UNSCIENTIFIC, prejudice-packed theory: many of our best historians emerge not from classrooms but newsrooms. It was true of the poetic master of them all, Bruce Catton, and it's surely true of Burke Davis, long-time journalist and creator of a substantial and distingished Civil War oeuvre.
Reason for the theory? History is high drama -- entertaining, often outrageously so. It is by turns comic, sorrowful, angering, uplifting, and loaded with more coincidence than any self-respecting fiction editor would tolerate. Yet there's little or none of this in most of the tomes ground out by academics. They prefer, or can only find, the grand, windy generalizations, rather than the vivid detail a newsman is trained to spot and knows how to use effectively when writing history -- anything from a catchy period headline to an apt diary phrase that's keen and telling as a knife- stab. Burke Davis hails from this latter school, for which readers of The Long Surrender may give thanks.
The book is vintage Davis, yet different. It's short on the heroics found in some of his other studies -- those on Jackson, Lee, Stuart -- and long on melancholy, beginning where most works of the genre end: with the Confederacy's final fires of ruin alight and President Jefferson Davis fleeing, a tortured insomniac whose wife Varina treats him with chloroform to ease the anguish of defeat, "a sick lion attacked by jackals."
Though in no sense a biography, the book nevertheless casts Jefferson Davis as the central actor. It dramatizes his life from 1865 until the end, with the play divided into several acts: the wild flight of chief executive, family, and cabinet from Richmond. Pursuit, then capture, by Union toops. Imprisonment; eventual release; and, following a period of exile, the sad downward curve to death at 80.
The through-line, to use another theater term, is survival. First Davis struggles to preserve his doomed government-on-the-run, foolishly dreaming of continuing it in the Southwest. Next, caught near Irwinville, Georgia, he struggles to survive brutal captivity at Fort Monroe, threatened by President Johnson with "halter and gallows," not only for treason but suspected complicity in Lincoln's murder.
When released through Varina's efforts as well as those of influential Northerners who take pity and recognize the absurdity of the charges -- Greeley was one such -- the former leader struggles to survive on the simplest level: as an ordinary wage earner. He becomes president of a Memphis insurance firm after canvassing Liverpool, England, for jobs and failing to find one, partly because his eternally damaging pride prevented him from going after any "by personal application." Finally, there comes -- how little times change -- the inevitable book:
Two volumes, from Appleton in 1881, and greeted with a thunderous lack of interest. The high-minded author scorned wartime anecdotes and gossip, favoring instead "lifeless prose" and "exhaustive defense of Secession (which) became tiring."
Davis the author is sympathetic to Davis the leader, but doesn't sentimentalize or spare him. There's an examination of the gleeful story that the president donned women's clothing in a last-moment effort to escape when Union soldiers caught up to his party at a camp near Irwinville, Georgia. ("Jeff Davis Captured in Hoop Skirts," chorused the Yankee headline writers; P.T. Barnum wanted to pony up $500 for the dress if it could be found. It couldn't.)
Author Davis discounts the drag canard, but remains open on the comic-pathetic one from a later year, when the tired, aging man was reported by a Kentucky paper to be discovered climbing down from an upper Pullman berth into a lower occupied by a woman not his wife. She was later sniggeringly identified as the spouse of another Confederate official and a woman with whom Davis was said to be more than friendly. Davis never denied or even mentioned the report, which tainted him long after his death.
Despite such touches, the subject's portrait is not even close to revisionist.
Davis remains the familiar, contradictory "enigma," lauded by some for his "calm and manly dignity," with the identical characteristic seen quite differently by others, including old Sam Houston: "One drop of Jeff Davis' blood would freeze a frog."
We're shown a man "peevish, fickle, hair- splitting" -- opinionated, and dangerous when opposed. Yet the same man graciously tells lies at the funeral of Robert E. Lee -- "I cannot remember that there was aught but perfect harmony between us" -- when in fact they often disagreed, and the rebel Congress had to force Davis to accept Lee as commander- in-chief.
Most harmful of all the ex-president's traits was his tendency to play endless variations on his personal theme: how right he was. About slavery. About secession; everything. It was this zeal, Burke Davis suggests, which helped prolong the process of national healing because it pandered to "a unique heritage -- the only American heritage based upon memories of charred cities, ruined farms, pillage and rape" by perpetuating "attitudes . . . held in previous days: that (Southerners) were somehow superior to others in America, and conquest by their inferiors did not alter the case."
The Long Surrender includes glimpses of postwar careers of Confederate cabinet members, and slightly longer sections on Lee's last years. These, thin and somehow unsatisfactory, are perhaps deliberately so -- a recognition of all the Lee scholarship already on the shelves.
But this minor shortcoming is more than overcome by the reporter-turned-historian who recognizes, and repeatedly delivers, the arresting detail:
"I saw a government on wheels," says a young soldier watching the Richmond escape train, "indiscriminate cargoes of men and things. In one car was a cage with an African parrot, and a box of tame squirrels, and a hunchback."
The briefly united Jeff and Varina still pursued by Union troops but hurrying off together, without undue modesty, and "bathing 'al fresco' in a stream . . . their chalk -white bodies gleaming through the thickets."
The prisoner's cell at Fort Monroe: a lamp burning all night so he could neither sleep easily nor relieve himself in privacy, his politely sadistic special warden, 26-year-old Brigadier Nelson Miles, insisting he be observed every moment. ("A beast. A hyena," Varina wrote of Miles before he became a famous Plains Army commander.) There wasn't much else to observe: mattress full of bedbugs; horse bucket full of water; "his tablecloth . . . a copy of the New York Herald."
In sum Burke Davis has contributed a worthy addition to the literature of the war, and done so with all the reportorial and interpretive skills we've come to expect from him.
For the general reader, highly recommended.