A Leader in Defeat

During the four years of the Civil War, it probably was a tossup as to which of the two presidents was more widely reviled. Abraham Lincoln was, of course, universally loathed in the South, and he had many opponents in the North who feared the implications of his insistence on abolition and reunification as the price the South would have to pay for ending the war. Jefferson Davis was similarly hated in the North, but he also had vociferous opponents in the South, many of whom questioned his military strategy and his treatment of his leading generals.

Lincoln now is regarded as perhaps the greatest of all Americans, but as James M. McPherson says at the outset of this fine study of Davis’s military leadership: “History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis. As president of the Confederate States of America, he led a cause that went down to a disastrous defeat and left the South in poverty for generations. If that cause had succeeded, it would have broken the United States in two and preserved slavery in the South for untold years. Many Americans of his own time and in later generations considered him a traitor. Some of his Confederate compatriots turned against Davis and blamed him for sins of ineptitude that lost the war. Several of Davis’s adversaries on the Union side agree with this assessment.”

‘Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief’ by James M. McPherson (Penguin)

To this day it is difficult for many Americans to view Davis with dispassion, but McPherson has made a noble attempt to do so. Though his “sympathies lie with the Union side in the Civil War,” in this book he has “sought to transcend my convictions and to understand Jefferson Davis as a product of his time and circumstances.” Davis himself does not make that easy. “He did not suffer fools gladly,” McPherson writes, “and he let them know it. He did not practice the skillful politician’s art of telling others what they wanted to hear. He did not flatter their egos, and he sometimes asserted his own. He did not hesitate to criticize others but was often thin-skinned about their criticisms of him. Davis could be austere, humorless and tediously argumentative.”

These aspects of a personality generally regarded as disagreeable at best were not helped by extenuating circumstances. The pressures on him were intense and unrelenting, and he had few reliable friends and allies within the Confederate government. His health frequently was bad, as in the spring of 1863, when he “had been ill for the past month with inflammation of the throat and a recurrence of severe neuralgia, which threatened the sight of his remaining good eye”; as McPherson says, “Persistent illness added to Davis’s frustration, and stress in turn no doubt worsened his health.” In the spring of 1864, he suffered “the personal tragedy of the death of his five-year-old son Joseph by a fall from the balcony of the executive mansion.”

None of this made the slightest difference to his critics, who started piling on the minute he assumed office and scarcely relented until his capture by Union cavalry in May 1865. The brother of his vice president called him “a little, conceited, hypocritical, snivelling, canting, malicious, ambitious, dogged knave and fool.” P.G.T. Beauregard, one of the many generals with whom he crossed figurative swords, called him a “living specimen of gall & hatred . . . either demented or a traitor to his high trust,” and added as an afterthought: “If he were to die to-day, the whole country would rejoice at it, whereas, I believe, if the same thing were to happen to me, they would regret it.”

That of course was precisely the sort of arrogance and self-absorption among his generals with which Davis had to contend, yet McPherson finds that on the whole, contrary to personal inclination, he often suffered these fools patiently, if not gladly, and he allowed some generals to retain their commands long after they had proved unfit for them. No one caused him more vexation than Joseph Johnston, who might be called the Confederate George B. McClellan, because like that Yankee general “he incurred the displeasure of his commander in chief because he would not fight.” Yet Davis “showed heroic patience with that general’s constant complaints, frequent flouting of presidential orders, and failure to keep Davis informed of his operational plans.”

Davis’s own operational preference was for what he called an “offensive-defensive” strategy, which McPherson defines as “to seize opportunities to take the offensive and force the enemy to sue for peace.” As it turned out, those opportunities did not arise often, but when his best generals — Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee — were on the scene, the Rebels did indeed seize them. But Davis could not overcome the overwhelming advantages the North enjoyed as the war began and maintained throughout: “the North’s greater population and resources, a stronger economy, a powerful navy, resourceful military leadership, and battlefield victories that blunted Confederate momentum at key points and prolonged the conflict until the weak economic infrastructure that underpinned the Southern war effort collapsed.”

Compounding all these difficulties was a Southern press that retained a remarkably venomous, if not wholly unanimous, animosity toward Davis throughout the war. Newspapers were far more influential then than they are now for the simple reason that they completely controlled the flow of news and commentary, and toward Davis they were merciless, especially the Richmond Examiner. Then as ever after, armchair generals in newspaper editorial offices decided they knew more about how to conduct the war than those in actual power, and they turned on Davis (who brought to the position of commander in chief a West Point diploma and extensive military service) and let him have it with both barrels, as one did in the wake of one of Davis’s controversial dealings with his generals:

“The vitriolic pen of John Moncure Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner, lashed out at Davis’s ‘flagrant mismanagement.’ From ‘the frigid heights of an infallible egotism . . . wrapped in sublime self-complacency,’ Davis ‘has alienated the hearts of the people by his stubborn follies’ and ‘his chronic hallucinations that he is a great military genius.’ Davis ‘prides himself on never changing his mind; and popular clamor against those who possess his favor only knits him more stubbornly to them. . . . Had the people dreamed that Mr. Davis would carry all his chronic antipathies, his puerile partialities into the presidential chair, they would never have allowed him to fill it.’ ”

By contrast with that, Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter seem mere illiterate puddy-tats as they flail away at President Obama, but Davis weathered the editorialists’ storms with surprising equanimity for a man who was supposedly unable to bear criticism. He also had to weather fierce attacks from those who supposedly were subservient. Late in the war, as he contemplated recruiting slaves into the army, some officers “condemned the ‘monstrous proposition’ as ‘revolting to Southern sentiments, Southern pride, and Southern honor,’ ” a useful reminder that Lost Cause rhetoric had already been conjured up well before Reconstruction and other Yankee perfidies.

What it all comes down to is that a reasonably convincing case can be made for Davis. He was not a military genius, but he was a better strategist than many of his generals. He had the wisdom to put Lee in charge of the Confederate armed forces. As McPherson says in conclusion: “While the Lincoln-Grant team eventually won the war, this does not mean that the Davis-Lee team was responsible for losing it. For in the final analysis, the salient truth about the American Civil War is not that the Confederacy lost but that the Union won.”

Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

By James M. McPherson

Penguin Press. 301 pp. $32.95