BORN: 1828 in Clark County, IN.
DIED: 1879 in Chicago, IL.
CAMPAIGN: Fort Sumter, Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, Corinth, Louisville,
Stone's River, Chickamauga.
HIGHEST RANK ACHIEVED: Brevet Major General of U. S. Volunteers
|Jefferson Columbus Davis was born near Memphis, Indiana on March 2, 1828. At age eighteen, he enlisted as a private in the Clark County Guards, which became part of the Second Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry that fought at the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican-American War. That service led to the offer of an appointment at the United States Military Academy that failed to materialize as promised and that brought about a direct commission in the regular army that involved service in the First Regiment U. S. Artillery. Davis was a first lieutenant at Fort Sumer when Confederate artillery batteries commenced fire on April 12, 1861. He received promotion to Captain in May, returned to Indiana, and in August became Colonel of the Twenty-second Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry that came to the relief of troops at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (Mo.). In March 1862 Davis’s command the Third Division, Army of the Southwest at the Battle of Pea Ridge earned him a promotion to brigadier general of volunteers with a retroactive date of December 1861. Davis was then detached and assigned to participate in the Siege of Corinth with the Army of the Mississippi. His division remained there as an occupation force, and in August 1862 he returned home to recuperate from illness. Soon after that Edmund Kirby Smith launched an invasion of Kentucky that overwhelmed a nascent army that has been assembled a week before by Maj. Gen. William "Bull" Nelson.
Davis remained at home in Indiana when Nelson resumed command of the Army of Kentucky on September 17, 1862. Davis came across the Ohio River when news arrived that his old division was on marching to Louisville. Nelson then ordered him to organize the Home Guard brigade on a temporary basis. Davis resented this and it led to his being relieved of command and sent to Cincinnati on September 23. The arrival of Army of the Ohio brought Davis to Louisville on September 27. The following Monday morning he confronted Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House to demand an apology. Nelson refused and Davis flipped a wadded calling card in his face. The three-hundred pound, six-foot four-inch Nelson called the one-hundred and twenty-pound, five- foot seven-inch Davis a coward and he slapped him across the side of the head. Davis borrowed a Tranter pistol from a lawyer friend and he walked over to Nelson as he came back down a flight of stairs. Davis mortally wounded his ox of a man with a single shot to his heart. Officers put him under arrest in his room and he remained there until Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright ordered his release and returned to him to duty. The Jefferson County Circuit Court accepted an indictment for manslaughter and it went on and off the docket until James Speed succeeded having the matter dropped in May 1864.
Davis initially commanded a division in the Twentieth Corps at Stone’s River, and that brought a recommendation for his promotion to major general. The War Department ignored that request, but in 1864, Davis received a brevet promotion to major general and he became commander of the Fourteenth Corps in the Atlanta campaign. During the march through Georgia, Davis received highly unfavorable attention when he abandoned black refugees at Ebenezer Creek. In 1866, he reverted to the rank of colonel in the regular army and the next year went to Alaska as the first commander of that new department. The murder of General Edward S. Canby by the Modoc Indians in 1873 brought Davis to northern California to compel their surrender. Nothing he did could ever overcome the assassination of a superior officer or the abandonment of contrabands on the march through Georgia. When he died at the Palmer House in Chicago on November 30, 1879, this unrepentant warrior had yet to achieve what he coveted most, the full rank of major general. Several years later, his family reinterred him at Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis.
Donald A. Clark- 08/09/2010
Sources: Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Gordon D. Whitney, Jefferson Davis in Blue: The Life of Sherman’s Relentless Warrior (Louisiana State University Press, 2002). John H. Eicher, and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands (Stanford University Press, 2001).