History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis. Hiscause went down in disastrous defeat and left theSouth impoverished for generations. Read more...
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History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis. Hiscause went down in disastrous defeat and left theSouth impoverished for generations. If that causehad succeeded, it would have torn the UnitedStates in two and preserved the institution ofslavery. Many Americans in Davis s own time and inlater generations considered him an incompetentleader, if not a traitor. Not so, argues James M.McPherson. In Embattled Rebel, McPherson shows usthat Davis might have been on the wrong side ofhistory, but it is too easy to diminish him because ofhis cause s failure. In order to understand the CivilWar and its outcome, it is essential to give Davis hisdue as a military leader and as the president of anaspiring Confederate nation.
Davis did not make it easy on himself. Hissubordinates and enemies alike considered himdifficult, egotistical, and cold. He was gravely illthroughout much of the war, often working fromhome and even from his sickbed. Nonetheless, McPherson argues, Davis shaped and articulatedthe principal policy of the Confederacy with clarityand force: the quest for independent nationhood.Although he had not been a fire-breathingsecessionist, once he committed himself to aConfederate nation he never deviated from thisgoal. In a sense, Davis was the last Confederate leftstanding in 1865.
As president of the Confederacy, Davis devotedmost of his waking hours to military strategy andoperations, along with Commander Robert E.Lee, and delegated the economic and diplomaticfunctions of strategy to his subordinates. Daviswas present on several battlefields with Lee andeven took part in some tactical planning; indeed, their close relationship stands as one of the greatmilitary-civilian partnerships in history.
Most critical appraisals of Davis emphasizehis choices in and management of generals ratherthan his strategies, but no other chief executive inAmerican history exercised such tenacious hands-oninfluence in the shaping of military strategy.And while he was imprisoned for two years afterthe Confederacy s surrender awaiting a trial fortreason that never came, and lived for anothertwenty-four years, he never once recanted thecause for which he had fought and lost. McPhersongives us Jefferson Davis as the commander in chiefhe really was, showing persuasively that whileDavis did not win the war for the South, he wasscarcely responsible for losing it."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-06-30
- Reviewer: Staff
In 1865, Confederate Ordnance Chief Josiah Gorgas lamented the leadership of President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, wondering “where could we get a better or a wiser man?” Pulitzer Prize– and Lincoln Prize–winner McPherson (Tried by War) refuses to answer such a question, but his examination of Davis as a military commander suggests that perhaps there was not one. Davis has had many harsh critics over the years, an inevitable fate for a leader who “went down to a disastrous defeat and left the South in poverty for generations.” McPherson, however, presents Davis in a relatively sympathetic manner as he explores the Confederate president’s accomplishments and undertakings. McPherson places Davis’s actions, which are delivered in chronological order and garnished with a dose of opinion, in the larger contexts of the war, his health and personal life, his politics, and his relationships with other major historical players. Despite the biography’s dry, yet light presentation and relatively singular focus, Davis is most redeemed not by justifications for his decisions, but through an empathetic, simple understanding of his motives: namely, an admirable (if in hindsight horribly misguided) passion for the Confederacy. Maps & illus. (Oct.)