- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

JEFFERSON DAVIS:

THE ESSENTIAL WRITINGS

Edited by William J. Cooper

Modern Library

496 pages. $24.95

Americans who read about the Civil War will be pleased by the appearance of this new volume of Jefferson Davis’ writings, which con-

tains letters as well as some key speeches and messages to his generals. Some of these items will be familiar to knowledgeable readers, but about a dozen are taken from manuscript collections and have not been published — at least in recent decades.

The editor, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, wrote a notable biography of the Confederate president two years ago. For the new book, William J. Cooper had to be, as he says, “harshly selective” in reducing the written record of a man’s long life to one middle-sized volume.

As he notes, Lynda Crist, distinguished scholar at Rice University, has so far published 11 volumes of Davis’ papers, yet these reach only to May 1865. The ex-president continued to live, and write, for two decades after the U.S. government released him from captivity in 1867. Davis was 73 when he published his two-volume history of the Confederacy in 1881, and the next to last piece that Mr. Cooper has chosen is a lengthy, thoughtful letter Davis wrote shortly before his death at 81.

Mr. Cooper’s introduction to this new volume makes clear his generally sympathetic approach toward Davis, which was reflected in his biography. His statement that “Although not all Americans joined his embrace of slavery, few dissented from his belief in the supremacy of the white race” is true so far as it goes; Abraham Lincoln himself said he thought blacks inferior; but Mr. Cooper slides past the basic fact that many Americans (including Lincoln) were already strongly opposed to slavery in the prewar decades when Davis, grandson of a Northerner, was becoming a large slave owner in Mississippi.

Perhaps if Mr. Cooper had provided a longer introduction some things would have become clearer.

Davis made his name as a regimental commander in the Mexican War. Mr. Cooper publishes the text of his report on the battle of Buena Vista but does not note that Col. Davis saved the day for Gen. Zachary Taylor, who was elected president in 1848 on the strength of his war record. Later, Davis became secretary of war during the Franklin Pierce presidency. Mr. Cooper’s volume includes the secretary’s 1856 annual report, with its discussion of the Minie rifle that Davis acquired for the Army — and which would do devastating damage to Confederate ranks a few years later.

As secretary, Davis also reports on the Army’s successful introduction of the camel for use in the West, based (though Davis does not say so) on the recommendation of George Perkins Marsh, a Vermont abolitionist who saw the camel’s capabilities while he served as U.S. minister to Turkey. What we do not learn from Mr. Cooper’s volume is that Davis also expanded the Army’s size, though in 1861 several European countries with smaller populations had far larger armies than the 16,000 officers and men then under the U.S. flag.

When Davis became president of the Confederacy, he faced, as did his Northern opponent, the dual problem of raising a large army and finding fit officers to command it. As Davis admitted to the governor of South Carolina, two days after his inauguration as president, the South was poorly prepared for war.

Mr. Cooper, however, is perhaps disingenuous in saying that “Davis would adopt whatever measures he thought necessary to achieve victory, including the first national conscription law in American history.” Davis initially opposed conscription, thinking that a volunteer army would suffice. He was strongly opposed in this by John Moncure Daniel, editor of the Richmond Examiner, who had seen conscript armies during wartime while serving as an U.S. diplomat in Italy.

In 1862, Daniel’s friend, Sen. Louis Wigfall, introduced a conscription bill, which was passed by the Confederate Congress and signed, reluctantly, by Davis that April. Conscription in the North came only the following year; Lincoln had no John Daniel to goad him.

There has been much discussion of Davis’ leadership style as president. As Mr. Cooper says, the records he publishes here do not reveal Davis as a micromanager who constantly interfered with his staff, but rather as a commander in chief who gave his generals latitude and discretion. Nevertheless, he did — or tried to do — too much himself. The presidential desk was piled with papers, including the appointments of even junior officers, that had to wait on his approval.

The editor of the Examiner was not alone in accusing him of “puerile partiality” in his choice of generals.

Some of them were notably bad, such as John Pemberton, who lost Vicksburg. Perhaps the president carried more burdens than he should have. Some of his assistants were experienced men; his aide James Chesnut had, like Davis, served as a U.S. senator. Davis had, however, no real chief of staff, and his vice president, Alexander Stephens, became alienated and retreated to Georgia.

Davis also alienated some Cabinet members; Secretary of State R.M.T. Hunter, also a former U.S. senator, resigned after a rude rebuff. Davis’ Northern opponent also can be faulted as a top executive; we all know how Lincoln let much of his time be taken up by job applicants and the cases of individual soldiers.

It is interesting to read in Mr. Cooper’s volume what Davis said over the years about the war’s inevitability.

We see Davis writing in early January 1861, three months before the attack on Fort Sumter, that South Carolina was already in “a quasi war and the probabilities are that events will hasten her and her associates into general conflict with the forces of the federal government.” At the end of January, though, he wrote that if the border states would only join the Confederacy “there will probably be peaceful separation.”

By the end of 1862, he claimed to have foreseen that “the wickedness of the North would precipitate a war upon us.” Finally, nearing his own end, he wrote in 1886 that on leaving Washington in 1861 he had believed that Southern secession “would, but should not, produce war.”

All in all, he seems to have been more prescient than Lincoln as to what a great conflict was coming.

Davis had flaws as a chief executive but he never wavered, and after the war never asked for a pardon. As he told the Mississippi Legislature in 1884, “I have not repented. … If it were to do over again, I would again do just as I did in 1861.”

Peter Bridges is a retired foreign service officer, whose last posting was ambassador to Somalia. His most recent book is “Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel.”

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