Jefferson Davis – Episode One of “An American President”

As promised, here is the first of a few more in-depth looks at Jefferson Davis this month.

It matters. While researching things today, I noticed this:

Google believes Jefferson Davis was born in the Confederacy in 1808! (click to enlarge)

Google believes Jefferson Davis was born in the Confederacy in 1808! (click to enlarge)

How does that go again … “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

I certainly don’t want to live through the Civil War again.

Pursuit of happiness

Born in Kentucky in 1808 – some 16 years after the state had separated from Virginia and joined the Union – Jefferson was the youngest of 10 kids and too young to remember all the moves his father Samuel Davis put the family through for two years, as he tried to better himself economically.

Part of the old Natchez Trace.  Source:  Chris M. Morris

Part of the old Natchez Trace. Source: Chris M. Morris

Sometimes family breadwinners struggle the same way today, but we have an established transportation and communication infrastructure, social safety nets, and easy personal access to automotive wheels of various sorts to make things easier and quicker.

Imagine the effort it took to move a large family from Kentucky down to the Territory of Orleans (which would become the state of Louisiana in 1812) and then back up to Mississippi Territory in the early 19th century!

Why did Sam do it?

Per the documentary on Jefferson Davis, Sam seems to have been a risk taker (which didn’t always work out). However, the times were also right for go-getters at any level of American society. Thomas Jefferson had just made the Louisiana Purchase, and opportunity beckoned to many.

Things didn’t work out in Orleans and the climate didn’t seem good, but two years after Jefferson’s birth (was he named after the president?), his father did find his niche in the Mississippi Territory as a small-scale planter near the town of Woodville.

Sam built a modest home, first called Poplar Grove and later Rosemont. Jefferson would later say that Rosemont was his first memory. It was a good one.

Click to enlarge.  Source for inset map.

Click to enlarge. Source for inset map.


Woodville was quite a ways from Davis Bend, where Joseph Davis – the older brother who would profoundly influence Jefferson’s life – established Hurricane Plantation, as you can see in this map.

“A” is Woodville (and Rosemont) and “B” is Grand Gulf.

Davis Bend is the big loop of the Mississippi River above Grand Gulf (“B” in the inset map, too), the site of Hurricane Plantation (and later, also of Jefferson’s Briarfield Plantation).

Now that you have the location down, imagine it is 1863 and you are President Davis, faced with the choice of relieving Vicksburg (and driving Yankee troops out of your hometown area) or having Lee invade the North again to “encourage the Northern peace movement, damage Republican interests, increase the possibility of foreign recognition, and perhaps even lead to a negotiated peace and Confederate independence” (source).

What would you do?

Anyway, in 1816, a year before Mississippi became a state, Sam Davis – now a successful middle-level planter – sent his 8-year-old son Jefferson up to Kentucky to attend an all-Catholic school. Jefferson, a Baptist, was the only non-Catholic boy there, but he did well. Later, when an academy had been established in Woodville, Jefferson was allowed to come home.

Education was important to the Davis family, but Jefferson was also high-spirited, sort of a “frat boy,” per the documentary. One day, young Jeff came home after having been disciplined at the academy and announced he wasn’t going to school any more.

Fine, his father replied, you can work at the level of education you now have, and he sent the boy out to the fields to labor alongside the slaves. Jefferson quickly devoted himself to a scholastic career once again.

He eventually attended the US Military Academy at West Point, and despite a sometimes stormy career there, graduated in the class of 1828, a year after Leonidas Polk and a year before Robert E. Lee.

The documentary implies that Jefferson was at West Point at the same time as Edgar Allan Poe, but as beguiling as the image of Davis and Poe drinking together at Benny Havens’ is, Poe entered West Point two years after Jefferson had graduated.

Benny Havens, Oh!

Next – a military career, Briarfield, more soldiering, politics, Washington D.C., and then the breakup of the Union.

Categories: American Civil War, American history

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