Embattled Rebel; Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

James M. McPherson. Embattled Rebel; Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief.
New York: The Penguin Press, 2014.
As Reviewed by Ted Odenwald

jeffersondavisHaving written a glowing study of Lincoln’s growth as commander in chief of the Union forces, McPherson, a foremost authority on the Civil War, felt obligated to “describe and analyze” Jefferson Davis’ “conception and execution of his duties as commander in chief on its own terms and merits….” This study appears to have been a bit of a struggle for McPherson, who never particularly liked Davis. By reputation the rebel President was arrogant, cowardly, traitorous, and generally incompetent in the conduct of the war—and these were all judgments coming from southern politicians, generals, newspapers, and the population in general. What is a Union-sympathizing historian to do?

In fact, McPherson writes objectively in spite of his belief that the Confederacy’s goals (breaking the United States and sustaining slavery) were “tragically wrong.” The historian reveals that Davis was not politically ambitious; he did not want to be President of the Confederacy. But the political leaders in the South recognized that his credentials as a wartime leader were the best available: he had served in the army for seven years; he had been Secretary of War in the Pierce administration; and he had chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Military Affairs. McPherson states that as commander in chief Davis had a firm grasp on several key areas that Lincoln did not possess at the onset of the war: policy—the setting of war aims; national strategy—the mobilization of political, economic, diplomatic, psychological, and material resources; military strategies—plans for employing armed forces; operations—the management and movement of forces in particular campaigns; and tactics—the formation and handling of an army in a specific battle.

His experience and hands-on leadership style served Davis well as he built a military “from scratch.” His micro-managing worked well in the initial stages of conflict, but worked against him through the years when he had difficulty delegating responsibilities to his subordinates. Davis recognized the Confederacy’s main challenges; it had low industrial capacity, a small navy, and was limited in the supply of arms, “accoutrements” and transportation. Manpower was also a problem; the politicians wanted short (one-year) enlistments, with minimal time for training. Davis knew that this system could not sustain a military force, especially if the war was protracted. His military strategy was based on the fact that the Confederates already held their territories. To win the war, they simply had to hold what they already had. Consequently, the “army” (or the state militias) was spread out, protecting key positions. This approach was politically “acceptable” because a concentration of forces would have guaranteed forfeiting some territories. Davis felt the anger of various states when he was forced to redeploy troops, leaving their home base vulnerable. Some politicians went so far as to call him a traitor to the Confederate cause for abandoning areas such as the Gulf Coast. He wished that his forces could be more aggressive, but he adopted a policy of defending an area and then waiting for the opportunity to counter-attack.

Davis was accused of having a sour disposition: he would not “suffer fools”; he would not tell people what they wanted to hear; he was not a flatterer; he was thin-skinned when criticized; he gave the impression of being condescending. McPherson suggests that Davis’s fragile health may have accounted for his bluntness and asperity. He suffered from recurring bouts of malaria; he was virtually blind in his left eye; he suffered severe headaches and neuralgia; and he had frequent bouts of dyspepsia. In spite of his poor health, he spent many long days working from his sick bed. A micro-manager, he would spend hours every day reading and making notations of hundreds of documents—many of which could have been delegated for disposition to a subordinate.

Directly and indirectly, his relationships with his commanders were a continual source of irritation. He was shocked when P.G.T. Beauregard failed to follow through with his victory at (First) Manassas. There had been an opportunity to pursue the disorganized Union forces all the way to Washington. However, Beauregard’s battle report implied that Davis had prevented the pursuit—and total success. When the general leaked this report to the press, Davis was wrongfully vilified by politicians and journalists. Understandably, the President never trusted that general again. When General Albert Sidney Johnston was killed in the Shiloh Campaign, Beauregard took command and “snapped defeat from the jaws of victory” by failing to follow through on an attack that should have led to an overwhelming victory. But the general withdrew, choosing to avoid a major conflict. He then abruptly took an unauthorized sick leave. When the furious president fired the popular general, the public outcry was so strong that Davis was compelled to reinstate him. General Joseph Johnston was , likewise, a frequent disappointment to Davis as the general continually disobeyed orders—claiming that conditions dictated other action—or inaction. Again and again, he avoided engaging the enemy, thus yielding valuable territory. Some of his withdrawals were so precipitate that he gave up a great deal of precious provisions and ammunition. General Braxton Bragg was a concern for Davis, as the general’s subordinates clamored for his removal. The best and most productive relationship that Davis had was with Robert E. Lee. The two men forged a partnership that was closer and longer than that of Lincoln and Grant.

McPherson calls Davis “the last Confederate standing,” outraged that Lincoln was not seeking peace, but “offering the terms of a conqueror.” When he had sworn to protect and defend his country, Davis believed that he had “the power to negotiate for the continued existence of government, but none whatever for its destruction.” While Lincoln continued to insist upon reunion and emancipation, Davis insisted upon two separate countries and slavery. Even when Petersburg and Richmond fell, Davis continued to believe that the South could win; he was sinking deeper into a world of fantasy.

In the long run, claims McPherson, Davis was not responsible for losing the war. “Inflation and shortages had destroyed the economy; its armies were reeling in defeat; desertions had become epidemic; malnutrition and [depression] prevailed among soldiers and civilians alike. He may, however, have been responsible for prolonging the war when defeat was clearly in sight.

tedTed Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 45 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.