- - Monday, November 3, 2014


By James M. McPherson
Penguin Press, $32.98, 301 pages, illustrated

James McPherson of Princeton University may be America’s most distinguished Civil War historian. His “Battle Cry of Freedom,” published in 1988, not only won its author a Pulitzer Prize but remains the best single-volume history of the war.

Mr. McPherson has revisited his notes from time to time, in 2008 with “Tried by Fire,” a study of Abraham Lincoln’s role as a wartime leader. He has now provided a companion volume — a study of the wartime role of Lincoln’s Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis.

History has not been kind to Davis. Comparisons with Lincoln inevitably favor the Great Emancipator, and even the South found other heroes. Not Davis but Robert E. Lee became the icon of the Lost Cause.

Davis considered himself an expert on military affairs, and not entirely without reason. A graduate of West Point, he had distinguished himself in the Mexican War and had served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce — but he was not a charmer. The author notes that Davis “could be austere, humorless and tediously argumentative . He did not suffer fools gladly, and he let them know it.”

Davis‘ irascibility may have had roots in his poor health. He had lost the sight in one eye, and endured recurring bouts of malaria, neuralgia, insomnia and bronchitis. Mr. McPherson observes that “[n]o chief executive in American history suffered from as many chronic maladies as Jefferson Davis.”

As president of the Confederacy, Davis had but one objective; namely, to be left alone. The South had no territorial ambitions, it wanted only peace with slavery. How to achieve this, however, was a challenge. The South had neither the manpower nor the industry to hold back the North if the Yankees maintained a will to fight. Yet Confederate governors feared that an absence of a visible military presence in their states would encourage slaves to escape. Davis had, Mr. McPherson writes, “the delicate task of balancing the defense of points distant from Richmond with the preeminent need to protect the capital.”

In the end, Davis and Lee settled on a defensive strategy but one that sought opportunities to strike at the enemy. They hoped to develop in Virginia an army strong enough “to be able to change from the defensive to an offensive attitude.”

Both Lincoln and Davis faced a problem in commissioning officers for their expanding armies. Both appointed “political” generals — persons of doubtful military worth but who enjoyed a popular following — to important posts. In theory, Davis, with his service as secretary of war, was in the better position to identify and promote military professionals. In practice, however, Davis fared no better than Lincoln, for he often promoted personal favorites and stuck with them through thick and thin.

The Davis of Mr. McPherson’s narrative was a workaholic, in part because he disliked delegating authority. Whereas Lincoln’s Cabinet ministers enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy, Davis “buried himself in paperwork, spending long hours reviewing every kind of document that came into the War Department as well as his own office, sometimes as many as two hundred in a single day.”

As fighting moved closer to Richmond, Davis sought to monitor conditions at the front. An aide described how the president rode “as close to the ragged edge of danger as was humanly possible, having an apparent longing to escape from official thralldom and return to the risks of soldiering.” Whereas Lincoln enjoyed human companionship in his off hours, Davis chose that most solitary of recreations, horseback riding.

For much of the war, Lee kept matters under control in Virginia. The “West,” however, brought nothing but vexation. Davis and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston were personally antagonistic, while Braxton Bragg alienated almost every subordinate commander with whom he dealt. Davis‘ pious hope that military crisis “should lift men above all personal considerations and devote them wholly to their country’s cause” fell on deaf ears.

Although Davis and Lee worked most often in harmony, the Confederate collapse in the winter of 1864-65 revealed a key strategic difference. Lee recognized that the siege of Richmond could have only one outcome, and sought to unite his army with that of Johnston in North Carolina. Davis would have none of it, however. He could not conceive of the surrender of Richmond.

As the Confederate sun set, Davis endorsed a policy that would have been inconceivable a year earlier, the arming of slaves. However, the Congress in Richmond failed to act on Davis‘ recommendation that the Confederacy buy 40,000 slaves who would be freed after service faithfully rendered. Davis wrote to a Mobile, Ala., newspaper, “We are reduced to choosing whether the negroes shall fight for or against us.”

Mr. McPherson provides a nuanced assessment of Davis as president. The fact that Lincoln’s side won, he writes, does not mean that Davis was responsible for the Confederate defeat. “Most delegates to the Montgomery convention in 1861 believed Davis to be the best man for the [presidency], and no clear evidence exists that they were wrong.”

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor has written extensively about the Civil War.

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