AN HONORABLE DEFEAT by William C. Davis

AN HONORABLE DEFEAT

The Last Days of the Confederate Government
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A skillfully rendered account of the closing hours of the Civil War.

Long before Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox, writes historian Davis (The Union That Shaped the Confederacy, p. 229, etc.), the leaders of the Confederacy knew that their cause was doomed to fail. Jefferson Davis’s vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, had given up hope as early as 1862 and simply went home to Georgia, while others took longer to conclude that Davis’s prosecution of the war could lead only to defeat—especially after Davis resolved to fight to the last man. By 1865, some dissidents within the Confederate government were calling for his violent overthrow and the installation of Lee as “interim dictator.” Others, notably Davis’s secretary of war, Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge, believed that the North was so tired of waging war that it could be persuaded to come to a settlement—one that might even allow the Southerners to retain their slaves and political power. “Faced with almost certain defeat anyhow,” Davis writes, “Confederates might come out of defeat with much better terms than by negotiating now than if they continued on and forced the North to beat them into definitive subjugation.” Breckinridge could not convince Jefferson Davis to accept this alternative, but he loyally accompanied the president as Davis attempted to flee from the advancing Union armies in order to continue the war from the safety of Texas or Mexico. The denouement is well known, as Davis (no relation to the Confederate leader) writes, but it is often incorrectly reported: The story that Jefferson Davis tried to escape by disguising himself as a woman is a canard. In the end, Davis remarks, the North scarcely knew what to do with the captive leaders, for “the Constitution failed specifically to define what they had done as treason,” and all were free by 1868.

Solid history and good storytelling in a swift-paced narrative.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-15-100564-8
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2001




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