A tale of two Civil War presidents

Jefferson Davis was born on June 3, 1808, in a community now known as Fairview; and, less than a year later, on Feb. 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln arrived on the scene, 125 miles away in Hodgenville. Both were natives of Kentucky, and were destined to serve at the same time and in opposition to each other as American presidents.

Davis’ family moved southwestward, first to Louisiana and then Mississippi, while Lincoln’s parents migrated north to Indiana before moving on to Illinois. Davis received his education at select academies and a university, and graduated from West Point in 1828. Lincoln, on the other hand, had little, if any, formal schooling; but, being an avid reader, was self-educated.

Both young men served in the military. Davis had extensive service, including in command of an infantry regiment known as the Mississippi Rifles, while Lincoln served briefly in 1832 as a captain of the militia during the Black Hawk War.

Jefferson and Abraham tested the political waters, with Davis serving as a Democratic Party delegate in 1840 and a U.S. congressman in 1845. He went off as an army officer in the Mexican War in 1846 and 1847, and returned to accept an appointment as U.S. senator from Mississippi before becoming Secretary of War in the Franklin Pierce administration in 1853.

Like his limited military service, the sum total of Lincoln’s early political career was two years in the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois, beginning in 1846. He co-sponsored a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia that failed to pass but was a precursor of his future societal orientation.

Jeff Davis married the daughter of Gen. Zachary Taylor, later the 12th U.S. president. However, his beloved bride, Sarah, died after three months, upon contracting a deadly fever. Several years later, Davis married a girl half his age — 18-year old Varina Howell, who would bear him six children.

Abe Lincoln found his life’s partner in Mary Todd, the daughter of well-to-do parents from Kentucky, Abe being 31 and Mary 21 at the time of their marriage. She and Abe had four sons.

Lincoln, an itinerant lawyer based in Springfield, Ill., ran for office again in 1858, and lost the race for a U.S. Senate seat to Stephen A. Douglas. A series of debates between the two candidates — essentially arguing the slavery issue — during the run-up to the election formed the basis for a presidential run by both men two years hence.

Though unpopular for his stance against the expansion of slavery into the western territories of the U.S. that had not yet become states, Lincoln won the presidency on the Republican ticket, after the Democratic Party split over the slavery question and put forth separate candidates, handing Lincoln a victory with less than 40 percent of the vote.

Because of the Republican Party’s platform limiting expansion of slavery, the Deep South slave states of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas seceded from the Union, and chose Jefferson Davis as president of the newly-formed Confederate States of America. Davis ordered bombardment of U.S.-held Fort Sumter off Charleston, S.C., thereby lighting the flame of civil conflict.

Soon Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas joined the Southern ranks, and the stage was set for four years of devastating death and destruction. More than a million servicemen on both sides combined died or were wounded during the Civil War, and tens of thousands of civilians suffered the same fate.

As the conflict was coming to a close in 1865, Lincoln died from a gunshot wound inflicted by an assassin. Davis, while attempting to escape after abandoning the Southern capital at Richmond, was captured and imprisoned, but was released after two years, without trial.

Lincoln was 56 when he lost his life for the cause of freedom, and is now immortal in the eyes of the world. Jefferson Davis, who lived until age 81, has been all but forgotten.

The lives of two American presidents who served during the Civil War are well-documented. See, for example, “Jefferson Davis: The Man and His Hour” by William C. Davis, and “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.


By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point