U.S. citizenship wasn’t restored until 1978.
An amnesty bill that restored citizenship to Confederate leaders in 1876 specifically excluded Davis, and the former Confederate president did not fight the decision. “It has been said that I should apply to the United States for a pardon. But repentance must precede the right of pardon, and I have not repented,” Davis told the Mississippi Legislature in 1884, before adding, “If it were all to do over again, I would again do just as I did in 1861.” Davis remained a man without a country for more than a century until President Jimmy Carter on October 17, 1978, signed a measure passed by the U.S. Congress that restored American citizenship to Davis.
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