The Second Inauguration of Jefferson Davis

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, on the 130th anniversary of George Washington’s birthdate, was due to be inaugurated for a second time. Davis ran unopposed in the first (and only) presidential election in the Confederate States of America and was set to begin his six-year term on February 22, 1862. His daily responsibilities as president left him more involved in paperwork than any other activity, and the beginning of the day of his second inauguration was scarcely different from any other day for Davis: he did an hour of paperwork before preparing for the ceremony.[i]

Inauguration day itself could not have differed more from his first inauguration, which took place under a cloudless sky, for the second began with a drizzle and then turned into a downpour of rain.[ii] After completing his paperwork for the day, he went to his home to prepare where his wife, Varina Davis, found him kneeled alone in the bedroom praying “for the divine support I need so sorely.”[iii]

Richmond, Virginia in 1862.

He then joined the procession to Capitol Square in the Confederate capital, Richmond, joining Vice President Alexander Stephens, the “cabinet officers, admirals and generals, governors and congressmen, newspaper representatives and members of various benevolent societies.”[iv] Prepared to witness a historic event for their new country, Confederate men and women had gathered with enough umbrellas to create “the effect of an immense mushroom bed.”[v] Others, holding “strips of canvas or worn carpet over their heads,” had not the luxury of an umbrella.[vi] Despite seeing their president more withdrawn and thinner as well as their vice president looking “undersized and sickly,” when the audience witnessed Davis take the oath and kiss the Bible, they let out a shout above the din of the rain.[vii]

Jefferson Davis. By: Mathew Brady

Excepting the weather, the atmosphere of the second inauguration greatly differed from the first. While Davis described the first as “joyous,” the second had come after a string of military defeats.[viii] Much of the hopefulness of a swift securing of independence had dissipated in the span of a year. In his inaugural address, Davis did not immediately confront the reasons for concern but instead began by characterizing the Union’s aggression as “military despotism.”[ix] With some measure of eloquence and approaching the issues in the forefront of Confederate minds, he continued:

“A million men, it is estimated, are now standing in hostile array and waging war along a frontier of thousands of miles. Battles have been fought, sieges have been conducted, and although the contest is not ended and the tide for the moment is against us, the final result in our favor is not doubtful. We have had our trials and difficulties. That we are to escape them in the future is not to be hoped. It was to be expected when we entered upon this war that it would expose our people to sacrifices and cost them much, both of money and blood. But the picture has its lights as well as its shadows. This great strife has awakened in the people the highest emotions and qualities of the human soul. It was, perhaps, in the ordination of Providence that we were to be taught the value of our liberties by the price we pay for them. The recollection of this great contest, with all its common traditions of glory, of sacrifice and blood, will be the bond of harmony and enduring affection amongst the people, producing unity in policy, fraternity in sentiment, and just effort in war.”[x]

If only for a moment, those in attendance could forget their frustrations with the conduct of the war to that point and particularly the recent defeats at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry. While Davis had not touched on the prominent issues of breaking the Union blockade, gaining international support (from England or France at minimum), or preventing more defeats, he had reignited the revolutionary spirit that underpinned the creation of the Confederacy. With doubts growing that the Confederacy was capable of finding prolonged success in the war, Davis felt the burden of those doubts which his gaunt appearance evidenced. Nonetheless, returning to business after the inauguration ceremony, he remained optimistic that when his first term expired on February 22, 1868, he would be looking upon an independent, vigorous Confederacy that was charting its own course in coexistence with the United States.

[i] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. I, 217.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id. at 218.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] See id.

[viii] See id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id. at 218-19.

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