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.

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About the Author:

James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis ’86 Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. He is the bestselling author of numerous books on the Civil War, including Battle Cry of Freedom, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Tried by War, and For Cause and Comrades, both of which won the Lincoln Prize.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Tried by War

The Struggle for Equality

The Abolitionist Legacy

Ordeal by Fire

Battle Cry of Freedom

Abraham Lincoln and the

Second American Revolution

What They Fought For, 1861–1865

Drawn with the Sword

For Cause and Comrades

Crossroads of Freedom

Hallowed Ground

This Mighty Scourge

War on the Waters

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First published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by James M. McPherson

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

McPherson, James M.

Embattled rebel : Jefferson Davis as commander in chief / James M. McPherson.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-698-17634-8

1. Davis, Jefferson, 1808–1889—Military leadership. 2. United States—History—Civil War, 1861–1865—Campaigns. 3. Confederate States of America—Politics and government. 4. Presidents—Confederate States of America—Biography. 5. United States— History—Civil War, 1861–1865—Biography. I. Title.

E467.1.D26M26 2014

973.713092—dc23

2014005403

Also by James M. Mcpherson

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

List of Illustrations

List of Maps

INTRODUCTION

1. WE MUST PREPARE FOR A LONG WAR

2. WINTER OF DISCONTENT

3. WAR SO GIGANTIC

4. THE CLOUDS ARE DARK OVER US

5. WE SHOULD TAKE THE INITIATIVE

6. WE MUST BEAT SHERMAN

7. THE LAST RESORT

CODA

Acknowledgments

Notes

Illustration Credits

Index

ILLUSTRATIONS

MAPS

INTRODUCTION

 

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 agreed with this assessment. Writing twenty years after the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant claimed that “Davis had an exalted opinion of his own military genius. . . . On several occasions during the war he came to the relief of the Union army by means of his superior military genius.” A number of historians have concurred with this harsh judgment. On the centennial anniversary of the Civil War, David M. Potter famously declared that as commander in chief, Davis compiled “a record of personal failure significant enough to have had a bearing on the course of the war. . . . If the Union and Confederacy had exchanged presidents with one another, the Confederacy might have won its independence.”1

Comparisons of Abraham Lincoln and Davis as commanders in chief usually favor Lincoln, though rarely to the extent suggested by Potter. The one undeniable truth in such comparisons is that Lincoln’s side won the war. But that fact does not necessarily mean that Davis was responsible for losing it. Many factors help explain the ultimate Union victory, including 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. Lincoln’s evolving skills as commander in chief may also help explain Northern victory. I have written about that subject elsewhere.2 But whether Lincoln was superior to Davis in this respect is impossible to say in the categorical manner stated by David Potter. Comparing Lincoln and Davis as commanders in chief is like trying to compare apples and oranges. They confronted different challenges with different resources and personnel. In the chapters that follow I have tried to avoid the temptation to compare the two leaders. I attempt to describe and analyze Davis’s conception and execution of his duty as commander in chief on its own terms and merits, without reference to Lincoln.

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. Yet I have sought to transcend my convictions and to understand Jefferson Davis as a product of his time and circumstances. After spending many research hours with both Lincoln and Davis, I must also confess that I find Lincoln more congenial, interesting, and admirable. That is another reason to avoid comparisons between the two men in a book about Davis as commander in chief. I wish not to be influenced by personal likes or dislikes. But in fact I found myself becoming less inimical toward Davis than I expected when I began this project. He comes off better than some of his fellow Confederates of large ego and small talents who were among his chief critics. I had perhaps been too much influenced by the negative depictions of Davis’s personality that have come down to us from those contemporaries who often had self-serving motives for their hostility.

Many of those contemporaries were officials in the Confederate government and officers in its army. They echoed a Southern journalist who described Davis as “cold, haughty, peevish, narrow-minded, pig-headed, malignant.”3 Robert Toombs of Georgia, who never got over the selection of Davis rather than himself as president of the Confederacy, denigrated his rival as a “false and hypocritical . . . wretch.”4 Another influential Georgia politician, Linton Stephens, brother of the Confederate vice president, sneered at Davis as “a little, conceited, hypocritical, snivelling, canting, malicious, ambitious, dogged knave and fool.”5 General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, whom Davis had removed from command of the Army of Tennessee in June 1862, wrote, “I thank my creator that I am not the essence of egotism, vanity, obstinacy, perversity, and vindictiveness” that he considered Davis to be.6 In truth, Beauregard was more accurately describing himself. The same might be said of Toombs, Stephens, and others who denounced the Confederate president as hypocritical and malicious. The hostility that developed between Davis and certain generals and political leaders—whether the chief fault was theirs or his—impaired his ability to function effectively as commander in chief.

To be sure, there was some substance underlying the stereotypes of Davis’s disagreeable personality. He 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. He sometimes misinterpreted disagreement as personal hostility. Stephen R. Mallory, the Confederate secretary of the navy, had a mostly cordial relationship with Davis. But Mallory noted that “few men could be more chillingly, freezingly cold.” In the president’s dealings with congressmen, “he rarely satisfied or convinced them simply because in his manner and language there was just an indescribable something which offended their self-esteem and left their judgments room to find fault with him.”7

But a Georgia congressman who had heard and believed all the negative comments about Davis changed his mind after a long conversation with him late in the war. “He has been greatly wronged,” the congressman wrote to his wife. He “is not the stern, puffed up man he is represented to be. He was as polite, attentive, and communicative to me as I could wish. He listened patiently to all I said and when he differed with me he would give his reasons for it. He was very cordial. . . . And many gentlemen tell me the same thing as to his manner with them. . . . His enemies have done him great injustice.”8

Davis’s fragile health may account for these Jekyll and Hyde descriptions of his personality. No chief executive in American history suffered from as many chronic maladies as Jefferson Davis. The malaria that killed his first wife in 1835 struck him as well, and symptoms recurred frequently during the rest of his life. Corneal ulceration of his left eye produced virtual blindness in that eye and may have caused the severe neuralgia that often racked him with excruciating pain, nausea, and headaches. “Dyspepsia,” a catchall nineteenth-century term for digestive disorders that in Davis’s case may have been ulcers or acid reflux, repeatedly laid him low. He had little appetite, skipped meals, and became increasingly gaunt as the war went on. Bronchial problems, insomnia, and boils added to his misery.9

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. His workaholic habits doubtless exacerbated his illnesses. One of his worst bouts of sickness occurred in April and May 1863 during the Chancellorsville and Vicksburg campaigns. He “has not been in his office for more than a month,” wrote a War Department clerk in early May, but “he still attends to business at his dwelling.” He had “sent to the War Department fifty-five letters” on various subjects that day with instructions on “what he wished done in the premises. . . . I think he has been ill every day for years, but this has been his most serious attack.”10 His maladies were probably made worse by stress. They may have been partly psychosomatic but were nonetheless severe. Although one cannot point to examples of how his bouts of illness affected any specific decisions or actions as commander in chief, his chronic health problems surely had an impact on his overall performance. And they no doubt helped account for the perceived irritability and peevishness that he occasionally exhibited in personal relationships.

Jefferson Davis

As a wartime commander in chief, Davis determined, performed, or oversaw five categories of activity: policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics. Neither Davis nor anyone else defined these functions in a systematic way during the Civil War. If they had, their definitions might have looked something like these: Policy refers to war aims—the political goals of the Confederacy. National strategy refers to the mobilization of the political, economic, diplomatic, and psychological as well as military resources of the nation to achieve those war aims. Military strategy concerns plans for the employment of armed forces to win the war and fulfill the goals of policy. Operations concerns the management and movements of armies in particular campaigns to carry out the purposes of military strategy. Tactics refers to the formations and handling of an army in a specific battle.

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-eating secessionist, once Davis committed himself to a Confederate nation he never deviated from this goal or compromised its purpose. In a sense, he was the last Confederate left standing in 1865. A vital corollary of this policy was the preservation of slavery as the core institution of the Confederate polity. Davis was a large slaveholder and a consistent defender of the institution of bondage. But even slavery was subordinate to nationhood, and by 1865 Davis was prepared to jettison it if doing so would help achieve Confederate independence.

Although Davis played an active role in military mobilization, he largely delegated the economic and diplomatic functions of national strategy to the appropriate subordinates. Their record of achievement in these efforts was decidedly mixed, with the failures in economic mobilization and foreign policy a result of factors largely beyond presidential control. Davis made several speaking tours to rally public support for the Confederate cause, and he managed to get most war-related legislation through Congress. Growing political factionalism and the alienation of some groups from the Confederate government marked a partial failure of national strategy. Nevertheless, as Gary Gallagher has shown, the Confederate war effort persisted through great difficulties that would have broken a less determined effort, and for that achievement Davis deserves part of the credit.11

During his four and one-quarter years as president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis devoted most of his waking hours to military strategy and operations. He was present on several battlefields and even took part in some tactical planning. No other chief executive in American history exercised such hands-on influence in the shaping of military strategy. These activities therefore constitute the principal story line in the pages that follow.

1.

  

WE MUST PREPARE FOR A LONG WAR

  

 

On February 10, 1861, Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, were taking rose cuttings in their garden at Brierfield, the Davis plantation on the rich bottomland along a looping bend in the Mississippi River. Three weeks earlier, just recovered from an illness that had kept him in bed for several days, Davis had resigned his seat in the United States Senate when he received official word of Mississippi’s secession from the Union. He and his family had made their way home slowly, stopping on January 28 at the state capital in Jackson, where Davis learned that he had been named major general of the Army of Mississippi. It was a position congenial to his desires. As a graduate of West Point, an officer in the regular army for seven years, commander of a volunteer regiment in the Mexican-American War, secretary of war in the Franklin Pierce administration, and chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Davis had vast and varied military experience qualifying him for such a position. He immediately set to work to reorganize and expand the state militia to meet a potential invasion threat from the United States Army. Davis also an...

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