Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) holds a unique place in American history, as the man best remembered for being the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. While other famous Confederates like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are still celebrated across the reunited country, Davis continues to be the object of scorn, derided over his attempt to flee after the Civil War and criticized as ineffective by historians. Among the Confederates still lauded among some Southerners, Davis is well down the list.
Given his Civil War legacy, which often obscures his antebellum and postwar life, it's easy to forget why Davis was made president in the first place. As a career civil servant in the United States government during much of his adult life, both as a Senator and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis was a natural choice to be elected President of the seceding Southern states in early 1861. History has accorded Abraham Lincoln a spot in the pantheon of American politics for the manner in which he steered the Union to victory and into the Reconstruction period after the war. In turn, Davis has been heavily criticized. Davis constantly clashed with Confederate generals like Joseph Johnston, the South's diplomacy failed to obtain foreign intervention, and he was unable to keep the Southern states together cohesively as the Confederate economy began to collapse. Whether the Civil War would have ended any differently with someone else in charge of the Confederacy will never be known, but Davis had a tumultuous presidency.
Making matters worse, when Davis was captured by Union troops in May 1865, rumors spread that he was trying to escape in women's clothing. Davis was accused of treason and held prisoner for a few years before he was released, living out the rest of his years in the South.
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- Brenda Grass