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Jefferson Columbus Davis
Commander, Military District of Alaska


Jefferson Columbus Davis, born 2 March 1827, Clark County, Indiana, was the first of eight children born to William Davis, Jr. (1800-1879) and Mary Drummond (1801-1881). He grew up in the Charleston area of Clark County on his father's farm. Around 1860 he married Marietta Woodson Athon of Indianapolis, a daughter of Dr. James S. Athon (1811-1875). They had no children, but adopted and raised a niece, Ida Davis.

Davis was a career officer in the United States Army (1848-1879).  His ancestors were among the early settlers of Kentucky and Southern Indiana at the falls of the Ohio, and had been celebrated as Indian fighters. He was educated at the county academy and enlisted in the 3rd Indiana regiment recruited by Colonel Lane for the Mexican war.

For his performance Buena Vista, at the age of 20, Davis was given a direct commission as 2d lieutenant in the 1st artillery which he received June 17, 1848. He was promoted 1st lieutenant in 1852. In 1858 he was serving with the 1st U.S. artillery in Fort Moultrie, Charleston, South Carolina, an officer under Major Anderson.   On April 12, 1861, Davis was stationed at Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina, when the Confederates started their 36-hour bombardment.  In recognition of his bravery during this trying ordeal he was promoted to captain and allowed leave of absence to recruit the 22d Indiana Volunteers, which he commanded as colonel.

On August 17, the 22nd Indiana was sent to seek out the Confederates in the interior of Missouri.  Davis was assigned to the department of the Missouri as acting brigadier-general and for his action at Milford, Missouri, December 18, 1861, was promoted brigadier-general of volunteers. He commanded a division and contributed heavily toward a Union victory at the battle of Pea Ridge, March 8, 1862, and took part in the battle of Shiloh, April 6 and 7, and the siege of Corinth.  After the evacuation of that place by the Confederates, May 29, he was assigned to the department of the Tennessee.

During this campaign he had received, as he alleged, harsh treatment from Major General William Nelson, his superior officer. It was in September 1862 that Davis's career passed a crisis point. He and his superior officer, William "Bull" Nelson, were at the Galt House hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, exchanging insults. The provoked Davis, at five feet, nine inches and 125 pounds, blatantly shot and instantly killed ("in cold blood") the six-foot-four, 300-pound Nelson. An arrest  followed but Davis was never tried for this offense as politically powerful Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana quickly came to his defense.

General Davis was soon after assigned to duty in Covington, Kentucky. He commanded his division forming a part of the 20th army corps, at the battle of Stone's River, (Murfreesboro), Tennessee on December 31, 1862, when he greatly distinguished himself.  General Rosecrans recommended him for promotion to the rank of major-general. He was exemplary at Chickamauga, Georgia, in September 1863.  During the Atlanta campaign, Davis especially distinguished himself in the capture of Rome, Georgia, and in his successful attack at the battle of Jonesborough. He commanded the Fourteenth Corps in the march to the sea and the Carolinas campaign.

Davis was never received the second star of a major general although he received five brevet commissions. At the close of the war he was brevetted major-general of volunteers.  on July 23, 1866, he was promoted colonel of the 23d U.S. infantry and transferred to the Pacific Northwest.  From September 1867 to July 1870, Davis was the first commander of the military district of Alaska.  The Alaskan assignment was not a choice one.

After the murder of General Edward Richard Sprigg Canby by the Modoc Indians in 1873 Davis succeeded to the command of the department and forced the tribe to surrender.

Brevet Major General Davis died of pneumonia in Chicago, Illinois, November 30, 1879.  He was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, Indiana.




Boatner, Mark M., The Civil War Dictionary, p. 222.
Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. III, p. 131.
Dunn, Jacob Piatt, Indiana and Indianians, Vol. IV, pp. 1563-4.
Faust, P. L. , ed., Encyclopedia of the Civil War, p. 207-8.
Hughes Jr., Nathaniel Cheairs and Gordon D. Whitney,  Jefferson Davis in Blue: The Life of Sherman's Relentless Warrior.
      Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Sifakis, Stewart, Who Was Who in the Civil War, pp. 172-3.
Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans: Volume III, p. 164.