Joseph Robert Davis was born on January 12, 1825 in Woodville, Mississippi. He was the nephew of future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Joseph attanded college at Nashville and at Miama University in Ohio, becoming a lawyer in Madison County. He married Frances Payton in 1848. Davis was captain of a militia company, and in 1860 was elected state senator.
With the start of the war Davis’ company became part of the 10th Mississippi Infantry Regiment. After serving in northern Florida Joseph joined his uncle’s staff as aide de camp with the rank of colonel.
On September 15 he was promoted to brigadier general, but only after an initial rejection by the Senate and a great deal of criicism about nepotism. Davis was given command of four infantry regiments, the 2nd, 11th and 42nd Mississippi and the 55th North Carolina and assigned to the defences around Richmond and southeast Virginia.
In June Davis’ Brigade was assigned to the newly created Third Army Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia in Major General Henry Heth’s Division. Lee’s Army was just beginning the Gettysburg Camaign, and on July 1st, 1863 Davis’ Brigade became the second to go into action on the northwest edge of Gettysburg. Two of Davis’ regiments were trapped in an unfinished railroad cut and took heavy casualties. After resting on July 2nd the brigade was returned to action, committed to the disasterous Pickett’s Charge.
The brigade took 45% casualties during the battle. Davis was wounded during the charge, and after the battle suffered from typhoid fever, leaving him unable to command the brigade. Lee considered breaking breaking the brigade up but decided against it, no doubt in part to maintain good relations with Davis’ uncle.
Davis return from his illness to command the brigade in October of 1863. He fought with the army for the rest of the war, including the Battles of Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. Davis was on sick leave again in August and September of 1864, but returned to command in October for the Siege of Petersburg and survived to surrender at Appomattox.
After the war Davis resumed his law practice in Mississippi. He divorced Frances in 1878 and married Margaret Green the following year. Davis died in Biloxi on September 15, 1896 and is buried there in Biloxi Cemetery.