The reluctant leader of the Confederate forces

Poor Jefferson Davis. In the popular imagination, he is known simply as the earnest man who led the Confederacy to defeat and destruction. Yet as William Cooper demonstrates in this superb biography, Davis spent most of his life as a loyal American soldier and statesman who might well have become president of the United States - had his beloved Mississippi not seceded.

Jefferson Davis was born in a Kentucky log cabin and raised on a Mississippi farm. In 1824, he enrolled at the US Military Academy, where he was a mediocre cadet who chafed at rules and restrictions; he compiled more demerits than plaudits. After graduating from West Point, he spent the next seven years in various Army posts in the old Northwest.

In 1835, Davis married the daughter of his commander, Col. Zachary Taylor, against her father's wishes, and left the Army to become a cotton planter in Mississippi. His bride died of malaria three months later. For 10 lonely years thereafter, a heartbroken Davis developed Brierfield, a plantation near Vicksburg given to him by his older brother.

When compared to other slaveholders, Davis was a "reasonably humane master," Cooper claims. He refused to whip his slaves, kept family members together, allowed religious services, and provided ample food and medical attention.

During the 1840s, Davis became a prominent states' rights Democrat and an ardent proponent of the unrestricted expansion of slavery into the territories.

He was elected to the US Congress in 1845. That same year, he married Varina Howell of Natchez, a charming woman half his age. After their first meeting, Howell wrote her mother: "Would you believe it, he is refined and cultivated and yet ... a Democrat."

She recognized that Davis was a self-righteous man of "uncertain temper" and mulish obstinacy who assumed that "everybody agrees with him." Yet she admired his self-confident refinement, wide and deep reading, and "winning manner of asserting himself."

Davis was a lean, erect man with an angular face - high cheekbones, hollow jaws, dark, deep-set, piercing eyes, thin lips, square chin, and prominent nose. Chronic health problems made him appear haggard and careworn, and eventually led to blindness in one eye.

Davis resigned his House seat in 1846 to take command of a Mississippi regiment in the Mexican War. After returning home a wounded war hero, he served with distinction in the Senate and as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce.

In 1857, he reentered the Senate, where he focused on the right to extend slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories. He confessed that he was "dogmatic and dictatorial" about such issues, yet when the secession crisis unfolded, he was no "fire-eater"; he hated the thought of leaving the Union.

Nevertheless, on Jan. 21, 1861, having learned that Mississippi had formally seceded, Davis resigned his seat in the Senate. It was, he said, "the saddest day of my life." Less than three weeks later, he was elected president of the Confederacy by the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States, meeting in Montgomery, Ala.

President Davis was a hard worker, ardent patriot, and capable military strategist, but he had fatal flaws of capacity and judgment, which Cooper meticulously documents.

Davis was dogmatic in his defense of slavery, intolerant of criticism, ignorant of public finance, and incapable of managing his feuding generals, most of whom were mediocre or incompetent.

Perhaps worst of all, Davis could not inspire public enthusiasm or accept political compromise. His devoted wife confessed that he "did not know the arts of a politician and would not practice them if understood."

As the war ground on, Davis struggled in vain to deal with the starvation, dissension, and desertions plaguing the Confederate effort. In the end, as federal troops closed in on him, he hoped to escape to Texas and mount a guerrilla resistance movement. But he and Varina were captured in south Georgia in May 1865.

Davis was charged with treason and imprisoned in Fortress Monroe, Va. He suffered many humiliations while a prisoner but remained defiant. He refused to request a pardon, demanding instead a trial to vindicate his actions and express his fervent belief that the South had a constitutional right to secede.

After his release in May 1867, he rejoined his family in Canada, traveled in Europe, struggled as an insurance executive, lived off the charity of supporters, wrote his memoirs, and died unreconstructed in 1889.

Cooper, a distinguished professor at Louisiana State University, has succeeded in bringing Davis back to life in all of his complexity and subtleties. Based on a wealth of primary sources and stippled with color, texture, and detail, his definitive new biography gives lavish attention to Davis's career before and after the Civil War. It also provides compelling insights into the spirited Varina Davis.

In his last public address before he died, Jefferson Davis advised Southerners that the "past is dead." He told the ardent defenders of the Old South to "bury its dead, its hopes and aspirations; before you lies the future - a future full of golden promise." It was good advice then - and now.

David Shi is the president of Furman University, in Greenville, S.C., and the co-author with George Tindall of 'America: a Narrative History' (Norton).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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