Military leader and statesman Jefferson Finis Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in Christian County, Kentucky (now called Fairview). One of 10 children born into a military family, his birth took place just 100 miles from and eight months earlier than President Abraham Lincoln’s. Davis's father and uncles were soldiers in the American Revolutionary War, and all three of his older brothers fought in the War of 1812. His grandfather was a public servant to the U.S. southern colonies.
Though born in Kentucky, Davis primarily grew up on a plantation near Woodville, Mississippi, eventually returning to Kentucky to attend boarding school in Bardstown. After completing his boarding school education, Davis enrolled at Jefferson College in Mississippi, later transferring to Transylvania University in Kentucky.
In 1824, when Davis was 16 years old, President James Monroe requested that Davis become a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point (New York). One of Davis’s fellow cadets later described the burgeoning young leader as "distinguished in his corps for manly bearing and high-toned and lofty character." In 1828, Davis graduated from West Point, 23rd in his class.
Early Military Service (1828–'35)
Upon graduating from West Point, Jefferson Davis was assigned to the post of second-lieutenant of the First Infantry. From 1828 to 1833, he carried out his first active service with the U.S. Army. Davis fought with his regiment in the Blackhawk War of 1831, during which they captured Chief Blackhawk himself. The Indian chief was placed under Davis’s care, with Davis winning Blackhawk over through his kind treatment of the prisoner.
In March 1833, Davis was promoted to first lieutenant and transferred to the First Dragoons, a newly formed regiment. He also served as the unit’s staff officer. Until the summer of 1835, Davis continued his service on the battlefield against Indian tribes, including the Comanche and Pawnees. In June 1835, Davis married his commanding officer’s daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor. Because his commanding officer, none other than future president Zachary Taylor, was opposed to the marriage, Davis abruptly resigned his military post to take up civic duties prior to the wedding. Sadly, Sarah died of malaria just a few months later, in September 1835.
Early Politics (1835–'46)
After leaving the military, Davis became a cotton farmer while preparing for a career in politics as a Democrat. In 1843, he participated in the gubernatorial campaign and served as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. His powerful speeches there placed him in high demand. One year later, he became an elector for Pork and Dallas, taking the stance of state protection against federal interference and supporting Texas’ annexation in the process.
In December 1845, Davis won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and claimed a seat in Congress, which caused him to gain more public attention. Additionally, he remarried, this time to a woman named Varina Howell. The marriage helped further forge his connection with Mississippi planters, as Varina’s family was of that class.
As a congressman, Davis was known for his passionate and charismatic speeches, and he quickly became actively involved in debates about Texas, Oregon and tariffs. Davis’s congressional accomplishments include orchestrating the conversion of forts into military training schools. Throughout his congressional term, his support of states’ right remained unwavering.
Return to Military (1846–'47)
In June 1846, Jefferson Davis resigned from his position in Congress to lead the First Regiment of the Mississippi Riflemen in the Mexican-American War. He held the rank of colonel under his former father-in-law, General Zachary Taylor. During the Mexican-American War, Davis fought in the Battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista, in 1846 and 1847, respectively. At the Battle of Monterrey, he led his men to victory in an assault at Fort Teneria. He was injured at the Battle of Buena Vista when he blocked a charge of Mexican swords—an incident that earned him nationwide acclaim. So impressed was General Taylor that he admitted he had formerly misjudged Davis’s character. "My daughter, sir, was a better judge of man than I was," Taylor reportedly conceded.
Return to Politics (1847–'65)
In 1847, following Davis’s heroic feat, Zachary Taylor appointed him U.S. senator from Mississippi—a seat that had opened as a result of Senator Jesse Speight’s death. After serving the rest of Speight’s term, from December to January of 1847, Davis was re-elected for an additional term. As a senator, he advocated for slavery and states’ rights, and opposed the admission of California to the Union as a free state—such a hot button issue at the time that members of the House of Representatives sometimes broke into fistfights. Davis held his Senate seat until 1851 and went on to run for the Mississippi governorship, but lost the election.
Explaining the way his position on the Union had evolved during his time in the Senate, David once stated, "My devotion to the Union of our fathers had been so often and so publicly declared; I had on the floor of the Senate so defiantly challenged any question of my fidelity to it; my services, civil and military, had now extended through so long a period and were so generally known, that I felt quite assured that no whisperings of envy or ill-will could lead the people of Mississippi to believe that I had dishonored their trust by using the power they had conferred on me to destroy the government to which I was accredited. Then, as afterward, I regarded the separation of the states as a great, though not the greater evil."
In 1853, Davis was appointed secretary of war by President Franklin Pierce. He served in that position until 1857, when he returned to the Senate. Although opposed to secession, while back in the Senate, he continued to defend the rights of southern slave states. Davis remained in the Senate until January 1861, resigning when Mississippi left the Union.
In conjunction with the formation of the Confederacy, Davis was named president of the Confederate States of America on February 18, 1861. On May 10, 1865, he was captured by Union forces near Irwinville, Georgia, and charged with treason. Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia from May 22, 1865, to May 13, 1867, before being released on bail paid partly by abolitionist Horace Greely.
Later Life and Death
Following his term as president of the Confederacy, Davis traveled overseas on business. In 1881, he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government in an effort to defend his political stance. Davis lived out his retirement years at an estate called Beauvoir in Mississippi.
On December 6, 1889, Jefferson Davis died of acute bronchitis in New Orleans, Louisiana. His body was temporarily interred at New Orleans’s Metairie Cemetery. It was later relocated to a specially constructed memorial at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Thomas was a strong and determined pioneer who found a moderate level of prosperity and was well respected in the community. The couple had two other children: Abraham's older sister Sarah and younger brother Thomas, who died in infancy. Due to a land dispute, the Lincolns were forced to move from Kentucky to Perry County, Indiana in 1817, where the family "squatted" on public land to scrap out a living in a crude shelter, hunting game and farming a small plot. Thomas was eventually able to buy the land.
When young Abraham was 9 years old, his mother died of tremetol (milk sickness) at age 34. The event was devastating on him and young Abraham grew more alienated from his father and quietly resented the hard work placed on him at an early age. A few months after Nancy's death, Thomas married Sarah Bush Johnston, a Kentucky widow with three children of her own. She was a strong and affectionate woman with whom Abraham quickly bonded. Though both his parents were most likely illiterate, Sarah encouraged Abraham to read. It was while growing into manhood that he received his formal education—an estimated total of 18 months—a few days or weeks at a time. Reading material was in short supply in the Indiana wilderness. Neighbors recalled how Abraham would walk for miles to borrow a book. He undoubtedly read the family Bible and probably other popular books at that time such as Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrims Progress and Aesop’s Fables.
In March, 1830, the family again migrated, this time to Macon County, Illinois. When his father moved the family again to Coles County, 22-year-old Abraham Lincoln struck out on this own, making a living in manual labor. At six feet four inches tall, Lincoln was rawboned and lanky, but muscular and physically strong. He spoke with a backwoods twang and walked with a long-striding gait. He was known for his skill in wielding an ax and early on made a living splitting wood for fire and rail fencing. Young Lincoln eventually migrated to the small community of New Salem, Illinois, where over a period of years he worked as a shopkeeper, postmaster, and eventually general store owner. It was here that Lincoln, working with the public, acquired social skills and honed story-telling talent that made him popular with the locals. When the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832 between the United States and Native Americans, the volunteers in the area elected Lincoln to be their captain. He saw no combat during this time, save for "a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes," but was able to make several important political connections.
After the Black Hawk War, Abraham Lincoln began his political career and was elected to the Illinois state legislature, in 1834, as a member of the Whig Party. He supported the Whig politics of government-sponsored infrastructure and protective tariffs. This political understanding led him to formulate his early views on slavery, not so much as a moral wrong, but as an impediment to economic development. It was around this time that he decided to become a lawyer, teaching himself the law by reading William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. After being admitted to the bar in 1837, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, and began to practice in the John T. Stuart law firm.
It was soon after this that he purportedly met and became romantically involved with Anne Rutledge. Before they had a chance to be engaged, a wave of typhoid fever came over New Salem and Anne died at age 22. Her death was said to have left Lincoln severely depressed. However, several historians disagree on the extent of Lincoln’s relationship with Rutledge and his level of sorrow at her death may be more the makings of legend.
In 1844, Abraham Lincoln partnered with William Herndon in the practice of law. Though the two had different jurisprudent styles, they developed a close professional and personal relationship. Lincoln made a good living in his early years as a lawyer, but found that Springfield alone didn't offer enough work, so to supplement his income, he followed the court as it made its rounds on the circuit to the various county seats in Illinois.
Abraham Lincoln served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849. His foray into national politics seemed to be as unremarkable as it was brief. He was the lone Whig from the state of Illinois, showing party loyalty, but finding few political allies. He used his term in office to speak out against the Mexican-American War and supported Zachary Taylor for president in 1848. His criticism of the war made him unpopular back home and he decided not to run for second term, but instead returned Springfield to practice law.
By the 1850s, the railroad industry was moving west and Illinois found itself becoming a major hub for various companies. Abraham Lincoln served as a lobbyist for the Illinois Central Railroad as its company attorney. Success in several court cases brought other business clients as well—banks, insurance companies and manufacturing firms. Lincoln also did some criminal trials. In one case, a witness claimed that he could identify Lincoln's client who was accused of murder, because of the intense light from a full moon. Lincoln referred to an almanac and proved that the night in question had been too dark for the witness to see anything clearly. His client was acquitted.
About a year after the death of Anne Rutledge, Lincoln courted Mary Owens. The two saw each other for a few months and marriage was considered. But in time, Lincoln called off the match. In 1840, Lincoln became engaged to Mary Todd, a high spirited, well-educated woman from a distinguished Kentucky family. In the beginning, many of the couple's friends and family couldn't understand Mary’s attraction, and at times Lincoln questioned it himself. However, in 1841, the engagement was suddenly broken off, most likely at Lincoln's initiative. They met later at a social function and eventually married on November 4, 1842. The couple had four children, of which only one, Robert, survived to adulthood.
In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise, and allowed individual states and territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. The law provoked violent opposition in Kansas and Illinois, and it gave rise to the Republican Party. This awakened Abraham Lincoln's political zeal once again, and his views on slavery moved more toward moral indignation. Lincoln joined the Republican Party in 1856.
In 1857, the Supreme Court issued its controversial decision Scott v. Sanford, declaring African Americans were not citizens and had no inherent rights. Though Abraham Lincoln felt African Americans were not equal to whites, he believed the America's founders intended that all men were created with certain inalienable rights. Lincoln decided to challenge sitting U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas for his seat. In his nomination acceptance speech, he criticized Douglas, the Supreme Court, and President Buchanan for promoting slavery and declared "a house divided cannot stand."
The 1858 Senate campaign featured seven debates held in different cities across Illinois. The two candidates didn't disappoint the public, giving stirring debates on issues ranging from states' rights to western expansion, but the central issue was slavery. Newspapers intensely covered the debates, often times with partisan commentary. In the end, the state legislature elected Douglas, but the exposure vaulted Lincoln into national politics.
In 1860, political operatives in Illinois organized a campaign to support Abraham Lincoln for the presidency. On May 18, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Lincoln surpassed better known candidates such as William Seward of New York and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio. Lincoln's nomination was due in part to his moderate views on slavery, his support for improving the national infrastructure, and the protective tariff. In the general election, Lincoln faced his friend and rival, Stephan Douglas, this time besting him in a four-way race that included John C. Breckinridge of the Northern Democrats and John Bell of the Constitution Party. Lincoln received not quite 40 percent of the popular vote, but carried 180 of 303 Electoral votes.
Abraham Lincoln selected a strong cabinet composed of many of his political rivals, including William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates and Edwin Stanton. Formed out the adage "Hold your friends close and your enemies closer," Lincoln's Cabinet became one of his strongest assets in his first term in office… and he would need them. Before his inauguration in March, 1861, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union and by April the U.S. military installation Fort Sumter was under siege in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. In the early morning hours of April 12, 1861, the guns stationed to protect the harbor blazed toward the fort signaling the start of America’s costliest and most deadly war.
Abraham Lincoln responded to the crisis wielding powers as no other president before him. He distributed $2 million from the Treasury for war material without an appropriation from Congress; he called for 75,000 volunteers into military service without a declaration of war; and he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, arresting and imprisoning suspected Confederate sympathizers without a warrant. Crushing the rebellion would be difficult under any circumstances, but the Civil War, with its preceding decades of white-hot partisan politics, was especially onerous. From all directions, Lincoln faced disparagement and defiance. He was often at odds with his generals, his Cabinet, his party and a majority of the American people.
The Union Army's first year and a half of battlefield defeats made it especially difficult to keep morale up and support strong for a reunification the nation. With the hopeful, but by no means conclusive Union victory at Antietam on September 22, 1862, Lincoln felt confident enough to reshape the cause of the war from saving the union to abolishing slavery. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which stated that all individuals who were held as slaves in rebellious states "henceforward shall be free." The action was more symbolic than effective because the North didn’t control any states in rebellion and the proclamation didn’t apply to Border States.
Abraham Lincoln - The Gettysburg Address (TV-14; 01:50) An original animated video of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Gradually, the war effort improved for the North, though more by attrition than by brilliant military victories. But by 1864, the Confederate armies had eluded major defeat and Lincoln was convinced he'd be a one-term president. His nemesis, George B. McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac, challenged him for the presidency, but the contest wasn't even close. Lincoln received 55 percent of the popular vote and 212 of 243 Electoral votes. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Virginia, surrendered his forces to Union General Ulysses S. Grant and the war for all intents and purposes was over.
Reconstruction began during the war as early as 1863 in areas firmly under Union military control. Abraham Lincoln favored a policy of quick reunification with a minimum of retribution. But he was confronted by a radical group of Republicans in the Senate and House that wanted complete allegiance and repentance from former Confederates. Before a political battle had a chance to firmly develop, Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, by well-known actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln was taken from the theater to a Petersen House across the street and laid in a coma for nine hours before dying the next morning. His body lay in state at the Capitol before a funeral train took him back to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.