Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Not All Warriors: 19th Century West Pointers Who Gained Fame in Other Than Military Fields, by William Baumer, Jr. (published 1941).
At the new camp Davis continued the hard drill and other regimental training even though the Mississippi boys were jocularly referred to as the “awkward squad.” Davis, chafing under delays, wrote several letters to Washington. In these letters he spared others no less than his troops and himself. On August 24, he penned a note to the Secretary of War, Robert C. Walker: “We have met delay and detention at every point. The Quartermasters at New Orleans have behaved either most incompetently or maliciously, and I am now but two days in possession of the rifles ordered forwarded before I left Washington.” When Davis arrived in camp with General Taylor he was welcomed as a professional soldier who could communicate his own ideas to his volunteers. Aside from Davis’s praise of Taylor in Congress, the General could appreciate that Davis was in league with him against “Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott, who was not supplying him sufficiently in this far-off campaign.
Taylor, realizing that he could not wait forever for supplies, set out for Monterey with 6000 inadequately equipped men, the 1st Mississippi Regiment in the vanguard. The remainder of the War is history. Davis became a great sectional hero for his brave charge at Buena Vista and for his clever use of a tactical “V” formation. His former father-in-law was well pleased and handed Davis high praise. As the Mississippi volunteers prepared to depart from Mexico, their term of service having expired, they drew up facing the General for their farewell. Zachary Taylor was choked with emotion on this occasion. Returning to New Orleans, Davis was offered an appointment as Brigadier General by President Polk, and his former political opponent, Sergeant S. Prentiss, welcomed him in a typical burst of oratory. Jefferson Davis thanked the President for the tendered appointment but added that the Constitution gives the President no power to appoint militia officers. Though Davis had been wounded severely in the foot at Buena Vista, where a ball drove a part of his spur into his foot, he now hobbled around on crutches giving assistance in the enlistment and equipping of a second regiment of Mississippi volunteers.
Because of General Taylor’s commendation of Davis, in which he said “the Mississippi Rifles under Colonel Davis were highly conspicuous for their gallantry and steadiness,” Davis gained great popularity in the State. Owing to the death of Senator Speight, Governor Albert Gallatin Brown appointed Davis to fill the vacancy. In December, pale and emaciated, Jefferson Davis took his seat in the Upper House. One of the first men to welcome Davis was Henry Clay, whose son and namesake had been at West Point with Davis and had been killed in battle during the Mexican War.
Though Davis now mixed himself in the Presidential race between General Taylor and Lewis Cass, he found time to enter into the councils of the Senate. Not long after he had been seated by his colleague, Senator Sevier, Davis had occasion to defend his old Chief, General Taylor.
The Mississippi senator was asking for munitions and men to complete the war then still in progress. Once Davis took the floor against Calhoun and Webster to argue that “the whole of Texas…was included in this disputed territory.” This reply was in answer to Calhoun’s charge that the President had had no right to order an army into “disputed territory.” The Presidential race tore Davis between divided loyalties. He was more than willing to defend his father-in-law, but he felt as a good party man that he should support the Democratic candidate. Upon another occasion McElroy inferred that Davis would have been an excellent leader in one of today’s dictator ships, for he subscribed to the idea that “a strong and efficient nation may properly seize and make economically productive a country that is ‘going to waste’.” The Mississippi legislator remarked in extenuation of his statement that he was not at tempting as a moralist to justify the seizure of Mexico. But all this work was routine compared to the debate over the great issue of Clay’s Compromise.
This compromise in its presentation before the Senate brought forward some of Davis’s greatest political effort. He attempted to justify the age-old claim of the South to State Sovereignty. He voiced the scheme of taking more property into Southern territory so that the South could work out the gradual emancipation of the slaves — an idea that had been growing in his brain since he sat and watched the Mississippi roll by during his life as a hermit.
On June 23, 1848, while the Oregon Bill was pending, Davis proposed an amendment that “nothing contained in this act shall be so construed as to authorize the prohibition of domestic slavery in said territory.” He argued in defense of this amendment that “before the Constitution was adopted, slavery was local: and had been made national by the very terms of the Constitution which recognized its rights…” As Jefferson had claimed that spreading slaves over a large territory, while not increasing their numbers, would alleviate their condition, so also, was this the credo of Davis. “While defending slavery as a necessary stage in the progress of the negro race toward ultimate freedom, (Davis) never looked upon it as a final solution of the problem of the race.” In the same speech, Davis said: “American slavery may have for its end the preparation of that race for civil liberty and social enjoyment.” During this period the national election elevated Zachary Taylor to the Presidency. Davis, who had refrained from speaking against him, was elected to the Senate on the Democratic ticket. In the Capitol he continued his fight for the South and its doctrines.
Joined in the great three-cornered fight of Clay, Calhoun and Webster, over the compromise of 1850, were other prominent senators, Seward, Chase, Douglas and Davis. Clay, fighting always for compromise against implacable Calhoun, often found himself hooked up in debate with Davis also. The latter’s thin lips drew tight as he stood up for his severe interpretations of State Sovereignty and the rights of slave-owning Southerners. Hot words were spoken in these forensic battles, but usually nothing more than words ensued.
Davis during this term of office was particularly touchy about any indictment of the conduct of his Mississippi Rifles in the Mexican War. An old controversy, that the Second Indiana Regiment should have been the one to receive credit for gallantry at Buena Vista rather than the Mississippi Rifles, who it was alleged were some distance from the scene at the time of the battle, brought Davis into conflict with the Hon. Colonel William H. Bissell. Fortunately, Colonel Bissell changed his allegation to conform more nearly to Davis’s views and a forthcoming duel was prevented. While the Senate roared, Davis received an unwelcome call from his party in Mississippi to be their candidate for Governor against ex-senator Hendrick Foote, who ran on a Unionist slate.
The news of his selection by “the people and the Democratic press of the whole State” was brought to Davis while he was confined to his room because of the serious condition of his left eye. The member was most painful and caused him to remain in a darkened room much of his time. With his wife he returned to “Brierfield.” The campaign for the Governorship was a particularly bitter one, and Davis put on a strong campaign though his health and the shortness of time were handicaps. That his canvass was partially successful is indicated by his whittling the Unionist majority from 7500 to 999 votes. Defeat was real humiliation to Davis and he was left now with little to compensate him for his sacrifice in coming home to party strife. His resignation from the Senate, where he had enjoyed a position of honor, must have seemed a particularly ill-fated move when he found himself defeated in Mississippi and pushed off even the local stage of politics. Nevertheless, Jefferson Davis, in company with his wife devoted himself, with inspiration springing from humiliation, to rejuvenating his cotton plantation. Varina says that they worked together cultivating their garden roses, of which Jefferson was proud, and one day they planted a small oak that years later had grown so that it spread its shade over 90 feet. There was some talk at this time of placing Davis’s name in nomination for the Presidency. His party passed over such men as Cass, Douglas, Buchanan and Marcy, to select Franklin Pierce, as a dark horse, to run against General Scott. Pierce, having won easily, by 254 to 42 electoral votes, asked “his friend” Davis, to come and talk to him about a place in the Government. Mrs. Davis wished her husband to take his ease and regain his health. In compliance with her wish Davis declined the proffered post of Secretary of War. Accepting an invitation to witness the inauguration of Pierce, Davis found himself in the bright light of the Capitol unwilling to decline again the War Secretary ship.
Davis had cause to thank his friend Pierce for rescuing him from political oblivion. It would be an understatement to say that Davis failed to repay his debt to the President, because during his four years in the Cabinet he was not only an able administrator, but a strong advisor. Neither Pierce nor Davis had many close friendships. As austere men they never could clap a companion on the back and call him by his first name. All during the years of Pierce’s presidency they remained on a relationship of calling each other by last names, or by formal titles. This does not indicate that their friendship was less deep. For the remainder of his life and in his memoirs Jefferson Davis spoke well of Pierce.
Ingersoll, in his history of the War Department, stated that Davis conducted his office “with notable success, and with great acceptability to the Army.” Davis himself, in a letter to a Major Crosman, keyed his administration’s policy by approval of the subordinate’s course in not allowing department clerks to have assessments levied against them by various political committees. The Secretary added, “It is my desire to keep the military branch of the Government free from political influences…” Carl Schurz, visiting Davis in his office, wrote an impression declaring that he represented the well-known strong, American type, because of “his slender, tall and erect figure, his spare face, keen eyes, and fine forehead, not broad but high and well-shaped…there was in his bearing a dignity…which does not invite familiar approach.” Senator Sumner added: “No one has ever yet found his (Davis’s) judgment and taste at fault.” Among men closer to Jefferson Davis, Pierce’s Postmaster General, James Campbell, despite the relations vis-a-vis of Cabinet Ministers, said: “(He) is not popularly known as a socially genial man, but he was, as I came to know him … he was very quiet and domestic in his habits, correct in his private life, and exceedingly temperate in both eating and drinking… (He) was the best educated man whom I ever came in contact with. His acquirements were broad and often surprised us… He was famous for his retentive memory, and the extent and range of his knowledge was encyclopedic…” With such abilities, it is not surprising that Davis’s talents encompassed more than military administration.
One of the Secretary’s most constructive works was a series of surveys of proposed railway routes to the Pacific Coast. He gave as his reason for such railroad extension the necessity for “safe and rapid communication with the Pacific slope, to secure its continuance as part of the Union.” The four routes planned in the years 1853 to 1856 were later followed substantially by the rail lines of the Southern, Kansas, Union, and Northern Pacific roads. In addition, he built an arsenal, so that the army could economically manufacture its own rifles; he imported a number of camels for campaigning in the Southwest; and he strongly recommended that non-military expenses, such as those for river and harbor work, should not be charged to the military budget. Through his administration runs one discordant note.
Jefferson Davis had never liked General Winfield Scott, from either a professional or a political standpoint. The depth of Davis’s antagonism showed a lack of balance in dealing with his immediate military subordinate. In one instance, Davis protested the payment of retroactive salary as a Lieutenant General to Scott, on a highly technical point. Scott said little and allowed Davis to shift an inordinate amount of energy into the controversy. Because of his animosity, another name alongside Cadet Joseph E. Johnston and Congressman Andrew Johnson was added to Davis’s list of opponents. A survey of his accomplishments in the War Secretaryship showed that he. expanded the army in size and increased its pay; he replaced the smooth bore muskets with up-to-date rifles; he strengthened the sea coast defenses, aiding Captain Rodman of the Ordnance Department in his development of recently invented artillery; and Davis sent a commission to study the Crimean War (young Captain George McClellan was a member). Davis’s interest in the Military Academy was absorbing. Out of his own experience with its deficiencies in cultural education, which he felt in company of men of wide university education, Davis caused the West Point course to be extended to five years. This allowed the insertion in the curriculum of a Department of Ethics, for the study of Philosophy, History, and Literature. His relations with Robert E. Lee, the Academy Superintendent, were felicitous and at the latter’s request, officers’ quarters and other necessary construction was authorized. This relationship, with the meeting of two able personalities, was of great strength later to the Confederacy. Lee learned to get along with his superior; knew what the compressing of his lips meant; knew how to make Davis confident in his judgment. Conversely Davis believed in Lee more than any other soldier he knew. The Secretaryship, with its four years of constructive administration, was terminated in March, 1857. Pierce, grasping the hand of his retiring cabinet minister, said: “I can scarcely bear the parting from you who have been strength and solace to me for four anxious years, and never failed me.” Davis in his dignified way, and feeling the same sentiment, could only turn away. Next he sent for his papers and effects directing that they be moved to the Senate Office Building. Jefferson Davis’s re-entrance into that great political debating body, the Senate, assured his presence on the stage of politics as the Nation drifted swiftly toward a military and political cataclysm. In 1858, Davis was in ailing health. Bedridden from laryngitis, the Mississippian suffered intense pain from his un-recovered left eye which had become inflamed and swollen so that he could endure no light. In his absence from the Senate, his most devoted visitor was his political antagonist, William H. Seward. During one visit, the talk turned to slavery. Mrs. Davis asked him, “In view of his seeing slavery as it actually was while an instructor at an academy in Georgia, how he could make such piteous appeals for the negro and believe all he said in his debates.” Seward answered good-naturedly, “I do not, but these appeals…affect the rank and file of the North.” Davis in surprise asked, “Do you never speak from conviction alone?”
At Seward’s negative, Davis’s blindfolded head rose from the pillow and he spoke feelingly: “As God is my judge, I never spoke from any other motive.” Seward, putting his hand on the sick man, and returning him to the pillow, agreed with him, stating “I am always sure of it.” For the remainder of his years in the Senate, Davis even in poor health ably upheld Horace Greeley’s estimation of him, as “the foremost man in the South… whose occasional unintentional arrogance which reveals his consciousness of great commanding power,” in no way lessened the fact that “he belongs to a higher grade of public men in whom formerly the slave-holding democracy was prolific.” The estimation of the publisher was to be of value later.
Events moved swiftly after the Dred Scott decision and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In addition to taking the floor on the latter bill, Davis took part in such declarations as his faith in free trade, and the need for world markets to keep pace with increased production. During this senatorial term Davis journeyed to New England to make several political speeches. Though he spoke boldly for slavery he was favorably received. The counter-balancing of his strong assertions of principle, of certain tactful tempering of his ideas perhaps explained his acceptance. The temporizing with the South’s principles brought criticism of Davis from his home state. Never a man to run from a controversy, he felt called upon to answer the charges of his fellow Mississippians.
As a practical man Jefferson Davis foresaw that a separation from the Union might come; he urged Mississippi to prepare, warning that such forehandedness need not precipitate the trial of secession. Meanwhile, he told his people that he considered separation from the Union to be the last remedy. His military instincts appeared more boldly when in his position as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs he urged national preparedness as the best safeguard for peace. He made many pleas for larger military appropriations by Congress, but while asking for money and pointing out the lack of arsenals below Harper’s Ferry, he sought no appropriation to build any. Davis’s conduct in soliciting interest in the military affairs of the nation brought no dishonest aid to the Southern states. He can be cleared of the charge of using his position in Washington to prepare the South for conflict.
Abraham Lincoln’s election in December, I860, brought the controversy between North and South into sharp focus. Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 19, 1861. Davis, a day later, resigned his seat in the Senate, though he had previously bidden a heart-rending farewell to that body on January 9. With Mrs. Davis he returned home to “Brierfield” to find that the State had commissioned him Major General of her force approximating 10,000 men. Problems of organization, supply, and training, became his daily labor. As he prepared, Davis was looking far ahead. Though most people felt the contest might never break out into warfare, and while most Southerners were assuring themselves that any conflict would be a short one, Davis looked forward to a long struggle. While the political soldier, in military garb, was interesting himself in the detailed problems of his Mississippi armed force, a Convention of the Southern States was meeting at Montgomery, Alabama. This body of electors ruled out the strong Georgia candidates, Toombs and Stephens, selecting instead for President the cosmopolitan statesman, Jefferson Davis. The latter, when apprised of his new responsibility, was in a sick bed at home. When told of the Government’s choice, he “reluctantly consented to assume the difficult and arduous task” of heading the Confederacy. His surprise at the appointment was tempered by his mechanical acceptance of the simple duties of closing his “Brierfield,” and bidding farewell to his slaves. He started for Montgomery alone.