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.
the nationalism of Henry Clay, the state had a pro-Confederate governor in 1861, but a majority of its legislature was Unionist. Divided in the allegiances of its people, Kentucky declared its neutrality at the beginning of the war and sought to mediate between the two sides. Davis and Lincoln both decided to respect this neutrality and refrained from sending troops into the state, for it was clear that whichever side did so first would drive the state into the arms of the other. But
could have made more of this command if he had chosen resolutely to do so.38 To sort out some of these issues and to rally flagging Southern spirits, Davis decided to make a trip to Johnston’s new theater, accompanied part of the time by the general. Leaving Richmond on December 9, Davis went first to Bragg’s headquarters at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He reviewed the army and found it in better condition and less threatened by the enemy than he expected. Indeed, Davis thought that Pemberton was
writ of habeas corpus. Some judges—especially the chief justice of North Carolina—were issuing such writs to men who had received draft notices to enable them to avoid serving. The main purpose of suspension, however, would be to suppress the activities of “citizens of well-known disloyalty” who were seeking to “accomplish treason under the form of law” and “do not hesitate to avow their disloyalty and hostility to our cause, and their advocacy of peace on the terms of submission and the
“No one doubts our success.”9 Davis tried to discourage such optimism. “We must prepare for a long war” and perhaps “unmerciful reverses at first,” he said to one overconfident friend. Davis scotched the notion that one Southerner could lick three Yankees. “Only fools doubted the courage of the Yankees to fight,” he declared, “and now we have stung their pride—we have roused them till they will fight like devils.”10 The original bill in Congress to create a Confederate army had authorized
quarrels with subordinates, 125–27 Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns, 148–50 Battle of Chickamauga, 152 postbattle conflict with subordinates, 153–57 resigns command, 158–59 named chief of staff, 180, 183 recommends Johnston’s removal, 198 Davis’s relations with, 251 Bragg, Thomas, 61 Breckinridge, John C.: at Missionary Ridge, 158 secretary of war, 226 favors peace negotiations, 238 Brewster, Henry, 193 Brown, Joseph: wants Georgia troops kept in state, 34, 35 offers pikes