2015-12-17 / Opinions

Book Review

Embattled Rebel By JAMES M. McPHERSON

James McPherson, writer of Battle Cry of Freedom and many other books on the Civil War, largely ignores the early political career and personal life of Jefferson Davis. As his title states, this is “Jefferson Davis as Commander-in-Chief.” His wife Varina appears only in a picture, and nothing is reported about his life after the war. Thus McPherson (a distinguished historian) is able to cover his war-time leadership in detail.

“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.” McPherson does not compare Davis to Abraham Lincoln. They confronted different challenges with different resources and personnel, he says. Many of Davis’ contemporaries, including Robert Toombs (who resented Davis’ selection as president, an office he sought for himself) described him as cold and haughty and hypocritical.

Others saw him differently, especially those who realized that he suffered from a number of illnesses – malaria, bronchial problems, headaches, and virtually blindness in one eye. Although he had not been a “fire-eating secessionist,” he was committed to the Confederacy and was a workaholic for the cause. In a sense, “he was the last Confederate left standing.”

Davis was a West Point graduate, and had thought that he might be made commander of all the rebel armies. Instead, he found himself in an administrative position in a nation without a standing army, with very little ordnance, transportation, or industrial capacity. Because he had war experience, he tended to “micromanage” his generals. With notable exceptions, they could have used more management. For example, in early 1862 in Virginia, the army of General Joseph E. Johnston was vulnerable to a flanking movement by McClellan’s large force. Davis ordered Johnston to send his large guns, camp equipage, and huge stockpiles of meat and other supplies southward. Not for the last time, Johnston chose to ignore his orders and to withdraw precipitately, losing these things, which the South could ill afford to lose.

A fine horseman, Davis would ride out in the afternoon for exercise. Sometimes he would visit army headquarters and gun batteries. He exposed himself to danger on more than one occasion, to the horror of his staff (and probable annoyance of his generals). Recognizing the ability of Robert E. Lee, Davis asked him to become general of all the armies. Lee agreed to be only general of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Both Davis and Lee believed that the “best defense was an offense,” but for most of the time circumstances kept them in defensive positions. They had neither the men nor the munitions to carry the fight to the North until the attempts into Maryland and later Pennsylvania, which (to put it mildly) did not work out well. Davis had to endure wide criticism about the conduct of the war because “to correct the error would have required the disclosure of facts which the public interest demanded should not be revealed.” The public in the South did not realize how extreme the shortage of men and war material was, even when food shortages affected the home front.

Maps and text give details of the battles, as the reader becomes sympathetic to Davis’ ordeal, and frustrated at this history that makes even modern southerners feel sad. Embattled Rebel is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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