One characteristic most Americans admire is the willingness to take risks — not stupid risks, but calculated ones. We are willing to take risks in the hope we will achieve great rewards. To that end, we seek to match wits, and even more, against those who stand in our way. Some opponents are larger and more fearsome than we are, but this makes the victory all the sweeter. During the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48, a small American army faced a Mexican force over four times its size. Citizens back in the U.S. expected to hear of a crushing defeat. American soldiers were determined not to be overawed, however. One of those was a Mississippi colonel who intended to fight as long and as hard as he could. He was known for his tenacity and boldness in battle. His name was Jefferson Davis. This is the story of how he helped achieve a spectacular victory at the Battle of Buena Vista.
From an early age, Jefferson Davis was never one to let the odds frighten him. He was born in Fairview, Kentucky in June 1808 but spent much of his youth in Mississippi. Indians and outlaws populated the region, but the young boy never once showed fear when he ventured beyond the confines of his home. As a young man, he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he defied regulations by sneaking off campus to Benny Havens, a local tavern. He even faced dismissal once but was ultimately pardoned. On another occasion, he was placed under arrest for throwing a party and sentenced to confinement for several weeks. He graduated twenty-third in the Class of 1828 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Infantry. For the next seven years, he served at frontier outposts like Fort Crawford on the Wisconsin River in Michigan Territory and Fort Gibson in Arkansas chasing Indians. In reality, he was one of the lucky ones. Other graduates found themselves without any hope of an active-duty assignment. Davis’ “luck” was somewhat of a mixed bag, however. He served at a time when an officer could count on long periods at the same rank. He did not earn a promotion to first lieutenant until 1833. Although he was disappointed with the unlikelihood of winning military distinction, Jefferson was not discouraged. He decided to try his hand at civilian life.
After resigning his commission in June 1835, Davis returned home to Mississippi and established his plantation of Brierfield. He intended to become a respected Southern planter, but he decided to distance himself from his fellow planters by investing in a variety of crops, rather than just cotton. He actively involved himself in efforts to induce Southerners to accept new industrial techniques that improved productivity. (Ironically, many of his ideas would come to fruition with the adoption of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.) While his ideas were not widely accepted, he still managed to make Brierfield a success, and his industriousness won him the approval of his neighbors. In 1843 he was asked to run for the state legislature from Warren County. It was a mighty struggle. The Whig Party was in the majority, and Davis was a Democrat. Despite ably acquitting himself in the debates, he lost the election but so impressed voters that two years later he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. While in office, Congressman Davis fought to ensure peace remained between the U.S. and Great Britain in spite of escalating tensions regarding the Oregon-Canadian border. Passions cooled, and Davis turned his attention to the troubles brewing with Mexico. He could not believe Mexico wanted war with the United States over the disputed territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers in Texas. When Mexican soldiers ambushed U.S. forces in May 1846, however, he joined other congressmen in voting to approve a declaration of war. In short order, now stirred by patriotic fervor, he decided to leave Congress and to join in the fight.
Within days, Davis left Washington, D.C. for his hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi. On his arrival, Colonel Jefferson Davis was given command of the First Mississippi Rifles and led his men south to join in General Zachary Taylor’s capture of Monterey. On September 20th Davis and his regiment were ordered to attack La Teneria, a stone edifice blocking the road from Monterey to Saltillo. It appeared to be a daunting task — one attack had already been repulsed with heavy casualties. Nevertheless, Davis led his men in a desperate charge. The Mexicans panicked, dropped their weapons and raced out of the building. It took four more days for Davis and the rest of Taylor’s army to capture the city. Often, Davis had to fight street by street. With the city secured, the army advanced to Saltillo and then on to Agua Nueva. It was there Taylor, Davis and their comrades heard that Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, infamous for his Alamo massacre, and 20,000 troops were marching towards them. Taylor knew his force of less than five thousand were vastly outnumbered, so he pulled his men out of the city and stationed them in the gullies and ravines of a valley at the base of a high mountain. Nearby was a ranch that would lend its name to the battle to come — Buena Vista.
On the morning of February 23, 1847 Santa Anna ordered his army to divide into three columns and to advance toward the American entrenchments. In the face of this onslaught, the soldiers on the American left flank quickly withdrew towards the rear. As General Taylor rallied his retreating troops, he directed Davis to probe the enemy’s front. The colonel rode to the front of his riflemen and told them to prepare for a charge. Spotting soldiers from Indiana nearby, he commanded them to join in the attack. At his signal, the two regiments burst forth from their position. The Mexicans were stunned by the assault’s ferocity. They had thought the Americans were beaten. Despite their shock they leveled their muskets at the onrushing multitude and fired. One of the musket balls struck Davis in the heel, carrying with it brass splinters from one of his spurs and bits of wool from his stocking. The colonel refused to abandon his command and watched with pride as his men pushed the Mexicans back towards the base of the mountain. He sighed in satisfaction, but as he looked around, he spied Santa Anna’s cavalry mobilizing to the left in anticipation of striking the American rear.
Jefferson realized the only troops standing between the American army and destruction were his Mississippians and Indianans. The outcome of the battle hung in the balance. He quickly weighed the risks and knew immediately the move he had to make. Surveying the terrain in front of him, he decided to take advantage of the sloping ground on either side of a nearby ravine. He stationed the Mississippians along the right side of the ravine facing the plains beyond. He ordered the Indianans to take up positions on the other side of the ravine, thus giving the appearance of a “V.” He and his men watched as the Mexican cavalry trotted across the fields toward them. Davis repeatedly told his men to hold fire. When the horsemen had closed to within eighty yards, some of his soldiers commenced firing without orders. The rest of the formation followed suit. Dozens of horses and riders fell to the ground. As the smoke cleared, Davis saw the survivors racing for the safety of their own lines. Wishing to keep up the pressure, he shouted for his soldiers to pursue the fleeing riders. They advanced to within easy range of Mexican artillery, but as they prepared for an assault, Davis received a message from Taylor requesting assistance in repelling an attack on the American right flank.
He turned his men in that direction and quickly marched toward the sound of musketry and artillery. He had gone only two or three hundred yards when he spotted Mexican infantry advancing on an artillery battery commanded by future Confederate General Braxton Bragg. Once again, it was Davis’ men who could make the difference in the engagement. His troops were exhausted from hours of combat, but upon seeing their comrades were in danger, they moved with the “alacrity and eagerness of men fresh to the combat.” They followed their heroic colonel, still suffering from his earlier injury, up a rocky slope to a hill that commanded the enemy’s right flank. Seeing the infantry was only 100 yards from the American battery, Davis shouted for his men to fire. The volley was so destructive, Jefferson recalled, that the infantry’s right “gave way, and [the Mexicans] fled in confusion.” At the same time, the rest of Santa Anna’s soldiers withdrew to their campsites. The Americans expected to resume fighting the next day, but when dawn came, they discovered Santa Anna had withdrawn under the cover of darkness. With victory achieved, Davis and the other injured Americans were transported back to Saltillo. There doctors told him the wound was not life-threatening, but it would take months before he could walk without crutches. It was clear his military service was at an end, so he returned home to Mississippi in late May.
By the time he arrived back in the U.S., the nation’s newspapers were already heralding his exploits. There was little doubt his actions at Buena Vista had saved the day. In Dubuque, Iowa he enjoyed a celebration the likes of which have “never since taken place.” In New Orleans he was toasted as a “hero second only to Zachary Taylor.” Even the U.S. government got into the action, offering him a commission as brigadier general. He was honored by the offer but ultimately turned it down. He was not able to turn down succeeding appointments though. In August 1847 he was appointed to the U.S. Senate to complete the term of Jesse Speight, who had recently died. He spent the next six years in the Senate trying to cool the rising passions of the North and South, but he saw the odds against him growing longer by the day. Still, he continued to serve his country with distinction. From 1853 to 1857 he loyally served President Franklin Pierce as Secretary of War where he introduced new weapons to the U.S. army, such as rifled muskets and Minie balls. When the states finally did split into North and South, however, there was no question in his mind that he would remain faithful to his Mississippi roots. In 1861 he was chosen as President of the Confederate States of America. Despite the long odds the South faced, Davis fought long and hard for four years. Even after he was captured on May 10, 1865, he continued to do his duty as he saw fit. For the next twenty-five years he fought to preserve the memory of the Confederacy until December 1889 when he contracted bronchitis while in New Orleans. As he always had, Jefferson Davis fought back, but this time he was unable to beat the odds stacked against him and finally succumbed to defeat.
The name of Jefferson Davis conjures up differing images for Americans these days. It is easy to judge him only for the role he played in the Civil War. However, a man’s life should not be weighed without considering the whole measure of it. On the rugged terrain of northern Mexico, Colonel Davis wagered everything he had to save the army he served and to win victory for the country he loved. His actions during that time made him the epitome of a true Mississippi riverboat gambler.