A seasoned Civil War historian examines the beleaguered president of the Confederacy.
Did Jefferson Davis (1807/1808-1889) get a bum rap? Pulitzer Prize and two-time Lincoln Prize winner McPherson (History, Emeritus/Princeton Univ.;War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, 2012, etc.) reveals the degree of vitriol unleashed against the president of the Confederacy from fellow Southerners who accused him of arrogance and malice due to the fact that he could not marshal the wherewithal to win the war. Indeed, the author shows how Davis constantly had to work against the recalcitrance of generals with an exalted opinion of their own worth—e.g., P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston—as well as an ill-fated adoption of a politically motivated “dispersed defense” of troops around the perimeter of the Confederacy, rather than a more effective concentration of force. Unanimously elected as president of the Confederacy in 1861 as the South’s most accomplished military commander—he was a graduate of West Point, veteran of the Mexican-American War and served as secretary of war for President Franklin Pierce—Davis, despite horrendous ill health, made the most stirring articulation for Southern secession as a safeguard against the destruction of states’ “property in slaves” and continued to rally drooping public opinion even after Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Davis tended to get buried in paperwork, however, while public opinion was with the generals who had defied his command or failed to act—Johnston allowed Vicksburg to fall and “seemed prepared to yield” Richmond and Atlanta rather than fight to the finish—and against the generals Davis favored, such as Braxton Bragg and John C. Pemberton. Moreover, Davis faced an undeniable manpower crisis in the form of “epidemic” desertions and absences without leave. McPherson concludes that Davis, a disciplined, loyal commander, “was more sinned against than sinning.”
A fair-handed treatment from a towering historian and sterling writer.