On this day in 1861, a telegram arrived at Brierfield, Jefferson Davis’ Mississippi plantation, informing him that on the previous day, breakaway delegates meeting in Montgomery, Ala., had chosen him as the provisional president of the newly formed Confederate States of America.
The former congressman and senator from Mississippi had resigned his Senate seat when Mississippi voted to secede from the Union. Earlier, he had served as secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. Anticipating a possible call for his services, Davis had sent a telegram to Mississippi Gov. John Pettus in which he wrote: “Judge what Mississippi requires of me and place me accordingly.”
As the Civil War loomed, Davis summed up his views on slavery: “We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him: Our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”
At the constitutional convention in Montgomery, Davis drew support from six of the seven Confederate states. He was formally inaugurated on Feb. 18 on the steps of the Alabama state Capitol.
His wife, Varina, later wrote of her husband’s first reaction to the news: “Reading that telegram, he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes he told me like a man might speak of a sentence of death.”
Davis said of the office: “I have no confidence in my ability to meet its requirement. I think I could [better] perform the function of a general. … Upon my weary heart was showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers, but beyond them I saw troubles innumerable. We are without machinery, without means, and threatened by powerful opposition but I do not despond and will not shrink from the task before me.”
In early 1861, several forts in Confederate territory remained in Union hands. Davis sent a commission to Washington with an offer to pay for any federal property on Southern soil, as well as the Southern share of the national debt. President Abraham Lincoln refused to meet with the commissioners, although brief informal discussions did take place with Secretary of State William Seward.
Davis remained president of the Confederacy until — with the defeat of secessionist states in the Civil War — its government was dissolved on May 5, 1865. Five days later, he was captured by Union forces in Georgia, charged with treason and imprisoned at Fort Monroe in Virginia for two years before being released on bail paid partly by abolitionist Horace Greeley.
He died at age 81 in New Orleans in 1889. Shortly before he passed away, Jefferson said: “The past is dead; let it bury its dead. Let me beseech you to lay aside all rancor, all bitter sectional feeling. Make your place in the ranks of those who will bring about a consummation devoutly to be wished — a reunited country.”