Friday, March 1, 2013

Jefferson C. Davis, born March 2, 1828

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.

At the start of the American Civil War, Davis was serving in the Fort Sumter garrison when it was bombarded by Confederate forces in April 1861. 

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 CorinthHe 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 was a capable commander, but because of the murder of General Nelson, he never received a full promotion higher than brigadier general of volunteers. He did however receive a brevet promotion to major general of volunteers on August 8, 1864 (for his service at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain), and was appointed commanding officer of the XIV Corps during the Atlanta Campaign, a post he retained until the end of the war. 
Davis and Staff
However, it was his actions during the Ebenezer Creek passing and his racist attitude towards freed slaves, that causes his legacy to be clouded in continued controversy. As Sherman's army proceeded on the March to the Sea toward Savannah, Georgia, on December 9, 1864, Davis ordered a pontoon bridge dismantled before the African-American refugees following his corps could cross the creek. Several hundred were captured by the Confederate cavalry or drowned in the creek, attempting to escape.

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. 

He was buried in Illinois, but later his relatives had his body disinterred and reburied at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis under an impressive limestone obelisk, draped and wreathed, bearing the sentiment, “His memory is embalmed with the history of his country.”

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