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  • Written by William J. Cooper
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On Sale: December 22, 2010
Pages: 848 | ISBN: 978-0-307-77264-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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From a distinguished historian of the America South comes this thoroughly human portrait of the complex man at the center of our nation's most epic struggle.

Jefferson Davis initially did not wish to leave the Union-as the son of a veteran of the American Revolution and as a soldier and senator, he considered himself a patriot. William J. Cooper shows us how Davis' initial reluctance turned into absolute commitment to the Confederacy. He provides a thorough account of Davis' life, both as the Confederate President and in the years before and after the war. Elegantly written and impeccably researched, Jefferson Davis, American is the definitive examination of one of the most enigmatic figures in our nation's history.


Chapter 1

"There My Memories Begin"

Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in Christian County, Kentucky. Located in the west-central section of the state and bordering Tennessee, Christian County at that time was a sparsely settled part of the western frontier. The infant was named for his father's political hero, the sitting president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. His parents also gave him a middle name, which by early manhood he dropped completely; only the initial F. survived. For Samuel Emory Davis in his early fifties and his forty-eight-year-old wife, Jane Cook Davis, this boy, their tenth child, would be their last.1

In searching for a home on the American frontier, Samuel Davis followed literally in the steps of his father. Samuel's grandfather, the first of this Davis family on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, emigrated from Wales to Philadelphia, perhaps as early as 1701, when a number of Welsh Baptists landed in the Pennsylvania port, and surely before 1720. The place and date of Evan Davis's birth are not known. All genealogical authorities agree on his Welshness, and he was undoubtedly born sometime during the final two decades of the seventeenth century. He had a wife, but only her first name has survived. When and where he and Mary Davis were married is also unknown.2

Evan Davis found Philadelphia and Pennsylvania hospitable to his efforts to advance his station and to raise a family. He spent the remainder of his life in the city. The colony's tolerant religious policy permitted him to remain loyal to his Baptist faith. Even though Evan Davis spent most of his working years as a carter, he managed to accumulate enough money to buy property. A deed conveying a city lot to him in 1734 carries the colony's first official notice of him. Although he became a property owner, he never learned to read or write. Neither did his wife. All of his legal documents, including his will, he signed with his mark. Late in life he changed occupations to become an innkeeper. When his will was drawn up in 1743, he identified himself as a carter; but the inventory of his estate prepared after his death in 1747 listed him as an innkeeper. Mary survived him for eleven years, dying in 1758.

While Evan Davis was striving to improve his financial status, he and Mary were caring for a large family. They had six children, five sons and one daughter. At the time Evan Davis had his will written, four of them had reached their maturity. He evidently favored the two youngest, who were both still under twenty-one, for he provided that Joseph and Evan Jr. should receive larger shares of his estate than their brothers and sister. In addition to their portions of the property, they were bequeathed cash payments-Joseph ?10 and Evan Jr. ?20, quite respectable sums, payable when each became twenty-one. The four elder Davis siblings never left Philadelphia, but the two youngest emulated their father in his youth and struck out for new horizons.

Once both reached twenty-one and were in possession of the money from their father's estate, Joseph and Evan Jr. headed southward, probably around 1750. Initially they went to South Carolina. The historical record does not indicate why they chose that destination, nor does it designate how they traveled or where they first located. In all likelihood they stopped either in Charleston or the Welsh Neck, a settlement about 100 miles northeast of the city, populated by Welsh Baptists. Joseph stayed in South Carolina, ultimately settling near Broad River. Evan decided on a different course.

Before departing from his brother, Evan found another partner. In South Carolina he met and married Mary Emory Williams, a widow with two sons. As in the case of his parents, neither the place nor the date of the younger Evan's wedding is known. Additionally, no evidence gives the date when Evan and Mary Davis moved on to Wilkes County, Georgia. But both the marriage and the journey had to have taken place by 1756, for in that year the Davises, living in Georgia, had their first and only child. Named for a paternal uncle and his mother's family, Samuel Emory Davis was also the only grandchild of the senior Evan and Mary Davis.

Evan Davis, Jr., died soon after the birth of his son, though exactly when is unknown. It had to be prior to 1762, for in that year one of his older brothers, William, purchased the property in his father's estate from his living siblings. The deed omitted Evan's name along with that of another brother, both of whom were deceased. After Evan's death his widow evidently lost touch with his brothers, for her name is not mentioned in the 1762 deed. In 1767, when William Davis sold the Davis property to someone outside the family, the deed contained the names of neither Mary Davis nor Samuel Emory Davis. Although Samuel certainly possessed a legitimate claim to his father's part of the property, his uncle William left him out of the transaction. Whether William Davis acted out of ignorance or malice cannot now be ascertained. Clearly, however, young Samuel Davis was deprived of his inheritance from his grandfather Davis's estate.

Samuel grew up with his mother and two stepbrothers on a farm in Wilkes County. No details about his early years have survived. When the American Revolution convulsed the Georgia and South Carolina frontiers, Samuel Davis entered the conflict and the historical record. With his stepbrothers, Samuel joined the patriot militia and fought as a private soldier in both Georgia and South Carolina. In 1779 he formed and led a company that participated in the sieges of Savannah and Augusta.3

In mid-1782, when hostilities ended in Georgia, Samuel Davis returned to Wilkes County. Although his mother had died before he returned, Samuel did not long remain without a woman prominent in his life. In South Carolina during the war he met Jane Cook, from a Scots-Irish family, whom he married in 1783. He and his new bride began clearing a farm on 200 acres beside Little River in Wilkes County, land which the state of Georgia had given him for his military service in the Revolution.

For the next several years Samuel and Jane Davis strove to enhance their position. An ambitious young man, Samuel was able to add substantially to his acreage from the abundant, inexpensive land on the Georgia and South Carolina borderlands. By 1785 he owned around 4,000 acres of predominantly uncleared land. A year earlier Samuel and Jane had greeted their first child, Joseph Emory. Holding to the Baptist faith of his forebears, Samuel joined with fellow settlers to organize a local Baptist church and build a log chapel, though Jane did not become a member. By 1787 Samuel had acquired his first slave, a woman named Winnie. All the while his and Jane's family grew. By early in the new decade four more babies, three boys and a girl, had arrived.

Still, Samuel Davis was dissatisfied. Even in the 1780s white fears and Indian depredations disrupted life on the Georgia frontier, undermining the safety and value of many of Samuel's acres. With or without Indians, the prosperity enjoyed by some of his neighbors eluded him. In 1793 he turned away from Georgia toward what he saw as a better opportunity. Disposing of his property and joining South Carolina relatives of Jane, Samuel Davis took his family north and west to the new state of Kentucky. They journeyed along the trail taken by thousands of hopeful and aspiring settlers across the Appalachian Mountains and through the Cumberland Gap.

Once in Kentucky, Samuel Davis did not quickly find a location to his liking. He had to pass through the rich Bluegrass region because much of the land had already been occupied and because the remainder was too expensive. Before the end of the 1790s he had tried two different places, in Mercer and Warren Counties, where he had worked hard to establish a farm in the wilderness. Initially he rented land until he bought a 100-acre plot, but he remained discontented. By 1800 he had moved his family farther west and south to Christian County.

Christian County seemed to be a good choice for the wandering and growing Samuel Davis clan. He cleared and plowed his 200-acre farm with the help of his older children and his two slaves. When he sold his Warren County land in 1801, he used the proceeds to buy another slave and more horses. Raising tobacco, corn, and wheat as well as cattle, hogs, and horses, Samuel Davis became a successful pioneer farmer, and he added to his acres. At the same time his family was expanding. In 1797 Jane Davis gave birth to a daughter, their sixth child and first in Kentucky. During the next decade four more-three girls and one boy-would become part of the large family. Adding to their responsibilities, Samuel and Jane Davis obtained a tavern license and became innkeepers.

As a sign of his increased prosperity Samuel Davis built a new cabin on the site of present-day Fairview, then in Christian County, now partly in Todd County. He put up a double log cabin with two large rooms on either side of a covered passageway, the classic dogtrot design. Each room had its own fireplace and a small shed attached in the rear. The timbers were cut in nearby forests and were hewed into shape by hand. Hand-wrought iron nails and heavy wooden pins kept the logs in place. The cabin contained puncheon floors and heavy wooden doors hung on leather hinges fastened with wooden buttons. The glass panes, undoubtedly the most expensive detail in the house, stood out in the small windows. Sticks and mud, the stack construction, were used for the chimneys at each end of the house. A well in the yard provided the water, known throughout the neighborhood for its quality.4

In this cabin on June 3, 1808, Jefferson F. Davis became the tenth and final child born to Samuel and Jane Davis. By then the two oldest boys had moved out, but eight Davis children lived in the cabin with their parents.

Despite his apparent success in Christian County, Samuel Davis decided shortly after the birth of his newest son once again to move west. Precisely why he made that decision is not clear, but the ambition that brought him to Kentucky surely helped take him away from the state. Evidently, he still had not done well enough. He began selling his 1,100-acre farm and buying additional horses and slaves. Around 1810 he yet again turned his face westward and southward. He was not thinking, however, of a nearby county or even an adjoining state. Samuel Davis took aim on a site some 600 miles southwest of Christian County, Bayou Teche, in southern Louisiana. With an entourage of wife, children, slaves, and animals, he made the arduous overland trek in about two months. But the supposedly permanent location in Louisiana turned out to be only a temporary halt. After less than a year in that swampy region, pestilential mosquitoes and recurring illnesses among the younger children prompted still another move.

This time Samuel Davis, now in his mid-fifties, charted a sharply shorter course. The new destination would be only some 100 miles to the north in Wilkinson County in the southwestern corner of Mississippi Territory, which would become in 1817 the state of Mississippi. Samuel Davis located what would be his final stopping place on a small farm two miles east of Woodville, the county seat. The county tax rolls placed him there in 1810.5

During the next decade Davis occupied himself with the tasks of an aspiring, energetic farmer. He cleared land; he began planting crops. When he could, he purchased land, more land, and more slaves. He also commenced construction of a new home for his wife and children. At the onset, before any house existed, the Davises camped out, at least for a while. Probably Samuel began as a renter, but by 1813 he had purchased a small piece of property, and by 1820 he owned almost 400 acres, including cleared and uncleared land. His slave force also increased from six in 1810 to twelve in 1816, the maximum he would ever possess. In 1820 he had eleven slaves.6

With the help of Davis's sons and his slaves, the land began producing. Samuel Davis was never a wealthy man; he worked in his fields beside his slaves and sons, with cotton as the chief money crop, though he also raised the usual cereals, vegetables, forage, fodder, and animals. Family tradition remarks on the plentiful fruit trees and on Jane Davis's omnipresent flowers, particularly the roses she loved. The place was called Poplar Grove, from the large poplar trees on it. The house, also named Poplar Grove, was completed before 1817.

Samuel Davis's house differed markedly from his cabin in Christian County. Using cypress, he constructed a modest story-and-a-half frame cottage, not a plantation mansion. Built on a center-hall plan, Poplar Grove has two rooms on either side of the first floor and is one room deep on the second. With a small sitting room or library in the gable between the upstairs bedrooms, the house has seven rooms, including a parlor and a dining room, and two chimneys that originally provided outlets for six fireplaces. The kitchen was a separate building in the rear. Large double doors, louvered shutters, and a gallery extending the full length of the front facade embellish the house. A Palladian window in the central gable, two marble mantels, and six-panel doors with painted graining add refined features to the simple but finely executed structure.7

"There my memories begin," Jefferson Davis, in the last year of his life, wrote of Woodville and Poplar Grove. Specifically, he remembered seeing the wound inflicted on his brother Samuel's horse at the Battle of New Orleans, which occurred in January 1815. Young Jefferson spent his early boyhood on a farm touching the edge of the American wilderness. There, loving parents, older siblings, especially attentive sisters, and black slaves surrounded him.8

In moving more than 1,000 miles and changing residence a half dozen times, Samuel Davis for more than two decades sought unremittingly to improve his station and provide more abundantly for his family. Yet the recollections of those who lived in his house, including Jefferson Davis, did not describe a driven man. They recalled "a silent, undemonstrative man," to his children "rather suggestive than dictatorial," and "strictly a religious governor of his family." In addition, Samuel Davis impressed observers with his "wonderful physical activity." Jefferson recollected one occasion when his then sixty-four-year-old father, trying to mount a difficult horse, vaulted from the ground into the saddle. Like most people of their status in their time and place, neither Samuel nor Jane Davis had any formal education but both were literate. Nothing suggests that any of their first nine children had any more contact with formal schooling than they did. By this time, however, Joseph, the eldest, who had started out in Kentucky as a storekeeper's apprentice, had become an attorney after having read law in both Kentucky and Mississippi. For the youthful Jefferson, his father envisioned a different educational path.9
William J. Cooper

About William J. Cooper

William J. Cooper - Jefferson Davis, American

Photo © Michael Lionstar

William J. Cooper is a Boyd Professor at Louisiana State University and a past president of the Southern Historical Association. He was born in Kingstree, South Carolina, and received his A.B. from Princeton and his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. He has been a member of the LSU faculty since 1968 and is the author of The Conservative Regime: South Carolina, 1877–1890; The South and the Politics of Slavery, 1828–1856; Liberty and Slavery: Southern Politics to 1860; Jefferson Davis, American; Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era; and coauthor of The American South: A History. He lives in Baton Rouge.


"Bill Cooper's marvelous book is unquestionably the finest biography of Jefferson Davis ever published. Superbly researched, elegantly written, exquisitely balancing the public and private dimensions of Davis's life, it provides an incisive and compelling analysis of his role as Confederate president, largely because it presents a brilliantly coherent interpretation of his entire career."
Michael F. Holt, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party

"Jefferson Davis at last has a sympathetic yet critical biographer. William J. Cooper, Jr., has written a splendid life of one of the most complicated and controversial figures in American history. With consummate skill he narrates and analyzes the events and individuals who shaped Davis's life. This book will stand as a model for many other controversial figures in U.S. history."
Robert V. Remini, author of Andrew Jackson

From the Hardcover edition.

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