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Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis & The Confederate Civil War

November 27, 2015

EmbattledRebelJames McPherson is one of our most eminent Civil War era historians.  Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis & The Confederate Civil War is McPherson’s attempt to set aside his own views of that conflict and consider Davis, if not objectively, at least from Davis’ own perspective.  As McPherson states in his introduction, there’s a lot to set aside:

“Full disclosure is necessary. My sympathies lie with the Union side in the Civil War. The Confederacy fought to break up the United States and to sustain slavery. I consider those goals tragically wrong….After spending many research hours with both Lincoln and Davis, I must also confess that I find Lincoln more congenial, interesting and admirable.” (p. 5)

After quoting some of Davis’ Confederate contemporaries’ views of their president (sample:  “a little conceited, hypocritical, snivelling, canting, malicious, ambitious, dogged knave and fool”, p. 5-6), McPherson confesses those critics had something of a point.  Davis “did not suffer fools gladly, 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.” (p. 6)

Compounding the situation, Davis suffered from chronic ill health—neuralgia, dyspepsia, insomnia, boils, bronchial problems…among other conditions. “For days and sometimes weeks at a time he was unable to come to his office, but worked from his home and occasionally from his sickbed.” (p. 7)

As commander-in-chief of the Confederacy, Davis faced daunting structural odds.  “According to the 1860 census, Union states had eleven times as many ships and boats as the Confederacy and produced fifteen times as much iron, seventeen times as many textile goods, twenty-four times as many locomotives, and thirty-two times as many firearms.  The Union had more than twice the density of railroad mileage per square mile and several times the amount of rolling stock.” As the war went on, those disadvantages only worsened for the Confederate states.

McPherson has praise for Davis’ relationship with his leading general, Robert E. Lee, pointing out that “the two men forged a partnership even closer and longer than the one between Lincoln and Grant on the other side“. (p. 252)  Both Davis and Lee favored an “offensive-defensive” military strategy—adopting a generally defensive stance to protect Confederate territory and resources, while seizing targeted opportunities to launch offensive campaigns to raise the cost of war for the Union states.  Lee’s initial successes during his army’s advance into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863 (before the Union victory at Gettysburg) probably represented the high point for that strategy.

Political considerations (“demands from state governors and other officials“) dictated a defensive strategy of dispersion—protecting every mile of the Confederacy’s extensive land and water perimeter—against the threat of Union invasion throughout the early stages of the war.

“Could Jefferson Davis have done anything different…during the war to produce a Confederate victory? That question too is ultimately unanswerable, but this has not stopped historians from speculating.” (p. 248)

McPherson declines to join in that speculation, though he does argue against the viability of other approaches (e.g., guerilla warfare, or a “Fabian” strategy of attrition) that were available to Davis, before reaching his final conclusion: “the salient truth about the American Civil War is not that the Confederacy lost but that the Union won.” (p. 252)


From → Books, History

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