February 18, 1861 – Jefferson Davis of Mississippi became the provisional president of the new Confederate States of America.
The day was mild and sunny as a carriage conveyed Davis up the hill to the steps of the Alabama state capitol at Montgomery. Davis took the oath of office on the capitol steps, and the large crowd cheered when he became the Confederacy’s first president. Davis then delivered his inaugural address. He proclaimed:
“Our present political position has been achieved in a manner unprecedented in the history of nations. It illustrates the American idea that governments rest on the consent of the governed, and that it is the right of the governed, and that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish them at will whenever they become destructive of the ends for which they were established… Obstacles may retard, but they can not long prevent, the progress of a movement sanctified by its justice and sustained by a virtuous people…”
The new president asserted that forming this nation was not a “revolution,” but rather a movement of states that “formed a new alliance, but within each State its government has remained, and the rights of person and property have not been disturbed. The agent, through whom they communicated with foreign nations, is changed; but this does not necessarily interrupt their international relations.”
Davis stressed that the new nation only wanted to live in peace, and any other states that “may seek to unite their fortunes to ours” were welcome to do so. Davis also noted that the U.S. may someday ally with the new Confederacy since the new nation’s Constitution was like that of the U.S. besides being more explicit about the original founders’ intent.
When Davis’s address concluded, 100 cannon fired in salute as fireworks cracked and banners blazed. Herman Arnold’s band played “Dixie’s Land.” Celebrations raged throughout Montgomery as participants cheered, wept, and sang songs like “Farewell to the Star-Spangled Banner.” Meanwhile, Davis took up residence at a Montgomery hotel where a note on the door marked his office.
President Davis wrote to his wife Varina, who had stayed behind at their home, about the inauguration:
“The audience was large and brilliant. Upon my weary heart were showered smiles, plaudits, and flowers; but beyond them, I saw troubles and thorns innumerable… We are without machinery, without means, and threatened by a powerful opposition; but I do not despond, and will not shrink from the task imposed upon me… As soon as I can call an hour my own, I will look for a house and write you more fully.”
On the 19th, Davis began appointing officials for the six cabinet posts (the Confederacy had no Interior Department):
- Robert Toombs of Georgia was named secretary of state.
- Christopher G. Memminger of South Carolina was named treasury secretary. His financial knowledge prompted his state’s delegation to recommend him for the position.
- Leroy P. Walker of Alabama was named secretary of war. Walker was a distinguished attorney recommended by his state’s officials.
- Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana was named attorney general. Benjamin’s reputation as a lawyer had impressed Davis when they both served in the U.S. Senate; Benjamin became known as “the brains of the Confederacy.”
- John Reagan of Texas was named postmaster general. Reagan’s extensive knowledge of Confederate territory suited him for this post.
- Stephen R. Mallory of Florida was named navy secretary when the Provisional Congress created the Navy Department two days later. Mallory had been chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs in the U.S. Senate who had extensive knowledge of Federal naval intelligence.
Davis balanced his cabinet by selecting one man from each Confederate state except Mississippi (his home state). Three members were foreign-born, and most had initially opposed secession. After the Montgomery Convention confirmed all of Davis’s appointments, the first cabinet meeting took place in a Montgomery hotel room. Memminger had to buy his own desk and chair.
The Confederate government quickly began addressing national defense, as the Provisional Congress authorized Davis to approve contracts to buy and manufacture war supplies. Expecting that the U.S. would not allow the Confederate states to secede without a fight, Davis made three appointments on the 21st:
- General Josias Gorgas was named the Confederate chief of ordnance.
- Major Caleb Huse was dispatched to Europe to negotiate contracts for weapons purchases.
- Captain Raphael Semmes was sent to the U.S. with instructions: “As agent of the Confederate States, you are authorized to proceed, as hereinafter set forth, to make purchases, and contracts for machinery and munitions, or for the manufacture of arms and munitions of war…”
Four days later, Davis appointed three commissioners to travel to Washington and negotiate peaceful relations with the U.S.:
- Former Louisiana Governor A.B. Roman, who had been a Whig and Constitutional Unionist;
- Former U.S. Congressman Martin J. Crawford of Georgia, a States’ Rights Democrat;
- John Forsyth of Alabama, an influential journalist and former minister to Mexico who supported the northern Democrats.
The commissioners received authorization “in the name of the Confederate States, to meet and confer with any person or persons duly authorized by the Government of the United States, being furnished with like power and authority, and with him or them to agree, treat, consult, and negotiate treaties of friendship, commerce, and navigation” in the best interests of both nations.
These instructions, written by Secretary of State Robert Toombs, included a dissertation on the right of states to secede and an objective to effect “the speedy adjustment of all questions growing out of separation, as the respective interests, geographical contiguity, and future welfare of the two nations may render necessary.”
Davis also appointed three commissioners to establish diplomatic relations with Europe:
- Dudley Mann of Virginia
- William L. Yancey of Alabama
- Pierre Rost of Louisiana
Davis tasked these men with seeking foreign recognition for the Confederacy, particularly from the world powers of Great Britain and France.
- Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 5-6
- Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4259-70, 4328-39, 5473-83
- Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 134
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 41, 45
- Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 14
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 38-41
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 259
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 45
- Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 222-23
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 27, 28-30
- White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161
- Wikipedia: Trent Affair