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Jefferson Davis 200th Birthday Commemoration

Kentucky Historical Society
to mark event with slate of speakers

Abraham Lincoln and Davis
born less than a year apart in Ky.

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

FRANKFORT, Ky. (June 2008) – As Kentucky embarks upon a two-year celebration of the birth and life of Abraham Lincoln, it will also honor native son Jefferson Davis. In his roles as president of the Confederate States of America and commander-in-chief of the army and navy, Davis accomplished many feats in the development of the nation.
Often viewed as Lincoln’s rival during the Civil War, it is surprising to note their similarities. Davis was born eight months before Lincoln and less than 100 miles away in Fairview, Ky. A 351-foot-tall monument marks a park-like setting where commemoration events will kick off in June.

Jefferson Davis

Photo courtesy of Kentucky Historical Society

Jefferson Davis, the
president of the
Confederacy, was born
in Kentucky. Before the
Civil War, he was a
planter, soldier, politician
and U.S. Secretary of
War. He died in 1889.

According to a statement from Lisa Cleveland, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Historical Society, “It’s historically significant that Kentucky was home to both Davis and President Abraham Lincoln.” As a result, “The Contested Legacy of Jefferson Davis” is a symposium that will be held at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Friday, June 27. It will feature nationally known Civil War scholar and author William J. Cooper Jr. as the keynote speaker.
Cooper is a professor at Louisiana State University. He is the author of “Jefferson Davis, American” (2000). Two topical panels and a roundtable discussion are scheduled.
The one-day symposium is “an effort to examine complex issues related to the president of the Confederacy of the United States,” Cleveland said. “Since this year marks the 200th anniversary of Davis’s birth, it’s a prime opportunity to take up this subject.” This event is a Lincoln Bicentennial-related celebration.
Born on June 3, 1808, in what is now Todd County, Ky., Jefferson Finis Davis hails from a distinguished background. His paternal grandfather was a Welsh colonist. His father, Samuel Davis, was a Revolutionary soldier as were as his uncles. Davis’s three older brothers fought in the War of 1812, two of them serving directly with Andrew Jackson.
After the revolution, Samuel Davis temporarily moved to Kentucky, where his son, Jefferson, was born. The family then moved to Wilkinson County, Miss.
Educated at home, Davis was sent back to Kentucky to attend Transylvania University. At age 16, he was appointed by President James Monroe to West Point Military Academy as a cadet and graduated in June 1828.
Davis was stationed at posts in the northwest between 1828 and 1833. During the Blackhawk War of 1831, Indian chief Blackhawk was captured and placed in Lt. Davis’ charge. Davis suddenly resigned from the army in 1835 from what looked to be a promising military career.
His change of career may have had something to do with his meeting and engagement to Sallie Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor. They were married at the home of the bride’s aunt near Louisville. At age 27, Davis became a cotton planter in Warren County.
By now he had taken a deep interest in politics and devoted many hours to studies that would prepare him for a political career. He took his seat in Congress in 1845 as a representative of Mississippi. Through the many eloquent speeches he gave, a deep devotion to the union and his country began to surface.
His staunch support of the Texas annexation issue may have influenced him to re-enter military life. He resigned from Congress in June 1846 and joined his regiment at New Orleans. After success as a Mexican War hero, he once again entered the Mississippi legislature.
Davis may not have taken an active part in planning secession, but by 1861 he was elected president of the Confederate States of America. The eventual defeat and surrender of Lee’s army dissolved Davis’s presidency of the Confederate States. As a result, Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe on May 19, 1865.
After his release on bond, he visited Europe before returning home to spend the remainder of his life in Mississippi. He embarked on several business ventures but never again held political office. Davis wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” during 1878-1881 while residing on the Gulf of Mexico.
Davis died Dec. 5, 1889, in New Orleans. His visionary political life included such accomplishments as suggesting a canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (which later became the Panama Canal), establishing the army pension system, founding the Army Medical Corps, introducing the light infantry, and assisting in the development of the rifle musket.
The symposium helps accomplish the Kentucky Historical Society’s mission “to engage people in the exploration of the commonwealth’s diverse heritage,” said Cleveland. It will highlight Davis’s role in the Civil War and life in the South during the war, focus on actual and symbolic roles Davis and his family played, and assist Kentucky’s museums and historic sites in interpreting this critical period in the state’s history.

• For more information on the Jefferson Davis Symposium in Frankfort, Ky., or to register online, visit: www.KyLincoln.org.

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