Joseph Robert Davis, a nephew of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, was born in Woodville, Mississippi, on 12 January 1825 to Susannah and Isaac W. Davis. After receiving his education in Nashville, Tennessee, and at Miami University in Ohio, Joseph Davis opened a law practice in Madison County, Mississippi. Following in the footsteps of his famous uncle, he entered politics, and in 1860 the people of Madison County sent him to the State Senate. His political career did not last long, however, as war broke out in 1861.
Answering the Confederacy’s call, Davis entered military service as captain of an infantry company that became part of the 10th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, and on 12 April 1861 Davis was elected the regiment’s lieutenant colonel. The 10th Mississippi served under Gen. Braxton Bragg and first saw duty in Pensacola, Florida. But Davis did not see much combat, as he was promoted to full colonel on 21 August and soon thereafter began a one-year stint as a military aide to Jefferson Davis. Joseph lived with his uncle and his family at the Confederate White House and visited troops throughout the South, often accompanying the president, and wrote reports on the military situation. President Davis described his nephew as “discreet, gentlemanly and of sound judgment.”
On 15 September 1862 Jefferson Davis promoted Joseph to the rank of brigadier general, an assignment that carried with it command of an infantry brigade. The appointment, however, had to be confirmed by the Confederate Senate, and many in that body did not favor the promotion. The nomination was defeated on 3 October by an eleven-to-six vote. However, just five days later, the Senate reconsidered Davis’s nomination and approved it by a vote of thirteen to six. Though the matter was never investigated, it was widely believed that the sudden change of events resulted from a political payoff by President Davis to Georgia senator Ben Hill, who arranged to have the vote reconsidered.
Joseph Davis received command of a brigade in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and fought the remainder of the war in the Eastern Theater, participating in some of the war’s most horrific battles. His brigade, made up mostly of Mississippi troops, served in Henry Heth’s division and took part in the Battle of Gettysburg as one of the first units to see action on 1 July. The brigade joined Gen. James J. Pettigrew on 3 July and took part in Pickett’s Charge with the 2nd Mississippi Regiment, losing half its men. Davis continued to lead his men in battle, serving in all the battles of the 1864 Wilderness Campaign against Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and through the miserable stalemate at Petersburg. In April 1865 he was present at Appomattox for Lee’s surrender.
Paroled by Grant at Appomattox, Davis returned to Mississippi to resume his law practice. He divorced his wife of thirty years, Frances H. Peyton Davis, in 1878 and a year later married Margaret Cary Green, who bore him three children. He later moved to Biloxi, where he died on 15 September 1896.
- Charles E. Hooker, Confederate Military History, vol. 7, pt. 2, Mississippi (1899)
- Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders (1959)