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.
went in, it was too late to call off an attack that seemed headed toward bloody failure. Irritated and embarrassed, Lee noticed that Davis and an entourage that included aides, assorted politicians, and the secretaries of war and the navy had come under enemy artillery fire. Lee rode over to Davis and asked, with an edge to his voice, “Who are all this army of people, and what are they doing here?” Taken aback, Davis replied: “It is not my army, General.” “It is certainly not my army, Mr.
at the Battle of Second Manassas on August 29–30. Pope’s beaten army retreated into the Washington defenses, opening Maryland to the invasion that Davis had long wanted to undertake. Lee acknowledged to Davis that his army was “not properly equipped for an invasion of an enemy’s territory. It lacks much of the material of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced, and the men poorly provided with clothes, and in thousands of instances, are destitute of shoes.” Nevertheless,
for a long time.”6 The Richmond front stabilized as the Army of the Potomac crossed the James River in mid-June to attack Petersburg. Beauregard’s few troops managed to hold them off until the Army of Northern Virginia filed into the formidable defensive works and forced Grant to settle down for a siege of Petersburg and Richmond that would turn out to last more than nine months. During that time Davis often rode out to the lines at Richmond and occasionally came under enemy fire. Maj. Gen.
James Mason, who had accompanied him to London, that the British government could not recognize a nation that had not firmly established its existence. “As affairs now stood,” Mason reported to Benjamin, “our seaports given up, the comparatively unobstructed march of Sherman, etc., rather increased than diminished previous objections.”46 • • • BY MARCH 1865 THE CONFEDERACY WAS FALLING APART. The railroads had broken down and could scarcely move the little freight that the inflation-ravaged
Library of Congress, LC-B813- 3827 C Page 237 Library of Congress, LC-B813- 1325 A Page 240 Library of Congress, LC-B811- 3182 Page 242 Library of Congress, LC-B811- 3182 INDEX The page numbers in this index refer to the printed version of this book. To find the corresponding locations in the text of this digital version, please use the “search” function on your e-reader. Note that not all terms may be searchable. Anderson, Robert, 21–22 Antietam, Battle of, 100–101, 104, 248