Born in Florida, he came to Texas with his widowed mother when he was 21 years old and settled in Galveston. He studied law in Corpus Christi and practiced there and in Laredo and Brownsville and was a state judge before he was 30 years old. Then came the Civil War and Davis's path along the fast track of life veered off into some strange territory.
Davis, a friend and supporter of Sam Houston, opposed secession, as did Houston, much to the detriment of Old Sam's illustrious political career. Davis ran unsuccessfully as a delegate to the Secession Convention but lost. After Texas voted to secede, Davis refused to take an oath to the Confederacy and left the state to ponder his next move.
He went first went to Mexico, and then to Louisiana, where he planned an invasion of Texas on behalf of the Union. He later met with Abraham Lincoln in hopes that Lincoln would finance and arm the invasion.
Lincoln said 'no' to the financing, but encouraged Davis to raise his own troops in Louisiana. Davis did so, bringing about the formation of the First Texas Cavalry (Union).
Dedicated primarily to the defense of New Orleans, the U.S. Fist Cavalry did participate in several battles and skirmishes. One, at Vermillion Bayou in Louisiana, featured the Seventh Texas Cavalry of the Confederacy giving us yet another paradox of the war: Texan against Texan.
Davis's hard feelings against the Confederacy intensified beyond reconciliation during the war. One reason was the shabby treatment and vile threats levied against his family by Southern soldiers and sympathizers in Texas. The clincher was what happened to him in Matamoros, Mexico when he went there to pick up his family and other Unionist refugees.
While he was in Matamoros, a group of renegade Confederate soldiers, styling themselves as Texas Rangers, crossed the Rio Grande and captured Davis and four others. The men were brought back to Texas. One, Captain William Montgomery, was lynched. Davis was next in line for execution but the governor of Tamaulipas protested that Mexico was neutral in the war and demanded Davis's release. In order to avoid an international incident, the Confederacy eventually acquiesced. Davis returned to New Orleans with his troops.
After the war, Davis came back to Texas, but never really gave up his fight against the Confederacy. With diligence and passion he worked to implement Congressional Reconstruction policies and entrench the upstart Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, in Texas. As might be imagined, Davis was opposed at every turn.
In 1869, the man who was almost lynched during the Civil War was elected governor of Texas. He ran as a "radical" Republican, one who granted greater authority to African-Americans, against a "moderate" Republican, A.J. Hamilton. U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant endorsed Davis, which helped give him the black vote and an 800-margin of victory in an election that has always endured charges that it was fixed by the military.
No one -- not the Fergusons and not Pappy O'Daniel -- ever had a more controversial term than Davis. The Militia Act gave him authority to call all able-bodied men into state service and declare martial law, which he did three times. He favored not only expanded rights and freedoms to African-Americans but also to disenfranchised Confederates who, had they voted, would no doubt have voted against him. He also wanted to divide the state into three sections, each one under (radical) Republican rule.
When Richard Coke defeated Davis in the 1873 election Davis for a while refused to leave office, charging that the election had been rigged and was therefore invalid. He appealed to President Grant, who urged him to accept the mandate of the voters and leave office. Reluctantly, and under cover, he did so. For most Texans of the day, he couldn't get out of office fast enough.
Davis spent the rest of his life in Austin and headed the state's Republican Party. He was by all accounts well liked and respected by those who knew and was given strong support by his fellow Texans for a place in President Chester A. Arthur's cabinet but declined. He died in 1883, and is buried in the state cemetery.