He made many valuable scientific contributions to the Navy before the Civil War, during which he served with distinction.
As Flag Officer of the Mississippi Flotilla, he directed the capture and destruction of seven Confederate gunboats and rams near Memphis, Tennessee and received the surrender of the city 6 June 1862. He also joined Farragut’s fleet for operations against Vicksburg and cooperated with the Army expedition up the Yazoo River from 16 July to 2 August 1862.
From 1862 to 1865 as rear admiral, Davis served as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation and then served as Superintendent of the Naval Observatory; Commander in Chief, South Atlantic Squadron; Commandant of Norfolk Navy Yard; and member of the Lighthouse Board.
Rear Admiral Davis died at Washington on 18 February 1877.