Jefferson Columbus Davis was the first of eight children born near present-day Memphis, in Clark County, Indiana to William Davis and Mary Drummond. He was in his fourth year at the Clarke county Seminary when the Mexican War began in 1846. Leaving school at age 18, he began his career in the army; he served for 30 years, without interruption.
He was 33 years old when the Civil War began.
The following month he was promoted to captain, and in August Davis became colonel of the 22nd Indiana Infantry, which he led in the Battle of Wilson's Creek. In December 1861, he became brigadier general of volunteers, commanding the 3rd Division, Army of the Southwest, at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Also in December, he married Marietta Woodson Athon, a daughter of Dr. James Athon. They would have no children, but adopted and raised a niece, Ida Davis.
He commanded the 4th Division, Army of the Mississippi, at Corinth. He went on sick leave, but left his hospital bed to serve in the defenses of Cincinnati, Ohio.
During this time of convalescence, on September 29, 1862, Davis got into an argument with his superior officer, Maj. Gen. William "Bull" Nelson, in the lobby of the Galt House hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. Davis had been offended by insults on prior occasions and when his face was slapped by Nelson, Davis shot and killed him. He was arrested and imprisoned, but Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright came to his aid and was able to get him released from prison. He avoided conviction for the murder because there was a need for experienced field commanders in the Union Army.
|Illustration of Davis shooting Nelson|
|Davis and Staff|
After the Civil War, Davis continued service with the Army. He was the first commander of the Department of Alaska, from March 18, 1868, to June 1, 1870. During this time, he ordered Russian residents of Sitka, Alaska to leave their homes, as he maintained that they were needed for Americans.
He gained fame when he assumed field command of the U.S. forces during the Modoc War.
During the 1877 railroad general strike, Davis arrived in St. Louis commanding 300 men and two Gatling guns to crush the strike.
In 1878, Davis embarked with his wife on a quasi-official tour of Mexico City.
Davis died at the Palmer House, Chicago, Illinois on November 30, 1879, after being confined to his bed for five days with pneumonia. He was 51 years old. He had recently attended the reunion of the Army of the Cumberland, in Washington, and took a severe cold at the unveiling of the Thomas monument.