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Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief, p.1James M. McPherson
ALSO BY JAMES M. MCPHERSON
Tried by War
The Struggle for Equality
The Abolitionist Legacy
Ordeal by Fire
Battle Cry of Freedom
Abraham Lincoln and the
Second American Revolution
What They Fought For, 1861–1865
Drawn with the Sword
For Cause and Comrades
Crossroads of Freedom
This Mighty Scourge
War on the Waters
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First published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright © 2014 by James M. McPherson
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
McPherson, James M.
Embattled rebel : Jefferson Davis as commander in chief / James M. McPherson.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Davis, Jefferson, 1808–1889—Military leadership. 2. United States—History—Civil War, 1861–1865—Campaigns. 3. Confederate States of America—Politics and government. 4. Presidents—Confederate States of America—Biography. 5. United States— History—Civil War, 1861–1865—Biography. I. Title.
To the memory of
C. VANN WOODWARD and SHELDON MEYER
Also by James M. Mcpherson
List of Illustrations
List of Maps
1. WE MUST PREPARE FOR A LONG WAR
2. WINTER OF DISCONTENT
3. WAR SO GIGANTIC
4. THE CLOUDS ARE DARK OVER US
5. WE SHOULD TAKE THE INITIATIVE
6. WE MUST BEAT SHERMAN
7. THE LAST RESORT
Montgomery, Alabama: The first capital of the Confederacy
The Confederate executive mansion in Richmond
P. G. T. Beauregard
Albert Sidney Johnston
Judah P. Benjamin
Joseph E. Johnston
Robert E. Lee
Stephen R. Mallory
J. C. Pemberton
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Confederate dead gathered for burial at the edge of the Rose Woods, July 5, 1863
Edmund Kirby Smith
J. B. Hood
William J. Hardee
Alexander H. Stephens
J. C. Breckinridge
Petersburg, Virginia: Dead Confederate soldiers in the trenches of Fort Mahone
Richmond, Virginia: Ruins on Carey Street
The Formation of the Confederacy
The Confederacy’s Perimeter Defense in 1861
The Campaign and Battle of First Manassas, July 31, 1869
Kentucky and Tennessee, Winter–Spring 1862
The Peninsula Campaign, April–June 1862
The Seven Days’ Battles, June 25–July 1, 1862
Lee’s Invasion of Maryland, September 1862
Bragg and Kirby Smith’s Invasion of Kentucky, August–October 1862
The Vicksburg Campaign, April–July 1863
The Gettysburg Campaign
The Tullahoma and Chickamauga Campaigns, June–September 1863
Operations Near Richmond, 1864–65
The Atlanta Campaign, May–July 1864
Hood Invades Tennessee While Sherman Marches to the Sea, November–December 1864
Davis’s Flight from Richmond, April 2–May 10, 1865
History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis. As president of the Confederate States of America, he led a cause that went down to a disastrous defeat and left the South in poverty for generations. If that cause had succeeded, it would have broken the United States in two and preserved slavery in the South for untold years. Many Americans of his own time and in later generations considered him a traitor. Some of his Confederate compatriots turned against Davis and blamed him for sins of ineptitude that lost the war. Several of Davis’s adversaries on the Union side agreed with this assessment. Writing twenty years after the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant claimed that “Davis had an exalted opinion of his own military genius. . . . On several occasions during the war he came to the relief of the Union army by means of his superior military genius.” A number of historians have concurred with this harsh judgment. On the centennial anniversary of the Civil War, David M. Potter famously declared that as commander in chief, Davis compiled “a record of personal failure significant enough to have had a bearing on the course of the war. . . . If the Union and Confederacy had exchanged presidents with one another, the Confederacy might have won its independence.”1
Comparisons of Abraham Lincoln and Davis as commanders in chief usually favor Lincoln, though rarely to the extent suggested by Potter. The one undeniable truth in such comparisons is that Lincoln’s side won the war. But that fact does not necessarily mean that Davis was responsible for losing it. Many factors help explain the ultimate Union victory, including the North’s greater population and resources, a stronger economy, a powerful navy, resourceful military leadership, and battlefield victories that blunted Confederate momentum at key points and prolonged the conflict until the weak economic infrastructure that underpinned the Southern war effort collapsed. Lincoln’s evolving skills as commander in chief may also help explain Northern victory. I have written about that subject elsewhere.2 But whether Lincoln was superior to Davis in this respect is impossible to say in the categorical manner stated by David Potter. Comparing Lincoln and Davis as commanders in chief is like trying to compare apples and oranges. They confronted different challenges with different resources and personnel. In the chapters that follow I have tried to avoid the temptation to compare the two leaders. I attempt to describe and analyze Davis’s conception and execution of his duty as commander in chief on its own terms and merits, without reference to Lincoln.
Full disclosure is necessary. My sympathies lie with
Many of those contemporaries were officials in the Confederate government and officers in its army. They echoed a Southern journalist who described Davis as “cold, haughty, peevish, narrow-minded, pig-headed, malignant.”3 Robert Toombs of Georgia, who never got over the selection of Davis rather than himself as president of the Confederacy, denigrated his rival as a “false and hypocritical . . . wretch.”4 Another influential Georgia politician, Linton Stephens, brother of the Confederate vice president, sneered at Davis as “a little, conceited, hypocritical, snivelling, canting, malicious, ambitious, dogged knave and fool.”5 General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, whom Davis had removed from command of the Army of Tennessee in June 1862, wrote, “I thank my creator that I am not the essence of egotism, vanity, obstinacy, perversity, and vindictiveness” that he considered Davis to be.6 In truth, Beauregard was more accurately describing himself. The same might be said of Toombs, Stephens, and others who denounced the Confederate president as hypocritical and malicious. The hostility that developed between Davis and certain generals and political leaders—whether the chief fault was theirs or his—impaired his ability to function effectively as commander in chief.
To be sure, there was some substance underlying the stereotypes of Davis’s disagreeable personality. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he let them know it. He did not practice the skillful politician’s art of telling others what they wanted to hear. He did not flatter their egos, and he sometimes asserted his own. He did not hesitate to criticize others but was often thin-skinned about their criticisms of him. Davis could be austere, humorless, and tediously argumentative. He sometimes misinterpreted disagreement as personal hostility. Stephen R. Mallory, the Confederate secretary of the navy, had a mostly cordial relationship with Davis. But Mallory noted that “few men could be more chillingly, freezingly cold.” In the president’s dealings with congressmen, “he rarely satisfied or convinced them simply because in his manner and language there was just an indescribable something which offended their self-esteem and left their judgments room to find fault with him.”7
But a Georgia congressman who had heard and believed all the negative comments about Davis changed his mind after a long conversation with him late in the war. “He has been greatly wronged,” the congressman wrote to his wife. He “is not the stern, puffed up man he is represented to be. He was as polite, attentive, and communicative to me as I could wish. He listened patiently to all I said and when he differed with me he would give his reasons for it. He was very cordial. . . . And many gentlemen tell me the same thing as to his manner with them. . . . His enemies have done him great injustice.”8
Davis’s fragile health may account for these Jekyll and Hyde descriptions of his personality. No chief executive in American history suffered from as many chronic maladies as Jefferson Davis. The malaria that killed his first wife in 1835 struck him as well, and symptoms recurred frequently during the rest of his life. Corneal ulceration of his left eye produced virtual blindness in that eye and may have caused the severe neuralgia that often racked him with excruciating pain, nausea, and headaches. “Dyspepsia,” a catchall nineteenth-century term for digestive disorders that in Davis’s case may have been ulcers or acid reflux, repeatedly laid him low. He had little appetite, skipped meals, and became increasingly gaunt as the war went on. Bronchial problems, insomnia, and boils added to his misery.9
For days and sometimes weeks at a time he was unable to come to his office, but worked from his home and occasionally from his sickbed. His workaholic habits doubtless exacerbated his illnesses. One of his worst bouts of sickness occurred in April and May 1863 during the Chancellorsville and Vicksburg campaigns. He “has not been in his office for more than a month,” wrote a War Department clerk in early May, but “he still attends to business at his dwelling.” He had “sent to the War Department fifty-five letters” on various subjects that day with instructions on “what he wished done in the premises. . . . I think he has been ill every day for years, but this has been his most serious attack.”10 His maladies were probably made worse by stress. They may have been partly psychosomatic but were nonetheless severe. Although one cannot point to examples of how his bouts of illness affected any specific decisions or actions as commander in chief, his chronic health problems surely had an impact on his overall performance. And they no doubt helped account for the perceived irritability and peevishness that he occasionally exhibited in personal relationships.
As a wartime commander in chief, Davis determined, performed, or oversaw five categories of activity: policy, national strategy, military strategy, operations, and tactics. Neither Davis nor anyone else defined these functions in a systematic way during the Civil War. If they had, their definitions might have looked something like these: Policy refers to war aims—the political goals of the Confederacy. National strategy refers to the mobilization of the political, economic, diplomatic, and psychological as well as military resources of the nation to achieve those war aims. Military strategy concerns plans for the employment of armed forces to win the war and fulfill the goals of policy. Operations concerns the management and movements of armies in particular campaigns to carry out the purposes of military strategy. Tactics refers to the formations and handling of an army in a specific battle.
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-eating secessionist, once Davis committed himself to a Confederate nation he never deviated from this goal or compromised its purpose. In a sense, he was the last Confederate left standing in 1865. A vital corollary of this policy was the preservation of slavery as the core institution of the Confederate polity. Davis was a large slaveholder and a consistent defender of the institution of bondage. But even slavery was subordinate to nationhood, and by 1865 Davis was prepared to jettison it if doing so would help achieve Confederate independence.
Although Davis played an active role in military mobilization, he largely delegated the economic and diplomatic functions of national strategy to the appropriate subordinates. Their record of achievement in these efforts was decidedly mixed, with the failures in economic mobilization and foreign policy a result of factors largely beyond presidential control. Davis made several speaking tours to rally public support for the Confederate cause, and he managed to get most war-related legislation through Congress. Growing political factionalism and the alienation of some groups from the Confederate government marked a partial failure of national strategy. Nevertheless, as Gary Gallagher has shown, the Confederate war effort persisted through great difficulties that would have broken a less determined effort, and for that achievement Davis deserves part of the credit.11
During his four and one-quarter years as president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis devoted most of his waking hours to military strategy and operations. He was present on several battlefields and even took part in some tactical planning. No other chief executive in American history exercised such hands-o
WE MUST PREPARE FOR A LONG WAR
On February 10, 1861, Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, were taking rose cuttings in their garden at Brierfield, the Davis plantation on the rich bottomland along a looping bend in the Mississippi River. Three weeks earlier, just recovered from an illness that had kept him in bed for several days, Davis had resigned his seat in the United States Senate when he received official word of Mississippi’s secession from the Union. He and his family had made their way home slowly, stopping on January 28 at the state capital in Jackson, where Davis learned that he had been named major general of the Army of Mississippi. It was a position congenial to his desires. As a graduate of West Point, an officer in the regular army for seven years, commander of a volunteer regiment in the Mexican-American War, secretary of war in the Franklin Pierce administration, and chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, Davis had vast and varied military experience qualifying him for such a position. He immediately set to work to reorganize and expand the state militia to meet a potential invasion threat from the United States Army. Davis also anticipated the possibility that the convention of delegates from six seceded states meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, might choose him as general-in-chief of the soon-to-be-created army of the Confederate States of America. But for now he was careworn and exhausted. He wanted only to get home to restore his health and energy, supervise his 113 slaves as they prepared Brierfield for the year’s cotton planting, and relax by working in his flower and vegetable gardens.
While Jefferson and Varina were taking rose cuttings that pleasant February day, a special messenger arrived from Vicksburg. He handed Davis a telegram. Varina watched her husband as he opened and read it. His face blanched, she recalled. “After a few minutes painful silence” he told her, “as a man might speak of a sentence of death,” that the convention at Montgomery had unanimously elected him provisional president of the Confederacy—not general-in-chief but commander in chief with all of its political as well as military responsibilities and vexations. He did not want the job. He had expected it to go to Howell Cobb of Georgia. But the convention, anticipating the possibility of war with the United States, had chosen Davis in considerable part because of his military qualifications, which none of the other leading candidates (including Cobb) possessed. Despite his misgivings, Davis’s strong sense of duty compelled him to accept the call. He prepared to leave for Montgomery the next day.1
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