Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Jefferson Davis (1853–1857): Secretary of War

Jefferson Fine Davis was born in 1808 in Fairview, Kentucky. He attended Transylvania College in 1821 but ultimately graduated from West Point in 1828 as a second lieutenant. After leaving the academy, Davis was assigned to the northwestern frontier and fought in the Black Hawk War from 1831 to 1832. Following this stint, he was transferred to the First Dragoons and was promoted to first lieutenant.

Though he resigned his commission in 1835 and spent the next decade running his Mississippi cotton plantation, Davis helped found the First Mississippi Rifles in 1846. Two years earlier, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives; he served only one year before assuming command of the First Mississippi, which saw action during the Mexican-American War. Upon his return to Mississippi, Davis was elected to the United States Senate, where he served until 1851, when he made a failed bid to become governor of Mississippi.

In 1853, President Franklin Pierce tapped Davis to become his secretary of war, a post the latter held until the end of Pierce’s administration in 1857. After leaving the cabinet, Davis immediately returned to the Senate; in 1861, following Mississippi’s secession from the Union, Davis left office and returned home, hoping to head the Confederate army. Instead, in 1861, he became the first president of the Confederate States of America.

Four years later, as Union forces were closing in on Richmond, Virginia, Davis fled the Confederate capital in a vain attempt to keep the Confederate government alive. He was captured, imprisoned for two years, indicted for treason, and stripped of his citizenship. Davis spent the remainder of his life pursuing various business ventures and writing his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. Jefferson Fine Davis died of malaria in 1889. Almost a full century later, in 1978, Congress reinstated Jefferson Davis’s U.S. citizenship and the rights it entailed.