Email this review


The flight of Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, his capture and imprisonment--competently if unexcitingly recounted. With a summary of the rest of his life--he didn't die till 1889--unfortunately tacked on. Author Davis is an old hand at Southern Civil War history, and his is indeed the first full account of this intrinsically dramatic story: the Confederate government's reluctant abandonment of Richmond; the halting, makeshift travel by railroad and wagon train; the cool and warm welcomes; the blow of Lee's surrender, the disintegration of forces and ""general state of anarchy,"" the urgings to give up. . . and Davis' refusal, until confronted with his officers' silence, to admit that the Confederacy was doomed. Meanwhile Varina Davis was fleeing too, with her children (a story told, proudly and piteously, in her memoirs). Davis' now-small party, also headed for Florida and foreign refuge, kept crossing paths with hers. And in his reluctance to part from her, Davis was caught by federal troops--ingloriously, wrapped in her cloak (an expedient, not female disguise). There follows his harsh, humiliating imprisonment at Fort Monroe--when the shackling of the feeble, honorable Confederate leader turned public opinion in his favor and transformed him from outcast and pariah (taunted, on his capture, in the South) to martyred hero. This, in essence, is the end of the story that began with the harried flight from Richmond--along with Davis' release from prison and from threat of federal prosecution. To it belong, peripherally, the clouded fate of the Confederate treasury, the later careers of Cabinet members, the flight-into-Mexico of some Confederate die-hards. But we have had hints, from the first, of something ""scandalous"" in the relations of Davis and Virginia Clay, wife of associate Clement Clay; and this materializes in the aftermath with word of cooling between Davis and Varina, and of Davis' apprehension in a train-berth with a ""married lady."" Note is also taken, true, of Davis' unceasing ""battle for his reputation""--but it is note: information, not evocation. For all the richness of the material, there's disappointingly little emotion, energy, or imagination altogether.

Pub Date: April 4th, 1985
Publisher: Random House