Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief
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From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, a powerful new reckoning with Jefferson Davis as military commander of the Confederacy
History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis. His cause went down in disastrous defeat and left the South impoverished for generations. If that cause had succeeded, it would have torn the United States in two and preserved the institution of slavery. Many Americans in Davis’s own time and in later generations considered him an incompetent leader, if not a traitor. Not so, argues James M. McPherson. In Embattled Rebel, McPherson shows us that Davis might have been on the wrong side of history, but it is too easy to diminish him because of his cause’s failure. In order to understand the Civil War and its outcome, it is essential to give Davis his due as a military leader and as the president of an aspiring Confederate nation.
Davis did not make it easy on himself. His subordinates and enemies alike considered him difficult, egotistical, and cold. He was gravely ill throughout much of the war, often working from home and even from his sickbed. Nonetheless, McPherson argues, Davis shaped and articulated the principal policy of the Confederacy with clarity and force: the quest for independent nationhood. Although he had not been a fire-breathing secessionist, once he committed himself to a Confederate nation he never deviated from this goal. In a sense, Davis was the last Confederate left standing in 1865.
As president of the Confederacy, Davis devoted most of his waking hours to military strategy and operations, along with Commander Robert E. Lee, and delegated the economic and diplomatic functions of strategy to his subordinates. Davis was present on several battlefields with Lee and even took part in some tactical planning; indeed, their close relationship stands as one of the great military-civilian partnerships in history.
Most critical appraisals of Davis emphasize his choices in and management of generals rather than his strategies, but no other chief executive in American history exercised such tenacious hands-on influence in the shaping of military strategy. And while he was imprisoned for two years after the Confederacy’s surrender awaiting a trial for treason that never came, and lived for another twenty-four years, he never once recanted the cause for which he had fought and lost. McPherson gives us Jefferson Davis as the commander in chief he really was, showing persuasively that while Davis did not win the war for the South, he was scarcely responsible for losing it.
patiently to all I said and when he differed with me he would give his reasons for it. He was very cordial. . . . And many gentlemen tell me the same thing as to his manner with them. . . . His enemies have done him great injustice.”8 Davis’s fragile health may account for these Jekyll and Hyde descriptions of his personality. No chief executive in American history suffered from as many chronic maladies as Jefferson Davis. The malaria that killed his first wife in 1835 struck him as well, and
that if he obeyed Johnston’s instructions to abandon Vicksburg, he would be accused of treason.15 In any event, Grant’s victories over most of Pemberton’s army at Champion’s Hill on May 16 and Big Black River on May 17 made the question moot. Pemberton’s remaining troops were driven back into the Vicksburg defenses, where they repulsed Union attacks on May 19 and 22. Grant settled in for a siege, while Davis continued to send dribs and drabs of reinforcements to Johnston and to urge him to break
effort was being planned, Lee tried to pry as many troops out of the Carolinas as he could to strengthen his invasion force. Davis did order three brigades from North Carolina to join Lee. But he denied the general’s request for a large number of Beauregard’s troops from South Carolina, plus Beauregard himself, to come to Virginia as a diversionary threat to occupy Union forces that would otherwise confront Lee in Pennsylvania. Davis had already sent two of Beauregard’s brigades to Johnston in
command, he received a letter from Davis citing reports of the army’s good condition, “which induces me to hope that you will soon be able to commence active operations against the enemy.” The commander in chief reminded Johnston of “the importance of restoring the prestige of the Army” and, even more important, “the necessity for reoccupying the country, upon the supplies of which the proper subsistence of our armies materially depends.”25 Johnston professed astonishment at the portrayals of
Richard E. Beringer, Jefferson Davis, Confederate President (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 340–41; and Steven E. Woodworth, Jefferson Davis and His Generals (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990), 294–95. 2. Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, 2 vols. (reprint of 1881 ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 1990), 2:482–83; William J. Cooper, “A Reassessment of Jefferson Davis as War Leader: The Case from Atlanta to Nashville,” Journal of Southern History