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Civil War at 150: Jefferson Davis descendant keeps fighting spirit alive
81-year-old is chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans Media/Public Relations Committee
Jeff Davis, 81, is a descendent of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis has been a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans since 1956. He now serves as chairman of the organization’s media and public relations committee. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Jefferson Davis biography

Personal: Born in Fairview, Ky., June 3, 1808.
Education, military career: Graduated from U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., in 1828; served in the Black Hawk War in 1832; promoted to the rank of first lieutenant in the First Dragoons in 1833, and served until 1835, when he resigned.

Political career: Elected as Democratic representative from Mississippi, 1845-1846, resigned to lead regiment in Mexican War. Appointed to U.S. Senate to fill vacancy caused by the death of Jesse Speight. Elected to the seat and served from 1847 to 1851 when he resigned to run for governor of Mississippi, an election he lost. Appointed Secretary of War by President Franklin Pierce, 1853-1857. Re-elected to the Senate in 1857 and served until 1861 when Mississippi seceded from the Union.

After secession: Commissioned major general of the Mississippi state militia, January 1861; chosen president of the Confederacy by the Provisional Congress and inaugurated in Montgomery, Ala., Feb. 18, 1861; elected president for a term of six years and inaugurated in Richmond, Va., Feb. 22, 1862.

Postwar: Captured by Union troops in Irwinsville, May 10, 1865; imprisoned in Fortress Monroe, indicted for treason, and was paroled in the custody of the court in 1867. Returned to Mississippi and spent the remaining years of his life writing; died in New Orleans, La., Dec. 6, 1889. Now buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Va.

Davis facts: Three of Davis' brothers served in the War of 1812; badly wounded while leading troops in the Mexican War; originally buried in New Orleans, but later re-interred in Richmond; married Sallie Knox Taylor, daughter of President Zachary Taylor, in 1835 but she died a few months later; he re-married in 1845; owned a cotton plantation and many slaves.

Source: U.S. Congress biographical website,,

This Week in the Civil War

At the outset of May, the Union is starting to recruit and arm volunteers in earnest. Though President Abraham Lincoln had called April 19 for 75,000 volunteers for three months' duty, it is becoming clear this would not be enough. On May 3, Lincoln appeals for 42,000 three-year volunteers.

The general-in-chief of the Army, Winfield Scott, writes May 3 that Lincoln's recently announced blockade of Southern ports - the "Anaconda" plan to strangle supply lines - is seen as key to ending the conflict "with less bloodshed than by any other plan."

Dispatches to Associated Press the first week of May speak of a growing rush and din to mobilize troops with one report from Fredericksburg, Md., noting: "The Union men here have quit their passive attitude, and are beginning to show vitality." Yet another dated May 3 to the AP speaks of Southerners running short on basic foodstuffs amid rising war fears.

"A gentleman from eastern Virginia states that great discontent exists because of the prospect of war being waged on her soil," one correspondent reports.

This series marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draws primarily from wartime dispatches credited to The Associated Press or other accounts distributed through the AP.

Nearly eight years ago, Gainesville's Jeff Davis strongly advocated letting voters decide whether they wanted to keep the contentious 1956 Georgia flag, which featured the rebel emblem.

These days, as chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Media/Public Relations Committee, he is battling what he deems as attacks against Southern heritage, an attitude he likens to "cultural Marxism."

It seems that, despite health problems slowing his pace, Davis hasn't lost the fighting spirit of his Confederate ancestors — including the most famous one, distant cousin Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.

In a recent interview at his apartment off Thompson Bridge Road, the 81-year-old retired broadcaster talked about his extensive forays into politics and service organizations, as well as his keen interest in Civil War history.

He also talked about the North-South conflict's sesquicentennial, a commemoration of Civil War events that began with shots fired on April 12, 1861 at Fort Sumter, S.C.

"Political correctness has really worked on the Sons of Confederate Veterans something terrible," Davis said.

"There have been a lot of terrible untruths. I have wanted to find a way, without being hostile, to correct a lot of the images that have taken place throughout the country."

Images, he believes, that began in the 1970s, years after the Civil War's centennial, when there was more of national movement to remember the "tragic event" that led to more than 625,000 war deaths.

These days, Davis believes, the accepted notion is that the South's refusal to budge from slavery triggered the war.

"The biggest thing is to say the South was the leading advocate of slavery in the entire world, that the war was fought over slavery and nothing else," he said. "That's the biggest lie that has been pushed."

The SCV doesn't deny slavery wasn't an issue, but there is so much more to the story, he said.

"Anybody who looks at the first two years of the war and what (President Abraham) Lincoln and his cabinet said — they all said ‘South, come back into the country. We don't want to disrupt slavery. That's not our purpose.
Our purpose is to preserve the Union.'"

Also, slavery began as an enterprise of Northern entrepreneurs.

"Slavery was a terrible thing, for all of us, and we all should ought share our responsibilities for whatever it was we did, but don't lay it all on the South, because we didn't start it," Davis said.

With his name well-known among Confederacy buffs, Davis also has spent much of his life researching his heritage.

The West Virginia native, born John Albert Davis, earned the nickname "Jeff" from friends and then his mother, making it stick for good. He'd go on to become "something of an expert" on his ancestor, including picking up on lesser-known facts, such as Davis adopting a black boy during his days leading the Confederacy.

Also, Jefferson Davis "was probably the best military mind in the country at the time the war was approaching," he said.

He was secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce between terms in Congress.

"He kind of did himself in, modernizing the U.S. Army in the 1850s," said Davis, whose grandfather also served in the prestigious "Stonewall Brigade," a group of raw recruits turned into a fighting machine by Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

Davis attended Gordon Military College in Barnesville before moving into a career that included journalism and politics.

In the 1950s, he befriended Vice President Richard Nixon, who later tapped him to lead his Georgia presidential campaign against the Democratic candidate and eventual victor, John Kennedy.

Active in civic affairs, Davis would go on to head the Georgia Jaycees and then serve as vice president at the Jaycees' national and world levels.

In 2003, he helped form the Georgia Heritage Council "to pursue reform" of state government. The group came out advocating "strict enforcement of existing illegal immigration laws by state agencies" and opposition to "ethnic cleansing" of America's religious heritage.

One of the most polarizing issues at the time, however, was Georgia's flag, which had been changed in 2001 to incorporate a smaller design of the former flag that featured the battle flag of the Confederacy.

In a 2004 referendum, voters were given a choice between the 2001 flag and a new design that excluded the Confederate emblem. At the time, as today, many decried the rebel flag as a symbol of hate and racism.

The Georgia Heritage Council pushed for the 1956 flag, which featured the emblem, to be included on the state referendum.

"Southern Heritage is an integral part of both our country's and Georgia's Heritage," Davis said in a Sept. 30, 2003, news release.

Davis does believe there has been some respect given the Confederacy in recent times.

Last Memorial Day, President Barack Obama sent a wreath to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

"He was asked not to by a number of leading Americans," Davis said.

Also, "there is no more hospitable and cordial relationship between two organizations" than the one that exists between the Sons of the Union Veterans and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.

"It is something (they have) in common: Their forebears did what they thought what was right and they were part of Americana, whether they were North or South," he said.

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