The Papers of Jefferson Davis
The Papers of Jefferson Davis

Photograph by Mathew B. Brady, c1860 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution



Frequently Asked Questions about Jefferson Davis


It is unclear whether Davis was born in 1807 or 1808, and Davis himself was unsure. He wrote an acquaintance in 1858 that "there has been some controversy about the year of my birth among the older members of my family, and I am not a competent witness in the case, having once supposed the year to have been 1807, I was subsequently corrected by being informed it was 1808, and have rested upon that point because it was just as good, and no better than another." For more background on the date question, see The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 1, pages lxv-lxvi.

Middle Name

From November 30, 1824, until mid-1833, Jefferson Davis' name on official lists and at times his signature included the middle initial "F." The name is not spelled out in full in any known document. In his story of Davis' life, Hudson Strode claimed that the final son born to Samuel and Jane Davis was given the middle name "Finis" because "it seemed unlikely that Jane Davis would ever bear another child" (Jefferson Davis: American Patriot, p. 3). The "Finis" myth has been repeated so often that it has become accepted as fact by many scholarly resources, but there is no evidence for it. All of Jefferson Davis' siblings had traditional names.

Perhaps equally curious is the sudden appearance and just as sudden disappearance of the middle initial. Davis had been at West Point for at least three months before it showed up for the first time, on a monthly conduct report. The last known "J. F. Davis" signature is on a note of October 3, 1832, notifying his commanding officer of his acceptance of a furlough. As of the publication of Davis' appointment as second lieutenant of Dragoons on May 4, 1833, the "F." had disappeared from official documents as well. At the time the initial was in use, there were no other Davis officers with the given name Jefferson (Jefferson C. Davis, a Union general in the Civil War, did not enlist until 1846), so it is unlikely the young cadet was trying to avoid mistaken identity. Only two other officers named Davis with the first initial "J." were in the army from 1824-1833, and one of them died in 1828. It should be noted that the "F." was used on Davis' first marriage license (June 17, 1835), although he signed the document without the "F." The initial was not used on his second marriage license ten years later.

Jefferson Davis' signature and the listing of his name on official documents may be traced in the first volume of The Papers of Jefferson Davis, which includes all known documents from Davis' birth through 1840.

The Case Against Jefferson Davis

What, exactly, happened in the case of The United States v. Jefferson Davis? Enough intrigues, maneuvers, plot twists, and changes of the political wind exist to fill a book (and it would make a good one). It is quite a complex matter, but the bottom line is that the case never went to trial and the indictments were dismissed. The proceedings dragged on into 1869, but Davis himself was only in the courtroom on two separate days.

Jefferson Davis, c1868

Davis was captured by troops and held at a military base (Fort Monroe) in a state (Virginia) under martial law. Had he been linked to the Lincoln assassination, his trial would have taken place before a military tribunal, but the fabricated case connecting him to the assassination (the primary informant was convicted of perjury) fell apart before Davis was charged. The government soon decided that any trial for treason would have to be in a civil court, and in Virginia, the base of Davis' alleged treasonable activities, directing armed rebellion against the United States. Neither John C. Underwood, circuit court judge for the District of Virginia, nor Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who presided over the circuit including the Virginia district, felt he had any authority as long as Davis was held by the military. Chase in particular wanted to avoid such dangerous legal waters, and he continued to find excuses to avoid hearing the case. Underwood's competence was questionable, and he was known to be overly zealous (he had bragged to a congressional committee in 1866 that he could pack a jury to insure a conviction), so Chase's presence was essential for a respectable verdict.

John C. Underwood Because of the issues of military control of Davis' imprisonment, Chase refused to issue a writ of habeas corpus in June 1866, but almost a year later, in conjuction with an order to the military authorities from the president, a writ of habeas corpus brought Davis to Richmond to be transferred to the authority of the federal courts. He appeared before Underwood on May 13, 1867, bail was set at $100,000, and the bond was immediately posted. "Deafening applause" broke out in the courtroom when Davis was freed. Horace Greeley, one of a growing number of northerners who wanted the case settled so the country could get on with the healing process, had secured backing for the bond and personally guaranteed a quarter of it. He was in the courtroom that day and met Davis after his release.

After half a year with his family in Canada, Davis returned to Richmond in November 1867 for what was supposed to be the beginning of the trial. Court convened on the 26th, but Chase was not present, and the government asked for a postponement. Davis was released on his own recognizance, and the defense asked that some sort of consideration be given him so he would not be "subjected to a renewal of the inconvenience" of making the trip to Richmond if a trial was not going to be held. As it turned out, Davis would not have to appear in court again during any of the subsequent proceedings.

As time passed, many elements changed, and so did the players. U.S. attorneys general came and went (three different men were involved in the Davis case). Andrew Johnson was impeached and nearly convicted. And the 14th Amendment was passed and ratified. Johnson began to fear that if Davis were tried and acquitted--a very real possibility with a Virginia jury--he (Johnson) would be impeached again and removed from office. For a variety of reasons, no significant action was taken until after the 1868 election.

Salmon P. Chase

In an unusual twist, Chase made known to Davis' attorneys, a distinguished group of northern and southern litigators, his opinion that the third section of the 14th Amendment nullified the indictment against Davis. His contention was that by stripping the right to vote from high Confederate officials, a punishment for treasonable activities had been legislated, so Davis could not be punished again for the same crime. Davis' friends reminded his lawyers that Davis (who was in Europe and out of telegraphic range) wanted a trial because he saw it as an opportunity to vindicate both himself and the actions of the Confederacy, i.e. the constitutional right to secede. Davis' lawyers, however, pointed out that Davis' life was at stake, and there was a general agreement that they could not pass up the opportunity to arrange what they believed to be an honorable settlement. One of the attorneys later wrote Davis that the defense team also felt that if they could establish a precedent based on the 14th Amendment, it would lift the threat of prosecution for other Confederate leaders as well.

On November 30, 1868, Davis' lawyers filed a motion requiring that the government attorneys show cause why the indictment (the latest of at least four indictments which had been handed down with the same charge--another long story) should not be quashed. A hearing on the motion was held before Chase and Underwood on December 3-4, and on the 5th they announced their finding. The vote was split--Chase favoring laying aside the indictment, and Underwood, who had overseen the grand juries responsible for the indictment, wanting the case to be tried. Chase's anger with Underwood was obvious, and he stated for the record why he believed the 14th Amendment exempted Davis from further prosecution.

The certificate of division between Chase and Underwood was forwarded to the Supreme Court, and the indictment technically remained pending, but there would be no more action taken. It was clear that Chase would favor overturning a guilty verdict, making the government hesitant to proceed. The Davis case remained on the circuit court docket for February 15, 1869, but the government indicated at that time that it would not prosecute (nolle prosequi). The indictment was, therefore, dismissed, as were indictments against thirty-seven other ex-Confederates, including Robert E. Lee. Davis' lawyers contacted the Justice Department to make sure that other indictments against him in Washington and Tennessee were not going to be prosecuted.

The full story of the case remains to be told, but there are a couple of articles which provide good background information. Eberhard P. Deutsch, "United States v. Jefferson Davis: Constitutional Issues in the Trial for Treason," American Bar Association Journal, 52 (Feb. and March 1966): 139-45, 263-68, deals with the legal matters of the case. Roy F. Nichols, "United States vs. Jefferson Davis, 1865-1869," American Historical Review, 31(Jan. 1926): 266-84, covers many of the political issues involved. Bradley T. Johnson's detailed court record is reprinted in Davis, Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist, edited by Dunbar Rowland (10 vols., 1923), 7:138-227. No work has been done on public perception of the case in North and South. The involvement of influential northerners, with Horace Greeley at the center of activity, was a major factor in what transpired. There is also much left to be written about the maneuvering of Chase, Johnson, and the Justice Department.

Major developments in the case are traced in the Jefferson Davis Chronology.


How to Reach Us

The Papers of Jefferson Davis
Rice University--MS 215 
P.O. Box 1892
Houston, Texas 77251-1892
Phone: (713) 348-2586
Fax: (713) 348-6172